A lot of work goes into my dynasty rankings.
I’ll say this to my editor, as he anxiously awaits an article to be filed, and he’ll just nod his head and then walk away.
No really, a lot of work goes into my dynasty rankings.
Phase I of my rankings process starts with Phase I of my model — which has three phases in all. Phase I focuses on college production and efficiency. Phase II focuses on height, weight, and athletic measurables. Phase III focuses entirely on draft capital.
Early on, I try not to be influenced by subjective factors – industry mock drafts, rumors regarding 40-yard-dash times, and the like. Instead, I focus solely on the objective – a player’s cold, hard, brutally honest numbers. I’ll run each player’s college statistics through my model (which focuses only on the most predictive metrics for each position) for an initial ranking. Who leads this class? How does that player compare to the leaders of previous classes? Consider this ‘Phase I’ of my model, which you can take as something akin to a production (plus efficiency) score.
Then, these rankings get updated again following the Combine (or, for 2021, after every player’s Pro Day). Each participant’s numbers (e.g. height, weight, 40-time, broad jump, etc.) get parsed through a second version of my model that focuses only on the most predictive measurables and events for each position. This has a small (probably much smaller than imagined) but real impact on the first model. We’ll call this Phase II.
The actual NFL Draft then has the biggest impact on these rankings, as draft position is the variable with the single most predictive power at any position. That alone comprises Phase III and the completion of my model.
Once my model is concluded I’ll welcome in the subjective factors, and small tinkerings will be made to my rankings. What did Greg Cosell think of this player? How enticing is this landing spot for this player’s fantasy potential? How accurate is his quarterback? How run-heavy (historically) is the offensive play-caller? Countless hours will be spent watching Post-Draft Press Conferences with a team’s head coach, offensive coordinator, and/or general manager. Why did they draft this player? Do they like this tight end more as a receiver or a blocker? Do they think they can contribute immediately in Year 1? Etc.
In this week’s series, I’ve been walking you through the first step in this process, breaking down my top tight ends (here), running backs (here), and wide receivers according to my pre-Combine (or, again pre-Pro Day) prospect model. In today’s article, we’ll be focusing on the top wide receivers of the 2021 Draft class.
1. Ja’Marr Chase, LSU Fighting Tigers (Age: 21.1)
Where he ranks: Chase ranks as the best WR in this class and the best WR prospect to come out since at least 2015.
Why he ranks here:
Chase, a former 4-star recruit, burst onto the scene as a sophomore in 2019, totaling 1,780 yards (the sixth-most by any Power-5 WR since at least 2000) and 20 touchdowns (the fifth-most by any Power-5 WR since at least 2000). That’s impressive enough, but this was also 240 yards and two touchdowns more than teammate Justin Jefferson, and on 13 fewer targets. Yes, the same, Justin Jefferson who totaled 1,400 yards in 2020; the most by any rookie WR since the NFL merger in 1970. And better yet, Chase did this when he was only 19 years old, nearly a full year younger than Jefferson.
A player’s age, and, specifically, their age-adjusted production plays a key role in my model, and a far larger role than for QBs, RBs, and TEs. Simply speaking, it’s one of the most predictive variables when it comes to accurately projecting the fantasy success of future NFL WRs. And it makes sense a priori as well. FBG writer Adam Harstad said it best, “Given normal human development, 19-year-old males are at a physical disadvantage compared to 21-year-old males. The ability to dominate despite operating at a handicap is indicative of a surplus of talent. For instance, compiling 1,000 receiving yards in a season where you literally played with one arm tied behind your back would also be a strong indicator of future NFL success.”
With that out of the way, it’s worth noting that after adjusting for age, Chase’s 2020 season rivals only Michael Crabtree’s 2007 season as the best by any Power-5 WR since at least 2000. Attesting to this stat’s predictive power, 11 of the top-16 seasons (excluding players yet to be drafted) belong to WRs who have posted at least one top-12 fantasy season (by total PPR points or FPG) in the NFL.
And things still get better from here.
It’s really tough to evaluate WR prospects. That’s true from an NFL perspective – WRs have among the highest bust rates of any position in the NFL Draft (just look at Bill Belichick’s track record) – and from a fantasy perspective. Of the 23 WRs to be drafted in Round 1 since 2015, only two have made the Pro Bowl (Amari Cooper, Justin Jefferson). As far as why this is, it’s a myriad of factors, all detailed in this thread here.
Among the primary points – WRs in college rarely ever face press coverage or man coverage as often as they will in the pros. Slot WRs are especially difficult to evaluate, as it’s a lot easier to play in the slot in college (generally in zone and against safeties and linebackers with plenty of room to work) than in the pros (against sticky nickel cornerbacks who press). It’s also important to sift through a WR’s numbers to see how much of their stats came padded on manufactured production, specifically a high number of screens and quick low-aDOT catches. These concerns apply to every WR in this class, but least so Chase.
Against man coverage in 2019, Chase averaged 6.05 YPRR (third-most) with 58 catches (most), compared to Jefferson’s 2.88 and 38. Defeating press coverage is also a major strength of Chase’s game (and is an exceedingly rare trait for a player his age) – he faced press coverage at one of the highest rates in college football and was among the most efficient WRs when facing press coverage. 69% of Chase’s receiving yards came when lined up outside in 2019, compared to 0% for Jefferson in 2019, or 8% for Jaylen Waddle over the past two seasons. And only 4% of Chase’s receiving yards came on screens in 2019, compared to players like Amari Rodgers (28%), Rondale Moore (24%), Jaylen Waddle (22%), and Tylan Wallace (21%), who all saw over 20% of their receiving production come on screens over the past two seasons.
Chase is an elite deep threat – his 14 touchdowns on deep targets is the most by any player over the past two seasons combined, and, keep in mind, he didn’t even play in 2020. He’s an explosive playmaker – his 34 catches gaining 20 yards or more rank behind only DeVonta Smith over the past two seasons. Again, he didn’t even play in 2020. And he was electric with the ball in his hands. He led all WRs in yards after contact in 2019 (431), and he forced 22 missed tackles on 84 catches. And Chase was highly productive against some of the best cornerbacks college football had to offer. Per Mike Renner, “We know his game will translate against NFL corners because, well, the guys he was beating up are currently starting in the NFL. He faced C.J. Henderson, Cameron Dantzler, Trevon Diggs and A.J. Terrell en route to a monster season. Against those four cornerbacks, his average game was 6.8 catches, 134 yards and 1.5 touchdowns.”
The one knock on Chase, I suppose, is that he opted out of the 2020 season, so we have a smaller sample size to work with. But it’s hard to knock him when (I’m assuming) he was told he didn’t need to play another down to still be a top-10 pick in the 2021 Draft.
Ultimately, this was a lot of words to state the obvious. Chase profiles as the best WR in this class and an elite, borderline-generational WR prospect — a true alpha X and WR1 in the NFL. Don’t overthink this.
2. DeVonta Smith, Alabama Crimson Tide (Age: 22.4)
Where he ranks: Smith ranks as the third-best WR prospect to come out since 2015, behind Chase and Amari Cooper, and directly above CeeDee Lamb. This being said, we’re only looking at statistical production and efficiency at this point in the process. I expect him to fall quite a bit in Phase II of my model which accounts for height, weight, and athleticism.
Why he ranks here:
In 2019, Ja’Marr Chase won the Biletnikoff Award, and the LSU Tigers won the National Championship, on the back of a monster 9-221-2 performance from Chase. Not to be outdone, Smith became the first WR to win the Heisman Trophy in 29 years, and the Crimson Tide won the National Championship on the back of a 12/215/3 performance from Smith… in just the first half. In 2019, Chase posted the sixth-most yards and the fifth-most touchdowns by any Power-5 WR since 2000. In 2020, Smith exceeded both marks – his 1,856 receiving yards ranks behind only Michael Crabtree’s 2007 season, and his 23 touchdowns ranks behind only Stedman Bailey’s 2012 season.
As impressive as Smith was in 2020 – really, one of the greatest WR seasons in college football history – his 2019 season was still probably the fourth-best season by any WR in this class. The former 4-star recruit got off to a sleepy start, without much production as a freshman or sophomore, but burst onto the scene as a junior. On an Alabama team sporting (arguably) the greatest WR corps in CFB history – consisting of (very likely) four Round 1 NFL Draft picks – Smith led the team in yards (1,256) and touchdowns (14), which was nearly double Henry Ruggs or Jaylen Waddle. From an efficiency standpoint, his numbers were even more impressive.
According to one of my best stats – depth-adjusted yards per target over expectation – Smith’s 2019 season (+97%) ranks best by any WR since at least 2016. Dede Westbrook, CeeDee Lamb, Jaylen Waddle, and Ja’Marr Chase are the only other WRs with seasons ranking in the top-5. Smith averaged 11.2 yards after the catch per reception in 2019, which ranks most by any Power-5 WR since 2015. Lamb, Brandon Aiyuk, Tutu Atwell, and Marquise Brown are the only other WRs with seasons ranking in the top-5. He also ranked top-6 in yards per route run (3.52), yards after contact per reception (4.8), and YPT (14.3 despite a comparatively low 9.3 aDOT). Only Lamb and Chase can make the same claim.
And, of course, now we’re back to his ridiculous 2020 season. YPRR is an important variable in my model, and Smith’s 4.39 YPRR average in 2020 ranks best by any Power-5 WR since at least 2014. His 96.4 PFF receiving grade in 2020 is the highest grade PFF has ever awarded to a college WR in seven years of grading. Amari Cooper, Josh Doctson, Tyler Lockett, Elijah Moore, and DeVante Parker (in order) are the other WRs with seasons ranking in the top-6. That year, 74% of Smith’s targets went for first downs or touchdowns in 2020, which ranks best since 2014.
Absurdly, despite seeing 58 and then 88 and then 145 targets over the past three seasons, Smith has earned his QBs a near-perfect passer rating when targeted in each season, ranking top-3 in each season by the same stat, and 154.0 across all three seasons combined. And he has phenomenal hands, dropping just nine of 306 career targets, good for second-best in the class. I can do this all day, but I think you get the point. Let’s move on to Smith’s flaws.
Smith is being dinged on two counts by fantasy experts and draft experts alike. One, I think legitimately concerning, the other I think not. First is his advanced age, the late breakout age, and the fact that he wasn’t an early declare for the draft. Given the fact that he was teammates with three first-round WRs, I’m not too worried. And, though he’s vaguely on the older end of the spectrum (he was 20 years old to start the 2019 season), he did at least technically post some elite age-adjusted numbers. Further, Smith had a consensus Round 2 grade from the GM Advisory Committee as a junior (per sources), which means any comparison to other 4-year WR prospects (who likely all received UDFA-level grades after their third season) is immaterial.
The other, far more legitimate, concern is Smith’s low weight and low BMI (weighing somewhere around 170 pounds at 6’1”). That, I think, is a serious concern. The hit rate on low-weight and low-BMI WRs is not good (see below). And, in all honesty, I think that’s something my Pre-Combine model might have a blind spot for (though Phase II of my model will correct for that). For instance, my Pre-Combine model had Dede Westbrook ranked as the second-best WR in the 2016 class (behind only JuJu Smith-Schuster). Greg Cosell also told us he did see Smith’s frame and light weight being an issue on tape, noting there were “some snaps at boundary X on which Smith was physically pushed and squeezed to the sideline - this showed up in both his 2019 and 2020 tape.”
Another concern, less often talked about, is the fact that Waddle was outproducing Smith prior to his injury. Through Alabma’s first four games (Waddle was injured in Alabma’s fifth game of the season), Waddle averaged 139.3 YPG to Smith’s 120.8. Smith likely never would have won the Heisman had Waddle stayed healthy, but, of course, he didn’t, and Smith played out of his mind in his absence operating as Alabama’s true WR1.
All of this being said, and speaking entirely in terms of his statistical profile (production and efficiency but not height, weight, and athleticism), Smith is looking like an elite WR prospect. He can play both in the slot and out wide – over the past two seasons, he’s averaged 5.00 YPRR from the slot (second-most in this class, behind Chase who had a much smaller sample) and 3.53 YPRR out wide (second-most in this class, behind Rashod Bateman). Yes, at Smith’s weight, he would be an outlier if successful. But he’s already an outlier due to being the first WR to win the Heisman in nearly 30 years, as well as for a number of other ridiculous stats that rank better than any other WR in multiple draft classes.
3. Elijah Moore, Ole Miss Rebels (Age: 21.0)
Where he ranks: Moore ranks as the 10th-best WR prospect to come out since 2015, ranking directly in between Justin Jefferson and Jerry Jeudy.
Why he ranks here:
A former 4-star recruit, Moore posted a 36/398/2 line as an 18-year-old true freshman playing alongside D.K. Metcalf (26/569/5) and A.J. Brown (84/1320/6), who are 2.4 to 2.8 years older (respectively). If that doesn’t count as a breakout, 2019 most certainly should. In their absence in 2019, Moore recorded 67 catches, 850 yards, and six touchdowns. While that might not seem like a lot, please note this hilariously impressive fact – the next-closest receiver had only 192 receiving yards (just 23% of Moore's total). And Ole Miss threw only 11 touchdown passes all year.
Moore’s 2019 was great, but his 2020 season was historically great – he turned 101 targets into 86 receptions, 1,193 receiving yards, and eight touchdowns, as well as 14 rush attempts into 64 rushing yards. And if that doesn’t seem like a lot, note that Moore played in only eight games. Adjusting for that fact, Moore’s 157.1 YFS per game is the most by any WR since at least 2000, and maybe ever. And keep in mind, Moore – one of the youngest WRs in this class – accomplished this feat in his age 20 season. On a per-game-basis and after adjusting for age, Moore's 2020 season was arguably more impressive than Chase's 2019 season, and behind only Michael Crabtree's famed 2007 season.
Moore’s 2020 season also impresses by some of the more advanced efficiency metrics that appeal to my model. Moore’s 3.85 YPRR average ranks fifth-best among all Power-5 WRs since 2016. He led all non-Alabama WRs in separation rate in 2020. And his 93.0 PFF receiving grade ranks fifth-best among all Power-5 WRs since 2015, behind only DeVonta Smith (2021), Amari Cooper (2015), Josh Doctson (2016), and Tyler Lockett (2015), and directly ahead of DeVante Parker (2015).
If there’s one concern with Moore it’s that only 10% of his career receiving yards have come when lined up out wide. And so, he projects to be a slot-only WR at the next level. That’s not something my model dinged him for, but, I think, maybe it should have. For one thing, as we brought up earlier, it’s a lot easier to produce in the slot in college than in the NFL, and comparatively a lot easier to produce in the slot in college than outside. And then, beyond that, slot WRs have become devalued in the NFL, and for good reason. I explain this in more detail here – #SlotWRsDontMatter.
Although he does project as a slot-only WR, or at least a slot-predominant WR (especially early in his career), he projects to be a great one. He has reliable, ultra-sticky hands, dropping just 10 of 266 career targets. He could be a true PPR cheat code for fantasy, and I think should be an immediate Year 1 contributor (to fantasy rosters) when he gets to the NFL, as evident by the fact he averaged a whopping 10.8 receptions per game last year. But I think he also has some Tyler Lockett / early-career T.Y. Hilton-upside from the slot, which is to say he’s also a dangerous deep threat. He led all WRs in deep receiving yards per game last season (61.3) and also ranked second-best in yards per deep target (25.8). The 4.35 forty-yard-dash he ran at his Pro Day attests to this fact, and should help make up some ground for him in Phase II of my model, which might ding him for being slightly undersized at 5-9 and 178 lbs.
4. Rashod Bateman, Minnesota Golden Gophers (Age: 21.3)
Where he ranks: Bateman ranks as the 12th-best WR prospect to come out since 2015, ranking directly in between Jerry Jeudy and JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Why he ranks here:
Bateman was a tricky evaluation for me, and apparently far more so for me than anyone else in the industry. (Well, anyone else but Lance Zierlein, who has him ranked as the WR9 in this class; he’s fairly unanimously in the top-5 for any other talent evaluator in the industry.) My more basic model — which looks at things like yardage market share, touchdown market share, dominator rating, yards per team pass attempt, and then all of those numbers age-adjusted — absolutely loved him (ranking him WR3), but my more-advanced model was less impressed (WR8). Blending those two models together, however, does keep him firmly in the top-5.
Bateman, a 6’2”, 209-pound former 4-star recruit, put up some ridiculous numbers during his time at Minnesota. As an 18-year-old true freshman, Bateman was a Day 1 starter for the Golden Gophers, posting a 51/704/6 line on 96 targets. He took his game up another level in 2019 – despite seeing one fewer target than he did in 2018 – posting an absurd 60/1,219/11 line. But it’s worth noting this was still behind Tyler Johnson (1.3 years older than Bateman) and his 86/1,318/13 line on 119 targets. In Johnson’s absence in 2020, Bateman averaged 7.2 receptions, 94.4 yards, and 0.4 touchdowns on 11.0 targets per game (five games) – equivalent to a 94/1,227/5 (143) line had he played a full 13-game season. These numbers, though impressive, marked a step down from his 2019 season. So, it’s important to note here that Bateman struggled mightily with the after-effects of COVID-19 in his 2020 season, and this probably unfairly hurt him in my model.
Bateman’s raw production was elite, but he also popped by a number of important efficiency metrics. He ranked third-best among Power-5 WRs in yards per team pass attempt in 2019 (although directly behind teammate Tyler Johnson), and then best in 2020 on a per-game basis. That’s one of the most predictive stats in my more basic model. My more advanced model thought he was “fine”, not really special by any stat, except for one big important one – over the past two seasons Bateman leads all WRs in YPRR when lined up out wide (3.74), and well ahead of the next-closest WRs on our list: DeVonta Smith (3.53), Tylan Wallace (3.27), and Ja’Marr Chase (2.98). Again, my model doesn’t penalize slot WRs, nor boost outside WRs, but I think it probably should.
All of this being said, I do have some concerns with Bateman, and these concerns would not be something my model was designed to notice. For one thing, Johnson (who was ultimately drafted in Round 5 by the Buccaneers) was one of my Pre-Combine Model’s most egregious misses, ranking fifth-best by any WR since 2014. Of course, that was corrected in Phase II of my model (which accounts for athleticism), and Johnson was also another slot-only WR, but there could also be something inherent to the Minnesota offense that my model fails to account for in the same way that Mike Leach RBs are always overrated by my Pre-Combine RB model. And on that point, Bateman’s route profile is somewhat concerning. His route concentration over the past two seasons correlates to high-end NFL WRs at just a 0.68 R-squared correlation (RSQ), which ranks above only Tutu Atwell among my model’s top-10 WRs in this class. This was a similar problem for Johnson when he came out (0.64).
Bateman also struggled with drops – his 11% career drop rate ranks bottom-5 in this class. But, really, all of this feels overly-nitpicky. Bateman’s numbers are incredibly strong, and he easily dealt with the worst QB play of any WR in our top-6 – that’s another example of something my model isn’t entirely going to account for. Ultimately, Bateman is easily a high-level prospect who profiles as a true X WR at the next level, which is rare in this class. No prospect is without concerns or red flags, and Bateman’s red flags are probably less worrisome than that of Smith’s or the next prospect on our list.
5. Rondale Moore, Purdue Boilermakers (Age: 20.8)
Where he ranks: Moore ranks 20th-best since 2015 – meaning he’d basically be the second- or third-best WR in a typical class – essentially tied with Jaylen Waddle (just 0.08% above Waddle). Within their tier, we see a high number of big hits (A.J. Brown, Tee Higgins, Brandon Aiyuk, Chris Godwin) but also some misses (John Ross, Keke Coutee).
Why he ranks here:
Moore, a former 4-star recruit, put together one of the most impressive true freshman WR seasons in CFB history when, in 2018, he turned 154 targets into 114 catches, 1,258 yards, and 12 scores. And, on the ground, 21 carries into 213 yards (10.1 YPC), and two scores. In his first ever game for Purdue, he totaled 188 YFS and two scores on 13 touches. He had turned 18 just two months prior. By the end of the season he had forced 37 missed tackles as a receiver (the most by any Power-5 WR since 2015), gained 385 yards after contact (second only to Ja’Marr Chase’s 2019 season), and totaled 892 yards after the catch (second only to DeVonta Smith’s 2020 season). For his efforts, he was awarded a 90.4 receiving grade from PFF – one of the highest grades ever given to an underclassmen.
Moore then dealt with hamstring injuries over his next two seasons, missing 11 of 18 games. But he was still highly productive when on the field, averaging 10.3 catches and 106.5 receiving yards per full game (six) over this span. He sports an absurd 30% career yardage market share in games played, and his 108.2 career receiving YPG average ranks fifth-best among Power-5 WRs since 2011. Only Marqise Lee, Sammy Watkins, Marquise Brown, and Mike Evans rank higher.
Moore’s age-adjusted numbers are off the charts. He’s nearly unrivaled when it comes to his ability after the catch – 70% of his career production came after the catch. And though tape study doesn’t factor into my analysis at this point in the process, Moore seemed “special af” on tape with what he does well. To me, he profiles as something akin to a Kryptonian Cole Beasley or a smaller and less-complete but more athletic Steve Smith, which is to say he could be a true Wes Welker-esque PPR cheat code at the next level. That’s at least partly evident by the fact that he averaged 8.90 career receptions per game, which ranks between only Davante Adams (8.96) and Michael Crabtree (8.88) since 2000.
All of this being said, Moore does have some pretty big red flags. Durability is a concern. He projects to be slot-only at the NFL level – 83% of his career receiving yards have come when lined up in the slot. A lot of his production came on manufactured touches – 24% of his career receiving yards have come on screens. Worse yet, only 13% of his career catches came on balls thrown 10-plus yards down the field (contrast that to Elijah Moore at 34%). But Moore’s biggest red flag is his height, listed at only 5’7”. Although he’s an elite athlete, which might make up some ground, I imagine he’ll fall in Phase II of my model because of that. Like Smith’s weight, this is a legitimate concern, and his small catch radius could make him even more landing spot-dependent than he already is (root for a team with a hyper-accurate passer to draft him).
6. Jaylen Waddle, Alabama Crimson Tide (Age: 22.3)
Where he ranks: Waddle ranks essentially tied with Moore, and 21st-best over the past seven draft classes (since 2015).
Why he ranks here:
Waddle, a former 4-star recruit, was ridiculously efficient while at Alabama, but not very productive. And, as such, my more-advanced model loved him (WR3), while my more basic model did not (WR9). Blending them together, he ranks sixth overall, but essentially tied with Rondale Moore, and ranking much closer to the WR2 in a typical class than the WR6.
Waddle has an early breakout age, I suppose, recording 45 receptions, 848 yards, and seven touchdowns (15 games) as a true freshman in 2018. However, he did turn 20 halfway through the season, and that’s pretty old for a true freshman; he’s only 11 days younger than DeVonta Smith, who graduated high school a full year earlier. Impressively, that ranked as the second-most receiving yards on the team, over Henry Ruggs (741), Irv Smith Jr. (710), and DeVonta Smith (693), though he ranked just fifth in routes run. But this was also Waddle’s career-high. In 2019, he ranked fourth in receiving yards (behind DeVonta Smith, Jerry Jeudy, and then Henry Ruggs), turning 40 targets into 33 catches, 560 yards, and six touchdowns. Following the departures of Jeudy and Ruggs, Waddle was poised for a monster 2020 season, but that was never fully realized. His junior season was inevitably derailed by injury (a high ankle sprain plus fracture, which required surgery), but through the team’s first four games (his only four healthy games) he did lead the team and outproduce Smith 139.3 YPG to 120.8.
Beyond just the lack of raw production, Waddle comes with a few additional concerns. Talent evaluators are far more optimistic on Waddle’s ability to play outside, but only 9% of his career receiving yards have come when lined up outside. Further, if Waddle is so good, why is it that he was only a second-string player prior to 2020 (ranking fourth among all Alabama WRs in routes run in each season)? Maybe it’s just the ‘Bama dilemma — he was playing behind three other Round 1 WRs.
But the upside with Waddle is even more apparent and glaring. On a per-route or per-target-basis, Waddle is the most efficient WR in this class. He is the only WR to rank top-3 in YPRR in two of the past three seasons, and he leads the class in career YPRR (3.57). Among all Power-5 WRs since 2014, he ranks behind only Brandon Aiyuk in career yards after the catch per reception (9.8). He also leads all such WRs in career YPT average (15.1). And since 2019, Waddle has earned his QBs a perfect 158.3 passer rating when targeted from the slot. But by my favorite stat – depth-adjusted YPT over expectation – Waddle is best, and no one else comes close:
Although Waddle played behind Ruggs (or, I guess, really Jeudy because he was their slot WR), Waddle projects to me to be a very rich man’s Ruggs (my model has Ruggs ranked as the WR11 in the 2019 class). And really, probably the closest thing we’ve ever seen to Tyreek Hill. Like both receivers, Waddle is a rare speed freak (maybe just as fast as Ruggs), but unlike Ruggs, also an elite deep threat. While at Alabama, Waddle had 398 more yards than Ruggs on only five additional deep targets. Like Hill, he’s elite at generating yards after the catch. And like Hill again, despite his size (5’10”, 183 pounds), he’s surprisingly great at the catch point, leading the class in contested catch conversion rate (just ahead of Terrace Marshall and then, equally surprisingly, Elijah Moore).
Notes: Again, like Tyreek Hill, Waddle will also be able contribute to NFL teams as a returner. And he projects to be a great one. His 24.7 yards per punt return average in 2019 ranks best by any returner since 2014. DeVonta Smith, Rondale Moore, and Elijah Moore, among others in this class, were also excellent returners in college. This does nothing for my model, and it’s foolhardy to ever expect much fantasy production from the return game, but I do think this matters in terms of a player’s prospect profile, speaking to their dynamism and ability in open space.
The Next Tier (Quick Hits)
After the Big-6 WRs there’s a bit of a drop off. Tylan Wallace, Tutu Atwell, and Terrace Marshall rank (respectively) 7th-, 8th-, and 9th-best in this class, or, 28th-, 33rd-, and 34th-best since 2014.
First up, we have former 4-star recruit and Oklahoma State WR Tylan Wallace (Age: 21.9). Wallace broke out in 2018, as a 19-year-old sophomore, leading the Power-5 with 1,489 receiving yards. This was among the best age-adjusted / breakout age seasons in my database. Although the decision to return for his senior year hurt him in my model, after an ACL injury prematurely ended his junior campaign, he was highly effective in both seasons. He actually leads the class in YPG over the last three seasons (103.6). Wallace leads the class in career deep receiving yards and contested catches, but also wasn’t very efficient on a per-target-basis in either category. Wallace also ranks among the best WRs in the class in efficiency against press coverage and he’s proven effective at playing outside – 85% of his career receiving yards came lined up out wide.
Behind Wallace is former 3-star recruit and Louisville WR Tutu Atwell (Age: 21.5). As a sophomore, in 2019, Atwell turned 104 targets into 69 catches, 1,272 yards, and 11 touchdowns, more than double the receiving yards of the next-closest Louisville WR (Dez Fitzpatrick, 635). He averaged 4.33 YPRR that season, which ranks second-best (behind DeVonta Smith’s 2019 season) by any Power-5 WR since 2014. He was also PFF’s highest-graded WR that year and led all WRs in yards after the catch (752). And these numbers look even more impressive when factoring in he was just 19 years old to start the season. Unfortunately, with Atwell, there are also a lot of red flags, which makes me think we’re more than a little too high on him. His production fell off in 2020, with Fitzpatrick outproducing him 75.7 YPG to 64.4 (though Atwell did play through injury later in the year). He projects to be a slot-only WR in the NFL (84% of his career yards came in the slot). A large production of his yards came on screens (23%), and his route profile was concerning as well (0.65 RSQ). Further, due to an immense lack of size (5’9” and 155 pounds), and an underwhelming forty-time at that size (4.42), I fully expect him to fall in Phase II of my model; possibly to the “do not draft”-range.
After Atwell comes former 5-star prospect LSU WR Terrace Marshall, who is tied with Rondale Moore as the second-youngest WR in this class (20.8). Marshall broke out in 2020, averaging 104.4 YPG. Better yet, if only looking at games Marshall was active, he recorded 10 of LSU’s 16 passing touchdowns (63%) and 37% of the team’s passing yards. His numbers in 2019 were respectable, posting a 46/671/13 line, but less so when considering Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson combined for nearly five times as many receiving yards and three times as many receiving touchdowns. Still, that might be unfair – not many WRs would be able to hold pace with Chase and Jefferson. Unlike many of the WRs we’ve discussed, Marshall was better out wide (2.36 YPRR) than in the slot (1.83 YPRR) during his time in the Bayou. After a phenomenal Pro Day (4.43 40-yard-dash at 6’2 ½” and 205 pounds), I expect him to rise in Phase II of my model.
After Marshall we see another tier-drop, with Dyami Brown (Age: 21.4) and Anthony Schwartz (Age: 20.6) ranking next best. And then another tier drop, with Dazz Newsome (Age: 21.9), Amari Rodgers (Age: 21.5), and Sage Surratt (Age: 23.0) ranking 12th, 13th, and 14th, respectively. Rodgers is particularly interesting in that he ranked behind only DeVonta Smith in receiving yards in the first-half of 2020 games (780), representing 77% of his total receiving yards. If adjusting for that, he might rank much higher in this phase of my model. Clemson’s decision to rest starters in blowouts, which happened often, hurt Tee Higgins in my model last year and Travis Etienne in my RB model this year. I’ll dig in deeper on him and all of these other names in our Phase II follow-up.
If my model missed badly on any one prospect, it’s probably Florida WR Kadarius Toney (Age: 22.2), who is a likely Round 1 or Round 2 draft pick per any draft expert or talent evaluator you’ll read. Toney was a particularly tricky evaluation for me, and an especially difficult one for any statistical model.
Toney played QB in high school and, throughout his first three seasons at Florida, played a sort of utility role before transitioning full-time to WR in 2020. Toney never eclipsed 25 receptions or 25 carries in either of his first three seasons, but his 2020 season might have been more impressive than any WR not named DeVonta Smith or Elijah Moore. Alongside TE Kyle Pitts, Toney turned 84 targets into 70 catches, 984 yards, and 10 touchdowns. And, as a rusher, 19 carries into 161 yards (8.5 YPC) and a score. He led all WRs in depth-adjusted YPT over expectation (+67%) and dropped only 2 of his 83 targets.
I can’t help but wonder if Toney had been a JUCO transfer coming into 2020, as opposed to a utility player for three seasons at Florida, how high he might rank in my model. I’d presume top-7, even in spite of the late breakout age and some other concerns (he’s slot-only, a high percentage of his production came on screens). And that late breakout age can be explained away by the fact that he has very little experience playing his position, which also hints at his upside. All of this together makes me think Toney is an ideal #UpsideWinsChampionships / swing-for-the-fences pick in rookie drafts (current ADP: WR10).
Amon-Ra St. Brown (Age: 21.4) could be another miss. It’s harder to argue for him from a statistical-standpoint than Toney, but he did keep pace with WR Michael Pittman Jr. through his first two seasons at USC. As a freshman and sophomore at USC, while Pittman was a junior and senior, St. Brown averaged 74.7 YPG to Pittman’s 83.4. Keep in mind, Pittman, who was selected in Round 2 by the Colts last year, is over two years older than St. Brown. This is one of Wes Huber’s favorite players in the draft, so I’ll let him try to sell you on him (here), but I’ll also dig deeper on St. Brown in Phase II of my model.
A lot of highly-regarded small school prospects are missing from the top-15 in my model, and they’re all missing from my model for exactly that reason. Of these small school prospects, North Texas WR Jaelon Darden (Age: 22.2) was my model’s favorite by a wide margin. He averaged 132.2 receiving YPG in 2020, and, more impressively, 2.11 receiving touchdowns per game (19 in nine games), which ranks best by any WR since at least 2000.