The Class of 2014 is widely regarded as one of the best crops of wide receivers in recent memory, with more than a few potential impact players in the mix. It’s a group that has speed, size, combo platters and everything in between.
And with the NFL such a pass-heavy league, there’s a need for rookie wideouts to make an immediate impact. Here’s a rundown of the leading candidates to provide such an impact, along with selected quotes from both the USA Today Sports NFL Draft Guide magazine and the 2014 FRG Draft Guide digital magazine, a production of FirstRoundGrade.com, a USA Today Sports Digital Property.
Sammy Watkins, Clemson – 6-0, 211
The consensus top receiver in a loaded class, Watkins is a game-breaker certain to go off the board in the first five picks. He has the quickness and acceleration to dominate in the short game as well as the speed to take the top off a defense. Knocks on his game are limited, and generally answerable: Watkins may be lean, but he’s tough and makes catches in traffic; his route-running needs polish, but it’s a correctible flaw—especially for a versatile athlete with smooth footwork and outstanding quickness in and out of his breaks. Watkins is also a dangerous open-field runner, suggesting his NFL team will find multiple ways to get the ball into his hands to make plays.
NFL Comparisons: There are obvious similarities to Percy Harvin, but scouts see some Jimmy Smith, Torrey Smith, and Pierre Garcon in his game as well. Those aren’t comparisons you hear for last year’s version of Harvin, Tavon Austin.
From the USA Today Sports NFL Draft Guide: “Leaves evaluators at a loss for descriptive adjectives.”
From the 2014 FRG Draft Guide: “Can be the go-to-guy in any system early in his career.”
Mike Evans, Texas A&M – 6-4, 231
Evans has elite NFL size and strength, and he already knows how to use his body to fight through press coverage and make catches in traffic. The former basketball recruit also has good hops, making him a devastating red zone target. Scouts are concerned, however, that Evans has relied too much on his size and physicality to succeed at the college level and that he’ll struggle to create separation in the NFL. He has deceptive but not elite speed, but even downfield he’ll have an advantage in most one-on-one battles—plus, he offers a vertical target level most defenders can’t ascend to. Despite his advantages, most scouts still feel he’ll be best served as a WR2 at the pro level.
NFL Comparisons: At the top end, Evans could become another Vincent Jackson, Alshon Jeffrey or Marques Colston; at the lower end, Evans still has the physical gifts of a David Boston.
From the USA Today Sports NFL Draft Guide: “Can be a featured receiver at the next level.”
From the 2014 FRG Draft Guide: “Will provide his quarterback with a target who is ‘always open’, as his catch radius and overall size advantage will make him a viable target regardless of tight coverage.”
Marqise Lee, USC – 5-11, 192
Lee battled through an array of injuries and three different coaches to set 24 Trojan and three Pac-10 records. He possesses explosive speed and exceptional quickness, but he’s also a savvy route runner who is extremely dangerous after the catch. His vision and athleticism make him dangerous in the return game as well. Lee plays bigger than his size, which may be part of the reason he’s so frequently dinged—and part of the reason scouts are concerned about his durability at the next level.
NFL Comparisons: The popular comparisons for Lee among current NFL receivers are Jeremy Maclin and Victor Cruz, both explosive guys who have had some injury issues along the way. Old-school comparisons include Isaac Bruce and Derrick Mason, both of whom carved out incredibly successful pro careers. Looks like the consensus is that Lee has NFL game if he can stay on the field.
From the USA Today Sports NFL Draft Guide: “Has elite speed to run past corners on deep vertical routes.”
From the 2014 FRG Draft Guide: “A playmaker both on offense and special teams, but lacks the overall size/strength to consistently win vs. NFL defensive backs.”
Odell Beckham, Jr., LSU – 5-11, 198
If ever someone was born to play wide receiver it’s Beckham Jr., son of a former LSU football player and a sprint champion/track coach. He’s a smooth athlete with excellent burst and agility, a play-maker with outstanding vision who brings return game skills to the table as well. Beckham doesn’t have the elite size of some receivers in this class, which may relegate him to the slot position, but his other physical gifts should help him be successful in that role.
NFL Comparisons: The comparison to Tim Brown goes back a few years, but Beckham has the return skills and receiving ability to evoke those memories. More recently, Beckham’s skill set compares to that of Cecil Shorts, who jumped from D3 to the NFL and has found success in Jacksonville.
From the USA Today Sports NFL Draft Guide: “Feature receiver and game-changing, fearless ick returner.”
From the 2014 FRG Draft Guide: “Brings the necessary explosive ability required of a deep threat that can challenge a defense.”
Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State – 6-5, 240
Benjamin is built like the pass-catching tight ends that are all the rage these days, with tremendous size and an obscene wingspan that gives him a ridiculous catching radius—not to mention a distinct advantage in every jump ball situation. Benjamin has enough speed to remain a wideout, however, and he’s surprisingly agile for his size. He’s still developing as a route runner and has had more than his share of lack-of-concentration drops, but those are flaws NFL teams will be more than willing to attempt to correct given his distinct physical advantages.
NFL Comparisons: The Jimmy Graham comparison has been tossed around, though it’s unlikely tight end fantasy eligibility is in Benjamin’s immediate future. He’s also drawn comparisons to Demaryius Thomas, who was also a raw, freakishly athletic receiver coming out of college; that upside is what is pushing Benjamin into the first round of some mock drafts.
From the USA Today Sports NFL Draft Guide: “Big physical target who is not easy to tackle.”
From the 2014 FRG Draft Guide: “Rare physical traits, combined with his growth in technique from 2012 to 2013, suggest a player who has just begun to scratch the surface of how good he can be.”
Brandin Cooks, Oregon State – 5-9, 189
Cooks has explosive speed and quickness, flawless footwork and video-game moves that allow him to separate from defenders as well as any receiver in this class. He’s also worked to improve his route running, making him even more difficult to defend. He has experience as a ball-carrier and knows what to do with the ball in his hands. While he’s noted for his toughness, he lacks ideal size and could struggle with physical defenders at the NFL level. Still, you can’t hit what you can’t catch and catching Cooks has not proven to be easy.
NFL Comparisons: The obvious comparison is last year’s model of this type of player, Tavon Austin, but the more intriguing comparison plays on both Cooks’ size (or lack thereof) and toughness: Steve Smith, who’s carved out a nice NFL career by being fast, small, and tough.
From the USA Today Sports NFL Draft Guide: “Gritty receiver with good hands and quick feet.”
From the 2014 FRG Draft Guide: “Has all the explosive traits you want to see from a quick-twitch slot target capable of making an immediate impact in his NFL career.”
Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt – 6-3, 212
Matthews has a big frame, strong hands, and sneaky speed—not that you’d expect anything less from a relative of Jerry Rice. Matthews has been solid in his own right, posting back-to-back 1,300-yard seasons at Vanderbilt while making plays all over the field. He’s not a burner, nor is he overly quick and he may have more difficulty separating at the NFL level than he did in college. Indeed, his ceiling is set a bit lower than most of his classmates. But there’s plenty to like about his game, and some of those knocks sound reminiscent of what they said about his cousin a few years ago. Just sayin’.
NFL Comparisons: We won’t go there (any more, at least) with the comparisons to the greatest receiver of all time. But Matthews’ game does resemble that of fellow Vandy alum Earl Bennett or another good-sized target with only average speed, Michael Crabtree. Another common comparison for Matthews is Marques Colston, which all told isn’t bad company to be in.
From the USA Today Sports NFL Draft Guide: “Possession pass catcher.”
From the 2014 FRG Draft Guide: “A sound, big and reliable target that has the natural skill set to become a 90+ catch wideout.”
Allen Robinson, Penn State – 6-2, 220
Robinson’s big frame and fluid athleticism made him one of the Big 10’s top targets. He was equally successful finding soft spots in zones or battling man coverage, with a large catching radius and outstanding body control. His route-running needs work and he lacks blazing speed, but there’s plenty of athletic ability to work with here.
NFL Comparisons: Robinson’s comparisons include physical receivers like Anquan Boldin, Braylon Edwards, and Michael Floyd. If he’s able to parlay his athleticism into the kind of success those receivers had/are having, he’ll be a solid fantasy contributor.
From the USA Today Sports NFL Draft Guide: “Big Ten’s most dynamic receiver the past two years.”
From the 2014 FRG Draft Guide: “An experienced route runner who has a level of polish to his game that suggests immediate contributions as a rookie.”
Jarvis Landry, LSU – 5-11, 205
Though he’s fallen behind college teammate Odell Beckham, Jr. in the draft stock race, Landry’s game stands up just fine on its own. He uses a solid frame and good hands to make plays, with enough speed to stretch the field and the ability to make his cuts at top speed. He’s a good athlete with special teams experience as well, which should help secure a roster spot. His footwork needs to improve, and he doesn’t blow anyone away with his size or speed, but he does have the ability to be a solid NFL contributor.
NFL Comparisons: Landry’s skill set isn’t unlike that of Sterling Sharpe, who was on his way to joining his brother in Canton before a neck injury derailed his career. Landry’s game has also drawn comparisons to that of former Bronco Rod Smith, who played many years at a good/borderline great level. A current receiver Landry has similarities to is Eric Decker: won’t blow you away with his measurables, but yet somehow there he is with the football making plays.
From the USA Today Sports NFL Draft Guide: “Pure hands catcher who runs good routes.”
From the 2014 FRG Draft Guide: “Projects as a possession slot receiver who will move the chains and convert on third downs.”
Donte Moncrief, Mississippi – 6-2, 221
Moncrief has outstanding size and strength, with surprising speed and quickness for a man of his build. His acceleration and quickness in and out of his cuts help him consistently create separation, though he lacks top-end speed and needs to refine his game—specifically his route-running and consistency. Bottom-line, Moncrief’s athleticism intrigues teams, and while he may not make an immediate impact there could be dynasty league value here.
NFL Comparisons: The two common NFL comparisons for Moncrief are Robert Meachem and Arrelious Benn, neither of whom blew anyone away at the pro level Meachem came closest, though, and the former first-round pick certainly had the skill set warranting lofty expectations. Let’s home Moncrief sets his sights a little higher, however.
From the USA Today Sports NFL Draft Guide: “Bigger, faster, and stronger than most wide receivers.”
From the 2014 FRG Draft Guide: “His inconsistency is the only thing keeping him out of the first round.”
Davante Adams, Fresno State – 6-0, 212
Adams has good size, quick feet and deceptive speed, all of which he put to good use as Derek Carr’s favorite target at Fresno State. His strong hands and body control help him consistently win contested balls, and he isn’t afraid to go over the middle. His college numbers were inflated by Fresno State’s offense and he doesn’t have the top-end speed of other more highly-regarded receivers in this class, but he has the talent to make plays at the NFL level.
NFL Comparisons: Adams’ game resembles that of Hakeem Nicks and James Jones, a pair of receivers who capitalized on opportunities in their offense to put up solid numbers. Given the opportunity, Adams seems more than capable of doing the same.
From the USA Today Sports NFL Draft Guide: “Big, fast, strong and can go after the ball.”
From the 2014 FRG Draft Guide: “All-around wide receiver talent capable of being a starter early in his career.”
Cody Latimer, Indiana – 6-2, 215
Latimer is the darling of the draftnik community; it seems the more recently published the scouting report, the higher he’s ranked. He has outstanding athleticism and agility for a man of his size, yet he also has the strength to beat press coverage; he also uses his frame well as both a blocker and a runner after the catch. The biggest knock on Latimer is that his route-running isn’t particularly crisp, and that his top-end speed is ordinary for the position. Nonetheless, more than a few draft analysts are high on Latimer as a sleeper coming out of this class.
NFL Comparisons: Since comparing anyone to Jason Avant isn’t particularly nice, we’ll focus on a couple of more enticing comparisons: Miles Austin and Kenny Britt. Both flashed plenty of big-play talent, yet neither stayed healthy or on the field long enough to do much more than flash; that Latimer skipped Combine workouts due to a foot injury is hardly a good sign.
From the USA Today Sports NFL Draft Guide: “Big, physical receiver who is a matchup problem for smaller defensive backs.”
From the 2014 FRG Draft Guide: “Likely won’t evolve into much more than a No. 3 option, but he will still contribute from that role.”
Other wide receivers in the 2014 draft class to keep an eye on: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin; Robert Herron, Wyoming; Martavis Bryant, Clemson; Paul Richardson, Colorado; Brandon Coleman, Rutgers; Josh Huff, Oregon; Cody Hoffman, Brigham Young; Bruce Ellington, South Carolina; Mike Davis, Texas; Dri Archer, Kent State; Jeremy Gallon, Michigan; Kevin Norwood, Alabama.