This year's wide receiver class is historically deep and talented
Anyone looking for a reason why the crop of receivers entering the NFL Draft is one of the deepest and most talented in recent years needs to head out to a high school field during the scalding days and sultry evenings of summer to find out.
That’s where the foundation is being constructed for future classes of pass catchers. The 7-on-7 competitions that were once looked at as mere training exercises during the offseason are becoming vital parts of the growth of a sophisticated approach to the passing game that in turn has produced ever-deeper classes of wideouts up the football chain of command. Lining up with five wide and tossing it around in the heat benefits quarterbacks, sure, but it also helps the kids catching the ball to understand how to play the position at an advanced pace and to hone their techniques and competitive ball skills to thrive at the collegiate and — they hope — the NFL levels.
“The proliferation of 7-on-7 programs in high school has had a major impact on what we have seen with receiver classes,” says NFL Network draft expert Daniel Jeremiah, who served as a scout for three different NFL teams. “Their route-running and skills are so much more developed, because they are working year-round.”
This year’s crop of receivers is as deep and talented as any that has been seen in many years. There are big targets who can overpower defenders in the red zone and middle of the field. There are speedsters capable of stretching defenses vertically. And there are prospects capable of doing just about anything necessary — all over the field. As components of college offenses continue to appear in NFL game plans, the receivers entering the league this year will be extremely comfortable with the schemes they are expected to learn and perfect.
“You’re seeing more and more bubble screens and tunnel screens and a lot of college stuff leaking in, like jet sweeps,” says an NFL executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Over the past 10 years, an average of 3.4 receivers have been taken in the first round, and 12.3 have been selected in the first three on average. It’s likely that at least four and possibly five or six will be chosen this year on the first day, with up to 10 earning spots in the next two rounds. Although that won’t top 2015’s six first-rounders or the bonanza of 2014 (12 taken in the first two rounds), teams need pass catchers, and this year’s crop can fill plenty of roster spots.
“Teams like Alabama, Oklahoma and LSU are having success on offense, in large part because of super receivers,” says an NFL scout. “Quarterbacks can get them the ball, and there are creative offensive minds devising schemes.
“This group of receivers should be deep and last through the first three rounds with guys who can really help teams.”
According to venerable ESPN NFL Draft analyst Mel Kiper, it would be unwise to cap the first-round number at four. He believes six could be chosen, especially if the underclassmen in the crop — several — measure close to their collegiate heights and weights throughout the vetting process.
“There will be a host of players in the second round, too,” Kiper says. “There could be 13 in two rounds and as many as 15. That would be extraordinary.”
There is no consensus top receiver in the draft, but it’s hard to think Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb isn’t at the top or darn close to it. Lamb caught a modest 62 passes last year, but he averaged 21.4 yards per catch and scored 14 times. He has good size at 6'2", 190 and enough speed to make big things happen in the open field.
“His competitiveness sets him apart,” Jeremiah says. “He’s got a lot of [the Texans’] DeAndre Hopkins to his game. He is always attacking the football and is ultracompetitive after the catch. He refuses to go down. He can get downfield or serve as a checkdown and then make something happen.”
Lamb is not a burner, but he does have good hands and a sturdy frame. Despite his height, he gets in and out of his breaks well.
“I call him CeeDee Y-A-C,” Kiper says. “When the ball is in his hands, he’s one of the best. He’s a versatile player and a complete guy. If you get him the ball, he can do a lot of damage. He can run every route in the tree and make yards happen that don’t seem to be there.”
Last year, four wide receivers made impacts for Alabama, and 6'1", 190-pounder Jerry Jeudy, who bypassed his senior year for the draft, was generally considered the top man. He caught 77 passes, scored 10 times, averaged 15.1 yards per reception and brings a strong profile to the NFL, although he isn’t perfect.
“He is explosive, and he runs really good routes,” the NFL exec says. “He comes out of a system that has produced receivers. But he had a lot of key drops down the stretch, and that’s troublesome. Still, he runs well and can get out of his breaks.”
Jeudy won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top receiver in 2018, and he concluded his career with a big Citrus Bowl performance against Michigan, catching six balls for 204 yards and scoring once. Jeremiah calls him “the best route runner in the draft.” Though Jeudy isn’t going to be the fastest receiver of the group, he gets to top speed quickly. The question with him is whether he can thrive as a No. 1 wideout, after being part of such a dominant group in Tuscaloosa.
“He benefited at Alabama from all those guys around him,” Kiper says. “Think about trying to cover [Henry] Ruggs, [Jaylen] Waddle and [DeVonta] Smith. By having four great receivers, Alabama could assure that opponents didn’t double anyone. [Jeudy] got a free run off the line every time. How does he adapt to guys in his face?”
Giving Ruggs a clean run off the line was deadly during his time with the Crimson Tide. He’ll likely be the fastest receiver in the draft, and Kiper thinks he could run a blistering 4.25 40. Although he caught only 40 passes in 2019, Ruggs averaged 18.6 yards per catch and forced defenses to keep someone deep often to prevent the big play.
“He has elite speed,” Jeremiah says. “It’s rare you find the combination he has. Ruggs has speed and toughness. Usually, when you get elite speed, the receiver is a little soft. [Ruggs is] a bit of a savage. He plays great on special teams.”
Ruggs will fit best on a team that has a No. 1, high-volume-style receiver who can pile up the catches and allow Ruggs to be a deep threat, as well as be used in other situations.
“He can probably be a great sweep guy,” the NFL executive says. “He’s not going to be a number one or two guy right away, but he can help on special teams as he develops.”
Although Clemson’s 6'4", 215-pound Tee Higgins suffered hamstring, head and neck injuries during the season and in the College Football Playoff semifinal against Ohio State, he enters the draft after an impressive season that saw him average 19.8 yards on his 59 receptions and score 13 times. Higgins isn’t going to blow anyone away with his short-area speed, but he’s tough to cover downfield, thanks to his size and ability to use his body effectively.
“He’s a basketball player on grass,” Jeremiah says. “He’s not super sudden, but he has really strong hands and can go up and play high. He’s a big point producer.”
Kiper continues the basketball metaphor with Higgins, calling him a “power forward.” If he were to play for a team that had smaller receivers, like Buffalo, he would be an excellent complement.
“He’s a natural X receiver,” the NFL executive says. “He has a tremendous catch radius, great length and really great ball skills. I don’t know if he’s ready to be a physical, 50-50 guy, because he’s more of a finesse guy now, but he can pluck it. He has to get stronger and tougher.”
It’s hard to tell what Laviska Shenault Jr. of Colorado will bring to the NFL because he spent a good portion of the ’19 season fighting a core muscle injury. When he was healthy, he didn’t get as many chances to catch the ball. Both explain his rather modest 56-catch, four-TD, 13.6-average performance in 2019.
The other concern with Shenault is whether he is an NFL-ready wideout or just somebody who was able to trade on his athletic ability, though he does run solid routes and has pretty good hands, according to the NFL scout.
“I call him a Swiss army knife,” Kiper says. “He can be used everywhere and make big plays. He’s a great kid and a hard worker with a solid frame [6'2", 225]. He could be very effective on that little toss sweep to the receiver.”
If anybody just went by the final three games LSU’s Justin Jefferson played in 2019, he might leap to the top of that person’s class. The 6'3", 190-pounder caught 30 passes, scored five times and averaged 14.9 yards per catch in the SEC title tilt and the two CFP contests. He finished the year with 111 catches (13.9 average) and scored 18 times.
“He has really good hands, and he catches the ball well,” the NFL executive says. “He’s not a top-end speed guy.”
Jeremiah praises Jefferson’s route-running skills and expects him to be able to handle work in the middle of the field at the next level. It’s possible he could be a second-round pick.
One of the players whom fans might not know much about is 6'0", 195-pound Arizona State product Brandon Aiyuk, who averaged 18.3 yards on 65 catches and scored eight times. He also averaged 16.1 yards per punt return and brought one back for a TD, and he averaged 31.9 yards on kickoff returns. He has potential to impact the game in many ways.
“He’s an interesting player,” the executive says. “He can move, has punt return skills, is explosive and quick. He has speed and can make you miss.”
Expect to see Aiyuk being used on sweeps, bubble screens and in other situations to help him get free and to use his speed. Jeremiah says that in other years, he might be the best receiver in the draft. Because this year’s crop is so deep, Aiyuk might fall into the second round, but the team that selects him will be getting a playmaker. “You just want to get him the ball and let him go,” Jeremiah says. “He’s got a lot of juice.”
KJ Hamler can make big plays, too. That was his specialty at Penn State. “He flies,” the executive says. But Hamler is also only 5'9", 175 and isn’t likely to be a player capable of going over the middle or winning many jump balls in the end zone. “He’s a guy who’s going to have to make his money as a gadget guy,” the scout says. “But he gets up on defensive backs quickly.”
In 2019, Hamler caught 56 passes, scored eight times and averaged 16.1 yards per reception. Hamler holds the single-season Penn State all-purpose yardage mark and averaged 23.5 yards bringing back kickoffs during his two seasons with the Nittany Lions.
“He’s like this year’s [Marquise] ‘Hollywood’ Brown,” Kiper says, referring to the Baltimore rookie who caught 46 passes and scored seven times in 2019. “The NFL is a space game now, and it’s all about guys like [Hamler]. He’s perfect for the NFL and has first-round ability.”
Because TCU’s passing game was not too dynamic in 2019 — Horned Frog QBs completed just 53.4 percent of their passes — 5'11", 190-pound Jalen Reagor’s numbers (43 catches, five TDs, 14.2 average) were not overwhelming, but he has plenty of NFL potential. He’ll be a deep threat right away and should develop into a dangerous special teams player.
“He has big-time speed and is a vertical guy,” Jeremiah says. “He’s still got work to do on underneath and intermediate routes, but he’s going to stretch the field.”
That isn’t Michael Pittman Jr.’s game, but at 6'4", 220, it doesn’t have to be. The USC product isn’t going to blow past too many receivers, but he did catch 101 balls last season (on a 12.6-yard average) and scored 11 times. He proved during Senior Bowl workouts to be a reliable target, and Jeremiah calls him “ultra-competitive.” But there is a question about how fast he will run and whether teams will be able to use safeties to stick with him. He’ll have to be paired with a receiver capable of getting downfield to create some space underneath for him.
Anyone looking for a sleeper in this wideout class can pick 6'4", 220-pound Antonio Gandy-Golden from Liberty. Although he played just one year against FBS competition, Gandy-Golden averaged 17.7 yards on 79 catches and scored 10 times. Against BYU, he caught 10 balls for 162 yards and scored once.
“He’s under the radar, but you have to look at his size,” Kiper says. “He’s an NFL developmental player, and the stiff-arm he uses is great. He can break tackles, make circus catches and get separation. He tracks the ball well, has a good football IQ and will go across the middle.”
That all sounds good. Gandy-Golden indeed has a chance. But in this crop, it will take a lot for him to stand out.
— Written by Michael Bradley for Athlon's 2020 NFL Draft Guide. With in-depth scouting reports on 230 of the top prospects, position-by-position rankings of 526 draft-eligible players, NFL depth charts and personnel needs, features, and more it's the most complete preview of the upcoming draft. Click here to get your copy.