It's the year of the wide receiver. It would be no surprise if seven were drafted in the first round on Thursday night. That would not be an aberration. Since the turn of the century, six wide receivers have been selected in the opening round four times (2001, 2005, 2007 and 2009), and seven came off the board in 2004.
Unfortunately for some of those prospects, receiver is consistently the biggest first-round "bust" position in the draft after quarterback. There are certainly many reasons for that, and they must be analyzed on a case-by-case basis, but two factors really stand out: the wide gap between what receivers are asked to do in college versus the NFL regarding route concepts and adjustments, and the dramatically higher quality of cornerbacks they play against on Sundays.
On the flip side, with the increasing deployment of three- and four-wide receiver personnel sets in the NFL, there are more opportunities for receivers to find a niche and become important contributors.
Given the one-on-one matchups because of the expanded sets, the gold standard for NFL wide receivers is working outside the numbers, running isolation routes versus man-to-man coverage, and consistently getting open (translation: separation). However, in this era of taller and bigger wide receivers, the concept of separation has changed. Distance between receiver and corner does not necessarily have to be the defining criterion. The ability to use your long or wide body against shorter and smaller corners has become just as valuable an attribute, especially with more and more man-to-man coverage being played.
The majority of the top wide receivers in the NFL fit the larger profile: Calvin Johnson, Josh Gordon, A.J. Green, Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Jordy Nelson, Vincent Jackson, Larry Fitzgerald. All, with the exception of Bryant (who is 6-foot-2), are 6-3 or taller, and all weigh more than 210 pounds. This drives the belief that the NFL wide receiving position is getting bigger, with taller and more physical players (you could include Anquan Boldin, at 6-1 and 220 pounds in this discussion) providing greater possibilities with their wider catching range and strong yet soft hands.
That brings us to this year's draft class. Sammy Watkins, at 6-1 and 211 pounds, is viewed by some as not quite big enough to be an elite prospect (I do not subscribe to that school of thought. I believe he is the best wide receiver to come out of college since the 2011 draft that featured Green and Julio Jones; some in the league see him as the best prospect since Johnson in the 2007 draft). Think about this: Watkins is perceived as a little small by some, yet Justin Gilbert, at 6-0 and 202 pounds, is considered to be an outstanding corner prospect due to his size/speed dynamic. Isn't there a bit of a disconnect there?
The two biggest receivers in this draft most commonly discussed are Mike Evans (Texas A&M) and Kelvin Benjamin (Florida State). At the NFL scouting combine in late February, Evans' measurables were 6-4 7/8 and 231 pounds; Benjamin was 6-5, 240. Each presents physical matchup problems for almost all NFL corners solely due to their big bodies (Richard Sherman is the exception, and he's only 6-3, 195). Their sheer mass allows them to shield defenders, putting them in advantageous position to catch the ball, even if they have not created any meaningful distance from the corner. Separation is not the defining characteristic needed for them to be dangerous receiving threats. What throw has become such a critical part of the NFL game?: the back shoulder fade. The back shoulder throw is almost impossible to defend against big, physical wideouts like Evans and Benjamin; corners cannot defend two routes, and they must play the deep ball first, so a well-executed back shoulder throw to a big-bodied wide receiver is a tactical nightmare for even the best of corners.
Evans is not explosive in the way that Johnson is; Evans is much more of a measured mover, but his size elevates his value as an outside-the-numbers receiver, and his projection to the NFL. In many ways, Evans is a bigger and faster Boldin with his physicality and vice-grip hands. His four-inch height advantage allows him to be more of a vertical threat than Boldin. Very often in the NFL it's not pure speed that dictates over-the-top ability; for big receivers, it's more a function of stride length, and the understanding of how to close down the cushion versus off-coverage corners. That's where Evans excels.
Despite the similarities in size, Benjamin, in many respects, is a different receiver than Evans. He showed a little more natural quickness and athleticism. He was slower than Evans at the beginning of routes, but he had better build-up speed, and more consistently ran away from college corners later in routes. He showed a burst both at the break point, and with the ball in the air, on vertical routes. He played smaller than his size at times with his deceptive movement, but he always had the capability to defeat tight man coverage with his imposing size and leaping ability to high point the ball. The concern with Benjamin is that he's an inconsistent catcher; too many drops on routine passes. How do you balance that with some of the more difficult catches he makes, often the result of his size?
It's highly likely Evans will be drafted before Benjamin, the conventional wisdom being, how many teams will take a chance on a "slow" (4.61 40-yard dash at the combine) receiver with "suspect" hands? I guess few remember that Boldin ran a 4.7 at his combine; he'd likely run about 4.9 now, but all Boldin has done is average almost 80 catches and more than 1,000 yards in his 11-year NFL career, including 1,179 yards last season, at age 33. Isn't that the point? For big, physical wide receivers with the ability to use their bodies effectively and snatch the ball outside their frame, straight-line speed is not the consequential attribute it is often made out to be. The same is true for separation. We need to redefine that term when evaluating 6-3/6-4, 215-pound plus wide receivers. They will all be significantly bigger than almost every corner they will play against in the NFL.
One other point: I constantly hear people talk about college wide receivers being poor, or unrefined route runners, how much learning they need to do, and how that may negatively impact their transition to the NFL. What I find fascinating is that this shortcoming or perceived weakness is only attached to certain wide receivers, and not others. I've seen it often applied to Benjamin. It, quite frankly, has no meaning at all, no matter which wide receiver you're talking about. All receivers entering the NFL are poor route runners by NFL standards. The corollary point is, with very few exceptions, college passing games are very limited when it comes to route concepts, and adjustments both before the snap and after the snap. There may be no better example of this than Evans (who, by the way, I have not seen this written about; why not?). He has no experience running anything approaching an NFL route tree, but that is not as relevant to NFL coaches as many might think. They will start at the beginning, and teach him how to play NFL wide receiver. It will not shape the evaluation of him, or Benjamin, as a prospect.
There has been an increase in the number of bigger wide receivers in the NFL over the last number of years. It's changing not only the manner in which we evaluate wide receivers, but also passing games in fundamental ways. The NFL has always been cyclical. It will be fascinating to see how defenses respond as we go forward in 2014 and beyond.