Josh Downs signed with the North Carolina Tarheels after a stellar career at his Georgia high school. He played mainly special teams that first season but included a 75-yard touchdown catch among his seven freshman receptions. He stepped up into the No. 2 role as a sophomore while playing with Sam Howell (now trying to become the Commanders’ quarterback this year). Downs signed with the Tar Heels in part because his uncle Dre Bly was a defensive coach there at the time.
Downs took over in 2021. He set the school record with 101 catches, besting Ryan Switzer‘s high of 96 receptions in 2016. No other receiver managed more than 31 catches for the Tar Heels that year. Their offense shifted from 2020 when Javonte Williams and Michael Carter shared the backfield. All facets of the offense regressed when that duo left in 2021 – except for Downs.
Weight: 171 pounds
40 time: 4.48 seconds
Playing with sophomore quarterback Drake Maye last year saw Downs again dominate the offense with 94 catches and a second 1,000-yard effort, more than double that of any other Tar Heel receiver. Downs was a first-team All-ACC receiver for each of his two seasons as a starter. He led the conference in catches in both years.
Table: Player NCAA stats (2020-22)
- Highly productive primary receiver the last two years
- Tough receiver that fights for the ball and wins contested catches
- Start/stop and change of direction make him hard to cover man-to-man
- Effective in space and with yards after the catch
- Explosive burst from line when he has a free release
- Special teams returner
- Red Zone threat despite his size
- Small frame concerns limit him to slot work
- Occasional drops
- May struggle with press coverage
- Route running needs more precision
- Lacks a large catch radius
- Not an asset as a blocker
Like so many other college stars that enter the NFL well below prototypical size, Downs is almost certainly limited to playing a slot role. He’s unlikely to handle press coverage as well, but has the burst and enough speed to make a difference when he gets downfield. He overtook Ryan Switzer’s records at North Carolina and draws some comparisons to him, though Downs is still 14 pounds less than Switzer at the same height.
Downs’ best outcome is to land on a team that heavily employs a slot receiver. He is capable of producing fantasy-relevant stats, but he’ll need the right situation to be a difference-maker. Slot receivers play an important role in NFL offenses and can surprise such as Hunter Renfrow (2021 – 103 catches) and Christian Kirk (2022 – 84 catches).
Downs will likely be drafted on Day 2 but if he falls to Round 4, he’ll be a steal. He has the skill and speed to be a factor in the NFL if he can compensate for his lack of size – only two of the 50 combine wideouts were lighter than Downs. His special team abilities could show up as a rookie and help him get onto the field. He’s likely to need a year or so in the NFL before he can become a weekly fantasy option.