After talking about the top running backs and linebackers last week, I want to shift my focus towards the perimeter players. In this episode of positional rankings, we start with the offensive side of the ball – the wide receivers to be more exact. This group of pass-catchers is very diverse and offers a multitude of different bodies, which will lead to major variations in team’s rankings, depending on what they are looking for.
To be honest, I only see one guy in this draft class, who I think could develop into an elite WR1. However, there are a bunch of excellent second and third options available. I believe you can steal some eventual starters on day three. In the end, there might be 15 or 16 receivers, who I’d pick within the first four rounds.
Once again, my rankings are purely based on what I’ve seen on tape and in pre-draft events. However, with this positional group, there was one name with just too many red flags to judge him based on his pure talent and you will find his name at the very end.
1. Calvin Ridley, Alabama
To me, Ridley is the clear-cut number one prospect at the wide receiver position. He took over as Bama’s primary receiver once Amari Cooper entered the draft and he came in blazing hot as a freshman, putting up 1000 yards receiving. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to duplicate those four digits in his next two years, but I see him doing so in the NFL, going forward.
Ridley is a very creative and sophisticated route-runner. He uses jab steps to get defenders leaning one side and then hits them with a cut the other way. The six-foot receiver uses different gears when running routes, especially on deep ones, on which he can turn on the jets all of a sudden and run past his man. A lot of DBs tend to grab him once he accelerates to full speed, because they get caught off guard, when switched to turbo speed.
The Tide standout does a great selling the inside start and gets a lot of depth into his release. He has a different kind of burst off the line and does a nice job using a chop to free himself up. Moreover, he has no problem using a hard plant at full speed and coming back to the quarterback on curls and comeback routes. What sets this guy apart from the pack, are his fast-twitch muscles, nobody else in this class can match, and the tremendous body-control to adjust to passes mid-air. He lets the ball get into his body a bit, but he rarely drops it.
Those intense, sudden cuts serve him well as an open-field runner too and he will break some ankles at the next level. Ridley can get skinny and slip through two potential tacklers. He has outstanding balance to bounce off defenders, stumble and get back on his feet. Overall, this young man is a play-maker, who can take quick routes or screens and make things happen. He can dance around and make defenders miss, but in contrast to a lot of other guys, his plan is to catch the ball and turn upfield right away.
At 190 pounds, Ridley puts in work as a blocker at the point of attack, but he lacks the physicality to really make a mark that way. He takes a few snaps off if the play goes the opposite way, but if I did such a great job creating separation and didn’t get the ball, I’d probably get frustrated as well. Versus Florida State in the season-opener, Ridley had seven catches for 82 yards and a TD. However, he was overthrown on another long bomb to start the game, which should have resulted in a score and he forced a pass-interference call when he was about to go past somebody once again.
His quarterback Jalen Hurts had limitations in the passing game and missed him on a lot of snaps. I could put together a highlight tape of him being wide open, but the pass being off target or Hurts deciding to take off instead. Watch this year’s National Championship game, when people said Ridley had a quiet showing – he should have had two touchdowns alone. On one snap he got his corner to fall down on a stutter fade, but his QB overthrew him badly, and another throw was just outside his reach on a post. If Ridley was part of a more developed passing offense with a guy, who was more consistently accurate, he could have easily put up numbers, that challenged the top receivers in the nation.
2. James Washington, Oklahoma State
This guy could have been a first-round pick a year ago, but he decided to return for his senior year together with quarterback Mason Rudolph and they made it a priority to terrorize Big XII defenses. Washington put up over 1500 yards, on 20.9 yards per reception, and 13 touchdowns. On the way, he was named a unanimous All-American and won the Fred Biletnikoff award, which goes to the top receiver in the nation.
With Washington’s speed to go over the top or catch short passes and outrun defenses, he is a threat to take it the distance on every play. This manifests itself in his 19.8 yards per catch during his career at Oklahoma State. He presents a muscular physique, which is more reminiscent of a running back, and plays much bigger than his 5’11’’ frame would indicate, using slight push-offs to win a bunch of contested catches. Washington puts a lot of weight on that front leg and runs with good lean to make himself a vertical threat on every play, but he also does a nice job working his way back to the ball.
The three-time member of All-conference teams finds voids in zone coverages and uses head- and foot-fakes to create separation in man. However, I’d like to see him show some better awareness of where to sit down against zone. Washington is so crisp coming out of his breaks and creates a ton of separation at the top of his routes, finding himself open constantly. His five touchdowns of 60+ yards in led the country in 17 and it is just a matter of time until he burns the defense over the top. He finds the ball over his head with ease and has the speed to run under it every single time as long as the arc is good enough.
Washington often came up with big plays when his team needed him most. While he doesn’t even quite measure six feet, he has 34-inch arms. He is more powerful than you’d think and uses that extremely well to stack the defender and keep him from getting hands on the ball. The former Cowboy wideout does an outstanding job slapping away the arms of the defender and stacking him at the top of his go-routes to set the pace and keep himself into position to bringing the catch in, just outside the reach of the chasing DB. He likes to get defenders leaning, by aiming his head towards one way and then cuts underneath of them or fades outside. Cornerbacks need to respect his speed and Washington exploits that cushion, he is given. Not only was he the best at tracking the deep ball, he also caught some passes, where he could barely put his fingers on the tip of the ball.
At Oklahoma State, Washington ran a very limited route-tree and was given a whole lot of free releases at the line of scrimmage in the Big XII. So he struggled a bit with the physicality of some corners at Senior Bowl practices, but with his upper body strength, he will be able to adapt to a more hands-on style of play. The two problems I have with him are that he plays a little stiff at times and isn’t really interesting in getting involved as a blocker. Despite that, I always liked his game and I think he has earned this spot.
3. Courtland Sutton, SMU
This guy is a big, physical target at 6’3 ½ and about 220 pounds. Sutton impresses with broad, muscular shoulders, combined with the ability to terrorize smaller DBs on jump-balls and back-shoulder fades. However, he is also pretty shifty for a big guy and has the speed to stress coverages, which helps him create space on deeper inside-breaking routes, where he is very comfortable at, regardless if people are looking to take him out.
Sutton uses his big frame and strength very well to create separation, as well as shielding the ball from the defender. He draws a multitude of flags due to his size, because he makes so many plays with a defender right on him, that they need to grab onto whatever they can, if he’s just half a step in front. The former Mustang should be monster in red zone situations, even at the NFL level. Moreover, those traits combined with his tenaciousness, make him a quality blocker at the wide receiver position.
The All-AAC receiver is a wild horse when he has the ball in his hands, shrugging and pushing tacklers off, but he also can put some moves on defenders, which you wouldn’t suspect in the first place. He can work some start-and-stops, outrace guys to the edge and most to my liking, run defenders over at the end. He might not be able to make guys miss in tight spaces and out-dance DBs, but he will make those guys move downfield with him.
Sutton needed to work on his catching-technique heading into his senior, as he didn’t use the triangle to his advantage. Rather, he tried to clap his hands on the ball and didn’t have the palms facing the arriving pass, which led to a bunch of drops. This also gave defenders the chance to knock balls loose. While he showed some improvement in that regard, I fear this unfortunately isn’t purely based on technique and he might not have the most natural hands out there. I thought the big-bodied wideouts also faded away from passes at times, when he was supposed to move towards them.
I love Sutton’s attitude and the way he competes. He’s not a very refined route-runner at this point and tends to favor banging into people instead of using breaks and leverage to open up a throwing lane. However, I believe his abilities to be a physical possession receiver, who can pick up those extra two or three yards with the ball in his hands, as well as being a weapon on jump balls give him quite some value. He might never have the lower-body explosiveness to rack up huge catch numbers and he struggled against some of the better cornerback competition, but he will also benefit from better ball-placement to maximize his size advantages and use his hands to fight towards it.
4. Christian Kirk, Texas A&M
Here we have a receiver, who is electric with the ball in his hands and is a very physical runner for a guy his size. Kirk is muscular throughout his frame, measuring in at under six feet and 200 pounds. He is an All-American return man, who touched the ball in a variety of ways on offense, as the Aggies’ little dynamite and change-up to their run-heavy approach.
Kirk is a true playmaker, who just needs the ball and go to work. He can make those quick screens, sweeps and gadget plays work, even if the play isn’t blocked perfectly. The A&M standout has the body control and balance to bounce off tacklers. While he is known for cutting away from defenders, Kirk doesn’t mind lowering the shoulder and taking on the contact. He loves to hesitate and make the defender try to reach out for him, to make that guy miss in space, or just jump-cut around him. I also think, he has a pretty nice stiff-arm.
There is no doubt, Kirk is a special return-man, averaging 22.0 yards per punt return for his career and scoring six touchdowns that way, and he brings those abilities to the offense as well. He can hurt defenses from any spot along the formation. Whether that may be motioning to one side and catching a screen on the fly, receiving a short pass over the middle and taking it to the house or running away from his defender on crossing routes. However, a few times he made questionable decisions to field punts, because he was overly confident.
The Aggies receiver snaps his head around right out of his break and readies himself to wrap around the ball tightly, going into contact. He might not have the size to survive on the outside, but he can be an excellent slot receiver at the next level, with above-average speed for that role. Kirk is at his best when the offensive coordinator makes it a priority to get the ball in his hands quickly and just lets him work his magic. The quickness out in and out of breaks is already there and I saw some nice pivot-routes from him on tape, but most importantly he has the toughness to make a living in-between the numbers.
Kirk doesn’t really attack the ball at the highest point, but instead he lets it get to his body and tries to pin it to his chest. That makes him fight the ball on way too many occasions and that could be a major problem at the next level, as better-schooled defensive backs are looking to punch the ball out of receivers’ hands constantly. When I watched him catch the ball at the combine and saw him go through the gauntlet with ease, I went back to the tape and I think Kirk might just not fully trust his hands at his point, the way he should.
The dangerous weapon completely destroyed Arkansas in their matchup with 246 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns, despite touching the ball just eight times all game long. He also recorded 13 catches for 189 in final game versus Wake Forest. Kirk’s yardage total went down all three years during his time with the Aggies and he fumbled eight times during his collegiate career, but the way he worked on his catching technique, to make it something automatic, encouraged me when I saw him perform in Indy.
5. D.J. Moore, Maryland
This former four-star recruit came in as a freshman to make some contributions off the bat, stepping in as a starter early on, and he saw his workload increase steadily over the next two years. Moore is leaving school as the Big Ten Receiver of the Year and an all-conference selection. He is now looking to make a similar impact at the pro level.
Moore became the featured weapon of the Turp offense, with five different quarterbacks throwing him the ball, as he saw a lot of plays drawn up for him. The fellow underclassman ran a bunch of tunnel screens and was moved around quite a bit, in the end taking on just under 40 percent of the target share in the passing game. That led him to record 80 catches for over 1000 yards last season.
The six-foot, 210-pound receiver does a great job stemming the DB and is crafty at creating separation at the top his routes. He loves to run that shake route from the outside, but also excels on curls, where he understands, how to throw the inside arm of the defender, to keep him from making a play on the ball. Overall, Moore works very well to keep hands off himself. He has a nice stutter step, that he takes advantage of when selling some of the routes, he ran earlier in the game.
While he actually isn’t super-explosive out of his breaks, he has some fire in those feet and is very smooth with the rest of his body. He definitely possesses the ballerina feet to provide us with sideline action on Sundays. Moreover, he has no problem finding the ball in the air and adjusting to it. Once he gains control, his best attribute comes into play – the ability to make things happen after the catch. Moore kind of slithers his way through defenses and continues fighting for extra yardage.
He didn’t win clearly with size or speed at the collegiate level, so he will rather need to do it with his route-running and quicks. A bunch of his receptions came on quick hitches and screens, where he had enough cushion, to not have to worry about the coverage. Despite being targeted in a major way, Moore couldn’t really swing the win share on 50/50 balls his way. In addition to that, he doesn’t always put 100 percent every route or just slows down, when he knows the ball isn’t going his way.
With that being said, I like the overall package. Moore’s hands, quickness and RAC-ability make him a very intriguing prospect, who adds value as a punt returner. Moreover, he is a selfless teammate, who sets picks for his guys or even tries to block 250-pound linebackers, and he has a pretty good throwing arm as well.
6. Michael Gallup, Colorado State
This young man was forced to take kind of a different path to Division One football. First his SAT scores didn’t allow him to be eligible for going joining one of the major programs and then an injury during his time at community college, cost him some scholarships among Power Five schools. When Colorado State knocked at the door, Gallup repaid them with 2685 receiving yards and 21 touchdowns through his two years as a starter, while earning consensus All-American honors last season.
Gallup might not be the biggest burner, but he is an outstanding route-runner, who understands how to widen his route to give the quarterback room to fit in the throw, as well as leaning into the defenders and being able to create separation that way. He shows a plan against press-coverage with good hands and the adequate footwork. The two-time All-Mountain West selection can work head-fakes and beat defenders off the line. He creates a ton of separation on curl and comeback routes, where he forces the contact with the DB or uses sudden footwork to turn himself around.
This guy is a strong hands-catcher and tough as nails. He competes for the ball in the air as well as once he has it in his hands, pretty much turning into a running back after securing the possession. Gallup does a good job keeping tacklers away from his body with stiff-arms and sharp cuts to make them miss. If he can’t avoid the defenders anymore, he doesn’t mind lowering the shoulder and running through contact either. Therefore, he made a bunch of big plays in run-after-the-catch situations all year long, breaking a total of 20 tackles and averaging 6.9 yards after the catch.
Naturally, Gallup was heavily targeted at Colorado State, but a large percentile of those throws were off the mark. Still, his adjustments to the ball in the air were rather average. There were a multitude of passes, on which I would have liked him to came back stronger to the ball. Early on versus Oregon State, he had beaten the coverage deep, but his QB underthrew him. However, Gallup decided to drift further away from the throw, instead of bailing his guy out, by sticking his foot in the ground and attacking the ball at the highest point. I also saw the receiver cruise on some plays, when he didn’t think the ball would be going his way.
Overall, there is a lot to like about Gallup on tape. I see an understanding of when to slow down to expose the void in zone coverage and most impressively, he knows how to stem and throw off DBs to get them out of position and create a throwing lane for his quarterback. Gallup did not back down from the Alabama DBs and almost reached the century mark in that game. He also had an incredible one-handed snag along the sideline in the fourth quarter of their bowl game against Marshall. I believe the former Rams wideout will only step up his game against stiffer competition.
7. Anthony Miller, Memphis
If anyone asked me about the top receivers heading into this draft two years ago, Miller certainly wouldn’t have made my list and I doubt many people would have had them on theirs. He became one of the biggest breakout players in all of college football since then, putting up a total of 2896 yards and 32 touchdowns through the air, on close to 100 catches both years.
Miller doesn’t quite reach the six-foot mark and he plays with a chip on his shoulder. He was one of the most complete receivers in college football. He can run any route in the books and find separation, working the entire field and lining up in different spots. Miller bursts off the line with a purpose and plays fast in general. He has some heat under his cleats and fakes out defenders constantly. In addition to that, he understands when to bend or flatten inside-breaking routes, as well as when to run them more inclined.
Despite lacking some size, he offers a large catch-radius. Miller shows amazing adjustments to the ball in the air and the hands to bring in any catch. Once he secures the possession, he makes things happen in the open field, where can shakes defenders, but isn’t hesitant either, to put his hand under the chin of a defender and run through him. Miller should also be able to return punts at a high level with those attributes, but the Tigers didn’t really ask him to do it very often.
While he typically doesn’t drop any passes, Miller had a couple easy ones go through his hands versus Houston, because he already had his eyes downfield, instead of looking the ball in on quick screens. More importantly, he needs to be careful with the ball in his hands, as he fumbled five times since the start of the 2016 season. He doesn’t have a lot of stride in his steps, which will probably affect his long speed. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait until April 6th to put a number on it at his pro day.
Miller finished 2017 with school-records in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns for a season. He absolutely took over some games during last year’s campaign and should have clearly been a Biletnikoff-finalist. After staying rather silent in the first meeting, Miller came up huge once again versus UCF in the AAC Championship game with 14 catches for 195 yards and three TDs, in which he made a sick catch on a ball thrown to his back. He played his guts out in that contest, as he was constantly slow getting up, after coming up with enormous catches time and time again versus one of the top corners in Mike Hughes. He might struggle with finding separation against some of those physical press-corners at the next level, but he won’t settle for anything against them.
8. D.J. Chark, LSU
Like I eluded to a couple of weeks ago, when talking about, who stood out to me at the combine – Chark is this year’s version of Zay Jones – the receiver, who improved his draft stock by multiple rounds since the regular season ended. While he amassed just 1351 receiving yards with LSU, he has scouts buzzing about his potential to become an impact performer at the pro level.
Chark didn’t put up any big numbers in college because of the inconsistent quarterback play for the Tigers during that time, but he brought the team production as a punt returner and on end-arounds or reverses. At the Senior Bowl in Mobile he got better every day and ended up winning a bunch of one-on-ones, before really turning it on in the actual game, when he caught five balls for 160 yards and a score. Then he put on a show at the combine, running a 4.34 in the 40, ending as a top performer in both leaping events and looking smooth in all the drills.
That is the word that comes to mind when watching the 6’3’’ receiver on tape – Chark is a very smooth overall receiver, when you combine the route-running and ball-skills he brings to the table. He does a nice job initiating contact with the DB to create separation out of his break and he has sweet feet, which he shows off with some sideline- action.
The ball-skills are definitely there and he makes some of those mid-air adjustments to passes look easy. When he uses all those tools he has, he can even beat good coverage by adjusting to the ball. Chark usually is a pretty reliable pass-catcher and brought in a lot of balls on crossing routes. He won’t ever break a ton of tackles, but he can make some guys miss with creative open-field running and he has a feel for defenders looking to rip at the ball, which he counters by spinning away from them.
At right around 200 pounds, Chark can really climb the ladder, but he is too weak at the point of the catch at moments. He had a horrible day as a returner against Notre Dame in the Citrus Bowl, when he fielded one punt at his own two-yard line, while being dropped immediately, and having another two slip right through his hands. Most concerning for me is the lack of physicality and I doubt he will ever be able to release against the elite press-corners in this league.
I like all the measurements and athletic tools Chark brings to the table. However, I believe he will need to work hard on how to use his hands the proper way to defeat press, because some guys in this league will stymie him, if they get into his chest off the line. He will probably benefit from being lined up off the ball as a Z receiver, who can be a very productive number two option in the passing game.
9. Marcell Ateman, Oklahoma State
Ateman was largely overshadowed by the All-American James Washington over the last couple of years, but he was a monster on the outside himself, totaling 1156 receiving yards and eight touchdowns as a senior, while averaging 19.6 yards per reception. At almost 6’5’’ it is kind of funny that his 5’11’’ teammate received most of the attention, when he always stood out with his size.
Despite his height, Ateman shows outstanding body control and adjustment to the ball in the air. He has the speed to stress defenses vertically and the size to win even when covered well. The big-bodied target attacks the ball at the highest point and works his way back to it. With his frame, he can literally outbox anybody and win on jump-balls.
Although Mike Evans was much more dominant at Texas A&M, he would be the obvious comparison for Ateman body-wise. He gets off the line with his pads over his knees, selling the defense a vertical route and putting corners on their heels, but he gets pretty sloppy with his route-running and needs to become more precise in that area. Ateman possesses huge hands, but they are definitely not the most natural ones and he double-clutches a lot of balls. Once he is on the run, he is extremely hard to wrestle down if you grab him high. He just throws off some of those smaller guys and when they come up to tackle him, they better make their mind up.
That size also helps him devour some defensive backs as a blocker, although he doesn’t put the effort in on every snap. Ateman doesn’t possess a lot of quickness to create room on inside-breaks. His route tree at Oklahoma State was very limited and he was solely lined up on the perimeter. He made a bunch of big plays against the soft zone defenses in the Big XII, but he was shut down to a large degree by Texas junior corner Kris Boyd. He had a 66-yard catch against quarters coverage, but he was held to three receptions for 18 yards when matched up one-on-one with Boyd or the other corner Hill, despite being targeted quite a bit.
I believe Ateman still has a lot to learn, which already starts at running a complete route tree. He will need to become more precise and take even better advantage of his size. However, he could become a nightmare in the red-zone and even though his clocked numbers won’t impress anybody, he displays some good vertical speed in pads. He clearly can’t get as low into his breaks as someone like Julio Jones, who is the premier big receiver in the league, but Ateman can help himself by getting out of them more sharply and keeping defenders from undercutting him.
10. Deion Cain, Clemson
This guy had kind of an up-and-down career at the collegiate level. Cain made some major contributions as a true freshman, when he put up almost 600 yards and five TDs on 17.1 yards per reception. Unfortunately, he missed Clemson’s playoff games that year and the following spring practices due to suspensions. After putting up over 700 yards and nine scores as a sophomore, he put up similar numbers in his lone season as a starter, in a more run-based offense without Deshaun Watson.
Cain is a deep threat, who wins the battle for the ball more often than not. He has shown refined route-running and does a great job setting up defenders, by making them lean one way and then using that leverage to his advantage. He goes over the top of the guy covering him a lot and excels at running under the ball. The 6’2’’ wideout occasionally dropped some easy passes, because he was already a step too far, but I’m not concerned about his hands, as he made some sweet grabs throughout games, when bringing in high balls, passes that arrive just out of his break and others with a high level of difficulty.
Moreover, Cain shows nice feet along the sideline and works them on a lot of comeback routes. I like how he snaps his head around as soon as he gets out of his break and he seems to find voids on the intermediate level against zone coverage. Cain is a tremendous runner after the catch, where he uses subtle cuts to defeat the pursuit of the defenders, while having the power to break tackles and take his forward momentum to push through defenders. That way he kind of bounces around and keeps going in-between potential tacklers.
The former Tiger can get really fired up and had some great battles with Alabama’s Levi Wallace in this year’s Sugar Bowl. Cain is strong at the line of scrimmage, throwing defenders off, and on straight go-routes, he does a nice job swimming over the defender and running down the perimeter. However, I don’t think he really has a plan about what to do with his feet against press. He won’t be able to bully as many smaller guys at the NFL level as he did against some of those kids in college. I’ve seen him get controlled by those Alabama cornerbacks in the 2017 National Championship, when they got in his face and the plays he made, came on screens or when he could push off late.
Comparing him to Clemson receivers entering the league recently – he is kind of a combination of Sammy Watkins and Mike Williams – but he’s neither as dynamic as Watkins nor as physically imposing as Williams. He totaled under 1500 yards over the 29 games in his last two seasons, but I like his combination of size and speed. I thought he showed what he’s capable of in 2016 when Mike Williams took pressure off him as the number one receiver and a functional passer on all three levels. Cain could develop into an excellent number two.
Just missed the cut:
Cedrick Wilson, Boise State
This young man has some nice speed to stretch or cross the field and he complements that with good height at 6’3’’. While offering a slim body-build, Wilson was a weapon for the Broncos, lining up all over the place and running quick routes, screens, sweeps and vertical routes for them. He stays low in his breaks and on double-moves, plus he can shift gears and make fluid cuts on the run. The All-Mountain West selection gets defenders to lean inside early and gives himself room to the outside on fade routes. In addition, he knows how to stack the defender on top of his go-routes and uses the space towards the sideline. Not only is he a natural catcher of the ball, he also displays excellent hand-eye-coordination, which allows him to quickly react to fastballs thrown at him and he doesn’t need much time to adjust. I love how he turns upfield immediately once he secures the catch. Wilson snatches the ball over the middle and then dips his shoulder to burst through the opening, without somebody grabbing him. He dishes out some ankle-breaking cuts and keeps his balance with tacklers bouncing off his lower body, fighting for yardage after the catch. He doesn’t really have a plan against press-coverage at this point and the footwork doesn’t help him defeat it at all, but he definitely has the quickness to develop in that area, since he didn’t face a lot of tight man-coverage at Boise. Wilson saved his best for last, when he caught ten passes for 221 yards in their bowl game against Oregon, even though he was nicked up a couple of times. He doesn’t really look like a true number one receiver, but he could develop into an excellent number two or slot.
Auden Tate, Florida State
At almost 6’5’’, this guy is a talented pass-catcher with a big frame, which he does a good job shielding the ball with. Tate can outbox defenders and really climb the ladder, consistently catching the ball at the highest point. He’s had a bunch of catches, where he had to extend every single inch, so he could bring in some unbelievable grabs, that simply looked out of reach. Two that come to mind immediately – one late in the game versus Louisville when they were up big and another one this past season to put Florida out of reach in the fourth quarter. The FSU giant is physical at the top of his routes and possesses strong hands to hold on to contested catches. He excels at tracking the ball down the field, while making mid-air and on-the-run adjustments look easy on passes, that aren’t on point, especially on back-shoulder fades. Tate also displays excellent balance with and without the ball. However, he lacks explosiveness out of his breaks and his route-tree revolved heavily around fade, post, curl and comeback routes. The Seminole standout was counted on a lot on jump-balls, with quite a few that clearly should not have been thrown. He makes usage of his size as a blocker, but he doesn’t consistently drive and finish blocks. Tate amassed less than 1000 yards through his two years of action at Florida State, but had 16 touchdowns during that stretch and came up big late in games.
DaeSean Hamilton, Penn State
Penn State’s all-time leading receiving plays his heart out all the time and had to grow up pretty early with his mum having cancer and him having to look after his autistic brother. Hamilton can work out wide or out of the slot and put stress on defenders in every single direction. The route he loves to run is the slot fade. Hamilton was promoted from the East-West Shrine game to the Senior Bowl and looked loose from his first rep on. He excelled with his route-running, using leverage and sink into his breaks to create separation. As a result, he turned some of those DBs around on double-moves and showed a lot of confidence. The Penn State receiver is very sophisticated at stemming the corner and slightly throwing him off. I thought he seemed to have taken his game to a new level against stiffer competition down in Mobile. Hamilton doesn’t really shoot out of the tracks or burn defenders with his speed in general, but he is very sudden in his cuts and tracks the ball tremendously well over his head. After the catch, he can make people miss on the sideline and cut back to the middle if safeties come down on him, plus he has a nice jump-cut backwards to elude tacklers. He was the go-to-guy in crucial spots for the Nittany Lions and came through continuously. While I don’t question his hands, Hamilton lets the ball get into his body at times and I’d like him to make more active hands-catches with defenders around him and he doesn’t offer much as a blocker outside of an initial push. The underappreciated member of the Nittany Lions displays smooth adjustments to poor ball-placement and doesn’t mind taking a hit.
Deontay Burnett, USC
Burnett caught my eye with huge performances in the 2016 Rose Bowl and last year’s season-opener. He moves around the formation and can line up in multiple spots. The Trojans motioned him around a ton and ge even lined up in the backfield on a few occasions. With his natural hands, the way he fakes out defenders with his routes and how he fights after the catch, he was a very reliable target and became Sam Darnold’s favorite option in 2017. Burnett was the target on a lot of quick hitters. He catches with his hands in general, but brings it into his body quickly usually, to absorb hits. He can not only run excellent double-moves, but he also finds space in-between the linebackers and safeties. In the open field he is shifty and makes a bunch of defenders miss. Burnett has a great understanding of down and distances, often times extending his arm with the football at the very end to gain that extra yard. While he isn’t afraid of going over the middle or laying out for huge catches, his lack of size shows up in some areas. He can’t always hold on to the ball if he gets rocked and got abused as a blocker in the Pac-12 already. USC made it a priority for him to get free releases, which he won’t have at the next level. He could struggle with NFL corners redirecting and pushing him into the boundary. Burnett totaled 1114 receiving yards and nine TDs as a junior and despite being pretty much blown out by Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl, he brought in 12 catches for 139 yards against a Buckeye defense, that is loaded with NFL talent.
Dante Pettis, Washington
Talk about somebody, who can stretch the field. Pettis is a long strider, who makes his mark in space when running away from people. He can not only beat defenders by running straight by them, but when you give him some time, he can cross the entire field and nobody can stay with him. When he runs to the post, your free safety should better be ready to turn and sprint like crazy, because he will get behind him otherwise. Pettis suffered a lot from his QB Jake Browning underthrowing the speedster, much like he did with John Ross the years prior. He combines that burning speed by being extremely sudden, to take advantage of the cushion defenders give him, as well as making people miss in the open field. Not only does he work his way back to the ball, he does a nice job spinning and turning his head around on underthrown balls and catches them outside his frame. Pettis can turn DBs with good fakes and uses his arms very well to keep himself free, once the defender is out of position, but I’d like to see him use different gears more to his advantage. I also think he needs to play stronger in general, as his blocking is sub-par and some cornerbacks, who get physical at the line of scrimmage and have elite speed might be able to take him out of his game. He is not the type of guy, who will make a ton of touch catches over the middle, where he’s knocked around. The All-Pac-12 selection at receiver and return-man has some sweet moves with the ball in his hands. He doesn’t power through defensive backs, but he finds a way to get around them. Pettis set the new record for career punt return touchdowns with seven and improved that mark by another two over the course of the 2017 season. He was electric in that department, when he had just a little bit of space in front of him.
Equanimeous St. Brown, Notre Dame
This son of an All-world weightlifter and a German mother, grew up in France and then moved to California as a young boy. St. Brown was an equalizer on the outside for a very run-centric Irish offense. That’s also the reason he didn’t put up any huge numbers in 2017, after coming close to 1000 yards and scoring nine touchdowns with DeShone Kizer the year prior. He has outstanding hands and catches the ball with the tips of his fingers, away from his body. St. Brown possesses the speed to cross the field and stride down the sideline. He should have been targeted much more, when he was wide open on crossing routes or those with him coming back towards the quarterback. The lanky wideout swipes away the defender’s hands at the top of his route and uses every single inch of that 6’5’’ body when extending for the ball. However, his adjustments to the ball are average and he struggled versus press-coverage, which was apparent when I put on his 2016 Texas tape, as well as watching him get beaten up by North Carolina’s M.J. Stewart, who he should have a decisive size advantage against. St. Brown runs away from people in the open field with ease and looks more like he is gliding out there. My big concern with him, is the fact his competitiveness is questionable. There is no doubt, he can get hot and dominate with the tools he possesses, but I need to some more consistency.
The wild-card – Antonio Callaway, Florida
Callaway put up 1450 yards from scrimmage plus eight touchdowns and another three scores as a returner in two years at Florida, before being suspended for the entire 2017 season. Even before that, he had several off-the-field incidents and his character is highly questionable. However, his jets on the field are not, as he averaged 19.4 yards per catch as a freshman and that number only dropped because he had that many screens and hitches thrown his way. The former Gator combines excellent footwork and shake on his routes to set up defenders. He had to deal with a bunch of off-target throws due to poor quarterback play, but he still found ways to make an impact, as a dynamic run-after-the-catch guy and one of the top returners in college football. Callaway might not have the softest hands among wide receivers, but he tracks the ball exceptionally well and definitely has the speed to stretch the field and burn defenses. He also has that jump-cut, where he just lets defenders miss the spot he would have been at and he just ends up half a yard behind that. He has all the tools to be a special play-maker at the next level. He just needs to get his act together and show coaches that he really wants this.
The next guys up:
Jordan Lasley (UCLA), Tre’Quan Smith (UCF), Keke Coutee (Texas Tech), Allen Lazard (Iowa State), Jaleel Scott (New Mexico State), Cam Phillips (Virginia Tech), Simmie Cobbs (Indiana), Braxton Berrios (Miami)