Combine Watch List: The top five receivers

With the 2010 Scouting Combine coming up next week, it's time to take a look at the potential stars at every position in this year's draft class. We'll continue with the five receivers who will be on most minds.

Dez Bryant (Oklahoma State): It's not Bryant's fault that the NCAA is a Byzantine, hypocritical entity that restricts its true moneymakers (i.e., the PLAYERS) from taking so much as a free pancake while the men who coach those players play hopscotch with their contracts at will and sell themselves to the highest bidder like participants in a slightly older profession. It is, however, Bryant's fault that he lied to the NCAA about talking to Deion Sanders at Prime Time's home in an offseason meeting. The NCAA thought there might be impropriety surrounding Sanders' alleged influence in having Bryant sign with Eugene Parker, Sanders' agent. Bryant was suspended for the season after just three games -- which, by my estimation, is about how long Lane Kiffin coached at Tennessee before he bailed for USC.

Anyhoo, rant over. The eventual result of Bryant's meeting was a draft declaration, and now, there are two seasons plus three games to review. What pops off the tape, and what makes Bryant the most appealing receiver in this class, is his ability to get vertical in tight coverage and fight for receptions. Bryant isn't a burner; you'll see him with cornerbacks contesting his catches downfield more often than not. But he's as physical as you'd like an elite receiver to be and the 87 balls he caught in 2008 tell the story when it comes to his consistency. He's an after-catch threat, a willing blocker, and he gets good separation off the line. Where he may be most valuable to an NFL team is in his ability to catch and release in zone spaces -- he's got a nice feel for defenders around him, and he's not afraid of traffic. Anquan Boldin(notes) may be a comparative stretch, but Bryant is also going to get compared to Roy Williams, and it's important to note that he's not that guy.

Golden Tate (Notre Dame): If you're running a West Coast offense with a little trickeration mixed in. Tate might be your guy. Because he's spent time in a pro-style offense, he has a great feel for the slant, the quick out and the quick comeback - basically, the stuff that comprises 80 percent of Mike Holmgren's passing playbook. He can play slot or outside, and that versatility will play well at the next level. Tate is 5-11 and 195 and he runs in the 4.4 range, but don't pigeonhole him as a small speedster -- he's not afraid to fight for the ball and he'll break tackles if you let him. A converted running back, he looks good on the end-around as well. Where he'll benefit most from his background in the Charlie Weis offense is his ability to run the total route tree, as opposed to the "route bush" most receivers are asked to run in the newer shotgun offenses.

Brandon LaFell (LSU): A bigger guy at 6-3 and about 205, LaFell's style is almost violent -- it's certainly kinetic. When he's hauling it downfield, he's not holding any effort back; and when he's blocking downfield ... well, just check out the block at 0:42 of this highlight video. As you would expect from a larger, more physical player, LaFell lives over the middle, though he also has the ability to separate and make the downfield catch. If you're a small cornerback and LaFell's heading your way after catching a pass on a post corner, it's probably going to hurt. A lot.

Damian Williams (USC): Like Tate, Williams benefits from the kind of offense where the route tree is a necessity. Few in this class are better at sitting in zones and making things happen after the catch; Williams may have the best field vision on this list, which makes him a threat as a return man, as well. After piling up 12 catches for 189 yards against Boston College in the Emerald Bowl, there was little left for Williams to prove at the college level.

Demaryius Thomas (Georgia Tech): Remember when we were talking about "route bushes?" Well, that's what Thomas basically ran at Tech as the deep threat in a run-heavy offense. A lot of go routes, the occasional deep corner, and some quick stick throws to take advantage of his size-speed ratio. No receiver will benefit more at the Combine if he shows the ability to run more complex routes on the Lucas Oil Stadium field. He reminds me of Michael Irvin at his peak on the deep stuff, but more will be required in the NFL. (Update: Mike Mayock of the NFL Network reports that Thomas broke his foot during a workout on Tuesday; it's expected to take 4-6 weeks to heal, which unfortunately takes Thomas out of the Combine.)

Note: If you're wondering where Dexter McCluster is, stay tuned.

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