As we get closer and closer to the NFL Draft, a never-ending series of lists get posted by every football content provider under the sun ranking the top players at every position. Top 5 lists, mock drafts and big boards are all the rage this time of year. In this space, however, I want to look at these prospects a little differently.
So as April 30 approaches, let's take a look at these players from the mindset of how NFL franchises and scouting departments look at them and that's by figuring out how they fit on a football team, rather than just list the "Top 5 linebackers" or the "Top 10 wide receivers."
Think about the offensive line. You wouldn't just want to know about the top linemen in the draft. You'd want a list of the top tackles, the top guards and the top centers. All three positions typically have different measurables and responsibilities, so they should be categorized that way, right? And then the standards at each position change from team to team, as every franchise has certain needs and specifications for what they look for as they build their roster. Some teams prefer size and strength, others place value on athleticism and others just want tough guys at certain positions. So let's dig deeper, and look at some of the top players may fit once they find homes in the NFL ...
The evolution of the wide receiver position in the NFL is fascinating to me, particularly over the last 10 to 15 years. It used to be common knowledge that the receiver position owned perhaps the biggest first-round "bust rate" in the draft on an annual basis. If you go back and look at some of the classes even in the early 2000s, that was absolutely the case. 2005 saw Braylon Edwards, Troy Williamson, Mike Williams, Matt Jones and Mark Clayton all go off the board in the first round, none of whom lived up to those expectations. 2004 featured (after Larry Fitzgerald) Roy Williams, Reggie Williams, Lee Evans, Mike Clayton and Michael Jenkins as early selections. I could keep going with this, but you get the general idea.
Over the last couple of years, however, the tables have turned. Sure, there are some players who have not yet proven themselves (Tavon Austin, Cordarrelle Patterson), but the "hit rate" at that position has jumped significantly, especially when you look at last year's star-studded crop. Why is that the case? NFL Films senior producer explained on last week's Journey to the Draft Podcast presented by AAA that it has to do with the fact that (a) more man coverage at the college level has led to an easier time transitioning to the pro game for these young players and (b) that the lines between what a "No. 1 wide receiver" and the rest of the receiving corps have blurred. This trend affects a number of different positions on both sides of the ball (tight end, cornerback and safety included), but with the wide variety of formations and personnel groupings now seen on the college level, and with the sheer volume in NFL passing games nowadays, there are a lot of receivers who put up big numbers. Take Randall Cobb (Green Bay Packers) for instance. Ten years ago, Cobb would not have been viewed as a "No. 1," but he caught over 90 passes for nearly 1,300 yards and a dozen touchdowns in 2014. The same could be said for a guy like T.Y. Hilton out of Indianapolis.
After the taping of that podcast, I asked Greg about the traditional roles of receivers on offense, terms like "X receiver," or "Z," or "slot guy." Historically, you could group them that way (remember, that's the point of this piece), but even those lines have begun to look a little bit more cloudy.
In a traditional sense, Cosell said X receivers "had to be able to get off the jam because they were always on the line of scrimmage." This means that they could not be put into motion, and cornerbacks were more likely to press them and try to disrupt early in the route. X's had to be very efficient at getting off the line quickly and efficiently, and Cosell said this was paramount so they could maintain the timing of the routes. If the quarterback thought the receiver was going to be at a certain point on the final step of his drop, and he isn't there because he got held up at the line of scrimmage, that was not a good thing. This is why, typically, X receivers would be bigger, stronger players, think of a Dez Bryant-type of prospect out of Oklahoma State.
Conversely, Z receivers were more considered "movement" players. They aligned off of the line of scrimmage, and therefore could get put into motion, so you'd see them on a number of different shifts and then be able to release into their routes from different points in the formation. You could in a sense "protect" them from being pressed. This is why the smaller receivers, if they weren't seen as being able to win on the outside, would get put at the Z position. Cosell explained that the major difference between X's and Z's is that "Z receivers often run more combination routes because they work on the same side of the field as a tight end. X receivers run more isolation-type routes." Using them in a complementary role allowed for perhaps a lesser route runner, but a quicker, more dynamic athlete to be utilized at the Z position.
Lastly, you had the prototypical "slot" receivers. NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock would say that these guys are "quicker than fast." Why was that quickness so vital inside? Cosell explained that these types of receivers would come on the field on third down (before three-receiver sets was considered a base personnel package), say in a third-and-6 or third-and-7 situation, and you needed 8 yards for a first down. It was imperative for the quarterback to have a target who could get you those 8 yards quickly and efficiently to move the chains, so players like Wes Welker became increasingly valuable.
Why has this all changed? Why do the terms X and Z not carry as much weight as they may have six, seven or eight years ago? Cosell answered bluntly.
"Matchups," he said, "the whole idea of using three and four wideouts really took hold with Mike Martz and the Greatest Show On Turf with the premise being that your receivers would be better than the opponent's third and fourth cornerbacks."
More and more over the years, we've seen teams adopt this approach, and it's resulted in seeing players like Calvin Johnson, Bryant and A.J. Green in the slot to create mismatches in different formations and different sets. Marques Colston was taken late in the draft as an oversized wide receiver and possible tight end convert out of Hofstra, and the New Orleans Saints plugged him into the slot and he's been a matchup nightmare ever since. Jordan Matthews was very productive out of the slot a year ago here in Philadelphia, despite having traits that weren't necessarily viewed as "slot receiver" traits from NFL teams a dozen years ago when Martz and the Rams were breaking records.
So what does this mean for teams now? Well, there are some teams that still use terms like X and Z in their base offenses, and some of those roles still hold true. Every offense is different, however, and teams will look at every player as an individual and decide how they can impact their roster from a situational-football point of view: Can he help in the red zone? Can he be a big target over the middle? Can he be a weapon in the screen game? Can he be a vertical threat? Where can this guy be effective for our team? This is why I would imagine every team's draft board at the wide receiver position would look completely different from the other 31 franchises, because of the discrepancies in how they play offense and what their philosophies are in the passing game.
With that in mind, the question remains, how do we categorize receivers when evaluating NFL Draft prospects? Rotoworld's Josh Norris has said it best in recent years, when he describes wideouts in winning in one of two ways: the "small game," and the "big game." Norris explained that "there are so few complete receivers who can win in both phases of the game" and that "in a perfect world you want a receiver who can do both" (he cited Odell Beckham, Jr. as one who did so at LSU in 2013), but since there they are so rare that it's best to "focus on receivers who consistently win in one area" and that if they don't, "then questions should be created." With that said, let's dig deeper into those two subgroups in this draft class, and see who the standout talents are in this receiver crop.
Receivers Who Win Big
So what does winning "in the big game" mean, exactly? Norris referred to the ability to win in contested-catch situations, those 50/50 balls where a receiver has to go up and outmuscle a defender in the air to come down with the catch, or even just make a catch through contact and hold onto the football. This trait is important for receivers of all sizes, because with the spacing of the college game being so different than in the NFL, you are rarely wide open. More often than not, you are going to be "covered" when the ball is thrown your way, so you have to show the potential to win in those situations. In the Scout's Notebook piece embedded above, Mayock talks about the prevalence of the back-shoulder throw and how that has changed football. When you look at players like Calvin Johnson, Bryant, Green, Alshon Jeffery, and Kelvin Benjamin, these are the types of players you think about winning "in the big game."
The first name that comes to mind when you're talking about those traits in this draft class is West Virginia's Kevin White. At 6-3, 215 pounds, the former Mountaineer is one of the more physically imposing players at his position, and he plays that way. White, who displayed some traits to win in the "small game" as well, high-points the ball consistently and routinely went up to fight for the football.
In this play from the first game of the year against Alabama (courtesy of WVUSports.com), White puts an exclamation point on his breakout performance by going up and getting the ball on this fade route in the back of the end zone. White made a number of plays like this as a senior in 2014, and while he was also a monster in the screen game, this is where he may make the most immediate impact as he transitions to the NFL.
Breshad Perriman of Central Florida shares a lot of similar characteristics with White. At relatively the same size, Perriman also sports explosive downfield ability (reportedly running in the sub 4.30 range at his Pro Day compared to White's 4.35 at the Combine) and an ability to go up and win contested catches. Perriman showed great ability to track the ball downfield for the Knights this past fall, and while he did have some focus drops on tape he showed the ability to be a crisp route runner as well (so he, too, could be one of the rare players who can win in both areas).
One big receiver who a lot of people are very high on is Louisville senior DeVante Parker. At 6-3, 209 pounds, Parker has a basketball frame and has a lot of traits you look for in a prospect at the position. He's got a great set of hands and is one of the best in the class at going up and winning on those 50/50 balls, consistently outmuscles defenders at the catch point, and he's able to fight through press coverage with ease.
In this shot from 2013 (courtesy of NFL.com), look at Parker go up and get this fade from Teddy Bridgewater against Kentucky. The body control, leaping ability and ability to reel in catches away from his frame are all on display as Parker pulls in the huge touchdown grab. This is what makes Parker such a fascinating prospect.
A divisive player to say the least when it comes to the media, Michigan's Devin Funchess is one who certainly wins in the "big game." A former tight end (some think he still will ultimately end up there in the NFL), Funchess' size and ball skills are reminiscent of a Josh Gordon-type prospect coming out of Baylor. Not many guys at 232 pounds can move like Funchess can, and he routinely used that size to his advantage as a junior this past fall.
All four of those players could hear their names called in the first round of this year's draft, and another to add to that group is Jaelen Strong from Arizona State. A Philadelphia native, Strong lined up at both X and in the slot for the Sun Devils in his two years in the Pac-12, and proved through 26 games that he was one of the best in the country in those contested-catch situations. Like many said about Matthews last year coming out of Vanderbilt, Strong isn't going to separate with quickness, but his ability to go up and extend for the ball at the catch point makes him a very attractive player for teams that value size at the position.
In this shot against Stanford (courtesy of NFL.com), Strong goes up and wins on another fade route. Note the concentration, hand-eye coordination and strength at the catch point to complete the catch and move the sticks for Arizona State. You see why Strong is one of the more talked-about receivers in the draft.
It's rare to find receivers who are as big as Dorial Green-Beckham. The former five-star recruit out of Oklahoma and previously Missouri is a physical marvel at 6-5, 237 pounds and boasting a 4.49 40-yard dash. At that size, DGB makes easy work of press coverage and has very deceptive vertical ability. All you need to do is watch his dismantling of the Kentucky defense in 2013 to get an idea of what he can do in jump-ball situations. If Green-Beckham can live up to his physical potential, he could be the best receiver in the draft down the road. That road may be a long one, however, as he does have a lot to prove on and off the field.
In the "small-school' realm, Central Arkansas' Dezmin Lewis had a strong week down at the Senior Bowl this January. At 6-4, 214 pounds, he has the frame to be a matchup problem for opposing defenses and is actually a pretty deceptive athlete for his size. Where he really stood out that week, however, was in his ability to win at the catch point.
In this red zone 1-on-1 drill against UCLA safety Anthony Jefferson (who saw playing time at corner as well this fall), Lewis goes up and fights for the ball and pulls it in for the would-be touchdown. I'm personally intrigued to see how high Lewis gets drafted in relation to some of the other players on this list because from a physical trait standpoint there are a lot of similarities on display.
At the East-West Shrine Game, Georgia Tech's Darren Waller also stood out in similar areas. Considered by some as a possible tight end down the road at 6-6, 238 pounds, Waller surprised a lot of people at the Combine by running a 4.46 40-yard dash (!) after performing well during the week of practice. Waller is absolutely one of those players who, even when he's not open, he's open, because of his sheer size and strength to go up and get the ball.
Is Waller the most laterally quick, or fast-twitch athlete? No. But at that size with the potential to win in the "big game," he could be drafted late in today's NFL to be developed as an impact player down the road.
Receivers Who Win Small
So if receivers win in the big game with their ability to pull in contested catches and outmuscle opponents, what does it take to win in the "small game"? Norris cited the ability to beat corners with separation quickness, the burst to pull away from defenders and gain yards after the catch as traits that typically can be attributed to those kinds of players.
One receiver who certainly fits that criteria is Alabama's Amari Cooper. One of the most productive receivers in college football as the SEC Offensive Player of the Year, Cooper's smooth, efficient movement skills translate to him being such a good route runner. He showed the ability to consistently separate at the top of his stem, and made things look easy at times even against some of the best defensive backs in this draft class.
Here's Cooper going up against LSU's Jalen Collins (courtesy of NFL.com). Collins, regarded by many as a likely first-round selection in a couple of weeks, gets left in the dust as Cooper separates in what looks like an effortless manner with a great burst out of his third step on his release to catch the quick slant and take it to the house while putting his YAC potential on full display. Cooper's ability to win downfield on double moves (:29 into this clip against Auburn last year) is also incredibly effective, and it's why he is one of the top prospects in the entire draft.
One of the most intriguing prospects at the position in this class because of his potential, Auburn's Sammie Coates is as explosive a deep threat as they come with players who are over 6-1 and weigh 212 pounds. Coates, who ran a 4.43 at the Combine, scored 13 touchdowns over his career, none of which were fewer than 30 yards (thank Bo Wulf for that stat). The biggest concern with Coates is his hands and ability to track the ball in the air (although he is fully capable of winning in the "big game" at times), but his deep speed and ability to pull away from defenders downfield make him a very dangerous deep threat. Coates is what Cosell at times describes as a "one-cut" route runner because of his ability to, at full speed, stick his foot in the ground and change direction on a vertical route to get the defender's hips flipped and create separation.
Coates is explosive, physical, and dynamic down the field. If he can improve his ability to play the ball in the air (and that is a significant "if"), he could be one of the best receivers in the class three to four years down the road. At the very least, with his skill set, he has the ability to be an effective deep threat in the NFL.
Another receiver who consistently beat opponents on the long ball is Ohio State's Devin Smith. A true vertical threat with the ability to obviously win in the small game, but also to go up and fight for the ball in the air, Smith is viewed by many experts as the best pure deep threat in the draft class because of his explosive traits. No one averaged more yards per catch in the nation than Smith did a year ago, and he was a key cog in the Buckeyes' national title run.
Phillip Dorsett from Miami was one of the most dynamic players at the Combine this February, ranking in the top 5 at his position in the 40-yard dash (4.33) and in the three-cone (6.70), which helps tell the story of his vertical speed and short-area quickness.
Dorsett's ability to accelerate in and out of his breaks makes him especially hard to defend despite his small stature. At the Senior Bowl, he showed the ability to go up and fight for the ball in contested situations as well.
A junior out of USC, Nelson Agholor has received a lot of buzz lately in regard to where he may end up being selected in the draft. A versatile prospect with speed to burn and great ability after the catch, Agholor's quickness typically would have profiled him as an early contributor in the slot with potential to slide outside down the road, much like Josh Huff a year ago.
On this touchdown against Notre Dame (courtesy NFL.com), you can see Agholor's short-area quickness from the slot and ability to create with the ball in his hands lead to six points. Every time this kid gets the ball in his hands it's like a punt return, and his playmaking ability will be attractive to a number of teams come draft weekend.
East Carolina's Justin Hardy is another player who historically would've been tabbed as a slot player by trade because of his top-end quickness and ability to separate at the top of his stem. A smooth athlete with sure hands and efficient route-running ability, Hardy is a former walk-on at ECU who brings punt return value and could surprise people down the road.
Built from a similar mold as Hardy, Rashad Greene from Florida State has been one of the most productive wideouts in college football for the past four years after starting 43 games for the Seminoles. Greene lined up all over the field in college and, like Agholor and Hardy, his ability after the catch and his short-area quickness make him an attractive option both inside and outside.
Greene, like most college receivers, is still improving as a route runner, but you can see where that quickness can be troublesome for opposing defensive backs, as he leaves an Auburn corner in the dust on this big catch in the 2013 BCS title game (courtesy of NFL.com).
Central Michigan wideout Titus Davis has been wreaking havoc on MAC defenses for his entire career. Davis' 37 touchdowns were the most of any receiver at the Combine this year. It's his abilities as a route runner that allowed him to do so. Very few in the draft class are as polished at separating at the top of their stem as Davis, who also tracks the ball very well down the field and boasts strong hands to boot. Davis is flying under the radar a bit, but could be one of the bigger surprises in this class down the road.
Bigger than most of the other "small game" receivers, Tony Lippett (6-2, 192 pounds) from Michigan State is unique (in this draft class) in that he finds way to get open as a route runner using his feet, hips, and shoulders to keep defenders guessing.
Lippett, a former full-time cornerback who saw snaps on defense late in 2014 as well, has the body of a prototypical X with some traits of a Z. Some question his ability to go up and consistently win at the catch point, and he left some meat on the bone with his 4.62 40-yard dash at the Combine, but his crafty route running that you can see in this clip from the Senior Bowl could lead to success in the NFL.
Like last year's draft, there are a ton of names to be aware of in this wide receiver class, and as you can see a lot of them win in the "small game." This list didn't even take into account Tre McBride from William & Mary, a vertical threat who was very productive at the FCS level and enjoyed a productive week at the Shrine Game. Nebraska's Kenny Bell has NFL size (6-1, 197 pounds) and, like Dorsett, finished in the Top 5 for receivers in the 40-yard dash (4.40) and three-cone drill (6.66). Jamison Crowder from Duke didn't test nearly as well (bottom five in the three-cone and the worst 10-yard split of any wideout in Indy), but was an extremely productive player for the Blue Devils throughout his career as a four-year starter. Similarly built
Tyler Lockett has speed to burn (4.40), NFL bloodlines (his dad Kevin was a former first-round pick) and explosiveness in and out of his breaks. Ty Montgomery from Stanford earned a lot of headlines for dynamic ability as a returner and gadget player for the Cardinal, and he's earned comparisons to former first-round pick Ted Ginn Jr. (though he likely won't be drafted anywhere near the same slot as the former Buckeye). Maryland's Stefon Diggs brings intriguing ability because of his quickness, smooth route running and the impact he brings after the catch. Lastly, Georgia's Chris Conley, a straight-line glider who routinely attacked SEC defenses down the field, blew up the Combine with his 4.35 40-yard dash and eye popping 139-inch broad jump.
Oh, did I mention DeAndre Smelter (Georgia Tech), Dres Anderson (Utah), Donatella Luckett (Harding), Josh Harper (Fresno State), DeAndrew White (Alabama), Vince Mayle (Washington State), Rannell Hall (UCF) or Mario Alford (West Virginia)? Hopefully you get the point ... there's a LOT of wide receiver talent in this draft. With such a diverse range of skill sets and body types, teams' boards will have a ton of variety, and there will be names not even on this list who could get drafted as early as the fourth round. For the teams, it's about finding the right fits for their offense, and plugging them into situations where they will find success as they transition to the NFL.
Fran Duffy is the producer of "Eagles Game Plan" which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team's games, practices and opponents.