In technical terms, a National Football League wide receiver — or a wideout, if you prefer — is one of the players who can catch the ball. NFL wide receivers are often tall, strong, and fast. A transcendent wideout like Calvin “Megatron” Johnson, who plays for the Detroit Lions, can singlehandedly keep a team in any game, regardless of how well the other team game plans for him. Wide receiver is also a position that every team can never have enough of — even teams without great quarterbacks still need guys who can run and catch the ball. Percy Harvin, of the Seattle Seahawks, showed the national NFL audience exactly what a difference a good-to-great receiver can make (although it’s important to point out that Harvin really doesn’t play “pure” wide receiver).
That’s not to say that the 2014 NFL draft features any players that are approaching Megatron’s talents, but it always helps to get a head start on looking at the players who will make most of us shake our heads silently and wonder how on “we” passed on this guy.
With that in mind, here are the top 10 WR prospects for this year’s draft.
10. Jarvis Landry, LSU
Here’s a fun draft prospect game: trying to keep track of player measurements from source to source. Some places list LSU Tiger Jarvis Landry at 6 feet, some have him at 6-foot-1, but all of them have him under 200 pounds. It feels safe to say that Landry is smaller than the average wideout, at least, even if his 2013 stats — 77 catches, 10 touchdowns, 1,193 yards total — don’t read that way.
Landry’s ticket to the NFL is his brain (I’ll leave the CTE joke to someone else), as his route-running and adjustments based on the defense’s reactions allowed him to pile up the yardage without being the center of LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger’s attention. He’s also fast enough to play in the NFL, running a solid-if-unspectacular 4.49 in his timed 40-yard dash.
Unfortunately, his overall athleticism isn’t outstanding, especially considering his diminutive size, which gives him a disadvantage against cornerbacks and other defenders. Consider Landry a definitive second round pick. As a bit of trivia, he was part of the 2013 LSU Tigers that were the first SEC team to have “a 3,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher, and two 1,000-yard receivers in the same season.”
9. Davante Adams, Fresno State
Davante Adams, a 6-foot-2, 215-pound sophomore for Fresno State, has spent most of his life in California. Born in Palo Alto, Adams spent three years playing, two of them starting with the Bulldogs. This season, after spending time in seasons past as a redshirt, Adams broke out, catching an NCAA-leading 131 passes for 1,718 total yards and 24 touchdowns (also NCAA-leading).
Cynically, it could be argued that those are inflated numbers that come with playing in an uptempo college system — as well as with mega-armed quarterback Derek Carr — but Adams seems to have the physical tools to help out in any pro system. Although he only ran a 4.56 on his 40 (fast for normal folks, not fast for the NFL), he’s a skilled one-on-one player who uses his explosiveness to elevate and cut, playing bigger than he is when he’s called upon to catch the ball.
Adams also uses his physicality to gain yards after contact (check out the video below for some prime examples), but he has yet to display a whole lot of versatility in his game. That can be pointed at the Bulldogs, who didn’t ask him to run a wide variety of routes. As a result, Adams could fall to the second round, but if he can continue to develop his athleticism and skill, he could turn out to be much better than some of the other prospects on this list.
8. Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt
A senior, Vanderbilt wide receiver Jordan Matthews was awarded a pair of first-team All-American votes (and four more for the second and third team), named a consensus first-team SEC wideout, and finished his college career as the SEC leader in receptions. This is usually the point in any college football conversation where SEC fans are compelled to point out that the SEC is the most competitive conference in football. To that, we can add the fact that Matthews is related, distantly, to Jerry Rice.
Standing 6-foot-3 and weighing in at 209 pounds, Matthews finished off his senior career at Vandy with 117 receptions and seven touchdowns, breaking the SEC record in a 14-10 win over Tennessee. If that touchdown total seems low, remember that the conference as a whole favors slow-it-down, ground-and-pound football, defense wins championships, we don’t want no glory boys, and all that. If Davante Adams has inflated numbers, it’s possible Matthews’s were suppressed. He still holds that record.
If there’s any consistent knock on Matthews, it’s that his 40 time just a hair slower than Adams — Matthews ran a 4.56. Also like Adams, Matthews’s biggest benefit going into the NFL will be his athleticism. While he doesn’t have the greatest first step on this list, Matthews can outmaneuver defenders and exploit his superior positioning instincts in order to make difficult catches. Odds are he goes toward the bottom of the first round.
7. Odell Beckham Jr., LSU
The other half of LSU’s 2013 receiving corps, Odell Beckham Jr. joined Jarvis Landry in foregoing his senior season with the Tigers and declaring for the NFL draft. Standing alongside Landry at an undersized 6 feet, he weighs in at just under 200 pounds. During his 2013 season, Beckham Jr. pulled in 59 catches for more than 1,000 yards, along with eight touchdowns.
More impressive is the fact that he averaged almost 20 yards per catch. Most impressive are his ridiculous hands — which the highlight video below gives full credence to. Beckham Jr. can catch the ball. All the time. Full stop. At least, it seems that way. Like his contemporaries on the bottom half of this list, Beckham Jr. runs right around a 4.50 for the 40 yard dash. In Beckam Jr.’s case, it’s just under that with a 4.49. Fast, but not elite in the NFL.
What he makes up for in speed, though, is explosiveness. With a first step that usually allows him to snag a few yards after a catch (after almost every catch), Beckham’s arguably more dangerous with the ball in his hands than before. While he was used at LSU as a punt returner, it’s not expected that he will do much of that at the pro level.
6. Allen Robinson, Penn State
If you didn’t catch Robinson during the season this year, it might be because he plays for Penn State, a program still reeling from the sanctions imposed on it in the wake of the Joe Paterno/Jerry Sandusky scandal (although the NCAA just recently made history by easing up on those sanctions). Still, Robinson has been impressive, hauling in 97 catches over the 2013 season for 1,432 yards and six touchdowns. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound wide receiver has been described by NFL.com as “a big, fluid, outside receiver with a nice combination of ‘above-the-rim’ prowess and run-after-catch ability.”
The caveat is speed. Running a 40 in 4.54, Robinson isn’t going to distinguish himself with his legs against NFL competition. What will help are his hands. Even saddled with rookie quarterback — and, to be kind, not the most accurate QB ever — Christian Hackenburg, Allen will still leave Penn State holding the school’s single-season reception record as well as the single-season yardage record. While the Nittany Lions are still barred from bowl competition until at least 2016, Robinson helped the team to a respectable 7-5 record.
Likely to be drafted late in the first round, most scouts have earmarked him for teams like the Baltimore Ravens or the Carolina Panthers with the hope that he can develop into a solid No. 2 WR. Robinson was a first-team All-American in 2013, as well as the 2012 and 2013 Big Ten Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year. Plus, he’s got a great highlight reel.
5. Brandin Cooks, Oregon State
Standing at 5-foot-10 and weighing in at under 190 pounds, Beavers wide receiver Brandin Cooks has drawn comparisons to Carolina Panther (and perpetual short fuse) Steve Smith. That’s awesome. The NFL needs more Steve Smiths.
After a 2013 that saw him set Pac 12 season records for receptions (128) and touchdowns (16), Cooks declared for the 2014 NFL draft. With the athleticism to offset his less-than-ideal size, Cooks is an equal threat to go over the top or to carve up a defender in man-to-man situations, as he possesses an outstanding array of stutters, body fakes, and jukes in the open field. Sometimes that can play to his detriment, however, as Cooks can over-exaggerate his fakes to a degree that defenders won’t fall for them.
Injuries can also be a concern, as Cooks has already suffered blows to his knee and ankle. Luckily, he seems to have made a full recovery from those — so far. There are murmurings that he might immediately play most in the NFL as a punt returner.
4. Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State
From the shortest to the tallest on this list, Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin has what is usually referred to as “elite height.” Standing a full six or seven inches taller than Cooks, Benjamin’s 6-foot-5, 235-pound frame is the kind of thing NFL scouts go nuts for — and for comparison, that’s how tall Megatron is. Benjamin is slower than Megatron, running a 4.54 to Johnson’s 4.32, but being 6-foot-5 means that you can almost just jump over your defender on the way to the ball.
After catching 54 balls for 1,011 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2013, Benjamin decided to leave FSU after only two years to cast his lot in the 2014 NFL draft. Also, his first name is Kelvin. That’s rad. The same way the NFL needs more Steve Smiths, the NFL also needs more players named after temperature measurements.
But, of course, that means the average viewing audience will get sick of the “hot” puns by about the third or fourth time they’re repeated. Benjamin, who started playing football relatively late in his life — his sophomore year of high school — is still a raw prospect. That alone carries some risk. But you can teach the game. You can’t teach 6-foot-5.
3. Marqise Lee, USC
That’s not a typo. Marqise Lee, USC wideout, doesn’t have a “u” after the “q” in his name. This makes him wildly entertaining from a name card perspective and infuriating to write about, since the “u” following the “q” is almost automatic for most typists. Lee has yet to offer an on-the-record opinion on this situation.
Lee, who stands 6 feet and hovers just around 195 pounds, doesn’t really need to. With the raw athleticism and explosiveness to be a deep threat at the professional level, as well as enough speed and agility to be dangerous after the catch, the hype around Lee’s game isn’t backed up by his numbers. In 2013, the Trojans wideout accumulated “only” 749 yards on 57 catches, scoring only four times. That’s not all that impressive.
Looking at his three years of college play, though, reveals a different player. Over 36 starts (every game, in other words) Marqis pulled in 24 touchdowns and over 3,600 yards plus an additional 1,300 yards in kick returns. The kid can ball, and is 100 percent going to be picked in the first round.
2. Mike Evans, Texas A&M
Also known as “one of the guys charged with catching Manziel’s passes,” Mike Evans proved himself more than adequate to the task, catching 69 of Johnny Football’s pigskins for 1,394 yards, racking up 12 touchdowns on his way to an average of more than 20 yards a catch. Evans, like Kelvin “en fuego” Benjamin, has a drool-inducing curriculum vitae, standing 6-foot-5 and moving the scales to the tune of 220 pounds. Hailing from Texas, Evans does football. That’s his thing. At least, that’s the rumor.
With larger receivers beginning to have more of a role in the NFL, especially if you play(ed) for the Bears — Evans is likely to be the second wideout taken off the board, bringing his ridiculous size, disciplined route-running, and solid-if-unspectacular hands to a team in the middle of the first round.
As an aside, Evans is also one of the coveted dual-sport athletes the NFL is falling in love with — a basketball player and a footballer. NFL teams love guys who used to play basketball. While he’s narrowly missing out on the Golden NFL Draft Trifecta (a good football player who played basketball who plays tight end – à la Jimmy Graham, Jordan Cameron, and Tony Gonzalez), Evans is sure to loom over the draft board, literally, until he’s picked up (figuratively).
1. Sammy Watkins, Clemson
As if there was another choice. Watkins, playing for Clemson — standing 6-foot-1 and weighing in at right around 200 pounds — has been called the only wideout worth taking in the top 10 by some, and the lack of argument from anyone that’s not a Gamecocks fan (or anyone else with a Clemson grudge) speaks to the truth of that statement. Yes, his numbers (101 catches, 1,464 yards, and 12 touchdowns) are arguably inflated by the offense, but his game is NFL-ready right now, and everyone could use a good wide receiver.
This top 10 list was compiled using information from Walter Football, CBS, Draft Countdown, and Sports Illustrated. All those writers are awesome. As usual, this is a prediction in February about an event that will happen in May. Adjust your expectations accordingly.