This is a new mini-series breaking down each positional group heading into the 2017 NFL Draft. Luke Inman has done the dirty work grinding the tape and now gives us a deep dive into some of the top prospects that could be playing for a team near you in 2017.
Plus, it is a closer look at some of the sleeper names you can find in the late rounds that add value and provide the glue in between the cracks of future NFL rosters.
In today’s NFL, the en vogue thing to do is pass, pass, pass. The league is up from 2015 and is passing on average over 60 percent of the time. While my old school thought patterns will forever preach this game is still won and lost in the trenches, teams must adapt or die and learn how to thrive by tossing the rock.
The game is simple: find the mismatch. The best quarterbacks thrive after hours of tape grinding throughout the week, helping them quickly set up to the line of scrimmage and point out the favorable matchup. While scouts are looking for the next tight end who can move in the slot and out wide against smaller cornerbacks, we’ve also seen a huge wave of smaller and quicker receivers come into the equation.
After the league filled their defenses with taller, longer and more physical cornerbacks like Richard Sherman, offenses quickly learned how to combat and expose their weakness. Smaller, yet quicker receivers were brought into the fold with guys like Brandin Cooks, Odell Beckham Jr. and Sammy Watkins front loading a draft class that set the wheels in motion for this new trend.
There’s never been a better time to be a wide receiver prospect coming into the league, with more job openings than ever before. Teams are spreading defenses out four and five wide in hopes of creating as many mismatches on the field as possible. Now, any and every trait or edge that can help give your offense a mismatch is welcomed whether you’re tall and lanky or shifty and quick.
While I will admit this year’s class of wide receivers doesn’t have more than a handful of No. 1-type receivers at the next level, it does, however, host a slew of great complimentary guys that will thrive in a No. 2 or inside slot role.
John Ross, Washington – Don’t look so shocked. The new generation of NFL is built around creating mismatches in the passing game all over the field. Nobody on this list is a bigger mismatch for his opponent than Ross. There’s fast, and then there’s 4.22 fast. Ross brings to the table an electricity bolt of speed that no defender can keep up with. His speed is so generational that opposing secondary players play every snap with fear of getting beat deep, and in turn give him a world of space underneath that Ross gnaws apart like a rat on comebacks and curl routes effortlessly.
You worry about his injury-riddled past, but Ross’ speed and explosion is once-in-a-decade stuff that, if used properly, will be a weapon all over the field including in the running game and on special teams. When defenses properly adjust — which they will — Ross will play decoy and open up big time throwing lanes for his quarterback and fellow teammates.
You have to ask yourself, of the group, who’s the one guy I would kick myself for passing up on and facing every year? The answer is simple. Speed kills.
Check out my full video breakdown on Ross here.
2. Corey Davis, Western Michigan – Take the small school factor out of the equation and Davis is exactly how you draw them up: big, physical and fast. A superb route runner for his size and bulk, Davis shocks cornerbacks with his ability to stop and cut on a dime at any given moment.
Just a two-star recruit out of high school, Davis plays with a huge chip on his shoulder, looking to prove the world wrong — one catch at a time. He quickly became the MAC Freshman of the Year and never looked back, putting together four ultra-productive years and making a name for himself against opposing cornerbacks as a man on a mission.
Nobody plays with more grit, determination and heart than Davis, who has all the traits of an influential NFL wideout.
3. Mike Williams, Clemson – He’s the next in line of a deep Clemson tradition that’s churned out NFL studs like Deandre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant. Williams follows suit with a big bodied frame that you throw to even when he’s covered. A quarterback’s best friend, Williams can bail out his passer by going up and over his defender with ease to haul in the jump balls both on the boundary and in the red zone.
His short area quickness and big frame allow him to chew up yardage underneath too, on routes like quick slants and curls. Williams may need some refinement in his route running like nearly every young wideout; however, for the most part what you see is what you get with Williams.
Need an Alshon Jeffery-type boundary and red zone weapon? Williams is your man.
4. Cooper Kupp, Eastern Washington – What’s not to love? The most productive FCS receiver of all time, Kupp posted video game numbers at Eastern Washington with an insane 79 touchdowns, 428 receptions and 6,464 yards. Just think about that for a minute, because those are the kind of stats that really help paint the story of how dominant Kupp has been.
While it’s only fair to question how much of that production came due to his lower level of competition, it doesn’t take a wizard to understand those numbers don’t happen by accident. Kupp looks like a savvy veteran in his routes, setting up his defender with precision and attention to detail, and because of it, can win wherever he is asked to line up on the field.
Of all the tape I watched, Kupp dropped just one ball, looking as close to a sure thing anytime you put the ball in his general vicinity. He lacks the home run speed that wow people at the next level, but instead Kupp will nickel and dime you with quickness and sharp cuts, putting opposing cornerbacks through a workout while forcing linebackers to tap out by game’s end.
Of all the prospects on this list, Kupp is the guy I’m most intrigued to see which offense he lands in, what quarterback he plays with, and just how quickly he can start replicating that college production.
5. Curtis Samuel, Ohio State – By ground, air and kickoffs, Samuel does whatever you ask and does a damn good job, scoring 15 touchdowns in 2016 while becoming the Buckeyes’ most productive contributor. Samuel shows quick feet when caught up in traffic, smooth gliding athleticism out in space and 4.31 long speed to seal the deal.
He’s not your prototypical natural pass catcher like his peers, and that’s okay. Instead, Samuel should be viewed as a weapon, no matter where he plays. A threat to rip off big chunk plays no matter he lines up, like a Cordarrelle Patterson team’s toughest challenge is constantly manufacturing touches for him in multiple roles.
Regardless, Samuel is a versatile chess piece and can be an “X” factor weapon when used properly out in space.
Best 50-50 Pass Catcher
He can make any quarterback look good by hauling down the tough, contested passes, both on the boundary and in traffic over the middle of the field. Get him down in the red zone and those fade routes and jump balls he makes look like simply pitch and catch.
Best Route Runner
He’s playing chess while your cornerback is playing checkers. Kupp is a technician in his routes setting up his opponent with quickness and control, getting cornerbacks to open their hips and expose themselves before slicing and dicing the other way.
Linebackers? Don’t even bother.
Should Kupp start catching passes from a Brady, Brees or Wilson next season, the NFL may have to consider changing the rules.
Small school or not, you don’t haul in 428 career passes by accident. Of all the film I watched on Kupp, I saw just one drop. The guy takes pride in his craft so with the game on the line, there’s no guy I’d want more on a 3rd-and-short than him.
With his father and grandfather former NFL players, Kupp walked out of the womb catching passes, as he was literally born to do this.
Best Deep Threat
There’s fast, and then there’s Ross. The 4.22 speed is once-in-a-decade type stuff; however, very rarely is it ever matched up with a player with the deep tracking and ball skills like Ross making him the total package when it comes to the home run ball.
NFL safeties will learn quickly, when Ross is up to bat, you better sit by the fence.
Best Threat After the Catch
Carlos Henderson, Louisiana Tech
You can’t say his name or think about his game without the word explosive after Henderson tied for the nation’s best 19 touchdowns. Henderson almost always makes the first man miss before getting out into the open space where he’s most dangerous.
He’s one of the best return men in the class; no one wants to tackle Henderson with the game on the line.
Best Slot Receiver
Ryan Switzer, North Carolina
Had I not seen him up close during the Senior Bowl, Switzer wouldn’t have made the cut. However, watching the 5-foot-10 speedster snap off his routes all week long during practice quickly put into perspective just how good he can be.
Switzer doesn’t have the size or strength to work the sidelines but, he’s a wizard in between the hashes, forcing cornerbacks to commit before putting on the shimmy shake the other way.
With a violent burst at the top of his routes, Switzer explodes in and out of his cuts and will carve out a career in the NFL from one of the most popular positions in football right now, the slot.
Best Guy No One’s Talking About
Isaiah Ford, Virginia Tech
There’s just something about Ford’s game that didn’t translate to the combine numbers. After an average at best performance in Indianapolis, it seems he’s gotten lost in the shuffle; however, don’t write this kid off just yet.
Watch some tape and you’ll see a guy who is a crafty route runner and offers his quarterback a big, clean window to throw into. With great hands and an impressive resume, Ford should be supplanted in the second tier of wideouts as a complementary No. 2 guy.
If not, some organization could be getting steal of a deal in the middle-to-late rounds on draft weekend.
Five Day Three Sleepers
Dede Westbrook, Oklahoma
Erase the off the field issues, and by all accounts, Westbrook would be talked about as one of the best prospects of the group. Unfortunately, we can’t erase the bad, but choose to hope he has learned from his mistakes after numerous run-ins with the law.
On the field, we witnessed one of the most explosive players in all of college football, blowing past secondaries for home run catch and runs. He doesn’t own the big frame you draw up however, Westbrook wins with speed and acceleration much like T.Y. Hilton of the Indianapolis Colts.
Keep him on the straight and narrow path and you’ve got yourself and superstar for years to come.
Amba Etta-Tawo, Syracuse
People need to wake up on Etta-Tawo before it’s too late. The transfer from Maryland worked under Jaguars great Keenan McCardell, learning the nuances of the NFL craft before heading to Syracuse.
In the orange and navy, he resembled Jeffery with his big size on the boundary and ability to go up and win on contested throws, hauling in 94 passes and 16 touchdowns his senior season. He struggles with drops and isn’t the most explosive athlete, but has all the raw tools I want to develop into a jump ball and red zone guru.
Check out my full video breakdown of Etta-Tawo here.
Malachi Dupre, LSU
As for now, he’s a one-trick pony, but finding players who excel at one area or trait is enough to work with and land on a roster. Dupre is a deep ball junky with outstanding deep speed and the ability to set his defenders up on underneath routes first.
Picking apart defenses on curls, comebacks, and button hooks before taking the top of the defense was Dupre’s style, and he could find himself a home at the next level because of it.
Mack Hollins, North Carolina
When teammate Ryan Switzer was getting the attention on the inside of defense form the slot, it was Hollins who was wreaking serious havoc on the outside for splash plays. You can’t draw them up any better at 6-foot-4, 221 pounds with 4.5 speed. Hollins averaged at insane 20 yards per catch throughout his entire football career.
He’s my favorite of the sleeper bunch when healthy with the prototypical size, speed and style of a future No. 1 receiver.
Josh Reynolds, Texas A&M
Nobody creates the separation with his frame and long lanky arms quite like Reynolds. Even while writing this I can’t help but see a lot of Josh Doctson in his game with his ability to pull down the contested catches in tight spaces on the sidelines and in the redzone.
People will tell you he doesn’t have the speed to separate at the next level, which may be true, but he makes up for with his length that he knows how to use and will continue to hone his craft as a great one-on-one mismatch that gives quarterbacks a good bail out option.