The 2017 wide receiver class is intriguing. It’s not especially top-heavy, with only 1-3 clear-cut first-round prospects in my eyes. But there’s tons of value throughout, with huge raw numbers and solid combine performances all over the place. To sift through all of the moving pieces, let’s take a look at the prominent prospects in the key areas of their respective resumes:
How productive was he? Maybe dominant? I want to know how dominant he was in school, relative to his teammates and then to his peers. Receivers who took a hefty stake in their college offenses simply project better to do the same on the NFL level. Generally speaking, for a wideout expected to compete as an NFL starter, I like to see him claim at least 30-32% of their team’s passing yardage over the course of his career. There are exceptions to this, of course – guys like Curtis Samuel who weren’t full-time receivers, or sheer size/athleticism freaks like Kelvin Benjamin – but it’s an extremely strong indicator. And I want to know about his production in two different arenas: throughout his career, and in his final season. I want to see the general shape of his college career, as well as how he progressed/regressed in his make-or-break year.
How well did he score touchdowns? Simply put, most of the NFL-caliber playmakers first made plays in college. I like to see how often a prospect used his gifts to dominate defensive backs and find the end zone – relative, of course, to his teammates. If a prospect catches 12 touchdowns, I’m far more impressed if his team only threw 25 or 30, as opposed to a mile-a-minute offense that threw 45.
How explosive is he? A few years ago, Raymond Summerlin devised a metric to measure a prospect’s explosiveness – essentially, how well he runs and jumps for his size. The formula is simple: add a player’s height, weight, vertical jump, and broad jump, then divide out his 40-yard dash time. The result is Adjusted Explosiveness Index, and the NFL returns have been somewhat eye-popping. Dating back to 1999, only 10 receivers have topped 106.0 on the scale, and their success rates are very strong. Three went on to become Hall of Fame-caliber mega-studs (Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, Julio Jones), two more became Pro Bowlers (Vincent Jackson, Chris Chambers), two more are still too young to call (Donte Moncrief, Chris Conley), and only two became non-injured busts (Tyrone Calico, Stephen Hill). The tenth was a real bummer case: Arkansas’ Mark Harrison, who thoroughly shredded the combine and caught touchdowns at a great rate in school, never played an NFL down due to constant knee injuries. The metric itself is quite exclusive – those 10 guys account for less than 1% of draftable receivers – but at its zenith, it’s identifying freakishly good NFL wideouts at a strong clip.
Did he generate yardage? Of course, I’m interested in his yardage per reception, as it helps to build a profile. A 115-catch season is made far less impressive if the receiver in question only managed 10.5 yards apiece against college defenses.
Was he utilized in the return game? Versatility is great, of course, but it goes further than that. Heavily-used college returners often possess strong pure speed (kickoffs) and/or agility (punts), and we’ve seen numerous recent examples of receivers and running backs who simply play faster than they’re timed. College coaches tend to notice that, so if a wideout looks ho-hum in agility testing but spent years returning punts effectively in school, I’m inclined to believe he deserves at least a tiny bump in his evaluation.
Here is the data for the (particularly relevant) 2017 class of wide receivers:
RkAge Player’s age during Week 1 of the 2017 NFL season
40 40-yard dash
VJ Vertical jump
BJ Broad jump
AEI Adjusted Explosiveness Index
CarMSYd Career market share of receiving yardage
CarMSTD Career market share of receiving touchdowns
FinMSYd Final-season market share of receiving yardage
FinMSTD Final-season market share of receiving touchdowns
KR Career kick returns
My thoughts on the data, and the wideout tiers as I currently see them:
Corey Davis, Western Michigan
The clear-cut top option on the board, Davis has been described as a “clean” prospect, meaning that draftniks and analysts don’t really have a lot of negatives to harp on. There’s no box he doesn’t check. We see here that he was absurdly productive, growing more so as his college career went on and turning in the most dominant final year of the class. We didn’t get any explosiveness numbers from his combine, but his speed score was great and even average athletic numbers would give him one of the class’ better AEIs. Quibble if you must with his college competition, but he dominated his offense like very few prospects do, and he was dynamic in the process. And that he did put up big games against Michigan State (10-154-1) and Wisconsin (6-73-1). An NFL team will take him nice and early – almost certainly in the top-15 – and rookie owners should do the same.
John Ross, Washington
Mike Williams, Clemson
Ross is a serious speedster; the combine only hammered that home. His head-slapping 4.22 40-yard dash helped him to a class-best speed score of 118.56 – no small task for an 188-pound receiver. For comparison’s sake, that’s significantly higher than we saw from Brandin Cooks, Sammy Watkins, or Odell Beckham Jr Jr. Along with his dazzling dash, Ross also posted an awesome 38-inch vertical jump and a 6.71-second 3-cone drill. He was also a producer, though. His final-year market shares weren’t amazing, but they were certainly acceptable considering this insane athletic profile. Perhaps above all, a touchdown rate of 19.3% speaks volumes toward Ross’ capabilities as a playmaker. Smaller wideouts don’t project as well to the pro landscape as big ones, but those with dizzying speed and a strong collegiate track record of playmaking are hard to keep out of prominence. They’re capable not only of maximizing their touches through dynamism, but also of swelling their opportunities in general. The bottom line is that Ross isn’t Dexter McCluster nor Dri Archer; he compares much closer to DeSean Jackson, T.Y. Hilton, and John Brown. He was also a dynamic kick returner, a great predictor of wide receiver opportunity on the NFL level.
Williams’ good-not-great combine definitely helped him. It certainly fueled more than one printed Brandon Marshall comparison, in fact. He probably boasts enough athleticism for a prominent role, but the concern with Williams lies in his disappointing school productivity. It brings in wafts on Laquon Treadwell’s 2016 draft season, in fact – a big-bodied wideout who never dominated his offense in school and may be projected a round too high. Williams only turned in one great college season, and while his raw numbers (98 receptions, 1,361 yards, 11 touchdowns) were strong, he didn’t command the offense the way most top-tier prospects do.
Still, there’s a lot to like about Williams as a late-first prospect. He’s big, and he showed real chops at Wide Receiver U. I’m not sure he deserves to be a top-three rookie pick, but I’m confident he’ll carve out a prominent NFL role.
Curtis Samuel, Ohio State
Chris Godwin, Penn State
Choose your second-round weapon: a prototype, or a fireball. Godwin is an ascending No. 1 wideout prospect who could sneak into Round 1, and Samuel is the draft’s most versatile and dynamic offensive threat. I’m falling deeper and deeper into love with Samuel, though, so I prefer his value by a whisker. As a junior, Samuel racked up 1,636 scrimmage yards and score 15 touchdowns. The distribution was even more interesting: he caught 74 passes as a junior, but also took 97 rushes, second among Buckeye running backs. In fact, Samuel seems to profile better out of the backfield than out wide, considering his size and outstanding speed score. As a strict wideout, he looks a little feebler than a few of the names below. But this is 2017, and that dynamite athletic profile is uniquely tempting. He can’t be analyzed next to a Mike Evans or a Brandon Marshall, and any coordinator worth his salt will put him to serious use. I wouldn’t begrudge any NFL front office for taking a first-round leap – and that goes equally for rookie drafters. The upside here is strong.
From across the Big Ten, Godwin’s combine was stellar, boasting the class’ third-best AEI and speed score. And his ho-hum raw numbers got a lot of credence in the conservative Penn State offense. We see he closed out his career nabbing 39.5% and 29.0% of Nittany Lion yardage. He also got downfield well, boasting a career 15.7 yards-per-catch mark that actually improved in his final year. Speedy, explosive, and productive, Godwin looks poised to explode up draft boards. He won’t come especially cheaply, but he could ultimately offer stronger dynasty value than Mike Williams.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, USC
ArDarius Stewart, Alabama
Carlos Henderson, Louisiana Tech
Zay Jones, East Carolina
Smith-Schuster carries the strongest big-school resume here, boasting back-to-back 10-touchdown seasons at USC. He’s also especially young (he’ll be just 20 in his rookie Week 1). But his junior-year regression was noticeable: his yardage share dropped from 38.5% to 25.4%, and his per-catch average tumbled as well. His combine was OK, but he didn’t show well in his jumps. After his sophomore breakout fell off, he started to blend into this pack for me. I’d even consider taking a stab at one of the other three at his expense.
Stewart’s stock is climbing, thanks in part to a surprise second-round evaluation from the NFL College Advisory Committee. He wasn’t especially productive from a raw standpoint, but commanded a better-than-average share of the Alabama offense. That’s not to mention his versatility – he also took 13 rushes and returned 10 kickoffs over his last 27 college games.
Henderson’s 2016 breakout was awesome, even considering Louisiana Tech’s free-throwing offense. He caught 44.2% of the Bulldogs’ touchdown passes, averaging 18.7 yards on his 82 catches along the way. He’s also beloved by wide receiver whisperer Matt Harmon, who gushes over his in-space ability.
Of his 202 routes charted, Henderson was out “in space” with the opportunity to break a tackle on 13.9 percent of them. He was only brought down on first contact on 21.4 percent of those attempts, the lowest rate of the 40-plus prospects charted over the last two seasons. Conversely, his astronomical multiple broken tackle rate of 39.3 percent was the best score recorded. To put that into context, Corey Davis has the second highest rate at 22.6 percent and Corey Coleman led the 2016 class with 17.4 percent.
Jones was a true dominator at East Carolina in 2016, catching an absurd 158 balls for 1,746 yards (43.5% of team yardage, highest of anyone on this list). His critics note his subpar touchdown production, and yes, a count of 8 touchdowns on 158 receptions is alarming. But I love Jones’ combination of sturdy size (6’2” and 201 pounds) and across-the-field slotman ability.
Kenny Golladay, Northern Illinois
Amara Darboh, Michigan
Josh Malone, Tennessee
DeDe Westbrook, Oklahoma
Malachi Dupre, LSU
Here are four guys many expect to climb the pre-draft ladder – and one who could drop majorly. We’ll start with the outlier: Westbrook, who was a true revelation in 2016, could conceivably tumble from the draft entirely. Dating back to 2000, only 15 other wideouts have posted a season of 80-1,500-17, and Westbrook posted elite market shares and per-catch production among the names on that list. And his 4.34 pro day dash was scintillating. Still, real questions abound. He’s lanky at 178 pounds, which mitigates some of the excitement of that time. He’s also a year older than most prospects, and it’s worth noting that NFL.com’s Tony Pauline has reported “horrible” interviews and personnel evaluations since the combine. His off-field history is rocky, too, and he could easily tumble into the late rounds.
The rest, though, look like risers. Golladay is a draftnik’s dream; his career production (40.8% of team yardage and 42.9% of touchdowns) is elite throughout the entire class and he tested well (the sixth-best speed score) to boot. He profiles very similarly to guys like Alshon Jeffery and Jordan Matthews – to put it simply, big-bodied TD producers.
Neither Darboh, Malone, nor Dupre posted much raw production in their respective run-heavy offenses, but both showed well in their opportunities. I give the slight edge to Darboh, who tore up the combine, posting an elite 109.14 speed score and the class’ second-best AEI. He never hit 60 receptions in a season, but at least he gobbled up offense as a senior, nabbing a solid 31.3% of Michigan’s passing yardage. Perhaps most importantly, he was something of a touchdown machine who scored 12 times over his final 115 catches. He’s a threat to sneak up the draft board, possibly into Round 2.
Malone is big, fast, and fresh off a dynamic 2016 in which he near-dominated the Volunteers passing game. His 19.4 yards-per-catch mark as a junior was particularly sexy.
Dupre was even less flashy on the stat sheet – and he tailed off noticeably as a junior in 2016 – but ultimately, his productivity came out eerily close to that of Mike Williams. Dupre was great as a sophomore, too, and showed real explosiveness in combine drills. Some feel his gifts were stifled at LSU a la Odell Beckham Jr Jr. and Dwayne Bowe.
Chad Hansen, California
Taywan Taylor, Western Kentucky
Cooper Kupp, Eastern Washington
K.D. Cannon, Baylor
Here we see gobs and gobs of productivity, but real questions as to how it will apply to the NFL. California, Western Kentucky, Baylor, and Eastern Washington throw the ball until the rails tear off, so raw numbers don’t tell us much. For what it’s worth, these five combined to catch 455 passes last year, all with relatively healthy team market shares.
In fact, Cannon posted the best final-year leap of all wideouts in the study, soaring to 36.0% of team yardage and a studly 42.6% of touchdowns. He’s small (5’11” and 182 pounds), though, and his 4.41 dash wasn’t quite what I like to see from such a light guy.
Taylor looks like the “surest” thing in the cohort. He’s no blue-chipper, showing average size, speed, and athleticism at the combine, but it says something that he nearly dominated a pass-heavy offense for two years. A tally of 34 touchdowns over 2 seasons is something to appreciate.
Still, I probably prefer Hansen from this group. He only posted one prominent season in school, but it was quite solid (34.8% of team yardage and 11 touchdowns over 10 games) and he’s drawn rave reviews of late. Analysts have tossed around comparisons to Demaryius Thomas and Allen Hurns.
Kupp is widely adored for his raw production, and 4 college seasons of 93-117 receptions are nothing to sneeze at. But we’ve seen awesome slot production like this before, especially in offenses that throw the ball 600+ times as Kupp’s Eagles did, and Kupp doesn’t look particularly special. He measured poorly at the combine – not a big surprise for a zero-star high school recruit – and is already 24 years old.
Josh Reynolds, Texas A&M
Noah Brown, Ohio State
Isaiah Ford, Virginia Tech
Reynolds didn't produce jaw-dropping raw totals, but he gets points for being a touchdown machine. He caught 30 touchdowns across 38 games and 164 receptions, just an absurd rate that even top prospects can't touch. Nope, not even former Aggie Mike Evans. Reynolds didn't look like much at the combine - he was lanky at 6'3" and 194 pounds, and his AEI is definitively below average in the class. But there's always boom potential for a guy who gobbled up TDs at those rates.
If you blinked last year, you missed Brown’s only real production – a 72-yard, 4-touchdown eruption at Oklahoma – as he caught just 32 balls on the year. He faded badly down the stretch, with just 93 yards over the Buckeyes’ final 4 games. Still, he’s biggish and showed possession-man promise in his only real season and is coming out as a redshirt sophomore. He grades closer to “incomplete” than anything, but there’s reason to believe he’ll be a fourth-round steal.
Ford brings a solid collegiate resume – 154 receptions and 18 touchdowns over his last 2 seasons – to the table. But a final-year dip in production, coupled with an exceptionally poor combine, make him strike me as just another guy. Ford will likely never see 200 pounds, and his 85.91 speed score is easily the worst among the class.
Ryan Switzer, North Carolina
Ricky Seals-Jones, Texas A&M
Like Cooper Kupp, Switzer is renowned for his versatility and all-around production. Switzer caught 96 passes as a senior, and over 4 years he added 25 rushes and 101 kick returns to the pile. He actually scored seven touchdowns on punt returns, tied for second all-time. Also like Kupp, though, Switzer looked thoroughly mediocre at the combine. A receiver who’s 5’8” and 181 pounds should run far better than a 4.51 in the dash, and even that could be assuaged if Switzer had simply accomplished more in school. His market shares were never impressive, his 7.8% touchdown rate was poor, and a four-year mark of 11.9 yards per catch was downright anemic.
Seals-Jones is a mountain at 6’5” and 243 pounds and could conceivably work his way into someone’s tight end plans, but he produced virtually nothing in school. He averaged just 42.4 yards per game and, despite his measurements, never topped 4 touchdowns in a season.