Zach's Draft Corner: Top Wide Receivers in 2019
Image Credit: Associated Press
Welcome to Zach’s Draft Corner, where it’s always amateur hour.
We’ve already discussed the very top players at the running back and wide receiver positions, but 2020 will be a fantastic year to need a skill position player in the draft. Not only are there Travis Etienne and Jerry Jeudy at the elite prospect level, but there are plenty of prospects that I could easily see being selected prior to the conclusion of day two of the 2020 NFL draft. As with any prospect, how you rank the individual prospects will be based on what traits you value and how risk averse you are, but nobody should bat an eye if these players are selected in the first three rounds next year. Last week, I went over the running backs in this class. This week, we take a look at the wide receivers.
Tee Higgins, WR, Clemson University
6'4", 200 pounds
2018 stats: 59 receptions for 936 yards, 15.9 yards per reception (YPR), 12 touchdowns
Sammy Watkins. DeAndre Hopkins. Every few years, Clemson comes out with a highly touted prospect that scouts can’t get enough of. This year, Tee Higgins will be that guy, although I think he will fall close to the second-round hype “Nuk” received as opposed to the top-five hype Watkins received. Higgins is obviously tall, but still has exceptional coordination and balance in his breaks. He’s not going to be a burner, but he won’t lose much speed in his breaks, making him play faster than he will test. Higgins also boasts hands, long arms, and short-area explosion that has made Hopkins such a weapon at the next level. I think Higgins could very easily follow a similar path as fellow Tiger DeAndre Hopkins. As a spoiler for 2021, if you want a more complete, top-ten-type talent, look at his teammate, Justyn Ross.
Laviska Shenault, Jr., WR, University of Colorado
6'2", 220 pounds
2018 stats: 86 receptions for 1011 yards, 11.8 YPR, 6 touchdowns, 17 carries for 115 yards and 5 touchdowns
If I had to bet my money on a single player in this wide receiver class that Kyle Shanahan could fall in love with, I am placing it all on Shenault and then taking out a loan to put even more money down on Shenault. That is because Shenault is the closest thing I have seen to a Julio Jones type receiver that excels at working every single area of the field. On one play, Shenault will take a screen pass and weave through defenders on his way to a big gain. On another, Shenault will run a perfect route in the middle of the defense, catching the ball in traffic for a first down. On a third play, he’ll effectively shield off a defender on a fade route and catch a pass deep down the sideline. On a fourth play, he will take a jet sweep. “Viska” is not the only player who can effectively work every area of the field, but he is the best I’ve seen in this class at truly excelling in every area. Combine that with plus size, strength, and athleticism, and his game will absolutely translate to the NFL. If the 49ers somehow fall short at the receiver position this year, I can easily see Shenault trading in the black and gold for scarlet and gold.
CeeDee Lamb, WR, University of Oklahoma
6'2", 189 pounds
2018 stats: 65 receptions for 1158 yards, 17.8 YPR, 11 touchdowns
As I’m growing older and watching generations of players cycle through pro sports leagues, it’s interesting to see how prolific names affect the next generation of players. The first time I noticed this was with Steph Curry in the NBA, taking deep shots and shooting on the way up as opposed to at the peak of his jump. You are now starting to see players like Trae Young and Darius Garland use those same tricks on the way to being highly coveted basketball prospects.
In the NFL, I’m sure quarterbacks are going to start following the Patrick Mahomes route at quarterback. At wide receiver, you are starting to see that with Odell Beckham, Jr., and CeeDee Lamb fits that comparison admirably. Beckham is truly elite at maintaining his balance wherever he is on the field and at catching anything thrown in his general vicinity, even if it requires stretching out with only one hand. Lamb might not quite be at that level, but he’s pretty darn close. Another lanky receiver, Lamb almost looks like Gumby when he is out on the field, stretching his limbs out to bring in passes that most receivers would have no chance at. Lamb has good top end speed, but his routes could be a little cleaner. He’s excelled without needing that execution because of his system and the talent around him, but he’ll really need to hone some of the more nuanced elements of being a receiver if he wants to make it as a pro. In the meantime, Lamb might very well be the most exciting receiver to watch on any given Saturday.
Henry Ruggs III, WR, University of Alabama
6'0", 183 pounds
2018 stats: 46 receptions for 741 yards, 16.1 YPR, 11 touchdowns
Ruggs is what everybody wanted John Ross to be when he was coming out of Washington. I would be doing everyone a disservice if I started the discussion on Ruggs anywhere but his crazy elite speed. When I say “crazy elite,” I mean it would not shock me at all to see Ruggs break the combine record in the 40-yard dash, maybe being the first person ever to run a sub-4.2. Two years ago, in high school, Ruggs ran broke the Alabama state record in the 100-meter dash with a time of 10.58 seconds. That means that Ruggs ran a total of 109.4 yards in 10.58 seconds. If you convert that pace to 40 yards, that’s a 3.87-second 40-yard dash. Obviously the start time will be the slowest, so expecting him to actually run that fast for a 40 is not feasible, but I think a sub-4.2 is completely possible.
On the football field, Ruggs doesn’t disappoint. Everyone is aware of that speed, and nobody in college can match it. This forces corners to be very conservative when guarding him, and Ruggs is a fluid enough athlete that he can make them pay underneath and in the intermediate areas of the field. He may not be the crispest route runner in this class, but with his speed and acceleration, he doesn’t need to be. Ruggs has solid hands and is a pretty good receiver at most everything he does. When you pair “pretty good” with a trump card as big as his speed, it makes Ruggs a very dangerous receiver and a very fun prospect.
DeVonta Smith, WR, University of Alabama
6'1", 173 pounds
2018 stats: 42 receptions for 693 yards, 16.5 YPR, 6 touchdowns
That’s right, we have another Alabama wide receiver. You’ve definitely heard of Jerry Jeudy. You’ve probably heard of Ruggs. But DeVonta Smith is another strong prospect for Alabama, and he is a very different receiver than Jeudy and Ruggs. Rather than relying on insane speed or above average size, Smith plays the game more like a Jarvis Landry. He is an expert technician throughout the snap, from his work on the line to avoid pressing corners to dropping his hips and bursting out of his breaks to catching the ball with near perfect form. If you were going to make an instructional video for how to play the receiver position, Smith would probably make up most of the tape. His lack of top end speed may relegate him to the slot once he turns pro, but Smith should absolutely not be slept on.
Donovan Peoples-Jones, WR, University of Michigan
6'2", 208 pounds
2018 stats: 47 receptions for 612 yards, 13.0 YPR, 8 touchdowns
DPJ is a risky bet. When he is on the field, his blend of length and top-end speed make him a chore for any corner to handle. He can stand to put on some muscle, as he can be knocked off his route a little too easily at the line of scrimmage due to a sheer lack of strength. DPJ also faces some injury concerns, as his season was cut short due to an injury that may cause him to also miss part of the 2019 season. The annals of football history are littered with prospects who had all of the talent in the world but couldn’t stay healthy. I hope that he is able to put together a productive 2019 season, as he really is a dynamic playmaker when he is on the field. If not, he might become just another footnote of what could have been.
Tarik Black, WR, University of Michigan
6'3", 215 pounds
2018 stats: 4 receptions for 35 yards, 8.8 YPR, 0 touchdowns
Can I copy and paste what I said about Peoples-Jones? Black is even taller than Peoples-Jones, and doesn’t face the same strength concerns. Black isn’t quite the athlete that Peoples-Jones is, but there is always room for a 6’3” receiver who is as strong as an ox, can run routes crisply, and can actually catch what is thrown to him. Similarly to DPJ, Black has also faced a sad injury history. Black fractured his left foot in 2017, and then proceeded to fracture his right foot in 2018. At a position that puts so much stress on feet, ankles, and knees, this is a bad sign for Black. I want to see him be fully healthy before giving him a solid grade, but he has as much potential as anyone in this class.
Tyler Johnson, WR, University of Minnesota
6'2", 200 pounds
2018 stats: 78 receptions for 1169 yards, 15.0 YPR, 12 touchdowns
As a Hawkeye, this really pains me to say, but Tyler Johnson, from the Minnesota Golden Gophers, is the best wide receiver in the Big Ten. He can run routes with the same level of expertise as DaVonta Smith, but does it while being taller, stronger, and faster. Johnson absolutely translates to an outside receiver who can get open in a myriad of ways and can make you pay after the catch with his strength, agility, and vision. He drops a few too many passes for my liking, so I’d like to see him have some more consistency in that area. On tape, it seems to be more of a mental issue, as there occasionally seems to be more hesitation as opposed to bad form. I’m not too worried about this, and have as much faith in Tyler Johnson being a good NFL wide receiver as just about anyone in this class not named Jeudy or Shenault.
Collin Johnson, WR, University of Texas
6'6", 220 pounds
2018 stats: 68 receptions for 985 yards, 14.5 YPR, 7 touchdowns
Collin Johnson was starting to open some eyes last season, and shocked more than a few people when he decided to return to college. Last year, I wanted him to show consistency, and he did that. Johnson runs routes about as well as you can when you are 6’6”, sinking his hips relatively low in his breaks and getting back to his top speed relatively quickly. The “relatively” is important, because I’m not sure he has the top-end speed or quickness to get a ton of separation against NFL cornerbacks. However, with his size and strength, I believe he can still functionally separate well enough to be a productive pro. Think like a Plaxico Burress- or a Brandon Marshall-type receiver.
K.J. Hill, WR, Ohio State University
6'0", 198 pounds
2018 stats: 70 receptions for 885 yards, 12.6 YPR, 6 touchdowns
K.J. Hill is an athlete. You can easily pick out these types of players, the kind that have managed to excel as a player at every level simply because they were better athletes than everyone else. That’s K.J. Hill this year. He’s so fluid, I would almost call him graceful when he hits his stride. He catches the ball well, and is tough to bring down once he gets the ball in his hands because of how shifty he is. He hasn’t needed to run his routes with any sort of nuance because his athleticism has been enough to get him open. He’s graceful because he has these long strides and glides around in his routes rather than make explosive cuts. This gliding means he doesn’t hide his route at all, and NFL cornerbacks will eat that up Thursday, Sunday, Monday, and the occasional Saturday. If he can make that improvement, then the sky is the limit for this young talent. That seems like a skill he’ll likely learn by necessity once he gets to the NFL, but the team that drafts him should know it’s going to be a process.
SMALL SCHOOL SLEEPER
James Proche, WR, Southern Methodist University
5'11", 190 pounds
2018 stats: 93 receptions for 1199 yards, 12.9 YPR, 12 touchdowns
Before receiving the death penalty in the 1980s, SMU was a college football powerhouse that always seemed to produce exciting prospects at skill players, such as Eric Dickerson, Doak Walker (namesake of the NCAA RB of the Year award), and Jerry LeVias. SMU is just starting to come out of that 20-year struggle, and players like Proche are a large reason why. Proche may be the closest thing this draft has to a Julian Edelman-type of receiver in that he has elite quickness and route running nuance to work out of the slot, but his combination of below average long speed and smaller stature will make it difficult to succeed consistently on the outside. In modern offenses, Proche will fit right in and should be a dangerous weapon.
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