When Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr., Brandin Cooks, and Kelvin Benjamin were all selected in the first round of last year’s NFL draft, it became clear that the 2014 wide receiver class was loaded. Even then, though, few realized just how loaded it would prove to be: Evans, Beckham Jr., and Benjamin each topped 1,000 receiving yards, while Watkins finished just shy of that mark, with 977 yards. Even less-heralded rookies who’d gone in later rounds kept pace, with Philly’s Jordan Matthews (813 yards), Miami’s Jarvis Landry (758 yards), and Arizona’s John Brown (696 yards) excelling, and three rookies finishing among Jacksonville’s top four receivers.
That historic impact has colored the landscape ahead of tonight’s draft, when numerous teams will select receivers from a crop that’s being advertised as the worthy successor to last year’s crew. As many as seven or eight receivers could hear their names called tonight, and while none of this year’s prospects is of the same caliber as Watkins, Evans, or ODB Jr., this remains a strong and deep class composed of technicians and freaky athletes alike. Here’s a breakdown of my top six wide receiver prospects, plus two sleeper picks.
1. Kevin White
Less than two years after joining West Virginia as a three-star recruit out of Lackawanna junior college, White wowed the scouting community into “Who’s that guy?” exclamations by torching Alabama’s secondary in the 2014 season opener. West Virginia fans had an answer: That’s a G.A.M., or grown-ass man, their term of endearment for White and his abrasive style of play. After putting up a pedestrian 35 catches for 507 yards in his first year of FBS play, White campaigned for a larger role and promptly broke out in 2014, ripping off nine 100-yard receiving games, including seven straight. He seemed to be unguardable for most of the season, and even when he was being covered, it rarely mattered.
The same confidence that led White to all but predict his own breakout has been on display again this offseason. He silenced those questioning his straight-ahead speed by posting a 4.35 40-yard dash, then delivered a highly entertaining appearance on ESPN’s First Take that would have made Hulk Hogan proud. “What did I do against the SEC? Whatever I wanted. Played Alabama, did what I wanted,” White said. “I wish I would’ve played LSU so I could’ve done what I wanted [against them], too.” White also referred to his seven-catch, 129-yard, one-touchdown performance against Texas A&M as “bombs over Baghdad.”
Still, he carries some question marks. Though he has all the tools teams covet and boasts a game that will clearly translate to the next level, White has a much smaller career sample and much rawer style of play than Amari Cooper, his primary competition for the top ranking.
Athleticism: White’s freaky. His pSPARQ score — a metric based on the Nike “Speed, Power, Agility, Reaction, and Quickness” training score that Pete Carroll helped develop and that the Seahawks are believed to use in their scouting process — puts him in the 90th percentile of all NFL receivers, and his athletic web is just as impressive as that ranking:
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Where he wins: In college, White won vertically and on short routes after the catch, but he has the potential to eventually win everywhere. We all know he can win with the jump ball, but he was also very effective against press coverage. In the GIF below, White not only got Oklahoma defensive back Zack Sanchez’s feet moving enough to create a free release, he also then did an excellent job of “stacking” Sanchez by getting back over the top of the DB before using his straight-line speed to pull away:
White is dynamic after the catch, too, combining a few moves and good overall quickness with noteworthy power:
He’s also a willing blocker, though given his strength, he drew a few too many holding penalties at WVU. But when White locks up a defender — as in the GIF below of him tossing aside Kansas linebacker and projected fourth- or fifth-round draft pick Ben Heeney — look out:
That’s grown-ass-man stuff.
Weaknesses: White has barely played football, period, let alone spent substantial time at the receiver position. He didn’t commit fully to the sport until late in high school, and he suffered through injuries and sporadic playing time in junior college before West Virginia took a chance on him as a three-star recruit with a nice frame. Because of that limited experience, no part of his game is as polished as Cooper’s.
What’s more, while White was a downfield threat for the Mountaineers, his routes were basic: hitches, curls, posts, and go patterns. Wherever he lands, he’s going to need a crash course on playing the position at an NFL level. It’s also fair to wonder about the sudden nature of his production in college. He lit up Alabama, but last year’s Tide defensive backs were subpar by Bama standards, and White’s production faded toward the end of the regular season, as WVU suffered through injuries at quarterback and teams focused their coverage on White. The Mountaineers’ coaches didn’t move White around to engineer touches like Alabama’s coaches did with Cooper, but a truly dominant and more polished college receiver would have found ways to get open.
Bottom line: The team that drafts White will quickly realize he’s currently more clay than sculpture, but given his tools and production, he should develop into an extremely dangerous weapon.
2. Amari Cooper
Cooper is smooth. He became Alabama’s leading receiver as a true freshman and never gave up the title, appearing to play the position effortlessly while shaking defenders, snagging the ball out of the air, and juking would-be tacklers. What truly made him a rare breed among college receivers, though, was the nuance with which he ran his routes and set up defensive backs, plus his ability to stack multiple breaks and moves into one seamless route.
Athleticism: Cooper’s athleticism isn’t poor, but with a pSPARQ score that puts him in the 68th percentile of NFL receivers, he’ll have to out-technique his opponents to consistently win in the NFL.
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Where he wins: Cooper was a big-play threat at Alabama, but he’ll make his money in the NFL on short and intermediate routes where his grace, technique, and leverage will help him create space.
Although Cooper occasionally committed costly drops at Alabama, he has naturally gifted hands. Plus, body control is one of the most underrated skills for a receiver, and Cooper’s will let him come down with contested catches.
Weaknesses: Cooper is a complete receiver and has no glaring weaknesses in his game, and that’s why he’s rightfully considered a safer pick than White. Still, there are questions. College defensive backs were no match for Cooper, but how will he fare against gifted and physical NFL corners like Patrick Peterson, Darrelle Revis, or Richard Sherman? That may seem like an absurd standard, but it’s the litmus test for a potential top-five pick. Against top-tier NFL corners, Cooper will have to win with power as well as finesse, and he’s rarely shown that ability on film.
Bottom line: Cooper was the best receiver in college football last season, and if I ran a team that needed to play today, he’s easily the receiver prospect I’d pick. I’m ranking White over Cooper because of that dreaded P-word — potential — but even though Cooper is not the physical specimen White is, he should still be extremely productive in the NFL.
3. DeVante Parker
Though Parker is by no means a perfect prospect, he still might be underrated. He was Teddy Bridgewater’s favorite target during their joint Louisville days, and last season, Parker returned from the injury that cost him the first half of the season and ripped off five 100-yard receiving performances in six games despite occasionally woeful quarterback play.
Athleticism: Parker doesn’t quite warrant the “freak” label like White, but at 6-3, 209 pounds, he’s a unique athlete with pSPARQ scores in the 76th percentile and a well-rounded athletic web:
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Where he wins: Though he’s not particularly polished, Parker is built like a classic do-everything wideout. If he properly develops, he should be able to win everywhere on the field, whether by banging with the big bodies against zones or beating corners in press-man. He’s pretty good after the catch, too:
Weaknesses: Parker isn’t a blazer, and in addition to concerns about his pure speed, his biggest issues are technique and refinement. Parker relies on his natural ability as much as any receiver in the draft, but he’ll have to become far more precise with his releases and routes in the NFL.
Bottom line: Parker isn’t as graceful or as sure-handed as Beckham, but I wouldn’t be shocked if he matches ODB’s feat of delivering a better rookie year than the guys picked ahead of him.
4. Nelson Agholor
Outside of Cooper, Agholor is the smoothest receiver in the draft. He was a big-time five-star recruit, and while it took him a little time to come into his own, he finished his USC career with a great understanding of the holes in zone coverage and of how to set up man defenders — not to mention more than a few big plays.
Athleticism: Agholor isn’t a great athlete, ranking in just the 50th percentile of NFL receivers in pSPARQ, though the player comp generated by his athletic web is Reggie Wayne, at a 98 percent match:
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Where he wins: In college, Agholor tended to win in the slot on quick routes and with shifty runs after the catch, doing both as well as any receiver in the draft. That’s why he projects as an instant-impact slot receiver, but I have him this high because I think he can also develop as an outside receiver. Agholor’s body control is top-notch, which isn’t always noted in the traditional prospect measurements, and at USC he delivered a number of big plays on the outside, where he played more often before 2014:
Weaknesses: Agholor is used to winning with finesse rather than power, which will limit his ability to line up on the outside and win one-on-one. He’s capable of powering up, as the above clips show, but that part of his game remains a work in progress, and I fear that he, like Cooper, may struggle early in his career against physical corners who want to push him around.
Bottom line: There’s a lot to like about Agholor’s game. Still, even though I rank him fourth, I wouldn’t take him before the end of the first round, and then only for a team with a need at slot that could ease him into a role on the outside.
5. Dorial Green-Beckham
DGB was as hyped as any receiver recruit of the last decade, earning offers from so many college programs that hometown coach Gary Pinkel had to woo the blue-chipper with a helicopter to seal the deal for Missouri. DGB had two promising but mercurial seasons with the Tigers before a series of legal disputes led to his suspension and eventual dismissal, and though he transferred to Oklahoma, he failed to earn a waiver from the NCAA and had to sit out the 2014 season. He’s one of the toughest evaluations in this draft.
The narrative surrounding Green-Beckham is that he presents the dilemma of talent versus character. But while there’s no denying DGB’s potential, his game raises a lot of questions as well.
Athleticism: Many have compared DGB to Calvin Johnson, and given Green-Beckham’s 6-5, 237-pound frame, I get it. But here’s Green-Beckham’s athletic web:
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And here’s Johnson’s:
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Green-Beckham isn’t Johnson. Further, DGB’s pSPARQ score puts him in only the 48th percentile of NFL receivers. When I watch him on film, I don’t see a fluid receiver who’s clean in and out of his breaks.
Where he wins: Unsurprisingly, given his size and range, Green-Beckham’s strength is as a red-zone monster. No college and very few NFL defensive backs can reasonably match DGB’s size and strength with the ball in the air, meaning there’s every reason to believe the wideout can do this at the next level:
Weaknesses: He’s very raw. DGB had a total of three 100-yard receiving games in two years and rarely accelerated in and out of his breaks or set up defenders with his routes. There were murmurs that he developed nicely while sitting out last year at Oklahoma, and that he overmatched the Sooners’ DBs in practice, but we don’t have any evidence of him doing that during games.
Bottom line: Green-Beckham is obviously supremely talented, and he’ll immediately become a go-to red zone threat in the pros. But until the rest of his game catches up to his size, he’ll merely be a novelty piece — a valuable novelty piece, but a novelty piece all the same. If I could get comfortable with his off-field red flags — admittedly no easy task — I’d have no issue drafting him in the second round and letting him develop, but I doubt he’ll actually slip that far.
6. Jaelen Strong
Like White, Strong is a former juco player who was hyper-productive at the Division I level, in his case racking up more than 2,200 receiving yards in two seasons at Arizona State. He’s explosive on the field, frequently makes contested catches, and he’s a load for opposing defenders to bring down.
Athleticism: Strong looks the part of a top receiver, as he’s another one of the rare height/weight/speed players who make this wideout class so intriguing.
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His pSPARQ score puts him in the 76th percentile of NFL receivers, just ahead of Parker, though Strong loses points for his low three-cone drill score. That limitation shows up on film, as he sometimes struggles to transition in and out of breaks.
Where he wins: He’s a man when the ball is in the air and surprisingly effective after the catch, but his future in the NFL is likely as a slot receiver, because I don’t see him winning consistently on the outside.
Weaknesses: My big issue with Strong — and it’s a very big one — is that it’s rare to see him create separation against tight coverage. Despite his physical tools, he had a surprising amount of trouble with press-man coverage at ASU. For example, Strong had a hard time getting open against Washington corner and likely first-round pick Marcus Peters when the two matched up:
This flaw is going to seriously cap Strong’s production at the next level, forcing him into a specialized role in the slot. On the right team, he could still be a weapon in that capacity, but I wouldn’t want to spend a first-round pick on a receiver with that profile.
Bottom line: Strong feels more like a second-round slot receiver than a first-round stud, though if his upside is limited to being a faster Marques Colston, that’s not too shabby.
Sleepers: Tre McBride and Tyler Lockett
McBride is one of the most intriguing players in the draft. The more I watched him, the more I liked. And though he played his college ball at FCS school William & Mary, his physical tools are clearly NFL-caliber, as his pSPARQ score placed him in the 85th percentile of NFL receivers, and his athletic web is equally impressive:
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McBride’s college production was good but not spectacular, though he played in a somewhat pedestrian offense and lacked a great QB. When he did go against FBS competition, he looked like he belonged:
While McBride doesn’t always create massive separation, he has plenty of potential to do so at the next level after getting some time to work on his craft, and with a projected draft spot of the third or fourth round, he can be a tremendous value pick.
Kansas State product Lockett, meanwhile, is in many ways McBride’s polar opposite. Both his father, Kevin (a second-round draft pick), and his uncle Aaron (a seventh-round pick) played for Bill Snyder at K-State before the younger Lockett did, and Tyler put up massive production at the FBS level, twice earning Big 12 all-conference honors. After he torched his opponents, some told Lockett they were happy he was graduating. The problem is that Lockett, unlike McBride, doesn’t have prototypical NFL tools.
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Still, Lockett is a receiver’s receiver, and he put up gaudy stats despite playing in a run-first offense with few other complementary weapons and at-times appalling QB play. He’s one of the best technicians in the draft, which he proved when he absolutely torched Chargers 2013 first-round draft pick Jason Verrett in their college matchup:
With his slight stature and smallish hands, Lockett appears destined to be a late-round draft choice. But he adds value as a crafty returner, and on the right team he should be able to help move the chains from day one.
For a long time, conventional wisdom held that receivers took a few years to develop, and that the wideouts picked near the top of the draft carried a nasty bust rate1 because of the physical and mental demands of playing receiver in the NFL. But last year’s rookie class appeared to obliterate those concerns, and the position should continue to produce sterling talents now that college teams are using three or four receivers on every play, year-round 7-on-7 camps are leaving prospects as polished as ever, and schools are increasingly emphasizing the passing game.
The 2015 wide receiver draft class exemplifies this trend, boasting numerous physical marvels and future stars. Of course, as always, there will also be some busts. The trick is figuring out which players will be which.