The NFL can’t decide if it wants to become a passing league or not. The rules appear to be skewed toward the passing game, with more and more protections for wide receivers and quarterbacks.
Teams have come to realize that it isn’t enough to just have two wide receivers they can trot out and run 21-personnel anymore. The role of a player like the slot receiver has escalated well beyond the stereotype that so many have become accustomed to.
What all this means for the 2014 NFL draft is this talented group of pass-catchers is going to be in great demand. And thankfully, this group dishes out variety like a 20-page Cheesecake Factory menu.
However, all that diversity has its problems. It makes ranking them subjectively a legitimate challenge. NFL teams all have their own personal big boards that contain their top prospects based on a mix of talent and system fit. These rankings look more at raw talent and NFL potential.
Obviously some teams will favor different styles of receiver. Perhaps a big, tall target who can work in traffic would be a better fit. Or maybe your team needs a deep threat with long speed to get behind the secondary.
When scouting wide receivers, regardless of anything else, there are a couple of things every wide receiver needs to do well.
Few things will keep a young wideout off the field more than lazy route running. Whether it is driving on a cornerback or simply sticking your foot in the dirt to make a cut, everything must be done with precision.
Being able to catch the football is fantastic, but having active hands is a huge plus. This means the wideout goes out and gets the football, rather than letting it come to him. So many catches in the NFL are contested, having passive hands means that you will be allowing too many defensive backs get into you before you secure the catch.
So much is made about being able to get separation from defensive backs, but the reality is that is an ideal, but not the norm. Most catches, especially downfield catches, are made while being contested.
Given the choice, having a wideout who can fight for the football and win is much more useful in the league over the guy who can get behind defensive backs on occasion.
The star of this class is Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins. Going back over the film, there is really very little Watkins cannot do on the field. The Clemson offense ran Watkins all over the field on routes, from quick throws to the outside, inside crossing routes and even to elusive go routes.
After the catch, Watkins displays impressive speed and tremendous power. In many cases, Watkins would rather deliver a blow than try to avoid it, which could be viewed as a negative. His lateral agility is less than some other wide receivers in this group, but his game compares favorably to that of a bigger, stronger Antonio Brown.
If your favorite team opts to wait until the middle rounds to find their wide receiver, there are lots of options available as well. Oregon wide receiver Josh Huff is a real sleeper pick who isn’t getting nearly enough national attention.
Huff is a contrast to Watkins in that quickness and agility are the hallmarks of his game. Huff struggles with physical play, instead opting to beat the defender off the line with quickness and running crisp, sharp routes. Huff’s route tree was far from complex at Oregon, but the fact that he executed well shows he can grow and expand that part of his game.
Huff is a little bit of a multi-tool in the NFL. Some teams could view him as a slot receiver who can work on the interiors of zone defenses. Others may want to line him up outside and work on larger, slower cornerbacks. Huff has also displayed an affinity as a return man and can even operate out of the backfield.
However, let’s say that your favorite team wants to dig a little deeper and take a shot on a player even later in the draft. This group will still have you covered.
Sometimes a player is a victim of their surrounding case. For UCLA wide receiver Shaquelle Evans, that is almost certainly the case. The Bruins had problems all along the offensive line, inconsistent quarterback play and a run-heavy style that left Evans in the lurch.
However, if you watch him closely, what you see is a very intriguing mix of size and speed. At 6’1”, 211 pounds, Evans has the physical stature that screams NFL wide receiver. However, he doesn’t always play with the strength you would expect and gets very much caught up in the wash.
Any team that drafts Evans needs to understand that when he is on, he’s great. He’ll get open, display excellent body control and catch everything that comes his way. However, when he’s off, there is no telling where his shortcomings will show up.
Some plays he does a great job getting open and then dropping an easy catch. The next play he runs a sloppy route and can’t get open at all. Scouts talk about ceiling with prospects, and with Evans, there is little doubt it is high. Proper coaching and a commitment to improve by him will help with that a great deal.
Here’s a breakdown of the top wide receivers in the upcoming NFL draft. This list is fluid and could change depending on what happens with the scouting combine. Also, it is important to keep in mind that this list is based on success in the NFL, measured by talent, not a prediction of the selection order of these players.
|4||Mike Evans||Texas A&M||6'5"||225lbs||1st|
|6||Odell Beckham Jr.||LSU||5'11"||193lbs||1st|
|8||Allen Robinson||Penn State||6'3"||210lbs||2nd|
|9||Davante Adams||Fresno State||6'2"||216lbs||2nd|
|10||Brandin Cooks||Oregon State||5'10"||186lbs||2nd|
|17||Donte Moncrief||Ole Miss||6'2"||226lbs||4th|
|24||Bruce Ellington||South Carolina||5'9"||196lbs||6th|
|27||Matt Hazel||Coastal Carolina||6'1"||196bs||7th|
|28||Michael Campanaro||Wake Forest||5'10"||191lbs||7th|
|29||Dri Archer||Kent State||5'8"||175lbs||7th|