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The Receivers That Really Matter: A Final Pre-Draft Look

A look through the WRs of the NFL Draft's first two rounds - where the cool kids are

As you identify and gush over the mid-round sleepers who’ll win your dynasty drafts (and leagues), keep a few things in mind:

-  Dating back to 2000, only 11 of 315 wideouts (3.5%) drafted between Rounds 3 and 7 have managed to post a season of 1,000 yards and eight scores.

-  Only eight (2.5%) did it more than once.

-  Undrafted success stories are fun, but only six undrafted WRs since 2000 have posted a 1,000-8 season – and only two did it more than once.

-  All told, just 26 of the NFL’s 115 seasons of 1,000 yards and eight TDs came from guys who entered the league after Round 2.

As a proactive dynasty owner, you should always be willing to invest late picks in seeking the semi-rare Antonio Browns and Brandon Marshalls. But that can’t be the backbone of your WR scouting; the boring, obvious Mike Evans types pan out at a much better rate. There’s a much better chance you’ll identify an early-round stud and ride him to the studliness you expect. You target much more efficiently by sticking (almost) entirely to the first two NFL Draft rounds. There’s talent to be mined late, of course, but that’s not the backbone of your player acquisition, nor even close. So your focus should be on the guys agreed upon NFL-wide as early-round choices.

With that in mind, here is my breakdown of 2016’s top WR prospects, but only those who I feel lay any claim at all to a first- or second-round pick. I enjoy chasing dirt-cheap sleepers as much as anyone, and I’ll certainly lay out my favorites in the near future. But I don’t assign much (if any) hope to them – in redraft leagues or during the prime meat of my dynasty drafts, I’m really only interested in these guys:


ROUND ONE

Josh Doctson, TCU

For me, Doctson sits a small notch above the pack. He certainly gets the tape-watchers’ mouths moist, having been described as “pure prospect porn” for his outstanding ball skills. Doctson is well-known for his ability to extend and secure a ball, a huge reason he racked up 25 touchdowns over his final 23 college games while dominating the TCU pass game (38.2% market share of yardage as a senior). Athletically speaking, he fits in nicely with the top WR picks of the last few years, with an Adjusted Explosiveness Index (AEI) better than Odell Beckham’s and virtually identical to Sammy Watkins’.

There’s just very little to dislike here. Doctson’s a possession extraordinaire in the vein of the recent NCAA elites, and it’s tantalizing what his athleticism could bring to a complex offensive system. Given this many solid pluses, I’m pretty much fine with his lack of college versatility[1]. He’ll likely land as a Day One starter on a decent team, which would position him to turn 100 targets into flashes of WR2 production off the bat. And once that’s knocked out, there’s remarkable top-end potential in play.

Corey Coleman, Baylor

It’s hard not to see Coleman as 2016’s Brandin Cooks, a former first-round pick who measured nearly identically in terms of tested athleticism and production…

C. Coleman

 

B. Cooks

70.6

Height

70.0

194

Weight

189

40.5

Vert Jump

36.0

129

Broad Jump

120

4.37

40-yd

4.33

99.34

AEI

95.84

0.262

Career Yd MS

0.266

0.392

Final Yd MS

0.357

0.324

Career TD MS

0.296

0.490

Final TD MS

0.421

Coleman's 40 time comes from Baylor's pro day

…except that Coleman’s bigger, more explosive[2], and was more dominant and productive throughout school. (And that Coleman played with four different QBs down the stretch of his monstrous final season.) He doesn’t have drool-worthy height (5’11”), but checks in at a solid 194 pounds. That sizes him nearly identically to Odell Beckham Jr. (5’11”, 198) – whom Coleman also beats soundly in explosiveness. Coleman was primarily an outside receiver in school, so he certainly doesn’t require a move into the slot as many smallish prospects do, but he does come from a limited Baylor route scheme. That would project his role closer to Cooks’ than to Beckham’s – a dynamic, highly productive weapon who can elevate a stagnant offense, but may need seasoning to gradually contribute full-time. The fact that he’s actually a little superior to Cooks as a prospect makes me optimistic he’ll be a fantasy WR3 or better by Year Two.


ROUND TWO

Laquon Treadwell, Mississippi

I wrote up Treadwell’s game last month as I see things, and has really altered things for me. I still peg him as a second-round talent – and he could easily fall that far as more dynamic prospects gain traction before the draft. Treadwell boasts good college film, but has yet to show me the athleticism, versatility, or elite production I like in a first-round pick.

Leonte Carroo, Rutgers

Like Shepard, Carroo also spent his college years in a relatively low-volume passing offense and boasts very modest reception totals. Unlike Shepard, Carroo thoroughly dominated his team’s passing game, boasting unheard-of production shares that compare with the most dominant WR prospects of recent memory. He gobbled up 48.8% of available Rutgers receiving yardage in 2015, the highest mark of all 2016 combine participants. And with 29 touchdowns across just 30 games, Carroo joined an elite group of monstrous collegiate TD producers. In fact, he rose to the top of it – only one top prospect (Dez Bryant) over the last 15 years has found the end zone at Carroo’s level. He ultimately turned 23.8% of his career receptions into touchdowns, accounting for 46% of Rutgers’ TD catches over his three years.

And we shouldn’t overlook Carroo’s success against good college secondaries. He missed 2015 matchups with elite pass defenses Michigan, Penn State, and Wisconsin, but in 2014, he averaged a line of 5-104 against top-40 units. Carroo also managed a dominant 2015 show against Michigan State (7-134-3), as well as two enormous lines (6-104-2 and 7-183-1) against future NFL cornerback Sean Davis and Maryland.

Not to mention, it’s encouraging that Carroo racked up those touchdowns in a variety of ways. Of those 29 scores, eight came from inside the 10-yard line and 15 came from 30+ yards. That dynamism wasn’t quite borne out at the combine – Carroo posted a solid if unspectacular 97.42 AEI, and considering his Rutgers red zone dominance, he disappointed with mediocre jump numbers. But that's still a better explosiveness mark than Will Fuller or Braxton Miller, two guys who typically receive most of the athleticism brownie points, managed. We can see on film that Carroo is a fire-out guy who explodes into his routes and uses an array of moves to spring open. CBS Sports’ Dane Brugler and Rob Rang liken Carroo to Golden Tate as a shifty, dependable slot-first option. And when he extends for the ball, he uses high-level body control and shielding techniques to dominate napping cover men; it’s easy to see flecks of Roddy White when he makes his break past his cornerback.

Carroo won’t dominate the NFL like he did the Big East. But he’s it’s exciting to see a prospect with strong (if little-tested) fundamentals show such a surreal nose for the big play – and the end zone.

Sterling Shepard, Oklahoma

Touted by many as the premier route technician of the class, Shepard is another film-based darling who wows with his separation ability and hands. He impressed by earning an early-career role at Oklahoma amongst three other future NFL wideouts. And he supported that love with solid, if unspectacular, final-year college production. Matt Harmon credits him with truly awesome success vs. coverage rates at Oklahoma, and points out that despite his “slot only” label, Shepard had extensive experience (and success) when lined up on the line of scrimmage, where coverage is tougher.

Athletically speaking, it was encouraging that Shepard posted the best vertical (41”) of the WR class, and a better-than-expected 4.48 40-yard dash at the combine. That lands him a very similar AEI to the likes of Will Fuller, Braxton Miller, and Trevor Davis, three prospects touted for their intriguing athleticism. Generally speaking, strong athleticism is usually baked into a guy’s college play, so to fawn over both is to falsely weight their impact doubly. But in cases like Shepard’s, it is fair to assume there’s untapped potential there. The Sooners’ run-heavy offense utilized Shepard plenty, but didn’t feature him much until his senior year. That impressive athleticism coupled with his mega-efficient final two seasons (16.5 yards per catch with a solid 11.7% TD rate) suggests he could have posted another monster year or two in a friendlier offense.

Will Fuller, Notre Dame

We all love Fuller’s deep speed (4.32), as well as his remarkable collegiate TD production (a stunning 52.7% of Notre Dame’s TD catches over his two starting years). That’s enough to make him a trendy call late in Round One, but there are definitely warts. What worries me most about Fuller is his weight – he clocked in at 186 as the combine, but had actually dropped four pounds by his March 31 pro day. I used Pro Football Reference’s Season Finder to dredge up WRs since 2000 who a) measured 5’11” or taller, b) weighed 180-190 pounds, c) were drafted in the first three rounds, and d) played as rookies. The cohort wasn’t exciting: only 19 guys fit the bill, only one (Nelson Agholor) was a first-round pick, and only two (Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders) ever posted a 1,000-yard season. This suggests two things: slim-built wideouts aren’t drafted high very often, and few contribute beyond being one-trick deep specialists.

There are peripheral concerns with Fuller, too – he’s a drop artist, and it’s concerning that such a speedster never ran the ball much (two career carries) or returned kicks (two career returns). Comparisons to DeSean Jackson look overblown and more like best-case prayers. Jackson, like most truly successful deep-ball guys, has always been extremely versatile, while Fuller enters the NFL having never been worked into the screen/slant game.

All told, Fuller looks to stack up as a complementary weapon, a deep-ball threat who can theoretically shake NFL secondaries but will struggle to beat them consistently. Judging by that long speed and that dynamic college TD rate, Fuller could be a good one of those, but he could also fail miserably. Matt Harmon notes that Fuller struggled mightily to beat press coverage at Notre Dame. Harmon brings up Kenny Stills as a comparison, and that looks like more realistic picture of Fuller’s sheer upside. But at this point, Fuller’s game doesn’t profile anywhere near that of the mega-efficient Stills; he could face an uphill battle to see the field regularly.


ON THE CUSP

Keyarris Garrett, Tulsa

Garrett dominated in a way that few 2015 WRs did, leading the NCAA in receiving yardage and posting a better-than-okay 36.7% team market share. And his career numbers, while strong, would have been much higher had he not lost 2013 and a chunk of 2014 to a broken leg. Yet he remains mired in the third-to-fourth-round zone in the eyes of most draftniks. I get and agree with some of the reasoning for that, but I still like the prospect enough to call him a borderline second-rounder.

The knocks on Garrett are athleticism and versatility. I’m not at all concerned with the first one – he ran well at the combine, a 4.53 40 at 220 pounds that helped him to a 101.43 AEI to best both Josh Doctson and Will Fuller. The fly in the ointment was a poor 3-cone time (measuring ability to change direction while accelerating) of 7.30. That’s bad – elite prospects usually clear 7.00 easily, and only five WRs since 2010 have clocked slower than Garrett. (It’s concerning that only one of them, Kelvin Benjamin, was drafted at all.) Still, we’ve recently seen disappointing 3-cone times from the likes of Randall Cobb, Martavis Bryant, Golden Tate, Allen Hurns, Willie Snead, and Brandon Coleman. At least Garrett brings drool-worthy size (6’3”, 220 pounds) and great explosion to the table.

The second issue, versatility, is more problematic for me. Garrett was exclusively an outside receiver at Tulsa and was never asked to develop a game beyond nine-routes and quick slants. All NFL prospects stand to learn a boatload from the league, of course, but I wish I’d seen more college utility from Garrett. He certainly boasts the build, athleticism, and experience to contribute elsewhere.

All told, Garrett looks like a rock-solid third-round pick who could easily slip into the second round of any NFL board. He’s a project, coming from a mile-a-minute Tulsa system that merely asked him to play street ball. But most of the peripherals of a useful NFL receivier – and a second-round draft pick – are in place.

Tyler Boyd, Pittsburgh

Here’s a guy beloved by the “we want production” camp, but suddenly frowned upon by the “we want measurables” side after a semi-dreadful combine. There are merits to both evaluations, but I find myself a little more intrigued by Boyd’s potential than put off by his testing. That poor combine matters, but we’ve been fooled by it many times, and Boyd may reside in the profile of guys who overcame

Boyd’s 2013 and 2014 seasons were truly special, and even after a down 2015, he finished his Pittsburgh career with a claim to 42.4% of available receiving yardage (a truly elite mark) and 36.1% of touchdowns (a very, very good one). Boyd’s efficiency fell markedly in 2015 – his yards-per-catch fell by six whole yards. But it makes total sense; Pittsburgh put Boyd in a specialized role for 2015 that forced the ball into his hands and a bull’s eye onto his back. Note that Boyd kicked into the slot and even the backfield for huge chunks of 2015 as his coaches tried desperately to generate offense.

And that’s what ropes me in to interest in Boyd, who tacked on 63 rushes and 73 kick returns over his three seasons. When a receiver is tasked to carry his offense AND return units in such a way, I always perk up – especially when they’re given rushes and kick returns. It’s no guarantee that a super-versatile guy does boast functional NFL athleticism, and this kind of theory requires some testing. But it’s certainly an indicator that professional coaches value his ability to strike at a defense from anywhere, leading to a potential boost in opportunity for weapons like this. Recent prospects like Antonio Brown, Golden Tate, Jarvis Landry, and Stefon Diggs have risen far beyond their disappointing measurables, in part because their special teams prowess gets them drafted (or drafted higher) and thrown onto the field earlier than you’d expect.

There are reservations on Boyd, sure. Our Sigmund Bloom wrote up his game in detail in February, as did Matt Harmon in the Reception Perception linked above. And that poor combine is worrisome – Boyd tested too slow (4.58 in the 40, with mediocre agility and jump numbers) for a lanky wideout of just 197 pounds. That certainly jibes with the common film perception of a modestly athletic slot type who needs soft zones and sleeping defenses to spring open. There’s no way I’m tracking Boyd as a dynamic X receiver who overwhelms secondaries. But I can’t turn away from that diverse, productive profile. He’s not Antonio Brown, nor even Stefon Diggs, but he looks better as a prospect than either did and will almost certainly be drafted higher. And if his new coaching staff likes what it saw of his collegiate versatility, Boyd could find the field sooner than most guys of this draft profile.

Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina

Despite two very productive years at South Carolina, Cooper faces an uphill battle to be more than a complementary target and special teams ace on the NFL level. His combine and pro day performances fell in line with a fairly troublesome sect of WR prospects: ultra-productive from the college slot, but small, slow, and lacking in general explosiveness. Even for big-school guys, that’s a profile notorious for producing NFL reserve talents – for every Keenan Allen, there are about 50 Marqise Lees or Stedman Baileys.

As a result, banking on upside isn’t wise here. Cooper is showing a somewhat similar best-case profile to that of Jarvis Landry in 2014 – limited athletically, but a true SEC workhorse who worked the middle of the field tenaciously to amass volume. But Landry is noticeably bigger than Cooper, which has helped him develop as an underneath and red zone target against NFL defenses. And it’s fair to wonder where even his NFL prospects would be had he landed somewhere other than Miami, where small-armed Ryan Tannehill has fed him slot targets relentlessly.

The good news is that NFL teams understand these limitations even better than we do, and there’s plenty they can do with a guy like Cooper. In a system that will value his fundamentals and versatility, Cooper is a strong candidate to become a yearly 80-catch guy on the NFL level; it’s just fair to assume he won’t do much with them in comparison to his more dynamic counterparts.


[1] Nearly all of Doctson's TCU snaps came on the outside right, and he never saw many carries, nor did he return a single kick.

[2] I know I’m using a flawed pro day result to draw this conclusion, but note that Coleman would’ve topped Cooks in AEI by running a 4.52 or better – a certainty – at the combine.