This is the second part of our 11-part positional breakdown of the April 28-30 NFL draft. Today: the wide receivers.
Ben Fennell is an Emmy award-winning producer, editor and analyst across several sports and media platforms. He has been involved in the production of the last eight drafts for NFL Network and also is a producer for the NFL on CBS. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @BenFennell_nfl.
In a quarterback-driven league like the NFL, it’s imperative to provide your QB1 with elite pass-catching weapons. That’s been more evident than ever in the last two drafts.
Five wide receivers were taken in the first round last year, including three in the top 10. Fifteen were gobbled up in the first three rounds.
Those three top 10 wideouts – Ja’Marr Chase (5th to the Bengals), Jaylen Waddle (6th to the Dolphins) and DeVonta Smith (10th to the Eagles) – all had impressive rookie seasons. The trio combined for 249 receptions, 3,386 yards and 24 touchdowns.
The year before, six went on Day 1 and a total of 17 were gobbled up in the first three rounds. The six first-rounders equaled the most since 2004, when Larry Fitzgerald was the first of seven first-round wide receivers. The 17 taken in the first three rounds in 2020 equaled the most ever in the history of the draft.
Wide receivers figure to once again play a prominent role in this year’s draft, with as many as seven possibly ticketed for the first round.
“It’s another good group, NFL Network draft analyst Ben Fennell said. “Maybe not as heavy at the top as last year, but overall the quality is very good.’’
Fennell doesn’t expect a wideout to go in the top 10 this year, and wouldn’t be at all surprised if none even go in the top 15. But then the race will be on to grab the likes of Ohio State’s Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, Penn State’s Jahan Dotson, Alabama’s Jameson Williams, Arkansas’s Treylon Burks, North Dakota State’s Christian Watson and USC’s Drake London.
He expects there to be a heavy run on them in the back half of the first round, where a number of wideout-needy teams, including the Packers, Chiefs, Eagles, Patriots and Bills all are picking. The Packers, Chiefs and Eagles currently all have multiple first-round picks.
“There are going to be five or six (wideouts) clustered in the late teens-early 20s,” Fennell said. “And who are in the 20s? Playoff teams who need pass-catching weapons.
“Green Bay has two picks in the 20s (Nos. 22 and 28) and are clearly in the market for a receiver. The Chiefs have two on the back end (Nos. 29 and 30) and need a wide receiver after trading Tyreek Hill. And the Eagles have three picks right in the middle of the first round (Nos. 15, 16 and 19) and still are looking for wide receiver help.”
Fennell has broken down the wideouts into three categories – traditional, tall/long and slot:
Fennell’s top 5 (traditional)
1—Chris Olave, Ohio State, 6-0, 187, Rd. 1
2—Jameson Williams, Alabama, 6-1, 179, Rd. 1
3—Treylon Burks, Arkansas, 6-2, 225, Rd. 1-2
4—George Pickens, Georgia, 6-0, 200, Rd. 2-3
5—David Bell, Purdue, 6-1, 212, Rd. 5
The Best (traditional)
Arms: 31 1/8 inches
40 time: 4.39 seconds
Vertical jump: 32 inches
Ben’s take: “Returned for his senior year and caught 13 touchdown passes for the Buckeyes. Thin-framed, but very explosive. He’s an excellent route-runner and has really good hands. He’s a three-level receiver as far as being able to win the quick game, being a good intermediate route-runner and having the ability to win down the field vertically over the top of defenses.
“The biggest concern with him is his slight frame. Because of that, he didn’t have a lot of yards-after-the-catch production. He’s not a guy who is going to break tackles. He could end up being a guy who, on a nice day, will catch four passes for 110 yards and a couple of touchdowns. Probably not a possession receiver, but a guy you really want to take your shots to and try to exploit that speed and route-running ability and hands. I compared him to Keenan Allen just because of the thin, wiry frame and the route-running ability.”
Round projection: 1
The Riser (traditional)
Arms: 32 1/8 inches
40 time: N/A
Vertical jump: N/A
Ben’s take: “This guy is as explosive as anyone I’ve seen coming out in the last 10 years. With very good receiving technique. He’s the best receiver in this class, but he tore his ACL in the national championship game. If he didn’t hurt his knee, he’d be a top-10 pick. Now? Will he go 11? I don’t know. Will he go 31? I don’t know. But he’s an incredible player.
Why is he my riser? Because he essentially was a one-year wonder. Like I said, he’s the best wide receiver in this class. But even with the injury, he defines the riser spot like nobody else.
“He transferred from Ohio State because he was buried behind Olave and Garrett Wilson. Goes to Alabama, gets and opportunity and shows everybody how well-rounded he is, how explosive he is. He’s a home run threat every time he touches the ball, from anywhere on the field. Instantly explosive in every facet, whether it’s getting off press coverage, getting in and out of his breaks, having an extra gear to go and get the ball, double moves, you name it.
“He holds the high school state record in Missouri for the 300-meter hurdles. He’s just a freaky, loose athlete. He has Henry Ruggs type speed in a more prototypical size package. He reminds me a lot of Justin Jefferson. A Chad Johnson maybe. Just an explosive route-runner who catches everything.
“Now, like Olave, he doesn’t have a lot of tackle-breaking ability. But you’d better be able to catch him or that’s not going to matter. He can take a slant to the house. The press corner from Arkansas never even touched him. He’s one of those guys.’’
Round projection: 1
The Sleeper (traditional)
Arms: 31 7/8 inches
40 time: 4.65 seconds
Vertical jump: 33 inches
Ben’s take: “He tested horribly at the combine. But that’s OK. There are a lot of guys like that who have had tremendous NFL careers. Why is that? Because they know how to play the position. So does Bell. He knows how to run routes. He catches everything. He’s as well-rounded a receiver as there is in this class. He’s got good size. He just didn’t test well.
“He’s a Roddy White type. A Derrick Mason type. Mason played for 16 years. He was super productive. He was a quarterback’s best friend. Does Bell excite you like Williams? No. But he made a ton of big plays at Purdue. He took over a lot of Rondale Moore’s production.
“He doesn’t make a lot of contested catches. Doesn’t have a lot of YAC yards. But he’s a well-round receiver with strong hands. He’ll make a lot of third-and-7 catches for you for nine yards. He was the Big 10 freshman of the year in 2019. He had two straight All Big 10 selections even with all of those Ohio State and Penn State receivers in the conference. This kid has done nothing but produce every year. At Purdue no less, with who the hell knows throwing him the ball.”
Round projection: 5-6
Fennell’s top 5 (tall/long)
1—Drake London, USC, 6-4, 219, Rd. 1-2
2—Christian Watson, N. Dakota St., 6-4, 208, Rd. 1-2
3—Alec Pierce, Cincinnati, 6-3, 211, Rd. 4-5
4—Justyn Ross, Clemson, 6-4, 205, Rd. 5-6
5—Devon Williams, Oregon, 6-5, 210, Rd. 6-7
The Best (tall/long)
Arms: 33 inches
40 time: N/A
Vertical jump: N/A
Ben’s take: “London played basketball at USC for a couple of years before focusing on football. He’s tall and long. An above-the-rim guy with strong hands. Has a huge catch radius and excels on contested balls. He’s surprisingly good after the catch as well. He can break tackles and pick up yards after the catch.
“He’s loose, athletic. They used him a lot on bubble screens. Last season, they played him outside and he was extremely productive before breaking his ankle and missing half the season. Before last season, he was mainly an inside guy. I envision his role at the next level being as a move tight end, a flex tight end in the slot.
“He doesn’t get great separation on defenders. Reminds me a little bit of Hakeem Butler when he came out of Iowa State. I thought Butler was going to be an outstanding NFL player, but I was wrong.
“There have been very few guys London’s size that have excelled in the NFL. Over the last 20 years, guys in the 6-4-to-6-6 range who weigh 200 to 220 have gone to exactly one Pro Bowl. One A lot of people liken him to A.J. Green. We’ll see. He was having an incredibly productive year before the ankle injury.”
Round projection: 1-2
The Riser (tall/long)
North Dakota St.
Arms: 32 inches
40 time: 4.36 seconds
Vertical jump: 38 ½ inches
Ben’s take: “A very similar type of player to London. He tested off the charts at the combine and his Pro Day. He’s tall, long and explosive. In that North Dakota State offense, he had to do some tough-guy stuff. He had to block quite a bit. They lined him up in the backfield and just gave him inside zone snaps and jet sweeps and stuff. You don’t typically do that with guys who are 6-4 and 210. But he handled it all very well. He’s got a really tough mindset to him.
“He can win down the field. He had a really good week at the Senior Bowl. He’s got good flexibility. He’s a good route-runner. Has excellent speed and good hands. He’s competitive. He checks a lot of the boxes as far as what you’re looking for from a wide receiver.
“He was a late-bloomer. Had just one offer out of high school He reminds me a lot of Martavis Bryant when he was coming out of Clemson, without the off-the-field baggage. He’s a guy who has really taken advantage of the process. Coming from an FCS program, even one as good as North Dakota State’s, you’d better show out at the Senior Bowl and the combine. You better look the part. He did.”
Round projection: 1-2
The Sleeper (tall/long)
Arms: 33 inches
40 time: 4.41 seconds
Vertical jump: 40 ½ inches
Ben’s take: “Another guy who tested extremely well. Reminds you of an Eric Decker, a Drew Bennett. Tall and long. Can win above the rim, but also has the speed to win vertically and run past guys. He has really good length to shield guys out at the catch point. I don’t mean to keep comparing him to big white guys, but he’s got a lot of Cooper Kupp in him. Maybe not as shifty of a possession guy as Kupp. But somebody who can beat you in the route and also be a home run threat.
“He had a really good Senior Bowl. He played in a lot of big games at Cincinnati. They played against Alabama in the championship game. They played Georgia two years ago. He has looked the part against some big-time SEC players. He shredded Ohio State’s defensive backs in the two games he played against them in his career. He had a really good game against Notre Dame last season. Bottom line: when he’s faced top competition he’s answered the bell.”
Round projection: 4-5
Fennell’s top 5 (slot)
1—Garrett Wilson, Ohio State, 6-0, 183, Rd. 1
2—Jahan Dotson, Penn State, 5-10, 178, Rd. 1
3—Skyy Moore, W. Michigan, 5-10, 195, Rd. 3-4
4—Khalil Shakir, Boise, 6-0, 196, Rd. 3-4
5—Kyle Phillips, UCLA, 5-11, 189, Rd. 4-5
The Best (slot)
Arms: 32 inches
40 time: 4.38 seconds
Vertical jump: 36 inches
Ben’s take: “Another guy with a hoops background. Averaged 21 points a game in high school and had several Division I offers. Reminds me a lot of Antonio Brown on the field.
“He worked in the slot much of the time in Columbus. He’s really advanced at suddenness and attacking leverage. He’s never been a guy who just ran past people. He’s a guy who wins with very deliberate movement, with route-running technique and savviness. He almost likes to slow-play his routes and then be very sudden. He’s good at snapping in and out of his breaks.
“He catches absolutely everything. They used him a little bit on jet sweeps and things like that, but that’s not really his game. He’ll make some wild plays on you at the catch point like he did against Clemson a few years ago in the national championship game where he went up and his body was like six feet in the air.
“He should be a good possession slot receiver at the next level right away.”
Round prediction: 1
The Riser (slot)
Arms: 30 inches
40 time: 4.32 seconds
Vertical jump: 39 inches
Ben’s take: “Austin is an undersized, explosive track star playing wide receiver. He’s not just a guy with a track background. He was a track star. A nine-time state champ in various sprints in high school in Tennessee. Holds the state record for 60 meters and 200 meters.
“He’s very quick off the line. He’s sudden. He gets to top speed instantly. If you give him any space to operate it’s over. But he also can beat press coverage. He had a really good week at the Senior Bowl. Drops were an issue at times, which typically happens with converted track stars.
“He weighed just 148 pounds when he walked on as a freshman. He’s pushing 175 now, but that’s with rocks in his pocket and a big breakfast in his belly.
“But we’ve seen successful guys with his height, weight, speed metrics. Travis Benjamin. Taylor Gabriel. DeSean Jackson. He reminds me a lot of the Bills’ Isaiah McKenzie. He’s not the same type of slot player as a Jahan Dotson or a Garrett Wilson. But he’s going to an explosive, big-play type of presence inside.”
Round prediction: 3-4
The Sleeper (slot)
Arms: 31 inches
40 time: 4.41 seconds
Vertical jump: 34 ½ inches
Ben’s take: “A high school quarterback and defensive back who converted to wide receiver. He’s as good against press coverage as anybody in this class. Wins on slants, in-breakers and speed cuts. The in-breakers off RPOs translate well to the NFL. He can make people look silly on slants and has the vertical speed to win down the field. He tracks the deep ball well.
“He’s competitive at the catch point. His combination of suddenness in the route and his home run speed after the catch are impressive.’’