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Heading into the 2021 NFL Draft, it’s safe to say that Giants GM Dave Gettleman has offensive playmakers at the top of his list. While the free agent pool of wide receivers is vast, he may be thinking about a younger, less expensive option to give Daniel Jones some help in the pass game.
And that’s because there are some stud receivers in this draft that have WR1 potential written all over them.
Let’s break down the top three choices that most experts and scouts believe will be off the draft board first. While the Giants pick No. 11 and have to wait to see what happens in the Top 10, you never know who might fall.
With that in mind, let’s start with the biggest name at wideout this past NCAA season:
DeVonta Smith, Alabama
Weight: 175 pounds
2020 stats: 117 receptions, 1,856 yards, 24 touchdowns, 15.9 yards per reception
Accolades: 2020 Heisman Trophy, 2020 AP Player of the Year, 2020 Fred Biletnikoff Award (Best WR), 2020 Consensus All-America
When it comes to the accolades for Smith in his senior 2020 season, we can keep going and say he led the NCAA in receptions and receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, but we don’t want to take up too much time. Really, though, Smith balled out in his final years and catapulted his name up the draft board to be a potential Top 3 pick because of his play-making abilities, complex route tree, and natural speed and agility.
Route Master: Smith may not be as big as other receivers in the league, but he makes up for the lack of size with his route running. It’s precise, quick and repetitive, which is why Mac Jones was looking his way all season. That’s going to be his bread and butter if he’s going to be successful in the NFL.
Body Control: You might have seen Smith make ridiculous catches this season, and it’s definitely not sheer luck that made it happen. Smith has tremendous body control that allows him to have such a wide catch radius. Just throw it his way – he’ll likely move the chains.
Versatility: It’s thrown around a lot with players, but Smith can literally play any role the Giants would want him to. Whether it’s the X receiver (WR furthest from TE on line of scrimmage), Z (receiver that moves freely usually with pre-snap motion), or slot, Smith’s ability to run routes from anywhere and get that separation makes it easy for coaches to deploy him – especially if the Giants get another receiver in free agency.
Production in Big Games: Go back to that Tua Tagovailoa bomb in the title game when Smith was just a freshman that sealed the National Championship in OT. And then go watch the first half of the game against Clemson a month ago. Smith loves to perform in big games and his development through them these past few years with the best college program in the country has readied him for postseason bouts in the NFL.
Undersized: His biggest concern heading into the draft, scouts don’t believe there is much more room for Smith to grow without potentially hurting his natural abilities now. He might struggle early on to get that patented separation if press corners make it hard for him to release from the line. That’s why some also believe he might fall in the draft.
Trouble Catching Balls in Traffic: A team drafting Smith has the big play threat in mind and rightfully so. But going against some of the best corners in the game means a top wideout is going to need to win 50/50 battles at the top, and Smith has shown trouble – mainly because of his size – to come out victorious in those situations.
Ja’Marr Chase, LSU
Weight: 208 pounds
Career Stats: 84 receptions, 1,780 yards, 20 touchdowns, 21.2 yard per reception
Accolades: 2019 Consensus All-America, 2019 Fred Biletnikoff Award, NCAA leader in receiving yards/receiving TD/yards per reception
Smith may have collected the Heisman this past season, but he wasn’t even the best wide receiver to many heading into the year. That title went to Chase, who eventually opted out due to coronavirus concerns and decided to focus on the upcoming draft instead. But he was electric with Joe Burrow at LSU during a stellar 2019 campaign, as he showed his ability to make catches anywhere on the field. Most times, he’d be waltzing into the end zone because he either dusted his defender or made them miss. Even though he didn’t play in 2020, he’s fresh and expected to be a Top 15 player.
Quick Releases: The release off the line, especially in press coverage, is one of the most coveted abilities for any wideout. Chase is very quick off the line, and leaves cornerbacks guessing his first step.
SEC Dominance: The same can be said for Smith, too, but Chase truly dominated some of the best defensive backs in the game during his time at school. It’s hard to not point that out.
Yards After Catch: When Chase has the ball in his hands, he’s just as dangerous as he is running his route. He can make defenders miss and create that big play offenses, like the Giants, need.
Toughness: As NFL.com’s Daniel Jeremiah pointed out, “You never seen him run out of bounds with the ball in his hands.” That type of toughness will bode well for Chase in his rookie season to gain the trust of his coaches and teammates. He’s ultra-competitive and it shows each time he takes a rep.
Small Sample Size: Chase had the big season in 2019, but that’s all the world saw of his work. Because he opted out – and pre-draft scouting is hard once again due to the pandemic, teams might be shy on drafting Chase based off one season. He had a Heisman QB and one of the brightest offensive minds in the game, Joe Brady, who is offensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers. That’s really the only hit on his draft profile because he does everything else so well. He just needs to prove it’s more than a single season.
Jaylen Waddle, Alabama
Weight: 182 pounds
2020 stats: 28 receptions, 591 yards, four touchdowns, 21.1 yards per receptions, six games
Accolades: 2020 SEC leader in yards per reception, 2019 punt return yards leader, punt return touchdowns and yards per return
Smith was the pride and joy of the Crimson Tide receiving corps this season, but Waddle was supposed to be the dynamic duo alongside him. And that was the case for six games, where Waddle showed his exceptional run-after-the-catch ability and rare speed. But an ankle fracture and high-ankle sprain basically ended Waddle’s season. Still, Waddle has showcased enough to still be a sure-fire first rounder because of his versatility at the position. He also happens to be someone projected to the Giants in numerous mock drafts.
Speed, Speed, Speed: There was a video that surfaced of Waddle racing his former Alabama teammate Henry Ruggs III, who just so happened to run a 4.27 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine last year. Waddle was keeping step for step. And if that wasn’t enough, go watch him during kickoffs or punt returns. Waddle is a speed demon, something the Giants would have tons of fun with if Jones can hit him in stride.
After-Catch Magic: Whether it’s his quick jabs into the turf to change directions or using that speed, Waddle is a magician with the ball in his hands. He’s taken ankles throughout his three seasons at Alabama, and he’s bound to do it again in the NFL.
Certified Deep Threat: The Giants may have faith Darius Slayton could be this guy, but Waddle has proven it time and time again. His speed and ability to control his body to make catches while doing it make him the quintessential deep ball threat Big Blue needs.
Needs Better Routes: Compared to the other two receivers, Waddle is last when it comes to route running. His talent is there, but the polish from Tyke Tolbert will be needed to make him the most effective wideout he can be.
Damaged Goods?: Waddle proved that his rehab was fast and he could play through a bit of pain against Ohio State. But that’s always scary heading into the draft.