Post-Draft Pre-Draft Analysis: Wide Receivers

Editors note: This is one from the archives, having not been published back in May, when it was relevant. Still, now you can see if he still holds up… Anyway, onwards!

Obviously, this review follows a little later than the other reviews, at QB and RB, so trying to do it exactly the same way is going to be silly, but I still want to avoid just reviewing landing spots and staying with player evaluation and how their skills might fit certain teams/situations. But before getting into individuals, a quick recap of what a WR offers you as a draft pick.

Wide Receiver is on paper the worst of both worlds compared to RBs and QBs. RBs offer three years of good performance for the investment, but the best are not necessarily the highest drafted, so they have bust potential. QBs tend to offer worse performance, with only a handful being fantasy relevant (not helped by the low number of fantasy relevant QBs in general) however the highest drafted tend to be the best performers. This is shared by WRs who also offer the unpredictability of RBs in finding the best ones – obviously it’s hard to judge off one or two years performance, but Coleman, Dotson, Treadwell, White, Parker were all top five Dynabowl picks who’ve looked nothing like worth that value – and the NFL’s bust rate (considerably lower bar than fantasy’s) is something like 50% for first round receivers, so obviously there’s issues with scouting and evaluating college talent in general.

So why would you spend a high pick on a receiver? Because it’s worth it when you hit – they’re generally durable, and offer a longer term return than a running back if you can nail the right pick. Plus we need a lot of them – most teams will be using a flex on a WR, meaning up to 40 are starting most weeks. What you’re really spending a pick on is less what you get during the rookie years, but more first refusal on a potential stud after 3 or 4 years. If they’re a day one success like Beckham that’s a rarity, and a major bonus (though maybe not so much when that 3rd/4th year extension rolls around). With both these things in mind, it is worth pointing out that attempting to evaluate players who NFL teams fail to evaluate particularly well most of the time is probably going to be a waste of time, but what else can I do now? I’ve committed to it.

Corey Davis (Western Michigan) Let’s start by correcting a misunderstanding I’ve seen floated a couple of times around the league. Antonio Brown came out of the MAC – not from Western Michigan as some have incorrectly claimed, but Central Michigan – but so do lots of players. Tom Brady came out of Michigan (not Central, Eastern or Western, just plain old Michigan in the Big 10) and so did Chad Henne. That does not mean we should use Brady as some kind of template for Henne’s career, just as we shouldn’t use Antonio Brown as a template for projecting Corey Davis.

There’s other flaws in that thinking too; Davis goes to Tennessee and their Exotic Smashmouth offence, while Brown went to Pittsburgh and has played most of his career in a deep strike, pass-happy Todd Haley offence with Roethlisberger; Davis is a top five pick, not a mid-round project and will be expected to produce immediately; Brown was not the standout at college level that Davis was; Western Michigan is not the talent spotter/producer Central Michigan was around the time in question (JJ Watt and Joe Staley also went through that program), and has no real track record of producing great players (though Terry Crews did go through there). Most of all though it ignores other issues, touched on above in the Henne/Brady comparison – there are dozens of MAC players who don’t crack it at the top level. Why on Earth does it make sense to project someone against the best receiver the conference has ever produced, instead of against the best players from the conference who’ve not made the step up.

What does that mean for his fantasy value? I still have him as the highest receiver on my board. I think his bust potential is huge, and I’d put it way ahead of his chance of succeeding. But if he can translate his production to the next level he should prove a very good fantasy receiver, and that’s what’s enticing. There’s some interesting prospects in a fairly meh year overall at the position, but nobody else has the ceiling of Davis, who is one of the most productive college receivers ever to come to the NFL, and while I have concerns about his lack of exposure to the top defences and defensive backs, it never hurt Jerry Rice who played in Div I-AA for MVSU and still managed a reasonably good career. It does however mean that he’s spent most of his career playing against none power-5 teams, and while he does have a couple of good games back in 2013 against Big 10 teams, he’s mostly disappointed in those matchups, never more so than in the 2015 defeat against Ohio State when he was held to 42 yards on 6 catches against probably the best defence he faced in four years.

Against Ball State you see exactly the sort of problems I’m referring to, he’s given the sort of free release he just won’t get in the NFL, with about as un-pressed as coverage gets. He shows off his ability to go up and make throws over the corner, but also his issue with focus drops, and too often for me he doesn’t come away with the ball in contact on the kind of plays he’ll need to make to succeed in the NFL – whether that’s because of route running/body position issues or his ability to control the ball in contact I’m not sure. I don’t see a ton of electric speed either, he runs past whatever back is covering him consistently (I suspect because they’re not following his route well), but isn’t running away from guys after the catch, and I wonder if his non-involvement in the combine was to try to hide that speed and help his draft stock. He flashes some good moves though and the ability to make guys miss (although again, the quality of the opposition defensive backs is a concern there), and you can see the raw tools that would have intrigued NFL scouts, and despite my concerns about his catching under pressure he does have the hands to make circus catches when not under pressure. Ultimately I worry about his landing spot too – he’s not a classic number one receiver, top cornerbacks will be able to shut him out – especially at first and I’d have preferred to see him land as a number two option in a highly productive offence where he’ll not be lined up against the opposition’s best consistently or trapped in double-coverage. Time will tell but for me, despite the potential reward, I just couldn’t justify the price of a top three pick that would be needed to secure a player who just doesn’t seem to me to be an elite receiver in the making.

Mike Williams (Clemson) Just as Davis was a fairly clear number one at receiver, Williams is the obvious number two, and that’s before factoring in the landing spot in a pass-friendly Chargers team who won’t ask him to stretch the field. Williams is nowhere near as productive as Davis, but the ACC is not the MAC, and Clemson have other weapons around which the offence can function. What I like most though is that it’s often been in the biggest games, against the best opposition, that Williams has shone – 202 yards in defeat against Pitt this year, 174 yards against Auburn, 146 against NC State, 190 yards and a TD in the two playoff games this year. There’s a tendency for Clemson to not use him much against the likes of Boston College, Troy and South Carolina State (only 7 catches in these three games in 2016) so he’s not put up the volume that Davis did, but he’s consistently productive against the best teams in the toughest match ups and that bodes well for the transition to the NFL.

Clemson have produced more than a few NFL players in recent years, and while I would point to the Henne/Brady thing above when cautioning about drawing comparisons, Clemson’s been successful to some degree with Sammy Watkins, Martavis Bryant and DeAndre Hopkins as headline conversions to the NFL (Adam Humphries in Tampa Bay is coming along as well). That might seem like a mixed bag, but I think it’s fair to say Clemson can’t be held responsible for Watkins ending up in Buffalo and being hurt a lot, nor Bryant’s need to relax before a drugs test with a spliff and when available both have shown promising signs they could become really good weapons and fantasy options. Not to mention that most colleges can’t produce a single good receiver, let alone three potentially good ones.

Williams didn’t run in the combine, and there’s a definite question mark over his speed, but that doesn’t matter in the sort of short-passing offence the Chargers run, especially as they have a very good deep speed threat already. Watch that Pitt video and you see how he elevates above corners, getting good outside position and using his height and leap to go up and win the ball. That combination of being able to win vertically, and having the toughness to work the middle of the field, should see him be productive from fairly early especially in a high-volume offence such as the Chargers, though his speed and route-running will probably hold him back from being a star. I’m not sure he’s worth of the sort of pick he’ll demand, but while Davis is the sort of luxury pick a competitive team might risk a flier on in the hope it pays off, Williams is exactly the sort of steady reliable WR2 with upside type you want to pad your roster with when rebuilding or in cap trouble.

John Ross (Washington) I’m not going to bother talking about anything other than 2016 for John Ross as there wasn’t really anything other than 2016 to catch anyone’s interest. With 1150 yards and 17 TDs, and another 1 added in the rushing game, Ross’s production was good, but it’s his speed and ability to create scores out of very little that really stood out, and he turned heads by becoming the fastest prospect ever timed at the combine. However, and it’s a big however, Washington’s schedule was a joke. They faced a ranked Stanford early-ish, but that was before Stanford had really cratered with their lack of a QB catching up to them and so that win looked better at the time than it does now, looking back. Similarly, their loss to unranked USC looks a little worse than it really was as it’s become clear there’s a very good team in USC who just took way too long to sort themselves out to be relevant in 2016. Anyway, thanks to a very soft schedule they ended up (undeservedly) in the playoffs where they got absolutely bossed by Alabama – nobody more so than Ross, who came up small in the biggest moment. That wasn’t the case all year, he had a big day in the loss to USC, and was solid in the win over Stanford, but the PAC-12 teams are not exactly known for their sterling defences and it ultimately may be a reflection of that, rather than a big game mentality. I want to get excited about Ross’ upside, but I just don’t see it – he’s not big enough to win vertically, and he’ll basically be a better version of Fuller – he’ll run fast in a straight line and get behind defences, and when he does he’ll not drop it like Fuller does – which would be great in a landing spot where he didn’t have AJ Green, Jeremy Hill and Tyler Eifert ahead of him. He’s not a red zone weapon either, particularly in Cincy, and I think that hurts him a lot. In the right spot, I could have seen him have some fantasy relevance, and maybe he will have, but I think he’s at best a Desean Jackson type lottery ticket – scoring 18 points one week and 1.8 the next – who’ll drive his owner mad. Ross will almost certainly demand a first round pick, but absolutely doesn’t look worth it.

Zay Jones (Eastern Carolina) Let’s start with the basic, Jones is quick – only 5 100ths slower than Josh Malone in a fairly crowded bunch of receivers behind John Ross and Curtis Samuel at the top of the 40 leaderboard. He was also productive – over 1,000 yards in 2015 and over 1700 in 2016. Playing in the American, all the caveats about quality opposition apply to Jones as much as to Davis or Ross, with an added one about playing for a bad team in the American Conference. But the consistency of his production was notable, with only three games below 100 yards in 2016 and only two with fewer than 10 receptions. Unfortunately they also came against three of the better teams ECSU faced – Cincinatti, NC State and Temple. He had a good day personally against a pretty good Navy team, but there’s nothing you can point to that’s exceptional like Ross’ speed or Davis’ vertical play, he just consistently churns out positive plays, with minimal drops and with no real competition in Buffalo his speed to go deep and steady production could produce a decent fantasy option, if not a spectacular one. And if nothing else, you’re getting an athlete who while not standing out in any given discipline did well in most of them at the combine. However, he’s a hilariously bad blocker and seriously lacking strength on his skinny frame. That could be a problem. Think of someone like Emmanuel Sanders, who’ll probably be pretty good for the Patriots, when Buffalo refuse to extend his contract in a few years. I have Jones pretty high considering his limitations, but his athleticism is interesting and ultimately it’s because I don’t really like any of the receivers and it’s possible that in a fairly mediocre year he ends up being the best of the lot simply because he’ll be a reliable performer who could develop into a very good one, and he’s proved adept at a Landry type role where he catches the ball behind the line and turns it into a solid gain.

In order to keep this on the short side, I am not going to go as deep as some other positions, but I’ll deal with two others…

Curtis Samuel (Ohio State) Don’t sleep on Samuel, he’s behind only Ross as the fastest man in this year’s draft and he has the shifty footwork Ross perhaps lacks that will enable him to freeze corners and buy him space to release and he’s likely going to be used by Carolina to replace Ted Ginn Jr. That suits him (although being in Carolina alongside McCaffrey doesn’t help) and if I’m right about the Ted Ginn role then he’s likely to be the main deep speed threat (Benjamin, Olsen and Funchess provide literally no competition for this role either), as well as returning punts and kicks, and seeing the field on plays like jet sweeps or trick plays. I like him, and his relatively niche spot on the Panthers could see him put up impressive fantasy numbers from early on. Or, much like Ted Ginn, he could be an occasionally impressive but rarely relevant fantasy option. Worth the second round pick he’s likely to command, simply because Ginn’s 2015 numbers show there’s potential for a WR to deliver in this system in that role.

JuJu Smith-Schuster (USC) probably would have found himself alongside Davis and Williams at the top of this class based on his 2015 production. USC’s early struggles before settling on Freshman (and presumptive 2018 #1) Sam Darnold at QB. The first three games with Darnold starting were easily the best chunk of JJSS’s season, with 368 yards and 6 TDs over three games. Unfortunately it didn’t continue, and while his early struggles could perhaps be excused USC’s tough start and their struggle to find a QB, the five game run to end the regular season where he managed only 216 yards and 1 TD could not. He finished with a great day against Penn State in the Rose Bowl, but overall he only showed glimpses of the electric form he showed in early 2015 to get himself to the top of the 2017 draft class. He doesn’t have elite speed, and generally disappointed at the combine in each of the categories, but what he does have is good physicality, and a willingness to go and make the tough catches under pressure. He’s drawn comparisons with Anquan Boldin, and that’s not unfair but it does mark him out as a middling fantasy option at best. He’ll probably be over-drafted because there’s a tendency to over-rate Pittsburgh receivers fantasy viability, but without a standout TE, it’s possible JJSS could end up being a solid red zone option because of his ability to compete and make plays. If he’s still there in the mid- to late- second then he’ll be a solid pick, anything higher than about 11 though would be a reach.

David Slater

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