A common perception is that the 2013 NFL draft class severely lacks playmakers, but there are actually as many as four wide receivers that could find themselves coming off the board in the first round.
In fact, two Tennessee Volunteers in particular have the upside of No. 1-caliber receivers thanks to their lethal combination of size and athleticism. It's hard to blame them for going pro a year early. Two other intriguing prospects may also make teams regret passing on them in the first 32 picks.
Here is a breakdown of this quartet of wideouts that should be strongly considered early on in April's draft, and a prediction on where they will land.
Justin Hunter, Tennessee
Although he isn't completely polished, particularly in the short passing game, Hunter is advanced in running intermediate and deep routes. That should give him some playing time on the outside in the NFL sooner rather than later.
Hunter needs to add a little bit more weight to his 6'4" frame, but he has outstanding ball skills and leaping ability. It's easy to see him being a virtually unstoppable target on back-shoulder throws with his ability to adjust in the air.
A torn ACL in 2011 was a significant setback, but Hunter bounced back to snag 73 passes for over 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns for the Vols this season.
After workouts leading up to the draft, Hunter could easily emerge as the top receiving prospect, with the only concern being his injury history. But he has shown great form, and enduring a reconstructed knee and returning with a very productive season should raise his stock.
The team near the top that most desperately needs a young, promising prospect with legitimate superstar potential is the Miami Dolphins.
If Hunter could join the likes of Brian Hartline and Davone Bess, QB of the future Ryan Tannehill would have a legitimate arsenal of weapons at his disposal.
Projected Pick: No. 12, Miami Dolphins
Cordarrelle Patterson, Tennessee
There is some concern about Patterson's college experience—or lack thereof. He was a junior college transfer from Hutchinson and only just finished up what will be his only season in Knoxville.
But what he has done at Tennessee has been outstanding, as Patterson returned kicks and punts and found pay dirt on each return team. He created explosive plays and was electric on end-around plays. Patterson carried the ball 25 times but for 308 yards and three touchdowns.
Most importantly, Patterson proved he could be a strong receiver in the NFL. With all of those other duties, he hauled in 46 passes for 778 yards and five touchdowns, despite competing with Hunter for targets.
Like his dynamic teammate, Patterson weighs 205 pounds but is one inch shorter at 6'3", but his speed is what sets him apart. At Hutchinson, he ran a 10.33 100-meter dash (h/t CBSSports.com). That's rare athleticism for someone Patterson's size.
Due to his lack of experience in the highest level of college football, he has yet to develop into a consistent route-runner. However, that shouldn't stop teams from taking a flier on him in Round 1 based on his potential alone.
Whoever takes a chance on Patterson—who likely won't go until the middle of the first, to a decent team—should find an immediate impact player.
Projected pick: No. 21, Cincinnati Bengals
Keenan Allen, California
The Bears had a horrendous 3-9 season, which caused Allen's production to fall off, as did a PCL injury to his knee. That doesn't change the fact that he has first-round potential, though.
At 6'3" and 210 pounds, Allen has the frame to compete on Sundays already. He may lack top-end speed, but he does not mind at all going over the middle of the field and taking punishment.
What makes Allen stand out is his route-running ability, which is superior to the other most exciting prospects on the board. Others may have greater upside in terms of explosiveness and raw potential, but Allen should be the best at creating separation at the next level as a rookie.
Minnesota Vikings QB Christian Ponder struggled after top wide receiver Percy Harvin got hurt in 2012. With only Jerome Simpson and Michael Jenkins as options on the outside, Minnesota could use an upgrade at receiver.
Allen has the opportunity to come in right away and compete for a starting spot, likely alongside Harvin and Jarius Wright. Even if he doesn't pan out right away, Allen showed the ability to return kicks and punts throughout his career at Cal.
If he excels there in the pros, Allen could afford Harvin some valuable rest on dangerous special teams plays. He is a similar type of player to Harvin, but with much greater size.
Projected pick: late first round, Minnesota Vikings
Tavon Austin, West Virginia
Some may question his stature (5'8", 175 pounds), but there is no doubting Austin's production for the Mountaineers. He caught 101 passes as a junior and 114 as a senior.
At the tail end of his career, Austin showed he could also get it done in the backfield. Against the Oklahoma Sooners—who very easily could have qualified for a BCS bowl—he ran for 344 yards on just 21 carries and two touchdowns.
It's definitely possible for Austin to be a productive slot receiver thanks to his incredible agility and knack for catching the ball in traffic. He will also be extremely dangerous on bubble-screen plays and end-arounds.
With the use of spread offense concepts being more prevalent in the NFL, there is a market for Austin's versatility.
Austin will wind up near the end of the first round, and it simply depends what the final order winds up being in determining where he would go. Seattle would be a great fit, because the Seahawks offense doesn't have a shifty slot receiver.
With offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell incorporating some college offense with the zone-read option, Austin could fit very well into the team's plans immediately.
Projected pick: late first round, Seattle Seahawks
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