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Before we hop into the column, I want to encourage everyone to check out NFL Draft War Room with Thor & Lindsay, a live NBC Sports EDGE original Twitch show I'll be doing every week from now through the draft with NFL agent Lindsay Crook. The show will typically be on Wednesday nights, but this week will be Thursday at 7 p.m. ET. If you join us live, Lindsay will answer any questions you have. This week, one of the topics up for discussion is the Isaiah Wilson saga.
A high school track long-jumping star and highly-sought after four-star football recruit, Wallace chose Oklahoma State and summarily dominated in the Pokes’ wide-open offense for four seasons (93rd percentile college dominator), breaking out as a 19-year-old freshman (84th percentile), with a high-water mark of 1,489 receiving yards in 2018 that led the P5.
His 2019 season was shortened by a torn ACL. Had Wallace not gotten hurt, he would already be in the NFL. Here’s Cowboys HC Mike Gundy speaking about Wallace's return to OSU in 2020: "[If Tylan] wouldn't have gotten injured, he would've come out and I'm pretty certain he'd be a second-round pick. I feel like he would've thought he was ready to go. The injury set him back, from a performance standpoint — can run a 40, can't have a pro day, can't workout — so that would've knocked him down to at least the fourth round, maybe later."
Wallace played the outside WR-Z role in Oklahoma State’s offense, always on the right side. Over his career, Wallace proved to be one of the nation’s best deep-ball artists. He’s a cork out of the bottle off the snap, and he’s got sprinter wheels (reported 4.39 speed at the EXOS combine).
Wallace has size limitations, but does his best to combat them. He plays like a dog, aggressive, scrappy and defiant. Wallace seems to enjoy the art of in-air fight fighting about as much as any area of receiver play. Perhaps it’s his background in prep long-jumping, where he was a state finalist in the triple-jump. He’s got a knack for tracking, not tipping off his intention too early, timing his leap, getting both his feet under him, and going airborne.
So, sure -- he’s a 6-foot downfield guy. And you doubt his ability to keep winning downfield in the NFL. But Wallace typically gets to the spot first, puts himself in the best position to get the ball, and puts his springs to good use. There’s a reason he led the FBS with 43 contested catches the last three years (and finished fourth in 2020 with 13).
And while I understand pessimism about NFL translation from this offense, I will say, in Wallace’s defense, that, unlike Corey Coleman, who played in a similar system (or, for that matter, manufactured-touch guys in this class like Rondale Moore/Kadarius Toney), Wallace did not feast on easy throws in space close to the line of scrimmage that he turned upfield like a glorified running back. Wallace ranked No. 26, No. 8 and No. 12, respectively, in the nation the past three years in yards per route run.
Last year, Wallace had as many catches 20-plus yards downfield as he had at or behind the line of scrimmage, and he had even distribution in the 0-9 and 10-19 sectors, deadly, in particular, on slants (and I’m not making a joke about Spencer Sanders hospital balls!).
It’s easy to get seduced by Wallace’s downfield acumen, but he’s an underrated route runner. He shows the ability to catch the ball outside his frame and turn upfield, where he becomes a tough runner with speed equivalent to teammate Chuba Hubbard.
I’ve heard questions that Wallace won’t be able to stick on the outside in the NFL. He is going to have to answer questions about getting off press coverage. That’s the biggest question about his evaluation right now, and a large unknown, since he didn’t face it much in OSU's spread schema.
Wallace also, of course, has a smaller catch radius for an outside, downfield receiver. I think this actually manifests in his drop numbers more than other receivers, because he gets to balls that are harder to catch more than other receivers do.
This was particularly the case in 2018, when he was targeted an astounding 149 times, including 50 targets 20-or-more yards downfield. That season, Wallace caught 86 balls but dropped nine, still a troubling number. His catch rate improved greatly over the last two years, with 102 combined catches on 179 targets with seven drops.
But with this kind of get-off off the line, speed, toughness, hops and proven downfield acumen, Wallace should be good for a strong pop-the-top WR2 career like Alvin Harper/Mike Wallace, if nothing else. I think he can develop into a strong starter, like Robert Woods, who wins in similar ways in the NFL with a similar frame.
With people in the industry having cooled on Wallace over the years, I honestly thought I had become the highest man on the totem poll on him, with the most aggressive comp. I thought so until the night before this column published, when I read a quote from an NFL assistant in Lance Zierlein’s expose: "I'm telling you [Tylan Wallace] will be the next Steve Smith. He's the same kind of competitor and (has the) same kind of jump ball skills."
A high school track state champion and Bruce Feldman “Freak’s” alum, Eskridge’s 4.33 wheels remain his calling card (he’s along a weight room beast that boasts a 37.5-inch vertical). Eskridge moonlighted at corner in 2019 but moved back to receiver full-time in 2019.
He’s a big-play waiting to happen that averaged 21.8 yards per catch over his final 74 catches and 27.5 yards per return with a TD as kick returner last year. Because of his play strength limitations, he’s going to have to kick inside to slot at the next level.
There, he’s going to have to prove he can sell routes, work through traffic, and catch through contact. But he’s got world-class athleticism for the job, and also this: Eskridge finished No. 1 in the nation in yards after the catch last year. Dang if this isn’t a sleek starter kit for a pop-topping slot with gadget, special teams, and even emergency defensive versatility.
12. Nico Collins, Michigan | 6'4/215
Comp: N’Keal Harry
Nico Collins considered Alabama, LSU and Florida coming out of high school but ultimately signed with Michigan. He opted out in 2020. Fascinating to ponder what could have been if he’d played four years at any of the three aforementioned programs, all strong throwing teams, instead of three at Michigan.
He led the Big 10 with 19.7 yards per catch in 2019 despite having the accuracy-averse Shea Patterson throwing him the ball. Collins needs a runway to get going, but he’s a freight train when he does, and when he gets a made-to-order jump ball, he can go-up-and-get-it with the best of them.
Collins is a prototypical size/speed outside receiver, a rangy, muscular athlete with galloping speed. Built long and strong, Collins does an admirable job leveraging his strengths down the field to win separation, swiping away corners’ hands, beating press with strength and footwork, using his arms to keep tabs on the defender and keep him outside his frame, and playing power forward downfield on 50-50 balls, pinning defenders to his backside before going above the rim.
Collins is one of those receivers that is frustrating to evaluate because his flash plays can be jaw-droppers, but sometimes you might wait several minutes in a cut-up, through several drives, and multiple quarters, before you see anything else of note. Some of that’s his fault. Some of it isn’t. Patterson did Collins no favors.
But it’s still troubling that Collins was a non-factor in so many drives. Concentration drops can be an issue, and Collins has trouble separating against high-end corners. He doesn’t have a problem getting off the line, but he needs a runway and several steps to build up to top speed, which is unfortunate, since speed is his special sauce.
The issue with Collins is that he lacks twitch, laboring to both get going and also change directions. The latter issue really hurts his utility in the intermediate game, because he telegraphs his intentions, allowing corners to crowd him and jump the line. It’s possible he would have made strides in this area in 2020 without Shea Patterson’s errant throws, but as an opt-out, we just don’t know.
While Collins has a good understanding of route-running, he’s never going to be a plus in that area because he loses momentum changing directions and out of breaks and has to round his cuts. With little burst or twitch, and running with less thunder than he could at his size, Collins is a sitting duck with the ball in his hands if you can get your hands on him (eight broken tackles on 78 career catches).
We know he’s going to be a deep-ball/catch-point specialist -- at the very least, a N’Keal Harry type. If Collins returns from his furlough as a more-complete receiver, though, he could surprise.
I give you the bizarro Rashod Bateman. Whereas Bateman, a true outside receiver, was forced into the slot and played down in 2020, St. Brown, a true slot, was forced outside in 2020 and also played down. Funny how that works!
The things that made St. Brown good in the slot since Day 1 of his true freshman year at USC were his ability to sift through traffic, exceptional footwork and body control, and his ability to hang onto the ball while in traffic and turn upfield, make a guy miss or break a tackle.
St. Brown consistently shows a nice connection with his quarterback, he runs good routes, provides a nice throwing window, and has a good awareness of what he’s doing, whether it’s searching for a soft spot in the zone or tracking the ball in the deep sector. He provided chain-moving reliability and a consistent source of YAC.
What St. Brown never was, unfortunately, was an exceptional athlete. He’s not terribly quick off the line, and he categorically lacks long speed. He also had an issue on the boundary with physical press corners who harassed him with more post-snap contact than he preferred.
St. Brown’s strengths played down, while his weaknesses were more clearly displayed. In the NFL, he should head back to the slot, where he could have a very Tyler Boyd-like career.
14. Jaelon Darden, North Texas | 5'9/172
Comp: DeSean Jackson
A cheat code in Conference USA, Jaelon Darden moves differently than the guys around him, and that’s going to continue to be the case in the NFL. He’s a classic Ferrari athlete in the vein of throttling to 100 mph in a blink.
He’ll screech the breaks on at the top of a route and turn around like somebody in the bleachers asked him a question, calm with his shoulders square, and then he’s pivoted back upfield and back up to full speed immediately. Darden breaks ankles in the open field, an extremely gifted mover, able to weave through traffic cutting to make guys while retaining max forward velocity, stop and starting at will.
Darden proved in 2020 that he’s more than a short-game, manufactured-touches guy, torching defenses in the deep sector, showing a deft touch for hauling balls in over his shoulder. He’s slight, he’s a slot-only, he doesn’t handle traffic well (no contested catches in 2020), and he’s about to make a big jump up in competition. But NFL slot corners are going to have a heckuva time staying with this guy in space.
Speed kills. And lord you knows you can’t teach it. Anthony Schwartz has it in spades. A track superstar, Schwartz brings Olympic-level sprinter’s speed into the slot -- for all the speed merchants we talked about above, Schwartz probably dusts them all in a foot race.
Schwartz told MMQB’s Albert Breer recently that had there been an NFL Combine, he would have broken John Ross' 40-yard dash record of 4.22 seconds. Schwartz set the world youth record with a 10.15 100-meter dash at the Florida Relays in 2017. That made him the No. 1 track recruit in the country. At that time, he had a 4.27 reported 40-yard dash. Just prior to enrolling at Auburn, Schwartz helped Team USA win gold in the 4x100 relay at the IAAF World U20 Championships in 2018.
He’s extremely raw, though. To this point, a catch-and-run screen guy that Auburn would also send deep. And that’s about it. He’s an absolutely terrifying proposition down the field, since few human beings on earth possess that kind of speed, but Schwartz remains awkward at tracking the ball, sometimes getting turned around or forced to alter his stride in order to locate.
And with 13 career drops, Schwartz’s hands remain an issue. Still a bit unnatural looking at the catch point, Schwartz has much better efficiency numbers securing the ball in space than in traffic. He will always be a finesse player.
You’re going to have to teach Schwartz how to run routes, and you’re going to have to clean up his hand technique, ball skills in general, and tracking comfort level downfield. The hope is that you’re going to get some level of gains in more than one of those four categories. He’s never going to get stronger.
I’ll say this for Schwartz: He was in a bad situation in college. Auburn QB Bo Nix has extreme accuracy issues. You could write novels about the amount of yards Nix left on the field for Schwartz and Williams in college (he hit the freebie below, give that to him).
Yes, Schwartz never seemed to have a great feel for tracking Nix’s downfield heaves -- but that’s also sort of like criticizing your sister for not following all of your uncle’s drunken conversation tangents last Thanksgiving.
Let’s at least give Schwartz the benefit of the doubt that he may have both been able to develop quicker in this area at another school, but also shine more brightly. Had Schwartz attended Clemson or LSU, he may have had a 1,200-yard receiving season over the past two years.
Where would we be mocking him then? May the Schwartz be with you! (Sorry).
The 2019 Wake Forest offense went from scary to bad the second Sage Surratt was knocked out for the season in 2019. That’s probably the most compelling argument to be made for his value as a player. Especially since that’s the last time we saw him -- he opted out in 2020.
The brother of UNC LB Chazz Surratt, also in this draft class, Sage is an elite deep-ball receiver who turns 50-50 balls into wins for the offense. Surratt went an incredible 18-for-30 in contested situations in 2019. He tracks the ball like a hunting dog downfield, and he’s a bridesmaid-going-for-a-bouquet specialist at high-pointing in traffic, a hands catcher with a bloated catch radius.
But like J-JAW, a jump-ball specialist in college, Surratt lacks athleticism. He builds up to top speed, and he’s sluggish changing directions, which neuters his ability in the intermediate game. Unfortunate, that, because Surratt would otherwise profile as strong in that area as a guy with a big frame, big catch radius, and proven after-the-catch ruggedness. Surratt’s tape shows a a hellacious runner after the catch (17 broken tackles in 2019).
If nothing else, Surratt will be a solid depth piece. But he offers the potential of a strong WR2 if he can ever figure out how to mitigate his lack of foot quickness and agility to provide more in the intermediate area. Such gains to his game would only make him more dangerous deep, the special-sauce of his game, as opponents couldn’t sit back dead-red on the nine-route, knowing Surratt could steal first downs in kind.
17. Cade Johnson, South Dakota State | 5'9/180
Comp: Dennis Northcutt
A tough little slot that will run you a precise route and make life hell on the defense after the catch, Cade Johnson is someone that NFL evaluators may come to appreciate more during the draft process than fans. He has a really good feel for what he’s doing out of the slot, accelerating off the line quickly, showing a knack for keeping his man at distance with footwork and athleticism, and using his speed to stretch the field.
Johnson is crafty after the catch, showing the nice vision and agility picking through garbage that he honed returning kicks for the Jackrabbits. The former FCS walk-on is a slot-only, and his ceiling in that post isn’t particularly high. But his floor is -- Johnson seems like a good bet to develop into a dependable starter that adds value on special teams.
People who say Simi Fehoko is this class’ biggest sleeper will say he’s a DK Metcalf-light outside presence, a big-bodied 6-foot-3 receiver with speed to burn, reported 4.4 wheels. They will say he moves very fluidly for a 220-pounder. And, that, as was the case in DK’s case, his NFL team will be in a unique opportunity to buy at a discount.
They’ll say he wasn’t used enough in 2019, when he scored six TD with a 23.6 YPR average on only 24 catches. And they’ll point to his breakthrough 2020 season, in which Fehoko posted a 37-574-3 line in just five games, and they’ll say, “See? He’s the monster I told you he was. And the NFL Draft community is still sleeping on him. Remember DK Metcalf? Remember Chase Claypool? Mark my words -- Fehoko is the next in line.”
Meanwhile, people who don’t see Fehoko as a top-25 receiver prospect, those who see him as a Day 3 afterthought, in other words, would return a very simple counter-argument, essentially what the NFL told UCF’s Marlon Williams by not inviting him to the NFL Combine: Fehoko is nearly 23-years old, and his breakout season did not occur until he was the oldest player on the field, with half of the numbers coming from a single dominant game against UCLA. How could the biggest, most physically-mature, and perhaps even most athletic player on the field not have posted strong numbers in that extremely small 2020 sample?
Continuing, they would add that for one of the class’ oldest receiver prospects (Fehoko went on a two-year LDS mission out of high school), it’s concerning that he’s also one of the class’ least experienced receivers (redshirted first year back in 2018, 24 catches as rotation member in 2019, and Stanford played a truncated five-game season in 2020), and that he remains noticeably raw, having little idea what he’s doing from a route-running perspective.
I don’t have enough information, nobody does, so I’m playing Switzerland on this debate and splitting the baby both with my ranking and with my NFL utility/career-trajectory comp. I have a bad feeling I’m either ranking Fehoko too high, or too low. But I feel, at the very least, he’ll be able to make plays up the seam in the NFL. And if things click -- a big, theoretical if -- his combination of size and athleticism will make him a steal.
I’m lower on Brown than most. To address that: I’m more concerned with his hands than the industry seems to be. PFF charted Brown with only three drops last season, but I saw more than that in the games I watched. I also saw a player that, for a skinny deep-ball specialist, had a disturbing habit of hand-fighting at the catch point, drawing flags.
So yes, Brown enters the draft having posted consecutive 1,000-yard plus receiving seasons in which he averaged over 20.0 receiving yards per catch, nothing to sneeze at for a former four-star coming out of the P5. What I like about Brown is that he’s a feisty receiver that plays with a certain flair and craftiness, releasing off the line smoothly and not willing to back down an inch even from the most physical press corners despite being a sub-190 pound outside receiver.
But this a guy who was basically always sent deep in Phil Longo’s offense, an Air Raid hybrid with a downhill running game (and UNC’s was particularly nasty, as you know). This opened plenty of one-on-one shots deep, and that was Brown’s specialty (and only real job). It’s an open question as to whether he’ll become a complete NFL receiver capable of running nuanced routes in the short and intermediate areas -- he wasn’t asked to do that much at UNC.
Brown’s a solid athlete, but he lacks elite athleticism, like, say, for instance, Anthony Schwartz. And it’s for this reason that Brown finds himself with more company at the catch point downfield. For a guy who’s basically, to this point, a one-trick pony, Brown is going to need to start catching the ball more consistently, and he’s going to have to figure out a sustainable jump-ball strategy that doesn’t include touching his friend from the other team. The striped men don't like that.
When I started to read, earlier this process, all the steam around Dyami Brown’s name, I was a little surprised. I think his ceiling and floor are both lower than the consensus assumes. But Brown’s shown enough sizzle downfield the last two years, with a particular knack for tracking bucket balls over his shoulder, that, despite my overall pessimism, I can’t rank him much lower than this.
A slot receiver with a rugged running back build, Amari Rogers is the son of former Tennessee QB Tee Martin. Rodgers had an eye-opening 2020 as Trevor Lawrence’s go-to receiver, posting a 77-1,020-7 receiving line while breaking 17 tackles.
Rodgers’ game blends lower-body horse power with 4.46 deep speed that he reaches extremely quickly. What you get is a short game/long game blend with him, the quick-hitters that are essentially long hand-offs where he’s a glorified running back on the perimeter, and the deep balls that more than keep you honest.
It’s a little concerning that Rodgers didn’t flash until last year, and that he dropped six balls (575 yards were his previous career-high in receiving yards in 2018; he dropped four that year). That’s a troubling drop rate for a guy who is supposed to handle heavy usage out of the slot in the NFL.
Especially considering the types of passes he's thrown. Of the top-46 receivers last year in terms of receiving yards, Rodgers had the lowest depth of target (interestingly, No. 2 was Kadarius Toney). We know Rodgers doesn’t like being crowded (only five catches on 17 career contested targets in career), which may make it difficult for him to develop a more fully-fleshed out game than the short/long thing. But if he keeps dropping long hand-offs, he's going to have a hard time sticking as even that.
Best of the rest...
21. Seth Williams (Auburn) | 6'3/225
22. Shi Smith (South Carolina) | 5'10/186
23. Jonathan Adams Jr. (Arkansas State) | 6'3/210
24. Austin Watkins (UAB) | 6'3/205
25. Marquez Stevenson (Houston) | 6'0/190
26. Warren Jackson (Colorado State) | 6'5/215
27. Ihmir Smith-Marsette (Iowa) | 6'0 /183
28. Tim Jones (Southern Miss) | 6'1/190
29. Brandon Smith (Iowa) | 6'1/218
30. Trevon Grimes (Florida) | 6'4/214
31. Tamorrion Terry (Florida State) | 6'3/203
32. Dazz Newsome (North Carolina) | 5'10/185
33. Whop Philyor (Indiana) | 5'10/178
34. Jhamon Ausbon (Texas A&M) | 6'2/218
35. Dax Milne (BYU) | 6'1/190
36. Cornell Powell (Clemson) | 6'0/210
37. Dez Fitzpatrick (Louisville) | 6'1/202
38. Isaiah McKoy (Kent State) | 6'3/200
39. Tyler Vaughns (USC) | 6'1/185
40. Josh Palmer (Tennessee) | 6'1/204
41. Damonte Coxie (Memphis) | 6'2/197
42. Brennan Eagles (Texas) | 6'2/225
43. Tre Walker (San Jose State) | 5'11/175
44. Frank Darby (Arizona State) | 6'0/192
45. T.J. Vasher (Texas Tech) | 6'6/210
46. Tre Nixon (UCF) | 6'1/180
47. Racey McMath (LSU) | 6'2/221
48. Rico Bussey Jr. (Hawaii) | 6'1/190
49. Josh Imatorbhebhe (Illinois) | 6'1 /215
50. Marlon Williams (UCF) | 6'0/222