NFL Analysis


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2024 NFL Draft: Malik Nabers vs. Marvin Harrison Jr., Who Is WR1?

Ohio State WR Marvin Harrison Jr. is pictured left, LSU WR Malik Nabers pictured right
Who is the better NFL prospect in the 2024 NFL Draft: Ohio State's Marvin Harrison Jr., left, or LSU's Malik Nabers?

"Highlight scouting" is a major issue in wide receiver evaluations. It often conflates good outcomes with good processes and misses the important context of how receivers operate on a down-to-down basis.

Ranking the receivers in the 2024 NFL Draft class felt like an afterthought to start the year, as most considered Marvin Harrison Jr. to be the best player in college football.

Now, the WR1 debate between Harrison, Malik Nabers and Rome Odunze has been muddied by highlight scouting, exacerbated by Harrison Jr. opting not to do any testing and his peers meeting/exceeding expectations in the same time frame.

Let the WR1 Debate Begin ...

Nabers’ sub-4.4-second 40-yard das time gave him a big boost in the race, and deservedly so. According to TruMedia, he led all receivers (with 100 or more snaps) in explosive reception rate and total expected points added.

He’s dynamic with the ball in his hands, produced big numbers with other future pros at the position, is versatile enough to play in the slot or on the perimeter, and his speed makes him a persistent threat to defenses even when he’s a decoy in the progression. You can watch 30 seconds of highlights and understand that any team could use his top-end speed.

However, Harrison Jr. has an argument to keep his position. His nine percent explosive reception rate was fourth to Nabers’ leading mark at 10 percent, and he was 12th in total EPA as a receiver. He’s one of a dozen receivers to take up 30 percent or more of his team’s targets and put up more than 1,200 yards and 14 TDs. Plus he did that with a quarterback who lacked the arm talent to maximize his talents.

Harrison wins contested catches, regularly draws double teams, creates offense after the catch and can affect the game from the outside in a way rarely seen with modern receivers.

Where the raw and underlying data can’t separate the two, the nuances of what makes for a good receiver can, and we observe that in the quality of route running, creating separation and production against man/tight coverage.

The Argument for Nabers

The college game doesn’t give us much man coverage to scout to begin with, and Nabers saw few teams willing to challenge him and teammate Brian Thomas Jr. with tight coverage ... especially at the risk of creating easy escape lanes for QB Jayden Daniels.

Florida State and Alabama were the two teams that gave LSU the most snaps against man coverage, and that was the focus of my tape evaluation.

Nabers’ tape and production profile by route paint the picture of a great linear athlete, one of the better ones you’ll come across in any draft class. Because he sells speed so well at the release point, the threat of tearing the top off of the defense helps him separate. This is despite how challenging it is to run this route against tight coverage. Nabers led the country in receiving yards on hitches against man coverage, per TruMedia.

What the data can’t totally capture about Nabers is how effective he is vertically, despite how much explosive production he had during the season. Against man coverage, Nabers converted 40 percent of his 20 targets on corners, comebacks, posts and go routes.

He excels at applying pressure to the leverage of his coverage defender by working into a defensive back's blind spots and pressuring their leverage before crossing their face.

Nabers’ top-end speed is smooth and easy to maintain. While he lacks the elite ball-winning skills to sky over the top of contested coverage, he tracks the ball well. It bears repeating that he brings tangible value to an offense downfield, even when he doesn’t touch the ball.

Where Nabers underwhelms is running routes that require a bit more nuance at the release point and changes of tempo throughout the route. Slants, digs and underneath out-breaking routes were a struggle for him against tight coverage.

Nabers is guilty of rounding out his breaks and running routes at inconsistent depths/tempos, and he’s contact-averse in a way that makes it easier to move off of his landmarks. He amassed fewer than 100 yards on these routes against man coverage despite running the vast majority from the slot — where there’s more space to work with.

Nabers will need more help from his offensive scheme to keep him open, especially if he’s working on the perimeter. There’s plenty of reason to consider an inside-out guy a top pick — Garrett Wilson was arguably the highest-graded receiver two drafts ago.

However, the window of impactful outcomes is much smaller for receivers who don’t profile well when running routes that call for great timing and pacing the route to match the progression.

The Argument for Harrison

Harrison is a big play-style change compared to Nabers, and the clash makes for a fun comparison. Notre Dame and Penn State played the most man coverage against the Buckeyes last year, and that’s where the majority of film work was done for this piece.

Harrison’s ability to use different approaches, change speeds and control defensive backs with the tempo of his routes is one of the first things that pops off film. He can set up defensive backs off the line and at the top of the route, and his burst out of his breaks explains why he’s so productive. When teams try to use physicality to knock off his timing, he’s strong enough to shove guys off without losing his landmarks.

If teams play off, he knows how to freeze defenders and create subtle space throughout the route to maximize separation. In short, he runs routes like a pro already, gaining the 25th-most yards in college football on slants, hitches and intermediate in/out breaking routes against man coverage. That number that would undoubtedly be higher if Ohio State’s quarterback was better.

One reason Harrison was dinged in 2023 was his lack of vertical production, especially when Ohio State was playing against its toughest competition. On posts, corners, comebacks and go routes, Harrison was only targeted 14 times against man coverage, and his 113 yards tied for 77th this season.

It’s understandable for people to be skeptical of an X-receiver type who isn’t dunking on guys, but that brings us back to the issue of highlight scouting. On tape, Harrison uses his releases and short area burst to gain an advantage on defensive backs vertically.

His top-end speed isn’t on par with Nabers and the burners of the 2024 NFL Draft class, but it’s adequate to get on top of a defensive and pull away. Even when defenders are in phase, Harrison can play through contact and win at the highest point.

If there’s a worry for Harrison in the pros, it's just how limiting his top-end speed may be. While I don’t see a world where Harrison isn’t consistently open at the next level, I wonder whether he commands the same kind of gravity if teams don’t believe he can tear the top off of a defense.

If his speed is an issue, he’s something like a more refined Tee Higgins or a taller DeAndre Hopkins. If his speed is closer to what it seems, though, we’re talking about an A.J. Green-level prospect — a pure matchup problem.

So Who Is WR1?

When you set highlights aside and dig into the tape, there are things Harrison can do with his frame and route running detail that translate against the kind of tight coverage he will see in the NFL. Nabers will light teams up at the next level, but the best receiver in this class can potentially change an entire game with his physical force.

Because of Harrison's ceiling, I’m keeping him as my WR1 and the second-best overall prospect in this class behind Caleb Williams.