The position that once required three seasons to produce fruit now only needs a season – if even that much. At least one rookie wideout always steps up with major fantasy value – Michael Thomas, Amari Cooper, Odell Beckham and Kelvin Benjamin to name but a few.
The NFL is a passing league and those wide receivers are offering high production and much more consistency than years past. The type of receiver will impact his draft stock since it will match to the needs of the acquiring team. Big and tall for a possession role, tough with great hands for the slot or speedsters as a split end to stretch the field.
These wide receivers will be drafted in the first few rounds and carry the expectations that they will contribute from the start.
Corey Davis – 6-3, 209 lbs. Western Michigan
Davis is the all-time FBS leader in receiving yards and was the MAC Conference Offensive Player of the year for 2016. A four-year starter started as the MAC Freshman of the year and ended with over 5000 career receiving yards.
The top wideout on many draft boards, Davis brings a complete set of mature skills. He is noted for run-after-the-catch skills, sharp routes, great hands and can break tackles. He plays with an attitude and has experience in all weather conditions. He’s been durable and consistent. Davis is an excellent all-around prospect expected to step into a No. 1 role for an NFL team.
Mike Williams, 6-4, 218 lbs. Clemson
Williams is another strong contender to be the first wideout drafted. A physically-imposing receiver, Williams comes off a National Championship as the primary receiver for high-powered Clemson offense. He missed 2015 with a fractured bone in his neck but returned to post career best stats as a red-shirt junior last year. His size makes him a tremendous red-zone weapon and he can out-jump and out-fight smaller defensive backs for the ball.
He is also great at high pointing the ball. He should fit in as a dominating possession receiver with enough speed to damage a defense even after he catches the ball. He is likely the lowest risk wideout in the draft to become at least a good NFL prospect if not an elite one.
John Ross, 5-11, 188 lbs. Washington
Ross was only a minor player for his first two years with the Huskies and then missed 2015 when he tore his ACL. But Ross returned to post elite stats last year. He played with an injured shoulder for much of 2016 as well so there could be some injury concerns. Ross is obviously smaller than prototypical for an NFL wideout but he has two calling cards. His solid season last year and his 4.22/40 results from the NFL combine.
Ross could fit in either as a slot receiver or a field-stretching burner on the outside. He has big play ability and will change how defenses prepare to face his team. He could contribute on special teams as well. He’d make a great complement to a team that already has the big possession receiver and needs someone to concern the secondary on every play.
Isaiah “Zay” Jones, 6-2, 201 lbs, East Carolina
The four-year starter shares genetics with his father Robert Jones (Cowboys LB) and uncle Jeff Blake (Bengals QB). His 399 catches are an all-time NCAA record that included a ridiculous 158 receptions last year that also set the record for a single season. Considered a high character player, he’s played in all wideout spots and is driven to succeed.
His monster 2016 season was a product of the offense to some extent, but he improved every year in college. He’s more quick than fast and his size is no advantage. But he is mature and polished and could contribute as a starter as a rookie in the right situation. His reliable hands and crisp route running will serve him well in the NFL. He is a likely candidate for a slot role and to be a dangerous complement to an offense that already has a top wideout.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, 6-1, 215 lbs. USC
Smith-Schuster left USC after three seasons as a starter. He brings a very physical style of play that will serve him well in the red-zone and against defensive backs. He comes from a college noted for producing NFL-quality wideouts and offers a possession role that should allow him to at least secure a No. 2 target in an offense.
He’s a nice fit in a west coast scheme and can catch over the middle and tack on the tougher yards after the catch. He doesn’t have the speed to be a deep threat but is aggressive and will fight for the catch. Another plus is that he is also a very good blocker. Smith-Schuster doesn’t have elite measurables in any category but will fit into the NFL with his tough style of play.
Cooper Kupp, 6-2, 204 lbs. Eastern Washington
Kupp played against lesser quality teams in the Big Sky conference. But he was the most prolific wideout in Football Championship Subdivision history. He owns the all-time record in receptions (428), receiving yards (6464) and receiving touchdowns (73). Kupp caught over 100 passes in each of the last three seasons despite never playing in more than 13 games.
He played slot receiver in college and could transition into that role in the NFL but won’t necessarily be limited to it. Kupp has great hands and was far better than the quality of defenses that he’s faced. He’s dangerous in the open field and elusive despite only running a 4.62/40 at the combine. He’ll have to prove that he can transition to the higher level of competition but Kupp is already as accomplished as any receiver ever drafted.