Leading up to the NFL draft on May 8-10, Shutdown Corner will examine each position, rank the top players at each spot and try to identify some top sleepers, sliders and undrafted gems.
You might have to go back to 1996 to find a draft class as loaded as this one projects to be. That was the year of Keyshawn Johnson, Terrell Owens, Marvin Harrison, Muhsin Muhammad, Eric Moulds, Terry Glenn, Eddie Kennison, Bobby Engram, Amani Toomer, Jermaine Lewis, Joe Horn and others — an all-time haul.
This year's crop might not have the eventual top-end talent that '96 produced. But it certainly can compete in the depth department. That year (back when there were two fewer teams than now), there were five first-round receivers and six second-rounders. But this year, we could see up to 15 combined go in Rounds 1 and 2.
At the top are Clemson's sleek speedster Sammy Watkins, following quickly by Texas A&M's physical marvel Mike Evans. Right behind them are two smaller but dangerous wideouts — LSU's Odell Beckham and USC's Marqise Lee — who shouldn't get out of Round 1.
And there are dozens more of highly rated wideouts of all shapes and sizes, and it's such a deep class that there is bound to be an Owens in the group, a mid-round prospect who outperforms several of those drafted ahead of him. It's that good a class. Maybe not quite '96 epic, but darned good.
Here are our top 10 wide receivers for the 2014 NFL draft (not what order they will be drafted but how we think they ultimately will perform in the NFL):
Owns 23 school receiving, returning records
Slick 'X' wideout has hands, speed and big-play ability to be special
Combined 18 catches, 565 yards, 5 TDs vs. Bama, Auburn
Insane catching radius, leaping ability; deceptively fast but must perfect route running
Odell Beckham Jr.
Third-best 20-yard, 60-yard shuttle times at combine
Acrobatic catcher lacks height but has speed, return ability to be instant impact player
Fell from 1,724 receiving yards in 2012 to 791 in '13
Hurt by injuries, QB play, but 2012 tape shows just how dynamic he can be
Jumped from 30-495-4 receiving in '12 to 54-1,011-15 in '13
Strapping, still-developing man child has work to do but could be rare mismatch piece
Blazed 40 (4.33), 20-yard (3.81) and 60-yard shuttle (10.72)
Confident, small-framed slot blazer plays bigger and can roast single coverage
Caught FBS-best 131 passes, 24 touchdowns in '13
Michael Crabtree clone might need a year developing but could be special in time
Ran 4.40 40 — 3rd-fastest time at combine
Rare physical gifts were stunted by inconsistent Ole Miss passing game
Produced 2,445 yards, 17 TDs past two seasons combined
Not fast, but explosive receiver who can make tough catch, be red-zone factor
Tigers' leading receiver in '13: 1,193 yards, 10 TDs
Dinged for slow 40 times, Landry nonetheless has the tape to back this ranking up
Notre Dame WR T.J. Jones
The arrow is pointing up for Jones, who never had great QB play at Notre Dame but is the kind of quick, productive, smart player who could thrive in the right NFL system. Jones was a team captain, a valuable special-teams performer, a hard worker and comes from good football stock (his father, who passes away in 2011, played at Notre Dame, and his uncle, Phillip Daniels, was a 15-year NFL pro). Don't be shocked if Jones ends up a productive slot receiver and the kind of player who makes it longer than many expect.
Vanderbilt WR Jordan Matthews
It's admirable the way he faced constant double coverage at Vandy and still managed to produce. He has a big, athletic frame with long arms and big hands. But Matthews might not really possess any special traits, or the ability to truly separate. The comparison to Marques Colston has floated around in the scouting community in relation to Matthews, but we wonder if he has the quickness or run-after-the-catch ability to ever be more than a solid No. 2 or quality No. 3 receiver.
SMALL SCHOOL WONDER
Saginaw Valley State WR Jeff Janis
Let's get this out there right off the bat: Janis is not Jordy Nelson, as some lazily have projected. Janis simply doesn't possess the body control, hands or the playmaking ability that Nelson does. Still, when you're 6-3, 219 pounds and run a 4.4-ish 40 time, NFL teams are going to sit up in their chairs. Janis blew up against the lower level of competition and had a strong combine workout, but he was mostly invisible at the Senior Bowl and likely will need some grooming. But he has special-teams value and the height and speed to be a good No. 3 WR with the right development.
With Beckham's stock very strong, Landry's has fallen off with some slow 40-yard dashes at the combine and his pro day, which was only a slight improvement over Indy. Make no mistake: Landry is a possession receiver, and his lack of rare physical traits could limit him. But we're talking about perhaps the best hands in the entire draft class, the kind of receiver who could become a trusted security blanket in gotta-have-it situations. Still, the guess here is that in this deep class many teams will wait on Landry..
Indiana WR Cody Latimer
What does it say about the strength of the class that a receiver we like a lot doesn't crack our top 10 list but still could land in late Round 1 or early Round 2? No question Latimer was thrown into a tough situation at Indiana and never has been an easy evaluation because of the poor quarterback play he labored through there. Latimer might not be a blazer, but his size, strength and blocking ability are all big plusses, and he appears to have very good run-after-the-catch ability. His best bet would be to land with a team that has a great quarterback to see what Latimer's true potential is.
South Carolina WR Bruce Ellington
The secret might be out on Ellington to the point where he is taken in the late third or early fourth rounds. But the former Gamecocks point guard on the hoops team also isn't getting the respect he should for his explosive and clutch play. He has special-teams value, can play outside or inside at receiver and also rushed for 198 yards on 25 attempts in college. That kind of do-it-all ability makes him quite the valuable performer who could crack a rotation early into his career now that's he's 100 percent focused on football.
PLAYER WHO WILL GO UNDRAFTED BUT SHOULDN’T
Wake Forest WR Mike Campanaro
The Wes Welker comparisons are tiresome and, in nearly every case, wrong. But, guys! Check out Campanaro! He really does remind you of Welker when you watch how he opens up with savvy over speed, short-area quickness over strength and catches most balls thrown his way. (Interestingly, like Welker, Campanaro occasionally will drop the easy one.) Campanaro has short arms and limited strength, but he is a tireless worker and committed perfectionist who might be something after a year or two getting his feet wet in the NFL. After all, Welker wasn't Welker until his fifth season.
Evans to the Buccaneers
It's brilliant, really, when you think about it. Evans' ceiling might be as a No. 2 receiver because of his lack of game-breaking speed, but he has a chance to be up there at the level that Alshon Jeffery, Eric Decker and Marvin Jones performed last season or the way Hakeem Nicks played second fiddle to Victor Cruz a few years back. Evans and Vincent Jackson would be Lovie Smith's and Josh McCown's Florida version of Jeffery and Brandon Marshall with the Bears, and that could do special things with their incredible length, strength and leaping ability.
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