Part 1, WR/TE: Does size matter?
This draft lacks a Calvin Johnson- or Julio Jones-like stud at the top, but there are starters to be found. Bob McGinn kicks off his nine-part series with a detailed look at the receivers.
This is the 38th year Bob McGinn has written an NFL Draft Series. Previously, it appeared at the Green Bay Press-Gazette (1985-’91), the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (1992-’17), BobMcGinnFootball.com (2018-’19) and The Athletic (2020-’21). Until 2014, personnel people often were quoted by name. The series reluctantly adopted an all-anonymous format in 2015 at the request of most scouts. The 12-minute, 50-question Wonderlic test was not administered at the NFL scouting combine, possibly the first time it was excluded. Players generally took the test at spring 2021 timing days and at pro days in March and April. The NFL average score is about 19.
At a time when NFL teams might be overvaluing and overpaying veteran wide receivers, the rookie class this year is receiving little more than polite applause.
Oh, there’s no shortage of interesting prospects with some fast 40 times and a blizzard of stats, but those clubs hoping to draft a bona fide No. 1 receiver might not find him.
“I see guys that are going to be good No. 2’s,” an executive in personnel for an AFC team said this month, indicating there were no No. 1’s on his board.
This draft is the most mysterious in years when it comes to pinpointing how the top will play out. On Saturday, an executive with a team owning a top-10 selection said, “This isn’t going to be a normal draft. Everybody’s panicking.”
The bottom-feeding teams atop the draft are uneasy because most personnel people read the draft in much the same way. In effect, there is no elite, can’t-miss player to pick first.
In the last month, I’ve polled 17 personnel men asking them for their choice as the best player in the draft. Given the blue-chip void, one would think the increasingly valuable wide receiver position might swoop in and lead off the draft for the first time since Keyshawn Johnson went to the Jets in 1996.
Five players from three different positions garnered votes as the draft’s supreme player. Tellingly, wide receiver was a position that got shut out.
“There’s an abundance of guys but I don’t see a Ja’Marr Chase, somebody like that,” another AFC scout said. “There’s no Calvin Johnson’s, no Julio Jones’, nobody like that.”
When Johnson (6-5, 239, 4.35) came out in 2007, my poll at the time of 18 personnel men was unanimous that the Georgia Tech wideout was the best player in the draft. Jones (6-2 ½, 220, 4.39), the sixth selection in 2011, is the other prototypical outside receiver from the past 15 years.
“He’s one of the easiest picks of all time,” Chargers GM A.J. Smith said of Johnson, the Hall of Famer for the Lions, 15 years ago.
What’s the holdup this year? Six of the top eight players are uncomfortably undersized, at least when it comes to evaluators making the connection between size and durability.
“You’d certainly like bigger than (Chris) Olave, Jameson Williams, Garrett Wilson, (Jahan) Dotson,” another AFC exec said. “They’re smaller guys. You get a bigger guy with (Drake) London, but you give up the speed. You hope the separation quickness is good enough, which I think it is. (Treylon) Burks is not a real polished receiver but he can do a lot of different things with the ball. If you’re going to be a smaller guy these guys at least have the speed and the separation quickness you need at a really high level.”
The aforementioned six players finished as the leading vote-getters in a poll of 16 personnel people. Each was asked to rank the receivers on a 1-2-3-4-5 basis. A first-place vote was worth 5 points, a second counted 4 and so on.
Scouts were every bit as uncertain about the order of wide receivers as they were concerning the top of the draft.
Wilson, of Ohio State, led with a point total of 57 that included four first-place votes. Williams, of Alabama by way of Ohio State, was next with 56 (five firsts). Right behind were Olave, another Buckeye, with 47 (three firsts) and Southern California’s London with 46 (three firsts).
“You could start talking about any of them (from) like 15 down,” said an AFC scout. “There really aren’t a lot of legitimate No. 1 wideouts (in the league). Not a lot of Davante Adams. But Williams, Olave and Wilson are legitimate win-with starters. I don’t see Olave or Wilson in a league with Davante Adams or a Calvin Johnson or Julio Jones or Ja’Marr Chase.”
Rounding out the vote were Burks, of Arkansas, with 18 points (one first), Penn State’s Dotson with eight, Western Michigan’s Skyy Moore with four and two players, Alabama’s John Metchie and Baylor’s Tyquan Thornton, each with two.
“There’s no transcendent player,” another AFC scout said. “None of these guys tested crazy.”
Burks, who at 224 is 11 pounds heavier than London, is considered a risky pick. When scouts were asked which of the top wideouts had the best chance to bust, the vote was 7 ½ for Burks, three for London and Williams, two for Olave and one-half for Dotson.
Wilson (5-11 ½, 184), Williams (6-1 ½, 180), Olave (6-0 ½, 185), Dotson (5-10 ½, 181), Moore (5-9 ½, 191) and Metchie (5-11, 189) are on the slight if not frail side. In addition, both Williams and Metchie underwent reconstructive knee surgery late in the season.
Probably the two best wide receivers in 2021 were Cooper Kupp (6-1 ½, 203, 4.60) and Adams (6-1, 214, 4.55). Two of the hottest younger players are Justin Jefferson (6-1, 202, 4.47) and Chase (6-0 ½, 201, 4.34).
“I don’t think people realize how big the good NFL receivers are,” an AFC scout said. “We have a data base right in front of us. There just aren’t a ton of successful receivers that are under 185 pounds. You have to be a really good player to play at that size.”
An NFC exec countered by using the examples of Stefon Diggs (6-0, 193, 4.43) and Odell Beckham (5-11, 196, 4.40).
“Everybody says you need a big, gigantic guy in the league,” he said. “There’s plenty of good players that are not huge guys.”
The AFC man wasn’t convinced.
“Speed guys have a place if they get to the right team and right system,” he continued. “They can be effective. But it’s a physical game. Look at the corners people are drafting. The corners are bigger and faster. When those guys get their hands on them the speed doesn’t show the same way it does in college.”
Among the top 25 in career receiving yards are five players with dimensions not far from the majority this year. The group includes Hall of Famers Isaac Bruce (5-11 ½, 173, 4.53), Marvin Harrison (6-0, 180, 4.29) and Andre Reed (6-1 ½, 185, 4.55), and Reggie Wayne (5-11 ½, 194, 4.55) and Jimmy Smith (6-0 ½, 200, 4.51).
From the Johnson-Jones branch are Hall of Famers Michael Irvin (6-1 ½, 200, 4.55), Randy Moss (6-3 ½, 200, 4.42), Terrell Owens (6-3, 211, 4.55) and Jerry Rice (6-2, 195, 4.58).
Of this class of wideouts, an AFC exec said, “They’re very slight and they’re fast. What we’re looking for are three guys that can play all three spots and pinball around.”
At least the failure rate at the position has slowed. Of the 11 wideouts selected in Round 1 the past two years, just one can be relegated to the bust heap. In the 10 drafts before that (2010-’19), by conservative judgment 35% (12 of 34) of the first-rounders deserve the dreaded ‘B’ for their chests.
The tight end position enjoyed its moment in the sun for a year when Florida’s Kyle Pitts went No. 4 to the Falcons. The highest drafted tight end since the advent of the common draft in 1967 had been Houston’s Riley Odoms, who went No. 5 to the Broncos in 1972.
Only one prospect, Colorado State’s Trey McBride, can sniff the first round. If the first round should be bereft of tight ends, it would mark the sixth time that happened in the last 12 drafts.
McBride dominated the poll of 16 personnel people with 13 firsts and 73 points. Following, in order, were Greg Dulcich (41, one first), Jeremy Ruckert (38), Charlie Kolar (22), Chig Okonkwo (14), Isaiah Likely (13), Jelani Woods (13), Jake Ferguson (nine), Daniel Bellinger (five), Cade Otton (four), Jalen Wydermyer (three), Peyton Hendershot (two), Gerrit Prince (two) and Grant Calcaterra (one).
“There are a lot of middle-tier guys, a lot of good backup pros,” an NFC personnel man said. “They’re all kind of the same guy, really. They’re making them all the same this year, I guess.”
RANKING THE RECEIVERS
1. GARRETT WILSON, Ohio State (5-11 ½, 184, 4.40, 1): Third-year junior was the Buckeyes’ No. 3 receiver as a freshman before starting the past two years. “Love watching him play,” one scout said. “He’s extremely athletic, has great hands and is very tough. He’s got really good separation, is as twitchy as it gets, he’ll be fine (against press) and he’s strong. He’s exactly what a lot of teams are looking for. He doesn’t have ideal size, but outside of size I don’t think you could find anything wrong with him.” Caught 143 passes for 2,213 yards (15.4-yard average) and 23 touchdowns. “Has playmaking ability with his run after catch,” a second scout said. “Good compete and toughness. Does have some concentration drops. His routes could be more consistent. Needs to get stronger and battle for contested balls. He can align inside or out. Quality No. 2 is the floor for him. T.Y. Hilton became a No. 1 but you don’t normally see the 180-pound wide receiver becoming your No. 1.” His Wonderlic score of 24 was the highest among the top 10 wideouts. His father, Kenny, played briefly in the NBA. “He wasn’t a big believer in the weight room,” a third scout said. “He recognized the importance of it once he started training for the NFL. He really pushed himself in the weight room for six to eight weeks. It really helped him.” Elected not to bench press this spring. From Austin, Texas.