With a cluster of talented players, 2012 could be a big year for the receiver position. Dwight Jones (WR, North Carolina) is my top rated wide out so far but he tops a long list of players who are primed to hear their names called early next April. Although the class lacks a true ‘freak of nature’ type in the form of A.J. Green and Julio Jones (Robert Woods (WR, USC) appears to be the next in line for such a grade, however as a true sophomore he will not be eligible for the 2012 draft) but this is still a deep group with several players likely to go in the first two rounds.
Dwight Jones (WR, UNC)
Jones is the complete package, whether you’re talking about physical size (6-4, 225lbs), speed, ability to adjust to the football and make difficult catches, YAC threat, fluidity as an open field runner, a hands catcher who doesn’t drop easy passes and big play ability. He previously lacked consistent production, but he’s started the 2011 season with 605 yards and seven touchdowns in his first six games (better production than Justin Blackmon so far).
I have no issues projecting Jones as a someone with true top 10-15 potential. For team’s like St. Louis who lack a consistent do-it-all go-to receiver for their young quarterback, this is a player who truly fits the bill.
Justin Blackmon (WR, Oklahoma State)
At his best Blackmon reminds me of Roddy White – with similar all round skill set and physical qualities (he’s 6-1, 211lbs – White is an inch shorter and a pound heavier). Unfortunately there are too many little things that bug me about Blackmon to really promote him into the top-10/15 bracket with Dwight Jones. For starters – contrary to popular opinion – he will drop the occasional easy pass. His mass-production at Oklahoma State clouds this fact a little bit, but he’s not a pure hands catcher who’s always going to be that reliable target. He does pair this frustrating streak with spectacular plays and his body control when catching the ball – particularly in the red zone – is fantastic.
You want to see a level of intensity at the position and Blackmon has a competitive streak. Combine that with experience running a variety of routes - most of which he’s mastered – an excellent double move and enough speed to be a deep threat and it’s easy to see why Blackmon will be a first round pick next April. He’s not a rare talent and won’t run a stunning forty yard dash, so his stock in my view will remain in the 16-32 range along with Alshon Jeffery (see below).
Alshon Jeffery (WR, South Carolina)
Another big bodied wide out at 6-4 227lbs, Jeffery has great control for his size when locating the football to make downfield plays. He’s deceptive in that it takes him a while to get up to full speed, often surprising the defensive back who’s caught a bit flat footed from the initial break. There’s a bit of Jonathan Baldwin to Jeffery, but I actually prefer Baldwin’s potential because he was a little more explosive and had superior deep speed. Jeffery doesn’t have the same effort problems and is considered to be a hard worker and integral part of the South Carolina team. Yet without those surprising athletic abilities for a big receiver, it’s difficult to project him as anything more than a really solid #2 wide out at the next level.
His production suffered for a patch this season when Stephen Garica was starting and playing like a guy who’s spent the entire off season in chaos (which he has). Receivers rely a lot on stable quarterback situations to maximise their draft potential and Jeffery is unlikely to match his 1517 yard effort from 2010. He may not be the universal top ten pick many are projecting, but he’s certainly a player who will find a home in the first round.
A.J. Jenkins (WR, Illinois)
This was my first opportunity to watch Jenkins – he’s one of only two wide outs to have more yards than USC’s Robert Woods so far. Like Dwight Jones he’s entered his senior year without really maxing out his potential so far, but with 815 yards in six games including seven touchdowns – he’s become the focal point of Illinois’ offense. Having entered the season with a nominal grade in the late rounds or even as an UDFA, this is an impressive response. A consistent hands catcher with good deep speed who runs relatively good routes will interest NFL teams and he could be a surprise riser this year who breaks into the top band of draftable receivers.
The one thing he does need to do is add some muscle. He tends to get pushed around a lot and to cope at the next level, he’ll need greater upper body strength.
Mohamed Sanu (WR, Rutgers)
A true all rounder who could be used on running downs, trick plays and on special teams – Sanu has developed into an excellent pure receiver who offers rare benefits as a blocker. I’ve been a fan of Sanu’s ever since his freshman season and have tracked his progress since. Continual quarterback controversies at Rutgers threatened to stall his career, but it’s pleasing to see that he’s come through it strongly and is reaping the benefits of a more settled environment in 2011. Sanu has 45 catches for 455 yards and five touchdowns this year – in the entire 2010 season he had 44 catches for 418 yards and just two touchdowns. The difference is palpable.
Sanu’s biggest asset aside from the physical qualities are his hands and experience running a full route tree. Teams will be able to utilise his speed downfield while also finding ways to get him the ball in open space – he could be a 6-2, 215lbs version of Percy Harvin in that regard, but I see him developing into a very dangerous complete wide out in the right system. An under rated player with undisputed first round ability in my mind.
Jeff Fuller (WR, Texas A&M)
Fuller has first round tools and may well play his best football at the next level. However, he’s had a disappointing start to the 2011 season and I’ve had to downgrade him from a player with top-15 potential to borderline first round pick. The Aggies have switched to a pure spread system using a lot of option reads and screen passes, which has taken away a lot of Fuller’s effectiveness so far. He’s still making catches (27 receptions) but not for big yardage (280 yards). To compare, last season he was recording 14.8 yards per catch, it’s now down at 10.4 yards.
He’s still the one player last season who gave Patrick Peterson a headache and if his production picks up throughout A&M’s remaining schedule, there’s still a chance he could get back into round one contention.
Stephen Hill (WR, Georgia Tech)
The triple threat offense accounts for big downfield plays from it’s receivers when the cornerbacks cheat up in run support, but it doesn’t provide a steady stream of receptions. It’s the main reason Stephen Hill’s had an up and down year in terms of production in 2011. Even so, the Yellow Jackets have created a production line of talented, physically excellent receivers and Hill is no different.
He’s only a junior but may turn pro if he receives a high grade from the draft committee. He’s capable of the spectacular, but he lacks the kind of polish seen with players like Dwight Jones. He’s not a huge guy at 6-5, 210lbs – but if he combines it with a fast forty yard dash (which he’s capable of doing) his stock will sky rocket. Hill also has the frame to add a bit of extra weight without losing any of his quickness.
Michael Floyd (WR, Notre Dame)
Off the field issues concern me about Floyd, particularly the chaos that followed him from the end of last season to finally taking the field in 2011. We’ll not dwell on that now, because his production has been good for Notre Dame and it’s testament to his natural physical talent that there’s been no side affects to all of the problems away from the game and time spent away from practise.
However, good production won’t hide those problems in the eyes of NFL teams and I maintain that Floyd isn’t so good that they’ll be swept under the carpet. He’s a big guy with big production, but he’s a sloppy route runner who still body catches too much for my liking. He won’t run a blazing time at the combine and he didn’t receive a particularly favorable report from the draft committee when he was considering entering this year’s draft.
Kendall Wright (WR, Baylor)
Wright has actually been a consistent performer for Baylor over the years, but with Robert Griffin III’s recent boost in popularity suddenly his top target is getting some deserved attention. Just behind Robert Woods for receiving yards this year, Wright has been in sensational form with 690 yards and eight touchdowns in just five games.
At 5-10 and 190lbs he’s smaller than the other receivers listed here, but he has track speed and presents a real deep threat ability. His complete game will need polish because he’s not a strong route runner and he wastes time getting into his breaks, but he could offer an instant boost on kick returns and on deep routes.
Honorable mentions: Juron Criner (WR, Arizona), Nick Toon (WR, Wisconsin), Ryan Broyles (WR, Oklahoma)