NFL Draft Trends: Receivers & Tight Ends

As I’ve said before, the concept of a “weak” or “strong” draft class is an overrated one to me. But when it comes to the 2013 class of wide receivers, many consider it a weaker one than last year’s. As WalterFootball.com explains,

 If the two classes were merged, Patterson and Allen would go behind Wright but ahead of Jenkins. Blackmon, Floyd and Wright were all held in higher regard a year ago than Patterson or Allen is currently. Jenkins is at the point where things get interesting. Hopkins, Austin and Hunter could turn into better prospects than Jenkins off of their combine performances. Jenkins was a surprise late first-rounder in the 2012 NFL Draft, and he did nothing as a rookie to justify that lofty draft slot.

By their rankings, the two receivers they project to go in the first are ranked behind the first three receivers to come off the board last year (Jacksonville’s Justin Blackmon, Arizona’s Michael Floyd, and Tennessee’s Kendall Wright). As pure receiving prospects, I can see where they’re coming from. However, let me explain why this year’s class could have a more immediate impact than last year’s.

Last year’s first rounders had the kind of rookie seasons that rookies usually tend to have. We’d been spoiled by Top 10 receivers A.J. Green and Julio Jones the year before and expected at least Justin Blackmon to have a great rookie season. But none of the three did. Blackmon finished the season well, but wasn’t nearly as consistent as Jacksonville would have liked. Floyd and Wright didn’t even start a majority of their team’s games. And we can’t forget about San Francisco’s A.J. Jenkins, who only appeared in three games and didn’t catch a single ball all season.

Now enter this year’s receivers, specifically Tennessee’s Cordarelle Patterson and West Virginia’s Tavon Austin. Where there’s no question that they’re a notch below the others when it comes to receiving ability, they are so dynamic and can influence the game in many ways. Both should see a fair amount of snaps in the backfield, as well as out wide. And Austin is a good bet to be return man. I believe that they could have better rookie seasons than the four first-rounders from last year, but they would do so from different positions on the field.

NFL Draft Trend

I would say that it’s holding steady. The number of receivers taken in the first tends to fluctuate, but the average since 1990 is about four a year. With the explosion of the passing game in recent years, this trend doesn’t show any signs of going down, either. If anything, it could go up.

Same for tight ends — we can usually expect about one or two every year. But as they become a larger part of the passing game, tight ends with elite receiving skills could push this number even higher.

1stRoundWRsTEs

2013 Prediction

Put me down for at least three receivers and a tight end in the first round. Most teams don’t have any convictions toward taking a receiver early, especially if it’s a big need for them. I don’t see any receivers worthy of a Top 10 pick this year and there are certainly enough players out there to prevent teams from reaching, so I’ll start with Tampa Bay and Carolina at #13 and #14. Both are in need of weapons out wide and there’s a chance that one of them could go that way. Then you get to St. Louis at #17, Pittsburgh at #18, Minnesota at #25, and Houston at #27. Plenty of opportunities for receivers and receiving tight ends to hear their names called early.

Likely Candidates

WR Cordarelle Patterson (Tennessee): When I first saw Cordarrelle Patterson‘s name in mock drafts late last year, I had no idea who he was. Even all of the eyes on the SEC during the season and my love for Florida couldn’t make me pay attention to a Volunteers team that went 1-7 in the conference.

But upon looking at his highlights on YouTube, I was blown away by his big-play ability. Right away, he reminded me of Percy Harvin in that regard. The guys at Optimum Scouting agree (purchase their draft guide here):

Patterson stands as the single most explosive and dangerous weapon in the 2013 NFL Draft class, as his rare combination of size, speed and suddenness after the catch jump off the screen for scouts. With the ball in his hands, Patterson is extraordinarily sudden, quick- twitched and balanced through contact. Able to bounce off a hit without any loss of balance, or suddenly change directions to cross the field, Patterson, without a doubt, is a threat for six every time he touches the football. 

This threat alone is enough to take him in the first. But admittedly his pure receiving skills are a little raw at this point (from ESPN.com):

Rarely gains separation due to savvy or crispness of route. Can look lost at times versus zone coverage. Has a lot to learn about the NFL passing game, especially reading coverages and making site adjustments. Must also improve hand usage versus press. Struggles to get a clean release and takes too many false steps getting off the line.

Regardless, I can’t see teams hesitating to take him in the first. His versatility is too intriguing to pass up.

WR Tavon Austin (West Virginia): But in the same mold of Patterson, is West Virginia’s Tavon Austin. The only real difference is that his receiving skills are much more refined (from NFL.com):

Varies the speed of his route, lulls defenders to sleep and takes off to create space on out routes or over the middle. Tough to grab after the catch in zone coverage. Flashes the hands to adjust to wide or high passes, as well as tracking balls over his shoulder. Also goes down to grab low throws.

The only real knock that I can find on Austin is his size (5-8, 174 lbs). With those measurables, some scouts have concerned about his durability and whether he could ever be more than a slot receiver. But his quickness in the slot and the home-run threat he poses on returns make him one of the best receiving prospects in the draft.

WR Justin Hunter (Tennessee): Pretty strange for such a lethargic team to have two receivers in the first round range, isn’t it? Justin Hunter was considered a first-round pick before the season began and has stayed largely in the discussion with a few days until the draft. Hunter’s athleticism is lacking compared to his teammate Patterson’s, but he does have better receiving ability (from Optimum Scouting):

Extremely long and extremely lean, Justin Hunter makes leaping circus grabs high and away from his frame look routine. Regardless of how much separation is created in route, Justin Hunter’s plus catching radius and body control enable him to separate vertically at the catch point. Capable of adjusting to off target throws and win in traffic, Hunter regularly bailed out Tyler Bray on inaccurate passes. Off the line, Hunter is remarkably slippery to get a jam on, as he will adjust his pad level and dip his shoulders to present a smaller target. 

Hunter has been known to make his share of circus grabs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he has a reliable pair of hands (from Bleacher Report’s Ryan Lownes):

Justin Hunter’s hands came under major scrutiny this season. While he shows a penchant for making the difficult catches, he will wind up dropping the easy ones. Too many balls hit the ground in 2012 due to lapses in concentration.

Hunter’s name has been tossed around to possibly sneak into the first round still — some believe he’s the best receiver in the draft, though there seems to be no clear cut favorite — but it’s more likely that he’ll be taken on Day 2.

WR Keenan Allen (California): I didn’t take the time to watch tape on wide receivers this year, but if I had to rank the receivers based on what I’ve seen so far, I’d probably put Keenan Allen second behind  Austin and ahead of Patterson because of his receiving skills. ESPN’s Scouts Inc. has the same idea, rating Allen their second-best receiver in this year’s draft.

They gave Allen good marks on wide receiver specific traits, specifically his separation and ball skills: two of the traits I think are most important for an NFL receiver. First, the separation skills:

An instinctive and polished route runner. Very good working within initial stem. Tempos routes to gain initial leverage on defenders. Also flashes some craftiness with routes including head and shoulder fakes to freeze defenders.

And his ball skills:

Possesses strong hands. Flashes ability to pluck on the run without breaking stride. [...] Strong and aggressive attacking the ball in one-on-one situations or in traffic. Displays ability to adjust and pull in tough catch outside of frame. Tracks the ball well over his shoulder.

There are some questions about Allen’s health, specifically his left knee, which suffered a slight PCL tear, which keept Allen out of his team’s last three games. Seeing as he’s already a fringe first rounder, any continuing uncertainty about his knee could push him into the second round. There are also a few questions about his drop-off in production from his 2011 sophomore campaign, but I put that on shoddy quarterback play and, again, the three games that he ended up missing.

TE Tyler Eifert (Notre Dame): Over the last 23 years, Notre Dame has developed quite a high pedigree for tight ends. Back in 1992 and 1993, Derek Brown and Irv Smith were taken in the first round. And though he was a second-round pick, Minnesota took Kyle Rudolph in 2011.

This year, the next tight end to go in the first may be Tyler Eifert. He’s a near-unanimous choice for top tight end in the draft, mostly due to his receiving ability and his effectiveness when split out wide in college (from Optimum Scouting):

He’s able to extend away from his body at an elite level while still maintain strong hands to win at the highest point and when he’s forced to make off- balanced catches. As sure-handed of a receiver to come out of college in recent years, Eifert understands when to secure passes, consistently finishing in traffic, and when he’ll have the ability to catch, turn, and run. His ability to extend away from his body at an elite level thanks to length, hand strength, natural body control and fluidity, and fantastic concentration allowed his poor quarterbacks to trust him in different match- ups. 

With his size and hands, he could give a team a great red zone threat, similar to what Rudolph was able to do in Minnesota this year.

TE Zach Ertz (Stanford): The near-unanimous choice for the second-best tight end in the draft is Stanford’s Zach Ertz. In many ways, Ertz seems to be a slightly less developed version of Eifert, but he could be a reliable target in the passing game as well.

One area where Ertz is noticeably lacking in is his run blocking ability (from Optimum Scouting):

He keeps his pad level low to shoot through the lower shell of defenders shoulder pads but he often over extends and slips off blocks. On power run plays he will drop his eyes trying to overcompensate for lack of natural leg drive and power. The same goes for his efforts at the second level, although he shows good quickness to find his man and engage. With improved upper body strength, he should be able to deliver a stronger initial punch so he doesn’t need to throw his momentum at guys.  

I wanted to mention a few other receivers that are shooting up draft boards, but likely won’t their  way into the first. At wideout, USC’s Robert Woods and Clemson’s DeAndre Hopkins. Both are receivers that I’ve seen a lot of over the past few seasons and I like both of them. But at the same time, I wouldn’t take either of them over the four already mentions. At tight end, keep an eye on San Diego State’s Gavin Escobar, who could be the third tight end off the board.

While this year’s receiving class in the early rounds is considered by most to be a step down compared to last year’s, there’s still a lot of talent to be found in the mid to late rounds. The tight end class, however, is viewed as one of the best in recent memory, with talent to be found throughout the draft. Still, I would be surprised if anyone besides these six are taken on Day 1.

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