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Inside the War Room: Wide Receiver Preview

Last year we saw a total of six wide receivers drafted in the first round, which is the most that have gone in the first round since 2015 when we also saw six receivers selected. While I doubt we will see six go that high again, this year’s class does offer plenty of talent, whether it be in ultra-productive Ja’Marr Chase, speedy DeVonta Smith or multi-dimensional Jaylen Waddle. The class also features some intriguing seniors you can pick later in the draft, including Dazz Newsome of North Carolina and Elijah Cooks of Nevada. Along with taking a deep look at this year’s senior class of wide receivers, this week’s Inside the War Room also highlights a tight end who could see a larger role next season and news on where several draft prospects have transferred to.

Top Five Senior Wide Receivers

DeVonta Smith, Alabama

There is no doubt who the number one senior receiver in the class is in Alabama’s DeVonta Smith. Smith has all the tools to be a top 10 pick next year and to be one of the first seniors taken off the board in April. Last season, Smith led the Tide in receiving yards with 1,256 which is quite an accomplishment when you factor in two other receivers Jerry Judy and Henry Ruggs III were first round picks last year, and Jaylen Waddle is currently projected to go in the first round in 2021. Smith is one of the most fundamentally sound receivers in college football as he runs crisp routes and does a great job getting off the line of scrimmage. He is one of the fastest receivers as well, and was a consistent deep threat last year averaging 18.5 yards per catch. I also love how well he tracks the deep ball and is not afraid to go fight for the ball in traffic. One area Smith could work on this year is adding some weight to his 175-pound frame.

Dazz Newsome, North Carolina

North Carolina might have one of the most explosive passing games in college football next year with Sam Howell delivering the ball to two dynamic playmakers in Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown. Newsome was the team’s leading receiver last year and is one of the best slot receivers in college football. He has the traits that translate to the NFL as well as he shows the quickness needed from an NFL slot receiver and also has the athletic ability to adjust to any ball. A couple of areas where he could improve though is being a more physical receiver and not allowing the ball to get to his body.

Tylan Wallace, Oklahoma State

Tylan Wallace was one of the most productive receivers in college football last year before suffering a torn ACL in the ninth game of the season. Going into the game against Iowa State, Wallace was leading the Big 12 in receiving yards with 903 yards. He was also leading Power Five receivers in yards per game averaging 113 yards per game. To go along with these impressive statistics he also averaged 17 yards per reception. When evaluating Wallace the first thing that sticks out is his ability to catch the ball in traffic. He displays strong hands which allow him to snag the ball out of the air and also the agility to position his body well for the catch. I also like the strength Wallace shows as he routinely out-muscles defenders. Despite averaging 17 yards per catch though I do worry about his top-end speed. He is not the type of receiver who is going to blow by a defender and also only ran a 4.58 40-yard dash coming out of high school. His ability to capitalize on the deep ball comes more due to his ability to catch in traffic than to outrun people

Tyler Vaughns, USC

One of the most productive receivers in USC history is Tyler Vaughns, who enters his senior season with a career totals of 189 catches for 2,395 yards. Despite battling an ankle injury last season, Vaughns put up the most productive year of his career in 2019 with 74 receptions for 912 yards. While teams will love the production he offers, they might be scared off by his lack of elite skills in any particular area. He is a smooth athlete who makes crisp cuts on his routes, but at the same time lacks the burst you want to see from an NFL starting wide receiver. He also has mixed reviews when it comes to his hands as he has strong hands which allow him to securely snag the ball out of the air, but also has been known to drop a few passes. I could see Vaughns being a solid number three receiver in the NFL, but due to his lack of elite traits, it would be hard seeing picking him before the third or fourth round.

Amari Rodgers, Clemson

A player that will draw comparisons to Wes Welker is Clemson’s Amari Rodgers. Like Welker, Rodgers is a smaller player who shows toughness down after down and excels in the slot position. One of the reasons why Rodgers will make a good slot receiver is his quickness. He does a great job of getting in and out of his breaks on routes and is dangerous after the catch. I like his toughness as well especially for a player who is only 5-10. He broke tackles on numerous occasions last season and shows a very strong lower body. The biggest negative with Rodgers is he was nicked up last year. He suffered a torn ACL in 2019 spring ball, and also battled a minor shoulder injury last season.

 

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Samori Toure, WR, Montana

Toure saw limited production in his first two years at Montana, never catching more than 37 passes in a year. However, that all changed last season when Toure caught 87 passes for 1,495 yards, including 48 receptions for 905 yards in just the last six games of the season. His top game of the season came against S.E. Louisiana, when he broke Randy Moss’s single-game record for most receiving yards in a playoff game with 303 yards. While this production has been eye opening, I would like to see more consistency from him. He only had two games of over 100 receiving yards in his first two seasons at Montana, and also was held to three or less catches in four games last year.

Cade Otton, TE, Washington

Otton is a player who will see a larger role next year due to other players moving on. Despite not being the primary tight end for the Huskies, Otton has still been productive, recording 32 receptions last year. The junior tight end should see his production increase this year now that he is the number one tight end. It also helps that he will be playing more in a pro-style offense under new offensive coordinator John Donovan. If Otton can step into the number one role he should garner plenty of NFL interest as he has outstanding size, athletic ability, and is a match-up nightmare.

Frank Darby, WR, Arizona State

Arizona State have seen receivers go in the first round back to back years with N’Keal Harry going to the Patriots with the 32nd pick in the 2019 draft, and Brandon Alyuk going to the 49ers with the 25th pick in the 2020 draft. Frank Darby hopes he can continue this trend in 2021, as the speedy wide receiver looks to become the Sun Devil go to wide out. Last season, Darby was a big play threat, averaging 20 yards per reception and scoring a touchdown on 26% of his receptions. However, if Darby is going to be the number one receiver for ASU next year, he will have to prove he is more than just a deep threat and become someone who can win in any area of the passing game.

Austin Watkins, WR, UAB

Watkins had a breakthrough year last season for the Blazers, becoming just the third player in school history to top 1,000 receiving yards. On the year he finished with 57 catches for 1,092 yards, which averaged out to a very impressive 19.2 yards per catch. This was after he only caught seven passes in four games in 2018, before he decided to take a redshirt for the year. As a pro prospect Watkins has nice size coming in at 6-3 and 205 pounds, consistent hands only dropping 3.4% of the passes thrown his way and has the ability to catch the ball in traffic.

Stock Down

 

Brandon Smith, WR, Iowa

Iowa’s Brandon Smith was starting to breakout last year before suffering an ankle injury that cost him the last four games of the regular season. In three of his last four games, he posted some of the best stats of his career, including a career high 109 yards vs. Purdue in the game he suffered the ankle injury. Smith was Iowa’s top receiver in both catches and touchdowns before going down with the injury. It will be interesting to see if he can replicate his strong numbers next season now that the Hawkeyes will have a new quarterback and with Ihmir Smith-Marsette establishing himself as the Hawks number one receiver after Smith was injured.

Rico Bussey, WR, North Texas

Another receiver who suffered a significant injury last year is North Texas’s Rico Bussey who suffered a torn ACL, which ended his season on October 14th. Bussey only recorded five catches. This was a significant drop from his 2018 numbers, when he caught 68 passes for 1,017 yards and 12 touchdowns. Bussey also announced that he will be entering the transfer portal so it should be interesting to see where he lands to try and rebound from his disappointing junior season.

JD Spielman, WR, Nebraska

One of the biggest mysteries in this class is what is going on with Nebraska wide receiver JD Spielman. Spielman left the Cornhuskers program in February taking a leave of absence. Neither Spielman nor the Huskers have said why Spielman is taking this leave of absence other than to state that he is taking care of personal issues. Nebraska head coach Scott Frost stated that Spielman should return in time for summer conditioning when he left in February, but there has been no update on him returning since then, and speculation has been high among people who cover the team that Spielman might not return at all. This is a strange situation, to say the least and one NFL teams will look into deeply before the 2021 draft.

T.J. Vasher, WR, Texas Tech

If you are looking for a guy with tons of potential look at Texas Tech’s T.J. Vasher. Vasher might offer the best combination of athletic ability and size of any wide receiver in the class, as the 6-6 210 pound receiver has made numerous athletic catches during his career. Unfortunately, Vasher has not lived up to his potential so far in his college career and has some character questions. Last season, Vasher was suspended for two games for violation of team rules. He also finished 3rd on the team in receptions with just 42 catches. If Vasher can stay focused and out of trouble this year he should see his stock rise.

Scouting Notes

— A player who intrigues me is Pittsburgh wide receiver Taysir Mack of Pittsburgh. What intrigues me the most about him is he has all the physical skills to be a starting wide receiver in the NFL. Mack has ideal size coming in at 6-2 and 205 pounds. He shows good quickness especially for this size as well. In 2018, he averaged 22.5 yards per catch and can also gain separation against NFL caliber defensive backs. He displays nice athletic ability as well, and is fluid enough to go get the low ball, or adjust his body to catch the ball in tight coverage. The biggest concern with Mack is his lack of consistency. He has dropped numerous passes at Pittsburgh, and also has trouble tracking the deep ball. If I was an NFL team I would love to add Mack on the third day of the draft and have his wide receiver coach work extensively on his focus issues.

 

— One of the most overlooked players I have come across is Nevada wide receiver Elijah Cooks. NFL Draft Scout which has 167 senior wide receivers ranked does not even have Cooks rated, which has to be one of the biggest misjudges in talent I have seen. Cooks definitely has the skill set to play at the next level for several reasons. The first one being his size coming in at 6-4, and unlike a lot of receivers this size he is actually athletic. In fact, Cooks was added to the Wolfpacks basketball team in 2016 when they made their Sweet 16 run. His athletic ability shows up on the field as well, as he made numerous spectacular catches last season. Cooks has also been productive on the football field as he caught 76 passes and eight touchdowns on his way to being named the team’s offensive MVP last year. While he might not post a blazing 40-yard dash he does have the size, athletic ability, and production to be a mid-round draft pick.

 

— Villanova’s Changa Hodge is an intriguing small school prospect to watch this upcoming season. Hodge displays nice speed and has both the speed to beat a defender deep or the quickness to create separation while breaking on his routes. He also has the athletic ability to be a dangerous open-field runner once the ball is in his hands. One big concern with him though is he did battle a significant foot injury in 2017, which also slowed him down for the 2018 season. The injury did not seem to affect him last year but doctors will be sure to check this injury out next offseason.

 

— The most productive wide receiver in college football was LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase. As a sophomore, last season Chase led the FBS in both yards with 1,780 and in touchdowns with 20. He also averaged a very impressive 21.2 yards per catch. This production makes him one of the top receivers eligible for the NFL Draft, with several draft pundits projecting him as a top-five pick. When it comes to the skillset Chase brings to an NFL team I love the strong fundamentals he brings to the position. He runs crisp routes, gets off the line of scrimmage well, and does a great job of tracking the deep ball. I am also impressed with his hands as he rarely drops a pass and attacks the ball in the air instead of waiting for it to get to him. With that being said I think he might be being a little overrated as we enter the season. The first reason for this is he lacks blazing speed as he makes most of the catches on the deep ball due to his fundamentally sound play and not because he is blowing by defenders. It is also worth pointing out that he only ran a 4.66 40-yard dash coming out of high school, which he will definitely need to improve on to be a top-five pick. I also think he was helped significantly by the high power LSU offense we saw last season under quarterback Joe Burrow and passing game coordinator Joe Brady, both of who are now in the NFL. While I project Chase as a first-round draft pick currently I see him more as a mid-first rounder instead of a top-five pick.

 

Senior Overall WR Rankings

Preseason First-Round Grade: Devonta Smith
Top Small School Prospect: Samori Toure
Most Underrated: Elijah Cooks
Most Overrated: Damonte Coxie
Biggest Risk: T.J. Vasher
Underclassmen to watch: Ja’Marr Chase, Justyn Ross, Rashod Bateman, Jaylen Waddle

Overall Rankings

1. DeVonta Smith, Alabama
2. Dazz Newsome, North Carolina
3. Tylan Wallace, Oklahoma State
4. Tyler Vaughns, USC
5. Amari Rodgers, Clemson
6. Marquez Stevenson, Houston
7. Taysir Mack, Pittsburgh
8. Dez Fitzpatrick, Louisville
9. Josh Imatorbhebhe, Illinois
10. Nico Collins, Michigan
11. Whop Philyor, Indiana
12. T.J. Vasher, Texas Tech
13. Elijah Cooks, Nevada
14. Frank Darby, Arizona State
15. Shi Smith, South Carolina
16. Rico Bussey, North Texas
17. Branden Mack, Temple
18. Damonte Coxie, Memphis
19. Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Iowa
20. Jhamon Ausbon, Texas A&M
21. Demetris Robertson, Georgia
22. Samori Toure, Montana
23. Austin Watkins, UAB
24. Warren Jackson, Colorado State
25. JD Spielman, Nebrasksa
26. Johnny Johnson III, Oregon
27. Corey Sutton, Appalachian State
28. Cade Johnson, South Dakota State
29. Noah Johnson, South Florida
30. Emeka Emezie, North Carolina State
31. Brandon Smith, Iowa
32. Changa Hodge, Villanova
33. Damon Hazelton, Missouri
34. Tre Nixon, UCF
35. Jonathan Adams, Arkansas State
36. Davontavean Martin, Washington State
37. Andrew Parchment, Kansas
38. DeMario McCall, Ohio State
39. Jaelon Darden, North Texas
40. Tre Walker, San Jose State
41. Terrell Jana, Virginia
42. Beau Corrales, North Carolina
43. Tim Jones, Southern Miss
44. Josh Palmer, Tennessee
45. Osirus Mitchell, Mississippi State
46. Kawaan Baker, South Alabama
47. Mike Strachan, Charleston
48. Bryce Mitchell, Toledo
49. Corey Sullivan, Central Michigan
50. Kaylon Geiger, Troy
51. Dai’Jean Dixon, Nicholls
52. DeAngelo Wilson, Austin Peay
53. Chad Gailliard, Henderson State

News and Notes

Northern Illinois DT Jack Heflin has entered the transfer portal. Heflin was a second-team All-MAC selection last year, and in an intriguing nose tackle prospect. Illinois WR Josh Imatorbhebhe posted a 47-inch vertical jump in high school. Former Houston DE Isaiah Chambers is transferring to McNeese State. According to Louisville defensive coordinator Bryan Brown nose tackle, Bryan Brown was the most dominant player in the limited spring practice the team had. Former Washington DT John Clark transferred to Montana State. Former NC State CB Nick McCloud transferred to Notre Dame. Tennessee OG Trey Smith will receive the Pat Summit Ignite Greatness Award. Former Nebraska quarterback Noah Vedral is transferring to Rutgers. South Carolina WR Shi Smith took reps returning punts this spring for South Carolina. He only returned kickoffs last year, but that could change this season. A couple of Division 2 players getting some NFL interest are Henderson State WR Chad Gailliard and Charleston’s Mike Strachan.

 

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