NFL Draft: Marvin Harrison Jr. is the best WR, and arguably best overall player, in this class. Don't overthink it

At a school that has churned out wide receivers like Stephen King novels, Marvin Harrison Jr. has just felt a little bit different than the rest of the high-end pass catchers coming out of Columbus. Even Ohio State co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Brian Hartline was quick to put Harrison Jr. on top of the recent batch of talented players he’s coached, before moving onto the rest of the, frankly absurd, list of players.

Harrison Jr.’s stock has been firm for almost two full seasons as the best wide receiver, and arguably the best overall player, in this draft that is full of offensive firepower. His arrow was always pointing up, or at the very least sideways, as he jumped up or sideways for errant passes during the 2023 season.

But then, as it seemingly always does during the shortest month of the year, the draft process power creep started to impact long-established prospects. The questions and nitpicks become declarations and career-hampering negatives, the newest north star statistic leading the way to the perfect prospect or away from a potential wasted draft pick.

Marvin Harrison Jr. has pretty much everything you're looking for in a wide receiver prospect. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)
Marvin Harrison Jr. has pretty much everything you're looking for in a wide receiver prospect. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

In a group of talented wide receivers prospects (plus whatever you consider Brock Bowers), Harrison Jr. felt like he was in a tier of his own, and I still hold up in that regard. There has been plenty of drumbeating that has happened recently about LSU’s Malik Nabers, an unbelievably explosive receiver that sits at ninth on my most recent big board (slightly behind Washington’s Rome Odunze, and I’ll get into it later this week when I write about more on this year’s wide receiver class).

But I, personally, do not think Nabers is at the level of refinement of Harrison Jr. Could he get there? Absolutely. Part of the appeal of Nabers is how productive he already is and the ceiling he still provides. I just also think Harrison Jr.’s own explosive production and potential have been discounted as his last collegiate game, and public exposure, becomes further and further away in the rearview mirror.

What makes Marvin Harrison Jr. a tier above the other WRs

When you typically see a player of Harrison Jr.’s physical profile, it’s easy to assume that they are going to be an outside-only ball-winner. A Tee Higgins, Mike Williams, or DeVante Parker running a straight-line route and Shawn Kemp-ing some poor cornerback near the boundary. Harrison Jr. has the hands and ball skills to win in contested-catch scenarios on the outside, and it makes him a viable red zone threat right away.

But Harrison Jr. has so much more to his game than simply dunking on smaller opponents. His pedigree of being the son of one of the most refined route runners of all time shows up on every Ohio State passing play. His overall polish, despite weighing 209 pounds and standing at just under 6-foot-4, is what starts to crystallize the more you watch him, whether it’s on all-22 or the TV copy. Every aspect of his game oozes off the screen, from the route tempo and clean footwork; to the feigns on route stems that keep cornerbacks off-balance; to his bend and body control to sink and stay tight on his route breaks; to even his varied releases, like an elite pass rusher he can alter between speed and power when going against press or man coverage:

All of it makes Harrison Jr. feel like he was always open, and pretty much was, while also always coming down with the ball even when he wasn’t:

Harrison Jr. is a true three-level route runner when he enters the league, a prized "X" wide receiver that has the entire route tree unlocked. His clean footwork and play strength let him consistently win underneath while his body control shows up when breaking on routes down the field. There were multiple defenses that tried to play physical against Harrison Jr. and mess with his route timing and depth, but he would consistently fight through and find ways to win against more physical defenders.

Things could actually end up a bit easier for him at the next level, too. Yes, the defensive back play will be several levels better, but referees will be throwing illegal contact and defensive holding penalties much more regularly. Harrison Jr. could benefit from those tighter calls and open up his game to do even more damage.

Harrison Jr. can line up and do damage from anywhere

I mean it when I say the entire route tree is unlocked with Harrison Jr., too. An aspect of his game that blossomed in 2023, likely out of necessity on Ohio State’s part, was his work out of the slot. A total of 25.4% of his targets came when he was aligned in the slot and 25.8% of his third- and fourth-down snaps came in the slot in 2023, significant jumps over his 2022 marks of 10.2% and 14.9% and significantly more than a player like Higgins, who had rates in the single-digits.

That slot experience, even if it’s just a handful of snaps a game, was another way for Harrison Jr. to showcase his game, demonstrating that he can move around the formation and attack all parts of the field like a super-powered helicopter as opposed to a more straight-line, plane-like, outside-only stereotypical "X" wide receiver. All NFL offensive coordinators worth their paycheck will move their best wide receiver around on third down in an attempt to free him up from any congestion and add more advantageous looks to the play-calling menu. (Why draw up the play for our auxiliary slot guy when we can just dial up another play to Marv?)

Harrison Jr.’s ability in the slot doesn’t have to be extrapolated from a couple of plays over three years. There’s proof of concept that he can handle it.

His long speed and yard-after-catch abilities, meanwhile, have been question marks for some, which only became bigger after he declined to test at both the NFL combine and Ohio State’s pro day. I know the eye test can only go so far, but I constantly saw Harrison Jr. winning on slot fades despite defenders playing off-coverage and stacking cornerbacks on simple outside go balls.

Even when defenders stay close, Harrison Jr.’s size and plus ball skills show up as he hauls down contested throws time and again. He does not have DeSean Jackson, Tyreek Hill or Randy Moss deep speed (he has comparable ball skills to all of them, though), but he is far above the threshold for threatening defenses in that manner.

Underlying statistics bolster Harrison Jr.'s talent too

Harrison Jr. isn’t going to break off a lot of defenders in a phone booth in the NFL, but he is not some stiff with the ball in his hands, either. He has the ability to keep moving forward and stay in a high gear as he slithers his way around defenders and blockers and had similar YAC production as Nabers (6.4 yards for Harrison Jr. and 6.6 for Nabers, respectively).

It’s not a perfect 1:1 comparison (there never is one), but the way Harrison Jr. moves with the ball in his hands reminds me a lot of DeVonta Smith, but in a much larger body. Their smooth athleticism and body control constantly shows up as they are able to maximize yards on underneath throws. It’s not flashy, but it’s effective, and it’s where I think some of the boredom has set in for some evaluators.

Even underlying numbers reflect Harrison Jr’s ability to create explosive plays. He recorded an explosive reception on 8% of his routes in his college career, a number that ranks in the 98th percentile among the 471 qualifying wide receivers since 2019 (and a decent chunk higher than Nabers’ career mark of 6.9%).

Other statistics make Harrison Jr. what I like to call a “Nick Swisher” prospect (termed after the A’s front office's infatuation with Swisher — funnily enough another Buckeye himself — in "Moneyball"). He’s a player that both the eye test and statistics love and makes me keep pointing at my version of Jonah Hill’s character, which in my case is a sign that says “don’t overthink it” in my office.

Harrison Jr.’s marks in first downs per route run (13.6%) and yards per route run (3.1) scored in the 98th and 97th percentiles, respectively. Those numbers are even more impressive when you consider the offensive environment and quarterback situation he played in last season. (There’s a reason Kyle McCord is now at Syracuse.) In fact, his 13.8% first downs per route run rate and 3.6 yards per route run in 2023 were better than his career averages. These are not the end-all, be-all statistics, as players have succeeded despite having way worse statistical profiles, but it definitely is a nice point in his favor.

I haven’t figured out a great comparison for Harrison Jr. as a prospect. There are definitely some comparisons to make to a bigger version of Smith and, of course, of Marvin Harrison Sr., with a heap of Larry Fitzgerald (the size, body control and advanced game, plus lack of overwhelming long speed) as well. There might even be a dash of Art Monk in there.

But the point is that all the players I am throwing out are all fantastic players in their own right, which is reflective of how I feel about Harrison Jr. I am not saying he is going to be an automatic candidate for Canton when his career wraps up, but he looks like an instant-impact starter and potential top-10 player at his position by the time his rookie year is over. I think he could easily battle for a Pro Bowl spot in his first season if dropped into the right situation (those voters need yards and touchdowns, after all). His frame and ability to win from any spot on the field in ways just outside of sheer athleticism will allow his game to translate nicely and quickly at the next level, and he looks like he can eat targets right away as the primary option of an offense.

The size is there, the skills are there, the stats are there. Don’t overthink it.