Over the past couple of seasons, there has been an influx of young talent at wide receiver unlike any we've seen in NFL history. Mike Evans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Kelvin Benjamin of the Carolina Panthers and Odell Beckham of the New York Giants in 2014; Amari Cooper of the Oakland Raiders a season ago.
All topped 1,000 receiving yards during their first year as a professional.
There's no shortage of young talent at the position preparing to make the jump to the NFL in 2016, even if this year's class isn't considered quite as deep. However, there's also no shortage of questions surrounding this year's rookie crop, from (general) consensus top dog Laquon Treadwell of Ole Miss right down the line.
|1.||Laquon Treadwell||Ole Miss||6'2"||210|
|3.||Mike Thomas||Ohio State||6'3"||209|
|5.||Will Fuller||Notre Dame||6'0"||172|
That includes the question of just how good this year's bunch really is, and whether they can continue the NFL's rookie revolution at the position.
Similar to Cooper in 2015, what isn't present is any real doubt (at least among most pundits) as to who will be the first receiver drafted in 2016. That would be Treadwell, who reeled in 82 passes for 1,153 yards and 11 scores for the Rebels this past season.
In comparing the 6'2", 210-pound Treadwell to Dez Bryant of the Dallas Cowboys and calling him a top-10 talent, Dane Brugler of CBS Sports raved about Treadwell's hands and willingness to attack the football:
Treadwell shows a Bryant-like skillset with his size and athleticism combination to be a mismatch against cornerbacks on the outside.
Treadwell has exceptional ballskills and catching radius with strong hands to pluck away from his body or scoop off his shoelaces - if the throw is anywhere within a few feet of his body, he'll attack it. He isn't a sudden athlete, but plays with athletic twitch and power to be a threat after the catch.
However, as Bleacher Report NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller wrote during last month's Senior Bowl, there's a real possibility Treadwell's stock could be headed for a precipitous dip after the NFL Scouting Combine:
Laquon Treadwell entered Senior Bowl week as the No. 1 receiver on my board, and even though the junior isn't in attendance, after talking to sources familiar with his training regimen, the expectation is that he'll run in the 4.65-4.70-second range at the scouting combine. That would put Treadwell in the Alshon Jeffery camp as an early Round 2 player with big upside.
Treadwell wouldn't be the first wide receiver who ran slowly at the combine before going on to star in the NFL. (Paging Anquan Boldin. Mr. Boldin, please pick up the white courtesy phone.) Of course, Treadwell also wouldn't be the first youngster to see a slow 40 time cost him a fair amount of money early in his pro career.
A lumbering 40 time from Treadwell could potentially vault the 2015 Biletnikoff Award winner, Baylor wideout Corey Coleman, to the head of this year's class. Speed certainly isn't an issue for the 5'11", 190-pounder, who averaged 18.4 yards per grab on 74 catches for the Bears' high-octane offense in 2015.
However, whether it's a lack of size, drops across the middle or the less-than-stellar track record of Baylor receivers at the NFL level, as Bleacher Report's Ryan McCrystal reported, Coleman isn't without his warts:
Receivers who excel in one area can still make an immediate impact. For example, Kelvin Benjamin was perhaps the most fundamentally erratic prospect I've scouted at the receiver position. But due to his 6'5", 240-pound frame and impressive leaping ability at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine, the Carolina Panthers found an immediate role for him in their offense.
Coleman wins with much different traits than Benjamin, but the example still applies. With his speed and ability to compete for contested catches, he should immediately find a role as a deep threat.
Whether or not he develops into a more well-rounded receiver will be up to him and his willingness to master the technique of creating separation with his footwork rather than simply with his pure speed.
Of course, in Miller's opinion, it isn't Treadwell who should be the first wide receiver drafted in 2016. Or Coleman, for that matter.
No, in Miller's most recent mock draft, it was Mike Thomas of Ohio State who went first at the position:
Ohio State’s Michael Thomas is the big-bodied star receiver no one is talking about enough in this year’s class. Let’s change that.
Thomas has the size (6’3”, 215 lbs) and speed to take the top off of defenses. And as seen against Virginia Tech and Notre Dame this season, he’s a nifty route-runner with great change-of-direction skills. Sure, his numbers weren’t great, but tape study will show that’s more on the lack of quarterback talent and scheme diversity than any shortage of talent on Thomas’ behalf.
Thomas' impressive size, speed and strength are the sorts of attributes that make scouts and draftniks drool. He certainly looks the part of an NFL wide receiver.
However, Thomas' production for the Buckeyes in 2015 (56 catches, 781 yards) isn't nearly as impressive, and while Lance Zierlein of NFL.com believes the potential is there, he also cautions there may not be another top prospect at wide receiver in 2016 with a higher chance of leaving an NFL team holding the bag:
Thomas has just scratched the surface of his potential in Ohio State's offense full of quick outs and tunnel screens. While he has the size and potential to excite offensive coordinators, Thomas is still a work in progress who must develop a greater feel for the position if he is to match his traits with real NFL production. Thomas has a relatively high ceiling, but his floor is "bust."
Noticing a trend yet?
TCU's Josh Doctson torched Big 12 defenses to the tune of 1,326 receiving yards and 14 scores in 2015. He, too, has his supporters, Bleacher Report's Michael Whitlow among them. Whitlow went so far as to say the 6'3", 195-pounder's ability to win the battle in press coverage could make him the steal of the draft among wide receivers.
"In 48 attempts against press coverage in 2015, Doctson had a success rate of 83.3 percent, per Matt Harmon of NFL.com," Whitlow wrote. "Doctson's success rate was higher than Treadwell (70.6 percent in 51 attempts) and Coleman (78.9 percent in just 19 attempts)."
Those skills at the point of attack have won Doctson comparisons to Beckham. And yet, just as with his compatriots, there are potential issues, from Doctson's frame, per Pro Football Focus' Mike Clay:
Josh Doctson is lean at 6'2/193. How lean? 16 rostered NFL WRs are >6'0 and under 197lb. Few notables: Hurns, Washington, Roberts, B Tate— Mike Clay (@MikeClayNFL) February 11, 2016
To his age, as noted by Rotoworld's Evan Silva:
#Raiders WR Amari Cooper is 2 months younger than Will Fuller, 16 months younger than Sterling Shepard, 18 months younger than Josh Doctson.— Evan Silva (@evansilva) February 16, 2016
To the fact that TCU's spread offense called for Doctson to run a limited route tree.
Oh, and Doctson broke his wrist badly last November. So badly that pins were inserted to stabilize the area.
Notre Dame's Will Fuller, who hauled in 62 passes, exceeded 1,250 yards and scored 14 touchdowns in 2015, is all about the wheels. His 40 time at the combine is not going to be an issue. Draft Breakdown's Justin Higdon shows us why:
Will Fuller gets open by a car length on this one. That's why you can live with a few drops https://t.co/EG63rCTCMi— Justin Higdon (@afc2nfc) February 15, 2016
Did I mention Fuller is fast?:
Here's Will Fuller vs Ronald Darby in 2014, turning a 6 yard slant into a 30 yard gain https://t.co/BP5nzeizqI— Justin Higdon (@afc2nfc) February 15, 2016
However, Fuller is also (to some) the latest in a long line of burner receivers who both run like a deer and catch like one. As Mike Clay noted, it's borne out by a drop rate that is sure to raise eyebrows among some NFL teams:
Among WRs headed to the Combine, only Alonzo Russell (14.3%) had a worse drop rate than Notre Dame's Will Fuller (9.2%) last season.— Mike Clay (@MikeClayNFL) February 17, 2016
Then there's Ohio State's Braxton Miller, the prince of polarizing prospects at the position.
As Charles Robinson of Yahoo Sports reported, there wasn't a player who turned more heads at the Senior Bowl than Miller, who impressed scouts and pundits alike with how well he's transitioned from quarterback to wide receiver:
Miller's footwork looked legit. While he's far from a finished project in his transition from college quarterback to wideout to NFL multi-use weapon, he's further along than some personnel men thought he would be at this stage.
"It's not," one NFC North scout said, noting the last supremely talented Big 10 quarterback who was forced to transition to running back at the NFL level. "He's somewhat advanced in [the discipline] of wide receiver. But he's still raw there, too."
He still has some monumental workouts ahead, as teams determine where he can make the quickest impact. That will most likely be the slot and out of the backfield, and possibly returning punts. Teams will also do additional diligence on Miller's medical history; he missed significant time at Ohio State with injury. The NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis will go a long way to answering those concerns, as well as a curiosity about Miller's speed. He expects to answer that question in the low 4.3-second range in the 40-yard dash.
"It's going to be a low 4.3, but I want to run 4.28 seconds," Miller said. "I feel like I'm capable because I ran 4.36 when I was 215 pounds and I had bad eating habits, too. Now I'm on a strict diet, working out and training hard."
Still, we're talking about a prospect who managed just 604 total yards in 2015. Miller caught only 25 passes in his one year as a wideout in Columbus, and many of those were screens. His collegiate career was littered with injuries of all shapes and sizes.
One NFC executive admitted to Zierlein that while Miller will probably be off the board by the end of Day 2, the team that selects him will be rolling the dice: "He's going to go by at least the third round because of his speed and athleticism. He's got some traits that will get him drafted early and a team will worry about coaching him up after they get him in."
The poster child for all of this polarization? Southern Miss wide receiver Mike Thomas, who caught 71 passes for almost 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2015.
Bleacher Report's Luke Easterling tweeted that he views the 6'1", 186-pounder as a top-10 prospect among wide receivers:
Wrapping up final grades on this year's WR class. Combine snub Mike Thomas (USM) is in my top 10 at the position. #NFLDraft— Luke Easterling (@LukeEasterling) February 12, 2016
Draftnik Justen Gammel went even further. Much further, in fact:
Haven't seen anything elite in Treadwell ever. And now that Mike Thomas (USM) is my top WR, I feel even better moving Tread down. #NFLDraft— Justen Gammel (@gamscout) February 17, 2016
Yet, as Easterling pointed out, the other Mike Thomas didn't even receive an invite to Indy. And for every scout who sees that snub as this year's biggest combine injustice, there's another who views things differently:
@NFLFilmStudy I think this is why USM Mike Thomas was left out of Indy. Thin build, rounded routes, speed in the 4.5 area. Known quantity— Justin Higdon (@afc2nfc) February 12, 2016
And so on and so forth. There's even more draftnik dissension than usual this year at wide receiver, largely because each and every high-end prospect seemingly has one significant question mark looming over them. Speed. Size. Hands. Polish.
There are those who will say that many of these questions will sort themselves out over the weeks and months to come, that the combine and each receiver's pro day will answer at least some of them.
There are also those who will say the tape doesn't lie. That, with the exception of possibly Miller, everything we're going to learn about this year's wideout crop before the draft we've already seen on the playing field.
It may well be that a year from now, when we're readying to welcome in yet another group of young wide receivers into the NFL, we'll write and speak of the high bar set by the 2016 class. Or talk of how easy it will be to clear the limbo rod set by the same group.
That's the thing—like many of the questions surrounding Treadwell, Coleman, Thomas and the rest of these young pass-catchers, we probably won't know all of the answers (or even most) until they take the field this fall.
Gary Davenport is an NFL analyst at Bleacher Report, a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPSharks.