Undervalued CFF Wide Receivers

·11 min read

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Taj Harris | Syracuse | 6’2/164

Watching Taj Harris navigate the gridiron, you’re immediately struck by how slight his frame is (6’2/164). He’s proportioned like what true horror enthusiasts would term a “skinwalker” - an impossibly long, thin ethereal being with exaggerated appendages who moves with subtlety until it’s time to strike, then advances upon its prey with frightening speed and efficiency. Accordingly, HC Dino Babers has chosen him to be the golden boy wideout of this era, much like Amba Etta-Tawo and Steve Ishmael before him. And when you’ve been anointed the WR1 in a Babers offense, there will be targets...LOTS of targets.

In 2020, quietly, Taj Harris received the 10th most targets in the country (101) from two terribly inaccurate quarterbacks. That number is the fourth highest among all returning wideouts, with the lean pass-catcher reeling in 58-of-101 passes for 733 yards and five touchdowns for a moribund Syracuse team that went 1-10 and averaged an unsightly 17.6 PPG. While I usually don’t like to go grocery shopping in stores with shelves as bare as Syracuse, the volume and historical trends of Babers’ WR1 are simply too prolific to ignore.

If there’s a special skill Harris possesses, it’s the ability to dodge tackles in 1-on-1 situations, as the lanky receiver ranked second in the nation in broken tackles with 22. He utilizes false steps quite efficiently and throws a nice “dead leg” on the sidelines every once in a while, but he has a natural feel for space that allows him to setup his cuts as he is in the process of reeling in the catch. One thing he clearly needs to improve on is using his body to shield defenders in contested catch situations, as he secured just 3 of his 17 contested targets last year.

In summation, Harris possesses the latent skill and preferred role in an offense that has traditionally produced several CFF relevant wideouts. If incoming Mississippi State transfer QB Garrett Schrader and his dual-threat capabilities can at least bring the Cuse offense back into the mid-20’s in PPG, that increase in productivity coupled with Harris’ 100+ targets make for a very intriguing flier that can be had late in 12-team redrafts and is sometimes not being drafted at all.

KeSean Carter | Houston | 5’11/190

Carter arrived on campus in Lubbock back in 2018 as a run of the mill three-star recruit who was rated as the 127th wide receiver in the class, sporting a .8593 grade in the 247Sports composite ranks. A two-sport star, The Woodlands HS product was the Texas Class 6A 100-meter champion, which translates to the gridiron in the form of elite acceleration and short area burst.

As a true freshman, Carter asserted himself as a key cog in the Red Raiders’ air raid offense in short order, thriving under the tutelage of former HC Kliff Kingsbury. He logged 86 snaps over his first five games, catching 21-of-26 targets for 190 yards and a touchdown while lining up predominantly in the slot. However he dropped two passes against West Virginia which landed the speedster in HC Kingsbury’s doghouse, with Carter recording just 39 reps over his last six contests.

The arrival of new HC Matt Wells in 2019 allowed Carter to have a fresh start with OC David Yost lining up Carter out wide for 90% of his snaps, never seeing more than 17 snaps. That all changed in Week 13 against Kansas State when he was moved to the slot permanently, running 24 routes and receiving five targets, which was a season high at that point. However it wasn’t until Week 14 when Carter got to unleash his full potential, as he ran 55 routes out of the slot and set career highs by catching 11-of-16 passes for 150 yards and a touchdown while carving up the Texas defense.

Having finally found his comfort zone, the shifty slot receiver made a major impression in his first three games of 2020, snagging 21-of-24 passes for 215 yards and four touchdowns as a major piece of Texas Tech’s offense. However he ended up suffering an elbow injury against Kansas State which caused Carter to miss a few games and seriously impaired his ability to play. He managed to post one more strong showing against Baylor in Week 11, securing 7-of-7 targets for 64 yards before injuring his shoulder and shutting it down for the remainder of the year. In total, Carter forced 13 missed tackles in just 30 receptions, displaying an explosiveness in the open field that was reminiscent of former star Tech wideout, Jakeem Grant.

Not that he is in Houston, Carter is primed to take advantage of the Cougars’ 121st ranked schedule now that HC Dana Holgerson is in year three of his UH tenure. Carter’s natural explosiveness and agility should help him replace Marquez Stevenson in the slot. A position in which he thrived last year.

Jason Brownlee | Southern Miss | 6’3/192

Though COVID-19 wreaked havoc on just about all of society in 2020, Southern Miss’ program experienced plenty of internal strife that inhibited the team’s ability to form a cohesive vision. Head Coach Jay Hopson resigned after the first game and was replaced by OC Scotty Walden who was named their interim head coach. However Walden departed to accept the head coaching position at Austin Peay mid-season, so the Eagles were left with their third HC in a 6 week stretch. As fate would have it, three-year starting quarterback Jack Abraham lasted only four games before sustaining multiple injuries that led him to eventually opt out and transfer to Mississippi State. On top of all that, USM had five games rescheduled/cancelled due to pandemic related issues.

Despite the borderline apocalyptic season Brownlee thrived right out of the gate. Through the first five games he registered 22 receptions, 415 yards and four touchdowns, going over 100-yards in three consecutive contests. Extrapolated over a 13 game full season, his five-game production averages out to a cool 1,079 yards and nine touchdowns. In that span, Brownlee secured 6-of-9 contested targets while lining up out wide almost exclusively. Unfortunately, when Abraham was knocked out, the quarterback play dropped significantly, which led to a sharp decrease in production until he caught three passes for 81 yards and a 43-yard touchdown in his season finale against Florida Atlantic.

Southern Miss has produced two excellent, NFL-caliber wide receivers in recent years, in Philadelphia Eagles receiver Quez Watkins and 2021 priority UDFA Tim Jones, who received a contract offer that was in-line with what most fifth-round selections commanded this year. With the dynamic Jones gone, Brownlee is the clear number one option in new HC Will Hall’s innovative, multi-formation, power spread, no-huddle, fast-paced offensive attack. It’s the same system that fellow sideline-specialist WR Deuce Watts thrived in last season while Hall was the OC at Tulane. With a full offseason to implement HC Hall’s system that produced 34.7 PPG at Tulane last year, and heralded QB Trey Lowe receiving a full complement of first-team reps in the offseason, I am confident we see USM return to being a quality G5 offense.

Brownlee is rarely being drafted in 12-team formats and carries a 238 overall ADP on Fantrax with a paltry 19% ownership rate. Along with Houston WR KeSean Carter, Brownlee is one of my favorite underrated G5 receivers in the country.

Jeff Foreman | Arkansas State | 6’0/173

As one of the most pass-heavy offenses in the country, former HC Blake Anderson and current OC Keith Heckendorf built a program that scored over 30 points per game in each of the last four seasons and threw for at least 312 yards per game in three of the last four, including a robust 364 passing YPG. The prolific passing volume allowed the ASU offense to support three different CFF-relevant receivers (Omar Bayless, Kirk Merritt and Jonathan Adams) who garnered 100 or more targets in 2019. The Red Wolves were one of only three teams in the country in 2019 who could boast three receivers that had 100+ balls thrown their way.

That trend continued into 2020, as Jonathan Adams received the lion’s share of targets while Z-receiver Dahu Green was also highly prioritized as well, receiving nine looks per game with an average target depth of 19.5 yards. The two outside receivers ended up getting most of the work through the first six games, though Brandon Bowling was a consistently productive safety valve option out of the slot by reeling in 32 passes for 507 yards and seven touchdowns.

For his part, Foreman was barely on the field for the first eight games of the season. However when Dahu Green went down with a knee injury against Louisiana, Foreman was chosen to get first crack at Green’s vacated Z-WR spot in the starting lineup. To say he answered the bell would be a grievous understatement, as Foreman proceeded to rip off three consecutive 100-yard games and he didn’t need a dozen targets to do it. Here are his three game lines to close out the 2020 season:

@ Texas State - 18 snaps, 3 Recs on 5 targets for 148 yards, 49.3 YPC, 1 TD.

Vs. South Alabama - 37 snaps, 5 Recs on 6 targets for 11 yards, 22.2 YPC

Vs. ULM - 38 snaps, 4 recs on 8 targets for 144 yards, 36.0 YPC, 2 TDs

His numbers over the second half of the season are positively gaudy, as Foreman caught 13-of-20 passes for 439 yards, 33.8 YPC (!) and three touchdowns. Though Dahu Green is slated to return from his season ending knee injury, Brandon Bowling moves on which opens up a significant amount of reps. With Foreman measuring in at 6’0/173, he is well suited to handle the majority of slot reps while also bouncing outside when the opportunity presents itself.

If Foreman secures that starting slot role as expected, he could very well post a 1,000 yard/10 TD season with the kind of workload that accompanies a starting role in Arkansas State’s aerial assault. He is currently being drafted at an ADP of 191 with a paltry 16% ownership rate. Foreman is going to eclipse a significant number of the players being drafted ahead of him at that price.

Quentin Johnston | TCU | 6’4/193

One of the players I am irrationally excited about this year is TCU phenom, Quentin Johnston. Only a true freshman last year, Johnston flipped his commitment from Texas to TCU late in the recruiting cycle before the season and promptly asserted himself as the dominant primordial beast of the Horned Frogs receiving corps. Jack London-isms aside, Johnston stands to be the primary beneficiary of the return of OC/play caller, Doug Meacham. The well respected veteran OC set school records in PPG (46.5) and total yards (562.9) during his first run with TCU. Now that he has returned to play calling in 2021, the long time wide receivers/tight ends coach is expected to open up the playbook.

For his part the return to a more vertical offense plays to Johnston’s strengths, as the former four-star recorded an average target depth of 17.5 yards and an average yards per catch of 22.1. In addition to his deep-shot bonafides Johnston is an absolute unit after the catch. He broke 16 tackles in 22 receptions for an incredible 73% broken tackle rate, with the 16 broken tackles rating fourth among all returning receivers, despite the fact the three players ahead of him in that metric had at least twice as many receptions, and thus more opportunities to make people miss.

Jared Palmgren’s industry ADP data shows QJ being selected as the 102nd overall player in 12-team standard CFF drafts, an early 9th round value. According to Fantrax ADP he is going off the board with the 120th selection, which is on the 10/11th round borderline. With a relatively low ownership rate of 79%, Johnston is being overlooked despite tantalizing upside as a weekly WR2-3 in your lineups. The hulking Horned Frog should be a high priority auto selection in the 6th-7th round range.