Let's take a look at two anonymous wide receivers and see which one looks like the better prospect:
Wide receiver A is 6'1'' and weighs 224 pounds. He ran a 4.45 in the 40-yard dash, 6.90 in the 3-cone drill and 4.14 in the 20-yard shuttle. Wide receiver A put up 24 repetitions on the bench press (a huge number for a WR) and had a vertical jump of 34.5 inches.
Wide receiver B on the other hand, is 6'4'' but weighs just 211 pounds. He ran a 4.48 in the 40-yard dash, 6.91 in the 3-cone drill and 4.21 in the 20-yard shuttle. Wide receiver B put up 18 repetitions on the bench press and also had a vertical jump of 34.5 inches.
Between the two wide receivers, B is taller but A has better overall size and strength. In all of the measureables, wide receiver A was better than, or equal to, wide receiver B, while carrying almost 15 extra pounds of muscle.
Based just on these things, which wide receiver would you choose if you were an NFL team?
Pretty clearly, most people would choose wide receiver A.
At the very least, it would be a difficult decision with each prospect deserving consideration.
Mystery wide receiver B is A.J. Green from Georgia. Green is the consensus best receiver in the draft and is a pretty sure firelock to be a top-five pick in the first round.
Mystery wide receiver A? That would be Niles Paul from Nebraska. Paul is the unheralded consensus 4th round talent who is physically superior to Green in every way except height.
Obviously the difference between A.J. Green and Niles Paul has been production. I am not here to argue that Niles Paul is better than A.J. Green because in this draft, I believe Green has no equal. My point is that for a guy whose physical abilities compare extremely favorably with Green's, is it possible that Paul will be a better receiver in the NFL than he was at Nebraska?
The biggest reason Niles Paul carries a 4th round grade is because of his lack of production at Nebraska. But when you talk about production from a wide receiver, there is another part of that equation and that is the quarterback.
The first problem Nebraska has had at quarterback is stability. Paul had a different starting quarterback for the majority of the season in each of his four years as a Cornhusker (Sam Keller, Joe Ganz, Zac Lee, Taylor Martinez). The biggest factor in how well a quarterback and wide receiver connect is the chemistry they build up with one another. That's pretty difficult to do if you're working with a different quarterback every season.
The second problem Nebraska has had with their quarterbacks is the fact that they haven't been very good. With the exception of Joe Ganz when Paul was a sophomore, the quarterbacks at Nebraska haven't been able to complete even 60 percent of their passes. If you have watched the games, particularly the last two seasons with Zac Lee and Taylor Martinez taking the snaps, even the balls that were catchable were often behind their receivers. This elevated the drop numbers of the entire receiving corps.
Now, some of the blame does have to fall on Niles Paul. Some of the issues he has had with drops have to do with the fact that he has smaller than ideal hands for a wide receiver. Also, while Paul is an adequate route runner, he by no means is exceptional in that area, although I will say he has a knack for finding the soft spots in a zone.
The argument can be made that if he was truly an elite receiver, Niles Paul would have produced despite the poor quarterback play he suffered through, and there is some merit to that. Paul has also had some off-field issues involving alcohol, which is a concern to scouts. Clearly Paul has not just been a victim of his circumstances when it comes to his draft grade. There is quite a bit more to like about Niles Paul than his draft grade and career statistics might indicate though.
The verdict on Niles Paul in the NFL is a bit a tricky to predict, to say the least. I believe that because of his pure talent, which is bordering on elite, that if he were to get into the right situation, he could have a very successful NFL career. When I say right situation, I mean a veteran team who can help keep him out of trouble. A team with some receivers that can mentor him, and a quarterback who can get him the ball.
Paul does have the added value of being able to return punts and kicks, where he can be quite dangerous at times.
The bottom line is that Niles Paul has some extremely explosive potential as a wide receiver, but the franchise he ends up with will be a major factor in whether that potential is ever unleashed or not.
If he winds up on a team like the Patriots or Colts, then Husker fans will be asking themselves why they never got to see that amazing side of Niles Paul.
Projected Draft Position: Fourth Round. His pure talent is at a second round level but off the field questions and lack of production will cost him a couple of rounds.
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