By Michael DiJulio
The top two receivers available in the 2011 draft are unquestioned, but which comes off the board first remains a mystery. For a long time, Georgia's A.J. Green was the consensus top receiver available and the top overall prospect according to a few. That was until Alabama's Julio Jones turned heads with a spectacular combine performance. It will likely come down to an individual team's preference, but both have a good chance to go in the top 10 and neither will slip past St. Louis at 14.
The most interesting aspect of this group will be seeing who emerges as the third wide receiver. Pittsburgh's Jon Baldwin gets the nod in my book thanks to his outstanding size, but a disappointing 2010 season has caused some to sour on him. Other teams may prefer the speed of Maryland's Torrey Smith and even Miami's Leonard Hankerson has been getting some late first-round hype after a good Senior Bowl showing. One of the three could factor into the draft's first day, but none will escape round two.
The second and third rounds will also feature a group of versatile performers who offer big-play ability in a smaller package. Kentucky's Randall Cobb is a converted quarterback who served as the Wildcats' "Mr. Everything," as he produced in every aspect including receiving, rushing, returning and passing. Boise State's Titus Young has heard comparisons to the Eagles' DeSean Jackson for his explosiveness, but failed to provide the same special teams impact as the former Cal standout and isn't as good of a prospect. Troy's Jerrel Jernigan is the smallest of the trio and is sure to move to the slot at the next level, but has rare speed and run-after-the-catch ability.
The third and fourth rounds will feature several intriguing prospects. Indiana's Tandon Doss has second-round ability and could develop into a terrific No. 2 receiver in the NFL, but surgery on both groins has prevented him from working out thus far in the pre-draft process, raising red flags about his durability. North Carolina's Greg Little is a converted running back who offers great size and physicality with great hands, but he was suspended for the entire 2010 season and may end up spending well over a year and a half away from football considering the current labor situation. Nebraska's Niles Paul is another thicker receiver whose build is more commonly seen on a running back, but his inability to consistently gain separation is starting to earn comparisons to former Redskins' busts Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas. The biggest steal in the mid-tier group could be Abilene Christian's Edmond Gates. The Division II standout turned some heads with a solid performance at the combine, but turn on the tape and he can back up his numbers. Gates displays blazing speed to challenge vertically and can turn a short pass into a big gain.
POSITION REPORT CARD: Only two receivers are first-round locks (and they are very high-caliber prospects in any year), but this group is loaded in probable second-day selections. Combine that with some of the depth in the later rounds, and I'm willing to give this crop of wide receivers a B minus.
JULIO JONES, Alabama
GOOD NEWS: Fantastic size and strength to beat press coverage…Uses it to his advantage to out-muscle defenders for the ball…Can make the tough catch in traffic…Improved as a route-runner…Shows adequate ability to plant-and-cut to create separation…Recognizes soft spots in the defense and settles in...Great run after the catch ability…Strong runner with the ball in his hands and can break through tackles…Flashes a mean stiff arm…Great effort as a blocker.
BAD NEWS: Inconsistent hands due to lapses in concentration, although he can still make the "wow" catch…Not a true burner despite what his 40 time may indicate…Has been banged up in his career, but is willing to play through injuries.
2010 STATISTICS: All-American second-team selection by the Associated Press…Named Alabama's Most Valuable Player…Caught 78 passes for 1,133 yards (14.53 ypc) and seven touchdowns…Added 135 yards and two more scores on eight carries (16.88 ypc).
PREDICTION: Jones has the size and strength combination seen in a lot of today's top receivers such as Andre Johnson, Calvin Johnson and Dwayne Bowe. He grabbed everyone's attention at the scouting combine with a stellar performance and is contending with Georgia's A.J. Green to be the first receiver off the board. Ultimately it will probably come down to a team's preference, but Jones won't escape the top 14 picks.
A.J. GREEN, Georgia
GOOD NEWS: Rare body control to make the highlight reel catch…Displays truly amazing hands and plucks the ball out of the air with ease…Spectacular concentration to catch in traffic or while adjusting to the football…Shows great leaping ability and timing when high-pointing the ball in the end zone…Can hang on to the ball over the middle…Very good acceleration and can get to top speed in a hurry…Long strider who can eat up a cushion.
BAD NEWS: Thinly built and lacks great strength to outmuscle bigger defenders…Isn't going to make a lot of defenders miss after the catch, although he is stronger than you would expect and doesn't go down easy…Frail frame and has suffered some hit-related injuries (bruised lung, sprained shoulder)…Decent speed but is not a true burner...Gives good effort as a blocker but isn't the strongest in that aspect.
2010 STATISTICS: All-American second-team choice by the Walter Camp Football Foundation…Caught 57 passes for 848 yards (14.88 ypc) and nine touchdowns.
PREDICTIONS: Green has dominated the SEC since his arrival as a true freshman in 2008. Before the combine, he was a consensus choice as the top wide receiver available. An eye-opening effort by Julio Jones has left some questioning that notion, but turn on the tape and Green is still a tremendous physical talent. Few receivers at any level possess hands like Green and he's turned the highlight-reel catch into a thing of the norm. As I said with Jones, it will probably just come down to preference, but Green will be off the board after the first 10 selections.
TORREY SMITH, Maryland
GOOD NEWS: Good straight-line speed makes him a great vertical threat…Tracks the ball very well over the shoulder…Solid run-after-the-catch ability…Shows great acceleration to gain yards with the ball in his hands on shorter routes…Quick feet to make defenders miss or release from the line of scrimmage...Good balance…Great intangibles with high character…Also an explosive kickoff returner.
BAD NEWS: Tries to body catch too much, leading to dropped passes...Route running is decent, although he isn't asked to run a large variety of routes…Relies on his speed and athleticism to gain separation and could improve technique…Isn't going to outmuscle a lot of defenders for the ball.
2010 STATISTICS: All-ACC first-team selection…Caught 67 passes for 1,055 yards (15.75 ypc) and 12 touchdowns…Added 585 yards on 30 kickoff returns (19.50 avg).
PREDICTION: It seems every few years Maryland produces another athletic freak that dazzles in pre-draft workouts. While Smith failed to garner the national attention of some of the other pass catchers, he produced great combine numbers and proves on tape he's one of the most explosive vertical threats available. He is one of a few players in contention to be the third receiver chosen and could sneak into the late first round. If not, he won't escape the early portions of the second.
JON BALDWIN, Pittsburgh
GOOD NEWS: Provides a huge target with a fantastic vertical (42 inches)…Can high-point the ball and displays the strength to take it away from the defensive back…Tracks the deep ball very well…Very long strider that can eat up a cushion with deceptive speed…Usually snatches the ball out of the air with huge hands…Displays the ability to make the highlight-reel catch and is willing to lay out for the football…Finds the soft spots in the zone and settles in as a route runner.
BAD NEWS: Needs to prove consistency as a route runner, as he was mostly used on go-routes in 2010…Long frame prevents him from being overly quick/sudden as a route runner…Average run after the catch ability and isn't going to elude a lot of NFL defenders…Character concerns regarding maturity…Production dipped from sophomore and junior seasons.
2010 STATISTICS: All-Big East first-team selection…Caught 53 passes for 822 yards (15.51 ypc) and five touchdowns.
PREDICTION: Baldwin entered the season as a surefire first-round pick, but a less-than-stellar junior campaign has left many questions. Aside from seeing a drop in production, the Panthers receiver voiced his displeasure with Tino Sunseri, Pittsburgh's first-year starting quarterback, and the play-calling, which most often required him to run deep routes. Those comments raised red flags regarding Baldwin's level of maturity and attitude. Still, the receiver has unquestionable natural talent when you take into account his enormous size, big hands and amazing leaping ability. In my mind, he's the third-best receiver available. Teams considering a wide receiver late in the first round will have to decide whether they prefer Baldwin's size or Torrey Smith's speed. Worst case, Baldwin slips into the mid-to-late second round.
LEONARD HANKERSON, Miami (FL)
GOOOD NEWS: Sells double-move with good head fakes…Recognizes and takes advantage of mistakes in coverage…Good toughness to make catches over the middle and hang on to the ball while taking a shot…Flashes the ability to extend outside his frame and make great catches…Solid body control to adjust for the football…Deceptive deep speed…Solid agility coming off the line to beat press coverage.
BAD NEWS: Not overly quick and has a tendency to round cuts…Doesn't have a lot of explosion or suddenness as a route runner…Has a tendency to bounce step out of his stance when defenders play off…Lacks great acceleration and has to build up to top speed…Has had some trouble with drops in the past, as he allowed too many balls into his pads, but did show improvement as a senior.
2010 STATISTICS: Broke Michael Irvin's Miami record for touchdown receptions in a season…Caught 72 passes for 1,156 yards (16.06 ypc) and 13 touchdowns.
PREDICTIONS: Hankerson enjoyed a solid performance at the Senior Bowl that has his stock on the rise. Some have projected him as a potential late-first round pick after that effort. I still don't view his as a first round prospect and think it's more likely he will come off the board during the second round.
RANDALL COBB, Kentucky
GOOD NEWS: Excellent run-after-the-catch ability…Displays shifty elusiveness with the ball in his hands and good burst when cutting up field…Good balance to stay on feet through arm tackles…Solid as a route runner due to his quickness and burst…Good vision after the catch and as a returner…Very good hands and flashes the ability to make the "wow" catch…Shows toughness to make the catch over the middle and hang on to the ball despite taking a hit…Versatile player who can contribute in the return game as well…Former quarterback with plenty of experience in the Wildcat (or "WildCobb" as Kentucky called it).
BAD NEWS: Average top-end speed and isn't a true burner...Undersized and may be relegated to slot duties at the next level, where he took most of his snaps last season…Lacks great leaping ability…Has had some injuries throughout his career, but has been relatively healthy over the past two seasons.
2010 STATISTICS: All-America first-team selection as an all-purpose player by the Associated Press and a finalist for the Paul Hornung Award, given to the most versatile player in college football…Caught 84 passes for 1,017 yards (12.11 ypc) and seven touchdowns…Gained 424 yards with five more scores on 55 carries (7.71 ypc)…Added 736 yards on 31 kickoff returns (23.74 avg) and 219 yards with one touchdown on 28 punt returns (7.82 avg).
PREDICTIONS: Cobb is one of my favorite receivers on the board in 2011. The guy is simply a game breaker with the ability to take it to the house any time he touches the ball. He will likely contribute early considering his versatility. As a receiver, Cobb has a knack for taking the short passes and turning them into big gains. He's a dynamic return specialist and also saw plenty of success as a Wildcat quarterback. That versatility should warrant a second-round selection.
JERREL JERNIGAN, Troy
Good News: Blazing game speed…Solid hands and flashes the ability to pluck the ball out of the air…Exceptional run-after-catch ability…Displays good vision and balance with the ball in his hands, as well as fantastic burst when he plants and accelerates…Good balance and vision…Slippery and tough to bring down if defenders don't wrap up…Explodes out of cuts on quick slants…Also excels as a return specialist and has seen great success carrying the ball as a Wildcat quarterback.
BAD NEWS: Played mostly against lesser competition…Primarily used on short, quick routes to take advantage of his run-after-catch ability…Not polished as a route runner and has a tendency to round routes, although he has the physical skill to develop into a great route runner…Lacks size and will be relegated to slot duties at the next level (played mostly in the slot in college).
2010 STATISTICS: First-team All-Sun Belt Conference selection as a receiver and all-purpose player and second-team choice as a return specialist…Caught 84 passes for 822 yards (9.79 ypc) and six touchdowns…Gained 322 yards with three more scores on 45 carries (7.16 ypc)…Added 630 yards with one touchdown on 25 kickoff returns (25.20 avg) and 306 yards with another score on 23 punts returns (13.30 avg).
PREDICTION: Jernigan may lack size, but like Randall Cobb, he's a threat to take it the distance every time he touches the ball. The Troy standout has tremendous versatility, excelling as a receiver, returner and Wildcat quarterback. He gets by as a route runner with his natural ability, but with some teaching, he could develop into a fantastic slot receiver. Expect a franchise to "catch lightning in a bottle" with Jernigan in the second round.
TITUS YOUNG, Boise State
GOOD NEWS: Outstanding burst out of his stance and explodes off the line of scrimmage against off coverage…Uses quick agility and burst to get by press coverage…Excellent route runner…Explosive and sudden in and out of his breaks to create separation…Can recognize soft spots in the zone…Great run-after-the-catch ability…Has the quickness to elude defenders and the acceleration and burst to turn short passes into long gains…Tracks the ball well over the shoulder…Flashes the ability to snatch the ball out of the air.
BAD NEWS: Lacks size and has a slight frame…Doesn't show strength and can struggle to get off a tougher jam…Not quite as versatile as expected and hasn't offered a lot of production as a punt returner (he was an accomplished kickoff returner, but may lack the size to contribute there at the next level)…Character concerns – suspended for nearly all of the 2008 season…Lacks the size and strength to be overly effective as a blocker.
2010 STATISTICS: Set Boise State career (3,063) and season (1,215) records for receiving yards…Caught 71 passes for 1,215 yards (17.11 ypc) and nine touchdowns…Gained 94 yards with another score on 14 carries (6.71 ypc)…Added 564 yards on 24 kickoff returns (23.50 avg) and 43 yards on four punt returns (10.75 avg).
PREDICTION: Young's not the prospect Desean Jackson was because I don't believe he's as explosive (then again, who is?) and doesn't have the same kind of speed. He's not quite as versatile either, as he has little experience returning punts. Still, Young has big-play ability and if you need further evidence, I offer the following statistic: of Young's 25 career touchdown receptions, 16 have been 40 yards or longer, including eight of 50 yards or longer and two of at least 80 yards. He should be selected in the mid-to-late second round or early in the third.
TANDON DOSS, Indiana
GOOD NEWS: Velcro-like hands – soft and can snatch the ball out of the air with ease…Very natural as a receiver…Adjusts to the football well and displays excellent body control…Outstanding concentration to come down with the catch in traffic…Looks sudden without wasted steps as a route runner…Shows good head fakes on the corner/posts…Flashes the savvy to settle into soft spots in the zone…Willing to take on defenders after the catch and definitely doesn't shy away from contact…Can take a hit over the middle and hang on to the ball…Versatile and will contribute as a kickoff returner.
BAD NEWS: Doesn't appear to have great acceleration and burst…Average top-end speed…Shows toughness with the ball in his hands but isn't overly elusive (flashes enough agility to plant and cut past an over pursuing defender)…Good size but doesn't look all that strong on the field…Considerable durability concerns.
2010 STATISTICS: All-Big Ten Conference first-team selection…Became just the sixth player in Big Ten history with 1,000 or more kick return yards in a season…Caught 63 passes for 706 yard (11.21 ypc) and seven touchdowns…Gained 163 yards with another score in 28 carries (5.82 ypc)…Added 1,016 yards on 41 kickoff returns (24.78 avg) and 49 yards on seven punt returns (7.0 avg).
PREDICTIONS: Doss is one of the more underrated players available at the position and I believe he has the skill set to develop into a fantastic No. 2 receiver. He was a versatile player at Indiana and can also contribute in the return game. However, he's been unable to work out during the pre-draft process due to off-season surgery on both groins. Doss had durability issues before the groin, and that could drop him into the fourth round. If Doss is able to prove his health when he finally work outs (April 6th) and turned in a solid performance, he could be a real steal in the third round range.
EDMOND GATES, Abilene Christian
GOOD NEWS: Fantastic burst and acceleration…Blazing game speed and can challenge the defense vertically…Very explosive in the open-field and has the ability to take any pass the distance…Uses quickness and agility off the snap to beat press coverage, but flashes good hand usage…Explodes off the line of scrimmage…Good concentration to come down with the deep ball over the shoulder or in traffic…Very good hands – can snatch outside his frame…Displays the leaping ability to go up and get the football over a defender.
BAD NEWS: Played against lower-level competition and was simply too fast for Division II cornerbacks…Hasn't faced defenders with comparable speed…Rounds off routes at times and need to improve his overall route running, although he flashes the ability to sink hips and make sharp cuts…Older than most prospects (Born 6/13/86)…Not going to break a lot of tackles with the ball in his hands and relies on speed to pull away in run-after-catch.
2010 STATISTICS: Registered just the ninth 1,000-yard receiving season in school history…Caught 66 passes for 1,182 yards (17.91 ypc) and 13 touchdowns.
PREDICTIONS: Gates is a small-school prospect with big-time talent. The Division II standout is a vertical terror with game-changing speed and was simply too fast for lower-level cornerbacks. He wowed scouts with a great performance at the combine, but he backs up those numbers on tape. Franchises in need of a dynamic receiver won't let Gates slip to the fifth round like former teammate Johnny Knox. He should expect to be selected in the third or fourth rounds.
GREG LITTLE, North Carolina
GOOD NEWS: Great size, strength and physicality…Excellent run-after-catch ability as a former running back…Displays outstanding strength for a receiver and can break tackles – even looks to put his head down for extra yardage…Very good balance and vision…Surprisingly great hands and can extend outside his frame and pluck the ball out of the air…Competitive player who uses his strength to his advantage in most aspects…Great leaping ability and can outmuscle defensive backs for the ball.
BAD NEWS: Suspended for the entire 2010 season and has not played football for an entire year (lockout could further hinder development)…Only a full-time receiver for one college season (split time between receiver and running back during previous two) and is still developing at the position, specifically his route running skills…Lacks great speed.
2009 STATISTICS (Did not play in 2010): Placed fifth on North Carolina's season record chart for receptions…Caught 62 passes for 724 yards (11.68 ypc) and five touchdowns…Added 166 yards with another score on 29 carries (5.72 ypc).
PREDICTION: Little has tremendous natural talent and would've been a much higher pick had he not been suspended for the entire 2010 season. Combine that with the current labor situation, and the Tar Heels receiver could wind up being well over a year and a half removed from football. That doesn't bode well for a player that was still developing after spending the early parts of his career switching between running back and receiver. Still, Little could wind up being one of the steals of the draft and won't last later than the fourth round.
NILES PAUL, Nebraska
GOOD NEWS: Possesses a thick build more suited to a running back, giving him nice strength and run-after-catch ability…Tough with the ball in his hands and can run through some tackles…Strong upper body to combat defensive backs…Decent acceleration and enough top-end speed to break longer gains and not get chased down or get behind the defense…Flashes ability to throttle down, effectively dip his hips and cut as a route runner...Can also contribute as a punt and kickoff returner.
BAD NEWS: Has small hands and drops too many passes…Lacks great concentration, also leading to drops…Top-end speed is good enough, but average…Struggles to consistently gain separation and needs to improve as a route runner…As a senior, played in an offense that was run-oriented and rarely showcased his ability as a receiver.
2010 STATISTICS: Second-team All-Big 12 Conference as a wide receiver and return specialist…Caught 39 passes for 516 yards (13.23 ypc) and one touchdown…Added 464 yards with another score on 19 kickoff returns (24.42 avg) and 160 yards on 14 punt returns (11.43 avg).
PREDICTION: I admit I'm not the biggest fan of Nebraska's standout receiver. I shy away from receivers with small hands (under nine inches) and Paul is pushing it at 8 7/8". It shows on the field as well, as he has some issues with drops and doesn't display the softest hands. Still, Paul never really got to establish a rhythm last season due to Nebraska's run-heavy offense. His size and athletic ability could entice a team in the fourth round.
OTHERS TO WATCH:
Greg Salas, Hawaii
PREDICTION: Fourth or fifth round.
NOTES…Displays outstanding hands and specializes in working out of the slot, where he will offer fantastic size at the next level.
Terrance Toliver, LSU
PREDICTION: Fifth round.
NOTES…Great size and huge hands but lacks the fluidity to consistently gain separation.
Denarius Moore, Tennessee
PREDICTION: Fifth round.
NOTES…Consistently does a fantastic job of adjusting to the football and could emerge as a late-round steal.
Austin Pettis, Boise State
PREDICTION: Fourth to fifth round.
NOTES…Savvy route runner who will make a solid slot receiver with terrific size at the next level.
JEREMY KERLEY, Texas Christian
PREDICTION: Fifth round.
Notes…Undersized and will likely work out of the slot at the next level, but displays exceptional agility and quickness after the catch and can also contribute as a returner.
Vincent Brown, San Diego State
PREDICTION: Fourth to fifth round.
NOTES…Solid route runner with good hands but lacks elite athletic ability and didn't test well.
Ronald Johnson, Southern California
PREDICTION: Fifth round.
NOTES…Good route runner who will likely work out of the slot at the next level and can contribute as a returner.
Cecil Shorts III, Mount Union
PREDICTION: Fifth round.
NOTES…Three-time Division III All-American will have to prove his talent translates to the big leagues.