The NFL’s top wide receivers have been evolving in recent seasons and it’s currently having an impact on how we evaluate and value certain traits at the position. Two drafts ago, Ole Miss WR Laquon Treadwell was considered the next Dez Bryant due to his inability to create consistent separation and strong ball skills, highlighted by his spectacular contested catch ability. Yet, that has not turned out well for the ex Ole Miss wideout and the Minnesota Vikings. Treadwell has not been able to get consistent playing time as his separation issues plague him to this day.
A player with Treadwell’s skill set would not be considered a first round selection in 2018. The most talked about receivers in this Draft thus far are Calvin Ridley, D.J. Moore, Courtland Sutton, Anthony Miller, Dante Pettis and DaeSean Hamilton, for the most part. See the outlier of the group? That would be SMU’s Sutton at 6’3” and weighing in at 218 pounds. Coming into the 2017 season Sutton was considered one of the more highly touted receiving prospects in college football. Yet, despite taking a huge leap in his development from 2016 to 2017, Sutton’s stock became stagnant or even regressed some prior to his Combine performance. An impressive performance that has evaluators going back to the tape. More on that in a bit…
Recently, Cover 1’s Brad Kelly eloquently explained the physical transition of the #1 WR from “the traditional imposing, long-armed freak-of-nature athletes that play outside the numbers, who possess the ability and rise over defensive backs for red zone touchdowns…” to the smaller and quicker Z/Slot receiver types.
This is true. There are a lot more Z and Slot types leading their respective receiver groups than there were in recent seasons, as Brad pointed out in his piece. That likely has a lot to do with the innovative changes made to offensive systems that tailor their schemes to the QB. It’s easier for an inexperienced or less talented QB to throw to a WR that creates immediate separation than to trust a large framed receiver to win possession at the catch point with a defender all over him. That’s especially true if accuracy and/or arm strength aren’t strong parts of that QB’s game. Take a limited QB in Case Keenum for example. He fared very well for the Vikings with non traditional #1 WRs Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen as his top targets.
Although I currently have Ridley and D.J. Moore as my top receivers in this class based on film and projection grades I do think the larger framed receivers, like Sutton, are not getting their proper recognition. The cause of this might be that evaluators are wary of X receivers that struggle to separate or believe that these receivers may not possess the movement skills to work in offenses built around the quick game. I’m not sure exactly, but that’s my hypothesis. I do know there are talented large frame types worthy of being selected in the late first to mid second round.
Before I go any further, however, I’d like to attempt to disentangle the definition of a large framed receiver. All large framed receivers are not equal. These receivers shouldn’t be lumped together by arbitrary heights and weights off the bat – although those measurements can help determine their classifications in most cases – but rather their style and mentality in which they attack the game. I’d argue that larger receivers can be broken down into further divisions than just being called large framed receivers.
For instance I would not classify DeAndre Hopkins at 6’1”, 214 pounds and Cooper Kupp at 6’2”, 204 pounds to be within the same bucket despite similar heights. The same could be said about A.J. Green at 6’4”, 205 pounds, who is taller than both Hopkins and Kupp, but has a lower body mass index than the two. I created three buckets to quickly categorize large frame receiver types. Hopkins would fit more into the Possession Receiver bucket, Green in the Tall, Lean and Fast bucket and Kupp in the Big Slot bucket. There are cases of overlap, but bear with me for simplicity’s sake.
Possession receivers are usually not the greatest immediate separators, but have extraordinary ability to create separation at the point of attack with their play strength to win contested catches. At least the very good ones can anyway. These receivers in particular have made evaluators cautious this Draft season.
The best NFL example for this group is Dallas Cowboys WR Dez Bryant at 6’2”, 225 pounds. Bryant is one of the best 50/50 ball receivers of his generation despite his lack of separation skills. He’s not the greatest route runner as he only really excels at slants, hitches, fades and the occasional deep dig, but he’s managed to make it work up until 2017. The 2018 NFL Draft has plenty of wide receivers that fit this classification, but all have raw ability that they will need to develop further.
Tall, Lean and Fast
The receivers in this bucket are usually on the lighter side with lanky long limbs, but have excellent size. They possess excellent fluidity to separate in and out of their breaks as well as the ability to take the top off a defense by accelerating into their route with long strides to create deep separation. A.J. Green is the NFL standard for this type of receiver at 6’4”, 205 pounds. Green moves around very well for his size and is a crisp route runner who can also pluck the ball out of thin air.
A big Slot receiver can have many different builds and abilities. Some have great short area quickness like Kupp and others use their size to their advantage like Jordan Matthews.
With that said, a few of these 2018 receiver prospects are sure to have us asking, “Why were we this low on this receiver?” down the line. I’ll dispel the unwarranted criticism the notable large framed receivers are experiencing and why they will be successful in the NFL using the context of their traits in combination with their play style to project them forward.
Courtland Sutton, SMU, 6’3”, 218 pounds – Possession Receiver
Sutton is without a doubt the best of the possession receivers in the Draft. I was not impressed with Sutton after my initial study of him because of his poor hand positioning, but after evaluating more tape I’ve become fond of his game. He’s somehow earned a reputation for not being able to separate, but that’s not entirely true. Sutton is a fluid X receiver who can bend inside and make hard breaks. Sutton displays very good body control in midair to turn and reposition himself with a defender on his hip to make difficult catches. The SMU receiver opened a lot of eyes at the Combine running a 4.54 40 yard dash and a 6.57 three cone drill.
The most encouraging note on Sutton is that he has been improving his game from year to year. Sutton took a big leap during his redshirt junior season. He was more consistent with his hand technique, worked back to the ball more often, improved his route running and displayed dedication to work on his blocking ability.
On this play against TCU, Sutton displays very good ability to bend his route inside and change direction to smoothly transition vertically downfield. His QB overshoots him, but this is the kind of separation ability Sutton possesses that will help him succeed as an NFL receiver. Based on his upside, Sutton has a good chance to be selected in the first round.
Equanimeous St. Brown, Notre Dame, 6’5”, 214 pounds – Tall, Lean and Fast
I’ve only recently begun to like St. Brown as a prospect, but he’s definitely proven to be one of best X receivers in this class. He possesses raw athletic ability and somewhat unprecedented speed for someone his size – running the 40 in 4.48 seconds. St. Brown is going to use his long strides and burst to glide past CBs downfield at the next level. In addition to his speed he also possesses great fluidity to execute smoothly run routes to all levels of the field.
He’s often knocked for lacking toughness and a physical element to his game, but I’d disagree with those claims. In my piece last week I highlighted how St. Brown used his long arms to neutralize Quenton Meeks’ press attempt. St. Brown’s game isn’t predicated on play strength, but he can fight through contact and is not afraid to subject himself to a hit in the middle of the field or in traffic.
St. Brown took many shots against a physical Miami defense in mid November. If you’re attempting to figure out if St. Brown can take a few hits and still make plays check out Notre Dame vs Miami in this past season.
On this play St. Brown is able to get inside of the CB, who concedes inside leverage, while running a quick slant on 3rd and 5. There are two major keys to note on this play. The first is that St. Brown extends with his hands to catch the ball before it gets into his breastplate. The second is how he’s able to tuck the ball into his chest to prepare for contact while absorbing the hit from the safety trying to blow up the play. Without securing the pass with good hand technique this 3rd down pass is surely not completed.
Later in the same game near the end of the half – St. Brown is forced to embrace another hit from the Miami safety.
St. Brown runs a vertical route outside the numbers along the boundary. He’s able to get open in the area between the CB and the safety. His QB Ian Book, filling in for an injured Brandon Wimbush, is able to fit the ball perfectly between the two defenders, allowing St. Brown an opportunity to make a play. Prior to the pass arriving St. Brown shows good awareness of his surroundings. The Notre Dame receiver senses the safety coming into the play and slows up to protect himself and the ball from a major hit. St. Brown extends, tucks and spins to avoid being lit up on the play. A smart decision by St. Brown to mostly avoid unnecessary contact and complete the catch.
St. Brown is now 11 pounds heavier than his playing weight while at Notre Dame, going from 203 to 214 pounds. The added muscle should increase his play strength for those concerned with his lanky frame. I think there’s a chance St. Brown can be taken in the late first, but he’s probably going in the early to mid second round. For what it’s worth St. Brown is my highest rated X receiver in the Draft.
D.J. Chark, LSU, 6’3”, 199 pounds – Tall, Lean and Fast
It’s odd to have Chark’s name on here because he doesn’t resemble that of a big frame receiver. Yet, he hits the height requirement and can add to his frame to push past 205 pounds. Chark’s going to be an immediate contributor for whatever team drafts him. His 4.34 40 time is going to entice a franchise to take him at the backend of the first or early second round. Chark hasn’t proved he can be a versatile route runner due to how he was utilized at LSU, but he has the movement skills and footwork to work the middle of the field projecting forward.
His floor is as a deep threat to stretch the defense vertically with his speed and acceleration. Robby Anderson of the New York Jets is a comparison a lot of evaluators are making for Chark, and from a measurements and scheme standpoint it makes sense. They’re both around 6’3” and ran 4.34 40’s. Chark carries more weight around than Anderson, but can be used primarily as a deep threat if needed.
Against Arkansas, Chark was able to manipulate DBs en route to a couple big scoring plays on the day. Late in the first quarter, Chark ran a double move on a post corner route that fooled the CB, leading to a touchdown. The speedy LSU receiver breaks to the inside on the post before cutting outside with sudden burst on the corner to create a comfortable amount of separation. QB Danny Etling throws a good ball for Chark to track over his shoulder to complete the catch.
In the last three NFL Drafts, 13 total receivers were taken in the first round, with three being the least amount of receivers selected in any single first round during that time. If you’re like me and think Ridley and Moore are worthy of a first round selection that means there’s likely one other receiver to be taken in the first round at the very least. That receiver will probably be of the large frame variety – like a Courtland Sutton, Equanimeous St. Brown or D.J. Chark.
Some notes on WR physique and the NFL Draft since 2015:
During that three year span, seven of the 13 receivers taken in the first round were at least 6’2” and 202 pounds, with most of them weighing around 210-215 pound mark.
If we expand the criteria to the first two rounds of the draft since 2015, 21 total receivers have been selected. 10 of the 21 receivers drafted were at least 6’2”, 202 pounds.
Not to draw any set in stone conclusions, but the rate of of 6’2”+ receiver sample from 2015-2017 decreased when expanding the data set to first and second rounders. There could be many reasons for this, including the fact that there are a limited amount of talented large framed WRs, all the talented large framed WR go very early in the draft and/or the sample isn’t large enough. The latter could definitely be the case since I’m trying to gauge a three year window with the recent changes of what’s considered a WR1. Yet, I do think there’s a relationship between a shortage of talented large framed receivers and all of them going fairly early in the NFL Draft.
When looking to the NFL – there aren’t many 6’2”, 205 pounds receivers that produce a significant amount of receiving yards. In 2017, there were only 10 receivers who fit that criteria who gained at least 750 yards receiving. (Note – 6’2” is in the 75th percentile for height and 204 pounds is the 50th percentile for weight.)
The majority of the receivers who made the cut are game changers and affect how defensive coordinators game plan for their respective offenses. While there are plenty of talented Z types that are considered game plan alterers, there is no substitute for elite athletic ability and size in combination with one another.
Despite the shift in receiver type tending to favor the quicker Zs and Slots it’s still acceptable for NFL teams to use high draft capital on raw developmental X receivers. This premise is more than reasonable because these types of receivers are in short supply. This then causes the price, in this case draft pick position, to rise for X types. It’s simply easier to draft a quality Z or Slot receiver in the later rounds than it is to draft an X receiver in the later rounds because all of the good Xs will already be drafted by then.
On the other hand, it’s certainly can also be a good strategy to wait until the middle or late rounds of the draft to build your receiving core. I’ll use Minnesota as an example once again. The Vikings spent a 1st on Treadwell who barely receives any playing time. Yet, they spent a 5th on Diggs and signed Thielen as an undrafted free agent. It’s possible to build a very good receiving group by allocating less resources to the position. New England also historically spends less on the wide receiver position because the traits they value are more abundant later in the Draft and in free agency.
Though, I will say in a draft environment I’ll gladly take the Julio Jones’ of the world in the 1st round rather than the Antonio Brown’s in the 6th round. That’s mainly due to the difference in success rates. A prospect with Jones’ athletic profile has a very low bust rate because, for the most part, he was essentially a developed NFL player from day one. Determining if a receiver like Brown will develop into the player we all recognize as one of the premier receivers in the NFL today is not as easy. It’s extremely difficult to differentiate between two 5’10” receivers in the Draft process. Many of them have similar athletic profiles and determining which ones will turn out to be successful is mostly random.
It’s perfectly fine to build a roster with Zs and Slots as most NFL offenses are shifting to a short and quicker passing game. In addition to that, Z receiver traits align with a quicker type of styled offense and are also more readily available on the market for an economical sum. However, if the basis of the argument of not selecting a true X receiver early in the Draft is entrenched in the notion that this year’s class of top Xs can’t separate from coverage or aren’t tough enough – well, you’re sorrowfully mistaken.
Related content you may like:
- Trades in the NFL are Still a Market Inefficiency by Joseph Ferraiola
- D.J. Chark vs Levi Wallace by ITP team members
- Great Expectations: What to Expect From a Healthy Dez Bryant by Joseph Ferraiola