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The NFL Draft And Drafting A Receiver

Finding a great receiver can be tough

NFL Draft Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Every year fans of NFL teams scour draft boards to come up with the best players available for their team. Sometimes they make blanket statements about prospects either good or bad. Fans argue back and forth over which player is right for their team and who they should pick with a long dissertation as to why.

That is the beauty of the NFL draft. You can have an opinion that is different from everyone else, but that opinion may be the closest to the actual outcome. Furthermore that prognostication could be exactly what happens and still could turn out to be one of the worst selections in your team’s history. It’s the proverbial perfection of being right while being wrong all at the same time.

I have scouted the draft for decades and I am far from being an expert on the draft, but I still do better than many teams. That includes the Jets, but a monkey throwing a dart at a list of prospects probably does better than many of our past GMs. If I had access to the type of college game film NFL teams have I think I could do even better.

Here are some of the things I have learned over the years.

NFL football is a dynamic sport. It changes over time, so you have to be aware of the trends as they change. A workhorse RB was the norm only a few years ago. If you didn’t have one you had little chance of succeeding. Now unless you have a Derrick Henry on your team, you most likely have a running back by committee approach.

Every team looked for that pocket QB with a rocket arm. Mobility was considered a liability, as once you moved the QB from his spot the percentage of quality plays dropped. Now teams look for the QB with mobility. The pocket passer is becoming a thing of the past.

The best defenses once played a simple system with quality players who forced an offense to beat them. Now every defense has multiple facets with packages of players for every situation. They rotate players continually to keep their players fresh. Defensive linemen who play 80% of the snaps are a rarity.

In the draft it is always difficult to project a QB into the NFL, which is understandable. The QB position needs the highest mental acuity, with the ability to process information quickly and act on the information immediately. The college game is much simpler without pro quality players on every level of the defense. College players are playing checkers and the pro players are playing chess. NFL defenses are so much more intricate compared to the college game. The speed of the players is greater but also the intuitive abilities of the pro players make the game far more challenging.

Surprisingly the second most difficult position to successfully draft is the wide receiver position. I wrote an article years ago on the bust rate for 1st round NFL receivers. I went back 15 years then looked at all the 1st round selections for 10 years, leaving a 5 year buffer between present day and the end of my study. Players develop at different rates so I gave the current batch of receivers 5 years to succeed.

What I found was that 45% of 1st round receivers didn’t live up to their draft status, and some were outright busts in the NFL. Not just ordinary players but actual busts for their teams. A player like Sammy Watkins, who was drafted with the 4th pick in the 2014 NFL draft by the Buffalo Bills, would not be considered a bust. Was he worth that pick? No, he was not, but he was still not considered a bust in my report.

I disdain taking a receiver in the first round not only because of the bust factor but the ability to find difference makers at other positions that could really help your team. If you have a WR who is head and shoulders above his peers in the last few years then I might consider a WR in round 1. This year’s crop of WRs has no player who fits that description. I am not near finishing my draft grades, but I find no receiver I would put in the top 15 of this draft and only a few in the last 5 years. Ja’Marr Chase was the highest ranked receiver in the last 6 seasons, I had him as my #3 player on my draft board. He is a natural receiver who does so many things right. He is an anomaly not the norm.

You see fans look at stats and analytics to figure where a player should be drafted. How well he does in contested situations, against zones or press coverage. The thing to remember is those stats were made against college DBs, not pro DBs. Remember, checkers and chess, it’s a different game. You figure a top receiver in college may play against two or three DBs a year who will be NFL players, not starters just players. The ability to play as a DB in the NFL is extremely difficult. The cornerback position in the NFL may be the most difficult skill to master. The difference in college to pro DBs may be larger than any position in football.

The NFL receiver position is also a niche position. You have slot receivers, possession receivers, vertical receivers, but the best receivers can do most all those things well. So your guy who is a deep threat may have a limited skill set to play in the NFL. If you are limited in the routes you can run it is easy for defenses to devise a scheme to stop you.

Look at all the top receivers in 2021. Adams- runs a variety of routes, Chase- the same, Jefferson- the same, Deebo Samuel- the same, Tyreek Hill- the same, Diggs, Lockett, Moore- the same. When you can run a wide variety of routes you are much more difficult to cover. Plus these players have the ability to take a short pass and turn it into a splash play.

This is not to imply that you should only have receivers that can run every type of route. In reality it is good to have some diversity in your receivers. Offense in the NFL sometimes is a game of matchups. If you have a mismatch with a certain defender then that is an advantage. Just don’t spend premium picks on a player with a limited route tree. Those players are sprinkled in many rounds of the draft.

In this draft I believe this is a fool’s draft for teams looking for wide receivers. I don’t have a single receiver right now after watching tape above the top 15 in the draft and that is very generous. I don’t know if I will have a receiver in the top 25 at the end of the draft process. Those who have Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave, Drake London, Jameson Williams (injury) and George Pickens (injury) ranked high are going to be disappointed with their abilities. I should mention that I am holding out hopes for Chris Olave as he has more upside than all these other receivers. Treylon Burks is my highest rated receiver right now because he is so physical, he can also run so many routes. He can be a deep threat with acrobatic abilities but also a guy running slants for first downs.

You might think I am crazy but no, I am right. You will still think I am crazy, ignore what I write. Then 5 years from now (like what has happened in the past) people will say they agreed with me. I haven’t finished my draft report but I don’t know if it will change much after the combine.

Take the 2021 NFL draft for instance

Amon-Ra St. Brown was a slot receiver from USC. He’s a shade under 6’ tall, ran a pedestrian time 4.51/40, nothing really special. Yet if you watched him play he was electric at times, with quick feet, running routes in all three zones of the defense. This is some of what I wrote about him in my draft guide

Amon-Ra is a quick footed route technician who can beat man coverage on breaking routes. His ability to explode out of breaks gets him separation from the stickiest coverage. He has great hands with an ability to win contested situations with great athleticism along with superior body control. He can be a demon on digs, whips, curls or out routes but also can run the seam, run a fly route or a fade in the end zone. Because of this he would be hell for a slot corner to cover out of the slot. He is a tough, tireless worker on his craft plus would be a strong voice in the locker room He has the potential to be a top 15 receiver in the league and the floor of a solid slot receiver.

He started the year out slow like many rookies do. Through 7 games he had only 33 receptions for 204 yards and zero TDs. Then slowly his QB started to find him, then he was found more regularly. By seasons end he had 90 receptions for 912 yards and 5 TDs. He caught 76% of his targets, he started only 9 games but led his team in receptions, yards and TD receptions. He also had 61 yards rushing and a rushing TD. Compared to all rookies he was 2nd in receptions, 3rd in receiving yards and 2nd in total yards. He ended the year tied for 15th most receptions in the NFL as a rookie.

I had him as my #63 player in the draft, he was selected in the 4th round #112 overall. His stats would have led the Jets in all (receptions, yards, TDs) categories.

You need to study the player, find out what he does well and what he does poorly. Don’t be influenced by stats, look at his skill set. Does he get separation, does he have quickness and agility, does he have quick feet, can he rotate his hips smoothly and quickly to not just make cuts but to explode out of breaks. How are his hands, does he catch the ball naturally like a kid in the backyard or does he fight every catch. Does he have great body control, does he have good contact balance. These are but a few things to look for. Speed is nice but not a major factor with some players. Being a great receiver is not easy, it takes a litany of skills to win in the NFL as a receiver.

Most fans don’t understand why I don’t have more receivers rated that high. It’s simple actually, because wide receiver is one of the hardest positions to play in the NFL and be dominant. This is especially true for outside receivers. Teams will look to stop the great receivers from every team; that’s why you need more than one great receiver and it could be argued that a prolific offense is only as good as it’s 3rd best receiver.

There were some great receivers from the 2014 draft like Mike Evans #7 or Odell Beckham #12 but the best receiver you could argue from that draft was Devante Adams who went at #53.

If you look at the top receivers in 2021 (in terms of yardage) only Justin Jefferson pick #22 and Ja’Marr Chase pick #5 (both from LSU) were 1st round picks. You have 1) Cooper Kupp (3rd round #69), 2) Justin Jefferson (1st round #22), 3) Davante Adams (2nd round #53), 4) Ja’Marr Chase (1st round #5), 5) Deebo Samuel (2nd round # 36), 6) Mark Andrews TE (3rd round #86) 7) Tyreek Hill (5th round #165), 8) Stefon Diggs (5th round #146), 9) Tyler Lockett (3rd round #69), 10) Diontae Johnson (3rd round #66). You could add Chris Godwin who finished 58 yards behind Diontae Johnson but missed 3 12 games due to injury. He was drafted in the 3rd round #84 overall.

My draft rankings of these players were different from the mainstream draft guys as many of them I believe just look at other scouts’ notes, then change them around a little bit. When I rank players it is done without concern for system. If I were scouting for a team I would tailor my draft report to mirror their scheme. For instance, if a team runs a man to man defense I would not have a zone corner rated high on my list no matter what. It is a completely different skill set so I possibly wouldn’t even have that player in my report.

Since great receivers are somewhat immune from system bias I feel that my grades are in line with most teams.

Cooper Kupp is an interesting story as I did extensive (maybe too much) research on him but I still didn’t find all the info I could have. Kupp went to Eastern Washington University so he wasn’t in a D1 program which hurt his draft status for most teams. Not for me because he played against both Sidney Jones (1st round talent) before his horrific knee injury and Marcus Peters (picked in the 1st round #17) and ate them both alive. Kupp ran 4.62/40 at the combine which really hurt his draft stock but not for me. But that is not the end of the story.

It turns out that Cooper Kupp’s dad was a fringe NFL player back in the day as an offensive lineman. He played with the Saints for a few years when they were dreadful as a franchise. Archie Manning was the QB back then, so Cooper Kupp’s dad kept in touch with the Manning family over the years. When Cooper Kupp was a senior in high school he went to a passing camp being run by Peyton Manning for young college receivers

One of the observers there was Les Snead, who is now the GM of the LA Rams. There were numerous QBs and WRs there but when Snead asked Peyton Manning (who was still in the NFL at the time) who he wanted to throw to he pointed at Cooper Kupp which nearly floored Snead. Why would Peyton Manning want to throw to a high school kid?

Snead watched closely as Kupp put on a show catching everything that Peyton threw. It was a memorable moment for Snead, so when Kupp ran 4.62/40 at the combine, he and Sean McVay were looking at the draft board. They knew they had a star they could wait until at least the 3rd round to select.

I had no idea about any of this, all I had was some tape and my research which showed Kupp as a high character player. I wrote the following in my draft report which is just some of what is written about Kupp. This comes directly from my draft guide.

Kupp is a highly productive receiver who ran a slow time at the combine; just like Jarvis Landry. It hasn’t seemed to bother Landry much and I think it won’t bother Kupp either. Kupp is an incredibly competitive baller who will be just fine in the NFL. He is a natural wide receiver who catches everything thrown his way and has subtleties that few players ever learn. Don’t be fooled by 40 times; this kid will be an excellent, highly targeted #2 receiver and be a chain mover of the highest degree. He is uber confident and as competitive as they come, God help us if Tom Brady gets him, he might not ever retire.

My draft positions on players tells how much I despise rating receivers high (top 10 ) since you need a unique skill set as a receiver to be a game changer. Many thought Tavon Austin was a top 10 prospect; he wasn’t. DeAndre Hopkins was in that same draft and went at #27 to Houston. I had Hopkins rated much higher than Austin who I felt was merely a gadget player. Selecting Hopkins at the bottom of the 1st round is a steal but 26 other franchises didn’t think so.

I have never revealed my draft positions on certain players to anyone who doesn’t get my draft report but here it goes on a few of these players. These are not the entirety of the report but a couple of paragraphs. By the way I had Kupp as the #46 player on my draft board but he was selected at #69, almost a full round ahead of that. I still under-valued him despite my best efforts.

Diontae Johnson was drafted #66 in 2019 and I had him as the #112 player in the draft. Johnson was a tough nut to crack as he was always a great player but he is smaller than you would like and the film on Toledo games was hard to come by. Yet I have no excuses he just out-performed my draft position, it helped that he went to the Steelers who needed receivers and had a Hall of Fame QB for him. Here is some of my draft report:

Johnson is an elusive playmaker who is smooth in and out of breaks and has a natural ability to find his way through traffic. He is not exceptionally fast but he has quick feet, he can stop on a dime and go in the opposite direction with fluidity. He is a student of the game who often scouts himself on film to see how he can improve what he does. He’s also a game film junkie who works on ways to beat off man and press coverages of upcoming opponents. He is a special teams maven who was the MAC special teams player of the year. He has returned two punts + kickoffs back for TDs during his three years in Toledo. He had a huge year in 2017 with Logan Woodside as his QB (1,278 yards and 13 TDs) but regressed this year (761 yards and 8 TDs) because of poor QB play. He has excellent acceleration off the line which allows him to eat up cushion and get to the toes of the CB before he has a chance to adjust. He is an excellent talent on bubble screens and reverses as he has patience to allow blocks to form and the vision to find open lanes in the defense. Not a hammer as a blocker but does an effective job of walling off defenders.

Deebo Samuel was drafted at #36 in the 2019 draft, I had him as the 43rd player in the draft. He was a do it all player at S. Carolina so it was fortunate for him that he had a coach like Kyle Shanahan who could take advantage of his talents. Part of my report read

Samuel is a tough, hard nosed kid with intense desire with good speed and route running ability. He is out off the line quick, he will catch DB’s napping, he runs a full route tree all over the field. He is a gamer, built like a fire hydrant, is fearless and will travel anywhere there is a possibility of a reception. Across the middle, down the seam, in between two safeties, he doesn’t care. He is a YAC master who loves to catch the ball in stride and just take off. He makes highlight reel catches, with good technique, ball away from his body, palms up or just one hand a wild throw. He had good numbers besides having poor QB play, taking slants, exploding by defenders. He played special teams and had 4 kick off returns for TDs; he has very good vision to increase yardage in open field. He is not a burner but has good speed and can find the soft spots in zones and sit down. He will work back to the football to increase catch %.

Just because I distain drafting WRs early in the draft doesn’t mean I don’t believe in it. I believe in it only in specific situations. That player has to be a special player like many of the players selected at the top of the draft. There are some players you know are special. Randy Moss was like that for me. If you were to genetically make a wide receiver in a lab it would be Randy Moss. Yet there are many other players who don’t resemble Randy Moss who can be special in the NFL. Ja’Marr Chase was just that kind of receiver. I was effusive in my praise for Chase even though I normally would be passive on a WR, Chase was different. Chase was drafted #5 overall and I had him as the #3 prospect in the draft.

Chase is a fluid, competitive, electric receiver who can make plays at each level of the defense. He has a lean build that is stronger than given credit for. His record setting season saw him beat every CB or scheme thrown his way. He is football fast, always seems to be just faster than the man chasing him. He has amazing body control that can adjust to any throw and make it look easy. He is a contested catch demon with great timed leaping ability plus superior hands to snatch balls away from DBs. He is quick off the line, has quick feet but also a powerful body that shrugs off press coverage. He is a man on a mission when running a route, gets through traffic to find a soft spot in a zone, sets up man coverage always finds a way to get open. He never goes down easy, broke 22 tackles in 2019and always picks up a few extra yards even when tackled by more than 1 man. He has great nuanced moves that gets a defender leaning the wrong way he then explodes open the opposite way. He is the ultimate X receiver even though he can play any WR position. Averaged over 21 yards a catch + had 20 TDs which was a SEC record at 19years old. He had 84 receptions but only 5 that were screen passes. He is a first down machine with many routes run into the teeth of the defense on digs and slants. He will stack any CB and then make the tough catch. He eats man coverage alive, so quick and powerful. He is truly a receiver with innate talent, he was born to play football.

Chis Godwin was a favorite of mine coming from Penn State. That is a unique stance as I rarely look at Penn State receivers in a positive light. Penn State usually has a solid offensive line with some workhorse running backs. They usually have a stingy defense with a run oriented offense that leaves receivers many times in advantageous situations. Chris Godwin was different as a player, he was able to win on his own.

Godwin went in the third round #84 to the Tampa Bay Bucs which I thought at the time was a steal. I had Godwin as my #43 player, three spots ahead of Cooper Kupp.

Godwin is a fast, strong, alpha receiver with good size to be a well rounded threat. He was ranked 20thin the nation as a deep threat with 14 rec for 504 yards and 7 TDs. He was as effective on post routes catching 10 of 13 targets for 330 yards and two scores. He is a physical force, muscling CBs off the line to get open, then shielding them from the ball with his body. He is also a physical blocker in the run game against safeties and LBs. He was 10th among all WRs in blocking grades in 2016.

Godwin has the skill set now to be a starting #2 receiver on many teams right now. He is not explosive but he has skills to move the chains and challenge CBs and safeties deep. With some NFL coaching he should improve in a number of areas and be an even more dangerous threat. He did some great things in 2016 with almost no other weapons around him and poor QB play; unless he goes to Cleveland or the Jets he should get higher quality play from his QB and helping teammates.

Sorry about that last part but it was true at the time. Sadly in the time since it’s still true about the Jets but not so much the Browns.

These are all top receivers in the NFL in 2021, but few were taken in the first round. Since 2013 these are the receivers taken in the 1st round;

You had players who disappointed, Tavon Auustin #8, Sammy Watkins #4, Kevin White (who was a favorite of many Jet fans) #7, Corey Coleman #15, Josh Doctson (I laughed hard at that selection) #22, Laquon Treadwell #23, Corey Davis #5, John Ross #9, Henry Ruggs #12, N’Keal Harry #32, Jalen Reagor #21. All early round selections teams wish they had back.

During that same time you had

Players who exceeded their draft status; Mike Evans #7, Odell Beckham #12, Amari Cooper #4, D. J. Moore #24, Calvin Ridley #26, DeAndre Hopkins #27, Cordarelle Patterson #29, Brandon Cooks #20, Mike Williams #7, Marquise Brown #25, Jerry Jeudy #15, CeeDee Lamb #17, Justin Jefferson #22.

You also had DeVante Parker #14, Nelson Agholor #20, Breshad Perriman #26, Phillip Dorsett #29, Kelvin Benjamin #28, Will Fuller #21, Brandon Aiyuk (so far) #25 who were slightly less than their draft status.

So you have 31 wide receivers selected between 2013 and 2020 and you have 13 that met or exceeded their draft status with Mike Williams a question mark included. That is a 42% success rate being selected in the first round. Of those only 3 were selected in the top ten with Mike Williams included in that count as well; he is borderline. Meanwhile you had 5 players selected in the top 10 that were all out busts. That is a 62.5% bust rate for top 10 selected receivers.

I was also being kind here as you could easily put Williams in the players who were slightly under their draft status and also add Perriman, Dorsett, Benjamin and Fuller to the bust list making that 15 of 31 WR whose teams would like a do over.

The point here is buyer beware when drafting a receiver in the 1st round. Just because someone does well in college doesn’t mean it translates to the NFL. Everyone wants a game breaking receiver because they help your team and they are so hard to find. Our list shows that in the last 8 years previous to 2021 there has been only two game breaking type receivers in the NFL drafted in the top 10.

This is exactly what I was writing about earlier to be aware of the trends as they change. The days of the Calvin Johnson or Julio Jones type receivers leading the way are coming to an end. Defenses are realizing that if they can play two deep safeties while still stopping the run then they can force an offense to drive the length of the field. The more plays it takes to move down the field the more chances a defense has to force a mistake, turnover, penalty or force a punt.

Teams have figured this out. That is why fewer and fewer receivers are selected in the top 10 of the 1st round. Unless someone does something extraordinary at the combine I doubt a receiver will be selected in the top 10 of this current draft. Right now I don’t have any wide receivers in my top 15 players for this draft. That could change as more information becomes available but it doesn’t seem that way.

Instead of looking for WRs at the top of the draft, look for value in later rounds. You might be pleasantly surprised by the results. A player like a Calvin Austin III is a game changing type receiver who is diminutive but still can play anywhere as a receiver. He is near impossible to cover one on one and he has elite speed and quickness. He is a 3rd round type talents as of now but he should outperform his draft status. Jahan Dotson is a similar player but will probably go in the late 1st early 2nd round area, though things can change at the combine or pro days. It only takes one team to fall in love with a player to change the expectations. These type players can gain quick separation, making 10-15 yard chunk plays, on occasion breaking off a huge run after the catch. They are what I term as “YAC monsters,” forcing defenders to tackle a fast, agile player. The more space they have the greater the chance of making a splash play.

You still need vertical threats to open the defense up. The Jets currently have Corey Davis, Denzel Mims or Jeff Smith as deep threats that teams will have to be wary about. They will open the defense vertically so there is more room for other players take advantage of. Of course the Jets will still try to take deep shots when they think they have an opening. The vertical receivers are vital to the offense. I just propose not spending huge amounts of draft capital on them.

When you do this you can use your highest value picks for other areas of your team. An offensive guard or tackle, a safety or a 3 down linebacker could play every down on their side of the ball. With a strong offensive line now the running game is a worry for the defense, more worries for the defense means more opportunities for an offense.

I could go on and on but I hope you see my point. The Jets have a lot of holes with not nearly enough picks to fix them all even if they draft perfectly. They need to use their assets as efficiently and wisely as possible.

That’s what I think.

What do you think?