If you've seen or followed me on Twitter during the first 4 months of any given year, then you know just how much I love scouting NFL Draft prospects, especially the Wide Receiver position. So, I couldn't think of any better way to start my FTF writing career than with a rundown of the top receivers in a LOADED 2021 NFL Draft class. Let's dive in, shall we?
1) DeVonta Smith - Alabama Crimson Tide
Alright, we're going to start this off with a bold take: DeVonta Smith is the most complete receiver I've ever scouted out of College. The 2020 Heisman Trophy winner has such a great understanding of how to win routes consistently from anywhere on the field and against any type of coverage. Even when defenses double Smith, he always finds a way to get open. He has extremely reliable hands and absolutely dominates at the catch point. He has the ability to beat defenses over the top and create big plays after the catch; as long as he's on the field, there's a chance for a big play. The only concerns I have are derived from his lack of size. Despite being listed at 6'1" and 175 lbs, it's likely that he doesn't even break 165 and, while he had no issues in College, there are definitely some valid concerns about his ability to consistently beat press coverage against physical NFL corners. Smith will either have to get even more creative with his release packages, or he'll have to bulk up a bit. Either way, Smith is likely going to be a top 5 pick in this year's Draft and wind up making an immediate impact for whatever team that's fortunate enough to land him.
2) Ja'Marr Chase - LSU Tigers
Ja'Marr Chase sat out the 2020 season, but his 2019 campaign was good enough for him to have been the first receiver off the board had he been eligible to declare for last year's Draft. Chase is an extremely polished route runner, which I consider the most important facet of a receiver's game. It's rare to see a receiver this young who's this good at manipulating defenders and attacking space. He does a phenomenal job of using a defender's leverage to create separation. He has a very large route tree and can win on any route he's asked to run. His hands are extremely reliable, but he does suffer the occasional misplay when trying to high point passes. He has a good release package, but it can definitely be improved at the next level. My only real concern with Chase is that only had one season of dominant production at LSU. Are we going to get 2019 Ja'Marr Chase consistently on Sundays this Fall, or was that season an outlier? Either way, I expect Chase to be a top-10 pick next month.
3) Jaylen Waddle - Alabama Crimson Tide
Waddle missed most of the 2020 season due to an October ankle fracture, but he was able to return for the National Championship Game against Ohio State. His Football IQ was on display in 2019, when he played multiple positions for Alabama. Waddle is a big play threat anytime he's on the field. He has elite speed and requires safety help over the top on every play. His hands are very reliable and he has a large catch radius that helps him go up and win the occasional 50/50 ball. He is very dangerous in space; over the last two seasons, 673 of his 1,109 yards have come after the catch. His RAC (Run After Catch) ability is also used on special teams as a punt and kick returner. He's an above average route runner with definite room for improvement, but this was far from a concern at the Collegiate level due to his elite speed. Drawbacks? His release package could use some work, his hands are not very powerful and he relies on his footwork too many times to get off the LOS for my liking. I don't know how consistently that will work against bigger, faster and stronger corners in the NFL. Despite this, however, I still expect Waddle to be a top-10 pick in April's Draft.
4) Rashod Bateman - Minnesota Golden Gophers
Any other year, Rashod Bateman would be considered the best receiver in his class and a surefire top 10 pick. Unfortunately for him, he's in the same class as DeVonta Smith, Ja'Marr Chase and Jaylen Waddle. Bateman is listed at 6'1" but he plays much bigger than that. Despite being used primarily in RPO packages and on in-breaking routes, I think he would be best utilized in the vertical passing game at the NFL level. His most impressive trait is his massive catch radius: as long as the ball is close, there's a good chance he's going to catch it. He's an above average route runner who is effective at all three levels, but he definitely has some room to improve. He's very good with 50/50 balls (they're more like 70/30 balls for him); just throw it up and there's a really good chance that he'll come down with it. My biggest concern with Bateman, like I said earlier, is his route running. While I believe he can and will improve, he won't be nearly as effective in the NFL if he doesn't. Bateman is a top-20 prospect, but I could see him being selected anywhere from 15 to 28.
5) D'Wayne Eskridge - Western Michigan Broncos
Most experts view Eskridge as a 3rd round pick, but I don't. Frankly, I think the Western Michigan Alum has the potential to become one of the best receivers in the league. D'Wayne Eskridge started his Collegiate career as a defensive back and wound up splitting time between receiver and DB due to both injuries and transfers. In 2020, he transitioned to Wide Receiver full-time and wound up averaging 23.3 yards per reception; as such, it's safe to say that he's a big play waiting to happen. Doesn't matter if it's a slant, post, fade or a screen: Eskridge is a treat to score whenever he has the ball in his hands. He uses his knowledge from playing DB to consistently beat press coverage and create separation. One of the best route runners in this class, he's able to run any route in any scheme. His hands are elite, he has the ability to catch the ball in any situation and makes a ridiculous number of contested catches for a 5'9" receiver. He also has elite speed and quickness, can be used as a return man and is probably the toughest receiver in this class. He has absolutely no fear going across the middle of the field and takes an immense amount of pride in blocking. My only concerns are his age (will be 24 on Draft Day) and whether he'll be able to stay healthy in the NFL, which is a pretty common concern with smaller receivers. D'Wayne Eskridge is the type of wide receiver that you get more and more excited about as you watch him play.
6) Kadarius Toney - Florida Gators
Toney started his Collegiate career labeled as an "athlete," meaning he didn't have a true position. However, he quickly carved out a role as a wide receiver for the Gators and continued to improve every year. While he has the ability to play outside, Toney makes his living in the slot. Probably the most athletic receiver in this class, he was primarily used as a gadget player early on, but made a huge leap in his route running this season. While using his short area quickness to his advantage, he's able to routinely create quick separation against almost any type of coverage. His hands are reliable, but you will see the occasional easy drop from him. Kadarius Toney could be what Percy Harvin was supposed to be at the NFL level and should be a late first to early second round pick next month.
7) Terrace Marshall, Jr. - LSU Tigers
Terrace Marshall was overlooked in 2019 as LSU's number 3 receiver in an offense that consisted of Joe Burrow, Ja'Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson. He was no slouch in 2020, though, as he established himself as the team's premier receiver. He didn't get the national media attention he deserved due to LSU's poor record, but he showed a ton of potential to be a number 1 receiver in the NFL. Marshall has the ability to win at all three levels, he's quick and shifty enough to win in the short and intermediate areas of the field, but he also possesses the long speed and deceptiveness to beat defenders deep. He has good hands and a large catch radius, is able to high point the football and win some 50/50 balls. He has potential to be one of the most complete receivers in the Draft, but I'm not completely sold on his ability to consistently produce at a high level; I just need to see more from him in a premier role to get a full evaluation. I think he has a chance to go in the late 1st to early 2nd round.
8) Amon-Ra St. Brown - USC Trojans
Amon-Ra St. Brown is the younger brother of Packers receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and, while he doesn't have his brother's size, he is easily the better prospect. He can line up as a boundary receiver, but he's at his best in the slot. Amon-Ra is a very savvy route runner who excels at attacking defenders' leverage to work himself open. Drops are a rarity for "ARSB;" honestly, I can't remember ever seeing him drop a pass during my evaluation. His ability to track the ball in the air makes him a dangerous deep threat and he shows a lot of competitiveness in his willingness to go up and fight for the football. Since he mostly lined up in the slot at USC, we rarely got to see him against press man coverage. As such, I really wasn't able to get a good enough evaluation in that area of his game, but he does show elite short area quickness. I think Amon-Ra could be a really good kick returner at the next level if needed, as he's probably the toughest ball carrier in this receiver class. He's one of the more complete receivers in the class overall and would be a consensus first rounder in any other year. With this class being VERY deep, though, I see him going in the second round.
9) Rondale Moore - Purdue Boilermakers
Rondale Moore is absolutely dynamic with the ball in his hands. More of an offensive weapon than a true receiver, Moore can impact the game from anywhere on the field, whether it's out wide as a boundary receiver, in the slot or even out of the backfield. Moore is an average route runner at best who was often times schemed open in the short to intermediate area of the field, but he is an elite deep threat. He runs posts, fades and deep crossers very well. His hands are decent, but he tends to be more of a "body catcher" and doesn't necessarily have the hand strength to consistently make contested catches away from his body. He can beat press coverage with his short area quickness, but struggles against bigger corners that are more handsy. With the right coaching, he can definitely develop into a productive every down receiver. He gives off some serious Tavon Austin vibes, in my opinion.
10) Nico Collins - Michigan Wolverines
As a Michigan fan, I watched a lot of Nico Collins over the last 4 years. Nico opted out of the 2020 season and honestly, I don't blame him, especially with the Quarterback play he had to put up with during his Collegiate career. Listed at 6'4" and 215 lbs., Nico is a mismatch against any defensive back he lines up against. At the line of scrimmage, he made easy work of most BIG 10 corners he went up against and was a big play threat anytime he got a good release. His route running definitely needs work and his route tree at Michigan was limited, but he's going to be able to make an impact in the NFL with his ability to turn 50/50 balls into 80/20 balls. His hands are elite and his catch radius is absolutely massive. A true "throw it up and let him go get it" kind of receiver. He's a developmental player, but if he becomes a better route runner, he'll be unguardable in the NFL. Expect him to be selected in the second round.
There you have it! That concludes my breakdown of the top receivers in this year's Draft, but if you'd like my opinion on any other prospects, feel free to reach out to me on Twitter (handle below). I will happily answer any questions you guys have! Keep an eye out for my next breakdown of the top Quarterbacks in the 2021 Draft (spoiler alert, Trevor Lawrence is #1) and subscribe to my Podcast 'Pro Football Coast2Coast,' which will debut on March 8th.
- Connor (@PatriotsNV)