The 2011 NFL Draft is a mere seven weeks away, and though no one is sure whether or not there is to be a football season in 2011, the draft will carry its usual level of excitement. Which prospects will make immediate impact? Which need a lot of seasoning?
Top wide receiver A.J. Green is one answer to the first question. Wherever he lands, he will be a weapon from Week 1. Julio Jones, the second-best wide receiver available, is more accurately the second kind of player. The receiving crop this season is laced with potentially great players who need to develop in one or more key facets in order to reach their potential. Let's take a look at the 25 best wide receivers in the draft.
Green is too good an athlete and too good a ball-skills guy to fail in any way even as a rookie.
He uses his hands gracefully and can get to any pass thrown near him without getting his body twisted into a vulnerable position. Elite speed is there, too, though he needs to learn to stride shorter in order to make cleaner breaks in his routes. Size could be a problem, but expect him to get a bit bigger and more physical over his first two years in the league. Green is a top-five talent in the 2011 class overall.
You can legitimately knock Jones' speed: It isn't bad but it is a tad less than the explosion for which one hopes from a first-round prospect on the outside.
Don't even try to nitpick the rest of his game, though: Jones is a polished route runner, uses his huge frame exceptionally well to gain position and steal balls from cornerbacks and blocks far better in the run game than any other draft prospect at the position. Defensive backs of every stripe will hate having to tackle this guy.
Many view Jon Baldwin as a better prospect, but Smith is the steadier and more NFL-ready talent. He has speed, instincts, hands and great quickness in changing direction both with and without the ball. He essentially ran two routes at Maryland, but assuming he knows how to do more complex things by the time the 2011 season begins, he can be an impact receiver right away.
Sheer length is an asset for Baldwin. So are good hands, long arms and surprising speed for a man of his size. This guy may be the best all-around athlete at the position. The problems are that he runs pretty straight even when he is supposed to run other kinds of routes, and that he does not gracefully shorten his stride without losing speed in order to make cuts. Still, the right situation could make Baldwin the 2011 version of Randy Moss.
Drafting among the elite receivers, you always look for the guys who could potentially break out as a primary target for a given team.
Young is a player in that mold: He has game-breaking speed, eludes and battles defensive backs well and scored 23 total touchdowns during his last two seasons at Boise State. He is not big and will not be an over-the-middle guy but he can cause problems on deep routes and on underneath passes that will give him room to make defenders miss.
Cobb's size and strength played much better in the SEC than they will in the NFL, but everything else is for real. He runs fairly well and makes great routes, but his true value is in making guys miss and general open-field elusiveness. Cobb is small, under six-feet tall and roughly 190 pounds, but he profiles as a decent secondary target on the outside or in the slot for any NFL offense.
Little once played running back, and it shows in his eagerness to punish would-be tacklers. Being suspended for all of 2010 will push him way, way down draft boards, but Little is a big man with a heady sense of getting to the ball in traffic and finding open space. His speed will not keep defensive coordinators up through the night, but Little is a potential playmaker with the ball in his hands.
This is the guy on whom I am much higher than most. I see a solidly built receiver who likes to go over the middle and withstands the punishment well. Paul also gets off the line cleanly and both runs and cuts very well. He is physical, has good vision and plays hard. He's unrefined as a route-runner and doesn't separate from corners well, but those things can be ironed out for a player who works hard off the field.
Doss is the type of receiver to whom you want to get the ball in space. He moves well and sees the field like a running back. His speed and hands are good enough to build a fair career around those skills alone.
The ceiling, though, is the really intriguing thing. Doss is tall and has a chance to get much better when it comes to grabbing jump balls and feeling out deep routes. He runs a bit lean right now, but a summer in an NFL weight room could cure that. Doss could be a tremendous talent.
He did not play against elite college competition, but Jernigan's speed and general lightness of foot would have played well even in the SEC. He stands 5'9" and weighs 190 pounds after dinner, so playing on the outside is very unlikely. If he can run precise enough routes to catch the ball in space out of the slot, though, he will be an electric playmaker at the next level.
Brown is a straight-line runner, which is an unfortunate limitation for a player under 6' at the position. Still, he seems to find seams instinctively and can gash defenses with gains after the catch if that skill carries over to Sundays. If he gets stronger and can consistently beat jam coverage, Brown has good upside.
Teams in need of a big possession receiver who seems to always nab balls in traffic and in mid-air have to consider Hankerson. His speed is far from elite and he will not rack up run after catch stats, but he runs very precise routes and gets great position against corners when he needs it.
He will burn no one and is not a big, strong guy in general. But Johnson was famous for his work ethic at USC and does all the little things well. He probably has to be a slot guy, but few such players will be as versatile from that spot as Johnson, who is a great run blocker and can go over the middle for short stuff.
Gates is not undersized, though he needs to fill out his 6' frame a bit more. He has tremendous, really elite speed. He cuts like a basketball player, which is because that was his primary focus until a year or two ago. Gates is such a raw talent that it's hard to say whether he will develop the football savvy to be a full-time player, but he certainly has a chance and has shown good progress in that regard since turning his full attention to football.
He works hard, and he plays hard. Harris seems to look for contact even when running in the open field, which could be a problem in the NFL. You have to love the aggressiveness, though, and Harris also has good hands and agility.
Kerley is almost a running back on the outside: Throw him a bubble screen or short slant and watch him turn it into magic. The problem is that those inside routes are going to be largely closed off by defenders much bigger and stronger than those Kerley faced in college, and Kerley really does not have the speed to make up for that limitation. He will be explosive out of the slot but teams may figure him out fairly quickly.
Playing against D-III competition does not make it easy to evaluate C-III, but the skills are there even with no one else on the field. He sets up opponents with good jab steps and deceptive actions on routes, and his hands are as soft as anyone in the draft. Beating NFL corners off the line will be the biggest obstacle for him, as he lacks elite quickness and has never played against great defensive backs.
Speed is not a tool with which Salas works very often. Rather, he is a pass-catcher. He grabs the ball with authority and drops hardly anything. He can go get high passes even under duress and he shows good lateral and elusive quickness. At issue is whether or not his physicality, which was a huge part of his game in school, will be as effective in the NFL.
Size matters, and Toliver is a long and fluid 6'4." He goes up for jump balls well and makes all kinds of plays. Unfortunately, he does not have the speed to be the next Randy Moss, but he does share Moss's reticence to go over the middle or absorb contact. He must get stronger or faster, but the tools are there for some breakout football from Toliver.
Maehl has fine speed, plus leaping ability and good hands.
He may not ever become an elite receiver; he may not even make it out of the slot. But he has always been known as tough and intelligent (granted, certain scouting prejudices come into play there: Everyone seems to love a white guy who can play wide receiver) and he makes plays all over the field. He excelled at finding open space for Oregon, and will need to prove he can still do so in a more regimented offensive system.
Whalen reminds me of Donald Driver a bit: good route-runner, tough to bring down, great hands. He does not have the speed to stretch defenses vertically, but operating out of the slot, he can and should be a successful catch-and-run type.
He isn't going to burn you downfield and he isn't going to make you look silly in open space. What Pettis does do well is catch the football. He adjusts to bad throws, fights with corners for good ones and always comes back to the football. Raw athleticism, or a lack of it, puts a cap on his development but he can be a productive slot guy.
Even as a spurned Packers fan, I have to appreciate when a guy from Brett Favre's alma mater does the kinds of things Brown can do. He is colossal and uses his size well, and he runs well enough for that size. He will never have the total package to be a star, but at his size he could play as a part-time outside guy and red-zone specialist for years.
One-trick ponies do not do well in most NFL offenses, and all Adams really does is race downfield and jump for 50/50 air balls. Still, he does it so well that someone is bound to try and develop other aspects of his game. Whoever drafts Cam Newton might be the intriguing dark horse to nab Adams later on.
He is tiny and needs to be utilized creatively if at all in the NFL. But Sanders is so quick and slippery that he could be a playmaker in the mold of Dave Meggett—-you know, without the horrible post-career misconduct. Or with it, since he was arrested on DUI charges in 2009.