NFL draft winners and losers: Why speedy wide receivers are all the rage again

This week’s winners and losers column is going to start with the current trends in the NFL affecting how draft prospects are perceived.

Players tend to get drafted higher if they fit a prototype that’s currently working in the NFL. Those prospects who fit an older model or template — even if they dominate in college — can be hurt by that, fair or not.

Many NFL observers might say that the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs are two teams whose roster construction are the envy of many other franchises. There are other clubs whose team management also has been praised; some that come to mind include the Philadelphia Eagles, Los Angeles Rams, Indianapolis Colts, Dallas Cowboys and Seattle Seahawks.

What do those teams have in common? Well, they all possess a nice distribution of talent on both sides of the ball, even if it might be more slanted toward the offense. And yes, prior to Andrew Luck’s sudden retirement, all of those teams had a difference-making quarterback.

But they all have at least one game-changing, speedy receiver, too.

Wide receiver might be one of the most dependent positions in football in that they might do their job beautifully, but it’s dependent on the protection holding up, the quarterback getting them the ball and the coverage and play-calling dictate that the action goes in their direction.

For a while in the NFL, big receivers were all the rage. Sure, Julio Jones or Michael Thomas are big, can stretch the field and are unicorns. But there could be a downsizing trend here the next few years — based on what’s happening in the league and what the college pool is providing talent-wise.

Having a speed receiver who draws specialized coverage changes a lot about an offense. Look at the Eagles in Week 1 with DeSean Jackson vs. the Eagles in Week 2 with Jackson leaving the field after only 11 snaps. The offense looked wholly different in each contest. The Colts now have two different burners in T.Y. Hilton and Parris Campbell, and each is helping keep the Colts’ offense afloat despite losing Luck.

We wonder why the Patriots added Antonio Brown and his baggage? Well, his early work in his New England debut sheds some light on the effect he can have on the field. The Chiefs kept Sammy Watkins and wisely drafted Mecole Hardman as Tyreek Hill insurance. Hardman’s first start Sunday in place of an injured Hill had the rookie wide receiver hauling in a 42-yard TD and a 72-yard score that was wiped out by penalty.

The Rams paid a steep price for Brandin Cooks. The Cowboys traded a first-round pick for Amari Cooper and brought in Devin Smith despite him being out of football last year. The Seahawks believed in DK Metcalf, despite some on-field red flags. Baltimore’s Hollywood Brown, Cincinnati’s John Ross and Houston’s Will Fuller and Kenny Stills also fit this mold. There’s also D.J. Chark in Jacksonville and John Brown in Buffalo, now on his third team in three years.

The common denominator is that all of these players threaten defenses with game-breaking downfield ability.

2020 class loaded with this type of receiver

College football is delivering some prospects who should be highly sought in the pros. The 2020 and 2021 NFL drafts could be top-heavy with game-changing wide receivers in a way we haven’t seen in recent years. In the past five drafts, there have been a total of only 17 wideouts drafted in Round 1. We might approach that number in the two coming drafts.

Alabama wide receiver Jerry Jeudy absolutely fits what NFL teams are seeking at receiver. (Getty Images)
Alabama wide receiver Jerry Jeudy fits what NFL teams are seeking at receiver. (Getty Images)

Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III no doubt are game changers. Jeudy is a Calvin Ridley-like prospect with great speed and electric moves in the open field. Ruggs might be the fastest straight-line player in college. Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb, averaging 25.4 yards per catch, possesses some OBJ-like skills. All look like clear Round 1 picks.

Oklahoma State’s Tylan Wallace might join that crew, too. He’s leading the nation with 390 receiving yards and tied at the top with six TD catches; his scores have covered 36, 21, 69, 4, 75 and 90 yards. Clemson’s Tee Higgins, Wake Forest’s Sage Surratt, USC’s Tyler Vaughns, and Texas Tech’s T.J. Vasher must be on this list of WR difference makers.

And lest you forgot about Minnesota’s Tyler Johnson and Colorado’s Laviska Shenault Jr., both used Saturday as reminders that they deserved their preseason mention despite slow starts to the season. Johnson caught 10 passes for 140 yards and three TDs — one a career-long 73-yard catch-and-run, and a 2-yard score with 13 seconds left to secure victory. Shenault caught eight passes for 142 yards, kicking off the scoring with a 42-yard TD, and he also ran for a score in the waning moments of regulation to force overtime.

Purdue’s Rondale Moore, Clemson’s Justyn Ross and Ohio State’s Chris Olave are all eligible for the draft in 2021 and will be names we’ll be buzzing about a year from now. It’s a great time to need a wide receiver in the NFL, and all the good teams in the NFL seem to have the big-play specialists.

Tua tops quarterback hierarchy for now

We’re not going to go in depth this week on Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa. We have plenty ofseason left to do that.

But his performance Saturday on the road against a game South Carolina team showed me something that’s changed for now: He’s playing more under control than a year ago. That distinction, more than anything statistical, has the buzz on him growing.

Sure, Tua’s stats are absurd: 1,007 pass yards, 12 TDs, zero interceptions. Can’t get much better than that. And that’s happening despite — the Big Al-sized elephant in the locker room — Bama’s interior offensive line struggling.

With Tagovailoa taking what defenses gives him and seemingly better knowing when to take shots and risks, he’s showing an undeniable maturation in his game. There were times last season when he relied too much on Bama’s elite skill-position talent, throwing too many “hero” balls up for grabs.

Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa's poise in 2019 has been impressive to watch after some unnecessary risk taking last season. (Getty Images)
Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa's poise in 2019 has been impressive to watch after some unnecessary risk taking last season. (Getty Images)

Have you watched Clemson and savior Trevor Lawrence this season? Do you remember the final college seasons of Matt Ryan or Deshaun Watson? The knock on them was that they hung up too many balls for grabs and took unneeded risk when they didn’t have to. It cost Ryan in back-to-back losses to Florida State and a middling Maryland team in 2007. Watson, dear friends, once lost head-to-head against Nathan Peterman at Clemson because Watson was too dependent on high-risk passes in that game.

Ryan grew. Watson did, too. And we assume Lawrence will bounce back from a weird start to his season. But Tagovailoa is already showing in college that he’s getting over that hump of not needing to scratch that itch to hit home runs every time up.

Oregon’s Justin Herbert deserves mention for his very strong statistical start — 868 pass yards, 11 TDs, no INTs. It’s less a knock against him than it is an endorsement of the new Tua to suggest that he’s wrested back the top QB slot in 2020.

Tagovailoa might not be as universally appealing as Herbert when stacking up the physical traits and the traditional fits for many NFL offensive coordinators. But the poise Tagovailoa has shown is going to make a few teams separate him from the pack when it comes down to the top of the 2020 draft.

As for QB-needy teams, the landscape might also have changed based on Sunday’s action in the NFL. Injuries to Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger now have thrust Teddy Bridgewater and Mason Rudolph into the spotlight. These are opportunities for both players to show they can be their respective teams’ starters.

We also have a slew of NFL quarterbacks who are starters under the age of 30: Patrick Mahomes, Carson Wentz, Baker Mayfield, Jared Goff, Dak Prescott, Kyler Murray, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, Sam Darnold, Jameis Winston, Mitchell Trubisky, Marcus Mariota, Derek Carr, Jacoby Brissett, Jimmy Garoppolo and Watson.

Then there’s the next wave of young starters due to get their chance this season. It might not be too long before Daniel Jones, Dwayne Haskins, Drew Lock and Josh Rosen are starting for their respective teams, just as Gardner Minshew is getting his shot out of necessity for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

On the one hand, you might think that thins out the number of Tagovailoa and Herbert suitors. But on the other, it shows a newfound commitment to thrusting young quarterbacks into the lineup sooner. At the risk of rushing an unprepared QB into the lineup, potentially damaging their confidence, teams are willing to do that in order to clarify what they have at the position.

That’s why we could have three to five quarterbacks land in Round 1 next spring, with Tagovailoa and Herbert locks, along with a few other intriguing options to join them.

On Jalen Hurts: Yes, he’s good. Yes, he’s a QB.

Like with Tagovailoa, we can do a deeper dive on Oklahoma QB Jalen Hurts’ exploits farther down the road. For now, let’s stick to the 30,000-foot view of this prospect.

So far, the Sooners’ new QB has been carving up some shaky defenses — first Houston, then South Dakota and most recently UCLA. Hurts is completing 80.3 percent of his passes, averaging 14.4 yards per attempt and has a 9-0 TD-INT ratio. Total touchdowns for Hurts this season: 13. Total incompletions: 12. Yo!

No, it’s not all “the system” of head coach Lincoln Riley. No, we also can’t separate the Sooners’ great skill talent and say they’re not helping him. Still, Hurts is impressing folks in the NFL after at one point being typecast as a run-first QB whose pro future likely would lie at another position, such as running back.

One scout we texted with last week said he changed up his travel schedule to make sure he saw Hurts and OU play at the Rose Bowl. With Hurts, he’s always appeared to bring rare intangibles to the position — poise, calm, leadership, football instincts. But now he’s adding improved throwing mechanics and diagnostic ability to the mix. That’s a formula scouts can’t ignore.

Oklahoma QB Jalen Hurts has changed some scouts' minds with his early-season play. (Getty Images)
Oklahoma QB Jalen Hurts has changed some scouts' minds with his early-season play. (Getty Images)

Playing in high-leverage games with one of the great coaching minds in college history in Nick Saban has hardened Hurts’ will and mental toughness. Operating in Riley’s innovative system and cleaning up his accuracy and touch as a passer has broadened his appeal to NFL people.

I’m nowhere close to stamping a draft grade on Hurts. He has toughest tests in the offing and is writing his projection as he goes. We’re still learning a lot about his potential as an NFL quarterback. But his eventual grade is likely to be higher than many expect.

One QB trending down

Mississippi State QB Tommy Stevens attracted interest from the NFL prior to this weekend. There was tangible buzz for the Penn State transfer who reportedly opened a lot of eyes at the Manning Passing Academy this past summer and who was named a team captain before playing a game for the Bulldogs.

A 2-0 start for MSU also helped, with Stevens completing 29 of 40 passes for 341 yards and four TDs, also rushing for another score. But an ineffective Stevens — playing through a shoulder injury — was benched in the Bulldogs’ eventual 31-24 loss to Kansas State. True freshman Garrett Shrader took over after Stevens threw his second pick of the game.

The 6-5, 235-pound senior QB is tough, athletic and puts a nice spin on his passes. Stevens will be docked for his lack of experience by NFL scouts, and we don’t know how head coach Joe Moorhead will handle this situation.

Stevens needs all the reps he can get — healthy reps — to keep his name buzzing in scouting circles. Saturday was a tough step backward toward that end.

Big Ten ends making waves

Michigan State’s Kenny Willekes was the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year last season, but there was some suspicion in the draft community about how high his ceiling was as a prospect — especially after he suffered a broken leg in the Spartans’ bowl loss to Oregon.

Willekes has rehabbed nicely, reshaped his body and is terrorizing opponents this season. He has reportedly added about 20 points of good weight this year and looks to be a more complete contributor, ranking second on the team in tackles (18) and first in tackles for loss (6.5) and sacks (four), collecting eight of the Spartans’ 16 QB hits this season and recovering two fumbles.

Willekes collected seven tackles, two TFLs and five QB hits in the home loss to Arizona State. The defeat ultimately came down to a failed defensive stop at game’s end, but he in no way should be held responsible for the Spartans losing that game.

Michigan State pass rusher Kenny Willekes, left, was extremely disruptive against Arizona State. (Getty Images)
Michigan State pass rusher Kenny Willekes, left, was extremely disruptive against Arizona State. (Getty Images)

Willekes has worked his way into the top-50 discussion, even with one Midwest scout we spoke to who said he doesn’t view Willekes as a first-round prospect at this point. Still, he’s trending upward.

We also wanted to highlight Northwestern’s Joe Gaziano, who has to be in the running for the Wildcats’ early team MVP. Through two games, the defensive end has 13 tackles (2.5 for loss), 1.5 sacks, one forced fumble and two recoveries. In Northwestern’s home win over UNLV, the 6-4, 275-pound edge rusher was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week in racking up nine tackles and moving up to third in school history with a total of 22 sacks.

Gaziano is impossible not to like on some level. His character has been praised by people on staff as extraordinary, and he’s extremely well-liked by teammates. Gaziano’s motor is always running hot, and he has shown an added layer of skill and production that wasn’t always evident in the past when he frequently was labeled the dreaded “try hard” player.

His NFL projection is tricky, given that Gaziano isn’t an exceptional athlete, might be a bit of a tweezer for certain defensive fronts and likely never will be an eight- or 10-sack player in the pros. All that said, he has an extremely high floor and likely will do whatever is asked of him at the next level. There’s quite a bit to be said about that.

One WR up at Pitt, one down

Like Michigan State’s loss at Arizona State, Pitt’s late-game management in a 17-10 loss at Penn State absolutely falls on the coaching staff. But we’re not here to grade coaches — there are prospects to dissect.

Coming into this season, and especially this game, I was excited to get another look at 5-foot-11 Panthers WR Maurice Ffrench, who scored 10 touchdowns last season and in three different ways — rushing, receiving and on a kickoff return. I watched him flash in a few games over the summer and labeled the team captain a player to watch.

Pitt WR Maurice Ffrench is intriguing, but another Panthers receiver impressed against Penn State. (Getty Images)
Pitt WR Maurice Ffrench is intriguing, but another Panthers receiver impressed against Penn State. (Getty Images)

After seeing Saturday’s game, I now might be more infatuated with Pitt’s 6-2 redshirt junior receiver, Taysir Mack.

Ffrench looks a bit thin-framed, isn’t electric for his size and doesn’t always use his blocking as well as he can. He made a few questionable decisions on fielding punts and put a ball on the ground late as Pitt was deep in PSU territory, lucky to have the ball recovered by a heads-up teammate. Overall, Ffrench is a good, little player, but I wonder about his fit in the NFL, where he easily could be branded a punt returner and No. 4 receiver.

But Mack? There was something about the way he attacked the ball — especially in the fourth quarter. In the final minutes of the game, Mack hauled in receptions of 29 yards (on second-and-19), 5 yards, 21 yards, 28 yards (on fourth-and-12) and 11 yards to set up the Hail Mary attempt. QB Kenny Pickett threw up a pass that Mack nearly hauled in for what would have been a stunning score as the clock hit zeroes.

Mack transferred from Indiana and has scored only one TD in his 14 games with the Panthers. Don’t be shocked to see him earn a bigger role in the offense after his late heroics, which would help him emerge as a more intriguing NFL prospect.

Small-school prospects

For smaller-school prospects, matchups against bigger opponents are the best opportunities to improve their draft stocks. For one, it’s a step up in competition. And two, it’s also a chance to showcase their skills in front of more scouting eyes.

In the case of someone such as Montana LB Dante Olson, he’s on the radar of scouts after being named a Buck Buchanan Award (best player in FCS) finalist last season and the preseason 2019 Big Sky Conference Defensive MVP. But let’s face it: Scouts are going to watch more games in person of teams such as Oregon than they are Montana, which is why Saturday’s Grizzlies-Ducks game was huge for Olson.

He stuffed the stat sheet with 14 tackles (he had 16 in the first two games combined) and also made a TD-saving tackle. He also seemed to overrun a few plays and not flash as much as expected. I was a bit torn on Olson after watching that game, as impressive as he was at times, so I reached out to a friend, former NFL defensive lineman Anthony Herron, who called that game this weekend for the Pac-12 Network, for his thoughts.

Here’s what he wrote to me on his observations of Olson:

“Seems just athletic enough for the next level. Has a nice feel for the game. Not as much pop on impact as I’d like to see for his size. Definitive nose for the ball.”

Perhaps the fifth-year senior can finish off his brilliant career in style and earn his way to the Senior Bowl, or another highly regarded postseason all-star game, where he can further stand out.

Another small-school prospect who missed an opportunity to stand out against stiffer competition was Portland State TE Charlie Taumoepeau, a popular sleeper at what could be a thin tight end spot in 2020. Taumoepeau missed Saturday’s game with what was called “hamstring tightness.”

He scored an athletic touchdown in the opener against Arkansas, which helped his cause, and he has averaged more than 17 yards per catch over his four college seasons. Another nice game against the Broncos would have bumped his reputation up a notch.

The 6-3, 245-pound tight end is one to watch, but the injury was some bad luck.

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