NFL 2014 Draft Rankings: Wide Receiver

It’s a passing league. Over and over, for the past few years, that phrase has been drilled into every NFL fan, and by and large, it’s very true. The top 5 single season passing records have all been set in the past three seasons, and that’s not a coincidence. Talented wide receivers are always desired by NFL teams, and when the talent is good enough, teams are willing to go after it. Just look at last year’s draft, with St. Louis trading up to go after Tavon Austin. The interesting part there is that he’s only 5’8, and generously listed at 175 lbs. Clearly, teams care more about playmaking ability as opposed to possessing prototypical size.

Fortunately for any receiver desperate teams this year, the receivers at the top of the position rankings have excellent size and playmaking ability. There’s no doubt that the upcoming draft is loaded with talent at the receiver position, and for the most part, the top three are set in stone, all of whom figure to be first round selections. After that, there is still a good chance more receivers could be taken in the first round, but more likely than not they would end up towards the back end of the round. But more on that later.

In any case, this is a great draft class for wide receivers. And appropriately enough, lots of teams need help at the position. But before I get into the interested teams, a few things to remember about these rankings.

How it works-

I will start each of these posts by examining which teams need the players in question. By in large this is only going to be teams that are in need of a new starting player, not necessarily a backup.

For each player I will provide analysis, statistics from the 2013-2014 season, and a general idea of where I believe they will be taken in the draft.

Things to keep in mind-

The rankings that I post here are based on my observations of the player’s statistics, game tape, and any rumors that leak out to the general public. I make no claims to have insider knowledge into the draft process or any teams overall plan this is merely my own ranking system if I were evaluating these player for any given NFL team.

As with any ranking system, it is all relative. Scouting reports by professionals can differ greatly for the same individual for the same game. So my rankings by no means the definitive order.

I love football. I love the NFL, and college football, and I love sharing what I love with other people. And that is the ultimate point in creating these rankings: To share what I know about the players who will be a part of my favorite football event of the year, namely the draft. Whether you love the draft process as I do, just want to know a little bit more about some of the top college players outside of those at Wisconsin, or are simply interested in who your favorite team could be looking at in May, I want these rankings to be informative.

Now let’s get to it.

Teams looking to take a wide receiver in 2014:

Seattle Seahawks: Doug Baldwin might believe in the Seahawks receiving core, but seeing as how he is part of it, he’s kind of required to. I am not as convinced as he is. The Seahawks finished the season with the 26th-ranked passing offense, according to ESPN. The Seattle receiving corps has combined for all of 1 season with over 1,000 yards receiving in their careers, and that was Sidney Rice when Brett Favre was throwing to him. Sure, Percy Harvin has a great shot at eclipsing 1,000 yards once he plays for a whole season, but realistically, the Seahawks need help catching the ball. Russell Wilson has done a great job with what has been given to him, and by no means are they terrible receivers, they just aren’t great. Besides, can you imagine how scary the Seahawks would be if they had a dynamic receiver in addition to Harvin? I doubt they can snag any of the top three guys, but hey, stranger things have happened.

Detroit Lions: Since 2000, the Lions have drafted 11 wide receivers, 4 in the first round. 2 of them are actually any good. Calvin Johnson is a freak, and probably the best receiver in the game. Ryan Broyles is good, but he works best in the slot, and has a pretty significant injury history. Brandon Pettigrew has been maddeningly inconsistent, and while Joseph Fauria is a dynamic red zone threat, he has yet to prove he can be the same guy outside of the red zone, and even there he can be inconsistent. (He has excellent dance moves, however.) The point is, Matthew Stafford is entering that “Make or Break” time frame in his development, and I really think that he could maximize his potential if he had someone else to throw to apart from Megatron.

Carolina Panthers: Oh boy. Apart from Steve Smith, the Panthers have basically nothing at the wide receiver position. And sure, Steve Smith is great, but he is turning 35 in May. Cam Newton took a big step forward this year, and if that is going to continue then it is imperative for the Panthers to take a wide receiver. I said the same thing last year, and they focused on defense. It worked out excellently, and their defense is fantastic, but it is time for them to give Cam some more weapons to work with.

Oakland Raiders: It’s the third week of rankings, and it’s the third time the Raiders appear on the list. Yeah, it’s not a great situation in Oakland. Denarius Moore played pretty well, and admittedly so did Rod Streater. But the Raiders lack a dynamic weapon in the passing game. It would not shock me to see the Raiders take Sammy Watkins at #5 overall, because quite frankly I think he could be the best player available at the time, and a great receiver can cover up a lot of flaws in a quarterback. Whoever may start for Oakland, if they have Sammy Watkins to throw to, the opposing team will have to at least occasionally respect the passing attack.

New York Jets: The Jets have a bad situation at wide receiver. Their leading receiver, Jeremy Kerley, had 523 yards on the season. I know some of the blame has to fall on rookie QB Geno Smith, but the fact of the matter is that Smith does not have much to work with in the first place. I have serious doubts that Geno Smith could ever be an “Elite” quarterback. But he could be good. However, Geno Smith does not have enough talent as a quarterback to make up for the deficiencies the Jets have at the Receiver position. I understand they were big fans of Tavon Austin, so losing out on him to the Rams must have been tough. Look for them to take a receiver in the first round, and if not there, then on Day 2.

Kansas City Chiefs: So remember when Dwayne Bowe was one of the best receivers in the game? His receiving numbers have been in decline since 2010, but for some reason the Chiefs decided to extend him last year. And last year, Jamal Charles was the leading receiver. Look, Charles is fantastic, and it just goes to show how important he was to the Chiefs offense, but you cannot continue to ask Jamal Charles to do everything. Dwayne Bowe stll has talent, but he is not the same receiver he was a few years ago, and Alex Smith is a good quarterback, he just needs a little more help. Adding a young, talented receiver into the mix in Kansas City would be excellent for the Chiefs’ offense.

 

Wide Recievers:

1. Sammy Watkins, Clemson

Height: 6’1, Weight: 205 lbs.

2013 Stats: 101 Rec, 1464 yards, 12 TDs

I need to find a thesaurus because I cannot think of enough superlatives to describe Sammy Watkins. So knowing that a lot of this analysis is going to be me gushing over his talent, let me first start by talking about his numbers, and my reasoning for why some of the potential issues with the numbers are not a big deal to me. In five games this season, Watkins failed to surpass 100 yards receiving. Those games were against South Carolina State, North Carolina State, Florida State, Citadel, and South Carolina. So first and foremost, I do not know this to be a fact, but I assume that in the games against South Carolina State and Citadel that the Tigers were blowing them out so badly that Watkins did not play as much. The scores of those games indicate that as a strong possibility, 52-13 and 52-6 respectively. In the other three, I am not concerned because those were some of Tajh Boyd’s worst games on the season. When your quarterback struggles, it can be hard to succeed.

Moving over to the tape, I am absolutely blown away watching Watkins on tape. Dynamic fails to describe all of the things he is able to do so well for the Clemson offense. He would line up all over the field, on the outside, in the slot, even in the backfield once or twice. But no matter where he is, Watkins had a chance to make a sensational play. I could not help but think of Percy Harvin a bit, watching Watkins run the ball a couple of times and do excellent work on screen passes. But in addition to working the short game, he made excellent catches downfield, on the run and coming back to Boyd’s occasionally errant throws. Incidentally, watching Watkins on tape made me question Boyd’s chance to succeed in the NFL, and confirmed what I thought I knew when I conducted my quarterback rankings. He’s not a great quarterback. And frankly, Watkins could have been even better this season if Boyd had played better.

In looking at Watkins’ skill set, he really can do it all. His flat-line speed is incredible, acceleration is phenomenal, as he can shift into a second gear when need be. I remember one play in particular, a screen pass that should have been bottled up for about 5 yards, but in a flash, Watkins streaked past the would-be tackler for a huge gain. He also has fantastic hands. In the tape I watched, the only time I saw Watkins drop a pass was when Boyd threw it behind him as he had already started to run, so I’m not placing a ton of blame on Watkins. He can make the contested catches as well, he has great height in his jump, and lets him play larger than his 6’1 frame would normally allow. Even in traffic, Watkins comes down with the jump balls. It really is incredible. And to top it off, his quickness and route running capabilities are excellent. He can turn around defenders with his agility, and his knowledge of the routes and the holes in a zone put him in perfect position for his quarterback.

What it all comes down to is that Watkins is ridiculously talented, probably the best receiver since A.J. Green came out of Georgia in 2011. Which is not a long time, but the Green is already making a name for himself as a top receiver in the NFL, and I think Watkins can do the same. Some people might prefer if he was a little taller to play the outside more effectively at the next level, but I have a feeling he can succeed regardless of where he is placed on the field. He is a special player, and I doubt he falls out of the top 10 picks, maybe even as high as #2 to the Rams. They may not be desperate for receivers, but Watkins is truly a special talent. #5 to the Raiders is also a strong possibility.

Final Decision: Top 10 Pick

 

#2. Marqise Lee, University of South California (USC)

Height: 6’0, Weight: 195 lbs.

2013 Stats: 57 Rec, 791 yards, 4 TDs

Ok, here’s the thing. If Lee had come out last year, I truly believe that he would have been the first receiver taken, even over Tavon Austin. And that’s because a year ago, he had 118 rec, 1721 yards, and 14 TDs. In other words, when Lee worked with Matt Barkley instead of Cody Kessler, he was ridiculously good. So I believe that once you put him in the NFL with a decent quarterback, he can exhibit his talents more fully than he did this year. In fairness to him, he also had some injury issues this year, which could further impact his draft stock negatively.

From a pure numbers standpoint, he only passed 100 yards three times this season, against Hawaii, Oregon State and Fresno State. However, the numbers do not do justice to Lee’s actual ability and his skill set. He has great speed, putting him in a position to separate from opposing defenders and get extra yards after the catch, something he excelled in on tape. He runs great routes, and he put himself in position to help out Kessler many times, but due to Kessler’s limitations as a passer, he could not consistently maximize the opportunities Lee created. He also has the toe-touch catch down. He did it a couple of times on tape against Fresno State and Stanford.

Another reason I have Lee ranked so highly despite a down year is his intangibles. You cannot measure them, but you see them as he plays. He is passionate, and gets fired up during a game, but keeps himself in check. Toughness is a huge part of Lee’s game as well, especially with the injuries he sustained this season. There was a play that perfectly exemplified this against Stanford. Critical fourth and two play, late in the game, and Lee checked into the slot. He goes across the middle, and makes the catch despite getting drilled by the Cardinal defense. Then he gets up, and hops on one foot over to the sideline, clearly favoring his ankle. That right there is a huge reason that I put Lee so highly. He still has an excellent skill set, but he wants to be on the field, and he will make the play that needs to be made. Determination, grit, and toughness. Lee has those traits, and I believe it will help him succeed at the next level.

At the end of the day, Lee is going to need to show at the Combine and in his Pro Day that he has moved past the injuries and is still the explosive, dynamic player we watched a year ago. If he can do that, then some team will fall in love with his overall talent and make him the second receiver taken. Personally, I would be shocked if Lee fell out of the first round, even if he does not perform well at the combine.

Final Decision: Middle 1st Round

 

#3. Mike Evans, Texas A&M

Height: 6’5, Weight: 225 lbs

2013 Stats: 69 Rec, 1394 yards, 12 TDs

Looking at Evans pure numbers, it is easy to believe that he dominated the SEC for the entire year, putting up ridiculous numbers against everyone like he did against Alabama and Aubrun. Not so. He gained over 100 yards only 5 times, but since he nearly passed 300 against Alabama and Auburn, his numbers as a whole get inflated. In addition, despite having 12 TDs, Evans failed to record a touchdown in 7 games, including the last 4 games he played in. Is it possible that Evans did not try as hard against lesser competition? Sure. But Sammy Watkins dominated every chance he had, and that is why he is at the top of the position. Plus, Evans did not put up huge numbers against Duke. Maybe he felt slighted to play Duke, but with how badly thing started, you would expect a star receiver to get involved.

That is what the numbers say to me. The tape shows that he can dominate just about any possible matchup. He compliments a massive frame with excellent jumping and body control, which allows him to win a lot of contested balls. In that sense, he reminds me of a possession-oriented Calvin Johnson. By no means is Evans as good of a receiver as Johnson, but his ability to win battles against coverage in mid-air reminds me of Megatron, which will probably be his signature trait in the pros.

However, Evans is still a little raw in my opinion. That is to be expected, because he is only a redshirt sophomore. In any case, Evans has good straight-line speed, but he can take some time to get to that top speed, and even then, it is not superb. Comparing it to Watkins, Watkins is able to kick it up a notch and speed away from closing defeners, and that just does not happen with Evans. He is not slow, but he is not a burner either. He had great speed once he caught the ball, but Evans lacks the speed to separate from defenders. Obviously he still makes plays with his size and can shake off would be tacklers, but if he has problems out running college corners, good luck doing it in the pros.

What it all boils down to is that Evans has a lot of potential, and he is already an excellent receiver. If he shows great speed at the combine, I may have to reevaluate his position, and I think most GMs would do the same. a great combine can put Evans solidly at the #2 receiver spot, or it can entrench him as the #3. Either way, he will still be drafted in the first round, probably in the middle of the round, and possibly as high as #10 to the Detroit Lions. Detroit would be a great landing spot, and the Lions are probably the only team I would recommend taking Evans over Lee. After all, having two receivers on the outside, both of whom are 6’5 is just unfair to any opposing secondary.

Final decision: Middle First Round

 

#4. Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State University

Height: 6’5, Weight: 234 lbs.

2013 Stats: 54 Rec, 1011 yards, 15 TDs

It is not often that I would criticize someone for entering the draft early if he is probably going to be selected in the first round. But I have to do that with Benjamin, because despite his impressive stats and a great finish to the season, he still has work to do on his overall game. And if he had stayed, he likely could have been the first wide receiver taken in next years draft. However, Benjamin is likely going to be taken in the latter part of the first round, and there is never any guarantee of health in another season of college football, so it does make sense.

In any case, Benjamin’s numbers show that he is a major red zone threat with 15 TDs on the season, tying him with 3 others for 3rd in college football in receiving touchdowns. Benjamin had only four games when he did not score a touchdown, and he scored in each of his last six games, including the game-winner against Auburn in the National Championship. His yards are not as gaudy as his touchdown numbers, as he only surpassed 100 yards three times, against Boston College, Florida, and Duke. Even so, Benjamin eclipsed 1,000 yards on the season, and the touchdowns are going to be what teams dream about.

In looking at the tape, I love Benjamin’s athletic ability and natural talent, but it is quite apparent to me that he still has work to do, and he is raw as a receiver. He has great speed for someone towering over defenders at 6’4, but his 234 pound frame also lets him get physical with some of the corners, and shake off would-be tacklers. He also has great quickness, and more than once on tape he was able to use a nice double move to get by an opposing corner. He can track the ball well with great body control as well, there was one play against Boston College where Benjamin looked over one shoulder, twisted to look the other way and contorted his body to make the catch for a touchdown. And all of this happened while the ball was on its way to Benjamin. Impressive, to say the least. However, Benjamin is not without flaws. The biggest one is that he drops balls. Way too often. What should be a simple catch slips through his fingers. And as a receiver, the worst thing you can do is drop the ball.

What it all comes down to is that Benjamin is a special kind of physical talent. He has a great combination of size and speed, and he produced well this year for Florida State. The combine will be important for Benjamin. If he runs through the catching drills efficiently and performs well, then he will solidify his spot in the first round. Benjamin has a great chance to succeed at the next level, but I doubt he will contribute much until he can fix his hands.

Final Decision: Late First Round

 

#5. Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin

Height: 6’2, Weight: 188 lbs.

2013 Stats: 78 Rec, 1081 yards, 7 TDs

Am I exhibiting a bit of Badger bias? Yeah, probably. But I would not have put Abbrederis here if I did not believe that he legitimately deserved a spot near the top. A lot of draft experts would disagree with them, and I see their point. Odell Beckham Jr. from LSU has great speed, and Allen Robinson from Penn State is has some great hands. But here’s the thing. Abbrederis has been underrated his entire life, and the same is going to be true for his draft stock. However, he was impressive at the Senior Bowl, and he torched Bradley Roby in the OSU game, and Roby is supposed to be one of the better corners in the draft. Ultimately, I think Abbrederis has a skill set that works in the NFL, and whatever team takes him will end up looking smart once Abbrederis showcases his talent.

Obviously, Abbrederis’ numbers are not eye popping. He only passed 100 yards four times this year, against UMass, OSU, Illinois, and Penn State. However, he only fell shy of 62 yards three times, against South Carolina, Iowa and Indiana. That is impressive consistency when working with an inconsistent quarterback like Joel Stave. And back when Abbrederis was a sophomore working with Russell Wilson and splitting catches with Nick Toon, finished with 55 receptions, 933 yards, and 8 touchdowns. Just goes to show that when Abbrederis works with an NFL quarterback, he produces, even if he is not the focal point of the offense.

Abbrederis is one of the best route runners in the county. He knows the holes in a defense and puts himself in great position to make the reception. Combine that with great body control and better speed than you would expect, and it is not hard to see how Abbrederis was able to put up numbers despite being the only consistent weapon in the Badgers’ aerial attack. There are some knocks against Abbrederis though. He does not have excellent speed, he can separate himself from defenders, but he does not beat many people with speed alone. However, Jordy Nelson, a highly productive wide receiver in the NFL, ran a 4.51 at the Combine, and I think Abbrederis should be able to come close to that. In addition, there are concerns about his durability, and it is hard to disagree. Abbrederis dealt with injuries, including concussions, over the past two seasons, and especially last year, it limited him. And at less that 200 pounds, it could be tough physically for Abbrederis to take the beating in the NFL. Unfortunately, given concerns about his speed, I am not sure that Abbrederis can afford to gain more weight without compromising the speed he has.

There is a wide range of places Abbrederis could fall. Some people say as late as fourth round, others say late second round. If I were an NFL team, I would consider drafting him the the second or third round, and to be honest, I really cannot say where Abbrederis is going to go. Most likely, other wide receivers will be drafted before Abbrederis. But I believe that Abbrederis has a chance to be one of the better receivers that comes out of this draft class. Watch him at the combine. If he puts up good speed and can showcase his shiftiness, then I think he can ride momentum from that and the Senior Bowl into the end of the second round. No matter where he falls though, I think he could be a steal for whatever team takes him. Right now, I will say he goes third round.

Final Decision: Third Round

 

That will do it for the wide receiver rankings, next week I will preview the Tight End position

By Mike Veldhuis