10 Most Cost-Effective WR Prospects Steelers Could Target in Draft

Pete MartinContributor IIMarch 9, 2013

10 Most Cost-Effective WR Prospects Steelers Could Target in Draft

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    If, as expected, speedy wide receiver Mike Wallace departs Pittsburgh via free agency this offseason, the Steelers will be left with considerable uncertainty at that position heading into the 2013 season.  Addressing that issue will have to be a priority for the team’s front office if it wants to jump start an offense that underperformed in 2012 and spark a return to the playoffs this coming year.

    With Wallace gone, Antonio Brown will have to shoulder the burden of being Pittsburgh’s No. 1 receiver.  It is not yet clear that he is ready for the responsibility.  In two seasons in which he essentially shared that role with Wallace, Brown had a great year in 2011 and a very underwhelming 2012

    Taking on a bigger portion of the Steelers passing game without Wallace attracting attention from opposing defenses will be a challenge for the young wideout.

    Brown’s promotion to the No. 1 receiver spot means Emmanuel Sanders will have to step up and become the Steelers’ second receiver, assuming Pittsburgh tenders the restricted free agent.  Sanders had a very efficient season last year playing primarily out of the slot.  In 2013, he probably will have to split wide more frequently.  Whether he will have the same success from that position remains to be seen.

    With an aging Jerricho Cotchery currently the team’s third option at wideout, the receiving corps is perilously thin.  It is also unlikely to be as effective a weapon it has been in the recent past.  Which does not bode well for a team whose rushing attack ranked among the worst in the league in 2012.

    Given that Pittsburgh may not even have enough money to keep Wallace, it seems improbable that the club would find a suitable replacement for him in the free-agent market.  Instead, the Steelers will have to reinforce their receiving corps through the draft.

    The key for Pittsburgh in its search will be to find a wideout who represents the best value proposition among the available players. 

    Obviously, the goal with any draft pick is to get someone who can produce the most output on the field for the lowest price.  But making sure every selection is a bargain is doubly imperative for an aging team like the Steelers that already have numerous high-profile veterans signed to hefty contracts.

    With that in mind, the following is a list of college wide receiver prospects who offer the best value for money in the 2013 NFL draft

    It runs from least to most likely to be a cost-effective selection and is based on an analysis of each player’s performance on the field balanced against their likely draft position.  The list starts with three wideouts the Steelers should avoid picking unless they plummet unexpectedly between now and draft day.

Tavon Austin, West Virginia

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    Tavon Austin, one of the stars of the 2013 NFL combine thanks to a blistering 4.34-second 40-yard dash, has attracted lots of interest from general managers and scouts.  His 111 catches for 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns also have him looking like a probable first-round draft pick. 

    If he is available when the Steelers are ready to make their first choice, however, Kevin Colbert and Co. should pass.  The former West Virginia Mountaineer has too many red flags to justify paying him first-round money.

    The most obvious concern about Austin is his size.  At 5’8” and 174 lbs, he is considerably smaller than a prototypical NFL receiver and even a shade tinier than diminutive wideouts like Wes Welker.

    Though Austin was not injury-prone in college, scouts and draft prognosticators have raised legitimate concerns that the receiver will not hold up under the punishment of a full pro season.  A team like the Steelers, whose players missed the 12th-most games due to injury in 2012, certainly would want to be wary of a draftee who might not be on the field full time.

    Pittsburgh also might want to avoid adding a small player to a receiving corps that already lacks size.  With a projected top three receivers measuring 5’10”, 186 lbs (Brown), 5’11”, 186 lbs (Sanders) and 6’1”, 200 lbs (Cotchery), the Steelers don’t have an every-down overpowering physical presence as a target for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.  Drafting Austin obviously would not improve that situation.

    More worrisome than the former Mountaineer’s size, however, is the fact that he didn’t really stretch defenses as much as a receiver with his speed should. 

    His average yards per catch (11.59) were among the lowest of any receiver likely to be drafted in 2013.  In addition, only 34.2 percent of the senior receiver’s receptions went for 15 yards or more.  Neither measure would seem to predict a future as a deep threat in the pros.

    Those stats, coupled with Austin’s size, would instead suggest that he would do best in the NFL as a Welker-like slot receiver.  However, his situational statistics do not indicate that he would be particularly effective in that role either.

    For example, Austin picked up a first down on only 48.6 percent of his receptions, again ranking him well below most other probable draftees at the wide receiver spot.  Though he did better on third downs with seven or more yards to go, converting 80 percent of his catches into a new set of downs, Austin still finished in the middle of the pack among fellow likely draftees.

    Does Austin have the athletic ability necessary to be a productive pro receiver?  Possibly.  Might he be an intriguing player for a team to gamble on in the later rounds?  Probably.  Is he enough of a sure thing to merit the Steelers’ first-round pick?  Absolutely not.

Cordarrelle Patterson, Tennessee

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    Cordarrelle Patterson from Tennessee is another likely first-round pick whom the Steelers should avoid if he is still available when Pittsburgh’s number comes up.  Though Patterson is intriguing from a physical standpoint—at 6’3” and 200 lbs, he ran the 40 in 4.42 seconds at the combine—he is simply too much of an unknown for a team like the Steelers to gamble on that early in the draft.

    The junior wideout has only one year of Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) experience under his belt and touched the ball on just 71 of the Volunteers' running or passing plays in that one season.  By comparison, Austin had two straight seasons in which he touched the ball more than 100 times.

    On the surface, it would appear that Patterson did a lot with his limited time on the big stage. 

    As the Volunteers second receiver, he caught 46 passes for 778 yards and five touchdowns over the course of the season.  Patterson’s per-usage stats indicate that he would have ranked near the top of the FBS had he played a greater role in the Volunteers offense.  For example, his 16.91 yards per reception ranked 28th in the FBS in 2012.

    The problem, however, is that those numbers are skewed by one monster game he had against Troy, a 5-7 team from the Sun Belt Conference.  The nine catches and 219 yards he amassed in that contest accounted for 19.6 percent and 28.1 percent of his overall totals, respectively.  Without that game, his yards per catch drop to a more pedestrian 15.1.

    So though Patterson performed well in nearly every aspect of Tennessee’s passing game, gaining more than 15 yards on 60.9 percent of his catches, picking up a first down on 78.3 percent of his receptions and getting Tennessee a new set of downs every time he caught the ball on third down with seven or more yards to go, there is still not enough evidence to guarantee that he will be a quality starter in the NFL.

    The promise and potential that Patterson showed in 2012 would be extremely enticing in a later-round pick.  And while a selection based on physical talents and the suggestion of more production in the future is fine in the third round, it’s just not justifiable in the first round.

Keenan Allen, California

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    Likely first-round pick Keenan Allen out of California has much more top-flight experience than Patterson, having averaged almost 80 touches per season for the past three years.  However, he is just as much of a mystery as his counterpart at Tennessee.

    What makes Allen hard to figure out, and what makes him a player the Steelers should avoid in the draft, is his inconsistency.  A team just doesn’t know what version of the receiver it is going to get, and that is not something an organization wants to worry about with a first-round draft pick.

    After a 2011 campaign in which he caught 98 passes for 1,343 yards and six touchdowns, the wideout had a very disappointing next act.  In 2012, Allen grabbed only 68 balls for 737 yards and six touchdowns.

    Though he missed three games last year due to a knee injury, the former Golden Bear still saw his catches per game drop from 7.5 to 6.8 and his average yards per reception fall by more than a full yard.  As a result, even had he not gotten hurt, his numbers in the games in which he played only project to 81 catches for 983 yards and eight touchdowns.

    His other per-usage numbers paint a similarly dismal picture.  Despite his 4.53 speed in the 40-yard dash, Allen gained 15 or more yards on just 39.3 percent of his receptions.  The junior receiver gained enough yards for a first down a mere 52.5 percent of the time he caught the ball.

    Some analysts chalk up this decline in production to the struggles of Cal’s quarterback.  And to be fair, Zach Maynard didn’t exactly set the world on fire in 2012, tossing 10 picks and completing only 47.1 percent of his passes on third downs with between four and nine yards to go. 

    However, the fall in Allen’s numbers last year is still enough to give a team pause when it considers paying him the money due a first-round draft pick.

    Moreover, a closer look at the stats Allen put up in his more successful 2011 campaign reveals that the wideout may not even have been as good as advertised. 

    The 13.7 yards per catch he averaged did not even rank in the top 100 in the FBS that year.  Only 47.8 percent of his receptions gained Cal more than 15 yards, and only 62.2 percent of them picked up a new set of downs.  Had he posted those numbers this past year, they still would have ranked in the bottom half among receivers bound for the NFL in 2013.

    So even leaving the questions about his consistency aside, the best-case scenario—the 2011 version of Keenan Allen—still doesn’t justify a first-round pick.  The possibility that an organization like the Steelers could end up the 2012 incarnation of the player makes gambling on him all the more problematic.

Quinton Patton, Louisiana Tech

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    Evaluating the NFL-readiness of prospects from lesser-known schools can be challenging. 

    Playing against inferior talent can sometimes make a mediocre talent look like a future All-Pro.  And though the scouting combine and games like the Senior Bowl that match potential draftees against each other do help sort things out a bit, it can still be very hard to judge just how good a player like Quinton Patton from Louisiana Tech is.

    On the one hand, Patton put up numbers that at first glance, would suggest a bright future in the NFL.  In two years at Louisiana Tech, the senior receiver caught 182 passes for a total of 1,594 yards and 24 touchdowns.  His 104 receptions and 1,392 yards last season both ranked fifth in the FBS in 2012.

    He also performed very well at the Senior Bowl, prompting some observers to label him the most impressive wideout at the game.

    There are, however, some indications that Patton is not as good a receiver as his conventional stat lines would lead one to believe.  For starters, those numbers were almost certainly inflated by a Louisiana Tech offense that averaged 51.5 points per game.

    More importantly, however, Patton did not excel in many of the areas that would seem critical to success at the next level.  Perhaps confirming suspicions that he does not have NFL speed, the senior did not consistently stretch opposing defenses.  The 6’0”, 204-pound receiver averaged a pedestrian 13.4 yards per catch, and only 35.6 percent of his catches advanced the ball 15 yards or more.

    Patton also wasn’t much of possession receiver.  Only 55.8 percent of his receptions resulted in a Bulldogs first down.  He performed almost equally poorly when Louisiana Tech faced 3rd-and-long, picking up a first on only 55.6 percent of his catches.

    So with all of these flaws, why did Patton even make this list?

    First, the one area in which Patton shone was scoring touchdowns.  His 13 in 2012 tied him for the fifth-most in the FBS.  He was particularly effective in the red zone, chalking up seven scores on passes inside his opponents’ 20-yard line.  There will always be a place on an NFL roster for a receiver who can find the end zone, a fact that bumps up his overall value.

    Second (and more important), Patton is projected to go somewhere between the second and fourth rounds.  This makes him a much less risky bet than other, similarly flawed receivers who may be picked in the first or second rounds. 

    With that in mind, Patton would be even higher on this list if he were to fall to the fifth or sixth round come draft day.  At those stages of the draft, taking a flier on a player with excellent historical production but holes in his game can actually yield a great return on investment.

    With that in mind, if Patton starts sliding on draft day, the Steelers should be alert and snatch him up if he falls too far.

Markus Wheaton, Oregon State

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    Though the Steelers should probably avoid taking smaller receivers in the 2013 NFL draft, they may want to consider taking Oregon State’s Markus Wheaton if the relatively diminutive receiver is available in the third or fourth round. 

    The 5’11”, 189-lb. wideout has the skills necessary to be a legitimate weapon out of the slot position in offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s scheme that emphasizes short passes.  If that talent turns into production on the field, Pittsburgh could split Sanders out wide without worrying about leaving a hole on the inside.

    Wheaton had a top-notch senior year, ranking 14th in receptions (91) and 14th in yards (1,244) among FBS receivers in 2012.  Like Patton, his greatest strength was arguably his ability to put points on the board for the Beavers.  Wheaton’s 11 touchdowns tied him for 12th in the country, and his seven scores in the red zone ranked near the top among NFL-bound receivers.

    The concerns with Wheaton, however, mirror what should cause teams to worry about drafting Austin.  First, his small size.  Though bigger than his counterpart out of West Virginia, he is still quite a bit slighter of build than the typical NFL receiver.

    Second, despite the 4.45 40-yard dash that Wheaton ran at the combine, he was not much of a big-play threat for the Beavers in 2012.  Less than half of his catches netted the team 15 yards or more. 

    While it is true that Oregon State’s offense was built more around short passes than deep throws, the mercurial Wheaton still trailed well behind many of his slower-footed peers when it came to hitting home runs last year.

    Third, even though he played in a system designed to move the chains through the air, Wheaton also wasn’t that effective as a possession receiver.  Only 68.1 percent of his catches resulted in a first down for the Beavers.  Wheaton was even less effective when Oregon State faced a third down with seven or more yards to go.  In those situations, the senior receiver secured a new set of downs with only 60 percent of his receptions.

    So if Wheaton has red flags that are so similar to the ones that should scare the Steelers away from Austin, why should Kevin Colbert and Co. consider taking the former? 

    Basically, Wheaton’s price tag as a second- to fourth-round pick will be significantly lower than what Austin will cost as a first-rounder, meaning the risk associated with the Oregon State star is considerably less.

Chris Harper, Kansas State

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    If Pittsburgh doesn’t find a receiver that offers the right mix of high production at a low price in the earlier rounds of the 2013 draft, the team could still take a flier on Kansas State’s Chris Harper in the fifth or sixth round.  Though the former Wildcat didn’t have the most impressive 2012 campaign, he did enough to merit a look during the later rounds of the draft.

    Over the past couple of seasons, Kansas State has built its team around its quarterback, Collin Klein, whose main strength was running the football.  As a result, the Wildcats gained nearly as many yards on the ground (2,522) as they did through the air (2701) in 2012.  The previous season, the team rushed for nearly 500 more yards that it accumulated via the passing game.

    By comparison, the passing offense Wheaton played in at Oregon State more than doubled the 1,617 yards the team generated via the ground game last year.  Likewise, the high-flying Tennessee offense that helped boost the draft stock of Patterson and fellow Volunteer Justin Hunter also produced about twice as many yards through the air than on the ground.

    Thanks to this focus on the run, Harper didn’t see the ball all that much while in Manhattan.  In 2012, he caught 58 passes for 857 yards and three touchdowns.  This was a slight improvement over a junior year that saw him amass 40 receptions for 547 yards and five touchdowns.

    These mediocre stats would not be so troubling, however, if Harper had demonstrated excellence in one particular facet of the game.  That would at least suggest that the wideout could be an effective role player at the next level.  But unfortunately, the senior receiver was pretty average as both a deep threat and a possession receiver when compared to other likely NFL draftees.

    A little more than 53 percent of his catches netted 15 or more yards for Kansas State, and 67.2 percent of his receptions secured a first down for his team.  The only area in which Harper excelled was picking up first downs in 3rd-and-long scenarios.  The receiver got the necessary yards on all eight of his catches in those situations.

    With such uninspiring production, the only thing that keeps Harper in the discussion of best value picks at the wide receiver position is his projected draft spot.  As with Patton and Wheaton, the fact that Harper is likely to go late in the draft makes his flaws less glaring.

    If the Steelers were to gamble that he was a diamond hidden in a run-first offense, they wouldn’t lose much if they were wrong.

Emory Blake, Auburn

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    Emory Blake’s potential as a NFL receiver remains something of a mystery.  Like Harper, the son of former NFL quarterback Jeff Blake played in a run-oriented offense at Auburn and saw the ball relatively infrequently as a result. 

    A team that drafts him simply will have to hope that the flashes of NFL quality that he displayed in college translate to consistent production with increased usage.

    The 6’2”, 193-lb. wideout had a so-so 2012 campaign.  He caught 50 passes for 789 yards and three touchdowns.  Clearly, his numbers were not great, but Auburn’s anemic passing attack only generated 147 completions and 1,879 yards in total.  Meanwhile, the team’s running game put up 1,781 yards.

    When he did get the ball, though, Blake did do some good things with it.  The 15.78 yards he averaged per catch and the 60 percent of his receptions that went for 15 or more yards last year were among the best rates posted by receivers headed for the NFL in 2013 and demonstrated that the senior wideout has the potential to produce big plays.

    At the same time, Blake was very good at helping the Tigers move the ball down the field.  A whopping 80 percent of the receiver’s catches picked up a new first down for Auburn.  His skills as a possession receiver were even more evident when the team faced a long third-down conversion attempt. 

    Blake’s 11 receptions in these critical situations accounted for 22 percent of his total catches on the year, and the receiver turned an astounding 10 of those grabs into first downs for the Tigers.

    Given Blake’s performance in these various aspects of the game and the likelihood that he will fall to the fourth or fifth round of the 2013 NFL draft, why isn’t the former Auburn star higher on this list?

    The problem for Blake is that there is enough depth at the wide receiver spot this year that more proven prospects also will be available at that point in the draft.  Given the choice between a relative unknown like Blake and a player with more of a track record, smart teams like the Steelers will go with the safer bet. 

    If the former Auburn tiger were to fall to the sixth or seventh round by draft day, however, his risk-reward ratio would drop, and he would become a much more enticing prospect.

Marcus Davis, Virginia Tech

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    As was mentioned previously, the Steelers receiving corps is sorely lacking in size.  Though talented, the group is rather small and does not have a single overpowering physical presence like Calvin Johnson or Anquan Boldin who can out-jump and outmuscle defensive backs for the ball. 

    Though the reappearance of Plaxico Burress in 2012 did give Pittsburgh some size at the wideout spot, the aging receiver only appeared in a handful of games and didn’t contribute much to the Steelers’ aerial attack.

    If Pittsburgh decides to fill the hole left by Wallace’s probable departure with a big target for Roethlisberger, the team might be well-served by looking at Virginia Tech’s Marcus Davis, who will probably be available until sometime between the third and seventh rounds.  The 6’4”, 233-lb. receiver is a somewhat unproven commodity, but he has shown enough of an upside to make him a good pick in the middle to later rounds.

    Despite essentially splitting touches with fellow receiver Corey Fuller during the 2012 season, Davis managed to post a respectable 51 catches for 953 yards and five touchdowns.  The 18.69 yards he averaged per catch last year ranked him an impressive 13th among FBS receivers.

    Davis used his size very effectively to wear down opposing defensive backs.  The big receiver got stronger as each Virginia Tech game progressed, averaging almost 5.5 more yards per catch in the second half than in the first 30 minutes of every contest.

    For a player his size, Davis was also a remarkably good deep threat for the Hokies in 2012.  Thirty-three of his 51 catches (or an impressive 64.7 percent) picked up 15 or more yards.  At the same time, he was a valuable target for the Hokies in key third-down situations, catching 21.6 percent of his passes when Virginia Tech needed seven or more yards to get a first down.  And Davis got his team the required yardage on a respectable 81.8 percent of those receptions.

    The main knock on Davis is his lack of consistency. 

    Some scouts question whether he is willing to put in the work necessary to be a successful NFL receiver.  That may be a legitimate concern, and it is certainly something the Steelers will have to explore if they think about taking him. 

    But given that he’s projected to go no higher than the third round, it may very well be worth it for the team to roll the dice on his considerable potential and hope that the team’s core of experienced veterans gives Davis the mentoring he needs to develop into a successful pro.

Kenny Stills, Oklahoma

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    The Steelers really need a deep threat to replace Wallace next year.  However, as was mentioned previously, they might be able to get away with drafting a possession receiver to play in the slot and letting Sanders split wide.  If they decide to go with that option, one of their best choices in the draft would be Kenny Stills from Oklahoma.

    In three seasons in Norman, Stills posted solid if unspectacular numbers.  As a freshman and sophomore, he played behind 2012 second-round draft choice Ryan Broyles but still averaged 61 catches for 818 yards and a little less than seven touchdowns per year. 

    In 2012, he became the Sooners’ No. 1 receiver and boosted his production accordingly.  In his final year at Oklahoma, Stills caught 82 passes for almost 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns.

    Though Stills was not much of a deep threat for the Sooners, he excelled at moving the team down the field.  At 69.5 percent, the proportion of his catches that picked up a first down was among the highest of any receiver likely to be drafted in 2013. 

    That productivity increased dramatically when the Sooners most needed it.  Stills caught 12 passes on third downs with seven or more yards to go, one of the highest totals among draft prospects.  And more importantly, 90 percent of those receptions secured a new set of downs for Oklahoma’s offense.

    Like Patton from Louisiana Tech and Wheaton from Oregon State, Stills excelled at getting to the end zone.  His 11 touchdowns ranked 13th in the FBS last year, and the seven he scored in the red zone indicate that he could be a valuable weapon in those scenarios for an NFL team.

    What really separates Stills from the pack, though, and what makes him a particularly good choice in the middle rounds for a team like the Steelers, are his intangibles

    The junior receiver is a noted perfectionist who has repeatedly stated that his 2012 season did not match his lofty expectations.  He is also a natural and vocal leader who enjoys blocking as much as catching the football.

    Stills’s work ethic and willingness to do whatever it takes to win may remind Pittsburgh fans of a certain popular former Steelers receiver who, like the Oklahoma receiver, was never the most physically gifted player on the field.  A somewhat slow, gritty third-round pick who loved to block and who always found a way to get open and pick up first downs when the team needed them.

    If Stills turns out to be even half the player that Hines Ward was, he would more than justify the third or fourth-round pick the Steelers probably would have to spend on him.

Terrance Williams, Baylor

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    One of the best ways to determine a college wide receiver’s true abilities is to observe how he does after he loses a superstar quarterback.  Some wideouts look great when a top-flight signal-caller is distributing the ball but then flop if forced to depend on a replacement-level player to throw their way.  Other receivers find a way to shine no matter who is throwing the ball.  And those players are the ones who are something special.

    Terrance Williams and the rest of the Baylor offense endured a pretty significant drop in talent at the quarterback position from 2011 to 2012. 

    Though Nick Florence had a very good season last year, he was nowhere near the quarterback that 2011 Heisman winner and current NFL star Robert Griffin III was.  Incredibly, however, Williams proved to be an even better receiver without RG III than he was with the star quarterback, suggesting that he would be an absolute steal in the second or third round (where he is currently projected to be drafted).

    Playing in the shadow of current Tennessee Titan Kendall Wright in 2011, Williams had a very solid if unspectacular junior year.  The 6’1”, 208-lb. receiver caught 59 balls for just under 1,000 yards, averaging a healthy 16.22 yards per catch and scoring 11 touchdowns.

    As Baylor’s No. 1 option in 2012, however, Williams exploded.  The senior hauled in 97 passes and brought 12 of them to the end zone.  His 1,832 yards led all FBS receivers.  Even throwing out his ridiculous 314-yard performance in Baylor’s shootout with West Virginia, Williams still would have finished the season ranked fourth in the nation in receiving yards.

    Blessed with deceptive speed, Williams was an excellent deep threat for the Bears.  He advanced the ball 15 or more yards on an impressive 64.9 percent of his receptions in 2012.  Williams also showed remarkable endurance, averaging nearly a full yard more per catch in the second halves of Baylor’s games than in the first 30 minutes of play.

    The only noticeable hole in Williams’ game, and what makes him a slightly worse value proposition, was his ability to move the chains when Baylor needed him to.  His success rate in that area was only average among NFL-bound receivers.  Combined with the fact that every one of his first downs in 2012 came on a reception that went for 15 or more yards, this suggests that he was somewhat of an all-or-nothing performer.

    Williams played even worse on 3rd-and-long, picking up a disappointing 11.6 yards per catch and getting a new set of downs only 58.3 percent of the time.

    Even with those warts, though, Williams’ size and speed make him an excellent choice for a team like the Steelers.  Provided he goes in the second or third round, the former Baylor Bear should easily outperform his rookie contract.

Justin Hunter, Tennessee

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    If Patterson is such a talented receiver, how come he wasn’t Tennessee’s No. 1 wideout in 2012?  And if he is good enough to be a first-round pick, then how good must the Volunteers’ main offensive weapon at the receiver spot have been if Patterson couldn’t beat him out?

    The reason Tennessee’s offense didn’t revolve around the gifted Patterson was because of the talents of Justin Hunter, the team’s No. 1 receiver.  And the fact that the former couldn’t displace him says a lot about how good the latter was in 2012.

    Hunter caught 73 passes for 1,083 yards and nine touchdowns last year.  Though that conventional stat line was not as impressive as those of other wide receiver prospects it was not bad for a receiver splitting targets with a potential 2013 first-round draft choice.

    One of the causes of his slightly pedestrian numbers was a knee injury that knocked him out for the 2011 season after only three games. 

    During the first half of 2012, Hunter was still shaking off the rust, and his stats reflected that.  In last season’s first six games, the junior wideout averaged 5.8 catches and 82.8 yards per contest.  In the final six games, Hunter’s production increased to 6.3 receptions and 97.7 yards per game.

    Despite the limitations imposed by the injury, Hunter showed that he still had the speed to stretch defenses.  The former Volunteer gained 14.84 yards per catch and took 56.2 percent of his catches for 15 yards or more.  Both rates ranked above the median among receivers likely to hear their names called on draft day.

    At the same time, Hunter was an extremely efficient possession receiver, helping Tennessee’s offense move the chains consistently. 

    The 6’4”, 200-lb. wideout used his sizable frame to pick up a first down for the Volunteers with 74 percent of his catches.  He was even more productive in 3rd-and-long situations, turning 84.6 percent of his catches into first downs when the Volunteers needed seven or more yards.

    The concern with Hunter will obviously be the strength and long-term health of his knee.  Even though he ran a blistering 4.44 40-yard dash at the combine, worries about his injury and the hype around his teammate probably will drop Hunter to the second or third rounds. 

    That could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for teams like the Steelers, who will have the chance to pick up a first-round talent at a deep discount.

DeAndre Hopkins, Clemson

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    Another likely early-round draft pick who looks like he would be worth the money is DeAndre Hopkins from Clemson.  The 6’1”, 214-lb. junior receiver has put together two solid years and one superlative season in college and looks capable of being an effective contributor at the next level.  The Steelers should give him serious consideration even if it means using their top draft pick on him.

    As a freshman in 2010, Hopkins caught 56 balls for 626 yards and four touchdowns.  Despite playing alongside freshman phenom Sammy Watkins in 2011, Hopkins hauled in 71 passes for 961 yards and five touchdowns.

    With Watkins suspended for the beginning of last season and slow to get going when he returned to the field, Hopkins took over as the Tigers’ top wideout in 2012. 

    The receiver never looked back, finishing the year with 82 catches and an eye-popping 1,405 yards—the fourth-highest total in the FBS last year.  His 18 receptions were the second most among receivers in college football’s top division.  The highlight of his year was a 13-catch, 191-yard performance against a tough LSU defense in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

    But Hopkins didn’t just put up great stats last year.  He also showed that he possesses the full range of skills necessary to succeed in the pros.

    Despite whispers that he lacked elite speed, Hopkins gained 15 or more yards on 67.1 percent of his catches. 

    He demonstrated equal proficiency at moving the chains, catching 14 passes when Clemson faced third down with seven or more yards to go and picking up a first down with 84.6 percent of those receptions.  Hopkins was also a valuable red-zone target for the Tigers, racking up seven touchdowns on plays inside their opponents’ 20-yard line. 

    In all three areas, Hopkins ranked among the best of the receivers likely to be drafted in 2013.

    What all of this means is that if the Steelers take Hopkins in the first or second round, they will get a receiver who can stretch a defense vertically, pick up first downs and score in the red zone.  And what more can a team realistically expect from a high-round draft choice?

Corey Fuller, Virginia Tech

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    The best value pick at the wide receiver position in the upcoming NFL draft is arguably Corey Fuller out of Virginia Tech.  Blessed with NFL size and speed, the senior wideout managed to produce at a very high level despite a relatively low usage rate.  Given that he is unlikely to be drafted before the fifth round, Fuller is almost the very definition of a low-risk, high-reward selection. 

    If the Steelers choose not to pursue a receiver in the draft’s earlier rounds, they should not hesitate to take a flier on the former Hokie.

    Despite playing alongside fellow draft prospect Davis, Fuller managed to put up 43 catches for 815 yards and six touchdowns last year.  The 18.95 yards per catch he averaged over the course of the season was the ninth-highest rate among receivers at FBS schools in 2012.

    More importantly, Fuller excelled in several different areas of the game, demonstrating that he can be a multifaceted threat at the next level.  Thanks to his 4.43 speed in the 40-yard dash, the former Hokie receiver gained 15 or more yards on an astounding 69.8 percent of his catches.  This was one of the highest rates of any receiver likely to be drafted in April.

    Fuller was equally proficient as a possession receiver.  A whopping 86 percent of his catches picked up a first down for Virginia Tech.  He was a favorite target for Hokie quarterbacks on 3rd-and-long, with more than a quarter of his total catches coming in those situations.  The senior wideout picked up an unbelievable average of 27.5 yards on those receptions and turned 81.8 percent of them into first downs.

    With only one season of, at best, moderate usage under his belt, Fuller is by no means a sure thing.  But given how late in the draft the 6’2”, 204-lb, receiver is likely to go, his intriguing mix of size, speed and promise would make him an excellent second-day pickup for Pittsburgh.