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A good Nabers, but not a great one: A draft profile on wide receiver Malik Nabers

Taking a look at one of the top wide receiver prospects in the 2024 NFL draft

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After a 7-10 season, the New York Jets hold the 10th overall pick in the 2024 NFL draft. As has been their usual this decade, their defense was superb, while their offense was superb to watch for fans of their opponents. With that in mind, the general expectation is that the Jets will take an offensive player with their first pick in the draft.

One player that has been mentioned for the Jets is LSU wide receiver Malik Nabers. Looking at Nabers’ counting stats from this season gives a clear idea as to why.

  • Catches: 89
  • Yards: 1,569
  • Touchdowns: 14
  • Targets: 128 (catch rate of 69.5%)

Overall, Nabors was heavily featured in the LSU offense, and he was pretty successful when featured. That’s a really strong starting point for a prospect. Beyond that, this wasn’t a one-year success story, as Nabersended his time at LSU as their all-time leading receiver, even surpassing top tier NFL wideouts like Justin Jefferson and Jamarr Chase.

Moving on to his size, Nabers reportedly measured at 6’0 200 pounds. College measurements are usually a bit exaggerated, so I’d wager Nabors probably measures in more like 5’10 to 5’11 and 180 to 190 pounds, which is still a perfectly fine size. Even if he is a little undersized on his official measurements, that’s completely fine because Nabors also runs a 4.44, and he looks like he runs even faster than that (and I would actually expect him to run more like a 4.35 at the NFL combine despite the current estimates).

Many of the underlying analytics this season from PFF also adore Malik Nabors, which explains why they rank him as their 4th overall prospect in the draft.

  • PFF receiving grade: 93.1 (~ 100th percentile)
  • Yards per route run: 3.64 (~ 100th percentile)
  • Grade v. man coverage: 90.5 (~100th percentile)
  • Deep catches: 19 (2nd in NCAA)
  • Missed tackles force: 30 (4th in NCAA)
  • Deep yards: 624 (4th in NCAA)
  • Slot yards: 991 (6th in NCAA)

However, not all the analytics love him. Using PFF we could point to data like this:

  • Drop rate: 5.3% (~70th percentile) on 5 drops
  • Yards after catch/reception: 6.6 (tied for 100th in NCAA)
  • Contested catch rate: 45.5% (~50th percentile)

Then there’s the larger issue that I see with Nabers. There are a lot of questions I noted about his skillset when I watch the tape.

First, and in line with that contested catch being average or so, he’s pretty uninspiring on contested catches. Nabers has been very successful going deep at LSU, but a lot of his success seems to be a result of just running past slower players. That isn’t likely to happen in the NFL unless he runs a sub 4.3 40 yard dash, and his ability to high point on contested deep balls is pretty poor. Look at the first play in this tape for an example.

Obviously that ball is underthrown, but Nabers also doesn’t do much in terms of high pointing it to win the rep, which is what we see the great receivers do often. I’m highlighting one rep here, but that general inability to “go up and get it” is lacking from Nabers’ tape, and it’s a skill that I think he’ll need to develop if he’s ever to be an elite deep threat. Look at how small of a catch radius Nabers gives his quarterback even on this successful deep route because he opted not to high point it. In the NFL? A lot of corners are going up for that ball and ending the offense’s drive.

Second, he isn’t only weak in high pointing, but he doesn’t seem all that comfortable catching the ball with his hands. The first play in this tape provides an example of what I’m talking about as he uses this underhanded body catch, which is found all over his tape.

In fact, the vast majority of his catches seem to be body catches even when it isn’t necessary or advantageous. Body catching isn’t necessarily bad. If you can make it work then more power to you, but what it can do is reduce the receiver’s catch radius and allow the defense more time to break on the ball. For me, I want my first-round receiver to be able to bail my quarterback out, and I think this preferred method of catching will hold Nabers back in his ability to do that. To that point, here’s an example on the first play where poor strength at the catch point with his hands costs his team a catch.

And here’s another.

And another (that came at a critical time and led to Nabers slamming his helmet on the floor).

Third, Nabers doesn’t really show me all that much running routes over the middle. This isn’t really his fault, because teams were so scared of his speed that they played off coverage and let him have the underneath routes. Here’s an example of what I mean and, again, I’m showing one rep, but these kinds of reps are all over his tape. In this rep he’s successful and it leads to a catch (and the yards after the catch are incredibly impressive in their own right), but did he really do anything to impress you in terms of gaining separation before the catch here?

By themselves, reps like this wouldn’t worry me, but I’m not seeing any over the middle work that gives me reason to think that he has this skill in his toolbox as of today. Elite receivers make their money being able to operate at a high level in this medium area, and Nabers is a projection there simply because he wasn’t asked to do much of it. That’s not his fault and maybe he can do it, but we just haven’t seen it yet, which means we can’t be sure he can. From an athletic perspective, this should be something that he’s more than able to do, but being generally weak at the catch point gives me some pause about whether he’ll ever be able to do it at a high level.

I mentioned a lot negatives, but Nabers is a great prospect. The things he does well, he does really well. For example

  • The guy is really fast, and he complements that with a truly superb curl/comeback route on the outside that is going to make for a tough assignment for many corners.
  • He has some really great moves at the top of the route that help him get separation on the deeper routes. He also is really great at lessening his speed and using his body to shield the defender from well thrown deep balls. Putting that together means that there is potential that he can still thrive on deep balls as long as he ends up with a gifted enough passer who can regularly put it into a rather small window.
  • He has some serious juice in terms of yards after the catch. That YAC ability is usually of the “found a seam” variety than the “juked around and made 6 people miss and then kept going” variety, but that’s still really valuable
  • For those interested, examples of all of these can be found in the videos linked above.

Overall, if we’re using the letter-number scale, then I’d call Nabers an 8D, which is a 30% chance of being a solid regular. For me, he’s more an explosive play guy than he is a guy you run your offense through via funneling a ton of targets his way. I can’t see him being the type of volume guy at this point who justifies 10+ targets and has a strong efficiency. Within that context, I think he’d be best suited as a team’s second boundary receiver and, in an ideal world, he’d be the team’s third option based on target volume. I just don’t think the flaws in his skillset are going to allow him to be efficient enough on the higher volume routes that lend itself to a larger role than that.

Putting that together, he’s probably a 7. If he lands with the right quarterback then we’re talking an 8, but I think that’s largely dependent on the quarterback unless Nabers can make some pretty large strides at the catch point (which is something I don’t like to bet on). There’s the possibility that he develops his skills with coaching and turns himself into something more, but that’s a big if, and not one that I would feel comfortable treating as an expectation rather than found money.

For the Jets, this would not be my guy. I think wide receiver Garrett Wilson is a great volume player, but the Jets need a second WR1 guy who can handle target volume more than they need a deep threat. If they’re looking for a guy to run the deep routes and curls then they can find that later in the draft or in free agency, which makes a guy like Nabers a bit of a luxury pick for a team with so many more glaring holes.

Poll

Would you be happy if the Jets took Nabers at 10?

This poll is closed

  • 54%
    Nay
    (112 votes)
  • 24%
    Yay
    (50 votes)
  • 20%
    Meh
    (42 votes)
204 votes total Vote Now