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 focuses on college production: my Production Model. Phase II focuses on height, weight, and athletic measurables: my Athleticism Model / SPORQ Score. 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 efficiency and production 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 and then after all Pro Days are concluded. 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 my Athleticism Model, or SPORQ Score.
Additional Reading: “How important is athleticism? What is a SPORQ Score?” I answered these questions here. “Who were the top winners and losers of the 2022 NFL Combine?” I answered this question here. And you can access our historical Combine database which includes SPORQ Scores here.
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 very 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’ll be 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 Production Model.
In today’s article – less an article, more an actual Prospect Guide – we’ll be focusing on the top wide receivers of the 2022 Draft class.
Notes: You can read last year’s articles here (running backs), here (wide receivers), and here (tight ends).
Position-Specific (Strategy) Thoughts:
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 28 WRs to be drafted in Round 1 since 2015, only four have made the Pro Bowl (Amari Cooper, Justin Jefferson, Ja’Marr Chase, and CeeDee Lamb). 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 production came padded on manufactured touches, specifically a high number of screens and quick low-aDOT catches. These concerns apply to every WR in this class.
In the four years since I’ve been doing this, there has only ever been one WR prospect without any red flags, and that was Ja’Marr Chase. But this year’s class seems riddled with red flags. In fact, it seems every WR has a different, totally unique, and equally damning red flag in proportional degree to how much my model liked them. But please understand, that does not mean that this is a bad class – I don’t think it is! It’s just a very polarizing class, and one that is very difficult to analyze and then rank. It’s easy to like a of different WRs in this class, but it’s hard to fall in love with any single one.
Again the rankings below are all according to my Production Model. No WR was artificially inflated or deflated in order to fall more in line with consensus rankings. My final overall rankings – which factors in a player’s athleticism score – will be released in several days.
1. Drake London, WR, USC
SPORQ: DNQ (6-4, 219 lbs), Former: 4-star recruit, Age: 20.8
NFL Mock Draft Consensus: WR2
Production Model: WR1
“What stood out in almost every game was London's body control and hands to work outside the numbers and make tough contested catches versus tight coverage, with the question being whether that can translate with the same efficiency at the next level and with the same consistency. My sense is that is an open question that different evaluators and coaches will answer differently. But you have to have some concern about so many contested catches versus college corners… London will be a polarizing evaluation and I feel he would transition best as a big slot in the way Marques Colston was in New Orleans.” – Greg Cosell (FantasyPoints Prospect Guide)
TLDR: Middling to poor QB-play, brutally tough high-end NFL-caliber target competition.
QB: Kedon Slovis (Devy QB39) [2021 PFF Pass Grade: 23rd of 50 qualifiers]
WR: Michael Pittman (Round 2), Amon-Ra St. Brown (Round 4), Velus Jones Jr. (Proj. Round 5), K.D. Nixon (Proj. UDFA, WR98), Gary Bryant Jr. (Devy WR28), Michael Jackson III (Devy WR139), Kyle Ford (Devy WR165)
TE: Erik Krommenhoek (Proj. UDFA, TE41)
Where he ranks (Production Only)
According to my Production Model: London ranks best in the class, and 19th-best since 2000.
Why he ranks here
Drake London was a 4-star football recruit (No. 36 WR in the country) and a 3-star basketball recruit (No. 30 shooting guard) coming out of high school.
As an 18.1-year-old true freshman, he started for USC’s football team, while competing for targets against future fantasy studs WR Michael Pittman (3.8 years older) and WR Amon-Ra St. Brown (1.7 years older). Over the team's final 6 games, London turned 39 targets into 32 catches for 471 yards (78.5 YPG) and 4 scores. Or, in other words: 33% fewer targets, only 12% fewer YPG, and 2X as many touchdowns as St. Brown over the same span.
London rejoined the USC basketball team after the football season ended, playing in two games before missing the remainder of the season due to a viral illness. So, to emphasize this point – London was still a year away from making football his sole focus (2021), and he was already similarly productive to Amon-Ra St. Brown, who is nearly two years older, and who – by the way – was second only to Cooper Kupp in fantasy points scored over the final six weeks of his rookie 2021 season.
London was the team's leading receiver in 2020, averaging 83.7 YPG to St. Brown's 79.7 (+5%) on 32% fewer targets per game. Surprisingly nimble for his size, he forced a missed tackle once every 2.36 receptions, which ranked best of 83-qualifying Power 5 WRs.
After already proving he could hold his own – or, actually, dominate (if age-adjusted) – against some truly tough NFL-quality target competition, it was now finally London’s turn to show what he could do with WR1-levels of volume. And boy did he deliver!
Through 8 games, London caught 88 of 119 targets for 1,084 yards and 7 scores. Or 11.0 catches, 135.5 yards, and 0.88 touchdowns on a per-game basis. For perspective, that’s the 2nd-most receptions per game and the 10th-most YPG by any Power 5 WR since at least 2002. And if age-adjusted, his 2021 season would rank top-3 by YPG.
Best Seasons by Age-Adjusted YPG— Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) April 9, 2022
+ Since 2000, Power 5 WRs Only, Age <20.5
1. Michael Crabtree, 2007
2. Elijah Moore, 2020
3. DRAKE LONDON, 2021
4. Brandin Cooks, 2013
5. Antonio Bryant, 2000
6. Ja'Marr Chase, 2019
7. Larry Fitzgerald, 2003
8. Jaxon Smith-Njigba, 2021
And, actually, maybe it’s even better than that. London’s 2021 season was cut 4 games short due to a fractured ankle – he scored a touchdown on the play – but also missed the entirety of the second half in his final game. So, we could say, he actually averaged 144.5 YPG through 7.5 games – the 4th-best mark (non-age-adjusted) by any Power 5 WR since at least 2002 (behind only Michael Crabtree, Elijah Moore, and Justin Blackmon).
He also led all Power 5 WRs in contested catches, converting an absurd 68% of his contested targets into catches – the best mark of any WR since at least 2017 (of 164 qualifiers). Clearly his basketball size (6-5, 210 lbs) and skills translate well to the gridiron. But he was also, again, shockingly elusive for his size – he finished 2nd among all Power 5 WRs in missed tackles forced in 2021 despite the 4.5 game handicap. All of this culminated in a 92.4 receiving grade from PFF, which is the 3rd highest grade they’ve awarded to a WR over the past five years (behind only seasons from Devonta Smith and Elijah Moore).
Prior to the injury, London had recorded a 43% YMS (99th percentile) while averaging 3.25 yards per team pass attempt (99th percentile). And then, without him, USC saw their record drop from 4-4 to 4-8, while their passing YPG average dropped by 19% and their point per game average fell by 33%.
To summarize, the Drake London profile has it all: an elite breakout age, elite market share metrics (despite NFL-quality target competition), obscene levels of raw production, hyper-efficiency on a per-route (3.52 YPRR in 2021, 3rd-best in the class) or per-target basis (+31% career depth-adjusted yards per target over expectation, 4th-best in the class), and elusivity after the catch. (Since 2015, he ranks 5th of 170-qualifying Power 5 WRs in career missed tackles forced per touch, with all of Deebo Samuel, D.J. Moore, A.J. Brown, Rondale Moore, and Laviska Shenault joining him – but ranking behind him – in the top-12.) And, as the final cherry on top, he’s the 2nd-youngest WR in the class (20.7), nearly a full year younger than Garrett Wilson (21.7).
London profiles as a true alpha “X” WR at the next level, proving (as much as any WR in this class), he can consistently win on the outside and against press coverage. He ran 85% of his routes from the outside in 2021, while also leading all of 118-qualifying Power 5 WRs in YPRR out-wide (3.24, the only WR above 2.9). Though, I suppose, as a bonus, he’s also maybe best in the class from the slot if you want to put him there.
But London is not without his warts, because no WR in this class is without warts. In fact, sadly, it seems every WR in this class has a different, unique, almost equally-damning red flag in proportional degree to how much my model liked them.
London’s red flag is this:
In 2021, 31% of his catches in 2021 came on screens (a proxy for “manufactured touches”). Minus screens, 31% of his catches came on contested catches.
Excluding screens, there have been 128 instances of a Power 5 WR gaining at least 800 receiving yards in a single season since 2017. Of these, London’s 2021 season ranks 4th by percentage of catches coming on contested catches (31%), on a top-5 list that includes only: J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, N'Keal Harry, Jalen Reagor, and Denzel Mims, in addition to London.
Top WR Seasons by % of Receptions coming on Contested Catches (minus screens)— Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) April 9, 2022
+Power 5 only, min. 800 receiving yards to qualify, 2017-2021
1 N'Keal Harry, 2018
2 JJ Arcega-Whiteside, 2018
3 Jalen Reagor, 2018
4 DRAKE LONDON, 2021
5 Denzel Mims, 2019
128 Marquise Brown, 2017
I dug deeper into this sample and explored this topic in more detail here, but, essentially, London’s “archetype” is at least a little frightening; littered almost exclusively with busts.
London-proponents can say something along the lines of: “Incredible! The dude turned 68% of his contested targets into catches in 2021. He literally turns 50/50 balls into 70/30 balls. What a cheat code!” (And, actually, Power 5 WRs convert only 43% of their contested targets into catches. So, it’s actually a little bit more impressive than that.)
And, I’m sympathetic towards that line of thinking, but I think the bigger takeaway is this: “If you're relying on contested catches for your production, you’re probably not getting open a lot. And if you’re not consistently getting open in college, you're definitely going to struggle to separate in the NFL. And if you’re struggling to separate in the NFL, you’re not going to be a productive fantasy asset. In fact, you might be a colossal bust, as is surely the case with London’s closest cohorts.” And, indeed, I do wonder if the NFL is moving away from this sort of archetype (big contested-catch types), and more towards smaller, speedier separators who work well in the quick passing game.
In London’s defense, I should have used “contested targets per total non-screen targets." But that helps him only very slightly, and not at all substantially. Others will argue that “not all contested targets should be treated equally.” Perhaps London was saddled with poor QB play, and his QB was consistently throwing inaccurate passes that drew London back into the coverage of the QB. I’m sympathetic to this excuse as well, but, unfortunately, the numbers don’t back it up (at all).
Ultimately, I am viewing this as a red flag, but far from a death knell (certainly not as damning Treylon Burks’ red flags at least). The above metric seems to hold some (surprisingly high amount of) predictive power, albeit on a small five-season sample, but also, London’s production profile greatly dwarfs that of any other WR within the top-30. So, I’m optimistic for that reason. And because, perhaps more than anything, I’m not sure how much I trust PFF’s numbers.
At his Pro Day, Drake London didn’t at all help his case against the narrative that “he’s too slow” or “can’t separate." He elected not to participate in the 40-yard-dash, so we don’t actually know how fast he is. I typically view this as a massive red flag – indicative of below-average athleticism – with the assumption being that the player knew full well he’d hurt his draft stock by participating in the event. But, on the other hand, London is already a consensus top-15 so he had little to gain and far more to lose by participating in what was likely to be his worst event. And to be fair, he’s coming off of a fractured ankle (October 2021) and (supposedly) a minor hamstring injury he picked up in April. Still, I can’t help but think of Tyler Johnson, who ranks as my Production Model’s all-time biggest misses. My Production Model had him ranked as one of the top WRs in his class, but I heavily penalized him (manually adjusted him downwards) in the athleticism portion of my model after he elected not to participate in a single event at the 2020 Combine. This ultimately proved to be the right decision. Should I do something similar with London? I’m not sure.
2. Jameson Williams, WR, Alabama
SPORQ: DNQ (6-2, 179 lbs), Former: 4-star recruit, Age: 21.1
NFL Mock Draft Consensus: WR3
Production Model: WR2
"How does a player with this kind of talent catch only 15 balls at Ohio State? That's the question our coaches are going to ask when they get involved." – Pro Personnel Director for an AFC Team (courtesy of Lance Zierlein)
TLDR (2019-2020): Brutally tough competition at Ohio State (see: Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave), and was a total non-factor.
TLDR (2021): Elite QB-play, only good-to-great target competition at Alabama (after the team lost DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle to the 2021 Draft), and was phenomenal.
QB: Bryce Young (Devy QB1) [PFF Pass Grade: 2nd of 50 qualifiers]
WR: John Metchie (Proj. R3), Slade Bolden (Proj. UDFA, WR40), Jacorey Brooks (Devy WR7), Agiye Hall (Devy WR14), JoJo Earle (Devy WR23), Christian Leary (Devy 146), Thaiu Jones-Bell (Devy WR167)
TE: Cameron Latu (Devy TE7)
Where he ranks (Production Only)
Williams ranks 32nd-best since 2000, implying he’d be the typical WR1.5 in any given draft class. He’s only a slight tier (12 picks) behind London, and even closer in line with the next two WRs on our list (3-5 picks).
Why he ranks here
Williams is a slight (6-2, 179 lbs, 23.0 BMI) but speedy wideout, who left high school as a 4-star recruit and the No. 13 WR in the country. As a high school senior he scored 22 touchdowns and, in track, broke Ezekiel Elliott’s state record in the 300-meter hurdles.
Williams saw little action as an 18.5-year-old true freshman in 2019, playing alongside sophomore Chris Olave (Proj. R1), super-senior K.J. Hill (R7), freshman Garrett Wilson (Proj. R1), and senior Binjamin Victor (UDFA).
He earned more playing time in 2020, but it failed to translate into meaningful production. He ranked 3rd on the team in routes (178) and receiving yards (154), but there wasn’t much left over for Williams after Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson combined for an astounding 69% YMS. Contrary to public opinion, Williams wasn’t “buried on the depth chart” in his sophomore season, he was simply unproductive and inefficient (on a per-route basis at least). For instance, he had 573 fewer receiving yards than Chris Olave on only 40 fewer routes. Or, 21% of Olave’s production on 82% of his routes run. And 21% of Wilson’s yards on 75% of his routes run. He averaged only 0.87 YPRR, which ranked 12th-worst of 165 qualifying Power 5 WRs.
After Olave decided to stay an extra year, and with sophomore phenom Jaxon Smith-Njigba waiting in the wings, the writing was on the wall. Williams “needed a fresh start," deciding to transfer to an Alabama team which just lost WRs DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle to Round 1 of the 2021 NFL Draft.
This seemed to be an ideal fit, as Alabama has helped uplift a number of especially slight and/or speedy WRs earn Round 1 draft capital over the past four years: Calvin Ridley (25.6 BMI), Jerry Jeudy (25.5 BMI), Henry Ruggs (4.27 40-yard-dash), Waddle (maybe just as fast as Ruggs), and Smith (23.1 BMI). And Williams proved he would be the next name to join the list, putting together what was arguably the most impressive single season by any WR in this draft class.
He turned 115 targets into 78 catches for 1,561 yards and 15 touchdowns. That’s the 19th-most receiving yards and the 25th-most receiving touchdowns (he also added two additional touchdowns as a kick returner) by any Power 5 WR since at least 2000. In addition to his gaudy raw production, he averaged 9.3 yards after the catch per reception (tied with Treylon Burks for the Power 5-high) and 13.6 YPT, which ranks 5th-best since 2016 – with only seasons by CeeDee Lamb, Ja’Marr Chase, DeVonta Smith, Tee Higgins, Marquise Brown, A.J. Brown, Jerry Jeudy, Dyami Brown, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba joining him in the top-10.
He’s an elite separator, who got open on a class-high 85.2% of his plays against man coverage last season. He’s an explosive playmaker who, last season, led the FBS in receptions gaining 75 and 50 yards, and also the class in receptions gaining 25 or 20 yards. And he’s an elite deep threat, but that’s not all he is – last season he led the class in YPT (13.5) and deep receiving yards (671), but he also led the class in YPT on all non-deep target throws (10.7).
Digging into this production, there weren't very many red flags. For instance, only 8% of his career receiving yards came on screens.
But there was something which stood out. Contrary to many top film evaluators, Williams profiles to me as a slot-only WR for at least the early part of his career. For one thing, his slight build seems better suited for the slot (23.0 BMI). For another, he’s been pretty bad against press coverage. But, primarily, he was far more efficient in the slot than out-wide last year, despite spending most of his time out-wide. He ran only 29% of his routes from the slot, but that also yielded 47% of his total yardage. Among the Combine-invite WRs in this class, he ranked 8th of 22 qualifiers in YPRR out-wide, well behind Drake London (3.24) and Garrett Wilson (2.61). On routes from the slot, he ranked best of 22 qualifiers with 5.10 – well ahead of the next-closest receiver with as many slot routes (John Metchie, 3.59).
So, this is a slight red flag. Even if NFL teams do view him as an outside WR, this slightly weakens the strength of his production profile – remember, slot WR production is simply less meaningful and less predictive in college.
One position commonly misevaluated in draft is WR. Big reason is college slots are generally matched against safeties and have tons of zone space to work with. Rarely see them have to separate or make contested plays vs sticky nickel CB, which are main NFL job requirements.🍎➡️🍊— Jim Nagy (@JimNagy_SB) March 1, 2021
But now to quickly counter (or perhaps completely neutralize) this concern: he did lead the class in separation rate when outside.
Unfortunately, he has some more damning red flags than this.
The chief concerns with Williams are threefold, in rank order of importance (least to most):
1) He tore his ACL in the national title game against Georgia (1/10/2022). Given the typical recovery timeline (9-12 months), Williams is likely to miss all of training camp – which is especially detrimental for rookies, and particularly detrimental for rookie WRs – and a good portion of the 2022 NFL season.
Dynasty players will argue it’s better to avoid Williams now and buy-low later after his owner gets impatient following an underwhelming or unproductive start to his rookie career. I think that’s fairly intuitive, but that also seems a little myopic to me. In dynasty I just want to draft the best players and hold them for as long as possible. So, Williams’ ACL injury won’t at all be a factor in my final rankings; all that matters is how strong of a prospect I think he is.
2) Williams showed up to the Combine at 6-2 and 179 lbs, yielding a 22.98 BMI. And well, that is highly alarming.
NFL personnel via @BobMcGinn on why size matters more for WRs at the NFL level— Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) April 21, 2022
"Does [WR] Size Matter?": https://t.co/e2bRUSixmr pic.twitter.com/5vPFndbJ7X
Among all 1,040 WRs invited to the Combine since 2000, only 108 checked in with a sub-25.0 BMI. And only two of those WRs posted multiple 1,000-yard seasons: DeSean Jackson and Antonio Bryant.
Since 2000, only 8 other WRs invited to the Combine failed to clear a 23.0 BMI. Even DeVonta Smith came in at 23.1. (If you weren’t aware, #FantasyTwitter spent all of last offseason nitpicking Smith’s low BMI.)
DeVonta Smith is estimated to be 6-1 and 170 lbs, which would put his BMI at 22.4— Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) March 30, 2021
Here's how many Round 1 and Round 2 WRs (since 2000) have had at least one 1,000-yard receiving season, grouped by BMI pic.twitter.com/wgxDjgtWPc
Granted, perhaps the injury and his inability to train played a role, but even so, I think we have no choice but to view this as a red flag.
3) Williams’ 2021 season might have been more impressive than any other WR in this draft class. The problem is, that was his only season with meaningful production.
And it’s not just that Williams doesn’t hit the prerequisite “Breakout Age” threshold, it’s that he did absolutely nothing through two seasons at Ohio State. And it wasn’t just that he didn’t see the field – his numbers were legitimately bad in 2020.
It's a false narrative.— Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) April 18, 2022
In 2020, Jameson Williams had:
21% of Wilson's yards on 75% of Wilson's routes
21% of Olave's yards on 82% of Olave's routes
When analyzing Williams you need an answer for this. I think I have one. But why do I otherwise never see this Q addressed? https://t.co/QAtZBhhkcV
Every NFL mock draft I’ve seen has Williams projected to be drafted ahead of Chris Olave. But if Williams is better than Olave, then why did Olave essentially relegate him to decoy duties in 2020? Why did Williams have only 9 catches (6th-most on the team) on 178 routes run (3rd-most)?
He was dramatically worse than Olave (and Garrett Wilson) in 2020. And though his 2021 season looks extremely impressive (104.0 YPG), it’s hard to tell how much of that was due to Williams’ talents versus the Alabama scheme (with an elite QB). Just last season, DeVonta Smith averaged an absurd 142.8 YPG as Alabama’s WR1, +37% more than Williams’ 2021.
It’s hard to argue against this just by the numbers. But, for what it's worth, I watched Williams’ 2020 tape and came away even more impressed. He was seemingly always open – though that was at least similarly true of Wilson and Olave – and I'm not sure why Fields never looked his way.
Due to the ACL injury, Williams was unable to participate at the NFL Combine. But I have no doubt he’s an absolute freak athlete. He’s a former track star and the Missouri state record holder in the 300 meter hurdles. And Alabama’s Director of Sports Science Matt Rhea tracked Williams at 23.0 mph on one of his touchdown runs. For perspective, the fastest time in the NFL last year was just 22.1 mph.
3. Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State
SPORQ: 50.8 (6-0, 187 lbs), Former: 3-star recruit, Age: 21.9
NFL Mock Draft Consensus: WR4
Production Model: WR3
“There will be questions about Olave's competitive toughness and his ability to make tough catches in the middle of the field, with the concurrent ability to catch through contact. Those are legitimate questions based on his tape. Another question will be whether Olave will be seen as a vertical receiver as he transitions to the NFL, and I'm not certain that he will be, although his route running nuance and stride length will get him on top of corners at times. Run-after-catch is another concern, with the tape not showing much of that trait at all… Olave is efficient and consistent, but at this point he best projects to the NFL as a smooth complementary receiver in a well-schemed passing game that gets him in space.” – Greg Cosell (FantasyPoints Prospect Guide)
TLDR: Elite QB-play, elite target competition.
QB: Justin Fields (R1), C.J. Stroud (Devy QB2) [PFF Pass Grade: 3rd of 50 qualifiers]
WR: K.J. Hill (R7), Garrett Wilson (Proj. R1), Jameson Williams (Proj. R1), Chris Booker (Proj. UDFA, WR110), Jaxon Smith-Njigba (Devy WR1), Emeka Egbuka (Devy WR6), Marvin Harrison Jr. (Devy WR9), Julian Fleming (Devy WR20), Jayden Ballard (Devy WR129)
TE: Luke Farrell (R5), Jeremy Ruckert (Proj. R3), Gee Scott (Devy TE52)
Where he ranks (Production Only)
Olave ranks 3rd in the class, and 35th-best since 2000, implying he’d be the typical WR1.6 in any given draft class. But he ranks practically tied, and only two spots ahead of teammate Garrett Wilson.
Why he ranks here
As an 18.2-year-old true freshman, Olave was buried on the depth-chart behind future Day 2 draft picks Terry McLaurin and Parris Campbell, as well as several other future-UDFA-tier WRs with seniority. But he was, at least, hyper-efficient on a per-target basis, turning 16 targets into 12 catches for 197 yards and 3 scores.
Olave then broke out as a sophomore in 2019, competing for targets against super-senior K.J. Hill (Round 7), senior Binjimen Victor (UDFA), senior Austin Mack (UDFA), and freshmen 4-stars Garrett Wilson (Proj. Round 1) and Jameson Williams (Proj. Round 1). He walked away with a team-high 840 receiving yards (23% YMS) and a team-high 12 touchdowns (25% TDMS). He ranked 9th of 207-qualifying WRs in YPRR (3.38), and 4th-best if age-adjusted.
In 2020, Olave was again the team’s leading receiver, averaging 103.9 YPG to Wilson’s 90.4. Williams, meanwhile, ranked a distant 3rd, averaging just 19.3 YPG. Of 121-qualifying WRs, Olave ranked 4th-best in YPRR (3.33).
Random Aside: Among all Power 5 WRs from 2019-2020, but excluding WRs who have already been drafted in Round 1, Olave ranked (among 130-plus qualifying WRs): 2nd in YPT (11.8), 3rd in YPRR (3.36), 2nd in touchdowns per target (0.14), and 1st in first downs per target (0.58). Clearly, he and Justin Fields had a very special rapport. Perhaps Chicago should seriously consider trying to trade up into Round 1 for Olave.
Although Olave was clearly Field’s go-to WR1, things changed when he left in 2021. Olave was now catching passes from redshirt freshman C.J. Stroud – PFF’s 3rd highest-graded passer of 50 Power 5 qualifiers in 2021 – and forced to start alongside sophomore phenom Jaxon Smith-Njigba, in addition to Wilson. He finished 3rd on the team in receiving yards (936), though he ranked 1st in routes run. He finished 27.3 YPG yards shy of Smith-Njigba and 11.1 yards short of Wilson. Though he did also lead the team in touchdowns (13).
Outside of a somewhat underwhelming finish to his college career, there’s not much else to nitpick. He has the prerequisite breakout age (19.1). He has some elite market share numbers against some of the toughest target competition in the class. He’s probably not a slot WR at the next level – over the past two seasons, he’s run 84% of his routes from the outside, near-equally efficient in both areas. And he’s been hyper-efficient by a number of different metrics we’ve already highlighted. And here’s a few more:
Among all 736-qualifying Power 5 WR seasons, his 2019 and 2020 seasons rank 5th- and 6th-best (respectively) by first downs plus touchdowns per target. DeVonta Smith and CeeDee Lamb are the only other WRs with multiple seasons ranking in the top-25.
Per Wes Huber: “Only one FBS WR among the 226 on the record in the ‘22 class is found ahead of Olave in average fantasy points per route rank against the five most common NFL coverage schemes (Cover 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6): Justyn Ross. If we also include the rankings from inside the red zone into the average number, Olave is his head above the entire class. Consider that, when attacking the red zone during his OSU career, Olave scored 15-of-35 TDs (43%).”
Other models may view his non-early declare-status as a red flag and penalize him for that fact, but not this one – per reliable sources, Olave earned a consensus Round 2 grade from the GM Advisory Committee last year. (Typically “late declare” prospects stay in school because they’ve earned an “undraftable” or “Day 3” grade.) Instead, Olave stayed an extra year with the hopes of earning a Round 1 grade and winning a championship title.
In our “Key Quote” at the topic of this section, Greg Cosell raised questions regarding Olave’s competitive toughness, his run-after-the-catch ability, and his willingness to make tough catches and play through contact. Or, to put it simply: Olave plays soft.
And, well, the numbers certainly seem to bear that out.
He forced only one (!) missed tackle all of last year. That ranked 521st among all FBS WRs, though he ranked 50th in receptions (65). Skyy Moore, David Bell, Wan'Dale Robinson, Drake London, and John Metchie all had at least 20.
Missed Tackles vs. Receptions [2019-2021]— Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) April 18, 2022
Drake London: 1 missed tackle forced every 3.3 receptions
Deebo Samuel: 1 missed tackle every 3.5 receptions (best among NFL WRs)
Zach Ertz: 1 missed tackle every 18.6 receptions
Chris Olave: 1 missed tackle every 19.6 receptions
Throughout his Ohio State career, he averaged one missed tackle forced every 19.6 receptions. That ranks – by far – the worst of any of the top-35 consensus WRs in this class. That’s actually worse than Zach Ertz – unanimously regarded the least-elusive skill player in football – who averages one missed tackle every 18.6 receptions over the past three seasons.
Among all consensus top-25 WRs in this class, he ranks worst by career yards after contact per reception (1.3) and 2nd-worst by career yards after the catch per reception (3.6).
Truthfully, I don’t know how damning this actually is. I am viewing this as a red flag, but, also, these numbers are already factored into my model (i.e. they’re predictive), and he still ranks quite highly overall.
By my numbers, Olave is a perfectly average athlete (50.8 SPORQ Score). He’s a little thin (25.4 BMI), but he at least cleared the 25.0 BMI benchmark. He’s fast, with a 4.39 40-yard-dash (89th percentile), though that number looks a little less impressive if weight-adjusted – 62nd percentile Speed Score. His broad jump was terrific (76th percentile), but his vertical jump was abhorrent (15th percentile). Unfortunately for him, the vertical jump is the far more predictive of the two events for a WR of his size. And so is the 3-Cone, which he neglected to run at either the Combine or his Pro Day, and, consequently, he was penalized by my Athleticism Model for avoiding that event.
4. Garrett Wilson, WR, Ohio State
SPORQ: 44.1 (6-0, 183 lbs), Former: 5-star recruit, Age: 21.8
NFL Mock Draft Consensus: WR1
Production Model: WR4
“Wilson possesses higher-level receiving traits as you project and transition him to the NFL, and he presents as a three-level dimension as a route runner who also has strong run-after-catch ability that makes him a dangerous weapon on tunnel screens and jet sweeps… Wilson possesses some similarities to [Stefon] Diggs, and it would not surprise me if he became the #1 target for a diverse passing team.” – Greg Cosell (FantasyPoints Prospect Guide)
TLDR: Elite QB-play, elite target competition.
QB: Justin Fields (R1), C.J. Stroud (Devy QB2) [PFF Pass Grade: 3rd of 50 qualifiers]
WR: K.J. Hill (R7), Chris Olave (Proj. R1), Jameson Williams (Proj. R1), Chris Booker (Proj. WR110), Jaxon Smith-Njigba (Devy WR1), Emeka Egbuka (Devy WR6), Marvin Harrison Jr. (Devy WR9), Julian Fleming (Devy WR20), Jayden Ballard (Devy WR129)
TE: Luke Farrell (R5), Jeremy Ruckert (Proj. R3), Gee Scott (Devy TE52)
Where he ranks (Production Only)
Wilson ranks 4th in the class, and 37th-best since 2000, implying he’d be the typical WR1.7 in any given draft class. But he ranks practically tied, and only two spots behind teammate Chris Olave. And only six spots ahead of the next name on our list.
Why he ranks here
Garrett Wilson was a 5-star recruit and the No. 2-overall WR in the 2019 class coming out of high school. (Like Drake London, he also earned Division I scholarship offers in basketball.) As a 19.1-year-old true freshman, Wilson finished with a (42) 30-432-5 line despite not starting a single game.
As a sophomore in 2020, Wilson officially broke out, turning 58 targets into 43 receptions, 732 yards, and 6 touchdowns through 8 games. Or, rather, he was just 1 target, 7 catches, 4 receiving yards, and 1 touchdown shy of Chris Olave for the team-high in each stat. But to be fair to Olave, Wilson ran more routes while playing in one additional game. In any case, comparing Wilson’s numbers to that of Olave’s is a little misleading, because both seasons were historically great.
In 2020, Olave and Wilson ranked 7th and 9th (respectively) among all Power 5 WRs in YMS. By yards per team pass attempt they ranked 3rd- and 4th, behind only DeVonta Smith and Elijah Moore. So, while Olave was technically more productive, it was at least very close, and nearly best-overall in two key categories.
In 2021, Wilson finally trumped Olave’s numbers, but fell behind sophomore phenom Jaxon Smith-Njigba for the team-high in receiving yards: Wilson averaged 96.2 YPG (3.00 YPRR) in comparison to Olave’s 85.1 (2.29) and Smith-Njigba’s 122.7 (4.00).
In both his 2020 and 2021 seasons Wilson finished 7th-best among all Power 5 WRs in YPRR. Since 2017, only 9 other Power 5 WRs have ranked top-12 in YPRR more than once (min. 225 routes): A.J. Brown, CeeDee Lamb, Tee Higgins, Marquise Brown, DeVonta Smith, Jerry Jeudy, Treylon Burks, Tylan Wallace, and Tyler Johnson.
That’s sort of the best statistical argument I can make for Wilson, and it feels somewhat lacking, but, also, there’s not much to dislike. He was a bit old for a freshman, and, so, just barely missed the typical “breakout age” threshold. Olave is only one month older, and bested him in 2019, but they were fairly even in 2020, and then Wilson got the better of him in 2021. His box score numbers are great, just not as great as the WRs ranking above him, but he’s also clearly one of the top-3 best separators in this class. And his production isn’t at all superficial – only 8% of his yardage came on screens over the past two years, and he’s probably the best WR in the class against man coverage.
He did spend most of his time in the slot in 2020 (73%), but that dropped to 17% in 2021. Still, I suppose, it’s a bit of a red flag he’s been so much more efficient from the slot (3.01 YPRR) than outside (2.60 YPRR) over the past two seasons. But, then again, both numbers rank top-5 among all Power 5 WRs within this class.
One concern with Wilson would be that he never once led his team in receiving, and that would typically be a very damning red flag, if not for the fact that Chris Olave is a projected Round 1-pick, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba is a Ja’Marr Chase-level prospect. Those who penalized Justin Jefferson (another Ja’Marr Chase level prospect) for his production relative to Chase, missed out on a cheap potential future Hall of Famer in rookie drafts. And, well, I’m never making that mistake again.
So, I guess Wilson’s primary red-flag is this: my model didn’t really love him (WR4), certainly not anywhere near as much as the NFL Draft community (consensus WR1). But he also feels like the safest WR of the group, with the least damning red flags.
The question then is, are the red flags on the top-3 WRs in this class damning enough to vault Wilson up to WR1 in my own rankings? They might be.
Wilson failed to clear the 25.0 BMI threshold, though just barely (24.8), and was penalized for that fact. Like Olave, he was penalized for avoiding the 3-Cone at both the Combine and his Pro Day, an important event for a WR of his size. He’s fast, running a 4.38 40-yard-dash (97th percentile), but that number looks far less impressive if weight-adjusted (56th percentile Speed Score). And his vertical jump wasn’t tremendous (62nd percentile). Altogether, this netted him a below average 44.1 SPORQ score.
That being said, I’m inclined to think Wilson’s athleticism is at least a little more impressive than these numbers seem to imply. For instance, he jumped 36 inches at the Combine, but seemed to jump twice as high when making this unreal leaping grab at the 2019 Fiesta Bowl.
5. Treylon Burks, WR, Arkansas
SPORQ: 68.9 (6-2, 225 lbs), Former: 4-star recruit, Age: 22.2
NFL Mock Draft Consensus: WR5
Production Model: WR5
"I actually struggle with [Treylon] Burks. I was surprised people were talking about this guy as a Round 1 pick. I just didn't see that kind of talent… I thought Laviska Shenault's tape was considerably better coming out." – Jim Nagy, Director of the Senior Bowl (FantasyPoints Podcast)
TLDR: Mediocre QB-play, red flag-levels of target competition.
QB: Feleipe Franks (UDFA), K.J. Jefferson (Devy QB37) [PFF Pass Grade: 19th of 50 qualifiers]
WR: Michael Woods II (UDFA, Proj. WR44) De'Vion Warren (Proj. UDFA, WR134), T.J. Hammonds (Proj. UDFA, WR142), Tyson Morris (Proj. UDFA, WR157)
TE: Blake Kern (Proj. UDFA, TE49), Trey Knox (Devy TE37), Hudson Henry (Devy TE67)
Where he ranks (Production Only)
Burks ranks 5th in the class, and 43rd-best since 2000, implying he’d be the typical WR2 in any given draft class.
Why he ranks here
Burks is a monster of a man (6-2, 225 lbs), and a former 4-star recruit who chose his home state of Arkansas over Clemson, LSU, Michigan, and several other Power 5 schools.
In 2019, as a 19.5-year-old true freshman, and one year removed from ACL surgery, Burks led Arkansas in receiving yards (475).
The following season, Burks turned 65 targets into 51 catches for 820 yards and 7 scores, averaging +47% more YPG than the next-closest receiver (Michael Woods II, Proj. UDFA). This was good for a 39% YMS in games active, which would have ranked behind only DeVonta Smith among Power 5 WRs.
Burks was either the WR1 or WR2 by most “way too early” mock drafts heading into 2021. And of course, that seemed completely logical to me, given his hyper-elite age-adjusted YMS numbers. And then his junior season was so utterly absurd, that at an absolute minimum, it seemed impossible for him not to cement this ranking in 2021.
Because Burks caught 65 of 88 targets for 1,100 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2021. Or, in other words, he had 3.3X as many receiving yards (40% YMS) and 5.5X as many touchdowns (50% TDMS) as the next-closest receiver on his team, yielding a Power 5-high Dominator Rating of 45%.
He led all Power 5 WRs (min. 40 catches) in yards after the catch per reception (9.3). By YPRR, he ranked behind only Jaxon Smith-Njigba among 412-qualifying Power 5 WRs (3.57). This came one year after he averaged 3.07 (best in the class, 5th-best overall). He earned a 91.0 PFF receiving grade which ranked 3rd-best, behind only Smith-Njigba and Drake London. And, by my favorite WR stat, depth-adjusted yards per target over expectation, Burks (+62%) ranked 2nd-best in 2021, again behind only Smith-Njigba.
So, with so much hype heading into 2021. And given how strongly Burks seemed to deliver on that hype. Why is it that he’s fallen to WR5 in consensus mock draft rankings? At first, I wondered if this is actually one of the advantages I possess as an analyst who doesn’t cover the NCAA year-round. Could it be this simple – that the NFL Mock Draft Cognoscenti has fallen victim to “shiny new toy” syndrome, foolishly pushing up surprise breakouts and one-year wonders while over-thinking a prospect (maybe based on little more than a good-but-underwhelming Combine) they all seemed to unanimously adore one season ago?
So, I set out in search of red flags. Why are NFL circles so low on Burks? More importantly, why is my model so low on Burks? Working only at the surface level, I found some slight red flags, but not as many as I had anticipated. And, really, so much more to like.
Burks is a high-end deep threat – he leads all Power 5 WRs in the class by deep receiving yards over the past three seasons (1,116). He’s an explosive playmaker – over the past three seasons, he leads all Power 5 WRs in the class by catches gaining 20-plus yards and touchdowns of 65 yards or more. And he was electric with the ball in his hands – as evident by his class-best 9.3 YAC/R in 2021.
According to many film analysts of esteem, Burks profiles as a slot-only WR at least early into his NFL career. I’m sure that’s true – as only 26% of his career receiving yards have come when lined up outside – and I do think this slightly knocks Burks for two reasons:
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, as I explained in more detail here – #SlotWRsDontMatter.
But, on the other hand, Burks was also excellent when lined up out-wide (18% of routes), averaging an absurd 4.89 YPRR over the past two seasons. That ranks best in the class, and well ahead of third-closest Drake London’s 3.19.
So, I’m not viewing any of this as a potential red flag. But there are two key points that, I think, throw everything else (from his production profile) into question.
1) Burks has, by far, the worst teammate (target competition) score of any WR in my Model’s top-7.
And so, maybe this throws some of Burks’ gaudy numbers into question. It at least begs the question: “What is Burks’ 40% YMS and 92.0 YPG worth in contrast to Garrett Wilson’s 21% and 96.2 YPG?” Because, while Wilson was competing for targets alongside future Round 1 picks in WR Chris Olave and WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Burks was contending for targets alongside future used car salesmen. If adjusting for target competition and QB play, how much farther might Burks have fallen?
It’s hard to say. And, at the same time, there wasn’t much more Burks could have done to prove doubters wrong. Across multiple seasons, he owns 99th-percentile scores (whether age-adjusted or not) by YMS and Dominator Rating.
And in some ways, you could argue this actually makes Burks’ numbers look even more impressive. He was the near-entirety of the Arkansas offense, which, by the way, went 9-4 and ranked 21st in the country. He was the only player opposing defenses needed to account for. And, still, he was mostly only unstoppable – over the past two seasons, Burks earned his QBs a near-perfect 156.0 passer rating, which ranked (by far) the best of any WR in college football.
Arkansas QBs from 2020-2021:— Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) April 9, 2022
+ 107.3 passer rating (ranks 7th-best in the Power 5)
Arkansas QBs when targeting...
+ Treylon Burks: 156.0 passer rating (a perfect passer rating is 158.3)
+ All Other Receivers: 98.8 passer rating (would rank 17th-best in Power 5)
So, ultimately, I don’t think this is all that concerning. Unfortunately, in the next section Treylon Burks starts waving around red flags like he’s in color guard.
2) Burks was never really asked to do much of what is typically demanded of NFL WRs. Sure, that’s true to an extent with every WR in this class (e.g. rarely facing press coverage), but it extends so far beyond that with Burks. He was seemingly never tasked with the responsibility of having to beat an actual CB in coverage. (With the lone possible exemption being the go route.) Instead, Arkansas persistently and almost exclusively went out of its way to manufacture touches for him, to get the ball in his hands as easily as possible.
Treylon Burks has the most fraudulent production profile of any projected Round 1 WR to come out since Laviska Shenault— Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) April 22, 2022
In fact, his profile is identical to Laviska Shenault's
And this, I think, is a very legitimate red flag. One damning enough to put an asterisk next to all of his most meaningful metrics, and in the same way that we should have done with Laviska Shenault’s 125.1 YFS per game in 2018.
As every Burks detractor has been quick to point out, he didn’t run – or wasn’t asked to run – a full route tree at Arkansas. And, well, that’s a bit of an understatement.
In fact, minus screens (a proxy for “manufactured touches”) and Go routes – which makes up roughly 22% of all WR yardage in the NCAA but only 14% in NFL – Burks hasn’t shown us much of anything.
Last season, 56% of Burks’ receiving yards came on screens and Go routes. This was by far the most of any WR invited to the Combine (and the most by any 1,000-yard WR since at least 2016), even more than Laviska Shenault in 2018 (44%), and far less than Jameson Williams in 2021 (17%), who also led the class in deep receiving yards and explosive plays. Without screens and Go routes, Burks’ YPG average would have fallen from 92.0 to 40.3, and his YPT average would have dropped from 12.5 to 8.3.
And it wasn’t just the fact that he didn’t run a nuanced route tree. He was almost never asked to actually beat a CB in coverage.
For instance, last season, he had only 17 non-screen catches (25%) against single man coverage when lined up in the slot or outside. Among the top-15 WRs in this class (by Mock Draft Consensus), only one WR ranked below him – George Pickens, who had 4 such catches but only 5 total catches all year. Drake London has over twice as many such catches in 2021 (39, 44%) and Laviska Shenault had only one fewer in 2018 (19%).
Again, I think this is a very damning red flag. One that completely calls the entirety of his production profile into question, and puts him somewhere on the Laviska Shenault spectrum.
But we can’t totally write him off either. Because although the sample size was smaller than that of almost any WR in this class – and that, in and of itself, is a massive red flag – he was also hyper-efficient on these targets. By the above stat, he ranked ahead of only Pickens in raw catches, but he also led the group by YPT on all such throws (17.0 YPT).
And we see this with a lot of Burks’ stats. He led all of the top WRs in YPRR against man coverage, but also had the smallest sample size – and, more importantly, he did struggle to separate on those routes. He led the class in YPRR against press coverage, but that amounted to only 39 total snaps all of last year, an average of about 100 fewer snaps than any other WR we’ve already discussed.
So, to argue in favor of him: Sure, a lot of his production was manufactured. Sure, 36% of his catches came from behind the line of scrimmage last year. But how could you blame him for that? None of the other receivers on this team, and certainly not the QB, will ever make an NFL roster. So why not get the ball in the hands of your dynamic play-maker – a true YAC superstar – as often as possible? Just because Burks wasn’t asked to do “NFL WR things” doesn’t mean he can’t do it. In fact, maybe he can do those things exceptionally well. Because whenever he was asked to do those things, he’s only ever been insanely hyper-efficient, or even best in the class.
To argue back against him: Well, his QB-play wasn’t exactly bad – K.J. Jefferson ranked 19th-best of 50-qualifying Power 5 QBs by PFF pass grade. And he’s probably not the true YAC god his numbers make him seem – last season 32% of his total yards after the catch came on just three plays (highest % of any WR in the class), and without those he’d fall from 9.3 yards after the catch per reception (best in the Power 5, tied with Jameson Williams) to 6.7 (11th, tied with John Metchie). So, those numbers might be fraudulent, the same way so much of Burks’ production appears to be fraudulent. And, sure, just because he wasn’t asked to do “NFL WR things” doesn’t mean he can’t – but it does make him much riskier than all of the other top WR prospects who have proven they can do those things and remain comparably productive. The Burks evaluation requires something of a leap of faith when attempting to project him to the next level. And, I don’t know about you, but I don’t quite feel comfortable taking that leap on a WR who wasn’t all that athletic. And certainly not on one with his lofty price-tag (current rookie WR1 by ADP).
Is your head spinning? Don’t worry, mine is too.
But here’s my takeaway: Burks’ production profile seems highly fraudulent, and eerily reminiscent to that of Laviska Shenault. This is a massive red flag to me, far more damning than that of any other WR we’ve already discussed. He seems extremely risky, and, at the very least, massively landing spot-dependent, slow to develop, and very likely to be unproductive early on in his career. And the worst part of all of this, my Production Model didn’t really love him (WR5). And almost none of what we just discussed is factored into my model, which means he’s almost certain to fall farther from here in my final rankings.
Contrary to public perception, Burks did not have a disastrous showing at the Combine. Underwhelming? Probably. But certainly not bad. He finished with a SPORQ score of 68.9, well above average, and well above both Wilson (44.1) and Olave (50.8). His ideal size (6-2, 225 lbs) and 77th percentile Speed Score (105.0) did much of the heavy lifting here, but he also seriously underwhelmed in the vertical jump (24th percentile) and the 3-Cone (11th percentile).
But, for what it’s worth, maybe he plays a good deal faster than his 4.55 40-yard-dash. According to ESPN’s Todd McShay, he clocked “22.6 mph when taking a screen pass 91 yards to the house against Georgia Southern last season. For context, that would have been the fastest recorded speed in the NFL [last] season."
Quicker Hits / Tier Drop (Power 5-Only)
6. George Pickens, WR, Georgia
SPORQ: 29.6 (6-3, 195 lbs), Former: 5-star recruit, Age: 21.2
Pickens was a 5-star recruit and the No. 4 wide receiver in his class coming out of high school. In 2019, as an 18.5-year old freshman, Pickens led the Bulldogs in receiving yards while competing for targets against two UDFA-level WRs in their senior year. He posted a 49-726-8 line on 77 targets (250 yards more than the next-closest Georgia receiver), including a 12-175-1 performance in the Sugar Bowl. Impressively, he only started in 2 of these 14 games, and he lost full four quarters due to in-game ejection and suspension, which would push his YPG average up to 55.8.
Pickens saw only a slight uptick in production the following season, as his YPG average jumped from 51.9 to 64.1 (another team-high), but his YMS was identical in both seasons (23%). Again, he ended the year on a high-note, walking away with a 7-135-1 line in the Peach Bowl. But he missed nearly all of the 2021 season, after tearing his ACL in March practice. With a typical 9-12 month return timeline for ACL surgeries, it’s a miracle he returned at all, and he ended the year with 5 catches and 107 yards on 32 routes run.
Why is "Breakout Age" / early career dominance so important for WR prospects?— Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) April 18, 2022
cc: @AdamHarstad pic.twitter.com/PcbFblxZy7
Pickens has an elite breakout age working in his favor – since 2000, his 726 receiving yards is the 15th-most by any WR aged 18.5 or less at the start of the season. He has the best hands and the best drop rate in the class, averaging one career drop every 46.3 targets (best in the class), which compares nicely to Christian Watson’s 11.3 (worst in the class). Pickens had minimal production on screens – less than 1% of his career receiving yards. And better yet, only 11% of his career receiving yards came from the slot.
Red flags include: 1) A whopping 67% of his career targets have come on just two routes (the hitch and the go). Though, D.K. Metcalf was nitpicked (by me) for the same reason, and we all know how that turned out. 2) Despite the SEC pedigree, Pickens faced extremely underwhelming target competition while at Georgia, while catching passes from a (technically) NFL-caliber QB in Jake Fromm. TEs Tre’ McKitty (Round 3) and Charlie Woerner (Round 6) are Georgia’s only receivers to be drafted since Pickens entered the program. And TE John Fitzpatrick (Proj. Round 6) is their other receiver expected to be drafted this year. So, Pickens’ numbers look a little less impressive once his underwhelming competition score gets factored into the equation. 3) Otherwise, Pickens’ numbers are merely “good” but still far from eye-poppingly great, and he failed to “wow” by any efficiency metric that matters most to me. And, in fact, by career yards after the catch per reception (a predictive metric which gets factored into my model) he actually ranked worst in the class.
Pickens offers ideal height (6-3) for the position, but his Combine numbers were otherwise extremely underwhelming, yielding a SPORQ Score of just 29.6. He was penalized for a sub-25.0 BMI (24.4), and posted below average marks by Speed Score (49th percentile) and the vertical jump (24th). Although he impressed via the broad jump (81st percentile), that’s a fairly irrelevant event for a WR of his size… But, then again, maybe there should be an asterisk on this score, as he tore his ACL less than a full year prior to the Combine.
7. Jahan Dotson, WR, Penn State
SPORQ: 21.2 (5-11, 178 lbs), Former: 4-star recruit, Age: 22.2
Dotson, a former 4-star recruit with offers from Alabama, Georgia, and Ohio State, played little in his 18.5-year-old true freshman season at Penn State. But he did start the final four games, and was the team’s third most-productive receiver over this stretch – 94 yards shy of KJ Hamler (Round 2) and 3 yards shy of Pat Freiermuth (Round 2).
The following season, he again finished third, with 488 receiving yards in 13 games – 416 yards short of Hamler, and 19 yards shy of Freiermuth.
In 2020, with Hamler gone and Freiermuth missing over half of the season, Dotson finally broke out, averaging 98.2 YPG – the most by any Penn State WR since Allen Robinson in 2013. Given the otherwise incompetent nature of the Penn State passing attack, this yielded a 38% YMS, which ranked behind only DeVonta Smith among all Power 5 WRs.
In 2021, he improved slightly, averaging 98.5 YPG (34% YMS) and 1.0 TD/G (48% TDMS). This was good for a 41% Dominator Rating, which ranked behind only Treylon Burks among all Power 5 WRs.
Over the past two seasons, Dotson has run 83% of his routes from the outside and ranks behind only Drake London, Garrett Wilson, and David Bell by YPRR on outside routes (2.52). And over this span, only 11% of his career yardage came on slants. So, those are – if anything – green flags.
And he easily had the worst QB-play of the bunch. In each of the past two seasons, his QB Sean Clifford has ranked bottom-15 of 50-plus qualifying Power 5 QBs by PFF pass grade. And this no doubt severely blunted his production and efficiency numbers, and especially relative to some of the names we’ve already discussed. According to PFF, last season Dotson was open on 66% of his targets traveling 10 yards or more. That's only slightly less than Chris Olave's 70%, and on a near-identical aDOT. But while both players ranked top-7 in separation rate, Olave led all WRs in accurate pass percentage on all such throws (68%), while Dotson ranked in the bottom-5 (42%). That’s a 62% advantage in Olave’s favor, and yet Olave was only 7% better by YPT average.
But one red flag is that he’s a late declare, with a late breakout (age: 20.5). He seriously struggled against man coverage, and failed to “wow” in many of the metrics that matter most to me. However, Dotson’s biggest red flag is what we saw from him at the Combine. Although his 4.43 40-yard-dash time appears impressive, it was underwhelming at his weight (30th percentile Speed Score). And his size itself is an issue, at only 5-11 and 178 pounds with a sub-25.0 BM (24.8). His 3-cone of 7.28 ranks 62nd-worst of 658 qualifiers since 2000, and even worse if weight-adjusted. Altogether this yielded a SPORQ Score of 21.2 – a near death-knell score. (More on this – and why these numbers, as well as his rail-thin frame, imply Dotson may be better suited for the slot – in the David Bell section.)
8. Wan’Dale Robinson, WR, Kentucky
SPORQ: 40.0 (5-8, 178 lbs), Former: 4-star recruit, Age: 21.3
As a 4-star recruit and the No. 1 all-purpose running back coming out of high school, Robinson split time 50/50 between RB and WR in his age 18.6 true freshman season at Nebraska. This resulted in 88 carries, 59 targets, and a team-high 124.6 YFS/G, with 57% of his yardage coming through the air. The following year, Robinson spent more time as a WR (primarily in the slot), leading the team in receiving yards, with 1.95X as much as the next-closest player (TE Austin Allen, Proj. Round 6). The next season Robinson transferred to Kentucky, and arguably put together the most impressive season of any WR in this class. As a receiver: 140 targets, 104 receptions, 1,342 yards, and 7 touchdowns through 13 games. With 111 rushing yards (15.9 YPC) as an added bonus.
His 1,334 receiving yards was 2.2X as much as the next-closest receiver and 6.8X as much as the second-closest receiver. This resulted in a 45% YMS, a number which no other Power 5 receiver in this class has ever come close to, and ranks 32nd-best since 2000 (25th-best if age-adjusted). He averaged 3.64 yards per team pass attempt – again, no other Power 5 WR in this class has come close to this – which ranks 36th-best since 2000. And he ranked 3rd-best in YPRR (3.56), 2nd-best in the class, just barely behind Treylon Burks (3.57).
Robinson ran a 4.44 40-yard-dash at the Combine, but his numbers everywhere else (minus the bench press, where, oddly enough he led the class with 19 reps) were well below average, and especially at his size (5-8, 178 pounds). And that size (or lack thereof) is a massive red flag, and one of the most disappointing revelations to come out of Indianapolis (Kentucky had him listed at 5-11). Since 1990, there’s only been one WR listed at 5-8 shorter to record multiple seasons with at least 650 receiving yards – Cole Beasley. So, if Robinson were to be successful in spite of this, he’d have to be an outlier. That’s his biggest red flag – outlierishly short in stature, miniscule catch radius – which could be enough to get him crossed off the board for some NFL teams, and will at least be enough for him to fall a few spots in my final rankings.
But, keep in mind, that’s not his only red flag:
At Kentucky, Robinson played alongside QB Will Levis (a potential top QB in the 2023 class) but with only deep UDFA-tier receivers as target competition. He rarely ever played out-wide, he almost never played against true press coverage, and almost was never asked to beat a CB in man coverage – and this is all true to an equal or even greater degree than with Treylon Burks. Similarly, a lot of his production was “manufactured," with a class-high 34% of his targets coming behind the line of scrimmage.
But like Burks, he ranked among the top-3 WRs in the class in YPRR against man coverage, YPRR on the outside, YPRR against press coverage, and also by career contested catch rate if you forgive the small sample. He’s also one of the youngest WRs in the class (21.3), and one of the least-experienced – he didn’t start playing WR full-time until 2020. So, I think he has some extra untapped potential.
Truthfully, he’s one of my favorite WRs in this class, rivaling Justyn Ross (more on him later) as my favorite #UpsideWinsChampionships pick for rookie drafts. He has legitimate PPR cheat code-upside (104 receptions in 2021), and he reminds me a lot of Rondale Moore, except he offers more versatility, with an added vertical-dimension and a more complete route tree. He’ll be very landing-spot dependent, but could see his stock skyrocket with the right team.
My WR Production Model is absolutely enamored with Wan'Dale Robinson. Obvious big concern with him is height and small catch radius. Pairing him up with the league's most accurate passer currently devoid of pass-game playmakers would be 🔥🔥🔥 https://t.co/gDFA9HW60K— Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) April 16, 2022
9. John Metchie, WR, Alabama
SPORQ: DNQ (5-11, 187 lbs), Former: 4-star recruit, Age: 21.9
Mecthie was, understandably, buried on the depth chart in his first year with the Crimson Tide, behind (arguably) the most stacked WR room in CFB history: Jerry Jeudy, Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith, and Henry Ruggs, all Round 1 picks.
But Metchie broke out in 2020 as a 20.1-year-old true sophomore. In the only four healthy games all of Waddle, Smith, and Metchie played together, Metchie surprisingly held his own: earning 72% as many yards as Smith on 80% as many routes run and, more impressively, only 38% as many targets (19.3 YPT). With Waddle out with injury, Smith – of course – dusted Metchie from there, walking away with the Heisman Trophy in what was arguably the greatest WR season in CFB history. But Metchie was still productive, and the clear WR2, finishing with a (76) 55-916-6 line (20% YMS). He accomplished all of this despite playing through a stress fracture in his shin for 30% of the season, forcing him to sit out of practice the entire time.
In 2021, Metchie was again behind the team’s WR1 – this time, Jameson Williams, who had just transferred to the school – but not by as much, averaging 87.8 YPG to Williams’ 104.8. Despite a two-game handicap, he finished 1st in receptions (96, 3rd-most in school history), and 2nd in receiving yards (1,142), with 2.8X as many as the next-closest receiver. Though, granted, Alabama’s QB is supposedly elite and the WR-room was atypically barren at this point – minus some exciting freshman prospects who barely saw the field: Jacorey Brooks (Devy WR7), Agiye Hall (Devy WR15), JoJo Earle (Devy WR23). Per his own admission, Metchie wasn’t quite fully healthy to start the 2021 season, and the numbers suggest maybe that’s true – he averaged 55.0 YPG through his first 5 games, but 108.4 across his final 8.
Since 2008, there have only been six different Alabama receivers to eclipse 900 receiving in multiple seasons: Julio Jones (Round 1), Amari Cooper (Round 1), Calvin Ridley (Round 1), Jerry Jeudy (Round 1), DeVonta Smith (Round 1), and John Metchie (Proj. Round 3). Metchie is interesting, if only for that reason.
Alabama Receiving Yards Per Game Leaders, Since 2010:— Russell Clay (@RussellJClay) April 4, 2022
1. Jameson Williams - 104.8
2. Amari Cooper - 91.1
3. Julio Jones - 87.2
4. DeVonta Smith - 84.4
5. Jerry Jeudy - 76.2
6. John Metchie - 69.4
7. Calvin Ridley - 63.2
8. Jaylen Waddle - 58.8 pic.twitter.com/CFmKQmhTVF
Otherwise the production profile is murky. Among the Power-5 WRs in this class, he was well above average in yards after the catch per reception, with nearly 50% of his career total yards coming after the catch (3rd-most), but 24% of his targets over the last two seasons have come on screens (4th-most). He’s spent most of his time out-wide (69%), but he was significantly more efficient from the slot last year. And he otherwise failed to pop in any stat I typically care about – well, outside of my “pet” metric. Among all Power 5 WRs in this class, Metchie ranks 5th in career depth-adjusted YPT over expectation (+25%), behind (in order) Jameson Williams (+47%), Treylon Burks (+38%), Garrett Wilson (32%), and Drake London (+31%).
And, okay, so Metchie is not a Waddle-, Smith-, or Williams-level talent. That’s okay. Very few are. He’s otherwise an extremely safe and high-level prospect. The primary concern with him is injury-related; the lack of athletic testing (unable to participate in any events at the Combine or his Pro Day), his injury history, and the fact that he’s four months removed from ACL surgery – which, by the way, he suffered against the best defense in the country (Georgia), posting a 6-97-1 in less than two full quarters of work. But, like I said in the Jameson Williams section, that’s going to play an inconsequential role in my evaluation and rankings.
10. David Bell, WR, Purdue
SPORQ: 17.9 (6-1, 212 lbs), Former: 4-star recruit, Age: 21.4
Bell broke out as an 18.7-year-old true freshman in 2019, turning 86 catches into 1,035 yards (86.3 YPG) and 7 scores. This was 205 yards more than the next-closest receiver (fifth-year senior Brycen Hopkins, Round 4) and 648 yards more than the second-closest receiver. It was truly an all-time great age <19.0 season (9th-best since 2000) – but it was also 28 receptions, 223 yards, and 5 touchdowns short of Rondale Moore's mark in the previous year (age: 18.2). Moore missed 75% of this season (2019), and then missed 50% of the games in the following year.
In 2020, Bell bested Moore by YPG, averaging 104.2 (3rd-best-ever season by any Power 5 WR in this class) to Moore’s 90.0, while also scoring 8 of the team's 15 touchdowns through the air (53%), averaging 1.33 touchdowns per game (18th-best by any Power 5 WR since 2000). In 2021, Bell hit a new career-high and finally topped Moore’s best season, averaging 116.9 YPG (2nd-best-ever season by any Power 5 WR in this class).
Bell left Purdue having averaged 101.6 YPG throughout his career, which ranks 6th-best among all Power-5 WRs since 2000. And he ranks 2nd in career receptions per game (8.0), behind only Michael Crabtree (8.9).
Career Receiving Yards Per Game— Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) March 16, 2022
+ All Power-5 WRs, Since 2000 (min. 25 career games)
1. Michael Crabtree (120.3)
2. Mike Hass (112.1)
3. Larry Fitzgerald (107.1)
4. Tylan Wallace (103.6)
5. Justin Blackmon (101.8)
6. DAVID BELL (101.6)
7. Marqise Lee (101.5)
Because all of these surface-level stats seemed so compelling, I was honestly shocked Bell didn’t rank much higher in my Production Model. And it’s encouraging he had minimal production on screens over the past two seasons (5% of receiving yards), and 88% of his yards (over this span) have come when lined up out wide, but…
But, digging deeper, it’s clear he has a number of red flags: With Rondale Moore unable to stay healthy, he’s only had minimal target competition throughout his career. His contested catch profile might be even more alarming than that of Drake London. In 2019, 37% of Bell’s targets (minus screens) came on contested targets. That ranks 4th-worst since 2017 of 152 qualifiers, with only seasons by J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and N’Keal Harry ranking above him. And that’s backed up by the fact that he ranks as one of college football’s worst separators over the last three seasons. He also struggled against press coverage, and didn’t offer much (on a per-reception basis) with the ball in his hands. And finally, if Rondale Moore is a bust, he’ll join Taywan Taylor as the second hyper-productive Jeff Brohm WR I’ve already overdrafted.
More than anything, Bell’s biggest red flag is this: his Combine almost literally couldn’t have been any worse. His 4.65 40-yard-dash time ranks 76th-worst of 996 qualifiers since 2000. And by Speed Score (90.7) it’s only in the 25th percentile. His 4.57 short shuttle time ranks 10th-worst of 676 qualifiers, and his 3-cone (22nd percentile), vertical jump (24th), and broad jump (35th) were all similarly abhorrent as well. And, thus, he finished as a bottom-20 percentile athlete, with a score of 17.9.
There are very few “hits” within the bottom-20th percentile (by SPORQ score), and those hits came almost exclusively from slot WRs – Cooper Kupp (7.0), Keenan Allen (18.6), Jarvis Landry (5.7), and Hunter Renfrow (10.9) – with Chad Johnson (12.4) and then Brandon Lloyd (10.1) being the only two notable exceptions who succeeded as outside WRs. (For clarity, Bell gained only 12% of his career receiving yards from the slot at Purdue, but it’s possible NFL teams may recommend a conversion.) So, expect Bell (aka Tyler Johnson 2.0) to fall farther down in my rankings once this is factored in.
11. Tyquan Thornton, WR, Baylor
SPORQ: 69.9 (6-2, 181 lbs), Former: 4-star recruit, Age: 21.7
““He reminds me a lot of Chris Olave, but he’s physically tougher than Chris Olave… Tyquan Thornton, to me, was one of the most intriguing wideouts I watched.” – Greg Cosell (Tape Heads Podcast)
Thornton broke out in his sophomore season with Baylor (age: 19.1), recording 782 yards on 68 targets (22% YMS). He fell 238 yards shy of senior Denzel Mims (Round 2) who had a substantial advantage in age (2.8 years older) and by volume (1.3X as many yards as Thornton, but 1.7X as many targets). After an injury-plagued 2020, and under an entirely new regime, Thornton dominated as Baylor’s WR1, posting a 62-948-10 line (14 games). For the massively run-heavy Bears, this resulted in a 33% YMS, a 42% TDMS, a 38% Dominator Rating, and a 2.60 yards per team pass attempt average. Among all Power 5 WRs in this class, those numbers ranked 4th-, 4th-, 3rd-, and 4th-best respectively. He was targeted only once on screens, had only 11 total yards from the slot, and only 36% of his yards came on deep passes (less than Williams, London, Burks, Robinson, Olave, and Dotson).
To my great surprise – this was apparently enough for my Production Model to rank Thornton 10th among all Power 5 WRs. So, keep in mind, that’s not even factoring in the fact that he’s also the fastest WR in the class by both 40-yard-dash (4.28) and 10-yard split (1.41). Or – by 40-time – the 7th-fastest WR to participate in the Combine since at least 2000. And – by 10-yard-split – the fastest of any player in my database (since 2011), supposedly, only 0.01 off of Chris Johnson for the Combine record. But that’s more of an urban legend than an official time.
Fastest WR at Combine vs. Draft Capital— Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) April 18, 2022
2016: Will Fuller (4.32) - Round 1
2017: John Ross (4.22) - R1
2018: DJ Chark (4.34) - R2
2019: Andy Isabella & Parris Campbell (4.31) - R2
2020: Henry Ruggs (4.27) - R1
2022: Tyquan Thornton (4.28) - ???
NFL teams routinely over-draft the fastest WR in any given class, and if for only that reason, I’m quite bullish on Thornton at ADP (WR28). But Dane Brugler has him projected to go in Round 5 (WR23), so he’s probably not really worth discussing at any greater length. I’ll dig deeper on him after the draft if he improves on that projected draft capital.
Non-Power 5 WRs
To improve the accuracy of my model, a decision was made to split all WRs into two separate categories: Power 5 and non-Power 5. I would rank them within those tiers and then integrate the two in my final rankings.
Because, otherwise, my model would have a massive bias against and blindspot for non-Power 5 (and, worse yet, non-FBS) WRs. I think that’s understandable given the atrocious hit rate there, but there are a few qualifying WRs from this class who profile as true outliers in this regard.
So, I wanted to quickly touch on the most promising WRs within this classification, by rank order of importance according to my Production Model plus Athleticism Model:
1. Christian Watson, WR, North Dakota State (FCS)
SPORQ: 98.1 (6-4, 208 lbs), Former: 2-star recruit, Age: 23.0
Watson is the only FCS WR we’ll cover in this article. And it’s truly rare to see an FCS WR ever do anything meaningful in the pros. It’s even rarer to find an FCS WR with projected borderline-Day 1 draft capital – only three have ever been taken in Round 1: Sylvester Morris (2000), Shawn Collins (1989), and, of course, Jerry Rice (1985). Incidentally, the two best-ever fantasy WR seasons belong to FCS WRs: Cooper Kupp (2021) and Jerry Rice (1995). Of course, Watson probably won’t be the next Kupp or Rice, but I do think he projects as a warranted outlier, deserving of highest-end draft capital in spite of his small school-handicap.
For one thing, he’s an all-time freak athlete – by SPORQ Score, he ranks 19th-best of 997-qualifying WRs since 2000. For another, his efficiency numbers are absolutely absurd, even if adjusting for the lowly levels of competition he faced. He’s hit at least 2.70 YPRR in each of his last three seasons, including 4.33 YPRR in 2021 which ranks 6th-best among nearly 4,000-qualifying seasons since 2014. Of nearly 500-qualifying WRs since 2014, he ranks top-15 by career YPT average (11.9) and career yards after the catch per reception (8.5). As an added bonus, he earned a 50-394-2 rushing line throughout his college career, plus two additional touchdowns on returns.
Red flags include: He’s extremely old (22.9), had highly competent QB-play (Trey Lance, Easton Stick) but minimal target competition, faced vastly inferior defensive competition, and only 12% of his yardage came on “NFL routes” (3rd-worst in the class). He also has the worst hands in the class, dropping one out of every 9.1 career targets (in contrast to Pickens’ one out of every 46.3), and was – in spite of his size, somehow – 2nd-worst at converting contested targets into catches (30%). Ultimately, Watson is risky and extremely raw, but he at least has the ideal athletic profile you’d want in order to make that gamble.
2. Skyy Moore, WR, Western Michigan
SPORQ: 89.5 (5-10, 195 lbs), Former: 3-star recruit, Age: 21.7
Moore broke out as a 19.0-year-old true freshman in 2019, leading Western Michigan with 802 receiving yards through 13 games. The following year, in a COVID-shortened six-game season, Moore saw his YPG average jump from 61.7 to 77.6. And his YMS jumped from 26% to 30%, even though future Round 2 pick D’Wayne Eskridge (3.5 years older) led the team with an astounding 128.0 YPG (46% YMS). With Eskridge in Seattle, Moore re-emerged as the team’s true WR1 in 2021, averaging 7.9 catches, 107.7 yards, and 0.83 touchdowns per game. Among all FBS WRs, he finished the season ranking 1st in missed tackles forced (23), 3rd in PFF pass grade (91.8), 7th in Dominator Rating (41%), 9th in YMS (39%), and 9th in yards per team pass attempt (3.48).
Some other things to like: He has one of the most well-diversified route trees in the class. Among all WRs invited to this year’s Combine, he ranks 2nd best in career drop-rate, 3rd-best in career missed tackles forced per reception (0.26), and 3rd-best in YPRR over the past two seasons (3.17). Importantly, just 10% of his career production has come on screens, and he’s proven to be equally efficient in the slot as out-wide. Among all Combine-invite WRs, and over the last two seasons, he ranks 5th-best in YPRR outside (2.98) and 6th-best in YPRR from the slot (3.17), with equal time spent in both areas (49% / 51%).
Beyond that, he’s an extremely high-level athlete – 5th best in the class by SPORQ Score (89.5). In addition to high-end marks in all of the key events for a player of his size (5-10, 195 lbs), he also had the biggest hands (10.25”) of any WR at the Combine.
One potential red flag is that Moore averages just 1.62 YPRR against Power 5 opponents throughout his career.
Another more significant red flag has to do with his levels of production relative to other recent Western Michigan wideouts. For instance, Moore’s career-best 107.7 YPG average (2021) pales in comparison to Eskridge’s 2020 (128.0), who – by the way – played more than 14X as many snaps at CB than he did at WR in the previous season. (But then again, Eskridge was much older and an eventual Round 2-pick.) Further, although Moore has an elite breakout age working in his favor, Jayden Reed’s 2018 season with the Broncos was significantly more impressive than Moore’s breakout 2019 season (age: 19.0). Reed was 18.4-years-old, also a true freshman, was saddled with significantly inferior QB-play (UDFA QB Jon Wassink vs. consensus QB8 Kaleb Eleby), and Eskridge was still competing for targets at WR (unlike in Moore’s freshman season when he played CB). And still, Reed led the team in receiving yards, while averaging 66.5 YPG (26% YMS). Reed immediately transferred to Michigan State, was forced to sit out a year, and then saw his YPG average dip to 58.1 in 2020. He was draft-eligible this year, but chose to return to school, and now ranks as only the projected WR19 in the 2023 class. In short, why draft Moore at his current ADP (Round 9 in a startup) when Eskridge can be had 10 rounds cheaper? Because the data suggests Moore is at best something like 85% Eskridge (without age-adjustments) and 85% Reed (with age- and competition adjustments).
But ultimately, this all feels a little nitpicky. At the end of the day, Moore is a very strong ultra-athletic prospect, with true PPR cheat code-upside and minimal weaknesses.
3. Alec Pierce, WR, Cincinnati
SPORQ: 93.9 (6-3, 211 lbs), Former: 3-star recruit, Age: 22.0
As a 19.3-year-old sophomore in 2019, Pierce led Cincinnati in receiving with 46.9 YPG and a 26% YMS. 5th-year senior and future Round 3-pick Josiah Deguara ranked behind him with 36.0 and 20%, respectively. The next season, with Deguara in Green Bay, Pierce again led the team in YPG with 52.5 (20% YMS). In 2021, Cincinnati defied all odds, improbably finishing 13-1 and becoming the first Group of Five team to make the playoffs. And Pierce was a big reason why, averaging: 5.9 targets, 3.7 catches, 62.4 yards (26% YMS), and 0.57 touchdowns per game, team-highs in all categories.
Among 225-qualifying FBS WRs, and over the past two seasons, Pierce ranks 6th-best in YPRR against man coverage and 12th-best by YPT against man coverage. 81% of his production came out-wide over this span, and only 2 of his 106 targets came on screens.
Pierce has ideal size for the position (6-3, 211), and dominated at the Combine, walking away with a 93.9 SPORQ Score (3rd-best in the class). He earned a 91st percentile Speed Score, a 95th percentile vertical jump, a 93rd percentile broad jump, and a 94th percentile Burst Score. He actually finished well below average in the 3-cone (24th percentile) and the short shuttle (37th percentile), but my Athleticism Model said those events were almost totally irrelevant for a WR of his size.
But, ultimately, this was the absolute best argument I could make for Pierce. In reality, his production and efficiency numbers are pretty underwhelming for a player projected to be drafted in Round 2. He never once ranked inside the top-50 FBS WRs by YPRR. He ran a very basic route tree at Cincinnati – 33% of his yardage over the past two seasons has come on Go routes – and he contributed almost nothing after the catch (ranking bottom-5 within the class by missed tackles forced- and yards after the catch per reception). And his raw production looks far less impressive when considering his QB Desmond Ridder is projected to be drafted in Round 1, and every receiver he played with (minus Deguara) has gone — or will go — undrafted. Worse yet, he averaged only 61.3 YPG in his best and final season, which was nearly identical to what Kahlil Lewis averaged (60.2) in Desmond Ridder’s freshman season. Who is Kahlil Lewis? Exactly.
4. Jalen Tolbert, WR, South Alabama
SPORQ: 48.1 (6-1, 194 lbs), Former: 2-star recruit, Age: 23.2
It took until Tolbert’s redshift Junior season (2020) to break out at South Alabama (age: 21.6), but at least it was a massive breakout – with 1,085 receiving yards, he became the first player in school history to crack quadruple digits. On a per-game basis, he averaged: 9.5 targets, 5.8 receptions, 98.6 receiving yards (40% YMS), and 0.72 touchdowns. The next season, with a brand-new QB and under an entirely different regime, he shattered his old record with a 36% uptick in total receiving yards (1,474). On a per-game basis: 10.8 targets, 6.8 receptions, 122.8 yards (48% YMS), and 0.67 touchdowns.
He closed out his college career reaching 90-plus yards in 11 of his final 14 games, and dominated against the only Power 5 school he faced over this span (7-143-1 against Tennessee in 2021). And over his final two seasons, he led all FBS WRs in receptions gaining 30 or more yards (30, 8 more than the next-closest WR in this class), and in YPRR against man coverage on outside routes (5.65).
He’s one of just 8 FBS WRs since 2000 with multiple seasons earning a YMS of 40% or more – Demaryius Thomas, Tyler Lockett, Corey Davis, and Jordan Matthews are some of the names on that list. His 48% YMS in 2021 ranks historically great (28th-best since 2000), and no other WR in this class ever eclipsed that mark. And his 3.63 yards per team pass attempt ranked 3rd-best in 2021, and top-50 since 2000 (minus military schools).
But he’s also one of the oldest prospects in this class (age: 23.2). His numbers look far less impressive if age-adjusted and competition-adjusted. And, he’s not all that athletic according to my numbers (48.1 SPORQ).
Sleeper of the Year-tier
Justyn Ross, WR, Clemson
SPORQ: DNQ (6-4, 205 lbs), Former: 5-star recruit, Age: 22.4
"Not only did he miss all of 2020, but when he came back the offense was a mess and the quarterback had a hard time getting him the ball with any accuracy or touch. You have to grade his 2019 (film), in my opinion." – College Scouting Director for an AFC Team (courtesy of Lance Zierlein)
TLDR (2018-2019): Elite QB-play, brutally tough highest-end NFL-caliber target competition.
QB: Trevor Lawrence (R1)
WR: Tee Higgins (R2), Hunter Renfrow (R5), Amari Rodgers (R3), Cornell Powell (R5)
TLDR (2021): Played hurt all year, brutal QB-play, minimal target competition.
QB: D.J. Uiagalelei (Devy QB34) [PFF Pass Grade: 41st of 50 qualifiers]
WR: Beaux Collins (Devy WR19), Joseph Ngata (Devy WR56)
Where he ranks (Production Only)
As it stands, Ross ranks 19th among all Power 5 WRs in this class. But if we completely throw out his 2020-2021 seasons he jumps all the way to WR6.
Why he ranks here
Ross was a 4-star recruit and the No. 7 WR coming out of high school. In 2019, as an 18.7-year-old true freshman, Ross jockeyed for playing time alongside 5-star recruit and sophomore Tee Higgins (Round 2), 4-star recruit and sophomore Amari Rodgers (Round 3), and senior Hunter Renfrow (fantasy’s WR10 in 2021). Somehow, despite not even starting a single game, and despite ranking 4th on the team in routes run (with 51% less than the WR ranking 3rd), Ross led the team – this absurdly stacked team – in receiving yards (1,000).
He averaged 4.98 yards per route run – the best season by any WR since at least 2014, of over 4,000 qualifiers. The next-best Power 5 season belongs to Devonta Smith in 2020, who averaged only 4.39. And, if age-adjusted Ross’ mark is even more unquantifiably all-time great. And if age- and competition-adjusted I’d assume only Ja’Marr Chase (2019) and Jaxon Smith-Njigba (2021) come even remotely close.
He also led all Power 5 WRs in PFF receiving grade (91.6). And averaged 13.7 YPT, which ranks 6th-best of 784-qualifying Power 5 WRs since 2014, with only CeeDee Lamb, Ja’Marr Chase, Dede Westbrook, Devonta Smith, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Jameson Williams, Tee Higgins, Dyami Brown, and Marquise Brown joining him in the top-10.
In 2019, he was productive, but not quite as ludicrously productive and hyper-efficient as he was in his freshman season. This time he led the team in routes run, but finished 2nd in receiving YPG, with 61.7 to Higgins’ 77.8. Though also well above Rodgers' 30.4, which ranked 3rd. Among all WRs in this year’s class, he ranked behind only Chris Olave and George Pickens in YPRR (2.50).
And then, unfortunately, things went south from there.
Random Aside: I don’t know where Ross falls in the draft, but I feel really comfortable saying the Jaguars should draft him at least a round too early. The Bengals paired up their first-overall pick with his collegiate WR1, and then immediately went all the way to the Super Bowl. Why not do the same for Lawrence with a much cheaper – allegedly, only a late-Day 3 – draft pick?
In the summer heading into his junior year, Ross discovered he was born with a congenital fusion in his neck/spine, and was officially diagnosed with Klippel-Feil syndrome (KFS). Before and after surgery, multiple neurosurgeons and other doctors told Ross he shouldn’t play football again, with the risks including paralysis and even death. Nonetheless, he would return for the 2021 season, after missing all of 2020.
Unfortunately, things only got tougher for Ross from there. After missing nearly all of training camp due to rehab, Ross tested positive for COVID on the day he was supposed to return. After spending some time battling the illness, and losing 15 pounds of weight in the process, Ross finally returned for practice, with the season opener only weeks away. And then, on the second play of his first scrimmage in over a year, Ross suffered a hairline fracture to his left foot — an injury he was forced to play through all year.
Per injury expert Jesse Morse, “[T]he medical team likely asked him to play with a carbon fiber orthotic/insert as long as he was able to play through the pain. These inserts are very uncomfortable to wear, and do not provide any flexibility which makes running, cutting, and even standing very uncomfortable.”
The fracture became unstable and fully broke in November, shutting him down for the remainder of the season. In addition to this very serious injury, which undoubtedly impaired his performance, he was also saddled with poor QB-play all season – D.J. Uiagalelei ranked 10th-worst of 50 qualifying Power 5 QBs by PFF pass grade. Still, he led the team in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns prior to his final game, earning a 29% YMS – not far off Jameson Williams’ 31%.
I think there’s a compelling argument that Ross’ entire 2021 season needs to be thrown out from our sample. But even with that included, he leads all Power 5 WRs in this class by career YPRR (2.99), career YPRR on outside routes (2.91), career YPRR against single-man coverage (4.75), and fantasy points per route against the most common NFL coverage types. And he is also, by far, the most battle-tested of any WR in this class, leading all top-10 WRs in this class in yards (493) and YPRR (2.74) when lined up against Day 1-2 CBs already drafted by an NFL team.
Beyond the obvious, there are some other holes in the Justyn Ross profile. He never did much after the catch, a lot of his production came on screens, he didn’t get much separation even in his best season, and he ran a fairly limited route tree at Clemson. And then, of course, he also has – by far – the biggest red flag of any player in this class:
He’s attempting to become “the first known player to make the NFL with a congenital fusion in his spine."
It seems everything hinges upon his medical evaluations made by NFL teams. Do they feel comfortable drafting Ross knowing the risks that come with his KFS diagnosis? Crucially, can Ross ever be the same player he was in 2019-2020? Unfortunately, I’d guess the medical evaluations he underwent at the Combine and with NFL teams weren’t all pretty. Dane Brugler is projecting Ross to be drafted in Round 7, and he warned us that, “Ross will be off some draft boards around the league because of medical concerns."
Keep in mind, this was the same Dane Brugler who – less than a year ago – said, "A healthy Justyn Ross would be WR1 for me in the 2022 NFL Draft."
Great news. A healthy Justyn Ross would be WR1 for me in the 2022 NFL Draft. https://t.co/X4aSNHE8ZC— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) August 6, 2021
Ross has ideal size (6-4, 205 lbs), but his Pro Day numbers were poor. A 91.4 Speed Score, a 147.5 Burst Score, and 11 bench press reps combine to yield a bottom-10th percentile SPORQ Score (9.9). That alone – minus the medicals – might be enough to completely scratch him from our board.
But, per sources, “He wasn’t able to train for these events. He didn’t prepare for the 40, or anything else, because he physically couldn’t. He almost literally couldn’t run at the Combine, and he could barely run at his Pro Day. He’s not really athletic anyway, but his testing numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt.”
Ruling / Bottom Line
Tee Higgins is currently being drafted in Round 2 of dynasty startups. Ross, who is nearly a full year younger than Higgins, is currently being drafted in Round 16.
To me, Ross profiles as the ideal #UpsideWinsChampionships pick in rookie drafts. Because from 2019-2020, Ross had 88.5% of Higgins’ receiving yards playing alongside him on 86.8% as many routes run. So, even without adjusting for the small discrepancy in routes run, or without experience- or age-adjusting these numbers, things look pretty close between Higgins and Ross. And, yet, he’s being drafted 14 rounds later.
Of course there’s risk here, but you’re not going to find Tee Higgins-levels of upside anywhere else in Round 16. And if you know me and you know my preferred strategy, you know I’m willing to gamble on that sort of upside at this ADP 95 times out of 100.
That said, because every NFL Draft pundit of esteem is projecting late-Day 3 draft capital, you’re probably better off waiting until after the Draft to acquire him (at a much cheaper price).