While the third-year breakout timetable for wide receivers has been nudged up to the sophomore season, first-years still tend to be more heartbreak than helper. Last season provided one of the stronger overall receiver showings in recent memory, with four rookies ranking among the top 40 fantasy scores at their position, and yet none ranked higher than Percy Harvin’s 25th—making him a borderline weekly starter in typical two-WR leagues. You have to go back to Marques Colston in 2006 to find a rookie receiver who cracked the top 15 fantasy wideouts, and as a rule of thumb fantasy owners shouldn’t look to the incoming draft class for fantasy production.
But “shouldn’t” doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone pays attention to the aforementioned guideline. A solid and relatively deep class of wideouts will look to prove that rule wrong; here are the candidates.
The Upper Echelon
It’s been a while since we’ve seen Dez Bryant on a football field; he was suspended three games into his junior season at Oklahoma State because he lied to NCAA investigators about his business relationship with Deion Sanders. Rather than battle the NCAA Bryant opted for the NFL, where his prototypical receiver attributes will likely make him the first wideout off the board. Bryant has outstanding size (6-2, 215), great hands, and as demonstrated by his 2008 numbers (87-1,480-19) with the Cowboys he has the productivity. What he doesn’t have is elite-level speed (he’ll be hard-pressed to get under 4.5 at the Combine), and some scouts question his maturity and consistency. But all the great wideouts have a little diva in them, and assuming Bryant can explain the Sanders situation at the Combine he’ll have an NFL home well before the first round wraps.
Jimmy Clausen needed someone to throw the ball to at Notre Dame, and with Michael Floyd battling injuries he leaned even more heavily on Golden Tate. The result was a Fred Biletnikoff Award for Tate as college football’s best receiver, and now Tate will follow his quarterback into the NFL. Tate is a bit of a puzzler in that he’s a deep threat without pure “burner” speed, but he separates from defenders and catches everything so a high 4.4 40 time at the Combine won’t kill his draft day value. Tate also has the experience of playing in a pro-style offense, so NFL routes won’t present as great a learning curve as they might for his spread offense counterparts. As a former running back Tate also possesses plenty of after the catch ability, a skill that could be put into play in the return game.
The numbers don’t do Arrelious Benn justice; most scouts chalk them up to Illinois’ substandard quarterbacking and point to his size (6-2, 200 pounds), hands, and running ability after the catch as they rank a receiver with seven career touchdowns over three seasons near the top of his draft class. A true junior, Benn didn’t leave behind much of a body of work in Champaign, and scouts have questions about his consistency, maturity, and work ethic—questions they’ll definitely ask him at the Combine. But an NFL-ready body and skill set that has drawn comparisons to Anquan Boldin, Dwayne Bowe, and Greg Jennings won’t stay on the draft board for long.
Another receiver in the Boldin/Bowe mold is the latter’s former LSU teammate Brandon LaFell. LaFell declared for last year’s draft and was widely considered a possible first-rounder, but he changed his mind and returned to the Tigers for his senior season. Aside from a career-high 11 touchdowns his numbers were down a bit from his previous season, but the NFL loves its receivers big (6-3, 206) and physical so he’s once again a first-day option. LaFell is unlikely to wow anyone at the combine with an expected 40 time in the 4.5 range, but his size and skill set should still ensure his selection during the first two rounds.
If you’re looking for a feel-good story in your wideout, then Mardy Gilyard is right up your alley. He’ll have plenty to talk about during Combine interviews: selling drugs in high school; failing a course, being accused of cheating, and losing his scholarship at Cincinnati; living in his car and working two jobs while performing community service to earn back his scholarship; then catching 168 passes for 2,467 yards and 22 touchdowns his final two seasons with the Bearcats. At 6-0, 187 he’s smaller than other top receivers in this class, and his otherwise-reliable hands let him down a bit during Senior Bowl practices. But his playmaking ability is almost as good as his story, and his explosiveness should land him an NFL home well before the draft’s final day.
Be Very Afraid
The broken foot Demaryius Thomas suffered during pre-Combine workouts might turn out to be a blessing in disguise, as his rapid ascent up the draft board was quickly pushing him past the value range and into overhyped territory. Thomas averaged 24 yards per catch at Georgia Tech, but some scouts believe the Yellow Jackets’ run-heavy triple option offense artificially inflated that number. There’s no questioning Thomas’ NFL-caliber size (6-3, 230) and athleticism, but comparisons to fellow Georgia Tech alum Calvin Johnson are premature; Thomas has a ton of work to do on his route-running, and his hands are merely adequate. Now that he’ll be unable to provide a live-action follow-up to the reported 4.38 40 he ran recently, he may fall into a draft slot that’s more in line with his true value; factor in a big receiver with a foot injury, and you have a whole new set of questions.
Take A Chance On…
All these 6-2, 200-plus pound receivers; hasn’t anyone noticed the impact speed guys like DeSean Jackson are having on the NFL? Of course they have, and one of those quick-thinking clubs has Jacoby Ford on their radar right now. At 5-9, 185 Ford won’t be posting up many of his classmates during down-time hoops games at the Combine, but when the dust clears following the 40-yard dash his name will likely be the one on scouts’ lips. But Ford showed more than just blazing speed at the Senior Bowl; he runs good routes out of the slot and has the strength and elusiveness to make things happen after the catch. Ford had some durability issues at Clemson and his diminutive stature doesn’t help him in that capacity, but a playmaking ability along the lines of Wes Welker or Pittsburgh’s Mike Wallace won’t go unappreciated on draft day.
Who Needs One?
Some of the top-ranked receivers in this draft class will need to lay down faster 40 times at the Combine to warrant early consideration, but on the other hand there aren’t many teams who would pass on a big, physical downfield threat for their passing game just because he doesn’t blow the doors off in shorts. As we’ve seen in past drafts the need for a receiver often takes a back seat until the second or third round, but this year the Jaguars, Dolphins, Ravens and Jets may all scratch their itch for a wideout in the first round. If those teams wait until the second round, they’ll find themselves competing with more squads who addressed other needs before adding receivers—among them the Rams, Bucs, Browns, Broncos, and Bengals.
Free agency will dramatically impact which teams are in the market for receiver depth; in addition to the clubs mentioned above the Lions, Chiefs, Panthers, Falcons, Patriots, Cowboys, and Chargers might be looking sooner rather than later to upgrade their receiving corps personnel.