Zach's Draft Corner: Wide Receiver Position Breakdown

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Welcome to Zach’s Draft Corner, where it’s always amateur hour.

Leading up to the draft, I think it is important to give you a preview of the various prospects who could eventually, and realistically, find their way to Santa Clara. Everyone knows that Jerry Jeudy would wreck the league if paired with Kyle Shanahan, but the 49ers also do not have the ammunition to trade up and select such a player. As such, rather than counting Lambs at night, here are some of the receivers you should spend your time looking at.

Laviska Shenault (6'0 5/8", 227 pounds, Colorado)

Pros:

“Viska” will run faster than expected at the combine, as I believe his athleticism is horrendously underrated at this point in the process. He is an incredibly versatile player, having lined up outside, in the slot, and even in the backfield for Colorado. He is very efficient in his movement, and gets low in his hips to accelerate out of his breaks and generate separation with clean routes. He has reliable hands, often having to adjust to balls in the air due to bad quarterback play. His best work maybe comes after the catch, as he acts like a running back and is built like one too.

Cons:

I'm not sure if there is a truly elite trait here other than his versatility. The worry is that being only good-to-great in many areas will lead to him being merely average in all of those areas once he reaches the pros. Additionally, with his focus being on so many different positions, he is raw in some of the more nuanced aspects of route running (e.g., manipulating the corner in addition to running his route, angles on some of his routes).

When to draft: 31st overall, if available

Jalen Reagor (5'10 5/8", 206 pounds, TCU)

Pros:

If you love Henry Ruggs, you’ll like Reagor. Reagor has speed, and lots of it. He can get deep, and also catch balls above the rim, making him the ultimate deep threat. He is in complete control of his body and can confuse defenders with his twitchiness in underneath routes. Reagor also has great vision to find holes in zones.After the catch, he can get to his top speed quickly and pick up yards by crushing angles and outrunning everyone on the defense.Despite his smaller size, he has good footwork at the line of scrimmage to beat press.

Cons:

Reagor drops a lot of passes at this point. Also, he is a pure speed/twitch receiver, and a lack of physicality may hinder him against stronger corners and safeties.

When to draft: 31st overall, if available

Tee Higgins (6'3 5/8", 216 pounds, Clemson)

Pros:

Higgins is a big receiver who will run faster than expected, and can be used in many different ways. He is clearly one of the best jump ball receivers in this class. For a big receiver, he can sink his hips relatively well to burst out of his breaks. His most impressive trait may be his hands, as he catches the ball very well in traffic with very few drops. After the catch, it is hard for smaller cornerbacks and safeties to bring him down with his combination of strength and at least good speed.

Cons:

His athleticism isn't elite, though it’s still quite good. Higgins was also overshadowed by his teammate, Justyn Ross, a true sophomore who many believe is a better prospect. While he is relatively strong as a route runner for a big receiver, he still does suffer from some of the stiffness and leverage issues that plague bigger receivers.

When to draft: 31st overall, or early day two with a trade back

Brandon Aiyuk (5'11 5/8", 205 pounds, Arizona State)

Pros:

Aiyuk might be second only to Jeudy for getting yards after the catch. He is a RAC God. Aiyuk is a threat to get into the endzone whenever he touches the ball with his balance, speed, and vision. He has very long arms and big hands, allowing him to go for jump balls typically reserved for those three or four inches taller than him. What I love most about Aiyuk is that he creates separation in his route-running nuance, truly understanding how to manipulate the defenders to put them in the worst possible position to play the pass. He has the tantalizing combination of being effective in all three levels of the field, with the proper route nuances to get separation at each level. While his level of physicality may not be the best, he is at least a willing blocker.

Cons:

He did not run the full route tree at Arizona State, although the routes he did run had proper form. I believe his traits will translate to a full route tree, but it’s merely a projection at this point. Aiyuk also has questionable physicality when catching balls in heavy traffic and in facing press coverage.

When to draft: 31st overall, or early day two with a trade back

Quintez Cephus (6'0 7/8", 202 pounds, Wisconsin)

Pros:

Cephus has textbook technique for running his routes, sinking into his hips at the top of the route and pushing out immediately into the second half of the route. He doesn’t really play the corner, but he runs his routes in game exactly as you’d like him to against air. He has generally reliable hands, and is a very physical receiver. Part of running back Jonathan Taylor’s success was due to the great blocking of Cephus on the outside.

Cons:

Cephus only has average athleticism and size, limiting both his ability after the catch and working downfield. He also comes with heavy character concerns. Cephus was accused of sexual assault while at Wisconsin, although all charges were eventually dropped. Lynch may not want to re-live a Reuben Foster situation.

When to draft: Early day three

James Proche (5'10 5/8", 201 pounds, SMU)

Pros:

Proche is my personal draft crush, and I will sing it from the heavens that he should be a 49er if they are even remotely unsure about the health of Trent Taylor moving forward. Proche is absolutely elite at getting open from the slot position by setting up cornerbacks in a way that they have to play the ball through his body as opposed to around his body. He is a quarterback's best friend, as he can catch everything within arm's length, even in traffic. Proche will be a chain mover. Think of a Wes Welker if he was a couple of inches taller.

Cons:

Why will Proche fall? His size is maybe slightly below average, and his top-end speed and overall athleticism are both average. He will be limited to being a slot-only receiver, and a slot-only receiver without being a true deep threat is not something teams spend a high draft pick on. It is, however, something very important to Kyle Shanahan’s offense.

When to draft: Mid- to late-day three

Van Jefferson (6'1 4/8", 200 pounds, Florida)

Pros:

Jefferson seemed to always be open, even in the SEC. He manages to gain separation from cornerbacks on almost every route he runs in the short and intermediate levels of the field, largely due to being a very refined route runner. He is a hands catcher, and is generally reliable.

Cons:

Jefferson is not a threat to run after the catch. He is a below-average athlete who is likely a finished product at the relatively old age of 24. His lack of shiftiness likely takes him out of the slot, but will his lack of top-end speed limit his potential on the outside? I want receivers who run routes like Jefferson, but will technique alone be enough to get him open in the NFL?

When to draft: Mid- to late-day three

Tyler Johnson (6'1 3/8", 206 pounds, Minnesota)

Pros:

Johnson is a thick, big-bodied receiver who can jump and high point the ball as a deep threat. In the short and intermediate levels of the field, he can physically dominate smaller corners. He is a clean route runner who, at his peak, shows flashes of Anquan Boldin.

Cons:

Is he just a big slot receiver? In the Outback Bowl game against Auburn, he was shut down initially playing outside, and then dominated the game when he moved into the slot. A strider more than a sprinter, Johnson can get up to a good speed when he is given space, but needs to build up to it. He has good size, but only average athleticism. He also had some bad drops in big situations, though he is generally reliable. His ceiling might be a strong second option, meaning that the 49ers would have to trust Deebo Samuel as the number-one guy moving into the future (they should do that).

When to draft: Mid- to late-day three

Devin Duvernay (5'10 4/8", 200 pounds, Texas)

Pros:

Duvernay has speed for days. When he reaches top speed, there are very few who can keep up with him, giving him great RAC ability when combined with his thick stature. He has great hands, and astounding production, even in a conference that is all about the offense.

Cons:

Duvernay takes a minute to get up to his top speed, which makes his acceleration in and out of his breaks a little lacking. The slower acceleration limits him to more of a true deep threat option to only stretch defenses, although he has the potential to succeed in the short and intermediate areas of the field if he can increase his flexibility to increase that acceleration.

When to draft: Mid- to late-day three

Lynn Bowden (5'10 5/8", 204 pounds, Kentucky)

Pros:

He played quarterback in 2019 because Kentucky needed him to, but his best position is wide receiver. Bowden, above all else, is an elite athlete. His understanding of the entire play and how everything works together will be greater than most receivers due to his time at quarterback. This combination of athleticism and football IQ alone is enough to make him worthy of a mid- to late-round flyer.

Cons:

Bowden is very raw in his catching technique and route-running due to him taking the time to play quarterback. He is ultimately a developmental prospect with a high ceiling, but also a very low floor.

When to draft: Mid- to late-day three

Tyrie Cleveland (6'2 3/8", 209 pounds, Florida)

Pros:

Cleveland is a one-trick pony. He is a very fast receiver when running in a straight line. He is also a bit on the tall side for a speed threat, so maybe he’s a one-and-a-half trick pony?

Cons:

Cleveland, at this point, is just speed. He drops too many passes, and his work underneath and in the intermediate range leaves a lot to be desired. At this point, unless he completely turns the corner, he would merely be a deep threat option or a deep threat decoy used to open up something else underneath.

When to draft: Late day three or undrafted free agent

Quez Watkins (6'0 1/8", 185 pounds, Southern Miss)

Pros:

Watkins has strong hands and had good production as the top weapon for an explosive Southern Miss offense. He gets enough separation in his routes that good quarterbacks will feel comfortable throwing him the ball, which is impressive for a player from a non-power-five conference.

Cons:

Watkins is only an average athlete. He’s also not much of a threat to run after the catch. His ceiling is probably a Kendrick Bourne replacement, which is really only valuable if the 49ers decide that Kendrick Bourne is too expensive to bring back. He has value, but will not be a star.

When to draft: Late day three or undrafted free agent

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