(Editor’s note: This is the first of several positional previews of the 2022 NFL draft)
Once upon a time, NFL wide receivers had to learn how to walk before they could run. It took most of them, even those taken at the top of the draft, a year or two to get acclimated to the nuances and speed of the pro game.
Now, not so much.
Last April, five wideouts were taken in the first round of the draft, including three in the top 10. Four of the five are on pace for 50-plus catches and 700-plus receiving yards as rookies.
The Bengals’ Ja’Marr Chase, who was the first of three wideouts taken in the top 10 (5th), already has 835 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in just nine games. The Dolphins’ Jaylen Waddle, who was the sixth pick, is sixth in the league in receptions (56).
“NFL coaches are more willing to adapt to the skill-sets and traits of their players than they were in years past,” said Ben Fennell, a draft analyst for the NFL Network and a producer for NFL games on CBS.
“For the longest time, coaches had a system and you had to fit that system. But the stubbornness of coaches has really started to alleviate over the last 5-10 years, especially with the skill players. It’s allowed young guys to get on the field faster, produce faster.”
Fennell puts the over-under on first-round wideouts in the 2022 draft at 4 ½. He doesn’t expect an early rush like last April when Chase and Waddle went 5-6 and Alabama’s DeVonta Smith was taken 10th by the Eagles.
He thinks next spring’s draft will be more like the 2020 draft, when six wideouts went in the first round, but none in the top 10.
“It’s a good group, but I don’t think it’s elite,” Fennell said. “I don’t think it’s super-heavy at the top. But the overall quality still is in the A-minus/B-plus area.
“Last year, we had five go in the first round and 10 taken in the top 60. Two years ago, you had six go in the first round and 12 in the top 60, but the first wideout didn’t go until the 12th pick (Henry Ruggs).
“I just think that the combination of this draft being a little deeper at cornerback, edge rusher and some other spots and the fact that maybe these guys aren’t seen as gotta-have-‘em, elite, A-plus prospects, I think a middle-of-the-first-round projection for [the top wideouts] might be a little more appropriate than the top 10.”
Fennell’s top-rated wideout is 6-1, 187-pound Chris Olave of Ohio State. Olave considered coming out last year after a 50-catch, 729-yard, 7-touchdown season, but decided to return to Columbus for his final year of eligibility. It seems to have paid off. Through eight games, he already has 42 catches for 623 yards and 10 TDs.
“There’s a big question as to where he would’ve gone if he had come out last year,” Fennell said. “He probably would’ve been a top 50 pick and potentially a first-rounder. But he decided to come back for his last year. He wanted to be the top wideout in the class.
“I don’t think he’ll be craved or coveted in the top 10 like Chase and Waddle and Smith were. But he’s going to be a consensus top-3 receiver on everybody’s board.”
Fennell’s second-rated wideout right now is Alabama’s Jameson Williams, a 6-2, 189-pound Ohio State transfer who switched schools after catching just 15 passes the previous two years for the Buckeyes. In nine games this season, he has 45 catches for 870 yards and seven TDs.
“He’s the exciting riser right now,” Fennell said. “He’s really starting to build his performance on a week-to-week basis and really show what made him a special five-star receiver coming out of high school.
“He has good size at just under 6-2. He’s explosive. He’s a good route-runner. He has all the traits you’re looking for in an NFL wideout. And his upside is tremendous. When all is said and done, he could end up pushing Olave for WR1.”
Fennell’s third-rated wideout right now is Penn State’s Jahan Dotson. At 5-11 and 184, he’s smaller than both Olave and Williams, but has 71 catches and nine TDs in nine games.
“He’s just a little undersized,” Fennell said. “His play-strength leaves you wanting a little bit more as far as blocking and getting knocked off a route and maybe not being as competitive at the catch point as you want.
“But he’s through and through a quarterback’s best friend in the slot. He’s going to catch everything. He’s got speed. He’s sudden. Lethal on double moves. Moves the chains on third down. I don’t think he’ll be an over-the-top type of guy. He won’t be a true vertical threat. But he’s a good route-runner that I think is going to make a lot of tough catches on third down.”
There are several good gadget receivers in this draft, headed by Kentucky’s Wan’Dale Robinson and Texas A&M’s Ainias Smith. The success of versatile, line-them-up-anywhere players like the 49ers’ Deebo Samuel and the popularity of bubble screens, jet sweeps and end-arounds in the NFL game has helped the value of gadget players.
The 5-11, 185-pound Robinson was a transfer from Nebraska where he split time as a running back and wide receiver. He had 134 rushing attempts in two seasons with the Cornhuskers.
“He went to Kentucky so he could be more a slot receiver,” Fennell said. “He’s shown his ability to win as a route-runner this year.
“Same thing with Smith. Sometimes he’s a running back, sometimes he’s in the slot, sometimes he’s doing stuff down the field.”
Robinson averaged 5.2 yards per carry on 46 rushing attempts for Nebraska in 2020. This year, he’s already got 71 catches and 6 TDs.
Smith averaged 6.0 yards per carry last year on 49 carries. This year, he has 35 receptions, six for TDs.
“The increasing prevalence of college concepts in the NFL make players like these guys translatable,” Fennell said. “And I think it makes them more ready to play. They’re more ready to be productive from the get-go.”
BEN’S TOP 10 WRS
1) Chris Olave
Ben’s take: “Olave is tall and lean. He’s a sharp route-runner with excellent hands.”
NFL comp: Keenan Allen
2) Jameson Williams
Ben’s take: “Williams was an Ohio State transfer. He’s got a wiry frame with explosive speed and elite traits.”
NFL comp: Chad Johnson
3) Jahan Dotson
Ben’s take: “Dotson’s a bit undersized. But he’s speedy and sudden with natural/easy hands.”
NFL comp: Antonio Brown
4) Treylon Burks
Ben’s take: “A thick, physical receiver. Athletic. A large slot weapon.”
NFL comp: A.J. Brown + 2 inches
5) Garrett Wilson
Ben’s take: “Wilson has great body control and ball skills. Is a sudden route-runner.”
NFL comp: Tyler Lockett
6) Drake London
Ben’s take: “Tall and long with a huge catch radius. Can make contested catches. Tough YAC guy.”
NFL comp: Mike Williams
7) David Bell
Ben’s take: “Bell is a good size-speed combo guy. He’s competitive and physical. Able to make adjustments on the ball.”
NFL comp: Roddy White
8) Justyn Ross
Ben’s take: “Another guy with nice size and length. Big catch radius and excellent ball skills.”
NFL comp: Rueben Randle
9) John Metchie III
Ben’s take: “He’s quick and sudden with excellent play strength. Competitive. Good blocker.”
NFL comp: Robert Woods
10) Jalen Tolbert
Ben’s take: “Tolbert’s tall and lean with explosive speed. He’s a sharp route-runner. Good body control and ball-tracking skills.”
NFL comp: Ashley Lelei
TOP 5 GADGET RECEIVERS
1—Wan’dale Robinson, Kentucky, 5-11, 185
2—Ainias Smith, Texas A&M, 5-10, 190
3—Jayden Reed, Michigan St., 6-0, 185
4—Khalil Shakir, Boise State, 6-0, 190
5—Tre Turner, Virginia Tech, 6-2, 187
SLEEPERS FROM GROUP OF 5 CONFERENCES
1—Romeo Doubs, Nevada 6-2, 200
2—Jaivon Heileigh, Coastal Carolina, 6-2, 200
3—Jalen Cropper, Fresno State, 6-0, 173
4—Calvin Turner, Hawaii, 5-11, 195
5—Justin Hall, Ball State, 5-9, 196
BEST OF THE REST
George Pickens, Georgia, 6-3, 200
Dontay Demus, Maryland, 6-3, 217
Erik Ezukanma, Texas Tech, 6-3, 220
Jaquarii Roberson, Wake Forest, 6-1, 182
Jequez Ezzard, Sam Houston St., 5-9, 195
Joseph Ngata, Clemson, 6-3, 220
Charleston Rambo, Miami, 6-1, 185
Reggie Roberson, SMU, 6-0, 200
Zay Flowers, Boston College, 5-10, 177
Frank Ladson, Clemson, 6-3, 205