Debunking the myth that there are no WR1s in the 2018 NFL Draft Class

03/04/2018
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Every year, position groups entering the NFL Draft will inevitably be labeled (or sometimes mislabeled). The prime example this season is that the running back class is “special” because of the high end potential of guys like Saquon Barkley, Derrius Guice, and Ronald Jones. When discussing this particular wide receiver class we have heard it time and time again: “There are no #1 wide receivers in this draft class, just a bunch of #2 guys.” I’m here to tell you that not only is this presumption incorrect, but also that the perception of current #1 wide receivers isn’t really what you think it is.

The model of the wide receiver position in the NFL has changed before our eyes, but our minds have been playing catch up in that regard. In our heads, true “WR1s” are the traditional imposing, long-armed freak-of-nature athletes that play outside the numbers, who possess the ability and rise over defensive backs for red zone touchdowns. When picturing this type of receiver, think Randy Moss or Calvin Johnson. While that model of wide receiver with can’t-miss ability may be absent from this incoming NFL draft class, nowadays there are more “non-traditional” wide receivers producing at high levels than ever before.

Look around the NFL today. Who qualifies as the dominant outside receiving forces that produced as their teams’ primary targets in 2017? Not taking into account injuries to wide receivers or quarterbacks, the list currently includes Julio Jones, AJ Green, Jordy Nelson, Deandre Hopkins, Mike Evans, Demaryius Thomas, Alshon Jeffery, and Dez Bryant. In my opinion, the only receiver in this class that has the potential to join this group is Florida State’s 6’5 228 pound jump ball specialist Auden Tate. Many pundits view Tate as too raw and without top end speed to make the ascent to this class of receiver, however, among the bigger bodied receivers in the class, my money is on Tate over the likes of Courtland Sutton, Equanimeous St. Brown, Marcell Ateman, Jaleel Scott, and others because of his combination of youth, physical profile, ball skills, and body control.

The problem with the argument against this wide receiver draft class not featuring any WR1s isn’t the lack of the traditional outside receivers with can’t-miss traits; that much is agreeable. Rather, where that argument doesn’t hold water is the lack of context around the current WR1s throughout the league, their size/athletic profiles, their play style and the comparisons that can be made with receivers from this incoming draft class. Looking around the league, players who don’t fit the mold of the “traditional” WR1 but produced as their teams’ top option in 2017 includes Adam Thielen/Stefon Diggs, Tyreek Hill, Golden Tate/Marvin Jones, Cooper Kupp, Jarvis Landry, Robby Anderson, Marqise Lee, Sterling Shepard, Jamison Crowder, Marquise Goodwin, and Kendall Wright.

Some of those players’ production was a product of injuries to more talented receivers, while some were beneficiaries of excellent quarterback play, and some benefitted from having an equally talented threat on the field with them (Lions, Vikings). However, all of these WRs undeniably produced like #1 wide receivers in 2017, regardless of circumstances.

The 2018 NFL Draft wide receiver class is littered with guys who analysts have labeled as higher-end WR2s or “just slot guys.” In the current landscape of today’s NFL, a lot of the incoming draft class replicate, and in some cases outperform, the size and athleticism these current #1 wide receivers in the NFL on a talent basis.

Calvin Ridley is a polished, nuanced route runner who has produced for three consecutive seasons at Alabama. Despite his advanced age he possesses elite separation ability, loose hips, and track speed, making his play style and physical profile reminiscent of Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs. The comparison goes further than that, with Ridley measuring just over 6’0 and approximately 190 pounds, while Diggs stands 6’0 and weighs 195.

Maryland wide receiver DJ Moore has strong hands and ball skills and runs with incredible balance and feistiness as a ball carrier, similar to Golden Tate of Detroit. Additionally, Moore has a little more size, but a similar build to Tate and the versatility to play all around the formation and in all levels of the field.

Dante Pettis (6’0 ½ 186) of Washington is a long, bouncy athlete with the propensity to make some ridiculous downfield catches with elite body control. Pettis is also a return man with astounding explosiveness and stop-start ability. Pettis has a similar frame and style as Jets breakout star Robby Anderson (6’3 190), who was a college return man turned crafty route runner and deep threat with a similar ability to rise up at the catch point down the field.

Texas Tech speedster Keke Coutee (5’9 181) has the acceleration and burst in his routes and with the ball in his hands that is similar to 49ers burner Marquise Goodwin (5’9 183). Goodwin developed as a route runner in the intermediate portions of the field this past season, and Coutee has shown the wherewithal to attack leverage and separate from zone coverage, which should translate to him being a more complete receiver at the next level. Coutee’s ceiling as a field stretcher is similar to that of Patriots #1 wide receiver Brandin Cooks (5’10 189), another non-traditional player atop his team’s depth chart.

Texas A&M product Christian Kirk (5’10 ⅜ 201) is primarily a slot receiver who is also an electric kick returner, has speed out of the breakpoint, and is generally a body catcher. As a receiver, he runs defined routes but lacks deception in his stems, and mostly wins with speed and timing. His athleticism and (lack of) ball skills is similar to Jacksonville’s Marqise Lee (5’11 ¾ 192), who has good acceleration while being mostly a body catcher, and who also had returner production in college.

Anthony Miller has been ultra-productive for the Memphis Tigers. Despite his smaller stature (5’11 ⅛), he’s moved around the offense as the main target for the Tigers. Miller attacks the catchpoint well, yet suffers from the occasional drop. In the NFL, a smaller receiver who operated as their team’s main target was Redskins’ Jamison Crowder (5’9), who also suffers from drops but was a multiple year producer while at Duke. Some have compared Miller’s talents to that of Antonio Brown, the shining example of a non-traditional #1 wide receiver who might just be the class of the league at the position. While I think that is a slightly rich comparison, Miller has been overlooked his entire career, and if anyone from the class can replicate Brown’s production, it’s Miller.

On the field, Utah’s Darren Carrington (6’2 ¼ 199) creates separation with his releases as well as anyone in the class and has the knack for winning tough contested catches with above the rim ability. He has physicality and an edge in his game, and a competitive streak that projects as a Marvin Jones (6’2 198) clone at the next level.

Trey Quinn (5’11 203) spent this past season putting up huge numbers for the SMU Mustangs with 114 catches, 1,236 yards and 13 touchdowns. He is ultra quick at the breakpoint, with suddenness and flexibility in his hips that is translatable to Cooper Kupp’s (6’2 204) agility. Despite Kupp lacking top end long speed, his craftiness as a route runner led him to producing at an elite rate at FCS school Eastern Washington (117 catches, 1,700 yards, 17 touchdowns).

Byron Pringle thrives at the breakpoint with his hip flexibility and defined cuts. He continually creates separation away from defensive backs with nuanced route running, including perception deception and shifting his hips opposite from his headgear. His route running ability is similar to, and physical profile (6’1 201) just a shade bigger than, Sterling Shepherd (5’10 194) of the Giants.

USC’s main target, Deontay Burnett, is a run after the catch savant with burst and good vision, despite being undersized as a slot receiver at 5’11. At the same height and with similar ball carrier ability as Jarvis Landry, Burnett projects as a player with similar acumen. Burnett possibly has more potential as a field stretcher from the slot rather than just the underneath threat that Landry is.

Penn State’s DaeSean Hamilton is probably the best pure route runner in the class, able to separate at all levels of the field with ease. His footwork in his stems is his main weapon, but he has above average athleticism to pair with his excellent ability to rise with good body control. Hamilton is experienced in the slot and projects there at the next level, similar to Chicago’s Kendall Wright in his crisp route running, lateral agility, and vertical leap ability. The ceiling for Hamilton is reminiscent of Seahawks #1 wide receiver Doug Baldwin, who is possibly the craftiest route runner in the league today and who has had over 3,100 yards over the last three seasons, with most of his damage coming from the slot.

After studying the film of these players, checking their measurements, and even seeing some of them at the Senior Bowl, there is little doubt in my mind that they can reach their respective comparisons. With the current landscape of the league and the mold of receivers producing at a high level continually changing, it’s undoubtable that some of these receivers will eventually produce at a #1 wide receiver level moving forward. While many of these pro comparisons may fit better as #2 options, they have produced as #1 receiving options for NFL teams in the past, and some will continue to do so moving forward, suggesting that we need to shift our perceptions of what a #1 receiving option looks and plays like. Many of the receivers in this draft class have the potential to reach ceilings far higher than their pro comparisons currently play at. 

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