Ranking The Receivers
Pity Kain Colter.
The former Northwestern quarterback picked an unimaginably bad year to try to enter the NFL as a converted wide receiver. There has never been a wide receiver class as deep in talented prospects.
Sixteen of my top 100 prospects are receivers (and another five are tight ends, two of whom really are supersized receivers). Seven receivers could go in the first round, which would be the highest first-round total since 2004, when seven were taken: Larry Fitzgerald (No. 3), Roy Williams (7), Reggie Williams (9), Lee Evans (13), Michael Clayton (15), Michael Jenkins (29), Rashaun Woods (31).
Obviously, there's a big difference between quantity and quality. The best crop of first-round talent taken in any draft this century was 2010's, when only two receivers went in the first round: Demaryius Thomas (22) and Dez Bryant (24).
There are plenty of years when there are more misses than hits, even in the first round. Take 2005, when Braylon Edwards, Troy Williamson, Mike Williams, Matt Jones and Mark Clayton all were taken before Atlanta grabbed Roddy White at No. 27.
Perhaps the 2009 draft gave us the most top-to-bottom strong crop of first-round receivers: Darius Heyward-Bey (7), Michael Crabtree (10), Jeremy Maclin (19), Percy Harvin (22), Hakeem Nicks (29), Kenny Britt (30). Of course, Crabtree and Maclin are the only two who will play the 2014 season for the team that drafted them. But they've all had varying degrees of success in their careers.
All this forces us to acknowledge what we already know: not every receiver taken in the first round in 2014 is going to make it big at the next level. Still, 30 or receivers will go in this draft. And the group is so top-heavy with talent, you have guys like Paul Richardson, Brandon Coleman, Allen Robinson, Martavis Bryant, Bruce Ellington, Robert Herron, Jeremy Gallon, Jared Abbrederis and Jalen Saunders who can't even crack the top 10.
1. Sammy Watkins, Clemson: One play does not make a prospect. But you can pick out any one of couple dozen plays and use it as a microcosm of everything everyone loves about Watkins. Take the 75-yard touchdown against Georgia. He ran a sharp in route, creating a significant area of space to catch the ball. He had to reach back to snare a ball thrown behind his back shoulder; he made the catch with his hands, then used the momentum of having to turnaround to redirect himself upfield. Watkins took two strides, lowered his shoulder and a Georgia defender bounced right off him, His burst then allowed him to get far enough ahead of the Georgia secondary; they chased but didn't catch him until the goal line, and he held them off until he was in the end zone. You see everything you want to see in one play: hands, body control, physicality, burst, straightaway speed. Watkins is the best prospect at the deepest position in the draft, and he is by far the most NFL-ready receiver. Other guys may take years before their impact is felt; Watkins is a playmaker from the get-go as a pro.
2. Odell Beckham Jr., LSU: There is something to like a lot about the next 10-12 receivers on the list. And there's something not to like about each one. Someone has to be second to Watkins, and Beckham separated himself in my eyes for three reasons: 1) He catches the ball, not just the automatic ones but the contested balls; he plays a lot bigger than the 5-foot-11, 198 pounds he checked in at during the Combine; 2) Beckham will be a big YAC guy in the NFL; he'll make plays after the catch, knifing his way through traffic to extend the gain; 3) He's a special special teams player; he's a long strider with 4.43 speed, good acceleration and an elusiveness that you find in much smaller players.
3. Mike Evans, Texas A&M: There is a big part of the Johnny Football legend that will always belong to Mike Evans. Almost invariably, on those plays that Johnny Manziel magically kept alive, the ball ended up in Evans' hands. He was the ultimate sidekick, always there at the right moment to bail out his guy. Without Evans catching those desperation throws, Johnny Manziel is a skinny, undersized runaround quarterback getting ready for his junior season of college football. So we know what Evans is -- a huge (6-5, 231) target who makes big plays and catches everything thrown his way. But there's a ton we haven't seen Evans do. He has not shown the ability to separate consistently (he's always open after Manziel runs around for six seconds). He has shown neither a burst or straightahead speed that will help him be the breakaway threat he was in college. And, let's face it, he didn't do a ton of work between the numbers. Indisputably, Evans is one of the most promising receiver prospects we've seen in recent years. But he's going to have to earn his catches more at the next level, and that could take a couple of seasons before he learns how to do that as a professional.
4. Marqise Lee, USC: A year ago, Lee was considered the top receiver prospect in this class, almost universally. He didn't so much regress in 2013 as underperform, undermined by injuries and, of all things, the departure of Matt Barkley. He's still a terrific talent, who may be the best route runner in this class. Lee can line up outside and be a vertical threat, or he can play in the slot and use his quickness and understanding of coverage schemes to get open all over the field. Like Watkins and Beckham, he's going to be dangerous with the ball in the open field. Unlike those top two receiver prospects, though, Lee isn't a physical receiver. You can't help but wonder whether the injuries that plagued him in 2013 are the type that will dog him throughout his pro career, too.
5. Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt: What am I missing here? Seriously, I can't figure out what people don't like about Matthews. He's a big (6-3, 212), strong (21 bench press reps at the Combine), with big, soft hands. He became the all-time leading receiver in SEC history without ever playing with one of the league's premier quarterbacks. He's related to Jerry Rice, for crying out loud. I watched Matthews all season and saw him make catches all over the field -- across the middle, downfield, along the sidelines, in traffic. Is he dynamic after the catch like some of the others in this class? No, and I can see that being preceived as a limitation. But if there's an Anquan Boldin type possession receiver in this draft, it's Matthews.
6. Brandin Cooks, Oregon State: Hands down, the top pure slot receiver in the draft. Cooks probably was a borderline first-rounder before the Combine, but he impressed everyone in Indianapolis with his athleticism. He put up the best 40 time (4.33), the best short shuttle and the best 60-yard shuttle among all receivers, and even showed has decent size for a slot (5-10, 186). What's most impressive about Cooks is how he manages to play at full-speed in all areas of the game. He explodes out of his cuts, has an easy acceleration that gets him to a higher gear as well as any receiver available.
7. Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State: It's impossible not to compare Benjamin to Evans, as they are the two premier big receivers in the draft. Evans has his issues with separation, Benjamin has his issues with drops. You wouldn't know it from the way he played in the BCS Championship game, when he demonstrated the dimensions he will bring to an NFL offense -- he's a huge (6-4, 240) target to be utilized on third down and in red zone situations. He will win jump balls all day long, and will be an imposing matchup for a ton of NFL cornerbacks. Evans is considered the better prospect if for no reason other than he catches everything. Benjamin, though, is the better route-runner, may have an easier time getting separation, and might just be the better all-around receiver coming into the draft.
8. Davante Adams, Fresno State: More than any other receiver in the top 10, Adams remains somewhat of an enigma to me. I see a guy with decent size (6-1, 212), above average speed, average hands -- in other words, a guy who doesn't seem like he'd be an elite receiver at the next level. But all he does is catch everything that comes his way. Yes, we must acknowledge that he could very well be a beneficiary of the system he played at Fresno State. And he's the only receiver among the top 20 this year who played with one of the three best QB prospects in this draft. Still, having a ton of balls thrown at you doesn't mean you're going to make a ton of catches. But Adams did -- very quietly, he had 233 receptions, 3,030 receiving yards and 38 touchdowns the past two seasons. I see nothing that would suggest he'll stop making plays when he gets to the next level.
9. Jarvis Landry, LSU: Beckham was not the only LSU receiver to compile a highlight reel of impressive catches. Landry was every bit as reliable, had moments where he was every bit as sensational, was just as productive as Beckham. He lacks the quickness and the elusiveness that Beckham has, and his Combine measurables pale in comparison to Beckham's (Landry ran a 4.77 and registered only 12 reps on the bench). In reality, that gap isn't quite so great. Landry is a legitimate second-round talent who is going to make plays for and bring toughness to whichever team is lucky enough to grab him.
10. Donte Moncrief, Mississippi: Last summer, I expected we'd see more production out of Moncrief than we wound up seeing in 2013. In fact, I was expecting Moncrief to have the kind of season that Laquon Treadwell enjoyed as a true freshman. It took me awhile to recognize that Moncrief hadn't necessarily regressed as a receiver. He just didn't compare favorably to Treadwell, who looks like he could be a potentially elite receiver prospect down the road, in much the same way as he doesn't compare to Watkins or Beckham. It wasn't until I started looking at Moncrief in direct comparison to Allen Robinson that I gained an appreciation for what Moncrief does well. He's got top-end speed (4.40 at the Combine) that makes him a legitimate vertical threat. He's big (6-2, 222) and quick off the line, which will make difficult to press and disrupt. He can be tenacious in jump ball situations, even though he gets lost in traffic sometimes. Someone is going to see Moncrief as a guy whose upside is as a No. 1. receiver, and he'll be off the board before the end of Round 2.