At this point, smash-mouth football is about as prehistoric as a Tyrannosaurus Rex or network television.
To put it simply, the best teams have the best quarterbacks. And the best quarterbacks sling the rock more often than thrill-seeking cavemen.
If smash-mouth football was dying a slow and painful death before, the 2011 season may have finally aired it out of its misery. Four of the top six individual passing yardage totals in history were established this past season, including the top two (Drew Brees: 5,476, Tom Brady: 5,235). Quarterbacks also established a new record for average passing yards in a game with a 229.7 clip, breaking the brutally long-standing benchmark of 221.4 established way back in 2010.
Naturally, the players that benefit most from this passing pox epidemic are the wide receivers. Think about it. In the Stone Ages, most teams went with the traditional two-wide set.
Now, the slot receiver has replaced the fullback as the most hybrid position on the field. The most prolific offenses typically have as many as three, four or even five serviceable pass catchers on the field for almost every play.
Just look at the Super Bowl matchup this weekend. Eli Manning has a trio of big play wide receivers in Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham, while Tom Brady has perhaps the best slot receiver (Wes Welker) and tight end tandem (Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez) in the history of aerial attacks.
Pass catchers are to NFL teams right now what soap operas were to housewives in the mid-1990’s. You simply can never have too many, regardless of how similar they may seem.
Judging by the dynamic rookie seasons of big playmakers like AJ Green (6’4”) and Julio Jones (6’3”), all teams should now be on the lookout for that lethal, Calvin Johnson-like combination of NBA-size and Olympic-speed.
While searching for the next Calvin Johnson may be a fool’s errand, this year’s draft provides no shortage of wide-outs who fit that modernized prototype.
Projected Round: 2-4
Size: 6’4”, 225
NFL Comparison: Hakeem Nicks
As NFL-ready as they come after four years, including two as a starter, in a pro-style offense at North Carolina.
His real strength, however, is his physicality in the open field. Jones runs a lot of tight end-like curl routes over the middle, where he’s not afraid to take a hit. He’s also one of the best blocking receivers in the country.
Unless Jones magically gets faster or increases his leaping ability, he will never be a home run threat in the NFL. But if the 2011 Second Team All-ACC selection reaches his potential, he should be an intermediate maestro in the Nicks mold.
Projected Round: 2-4
Size: 6’3”, 220
NFL Comparison: Marques Colston
The most fundamentally sound receiver in the draft, Toon combines sticky hands with long arms and Zen-like body control.
The 2011 Second Team All-Big Ten selection is far from a burner, but he’s a deceptively quick and sneaky route runner, which allows him to beat his man both inside and outside.
His stats were never eye-popping in college. But playing receiver in the Big Ten is like starring in a movie alongside Brad Pitt or George Clooney. No matter what, you’re in a secondary role.
Similar to Julio Jones, who played in a run-first, pass-never offense at Alabama, all Toon needs is a pass-happy pro offense to realize his full potential.
Projected Round: 1-2
Size: 6’3”, 224
NFL Comparison: Dwayne Bowe
Floyd’s ability to utilize his size and high point the ball in his jump make him an ideal possession receiver and red zone threat in a West Coast-style system.
He also possesses the versatility to line up at any receiver slot across the line because his strength makes him difficult to jam off the snap.
But big, physical cornerbacks tend to frustrate Floyd, and he’ll be seeing a lot more of them on NFL Sundays than he did on cupcake South Bend Saturdays.
His off-the-field problems (three alcohol-related arrests during his college career) and injury history (missed most of 2009 with a broken collarbone and two games in 2008 with a knee injury) will also force teams to question whether Floyd’s moderate potential is worth the risk.
Projected Round: 2-3
Size: 6’5”, 215
NFL Comparison: Plaxico Burress
A classic Miami raw talent, Streeter’s position on this list is based solely on potential.
As a contact-seeking physical freak, Streeter presents matchup nightmares in the red zone due to both his size and Kevin Durant-like spider arms.
The scary part? That may not even be his biggest strength. Streeter has 4.5 straight-line speed, but he gets faster with every stride, making it extremely difficult for defenders to stay with him on the perimeter.
The bottom line: The Hurricanes leading receiver did have only five career catches heading into his breakout junior season (46 catches, 811 yards, eight touchdowns) so he’s a definite risk. But all Miami burners are a risk worth taking.
Projected Round: 2
Size: 6’3”, 208
NFL Comparison: Mike Wallace
Yards per catch is always a telling identifier of NFL potential, and Randle thrives in that category. He was among the NCAA leaders in both of his years as a starter for the Tigers with a 17.3 clip in 2011 and 16.5 in 2010.
The 2011 First Team All-SEC selection did have a tendency to disappear for stretches at a time in the Tigers more power-oriented attack.
But the fact that he racked up almost 1,000 yards receiving (917 to be exact) and eight touchdowns with Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson was one of the more subtly impressive feats of the collegiate season.
Luckily for Randle, there are no Jarrett Lees and Jordan Jeffersons on NFL practice squads, let alone the actual roster.
Projected Round: 2
Size: 6’5”, 220
NFL Comparison: Brandon Marshall
Before you dismiss Quick as a poor man’s diamond in the small competition rough, remind yourself that Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley State), Randy Moss (Marshall) and Terrell Owens (Tennessee Chattanooga), perhaps the three greatest receivers of all-time, all came from a similar background.
Similar to Brandon Marshall, Quick’s combination of chiseled strength and uncanny hand-eye coordination allows him to make plays on the short, intermediate and deep parts of the field.
Projected Round: 2
Size: 6’2”, 215
NFL Comparison: Greg Jennings
Sixty-nine of Sanu’s 115 catches in 2011 went for first downs. If that’s not the definition of a meaningful stat, I don’t know what is.
Sanu’s long arms and big hands make him an intermediate dynamo who thrives when a defense gives him any sort of cushion.
His 210 career catches are the most in Big East history, and he dispelled the notion that he’s a weak red-zone receiver with seven touchdowns this past season.
The three-year collegiate starter doesn’t have the game-breaking speed to ever rank among the top three to five receivers in the NFL. But, his weakness-free game could make him an above-average NFL wideout.
Projected Round: 1
Size: 5’11”, 190
NFL Comparison: Jeremy Maclin
One of the few smaller receivers among the top prospects, Wright makes up for his size disadvantage with blazing acceleration and natural body control.
Like Maclin, he’s so smooth in both his route running and after the catch that his sub-4.5 speed becomes deceptive in the flow of a game.
A dynamic three-sport athlete out of high school, Wright started all four years at Baylor and improved his stats every season. He shined with the emergence of Robert Griffin in 2011, reeling in 101 catches for 1,572 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Projected Round: 1
Size: 6’4”, 229
NFL Comparison: Calvin Johnson
You know a guy has a great shot at making it when most of his scouting reports feature the “he can make the circus catch look easy” tidbit.
Very few receivers can combine elite size, athleticism and hand-eye coordination with that long-striding quickness that turns tall receivers into downfield dynamos.
The ones that do, like Calvin Johnson, are the most dangerous skill possession players in the NFL.
In three seasons as a starter for the Gamecocks, Jeffery averaged 61 catches, 1,014 yards and almost eight touchdowns against NFL-caliber cornerbacks like Patrick Peterson and Dre Kirkpatrick on a weekly basis.
Keep in mind, the SEC is probably better competition than the AFC West.
Projected Round: Top Five
Size: 6’1”, 215
NFL Comparison: Andre Johnson
An absolute physical freak with the stats to back up his potential, Blackmon will be a bonafide No. 1 receiver the minute he steps into training camp with whatever team is lucky enough to draft him.
The two-time Biletnikoff Award winner and 2012 Fiesta Bowl Offensive MVP was so dominant in his final two seasons at Oklahoma State (a combined 232 catches, 3,304 receiving yards, and 38 touchdowns), that his off-the-field troubles have barely been a topic of conversation since he declared for the draft.
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