NFL Draft Sleeper Wide Receivers & Tight Ends

·16 min read

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Danny Gray | SMU | 6’0/186
Gray was considered a three-star recruit who originally committed to Missouri but was unable to qualify academically, leading him to go the JUCO route for his first two collegiate seasons. He excelled at Blinn CC where he was a First Team All-Conference selection and garnered interest from several Power Five programs as the 13th rated JUCO recruit overall from the 2020 class. Instead of going to a big school and scrapping it out for playing time, he chose to stay close to home and attend SMU, where he started immediately.

The pandemic and a nagging injury cut short his first year in Dallas, but he still played in 8-of-10 games, starting seven. The deep threat wasted no time producing, as he pulled in 19 receptions for 331 yards and four touchdowns in his first five games while catching a pair of 60+ yard touchdowns in the process, showing just how explosive Gray can be. Though he was banged up the following two games against Cincinnati’s suffocating secondary and Temple, he rebounded in their final game of the season against Temple to beat up on the Golden Hurricane’s secondary by securing 8-of-13 passes for 93 yards. On the year, his advanced numbers of 2.08 yards per route and 9.6 YAC were strong, as he lined up wide 62% of the time.

He continued to ascend last year by supplanting former WR1 Reggie Roberson as Tanner Mordecai’s preferred receiver on the outside where he played 90% of his snaps. Though still limited to 10 games, Gray put up the kind of season we were hoping for, catching 49-of-72 targets for a 68% catch rate, 803 yards, 16.4 YPC, and nine touchdowns despite missing two regular season games and skipping the bowl. He improved in multiple key metrics, upping his yards per route from 2.08-to-2.69 and his contested catch rate from 40%-to-57%. The big knock on him last season was his seven drops and 12.5% drop rate. However his 8.6% drop rate from 2020 was much lower, so he has the aptitude to lower last season’s elevated number.

Gray posted PFF receiving grades above 90 at all three levels beyond the line of scrimmage and displayed exceptional YAC on screens, averaging 11.8 yards per catch on passes behind the line. His 4-for-4 showing on contested catches downfield shows that he can track deep balls with the defender in phase and still make the play. Overall Gray posted a rock-solid 133.2 passer rating when targeted. Considering Gray has elite speed, posting a 99th percentile 4.33s 40-yard dash with a 96th percentile 10-yard split, it’s no surprise that SMU would want to take shots downfield with him. However much like the rest of the WR class without the last name Austin, his agility drills were lacking.

Danny Gray has the ability to run various routes at different levels of the field and get free on all of them. If he can clean up the drops he can be a multi-year core contributor in the NFL.

Kevin Austin Jr. | Notre Dame | 6’2/200
A four-star prospect who was rated as the 14th best wide receiver and 82nd overall recruit from the 2018 prep cycle according to 247Sports, Austin chose to attend Notre Dame over a slew of other prominent schools. While he arrived on campus with big expectations, the Ft. Lauderdale native encountered multiple setbacks, both self-inflicted and circumstantial, that derailed the first three years of his collegiate career. He appeared in 11 games as a freshman, catching five passes for 90 yards, while getting acclimated to the college game. However, after being reprimanded for numerous violations of team rules, Austin was forced to sit out the entire 2019 season as a disciplinary measure.

To his credit, Austin chose to stick it out, accept responsibility and not transfer. He was then poised to make a big impact in 2020 until suffering a broken fifth metatarsal in his foot, commonly known as a Jones Fracture. A notoriously fickle injury that the author of this piece also suffered a decade ago, he tried to come back too early and re-injured his foot leading to a second surgery that officially ended his season. This time he gave the foot ample time to heal and was back to his usual form by training camp.

He entered the 2021 season with 108 receiving yards in his three years on campus and a chip on his shoulder after missing the last two seasons, and it showed as Austin used his size to body opposing cornerbacks at the catch point, catching 42-of-70 passes for a 60% catch rate, 783 yards, and six touchdowns while emerging as the Irish’s unquestioned WR1. His contested catch ability is as good as anyone in this class, racking up 12-of-20 contested targets, including 9-of-12 targets downfield for a sterling 96.2PFF receiving grade on deep shots which were 34% of his total targets. An astounding 34 of his 42 receptions went for first downs and his 2.43 yards per route shows his ability to produce on a per-play basis.

A hands catcher, Austin has a wide catch radius and shows advanced feel for manipulating defenders at the top of his route stem, stacking receivers downfield while using his hands/arms to shield them at the catch point. His most popular routes are slants and go routes, so he needs to expand his tree in order to continue to produce in the NFL. Only five broken tackles on 42 catches despite demonstrable play strength. He absolutely destroyed the combine testing, leading the WR class with a 93rd percentile 6.71s 3-Cone in addition to running a 4.43s 40-yard dash (89th%), 1.48 10-yard split (99th%), and an 11-foot broad jump (98th%) for a total Relative Athletic Score of 9.94.

Austin is extremely gifted physically and has the potential to be a legitimate downfield weapon in the NFL. Whether he has matured enough to take advantage of his gifts is another matter entirely.

Erik Ezukanma | Texas Tech | 6’2/209
Texas Tech scored a major recruiting coup when the Red Raiders managed to sign four-star WR Erik Ezukanma who was rated as the 49th best receiver from the 2018 prep cycle. The Fort Worth, TX phenom who once rolled up 272 receiving yards in a single high school game redshirted as a freshman before going on to lead the team in receiving in each of the following three seasons.

His production was remarkably consistent over his three years as a starter, averaging 45 receptions, 702 yards, a 64% catch rate, and 15.5 yards per reception with little variance from those numbers on an individual season basis. Ezukanma’s per play production improved every year, with his yards per route, going from 1.82 as a redshirt freshman up to 2.31 in 2021. He also drastically improved his strength at the catch point, securing 2-of-13 contested receptions as a redshirt sophomore to reeling in 20-of-36 contested scenarios over the following two years.

While EZ-E lineup exclusively on the outside as a sophomore, he gradually started getting moved around the formation until OC/HC Sonny Cumbie decided to go full-on Deebo mode in his usage last year with Ezukanma taking end arounds, jet sweeps, lining up in the slot 19% of the time and even running the Wildcat on occasion. His rushing production was impressive, carrying 10 times for 144 yards, 14.4 YPC (!), and two touchdowns while dodging seven tackles for a ridiculous 70% missed rate.

His testing marks were good, running a 4.55s 40-yard dash with a 36.5” vertical and 10’6” broad jump for a solid 7.03 RAS. A big, physical receiver who isn’t afraid to put hands on opposing defensive backs to get free and displays advanced body control, Ezukanma proved his ability to make big plays in multiple phases of the game. He doesn’t have the 4.3s speed of Danny Gray or Bo Melton, but Ez-E has plenty of strength and savvy to make defenders miss, as his 41 career broken tackles will attest. He needs to expand his route tree but has WR3 upside if he can sharpen some of his rough edges.

Bo Melton | Rutgers | 5’11/189
The Jersey boy Melton could have gone to a host of different blue-blood institutions, but the four-star recruit opted for the cozy confines of his home state school, Rutgers. He played in 12 games as a true freshman, starting three, while helping out in special teams as he got acclimated to the college game. The Mays Landing, N.J. native had a slow rise statistically due to inconsistent quarterback play throughout his Rutgers tenure catching 28 passes for 245 yards as a sophomore before leading the team in receiving in 2019 with 30 receptions for 427 yards, 14.2 YPC, and two touchdowns…Yes, he actually led with just 427 yards.

However, Melton really emerged in 2020, starting all nine games of the pandemic shortened season, snagging 47-of-74 passes for a 64% catch rate, 640 yards, and six touchdowns in addition to five carries for 69 yards and two scores on the ground. His PFF receiving grade increased from 67-to-75.8, though his 11% drop rate was somewhat alarming. He logged 81% of his snaps out wide with an 11.9-yard ADOT, 11 broken tackles, and 2.08 yards per route. His production remained consistent last year as well, securing 56-of-91 targets for 642 yards, 11.5 YPC, and three touchdowns while earning a solid 76.8 PFF overall offensive grade while returning a punt for a touchdown.

Melton’s athletic profile is extremely intriguing as his 4.34s 40-yard dash time ranks in the 99th percentile along with an 87th percentile 4.1s shuttle and an 88th percentile vertical jump for a sterling 9.25 Relative Athletic Score. Melton is fearless across the middle and uses a variety of subtle fakes to manipulate defenders and allow him to get a step, and once he gets the advantage he rarely gets caught from behind. Above-average body control allows him to adjust well to the ball in the air and contort to make high degree of difficulty receptions downfield.

A savvy route runner, he was moved around the formation to take advantage of mismatches and received 21 carries over his collegiate tenure. He only brought in 9-of-32 contested catches over the last two seasons, as a below-average sized frame doesn’t allow him to shield defenders in those situations. Melton is a talented return man who has the speed, route-running ability, and versatility to make an NFL roster as a rookie and contribute in multiple facets of the game.

Jake Ferguson | Wisconsin | 6’5/250
A lifelong resident of Madison, Ferguson grew up in a football family as the grandson of legendary Badgers HC/AD Barry Alvarez. He was rated as the 13th overall tight end from the 2017 class, naturally choosing to attend Wisconsin to further his family’s legacy. After redshirting his freshman season Ferguson wasted no time making an impact in 2018, catching 34-of-51 passes for a 67% catch rate, 441 yards, 13 YPC, and four touchdowns while lining up in the slot 65% of the time and being used to stretch the field down the seam as shown in his 11.2 yard ADOT. His PFF receiving grade of 81.4 illustrates just how effective he was despite seeing the playing field for the first time and starting only two games.

He continued to be a vital piece of the Badgers' offense for the next three seasons, earning All-Big Ten recognition in each campaign, capped off by a First Team All-BIg Ten nod in his final season. With HC Paul Chryst employing the run-heavy offense that has become synonymous with Wisconsin, Ferguson led the team in receiving in each of the last two seasons, with QB Graham Mertz leaning on his reliable safety valve in the middle of the field. He caught 70 passes for 755 yards and three touchdowns while going from three drops in 2020 to just one in 2021 for an unassailable 2.3% drop rate.

His impressive strength and contact balance were on full display, dodging the sixth most tackles in the nation while sporting a 23% broken tackle rate. An absolute ace in traffic who hauled in 19 contested catches in 31 targets for a pristine 61% catch rate during his time in Madison. His blocking got better as time went by, going from 33% inline reps as a freshman to 72% on average over his final three seasons. Lining up tight allows him the element of surprise since defenders don’t know if he’s blocking or going out for a pass, allowing him to disguise his intentions.

Ferguson tested adequately, running a 4.81s 40-yard dash that is a 55th percentile mark but also running a 7.03s 3-Cone that is a strong 82nd percentile time, combining for a respectable 6.75 RAS. In addition to his dependable hands, Ferguson is exceptional at catching passes outside of his frame while still holding onto the ball after absorbing contact over the middle. An omnipresent force in the Badgers’ lineup, he caught a pass in every single one of his 47 career games. His tape is littered with tough catches, but he composes himself quickly after the catch which helps him square up and strongarm would-be tacklers and rack up YAC. He isn’t going to blow you away with his speed, which allows more athletic linebackers to stay in phase with him.

Jake Ferguson has the hands, blocking acumen, and toughness over the middle to carve out a niche for himself at the NFL level as a reliable TE2.

Daniel Bellinger | San Diego State | 6’5/253
Like many of the great tight ends we’ve seen take control of the position at the NFL level, Bellinger was a standout basketball player in high school who received Second Team All-Conference recognition at Palo Verde HS in Las Vegas, NV. Despite excelling as a two-way TE/LB player who received All-Conference recognition on each side of the ball, Bellinger was considered a lowly two-star prospect who carried a pedestrian .7953 player rating on the 247Sports composite board and wasn’t heavily recruited, passing on his hometown school UNLV in favor of the sand and sun at SDSU. As a longtime SD resident, his decision shows exceptional intelligence.

Due to HC Brady Hoke’s slow-paced, ball control offense that relied on their stout defensive unit led by surefire 2022 draftee Cameron Thomas, Bellinger didn’t produce eye-popping numbers. He lined up tight on 54% of his snaps but was frequently set back from the line in an H-back role. The burly tight end played in every game from 2019 on, starting all but two, catching 50-of-73 targets for 547 yards and two touchdowns over his last two seasons. He ran routes on 82% of SDSU’s pass plays, so he was clearly viewed as an important piece of their offensive attack. Improved as a runner substantially in 2021, with his 9.1 YAC ranking fifth in the entire nation. His ball skills are praise worthy as well, as Bellinger reeled in 73% of his targets last year with zero drops, one of only two tight ends in the country to receive 40 or more targets to not lay one on the ground.

What separates Bellinger is his athletic testing marks, which were simply incredible. He ran a 4.63s 40-yard dash that ranked fourth in the TE class, with 10 & 20-yard splits which measured in the 90th percentile athletically. His 7.05s 3-Cone was an 81st percentile mark that would have ranked fifth among the wide receiver class and a 97th percentile 125” broad jump. All told, Bellinger’s 9.66 RAS shows that he is a truly high-caliber athlete with the requisite size and athleticism to make an impact in the NFL. To put in perspective how impressive his RAS score is, Travis Kelce, Greg Olsen, and Dallas Goedert are his top-3 RAS comps. Not a bad group to be associated with.

Watching the tape his hands are like vice grips with the ball seemingly absorbed by his long fingers. He’s crafty in his routes, keeping linebackers guessing if he’s blocking or going out for a pass, helping him get an edge and keep it thanks to his 4.63 speed and huge frame that allows him to shield defenders. Frequently needs to be gang tackled in order to take him down, often carrying them a few yards downfield. He shoots out of his stance and displays quick feet in his routes while having little trouble in contested catch situations. A willing and able run blocker, Bellinger has the strength and balance to crack down on and seal blockers but needs to improve his base strength to anchor in the NFL. Some of his receptions were schemed touches, he will need to prove he can consistently handle man-to-man coverage against NFL linebackers.

Bellinger is a plus athlete who will be able to stay on the field thanks to his size and run blocking ability. He will need to work on suddenness on his routes, but if he can sharpen his routes and add some play strength, Bellinger could develop into a very effective NFL tight end.

Deep Fantasy TE Sleeper: Gerrit Prince | UAB | 6’4/241
Prince isn’t an advanced athlete by any means, as he is light by NFL standards, benched 14 reps which is a 17th percentile mark, and doesn’t have high-end separation speed as his 4.77s 40-yard dash and 1.71 10-yard split indicates. However, Prince was a pleasure to watch as a receiver last year, stretching the field with his 13.1 ADOT (2nd in the nation) while his 11.3 YAC was the best in the country to go with eight touchdown receptions. Despite being light for the position, he still earned a strong 74.8 pass block grade though he will likely be used as a move tight end at the next level. He received a 90.9 PFF receiving grade which ranked fourth nationally and an absurd 20.3 yards per reception. Some guys just have the savvy and know-how to work themselves open and make plays. Prince is one of them.