Oh, you’ll hear about the other skill positions in the run up to this week’s NFL Draft. Justin Dunk will tell you there are future All-Pros waiting at quarterback and Geoff Lowe will make sure you’re not sleeping on the running backs. Then Jeff Simmons will insist that a defensive end or even—gasp!—a linebacker could be chosen first overall, so don’t forget the defenders, either.
They’re not lying to you—those future stars are out there—but they’re also not telling you what you really need to know about the Class of 2014: If you’re a GM with a pick in the top 64, or even if you’re just a fantasy football fanatic trying desperately not to screw up a pick that needs to deliver serious value given the depth of talent available, then your best bet by a wide margin is to go with a receiver.
NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock believes this is “by far” the deepest class of receivers he can remember, and predicts six wideouts will be selected in the first round alone. Receivers represent both the most electric talent in the draft—Clemson’s Sammy Watkins—and the most physically superhuman—Texas A&M’s Mike Evans—as well as a solid portion of the kids with high risk and even higher upsides.
While Watkins leads the pack, that’s only because he’s considered perhaps the most gifted receiver prospect since A.J. Green, not because the talent behind him is lacking in any way. Given a survey of NFL GMs, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to find a handful who would side with Evans, if only because they’re more wary than ever of not going as big as possible with a top-10 receiver.
Personally, we'd take the guy who can pull stunts like this, and let the chips fall where they may.
1. Sammy Watkins, Clemson: Sure, he's "only" six-foot-one, while the guy next on this list is three inches taller and 30 lb. heavier. But Watkins does the kind of things that can sell a coaching staff—and a fanbase—on him in a heartbeat. It's one thing to watch your team's newest pick make catch after competent catch in traffic, and use his body as a red-zone weapon to lock in short-yardage touchdowns. Hey—nobody's knocking that. But it's a different thing altogether to watch Watkins haul in a short catch in traffic, turn on the jets to avoid one tackler, bounce off the first defender at the second level and then outrun everyone else for a game-breaking score. You'll put up with the occasional miscue in exchange for that payoff. Watkins is the sort of pass catcher who commands lockdown corners and double-teams. In other words, you're not just getting his talent, you're getting opportunities elsewhere on the field.
2. Mike Evans, Texas A&M: Evans might not have the all-world speed and open-field moves that Watkins possesses, but as the old coaching adage goes, you can't teach size. Evans also posted a 4.53 40 time at the combine, which was faster than expected for a receiver his size and likely solidified his spot as the second WR off the board and a top-15 pick. For a team that already has a speed demon or a total All-Pro drawing coverage, Evans could be the sort of red-zone monster who is impossible to stop on jump balls and fades. And speaking of things that are impossible to teach...
3. Marqise Lee, USC: If the first two prospects off the board are close to sure things, Lee is the opposite of that. With enough raw talent to be just as productive a pro as Watkins or Evans, the questions dogging Lee involve injuries and a drop in production. Had he entered the draft last year, the race between Lee and eventual Rams rookie Tavon Austin to be the first receiver chosen would have been tight. But after a junior season that saw him fall from 118 catches to just 57, you won't find too many teams who have him ranked this high. Our next two prospects are more consensus choices, but we've placed Lee here for reasons of skill and talent. If he finds himself in the right situation—with, say, a quality quarterback and a veteran receiver to learn from—Lee could put up better numbers as a rookie than anybody in his class.
4. Brandin Cooks, Oregon State: Cooks is just five-foot-nine and 189 lb., so obviously he's projected as a slot receiver. Despite ridiculous speed (a 4.33 40 at the combine) and finely honed ball skills (128 receptions in 2013), teams will wonder about Cooks early solely based on size. It's a fair question mark, but finding a slot receiver who can both secure first downs and turn a small amount of separation into a huge downfield gain—it's impressive whenever a five-foot-nine slot man can put up 16 touchdowns as Cooks did—is not an opportunity that should be passed on lightly. We could prove this point with any number of five-yard gains turned into 45-yard gains, but instead we'll opt to show you all 69 inches of Cooks operating in double coverage.
5. Odell Beckham Jr., LSU: Beckham Jr. is projected ahead of Lee—because he was healthier last season—and Cooks—because they're both likely slot receivers at the NFL level, but the five-foot-11 Beckham is bigger. But other than those somewhat flimsy reasons, you could potentially roll dice between all three of these potential Pro Bowlers. We've ranked Beckham Jr. here because of an arguably lower ceiling, but his production at the NCAA level was steady, with a healthy number of game-breaking plays, and his combine results were among the best in the class. He should be chosen in the top 20 or 25, and he's the fifth receiver on this list—if that doesn't drive home the depth of this class, nothing does.
6. Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State: Want one good reason Jameis Winston won the Heisman?
Those are the kind of tackle-breaking skills that translate well to the pro level. The only problem is that Benjamin weighed 240 lbs. when he made that play and scouts seem worried he'll pack on even more pounds. He's six-foot-five, so he's a big boy, but the speed of the game he's about to join means that every pound matters. He put up a decent 40 time at the combine (4.61), then promptly decided he wouldn't run on his pro day, which further raised eyebrows. He could sneak into the back of the first round, or drop to the middle of the second.
7. Davante Adams, Fresno State: The last of the potential first-round picks, if teams went by stats alone Adams would by vying for a top-10 choice. He racked up 131 catches for 1,718 yards and 24 touchdowns. But that's with a great quarterback and against crappy competition—when Fresno State played USC in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl he was held to just 73 yards on nine short catches and outclassed by Marqise Lee on the other end. He's got great hands, and is a solid size-speed combo, but the quality of competition will work against his impressive resume. He's looking more and more like a mid-second rounder.
8. Jarvis Landry, LSU: Landry was likely a good 40 time away from threatening the back end of the first round—then he ran a 4.77 and scouts all but gasped. He's a five-foot-11 bulldog capable of making catches in traffic and over the middle, but at that size you have to be fast to really catch a scout's eye, so Landry will fall. If that time was just a bad day, however, and he can land under a coach who will use him as the excellent complementary weapon he has a chance of becoming, Landry could carve out a very nice career for himself.
9. Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt: Looking for the guy who could be a shocking selection on the first day of the draft? Here's your longshot. Matthews is six-foot-three, 212 lb. and still put up a 4.46 40 time. That'll catch some eyes, even moreso because nobody had thought Matthews was that fast. He's played all over the field and shows the kind of versatility and athleticism that prompts more desperate teams to take a home run swing.
10. (tie) Martavius Bryant, Clemson, and Allen Robinson, Penn State: The position is so deep we couldn't keep it to just 10. Robinson led the Big Ten in receiving two years running and has both the stats and the film to impress an organization looking for a solid second receiver. What he doesn't have, scouts feel, is the speed necessary to gain enough separation to be a go-to guy. Bryant is more of a wild card, with impressive speed and size but not exactly a ton of impressive film to his name. His status as running mate to Watkins both helps and hurts him here. Watkins hogged a lot of stats because, well, he was amazing last season, so teams may forgive some of the lacking numbers. At the same time, however, if you can't break out opposite Sammy Watkins, who's to say you'll ever break out? Robinson needs a team to take a chance on him to make it into the top 48 picks. Bryant will no doubt have a team take a gamble, but likely not until the late second round.
Just missed: Paul Richardson, Colorado; Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin; Donte Moncrief, Ole Miss; Brandon Coleman, Rutgers.