The 2018 wide receiver class is… interesting. It’s not the slightest bit top-heavy, with no clear-cut first-round prospects in my eyes and an oversized bulge in Rounds 2-4. But there’s still value throughout, with huge raw numbers and solid combine performances all over the place. To sift through all of the moving pieces, let’s take a look at the prominent prospects in the key areas of their respective resumes:
How productive was he? Maybe dominant? I want to know how dominant he was in school, relative to his teammates and then to his peers. Receivers who took a hefty stake in their college offenses simply project better to do the same on the NFL level. Generally speaking, for a wideout expected to compete as an NFL starter, I like to see him claim at least 30-32% of their team’s passing yardage over the course of his career. Furthermore, I want to know about his production in two different arenas: throughout his career, and in his final season. I want to see the general shape of his college career, as well as how he progressed/regressed in his make-or-break year.
How well did he score touchdowns? Simply put, most of the NFL-caliber playmakers first made plays in college. I like to see how often a prospect used his gifts to dominate defensive backs and find the end zone – relative, of course, to his teammates. If a prospect catches 10 touchdowns, I’m far more impressed if his team only threw 25 or 30, as opposed to a mile-a-minute offense that threw 45.
How explosive is he? A few years ago, Raymond Summerlin devised a metric to measure a prospect’s explosiveness – essentially, how well he runs and jumps for his size. The formula is simple: add a player’s height, weight, vertical jump, and broad jump, then divide out his 40-yard dash time. The result is Adjusted Explosiveness Index, and the NFL returns have been somewhat eye-popping. Dating back to 1999, only 10 receivers have topped 106.0 on the scale, and their success rates are very strong. Three went on to become Hall of Fame-caliber mega-studs (Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, Julio Jones), two more became Pro Bowlers (Vincent Jackson, Chris Chambers), two more are still a bit too young to call (Donte Moncrief, Chris Conley), and only two became non-injured busts (Tyrone Calico, Stephen Hill). The tenth was a real bummer case: Arkansas’ Mark Harrison, who thoroughly shredded the combine and caught touchdowns at a great rate in school, never played an NFL down due to constant knee injuries. The metric itself is quite exclusive – those 10 guys account for less than 1% of draftable receivers – but at its zenith, it’s identifying freakishly good NFL wideouts at a strong clip.
Did he generate yardage? Of course, I’m interested in his yardage per reception, as it helps to build a profile. A 115-catch season is made far less impressive if the receiver in question only managed 10.5 yards apiece against college defenses.
Was he utilized in the return game? Versatility is great, of course, but it goes further than that. Heavily-used college returners often possess strong pure speed (kickoffs) and/or agility (punts), and we’ve seen numerous recent examples of receivers and running backs who simply play faster than they’re timed. College coaches tend to notice that, so if a wideout looks ho-hum in agility testing but spent years returning punts effectively in school, I’m inclined to believe he deserves at least a tiny bump in his evaluation.
Here is the data for the (particularly relevant) 2017 class of wide receivers:
40 40-yard dash
VJ Vertical jump
BJ Broad jump
AEI Adjusted Explosiveness Index
CarMSYd Career market share of receiving yardage
CarMSTD Career market share of receiving touchdowns
FinMSYd Final-season market share of receiving yardage
FinMSTD Final-season market share of receiving touchdowns
YPR Yards per reception
YPRDif Differential between career and final-year YPR
KR Career kick returns
D.J. Moore, Maryland
James Washington, Oklahoma State
Calvin Ridley, Alabama
Courtland Sutton, Southern Methodist
The most green on the board above belongs to Moore, who solidified himself at the combine as the best on-paper prospect of the bunch. Moore isn’t a knock-your-socks-off prospect atop this class, but he best represents the profile we’re looking for here. The production is certainly there: he sits firmly atop the group in career yardage and touchdown shares while blowing the field out of the water in his final year. (That 53.2% yardage stake from 2017 crushes even Corey Davis’ 2016 mark, an absurdly impressive one in its own right.) The athleticism is top-notch: Moore posted a class-best 102.60 AEI, the best combine-measured mark in 2 years, as well as the third-best short shuttle time (4.07). Moore doesn’t fit the archetype of the high-drafted WR1, checking in with good-not-great size, and he isn’t an overwhelming downfield threat. He looks more comfortable and useful on shorter routes and screens, and he might hold a Stefon Diggs type of ceiling in the NFL. That’s not a lazy Maryland comparison: the two are similarly sized and skilled, masterful on quick-hitting and timing-based throws and proven as offensive dominators. But Moore comes into the league with slightly stronger marks in both productivity and athleticism, for whatever that’s worth. He’s the surest-looking of this bunch, and his underneath and return skills give him a solid floor for a late first-round guy.
Washington is a blast to watch, and not only because he looks, measures, runs, and addresses tacklers like a running back. It’s also because he bludgeons you over the head with plenty of strong wideout traits to boot. Blessed with long arms (31 5/8”) and powerful hands, Washington wins jump balls and adeptly turns deep shots into splash plays. He’s a touchdown maker in every sense of the word, generating a stout 17.3% scoring rate as a collegian, scoring on routes all over the tree. He underperformed somewhat at the combine, but I’m still intrigued by his career 19.8 yards per catch, which suggests there’s more here than that mediocre 96.59 AEI. What makes that mark even more impressive is that his efficiency improved as a 74-catch senior (20.9 per catch) – that usually doesn’t happen as volume expands to high levels. The big knock on Washington at this stage is, as for most prospects from wide-open Big 12 offenses, his lack of experience against tough press coverage. That’s a valid test, but it’s one I’m confident Washington passes. Wideout sage Matt Harmon notes that he managed bump-and-run coverage just fine in school, by his observation:
[Washington] faced press coverage on 33 of his routes run over the six-game Reception Perception sample, posting a 78.8 percent success rate. His score cleared the 89th percentile. Washington showed the quick feet needed to get off the line of scrimmage with a defender in his face and has the strong upper body to deliver a quick jab to offset the cornerback ready to jam him pre-route.
This isn’t the sexiest wideout class, of course, with no consensus top prospect and warts all over the top few rounds. But Washington brings to the table one of the class’ best blends of productivity and downfield dynamism. He looks like, as Harmon puts it, “a discount version of the No. 1 wideout role,” a projection that should intrigue rookie drafters late in Round 1. Personally, I’ll take him over Ridley.
Ridley is an outstanding route-tree guy, with quick breaks over the middle and a great feel for the sideline on the outside. He’s quick enough to create space for himself on those routes, and he snatches the ball exceptionally well. His 4.43 combine dash was impressive, even for his size, and he’s flashed as a deep-ball weapon. But it’s hard to project much of a downfield game on the NFL level, considering his thin, lanky frame and ho-hum athleticism. One of Indianapolis’ biggest stories was Ridley’s combine performance, and not in a great way – he checked in with the class’ worst SPARQ score on the backs of exceptionally poor jumps (31.0” vertical, 110” broad). That 90.74 AEI is awfully low for a WR1 prospect, and it’s fair to consider him a slot-ideal guy with limited upside on the boundaries. His speed is nice, which could help to open things up on manufactured downfield routes, but Ridley could find himself pushed around by more physical coverage. He just doesn’t look to have those DeSean Jackson-level burners or athleticism that overcomes the warts. Ridley absolutely looks worthy of an NFL second-round pick, but if he comes off the board in the first, rookie fantasy drafters may target him accordingly with an early first of their own. And I simply don’t see Ridley as that caliber of prospect.
Sutton is a relatively tough guy for draftniks to evaluate. His AEI wasn’t off the charts, and it was discouraging to see him lose his WR1 dominance as an SMU senior. Still, there’s a ton to like. He showed a preternatural nose for the end zone in school, scoring on an awesome 15.9% of his receptions and soaking up 40.8% of SMU touchdown catches along the way (second-best in the class). It’s easy to see why on tape: Sutton leverages his size well, dominating jump-ball opportunities at times He’s also an open-field terror, switching into running back mode with a head of steam and bouncing off would-be tacklers. Despite all of this sexiness and his impressive college resume, though, Sutton enters the NFL relatively raw. The finer points of downfield play are still being ironed out, and Sutton will occasionally drift from his routes He also possesses shaky-ish hands, and scouts have talked about his tendency to clap at the ball. All told, though, I’m more intrigued by Sutton’s ups than I’m discouraged by the downs. With requisite size, decent deep speed, and the physical attributes of a dominator, he strikes me as a high-upside guy on the NFL’s Round 1/2 borderline. It’s easy to see the best (and worst) of Dez Bryant here. Calvin Ridley will likely come off the board midway through the first round of fantasy rookie drafts, so owners can probably target Sutton safely and confidently once the bell cow running backs have run dry.
D.J. Chark, LSU
Michael Gallup, Colorado State
Christian Kirk, Texas A&M
On paper, Chark is an absolute terror. He eviscerated the combine, posting numbers we typically see from tiny, rail-thin return specialists. Simply put, he posted a Percy Harvin type of combine, but with a long, tall frame and significantly more measurable explosion.
|D.J. Chark (combine)||21||75||199||4.34||40.0||129||102.07|
|P. Harvin (pro day)||21||71||192||4.41||37.0||123||95.92|
Of course, compared to his upper-tier peers, Chark produced little to evaluate at LSU. Mired in a low-volume offense that suffered at the quarterback spot in 2017, Chark caught half the balls Courtland Sutton did at SMU, and 19 fewer than Calvin Ridley at Alabama. This all just screams Cordarrelle Patterson to the uninitiated, but when we look at him in context we see perfectly acceptable production. Chark caught 40 passes last year, easily leading the team and wrapping up a solid 33.0% of LSU’s receiving yards. That’s a better share than 2017 darlings John Ross and Chris Godwin managed in their final seasons, and markedly better than LSU’s last WR1, Malachi Dupre, in his. Chark may not be a high-point dominator in the vein of Calvin Johnson, but he can certainly break games wide open in a variety of ways. And unlike Harvin, he’ll likely enter the league as a more pure wideout, exposing him to far fewer running back-style nicks and injuries. Chark is mostly an upside stab for NFL draft crews, but one that someone will gladly take before the midpoint of Round 2, and he’ll find his way onto the field in some capacity quickly.
A multi-sport phenom, Gallup was a mega-producer at Colorado State, averaging a studly 88-1,345-11 line over 2 years. He's likable as a slot guy, an intermediate threat, and a tough set of sideline hands. He was especially effective on screens and hitches, according to Pro Football Focus tracking, and stands out as a creator in the vein of Robert Woods or Michael Crabtree. Where Gallup let us down a bit was in his combine measurements: a 4.51 40 and a ho-hum 96.67 AEI that doesn't move the needle on his downfield questions. The speed is okay for his solid build, but it'd be nice to see strong leaping and explosiveness numbers come out of the formula. In any event, Gallup looks like a solid WR2 prospect on the next level. As with most, his landing spot will determine virtually all of his fantasy value. He has the pedigree and the chops to sneak into Round 2, and the right offensive situation can make him a sexy play late in the second round of rookie drafts.
Like Ridley, Kirk looks like an absolutely ideal route runner from the slot. He’s compact and tough, and he knows every route in the book; it’s easy to see Sterling Shepard when you watch him on tape. But he’s not quite as athletic or dynamic as Shepard, and he doesn’t quite flash the long-ball speed Ridley does. With a smallish frame and catch radius, he looks like a fairly dependent player on the NFL level, one who will likely have to lean on his wits and defensive breakdowns to create splash plays. That’s obviously not a death knell: Jarvis Landry, for example, famously bombed his combine in improbable fashion (a painful 4.77 40 and 28.5” vertical at just 205 pounds) before landing in a flawless spot on a Dolphins team thirsting to feed him 100 small-scale catches a year. Kirk is a better athlete than Landry and was more productive in school, so he compares favorably. But he’s still not an especially exciting NFL prospect, at least as far as Day 2 guys go. I’m sure he’ll make some NFL team marginally happy in a safe, sanitized way, but I won’t break the bank for his modest upside in rookie drafts.
Anthony Miller, Memphis
DaeSean Hamilton, Penn State
Equanimeous St. Brown, Notre Dame
Mega-productive at Memphis – he averaged 96 catches for 1,448 yards and 16.5 total touchdowns over 2016-17 – Miller boasts a solid amount of market-share green above. It’s easy to see why: Miller is a proven, polished receiver whom wideout guru Matt Harmon has compared to Doug Baldwin. That’s mostly because Miller is adept in the slot and also deceptively strong on the boundary, and he produces touchdowns like they’re bodily functions (37 on 238 career receptions). Far from a limited inside guy in the Eddie Royal mold, Miller shows the ability to work down the field a bit and make tough, contested catches. He’s fearless in traffic and zeroes in on the ball in impressive fashion, and his catch radius (31 5/8” arms and huge 10 5/8” hands) makes him a target on multiple levels. He even checked in at 201 at the combine, 11 pounds heavier than he’d always been listed at Memphis. There are questions surrounding Miller: we still don’t know his speed, explosiveness, or agility numbers, as he skipped most workouts due to a late-season injury. But we know he’s one of the class’ most polished and accomplished possession receivers, with intriguing downfield chops. Think of him as a less-certain Christian Kirk and target him on the third level of rookie wideouts.
Hamilton is screeching up draft boards, which is surprising only in that he was low anywhere to begin with. There’s a ton to like about the deep threat, even without seeing a combine 40 time and an unexceptional 4.52 at Penn State’s pro day. Hamilton isn’t a burner, but Pro Football Focus credited him with an FBS-high 73.3% catch rate on deep balls (20+ yards downfield) last year. His long stride can be off-putting for coverage men, and it helps him to create separation his jets can’t. And he’s drawing even better marks for his route-running; he sets himself up well with head fakes and isn’t the slightest bit afraid of traffic. Hamilton isn’t quite a prospect on the level of last year’s top Nittany Lion, Chris Godwin, who aced the combine to the tune of a 100.23 AEI and produced major touchdown numbers in school. But he’s a stable-bodied downfield target who’s capable of a full route tree, so Hamilton brings plenty of mid-round value to NFL teams.
St. Brown is a quintessential potential-over-production guy. He checked in at the combine at 6’5” and 214, running an impressive 4.48 40. It would’ve been nice to see him jump and do agility drills, but he at least looked the part in Indianapolis. And it’s not particularly fair to ding him too much for his production struggles, considering the awful state of Notre Dame quarterbacking in 2017. We need to note that he posted a stout 31.5% yardage share with DeShone Kizer in 2016, which reminds us of what he could easily become. St. Brown isn’t a particularly safe prospect, but he at least looks valued well NFL-wise as a likely Round 3 guy. That’s the sweet spot to roll the dice on a specimen who’s flashed at a young age, and St. Brown will likely swell in value as the draft approaches.
Dante Pettis, Washington
Deon Cain, Clemson
Pettis sat out all of draft season testing, including his pro day, due to an ankle injury from last November. It’s a shame we can’t pair any running measurables to his slight build (6’0” and 186 pounds) and get a better idea as to whether he’s an outside prospect as well as a slot/return prospect. Given his quick feet and dynamic punt return ability (an NCAA-record nine touchdowns), we can feel fairly confident in some degree of value. Still, it’s hard to get too excited about a smallish guy with no measurables. Some pan out, like Paul Richardson has, but many don’t, and Pettis didn’t show us the big-time speed or athleticism we’d like to pair with that kind of frame. On tape, he looks like a guy who needs on-target throws to make up for a lack of separation ability, and I don’t have much reason to think he transcends that going forward.
Draft season has not been kind to Cain. He underwhelmed majorly at the combine, testing at the class’ 34th percentile on the back of a ho-hum 95.82 AEI. He followed up at his pro day with a notoriously concerning performance, dropping a number of balls and standing on his weak combine measurements. Buried to open his career at receiver-rich Clemson, it was nice to see a noticeable uptick in 2017: with Mike Williams gone, Cain led the Tigers in yardage and hauled in an impressive 6 of the team’s 17 touchdowns. But his efficiency dropped majorly in the process, down to just 12.7 yards per catch. There’s solid speed at play here, as well as a refreshing physicality in his downfield routes. But the drawbacks loom ominously for his draft stock. NFL front offices can’t merely reason them away with years of strong production, tape, or athletic testing. Cain looks destined for the middle to late NFL rounds, and he doesn’t look likely to make an early dent.
Simmie Cobbs, Indiana
Deontay Burnett, Southern Cal
Auden Tate, Florida State
Trey Quinn, Southern Methodist
Cobbs definitively failed the combine, and it’s fair to wonder whether he’ll ever fully recover from his lost 2016. It was nice to see him scorch a generally NFL-bound Ohio State secondary for 149 yards on 11 catches last year, but he didn’t post a 100-yard encore for 7 more weeks, and his touchdown production was good-not-great. There are things to like, for sure, such as his strong jump-ball instinct. But Cobbs looks an awful lot like a route-raw, semi-robotic target who will struggle to find a marketable NFL skill. He’s a late-round prospect, and one with an uphill climb.
Burnett stepped impressively into JuJu Smith-Schuster’s WR1 shoes in 2017, catching 86 balls for 1,114 yards and 9 touchdowns. He shone most brightly on the biggest stages, posting hefty lines against Stanford (9 for 121 and 2), Texas (8 for 123 and 2), Notre Dame (8 for 113 and 1), and Ohio State (12 for 139). But he’s followed it all up with a disastrous offseason. After sitting out combine workouts due to a hamstring ailment, Burnett gutted out a horrendous Pro Day, measuring at just 177 pounds with a truly bottom-of-the-barrel 85.21 AEI. NFL teams could certainly look the other way on that, of course, as Burnett was working out just 66 days after a hamstring injury. But Burnett’s tiny frame, limited downfield skillset, and lack of special teams value are already working pretty hard against him.
Like Cobbs, Tate was a semi-chic name among draftniks before wheezing to an awful combine workout (a 4.68 40 and shrimpy 31” and 112” jumps). He’s enormous at 6’5” and 228 pounds, and he rode those measureables to massive touchdown production at Florida State (an obscene 24.6% rate, good for 43.1% of Seminole scoring catches). Still, it’s concerning of course that he never topped 550 yards in a season, never claiming more than 23.2% of team yardage. He disappears often, and he doesn’t look like an NFL-caliber athlete at the position. As a result, it’s worth questioning whether he’ll be taken before the final rounds, making him a guy we can more or less ignore for the time being.
If we’re going to fall in love (somewhat) with Courtland Sutton, it’s only fair to examine Quinn, who easily usurped him as SMU’s top receiver in 2017. An LSU transfer in 2017, Quinn racked up 114 catches (46 more than Sutton) for 1,236 yards and 13 touchdowns as the slot dynamo in SMU’s wide-open attack. Quinn didn’t impress anyone at the combine (aside from a pleasantly stocky 5’11” and 203-pound measurement), and his 93.08 AEI sits second-worst among this cohort. But for what it’s worth, he beat out Cooper Kupp’s 2017 AEI (91.99) – that number certainly doesn’t disqualify him as a slot prospect. Quinn doesn’t look like more than an NFL fourth-rounder at best, but a draft slot like that would certainly make us take notice. Like Kupp, he’s a marginal candidate to land in the right spot and produce a solid if uninspiring career.
Marcell Ateman, Oklahoma State
Antonio Callaway, Florida
Ateman puts a lot of red on the board up there; he tested poorly at the combine, with a low-end AEI of 96.75, and he wasn’t a commanding part of Oklahoma State’s wide-open attack. Even his 1,156-yard senior year accounted for just 22.9% of the Cowboys’ pass game, and his 2015-17 stake of 18.8% of touchdowns is downright barrel-bottom. He brings some intrigue due to his 6’4”, 216-pound frame and his dynamic yardage per reception in school. But it would be nice to see some touchdown production to back it up. Ateman looks like a speculative late-round NFL pick, and doesn’t look to have the tools for independent fantasy value, barring a great landing spot.
Callaway would be a bit further up draft boards if not for a troubling pattern of off-field mistakes. An All-American return man in 2015, he was leveled by a sexual assault allegation (for which he was cleared) and a marijuana charge at Florida, then let go from the team in 2017 due to his role in a credit card fraud scheme. That’s all very troubling, but it only takes one NFL team to roll the dice on his speed (a 4.41 dash at the combine) in the first 4-5 rounds to force us to take fantasy notice. Callaway could certainly carve out a niche as a return specialist and occasional offensive spark plug. Still, let’s not start making Tyreek Hill assumptions. Callaway is fast, for sure, but his blah 95.92 AEI doesn’t paint the picture of a slam-dunk gamebreaker; simply put, a 197-pounder is expected to run around that range. Ultimately, the draft will tell us how much we should care about Callaway, and at the moment he’s merely a theoretical last-round dice roll in rookie drafts.