Wide receivers to watch for the 2023 NFL draft

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One of the topics of conversation heading into, and coming out of, the 2022 NFL draft focused on the wide receiver position. With the growth of the passing game at all levels of football — I’m writing this after spending my Sunday afternoon coaching a spring passing league for middle school kids — are we going to see deeper and deeper wide receiver pools each draft cycle?

If the next crop of receiver prospects is any indication, that trend looks to continue.

Here are some of the receivers to watch this summer as we start thinking about the 2023 NFL draft.

Quarterbacks to watch for the 2023 NFL draft

Running backs to watch for the 2023 NFL draft

Jordan Addison, Pittsburgh (for now)

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There are many reasons why Kenny Pickett was the first quarterback selected in the 2022 NFL draft. His accuracy, his willingness to attack over the middle, his mobility, and his fit with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Wide receiver Jordan Addison is another.

Addison put together a monster season for the Pittsburgh Panthers in 2022, catching 100 passes for 1,593 yards and 17 touchdowns. That built upon his freshman season, where he caught 60 passes for 666 yards and four touchdowns.

He is a true ball-winner, which showed up on plays like this one to help the Panthers overcome Virginia:

The biggest question on Addison? Where he is playing in the fall. Addison took many by surprise when he put his name in the transfer portal a few weeks ago, and has been linked with USC and Texas in recent days. Regardless of where he ends up, he is worth studying this summer and in the fall.

Kayshon Boutte, LSU

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As a true freshman in 2020, Kayshon Boutte took on a huge role for the LSU Tigers. Coming off their national championship season, the team saw star wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase opt out for the 2020 campaign due to COVID. Then when Terrace Marshall opted out late in the year, Boutte became the team’s go-to at WR in his first college football season. He led the Tigers with 735 receiving yards, and finished second on the team with 45 catches and five touchdowns.

Boutte was building on those numbers in 2021, until an ankle injury cut his year short. In just six game, he caught 38 passes for 509 yards and nine touchdowns. He did require a pair of surgeries for his injury, but should be ready to go for the start of the season.

When healthy, he is a game-changer at receiver with tremendous feel for the position. On this touchdown against Mississippi State, watch as he starts to bring his post route vertical before the reception, putting himself in position to accelerate away from the defender:

Provided he is healthy in the fall, another great season should vault him into the first round conversation.

Jacob Cowing (Arizona)

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Jacob Cowing started his college career at UTEP, appearing in every game for the Miners as a true freshman in the 2019 season. he led UTEP with 550 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns that year. During the 2020 campaign, Cowing caught 41 passes for 691 yards and three touchdowns, and was named a Second-Team All-Conference USA selection.

Last season for the Miners, Cowing put up huge numbers as he caught 69 passes for 1,354 yards and seven touchdowns.

This fall, he will be playing in the Pac-12, as Cowing announced a transfer to Arizona. He looks the part of a Z receiver at the next level, with the ability to separate on the outside against press-aligned defenders, but his best role in the NFL might be in the slot. On this play against Louisiana

Tech, watch as he erases a huge pre-snap cushion for a big gain:

Dontay Demus Jr., Maryland

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Dontay Demus Jr. saw his 2022 season cut short due to a knee injury. But before that moment, he was the leading receiver in the Big Ten. He finished the 2022 campaign with 28 catches for 507 yards and three touchdowns.

He has been a presence for the Maryland passing game since his true freshman season in 2018, when he caught 13 passes for 278 yards. As a sophomore in 2019, he caught 41 passes for 625 yards and six touchdowns.

His best trait might be what he can do after the catch. On this touchdown against Kent State, you see that ability as he turns the over route into a 64-yard gain:

Josh Downs, UNC

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The UNC offense saw a lot of talent depart for the NFL during the 2021 Draft cycle, including wide receiver Dyami Brown. That allowed Josh Downs to take on a bigger role for the Tar Heels in 2022, and he made the most of the opportunity. Downs caught 101 passes for 1,335 yards and eight touchdowns, becoming Sam Howell’s go-to target in the passing game. At the end of the year, he was named a First-Team All-ACC performer.

He is a shifty receiver, who uses good pace on his routes and can track the ball well downfield. All of those traits showed up on this touchdown against Florida State:

Another solid trait of his? His blocking in the run game. NFL coaches are going to love that about him.

Zay Flowers, Boston College

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As a true freshman in 2019, Zay Flowers appeared in 13 games for Boston College, catching 22 passes for 341 yards and three touchdowns. He prepared for the 2020 season with some NFL players including quarterback Geno Smith, and that hard work paid off as he finished the 2020 season having caught 56 passes for 892 yards and nine touchdowns, earning First-Team All-ACC honors. Flowers is just the second receiver in school history to earn such a distinction.

Despite starting quarterback Phil Jurkovec suffering a wrist injury, Flowers still put up solid numbers for the Eagles in 2021, catching 44 passes for 746 yards and five touchdowns. With Jurkovec back for the fall, Flowers and the Eagles are primed for a much-improved 2022 campaign.

Rakim Jarrett, Maryland

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There is a lot of excitement in the Maryland area about the 2022 Terrapins season. Part of that has to do with quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, but it also has to do with the tandem of receivers that Tagovailoa will be targeting in the passing game. In addition to Dontay Demus Jr., Maryland will return Rakim Jarrett into the fold for the 2022 season.

Jarrett was a five-star recruit during the 2020 recruiting cycle, and chose Maryland over LSU, Alabama and Tennessee, because he grew up in the Maryland area. As a true freshman in 2020, he earned an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection as he caught 17 passes for 252 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Last year he led the Terrapins in every receiving category, catching 62 passes for 829 yards and five scores.

Jarrett has a big catch radius as a receiver, and it showed up on plays like these against Virginia Tech:

Quentin Johnson, TCU

(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Quentin Johnson has been a dynamic playmaker for the TCU Horned Frogs for the past two seasons. As a true freshman in 2020, he caught 22 passes for 487 yards and a pair of touchdowns, averaging 22.1 yards per reception. That still stands as the best yards per catch average from a true freshman in conference history.

During the 2021 campaign, Johnson led the team with 634 receiving yards and averaged another 19.2 yards per reception, catching 33 passes and scoring six times. He missed three games due to injuries, but still managed to produce at a high level for TCU. With a healthy 2022, Johnson will be firmly in the first-round discussion, especially if he keeps making plays like this one:

Marvin Mims, Oklahoma

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Marvin Mims had no shortage of scholarship offers coming out of Lone Star High School in Frisco, Texas. During his junior season, he gained 1,158 receiving yards and caught 14 touchdowns, earning Offensive MVP honors for his district.

That was nothing compared to what he did as a senior.

The following year, Mims set a national record with 2,629 receiving yards — on 117 receptions — and he scored 32 touchdowns. He was named a USA Today High School All-American, and was also named the Mr. Texas Football Player of the Year. After originally committing to Stanford, he flipped to Oklahoma.

As a true freshman in 2020, Mims caught 37 passes for 610 yards and nine touchdowns. Last season, Mims caught 32 passes for 705 yards and five scores.

Despite the departure of Lincoln Riley and Caleb Williams to USC, Mims remained with the Sooners and will catch passes from Dillon Gabriel in the fall. With a huge campaign next season, Mims will put himself into the first-round mix.

A.T. Perry, Wake Forest

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Quarterback Sam Hartman is not the only reason to watch some of the Wake Forest offense this summer, and into the fall. Do not sleep on wide receiver A.T. Perry. After redshirting in the 2018 season and seeing minimal action the next two years, Perry broke out a season ago, catching 71 passes for 1,293 yards and 15 touchdowns.

He was named the ACC Wide Receiver of the Week after a huge outing against Syracuse, where he caught three passes for 137 yards and…three touchdowns.

Listed at 6’5″, Perry has a big frame and is comfortable living on the boundary. On this touchdown against Rutgers in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl, watch how he beats the press off the line and then wins at the catch point for the touchdown:

We saw Drake London rise thanks to plays like this. Could Perry put together a similar rise to the top of the board?

Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Ohio State

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

That’s right.

We might see another Ohio State wide receiver in the first round of the 2023 NFL draft.

After both Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave made it into the first round this last cycle — and Jameson Williams if you want to add him into the fold, although he had his breakout at Alabama — the Buckeyes are primed to get another receiver into the early rounds of the draft, with Jaxon Smith-Njigba. Despite playing with Wilson and Olave last season, he still managed to catch 95 passes for 1,606 yards and nine touchdowns.

He exploded in the Rose Bowl, catching 15 passes for 347 yards against Utah, setting a single-game Ohio State record for receiving yardage. Those 15 catches also tied his own school record for catches in a game, matching the mark he set earlier in the year against Nebraska.

His entire game against Utah is a highlight reel, but this play in particular stands out:

A late-game, over-the-shoulder catch for a huge touchdown in a big spot? Sign me up.

Keytaon Thompson, Virginia

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Keytaon Thompson might be one of the more fascinating parts of the summer scouting season. He began his college career at Mississippi State, and spent two years as a quarterback for the Bulldogs. He then transferred to Virginia and made the switch to wide receiver, and that has paid off for him in a big way. During the 2020 season, Thompson saw time at both quarterback and receiver, and he ran the ball 39 times for 234 yards and three touchdowns, and caught another seven passes for 98 yards and three scores.

He focused more on receiver a year ago, catching 78 passes for 990 yards and two touchdowns.

Thompson is going to be an older prospect, and right now is more “offensive weapon” than true wide receiver. But the size and athleticism are going to make for an enticing pair at the next level.

The 99 is a little hard to adjust to, however.

Cedric Tillman, Tennessee

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The breakout season finally came for Cedric Tillman in 2021. After redshirting in 2018 and serving in a reserve role for Tennessee the past two seasons, Tillman started all 13 games for the Volunteers in 2021. He caught 64 passes for 1,081 yards and 12 touchdowns, averaging 16.9 yards per reception last season. He became the first Tennessee receiver to crack 1,000 receiving yards since Justin Hunter in 2012, and the 12 touchdowns tied him for the single-season mark at Tennessee.

He saved his best game for last, catching seven passes for 150 yards and three touchdowns in the Music City Bowl versus Purdue. On this touchdown against the Boilermakers, watch as he erases the pre-snap cushion in the blink of an eye:

If Tillman’s 2022 campaign looks anything like his 2021 season, then Tennessee could see their first receiver go in the first round since Cordarrelle Patterson back in 2013.

Mitchell Tinsley, Penn State

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After starting his college football journey at Hutchinson Community College, Mitchell Tinsley signed with Western Kentucky for the 2020 season. During that season, Tinsley caught 43 passes for 377 yards and four touchdowns.

Last year, Tinsley was part of a Western Kentucky offense that threw the ball roughly seven million times per game.

I did say roughly…

Tinsley caught 87 passes last year for 1,402 yards and 14 touchdowns, finishing second in Conference USA and eighth nationally in receiving yardage. He has the ability to turn quick throws into home runs, as he did on this play from the Boca Raton Bowl that helped Bailey Zappe get closer to his single-season mark for touchdown passes:

Tinsley announced his transfer to the Big Ten in December, where he will be part of a formidable Penn State passing game. Speaking of which…

Parker Washington (Penn State)

(Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports)

Parker Washington has been a starter for the Penn State Nittany Lions since setting foot on campus in 2020. When he started the season opener, he became the first true freshman to start at Penn State since the 2015 season. As a true freshman, Washington caught 36 passes for 489 yards and six touchdowns.

Last season, Washington saw more targets, and his numbers nearly doubled. He caught 64 passes for Penn State in 2021, gaining 820 yards and scoring four times.

Washington likely serves as their main option out of the slot next season, with Tinsley coming to campus to operate on the outside. Washington saw the bulk of his snaps from the slot last year, and plays like this are what you want to see from a slot receiver:

You see the Julian Edelman vibes there, I know you do…

Dontayvion Wicks, Virginia

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It took a while, but Virginia Cavaliers fans finally saw the full potential from wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks last season. After playing in a reserve role as a true freshman in 2019, Wicks seemed prime for a breakout season in 2020. But a foot injury suffered before the season cost Wicks the entire 2020 campaign.

Last year, however, Wicks was healthy, and the numbers followed. He caught 57 passes for 1,203 yards and 9 touchdowns. When he caught a 19-yard pass against Virginia Tech at the end of the year, that broke Herman Moore’s school record for receiving yards in a season, set back in 1990. He averaged 21.1 yards per reception, the most in the ACC and fifth-best in all of college football.

Wicks has a violent, sudden release package off the line, which you can see on this catch against Pittsburgh:

As we have seen with both Brennan Armstrong (on our quarterback watch list) and both Wicks and fellow wideout Keytaon Thompson, this could be a fun Virginia offense to watch in the fall.

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