The 2014 NFL draft offers teams an impressive variety and depth of talent at the receiver position.
The class is headlined by Clemson star Sammy Watkins, and most analysts expect Mike Evans of Texas A&M and Kelvin Benjamin of FSU to come off the board during the first round. After those three, there are a number of players who could sneak into the first round or drop into the second.
Marqise Lee of USC had a seemingly inconsistent time in college, but he showcased plenty of potential. Brandin Cooks of Oregon State is drawing comparisons to Tavon Austin, the first receiver selected in the 2013 draft. Clemson's Martavis Bryant could sneak into the first round, after he blew up the combine.
A flurry of receivers could be the third or fourth off the board, but none will offer the all-around ability of LSU's Odell Beckham Jr.
Beckham finished the 2013 season with 57 receptions for 1,117 yards and eight touchdowns. He also had five rushing attempts for 58 yards. Beckham's statistics are modest when you compare them to Sammy Watkins' 101 receptions for 1,464 yards and 12 touchdowns or Mike Evans' 69 receptions for 1,394 yards and 12 touchdowns.
However, the context of his production must be taken into account.
Beckham played in a run-heavy offense that averaged 40.2 rushing attempts per game and only 25.1 pass attempts. Furthermore, even though he played with another NFL prospect at the quarterback position, Zach Mettenberger, his service was underwhelming.
Mettenberger was an erratic passer who was tasked with making difficult throws that often forced Beckham to adjust to the flight of the football.
The 21-year-old receiver isn't a big player. At the combine, he officially measured in at 5'11" and 198 pounds with 32 3/4" arm length. Importantly, his hands measured at a relatively huge 10". Beckham's height will affect his evaluation, but much like Antonio Brown of the Pittsburgh Steelers, his listed height is less important than his physical talent.
Being physically talented can allow you to be a dominant receiver at the college level. It can take you so far in the NFL, but raw physical talents are generally not as effective as more polished technicians. Beckham is physically talented, but it's the subtlety in his routes that allows him to create separation.
On this play, the defense is playing off coverage because it's 4th-and-10. This is important to note because of how the defensive backs set themselves up in relation to where the play ultimately finishes.
The first view suggests that Beckham simply found a soft spot in the zone or his man played poor coverage. However, the second view shows us that the corner responsible for Beckham initially overplayed the inside.
In this situation, this is a smart approach because it should force the receiver to run a deep out route. A deep out route is a tough throw for the quarterback because he needs arm strength and timing to avoid giving the corner a chance to break on the ball.
Beckham runs the route that the cornerback had set himself up to stop.
He shouldn't be able to get inside so easily, but he is successful for a few reasons. The first is his release and the early section of his route. He subtly takes his route slightly infield while contorting his upper body so it looks like he is going to run the out route.
Then, at the perfect time, Beckham breaks inside with precise footwork and impressive quickness. The cornerback has no chance of preventing him from running across the field for a first down.
Beckham's quickness, balance and intelligence was on display for that play, but it didn't show off his long speed.
On this play, Beckham shows off outstanding fluidity as he runs a double move. He sustains his speed throughout the route despite making a relatively hard inside step to draw the cornerback out of position. He easily accelerates from the last line of the defense for what should have been a touchdown.
Mettenberger underthrows the pass, so Beckham is forced to adjust to the ball in the air. He quickly locates the pass and makes an impressive catch with his hands away from his body. However, the most impressive aspect of the catch is the subtle push he uses to knock the defensive back away from the play.
Having the ability to run precise, deceptive routes is one thing, but consistently putting in the effort to run through your routes is another.
Beckham is very consistent running through his routes and he does so while extending his hands to catch the ball instead of waiting on it. This is a very under-appreciated, but very important aspect of playing wide receiver in the NFL.
Not only does working back to the football make you more likely to catch more passes, it also prevents opportunities for interceptions.
The NFL is full of defensive backs who have the speed and quickness to break on the ball in front of receivers. If all things are equal, effort can often be the difference.
It's clear that route running is one of Beckham's greatest strengths as an NFL prospect.
Generally, fast players are considered threats for big plays with the ball in their hands. Beckham is very fast, but his YAC potential is about more than that. Much like Michael Crabtree, Beckham has an outstanding ability to set up what he does with the ball before he gets it.
This play is a simple throw into the flat. The defensive back lines up Beckham and is in position to make a tackle when the ball arrives. It would be easy to simply say the cornerback made a bad play or Beckham was too quick, but the subtleties of his movement shows off his awareness and intelligence.
Before the ball arrives to Beckham in the flat, he extends his right leg towards the sideline without pushing his heel to the ground. He keeps his feet facing infield at all times, so he is already set up to spring away from the defensive back when he catches the football.
His footwork and his willingness to catch the ball with his hands instead of letting it hit his chest may not have been the difference on this play, but it is what will allow him to consistently create yards after the catch at the next level.
This is something that translates throughout Beckham's routes, so he is just as dangerous when he catches the ball farther away from the line of scrimmage. It's an extension of his route running that should make him a big play threat whenever he is thrown to.
Beckham will never be a dominant jump ball receiver because of his size, but he does play big and doesn't shy away from contact. A combination of impressive leaping ability, big hands and incredible ball skills made him a star in college.
For any receiver in the NFL, regardless of their height, high-pointing the football is incredibly important. Because the defensive backs in the NFL are more aggressive and stronger than in college, getting to the football first is crucial for success.
With his 10" hands, Beckham seamlessly pulls the ball away from defensive backs on contested catches. His leaping ability is effective when he has advantageous positions, but it won't allow him to win jump ball situations like an Alshon Jeffery or Brandon Marshall.
This trait is more effective when he is asked to create separation first.
One benefit of playing with Mettenberger is that Beckham had the opportunity to repeatedly show off his ability to adjust to slightly off-target passes. On this play, he should be running to the end zone for an easy touchdown, but Mettenberger throws the ball behind him.
Beckham tracks the flight of the football perfectly and extends his hands so the flailing arm of the defender can't knock it away.
He may not have had the statistical score to boast about, but he did get to show off an impressive catch radius and outstanding awareness. Too often this kind of play results in an interception because the receiver doesn't recognize the poor throw.
With a small receiver, the first concern is always about how much punishment they can take. Beckham is short, but not weak.
Although he is not noticeably stocky, he is not thin, either. Beckham is compact and strong enough to absorb big hits without dropping the football. He should be able to work the middle of the field in the NFL to great effect.
The second most prevalent concern with a smaller receiver is his ability to beat press coverage at the line of scrimmage.
Again, much like Antonio Brown of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Beckham should be able to release from the line of scrimmage cleanly by relying on his quick feet, strength and low center of gravity. He won't need to run through defensive backs because he should be able to create space with his initial movement.
Once that initial space is created, it will be very difficult for the defender to redirect him.
By drafting Beckham, a team isn't just drafting a receiver who will fit in any scheme. They're also drafting a...
...and punt returner.
Much like DeAndre Hopkins from last year's draft, Beckham may not be the best receiver in the class, but he is the most well rounded. Hopkins didn't have a productive rookie season, but that was largely a result of the situation he landed in.
Generally when you are a receiver being picked in the second half of the first round, you are landing in a good spot. Beckham could end up with a variety of different teams because of his skill set. Presuming he lands with a good supporting cast, he should quickly become a very valuable receiver.
If he lands with the Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers, New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers, New England Patriots, San Francisco 49ers or even the Cleveland Browns—working under the presumption that they take a quarterback with their first pick—Beckham could easily be the steal of the first round.