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NFL Draft 2017: Evaluating the Draft’s Top Receivers

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This group has something for everyone.

NCAA Football: Cotton Bowl-Wisconsin vs Western Michigan Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The best part about the top receivers in the 2017 NFL Draft class is that each team and evaluator is going to have a preference based on what they value the most. This group truly has something for everyone. With that will come a variety of opinions too. As always I like to give out a hat tip to Draft Breakdown for putting up a lot of film on these prospects. Here are my current rankings for potential first round receivers:

1) Corey Davis, Western Michigan

I know most people have Mike Williams in this top spot and he is certainly a worthy candidate. I went back and forth on Davis and Williams and quite honestly think it could go either way. As draft season ramps up, we’ll have the benefit of seeing what the advanced stats and projections predict, and maybe that’ll help give some clarity at the top. For now, I’m giving the nod to Davis by a thin margin.

Strengths: The biggest reason I have Davis at the top is that he is the most polished receiver in the class. He runs crisp routes and can run a full route tree. He’s added the nuances of receiving to his game, such as nice shoulder and head fakes. You can see him come out of different breaks and turns at different speeds. He has outstanding speed that is evident both pre- and post-catch. He is a YAC monster. Davis also demonstrates excellent catch technique and has shown that he can line up at any of the receiver positions. His production at Western Michigan is quite the résumé, too: he most recently posted three straight seasons over 1400 yards and 12 touchdowns. In his first year there, he only had 941 yards and 6 touchdowns (PFR).

Weaknesses: I have very few concerns about Corey Davis. One thing I do want to note is that in my hand written notes I had a question mark about the occasional drop. I had one drop marked down in games versus Ohio, Buffalo, Ball State and Bowling Green. Why am I not overly concerned with this? They seem like outliers. This is a player who not only has great catch technique, but has demonstrated it repeatedly on the field (331 catches over 4 years). He also had a high volume of targets. Regardless, there were a couple of concentration drops that I had down and feel like its worth passing on here. Ideally, we will have drop percentages come out for all the receivers before the draft. For now, I remain convinced that this isn’t an issue. The other remaining questions I have center around things Davis can’t control: his competition and his ability to face press coverage. Against some of the weaker defenses Davis faced, he benefits from their lack of speed and physicality. Since many players can’t keep up in the foot race, he didn’t go up against press coverage often. I would imagine he’ll see more of it in the NFL.

2) Mike Williams, Clemson

Strengths: Mike Williams has a tremendous blend of physicality and grace. You can watch as this huge, strong receiver breaks down field and then launches himself perfectly into the air, controlling his body the whole way as he brings the ball down from the high point. He had numerous acrobatic catches this season. Its this talent that separates him from the other receivers in this class - no one is as good at making contested catches as Mike Williams. He’s not as fast as Corey Davis but does boast a more physical presence. He’ll fight through defenders to make the catch and isn’t afraid to push through them once he has the ball. College defensive backs couldn’t handle him even against press coverage. Yet, for a big man I’ve got words like “agile” and “graceful” written down. Physical yet graceful is perhaps the best way to summarize his game.

Weaknesses: Once again its worth noting that much like Davis I have only minor issues with their body of work. With Williams I found that he rounded out a lot of his routes. He needs to work on his route running. He has ‘good but not great’ speed, and as a result is forced to make those hard, contested catches more often. He will also occasionally let the ball into his body. His run blocking also needs a little bit of work - I’d like to see him work over the defensive backs a bit more, especially given his size.

3) John Ross, Washington

Corey Davis and Mike Williams constitute the top tier of the 2017 receivers. After those two I think there is a clear drop off to the third man on our list, John Ross.

Strengths: The name of the game for Ross is speed. He’s the smallest receiver of our top four (5’11”), but his raw foot speed allows him to find a lot of open field. He has really nice moves at the line of scrimmage, allowing him to put that speed to use. He’ll use a nice little hesitation or stutter move right at the snap, then turn on the jets to blow by the defender. Letting Ross fly down field on deep routes really tests how long a corner can maintain his top speed, and that’s a battle Ross will win more often than not. Washington used him on a lot of deep fade routes. Remember how Terry Robiskie likes to use compact formations, and then let the receiver run to space? Ross is perfect for those. Five years ago I wrote that Kendall Wright had the ability to become a great “space player.” I see those same traits with John Ross. Get him in the open field in a one-on-one and good things will happen.

Weaknesses: Its no coincidence that as we progress down the list the players are becoming more raw. I want to see cleaner route running from him. I had two drops written down against Colorado and another versus California. He also had a double-clutch catch on a few passes. He has to add the little things to his game if he’s going to be successful in the NFL. Speed will only get him so far. I’d like to see him add a physical aspect to his game as well. Fight through defenders, win the contested balls, etc. There is a place in the NFL for Ross but it’ll be important to understand his limitations both right now (raw) and in the future (can he win as an outside receiver against bigger corners?).

4) Juju Smith-Schuster, USC

Smith-Schuster is roughly in the same tier as Ross, in my opinion. I think Ross will go in the mid-first round, and mid- to late-first is where teams will start looking at Smith-Schuster. I think team grades on him will vary more than the others, however. He’s a guy that could go higher or later than many expect.

Strengths: What I want to point out first for Smith-Schuster is how much of an eager blocker he was at USC. It stood out on tape much more than the others mentioned in this post. Run blocking isn’t the most important thing to a receiver’s game but it is definitely part of the whole picture. Smith-Schuster was asked to block a lot and did so admirably. The best part of his game however is how he uses his size and strength to his advantage. He uses his size well when he has the ball, out-muscling weaker opponents. He won’t shy away from press coverage contact either.

Weaknesses: Smith-Schuster struggled with consistency this year. There were times when I just simply expected him to be better. For instance, I wanted to see him win more of the tough, jump balls that USC gave him. Other times I’d want to see him come out of his breaks faster. He also lacks top-end speed to separate from cornerbacks. I’m not sure if that’ll ever change and if it’ll limit his potential at the next level. My guess would be that it will. Smith-Schuster put up solid numbers at USC (724, 1454 and 914 yards for his three seasons) and there is still room to grow here. It’ll take the right coach and offense for him to succeed.

Conclusions

In my opinion, if you’re looking at a first round receiver the two main options are clear. I think both are worthy of a first round pick and at least one of them could go in the top 10. Choosing between the two, my preference would be Corey Davis, as he’s a talented receiver who has mastered his craft. I think both Davis and Mike Williams fit the Titans’ need to get bigger, stronger and faster on the outside. If they’re looking for the more physical receiver, then Mike Williams likely fits the best. John Ross is an option if they want someone to take over from Kendall Wright, but I don’t particularly want to spend the 18th pick in the draft on him. As for Juju Smith-Schuster, I think its unlikely he’ll be the best player available unless we trade down significantly.