NFL Draft Update: Wide Receivers
Believe the hype, both A.J. Green and Julio Jones are going to be superstars. You saw plenty of their games in college, and if you follow the draft, you’ve already read about them ad nauseam. I really don’t have anything more to add… but I will anyway.
A.J. Green — Georgia — 6035 / 211
Green might be the best pure athlete at the position to come along since Calvin Johnson in 2007, and his body control is unbelievable. He has a deceptively strong upper body, and some of the catches — and he catches everything, his hands are spectacular — he made during his college career can only be described as simply superhuman. Combine all that with 4.48 speed, and you have a rare talent with superstar ability. I was surprised he only registered a 34.5” vertical, which was actually second lowest among the consensus top players at the position, but his long arms more than make up for it. A.J. Green is a truly gifted playmaker and will make his mark at the NFL level immediately. The NCAA “violation” that cost him the first four games of the 2010 season was relatively frivolous and doesn’t raise any concerns at all; if anything, the fact that he was truthful about the incident from the start is a positive reflection upon his character.
Julio Jones — Alabama — 6026 / 220
Let’s first start off with a “Did You Know?” about Julio Jones: His real name is Quintorris Lopez Jones. Is there a cooler first name than Quintorris? Probably not. I remember the recruiting circus that surrounded him when he was a senior at Foley High (Alabama), and he has more than lived up to the hype. Here’s a guy who, from a purely physical standpoint, could have made the jump from high school straight to the pros. Jones is a remarkable blend of size, strength, speed, and athleticism — an awesomely impressive specimen at the position, the likes of which I haven’t seen since, well, Calvin Johnson. I actually think he has a higher ceiling than A.J. Green — who’s the safer pick — because he’s more physical and harder to bring down after the catch. Once Jones corrals the ball and is in the open field, it’s like he transforms into running back and breaks more tackles than any receiver I can remember. If there’s one area of the game where he isn’t at least as good or better than Green, though, it’s the most fundamental part of being a receiver: catching the ball. He’s had some issues with drops in the past, but I think that had more to do with concentration because he typically exhibits good hands and makes some really difficult catches. Jones is also advanced as a blocker (this is one aspect where he’s way better than Green) and a really valuable contributor downfield in the running game. Oh, and I forgot to mention, he ran a 4.38 at the Combine… on a broken foot! Yeah, stud. Whenever there’s a case of two top wide receiver prospects considered to be neck and neck, I’m typically inclined to go with the more physically impressive player (it’s why I liked Andre Johnson’s potential more than Charles Rogers’ in the 2002 draft). However, in this case, I don’t think you can go wrong with either Green or Jones; it just comes down to which style you prefer more. I have to admit, though, Jones’ suspect hands are obviously a concern, seeing as how, you know, his job is to catch the football.
Note: It’s also plays like this that make you buy into a player (from Jones’ freshman year, when Alabama lost to Utah in the Sugar Bowl). What does he do when he’s not going to make the catch? Does he give up on the play or figure out another way to make an impact? Jones does the latter. Every time. I don’t care that the above play didn’t end up counting, that’s the kind of effort that separates great players from good ones. Credit to Ari Lowell for the video clip.
Aside from Green and Jones at the top, the wide receiver position in this draft is really deep. Here’s a look at some other notable prospects.
Jonathan Baldwin — Pittsburgh — 6043 / 228
Based purely on physical attributes and raw talent, Jon Baldwin isn’t far behind A.J. Green and Julio Jones. Not only is he HUGE at a shade more than 6-4 and nearly 230 pounds, but he also has a ridiculous 42” vertical, which is tops among wide receiver prospects. In other words, there’s no corner — anywhere — who can outjump this guy for the football while it’s in the air; Baldwin understands that his height and jumping ability are supreme advantages and always attacks the ball at its highest point. I also really like the way he uses his enormous body to shield off defenders and create extra space or gain better positioning. Baldwin also has excellent body control and is prone to making circus catches because of his height, jumping ability, big hands (10 1/8”), and long limbs (33 5/8” arms).
The main issues with Baldwin concern his concentration, effort, and the dreaded character questions. He was reportedly a handful this season and clashed with both teammates and coaches as Pitt struggled, especially at the quarterback position — none of which does anything to debunk the diva perception he seems to have created for himself. Then he struggled at the Combine in both the positional drills and just simply catching the football (which was odd because his hands are pretty good). While Baldwin was clocked at 4.5, he never looked that fast in game action because his acceleration is below average and he takes too long to get up to full speed. Additionally, he’s been criticized for a lack of attention to detail and running sloppy routes. Baldwin’s also not really a threat after the catch because he’s not very elusive in the open field and doesn’t break enough tackles. He’s strong in the upper body and can get off press coverage; that said, I have my doubts about whether he’s going to be able to adequately separate from corners at the next level because he’s not especially explosive in and out of his breaks. Baldwin strikes me as a receiver who’s going to make a lot of his catches on jump balls or when there’s a defender draped all over him. While he probably projects more as a possession receiver and big time target in the red zone at the next level, he has sneaky deep threat ability. Due to Baldwin’s freakish size and athleticism, the potential to be a stud is certainly there; he has the tools, just depends if he can — or wants to — put it all together. Unfortunately, the potential that he becomes a head-case is also very real. Oh, Badlwin’s also from Aliquippa, which automatically ups his chances of making it in the NFL, so at least he has that going for him.
Torrey Smith — Maryland — 6007 / 204
From my Combine preview article: Sure, I have an obligation to mention a Terp as part of this list, but Torrey Smith happens to be a very dangerous player, both as a wide receiver and kick returner. He looks like a borderline first round pick right now, and he’s going to run in the 4.3 range (Edit: He ran a 4.41). Once Smith gets in the open field, it’s game over because no one is catching him. Also, have no fear, he’s a much better player than Darius Heyward-Bey… as in he is actually going to know how to play the wide receiver position as a rookie. It’s remarkable how much better Smith got over the course of his three-year college career, and I think that kind of improvement can continue in the pros. If nothing else, he will give you a number of exciting kickoff returns and a few touchdowns that way. Dude’s fast. Real fast.
Edit: High character, genuine individual who overcame a difficult childhood and, as the oldest of seven children to a single mother, essentially took on the role of father figure at a young age. You’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who has anything negative to say about Torrey. From a talent standpoint, he’s a home run threat every time he touches the ball. Running a 4.41 is nothing to scoff at, but if you watch him in action you could swear he’s faster than that. Much faster. Smith possesses the proverbial extra gear that few other players have and blows the top off of defenses with regularity. Hands can be a little suspect at times (lets the ball get into his body, and I’ve noticed he struggles with the over-the-shoulder catch in particular), but he’s tough, relishes going into high traffic areas to make the catch, and takes pride in blocking downfield. Smith’s the kind of player who’s willing to do all the little things aside from catching the football to be as effective as possible and help his team win. Yeah, he’s still relatively raw as a receiver and will take some time to develop and master the nuances of the position, but whatever team drafts him will never have to worry that he won’t do everything in his power to reach his potential. I really enjoyed watching Torrey Smith play in college and will be rooting for him in the NFL, regardless of where he ends up.
Randall Cobb — Kentucky — 5102 / 191
Had a breakout year as a receiver in 2010 (and broke the SEC single-season record for all purpose yards with 2,396), although he made his mark as a ball carrier in 2009. That’s the thing about Cobb, he’s multi-dimensional and a weapon as a receiver, runner, thrower, and kick returner. Something tells me you’ll see him involved on more than a few end-arounds, option plays, and Wildcat formations. Just a two-star recruit out of high school, Cobb’s made himself into a really good football player. He’s a smaller receiver and doesn’t have elite top-end speed, but he’s quicker than fast (though trust me, he’s plenty fast) and possesses superior acceleration that lets him go from 0-60 almost instantaneously. A smooth, savvy route-runner who just finds ways to get open, Cobb will regularly juke the shit out of defenders and is absolutely lethal in the open field because of his explosion and elusiveness. He has that one quality every NFL team craves — the ability to turn a short gain into a long one no matter where he gets the ball on the field. But what I really love most about Cobb — aside from being a dynamic play-maker — is his toughness, how fearless he is going over the middle, and the fact that he’ll do anything needed to help his team win (like return kicks). He embraces contact and always fights for extra yards. Sometimes Cobb will get ahead of himself and drop a pass because he starts thinking about what he’ll do after the catch before securing the ball. Overall, though, his style of play is incredibly exciting and projects well to the next level — he’s the kind of guy you want on your team. It was Cobb’s performance against Auburn, where he accounted for all four of the Wildcats’ touchdowns (two running, one receiving, and one passing) in a last-second 37-34 loss, that really sold me on him as a player. Put the football in his hands and let him do his thing.
Titus Young — Boise State — 5113 / 174
Slippery receiver with soft hands (his drops seem to stem from lack of concentration more than anything) and superb acceleration and burst, but he’s undersized and sports a slight build that’s going to make him susceptible to getting annihilated at the next level. He’s not going to beat corners for jump balls nor go into the high traffic areas to make catches, and he will also have trouble getting off press coverage. However, he gets in and out of his breaks as well as any receiver in the draft, his agility and lateral quickness are elite, and he has that extra gear that allows him to reach top speed by his third step. Young can get behind the defense and make big plays downfield; the catch he made against Nevada in the closing seconds to set up the potential game-winning field goal attempt was simply incredible. His speed also makes him dangerous after the catch, and, although he’s not going to break any tackles, he can run by defenders or juke them out of their jock straps. He’s also an experienced kick returner and provides plenty of value in that capacity. The most common comparison you’ll read is a poor man’s DeSean Jackson, which I can accept, even if I’m not really convinced. Character (10-game suspension in 2008) and commitment questions are concerns.
Leonard Hankerson — Miami (FL) — 6014 / 209
First mentioned in my Senior Bowl preview: Quite simply, Leonard Hankerson played like a man amongst boys throughout most of the week of practice and during the game. He even looks bigger than his measurements suggest. Hankerson utilizes his considerable strength to outmuscle smaller defenders and plays a physical brand of football that will endear him to NFL teams. He exhibits excellent body control in the air, fights for every ball, and is a nightmare to cover, especially once he gets position on a defensive back. Perhaps the most impressive part about Hankerson’s performance throughout the week, though, was how well he ran routes and the ease with which he seemed to get open downfield. During the game itself, he routinely had his way with defenders who tried to cover him, finishing with five catches for 99 yards and a touchdown. I’d say Leonard Hankerson solidified his position as a second round pick and might even end up sneaking into the first round.
Edit: Only put up 14 reps on the bench at the Combine, which is strange and surprising because he plays strong. Hankerson had way too many drops early in his career, and while he’s improved significantly in that area, his hands still aren’t his best asset. He also isn’t especially dangerous after the catch. Nevertheless, I still like his game and pro potential. He improved in each of his years at Miami, and I see that continuing at the next level.
Edmond Gates — Abilene Christian — 5116 / 192
First mentioned in my “How to Fix the Washington Redskins” article from back in December: [Gates is] definitely going to raise his draft stock in the coming months as teams work him out. Admittedly, I haven’t watched him play (where am I going to find Abilene fucking Christian on TV?) like I have with all the other prospects I’ve written about, so I’m just going off the reports I’ve read. A small school prospect following in the footsteps of former college teammate Johnny Knox, Gates has been highly productive at the D-II level and is an explosive athlete with game-breaking ability every time he touches the ball. While he stands only 6-0 (maybe) and weighs 190 lbs, Gates has blazing speed (although not as fast as Knox) and the agility to make defenders miss in the open field. His hands could use some work and he’s certainly a raw talent coming from a lower level of competition, but all the physical tools are there to be a successful WR in the NFL. On the downside, Gates will turn 25 a few months after the draft, so he’s already used up two to three years of his physical prime.
Edit: Yeah, Gates has definitely raised his draft stock. That tends to happen when you destroy the Combine by running a 4.3 and posting a 40” vertical. This guy is a total freak athletically and a legitimate big play threat who can turn short gains into long ones in the blink of an eye. He completely torched the competition in college and, quite frankly, would have been an impact player at the D-IA level. When I first wrote about Gates, he was a late-round prospect, at best, but now he figures to be selected somewhere in the third round range. Gil Brandt of NFL.com reported that 22 teams showed up at the Abilene Christian pro day, where Gates was the main attraction, and he thinks Gates is more advanced than Knox was at this stage of their careers. Everything from a talent standpoint is there for Gates to succeed at the next level, but he’s still raw as a wide receiver and will need to be coached up on how to play the position in the pros. He’s the cousin of Bengals’ running back Bernard Scott and comes from a tough upbringing (his father went to jail for murder when Gates was six). Gates was dismissed from his JUCO basketball team before transferring to Abilene Christian, where he got his shit together and started to harness his immense athletic talents as a football player.
Player Page (stats included)
Other prospects I’ve previously written about include Ricardo Lockette, Vincent Brown, and Jeff Maehl. Here are the excerpts on each:
Ricardo Lockette — Fort Valley State — 6021 / 211
From the post-Combine report: Read the blurb I wrote about him in the “Players to Watch at the Combine” article. Predictably, Lockette ran in the 4.3 range and “opened a lot of eyes” in Indianapolis, according to Gil Brandt, NFL.com analyst and former VP of Player Personnel for the Dallas Cowboys for nearly 30 years. Then again, if professional scouts didn’t really know about him before the Combine, they should all lose their jobs. Lockette’s very much a sprinter trying to learn how to be a wide receiver and is as raw a talent as you’ll find. Still, you can’t teach speed and explosion, and he has both in spades. So, he’s going to be an Oakland Raider, right?
Player Page (stats included)
Vincent Brown — San Diego State — 5112 / 187
Pre-Combine: Look beyond the 5-11, 187 lbs frame and average straight-line speed (he’ll probably run in the 4.5 range) because if that’s what you value most in a receiver, you’re not going to be overly impressed with Vincent Brown. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that his 10 4/8” hands are the second largest of any player at the position (Miami’s Leonard Hankerson’s hands are 1/8” bigger, but he has 2.5” and 21 lbs on Brown). When you watch Brown on tape, it immediately becomes apparent that he understands those abnormally large mitts are perhaps his greatest asset, as he effortlessly snags almost everything thrown his way with his hands out in front of his body. Those gargantuan hands are attached to equally freakish 33 2/8” arms. To give you some perspective, the only wide receiver at the Senior Bowl with longer arms is South Alabama’s Courtney Smith at 33 6/8” — and he’s 6-4. Brown’s arms were even longer than a number of offensive and defensive linemen, some of whom were as much as 5” taller than him. Those long arms allow him to play a lot bigger than his 5-11 body might otherwise indicate; Brown always attacks the ball at its highest point and is routinely able to reach over taller defenders to make catches. I’m not exaggerating when I say that his hands and arms belong on a player who measures in the 6-3/6-4 range.
Anyway, Vincent Brown is a guy who caught my eye last year and really broke out for the Aztecs this season, becoming one of the nation’s most productive wide receivers. I also love the fact that he had two of his biggest games against TCU, by far the best team San Diego State faced all season, and Utah, which at one point was ranked as high as #5. He also obliterated Navy in the Poinsietta Bowl. Brown always struck me as a fluid athlete with great length, leaping ability, and body control, to go along with those aforementioned hands of his. Again, he plays bigger than his size, effortlessly plucks the ball out of the air, and is as smooth a route runner as you’ll find. Perhaps the most underrated parts of Brown’s game, however, are his athletic ability (he routinely makes circus catches) and knack for gaining yards after the catch. From the reports I’ve read out of Mobile, it seems like he’s been a standout performer during the practices so far this week. I like Vincent Brown a lot as a football player and definitely see him as a starting wide receiver at the next level.
Post-Combine: Ouch. After an impressive Senior Bowl performance that made me look like I might, perhaps, have even the slightest idea that I know what I’m talking about, Vincent Brown’s name was steadily climbing up draft boards. Then he arrived at Indy and had a workout that went about as poorly as possible. He ran an unsightly 4.7, placing him dead last among all wide receivers. That’s going to kill his draft stock, and he’ll probably slide into the later rounds. Still, I’ll go off of what I saw from Brown on the field and remain confident he can be a player — specifically a starting wide receiver who’s likely best suited as a #2 — at the next level. He still has some of the most sure hands of anyone at the position and played his best in the biggest games. Brown is also very cerebral and seems to have an innate feel for the game, which helps mask some of his other limitations. The 4.7 is obviously cause for concern (although Anquan Boldin is an example of a wide receiver who ran a similarly woeful 40-yard dash but went on to have success in the NFL), but it’s important to remember that speed is not his game. I’m not jumping ship.
Edit: Ran a 4.57 at his pro day and posted a 36” vertical.
Jeff Maehl — Oregon — 6007 / 190
From my “How to Fix the Washington Redskins” article: He won’t wow you with speed or athleticism (although he’s a better athlete than some would give him credit for), but he’s as pure a receiver as you’ll find in the draft. He’s tough as nails, isn’t afraid to go into the high-traffic areas to make plays, catches everything thrown his way, and always seems to get yards after the catch. The guy is just good football player, period. I’ve even had a former NFL player personnel executive tell me that Maehl will play in the league for a long time and could immediately step into an offense like that of the Colts or Patriots and catch 100 balls (pretty solid endorsement right there). He’ll also become an instant fan favorite the second he steps on the field at training camp. That’s a guarantee for wherever he ends up. Personal note: I think Jeff Maehl is worth a 3rd or 4th round selection — we’ll see where he projects after the combine and individual workouts.
From my post-BCS National Championship Game article: Easily my favorite player on either team… I’ve actually written about him before. He was superb on Monday and clearly the best player on Oregon’s offense, as he accounted for nine rceptions and 133 yards. Need a big play to get out of the shadow of your own endzone? Throw it to The Maehl Man. Need a crucial third down conversion? Loft the ball in Maehl’s direction, he’ll catch it. Need to make plays through the air because your preferred method of offense — running the ball — is being totally stifled? Give it to the cool white dude with the shaggy hair and soft hands. An interesting thing about Maehl is that he’s a converted safety, so he has a tremendous advantage due his an innate understanding of defenses.
Flying under the radar:
Aldrick Robinson — Southern Methodist — 5095 / 186
This guy can play. Aldrick Robinson reminds me of Emmanuel Sanders, and it’s not only because he also played at SMU. There are lots of similarities between the two players, both in terms of size, speed, ability, and production. Sanders was one of my sleepers in last year’s draft and a guy I wouldn’t shut up about in the preseason, as roommate/native Pittsburgher/resident Steelers fans/guest post pioneer Benjamin Keegan can attest. I just had a good feeling about him when I watched one of his games — same thing goes for Robinson, who’s fearless going over the middle, has tremendous leaping ability (40” vertical), attacks the ball with vigor, and is especially dangerous in the open field after the catch because of his breakaway speed. Combine all that with his knack for consistently getting behind the defense, and it makes him a legit big play threat. You might not think Robinson is that strong just by looking at him, but he actually put up as many reps on the bench — 17 — as Julio Jones (I know that’s not necessarily a be-all-end-all indicator, but it’s still quite impressive) and showed the ability in college to get position on corners and make tough catches. Both Sanders and Robinson were also coached by June Jones (as was Davone Bess), which provides a favorable pedigree and built-in advantage when it comes to understanding how to succeed in the pros.
See for yourself: