2015 NFL Draft: Wide receiver prospects

NFL scout Dave-Te’ Thomas and his staff put the top receivers under the microscope before the 2014 season.

After years of dominance by the “cloud of dust” running game, now play action, West Coast and multiple-receiver formations have become commonplace in the NFL. In their quest for success, teams are placing more of an emphasis on size, rather than speed, when looking for those big, physical, tackle-breaking receivers to move the chains.


In the 2014 draft, 34 receivers heard their names called among the 256 total selections. Five were chosen in the first round, followed by seven more in the second round, and four others went off the draft board in the third round. The fourth, sixth and seventh rounds featured five selections each from the wide receiver pool, with the lowest total to be taken coming in Round 5 (three).


In our evaluation of third-year sophomores, juniors and senior draft-eligibles heading into the 2014 season, our staff has targeted eight receivers who could go in the first round, with two of the three elite pass catchers, Ty Montgomery of Stanford and Stefon Diggs of Maryland, returning after being hampered by injury problems in 2013.

CREAM OF THE CROP


TY MONTGOMERY
Stanford University Cardinal
6:01.5-215-4.46


If healthy, it will be hard for any other receiver to knock Montgomery off this top perch, but his competitors have an open window to impress scouts early in the season after news came out of the head coach’s office that the split end/return specialist might miss several games early in the 2014 schedule.

Montgomery underwent right shoulder surgery in February and was also nursing a knee (posterior cruciate) ligament strain. He hurt the knee vs. Michigan State in the Rose Bowl and has to prove he can avoid the injury list, as this will be the third consecutive season a few “dings” have cost him game action.

In 37 games, Montgomery has accounted for 1,500 yards on 108 receptions (13.9 ypc) with 12 touchdowns, registering career-best totals of 10 scores on 58 grabs for 937 yards last season. He is also a very capable return specialist, as three of his 70 kickoffs went for touchdowns (28.1 avg), generating 3,660 all-purpose yards as a Cardinal.

Montgomery is an athletic mover who has the acceleration and stride to get into his routes smoothly. He needs to improve his weight-room figures, but has a strong hand push to prevent from being rerouted coming off the snap. He has the change-of-direction agility and loose hips to elude in the open field. There are times when he runs a bit straight-legged, but he maintains acceleration throughout his patterns.
Montgomery has excellent hand/eye coordination to get to the ball at its high point and the size and body control to time his leaps and contort his body to get to the tough throws in a crowd. He is very flexible for a tall receiver, flashing acrobatic moves to get to most balls thrown to him.

Montgomery is a long strider with enough of a functional second gear to get on top of the defense. He has excellent balance adjusting to downfield passes and knows how to sink his hips and drop his weight to elude after the catch. His fluid stride is a definite asset, as he instantly becomes a dangerous threat with the ball in his hands. Even when he operates in traffic, his agility and quickness is seen throughout the route progression.


DeVante Parker
University of Louisville Cardinals
6:02.5-207-4.53

If a Stanford Cardinal does not become the first receiver selected in the 2015 draft, it is likely because a Louisville Cardinal continued his steady rise up most draft charts. He will have lots of company in a strong receiving unit during his final campaign.

Even with the graduation of leading receiver Damian Copeland, Louisville returns a solid group of wide receivers in Parker, Eli Rogers, Michaelee Harris and Kai De La Cruz. During his career, Parker has played in 36 games and caught 113 passes for 1,920 yards and 28 touchdowns. He was limited by a right shoulder contusion during the regular season and left the Russell Athletic Bowl in the first quarter when he suffered an ankle sprain vs. Miami, capping off his junior season with 55 grabs for 885 yards and a school season-record twelve touchdowns.

Parker has an athletic build with good overall muscular development, especially in his arms and shoulders. He looks the part of a go-to receiver, with thick thighs and calves, V-shaped torso, good chest thickness, good bubble and tight waist and hips. He has very good suddenness out of his stance and into his route.

The Cardinal runs with good flexibility, showing above average agility and in-stride acceleration running routes. He displays very good balance, body control and hand/eye coordination looking the ball in. He has great size and initial explosion for this position, showing the flexibility to get in and out of his cuts instantly in attempts to separate.
Parker also demonstrates very good acceleration off the line and the speed to challenge the deep secondary. He has good body control to adjust to the off-target throws. His speed and arm extension are his best qualities, but his leg strength is evident by the way he generates RAC.

Parker has the change of direction agility to go along with his speed to be a breakaway threat with the ball in his hands. He has outstanding ability to get vertical and combat for jump balls in a crowd. He does a fine job of adjusting his body for the high throws and has the strength and burst to defeat the initial tackle.

STEFON DIGGS
University of Maryland Terrapins
6:00.2-195-4.48

With Diggs’ ability to get open, he’s become my darkhorse in the race for the honor to be called the 2015 draft’s best wide receiver. Freak accidents to both Diggs and fellow receiver Deon Long saw both Terps break their legs minutes from each other midway through the 2013 season. Before he was injured in 2013, Maryland was averaging 270.0 yards passing per game, but that average dropped by close to a 40-yard game average with both receivers sidelined.

Diggs boasted 21 starting assignments through 29 contests at Maryland. He has tallied 113 receptions for 1,920 yards (16.99 ypc) and 28 touchdowns. Before he broke his right fibula, he had delivered a career-high 55 catches, good for 885 yards and twelve touchdowns in 2013.

Diggs has that explosive playing burst to easily gain separate after the catch. He shows above-average lateral agility and balance when changing direction, doing an excellent job of extending for the ball and keeping his feet inbounds when working along the sidelines. He is a smooth open field runner who accelerates instantly coming out of his breaks.
The Terrapin junior has the burst to quickly eat up the cushion and run by defensive backs consistently. He has loose hips and good feet to get in and out of his cuts. His quick first step lets him explode off the line. He also demonstrates the hip wiggle and head fakes needed to elude defenders after the catch.

His second-level speed can rival any other receiver in the collegiate ranks. He is also becoming a good student of the game, showing keen awareness for the sidelines and chains. Diggs quickly finds the open areas and works back to the ball, making proper adjustments to come back for the poorly thrown pass. He shows the feel needed to adjust on the move and set up the defensive backs in order to escape. He can easily uncover and displays good vision to locate the seam after the catch.

ON THE BUBBLE


Dorial Green-Beckham
University of Oklahoma Sooners
6:05.2-225-4.49

Detroit’s Calvin Johnson is known as Megatron and this new Sooner has drawn favorable comparisons to the perennial All-Pro on the field. His biggest problem is that Green-Beckham has huge problems staying out of trouble when he is not on the gridiron. Numerous infractions, mostly dealing with theft and marijuana, finally forced the coaches’ hands and he was dismissed from the Missouri Tigers program during the off-season. Green-Beckham would eventually enroll at Oklahoma.

Prior to wearing out his welcome at Missouri, the top recruit in the prep ranks recorded 83 receptions for 1,225 yards (14.8 ypc) and 17 touchdowns in 24 contests. He started every game last season, earning second-team All-Southeastern Conference honors after he pulled in 55 balls for 830 yards and twelve scores in 2013.

Much like Calvin Johnson, Green-Beckham has a tall, thick frame, with long arm, large hands, thick thighs and calves and a big bubble. He has deceptive speed, as his long legs let him ride up on the defender quickly while looking effortless in his long stride. He has very good agility and balance with adequate change of direction agility. He shows good overall body control, but sometimes does not play up to his timed speed.

Even though Green-Beckham has good leaping ability, his timing is sometimes off, as he doesn’t win as many jump ball battles as you would expect from a player of his size and arm extension. Still, he is a naturally fluid route-runner who can bend and get in and out of his breaks smoothly. He shows excellent body control and balance throughout his route’s progression. He is simply a big man with good athleticism.

With his size, Green-Beckham could be very physical in his initial step off the ball, but he also has the quickness to immediately defeat the press. He is a bit long-legged, but still is capable of exploding off the line. His burst from his get-off and long arms lets him keep defenders away from his body in attempts to reroute. He shows very crisp stop-and-start quickness working in the flats and underneath. Few players with his long body are capable of generating the elusiveness to avoid, but he is effective breaking free to race down the sidelines.

MOST UNDERRATED


Jaelen Strong
Arizona State University Sun Devils
6:03.5-205-4.55

While the former junior college (Pierce) standout lacks the national recognition and has received just a third-round grade from our staff, the more I watch film on this Sun Devil, the more I am convinced that he could be the 2015 draft’s version of Jordan Matthews (Philadelphia Eagles) – an excellent route-runner who might lack blazing speed, but one that creates most of his success running with the ball after the catch.

The more I see of his ability to stretch the field and work back for the ball, it leaves me to have a feeling that the school’s drought of producing first-rounders (last was linebacker Terrell Suggs, taken by Baltimore in 2003), along with developing a first-round receiver (Aaron Cox was the last Sun Devils receivers drafted in the first round – by the Los Angeles Rams in 1988) will come to an end in 2015 when Strong walks onto the draft’s podium as one of the top 32 players selected.

Academics problems and a prep senior season that saw Strong make just 17 catches did not exactly entice major college recruiters and Strong would sit out the 2011 season. He signed with Los Angeles Pierce Junior College and recorded 67 receptions for 1,263 yards (second in the nation among juco players), as his 15 touchdowns in 2012 ranked third nationally.

Strong garnered Sophomore All-American and All-Pac 12 Conference first-team accolades during his debut campaign at ASU. He snared 75 balls for 1,122 yards (15.0 ypc) and seven touchdowns, recording seven 100-yard games, including five in a row.

The Sun Devil has drawn favorable comparisons to the Falcons’ Roddy White. He has that rare sized frame that teams look for in a split end. He has a thick physique with good length, displaying solid weight room figures. He has a tight waist and hips, good bubble, but lean thighs and calves.

Strong has developed strong hand usage as a blocker and gets an emphatic push off the line to defeat the press. He is not an explosive route-runner, but shows a long stride once he gets into gear. He has good upper-body flexibility, showing off with the way he extends and elevates to reach the pass at its high point. He lacks great timed speed and like most long striders, he needs room to operate and reach top acceleration.

Still, he does a nice job of dropping his pads and settling into the soft areas on the field. He compensates for a lack of suddenness by good body control through the route. He has good balance for route running and flashes the flexibility needed to extend for the off-target tosses. He also shows good ball security and uses his body well to shield the defenders from the pigskin.

MOST OVERRATED


Darren Waller
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
6:05.4-231-4.54

One look at his tight end-like frame and you have to be impressed with this imposing pass catcher, as he has that big frame that made scouts covet other Tech receivers in the past like Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas and Stephen Hill. The problem for Waller occurs off the field, as the 2014 season will mark the second-straight year that he opened the year serving a suspension for a violation of team rules.

One look around the league and you can see that teams are souring on players with off-field issues and his recent suspension is certain to place tons of red flags next to his name on organizational draft boards. The former prep safety has yet to deliver as a pass catcher, managing just 25 catches and scoring three times in 38 games. He does show flashes of being a breakout receiver, though, as he boasts a career average of 21.2 yards per reception.

On the field, Tech is not known for their passing attack, so Waller has had to make the most of limited pass-catching opportunities. He has a strong, athletic frame with long arms and legs, good bubble, tight waist, thick thighs and calves. He lacks explosion, but does have the valid timed speed to attack the deep secondary and stretch the field. He shows good timing and leaping ability to reach and pluck away from his frame, along with the body control and balance to make adjustments going for the off-target pass.

In the open field, Waller is alert to coverages and sticks, working hard to keep his feet in bounds along the sidelines. He is quick in and out of his breaks, keeping his pad level down to accelerate after the catch, as he uses his size well to shield the ball from defenders.

Still, he needs to be a little softer in his angle cuts, as he has decent acceleration, but is not light on his feet. He shows good body control and has the flexibility to adjust to the ball, but just needs to show better consistency. He tends to gather and round his cuts, at times, but has the body control to steadily improve his timing.

While his hands are largel, he can drop the easy passes due to a lack of concentration and for some reason, he did not show the arm extension that he showed in the past as a junior, as he seemed to get into a rhythm where he body-caught rather than reach for the ball, resulting in a high amount of dropped tosses.


SAME NAME, DIFFERENT SPORT


Ken Griffey III
University of Arizona Wildcats
6:01.5-191-4.42

His grandfather and father are deeply entrenched in Cincinnati Reds and Seattle Mariners lore, but the son of “Junior” has opted to make a name for himself on the gridiron rather than the baseball diamond. One look at his debut performance in 2013 and you might not be impressed when you see 14 catches for 170 yards and two touchdowns in 11 games. Further review shows that he did not have any passes targeted to him until the team’s ninth game. With his developing frame, blazing speed and return to action of fellow receiver Austin Hill, the Wildcats could be ready to make an impact with their aerial game in 2014.

In Griffey, Arizona has a flanker with exceptional speed to get downfield, showing good body flexibility, balance and body control to adjust to the ball in flight. He capitalizes on using his rare speed and timing to make proper adjustments to get into position to make the catch without having to break stride. He is very effective at eluding defenders when working in space and he has the leaping ability to compete for the ball in the air (needs to do a better job of timing those leaps though).

Griffey has smooth hip snap, showing shifty moves on long routes (less in shorter routes). His body control through his routes lets him extend for the off-target throws. With his size, he is a long strider, showing the ability to eat up a defender’s cushion. He has explosive acceleration throughout his route, but would be better served if he can develop an array of moves to set up the defender.

Griffey has fluid hips to sink and settle under the throws and if given space to operate, he will suddenly break free and take the ball to the house. He looks explosive coming off the line when he gets a clean release and has world-class speed that forces the defense to account for him on every deep pattern.


MAJOR COLLEGE SLEEPER


JOSHUA HARPER
Fresno State University Bulldogs
6:00.6-184-4.48

It might be hard to call a receiver who boasted 79 catches for 1,011 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2013 a “sleeper,” but much like Rodney Dangerfield, the flanker battled through several injuries and was overshadowed by a trio of upper classmen that garnered most of the media attention last season.

The more recognizable Bulldogs were fellow receivers, Davante Adams, who snared 131 tosses for 1,719 yards and 24 touchdowns, while slot receiver Isaiah Burse pulled down 100 throws for 1,026 yards and six scores from quarterback Derek Carr, who accounted for 5,083 yards and 50 touchdowns while completing 68.9 percent of his attempts. Carr went to Oakland in the second round with the 36th pick and Adams followed with the 53rd choice to join the Green Bay Packers in the 2014 draft.

Harper has outstanding quickness, along with the loose hips and plant-and-drive agility to instantly change direction. He makes fluid body adjustments going up for the ball at its highest point, but what separates him from most speedsters is the way he can combine his strength and burst to elude tacklers. He shows ease of movement and above average flexibility, running with impressive body control.

It is his excellent initial quickness that makes it tough for cornerbacks to remain in their pedal for too long and if the opponent gives him a cushion, he has no problem absorbing it and getting behind his man. He shows a sudden burst off the snap and gets into his patterns with no wasted steps.

Harper possesses the leaping ability and acceleration to get vertical and extend for the ball in a crowd, showing true courage sacrificing his body to compete for the jump balls. He has excellent hip snap, dropping his weight and keeping his pads down to accelerate instantly coming out of his cuts.

The Bulldogs flanker has fine balance in his running stride, executing crisp plant-and-drive skills to get in and out of his breaks. He has the speed to challenge the deep secondary and the body control to make adjustments through his routes.


SMALL COLLEGE SLEEPERS


Vernon Johnson
Texas A&M University-Commerce Lions
5:11.4-200-4.49

Johnson has had quite a few stops during his collegiate journey. After pulling in 68 passes for 1,000 yards as a senior at Brewer High, he signed on with local Midwestern State (Tex.) in 2010, making his college debut in 2011 with six receptions for 146 yards in eight games. He left for Southwestern Junior College in 2012, ranking second on the team with 49 catches, pacing the squad with 1,082 yards (22.08 ypc) and fifteen touchdowns.

Johnson then left the California college and returned to his home state, playing for the Lions in 2013. He delivered with 70 receptions for 1,350 yards (19.29 ypc) and 13 scores while averaging 33.07 yards via 15 kickoff returns.

Johnson has a nicely developed frame and is still maturing. He shows good arm muscle definition, broad shoulders, slender, but muscled-up lower body, good bubble and minimal body fat. He has outstanding foot speed with above-average quickness in his stride. He shows good agility and balance, with very good acceleration, burst, flexibility and body control.

The split end comes off the line of scrimmage with speed and is able to get away from the defender when lined up wide, but struggles vs. the press and can get better. He has the speed to get on top of his routes and shows the ability to adjust to the ball in flight, doing a nice job to uncover. He has an outstanding deep burst, along with the ability to adjust to the ball, easily tracking the ball in over his shoulders.

One of his best assets at this point is his burst off the line of scrimmage. He’s not a one-speed runner, but must learn how to gear down, as he tends to out-run the ball. He comes off the snap naturally and has outstanding movement off the ball, but it is negated at times, as he fails to bring his arms up to defeat the jam.

He can get in and out of breaks, but will round his cuts at times. He has the ability to get better (his knee injury in 2003 could have been a problem). He does a pretty decent job of reading the defense and will extend to catch the ball away from his frame. His best asset is his ability to uncover and come away with the reception on third down.


DEZMIN LEWIS
University of Central Arkansas Bears
6:03.7-208-4.52

The split end was regarded more for his academics and basketball skills coming out of high school. He had just 19 receptions as a prep senior and pounced at his lone opportunity to play college football. He started twice as a freshman for the Bears, ending the campaign with 27 receptions. In 2012, ge took over split end chores, responding with 56 catches that produced six touchdowns.

Last season, he was named All-Southland Conference, as he hauled in 50 balls for a 14.42-yard average, reaching the end zone seven times. A special-teams standout throughout his career, he has recovered three fumbles and blocked two kicks as a member of the punt coverage unit.

Lewis has a tall, well-built frame with very long limbs, good bubble, broad shoulders, tapered thighs and calves and very good hip flexibility. He has a frame that can carry at least another 10 pounds of bulk with no loss in explosion or quickness. He generates adequate explosion coming off the snap, but has good change of direction agility and lateral movement.

Lewis maintains balance throughout his route progression and is a fluid route runner who can accelerate down field. He shows good agility catching the ball over his head and excellent ball-tracking ability to locate the pigskin in flight. He can run, adjust and catch with ease. He has good linear speed, but just lacks an explosive vertical burst.


NEAL STERLING
Monmouth University Hawks
6:03.0-232-4.54

In what could be a bit of déjà vu, scouts are keeping close tabs on this Miles Austin clone, as they feel that Sterling’s size, strength and receiving ability favorably compare to those of the former Hawk who was a 2006 free-agent find by Dallas, staying with the Pokes until inking a deal with Cleveland for the 2014 schedule.

Sterling has H-Back-like size, collecting 147 passes through 33 games, including 57 balls during his collegiate debut. He matched his 2011 figures with 57 more receptions in 2013 and has reached the end zone sixteen times during his career.

The split end has the functional strength to release and get into his routes but lacks great straight-line speed. He uses his hands with force to get a strong push off the line of scrimmage. With his long arms and large hands, he has no problems avoiding the hold-up. With his big frame, he is not easily rerouted, but has to protect his legs better from low tackles.

Sterling knows how to use his body to gain advantage, but for a player his size, you would think that he would create better mismatches. Where the Hawk excels is his ability to get yardage with his footwork and balance, taking screens and slants without having to throttle down. He runs with good body lean, but when he gets too erect, he leaves his legs open for low tackles. He showed better cutting ability as a senior and if given soft coverage, he can turn and head up field for big yardage.

With his big frame, he will carry more than a few defenders for a couple more yards and for a big player, he has decent hip wiggle, making him strong runner carrying the rock. When he runs at a proper pad level, he can compensates for adequate speed with his balance and strength running though defenders.


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