NFL Draft News & Analysis

WR Josh Downs brings NFL bloodlines to UNC offense and future NFL draft class

The University of North Carolina is becoming quite the pipeline for offensive playmakers. Over the years, they’ve produced Dyami Brown, Dazz Newsome, Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, among others. 

Don’t think it ends there.

Next in line is wide receiver Josh Downs, a talented junior whose bloodline carries NFL talent on both sides of the ball.

The term workhorse is typically used for running backs, but Downs is the workhorse of the Tar Heels' passing game. And his production feels QB-proof.

Last season, he piled on the stats with Sam Howell throwing him the ball, racking up 101 catches and 1,335 receiving yards, fifth and 11th in the FBS, respectively.

Stat Rank in FBS
Catches 101 5th
Yards 1,335 11th
Yards after the catch 754 3rd
First downs and touchdowns 59 10th
PFF receiving grade 83.4 29th

This year, the 5-foot-10, 180-pound pass-catcher is doing it with quarterback Drake May, who has already confirmed Downs as his go-to guy, as the young receiver currently leads the team in catches, yards and touchdowns.

Downs’ big-time production might have been surprising to some but not him. Though he hit quite a few round-number milestones in 2021 (100-plus catches, over 1,000 yards), he wasn’t focused on the numbers as much as he was on the details.

“I don’t like to focus on number goals too much,” Downs said in an exclusive interview with PFF. “I feel like if you’re focusing on number goals, you’re just trying to check off a box. I always just strive to play the best I can — win my matchup every week. And when those opportunities come, make the most of them, and those numbers will be there.”

His work ethic was instilled in him early. Really early. As the son of a father raised in a military home, Downs was pushed to be the best in everything he committed to. And at a very young age, that meant going above and beyond what others were doing.

“As a kid, [my dad would have us] waking up before school running hills, working on acceleration, doing skill and speed training,” Downs said. “Back then, I was like, ‘damn, I gotta wake up before school and do this.’ At the time, I would be annoyed, but it definitely helped.”

Instilling military-like discipline and commitment wasn’t the only impact his father had on his football career. His father is also an NFL alumnus, a standout running back at N.C. State in the early 90s before being drafted by the New York Giants in the first round. On top of that, Downs’ uncle is Dre Bly, a former cornerback of the Rams, Lions and Broncos and the current UNC cornerbacks coach.

With a dad who went to N.C. State and an uncle who went to UNC, you can imagine there was plenty of back and forth at family gatherings during Downs’ recruiting process.

“I can't lie, I was definitely an N.C. State kid,” Downs said. “With my dad playing for the Wolfpack, I kept up with everything. Football, basketball — I was all over it. I knew my uncle played for UNC, so there were some back-and-forth bragging rights every year. But when my uncle got hired here, everything changed. My dad was a little upset at first when I committed to Carolina, but he never let that show — my mom told me that. But he knew that was the best opportunity for me.”

The Suwanee, Ga., native has 37 catches, 425 yards and five touchdowns in five games this season. And like last season, a good amount of that production comes from the slot.

A season ago, he ran 480 routes from the slot and just 10 routes from out wide. But Downs is expanding his versatility this year. Though he has still seen most of his work from the inside, with 150 routes run from the slot, he has run 47 routes from outside, more than he ran in 2020 and 2021 combined. 

Season Routes run from the slot Routes run from the outside
2022 150 47
2021 480 10
2020 39 1

Over the past two years, he has been targeted on 28.0% of his targets from the slot, the 11th-highest rate among the 54 receivers with at least 350 snaps over that span. And as the star in space, Downs believes his mindset is what gives him the upper hand.

“I would say the one thing you have to be is fearless in the slot,” Downs said. “You’re next to linebackers, you’re next to the trenches, and then you have to deal with safeties. You’ve gotta be able to maneuver and find space. It’s a different world.

“On the outside, it’s more one-on-one, and I like those one-on-one opportunities, as well,” Downs said. “It’s me versus you.”

No matter what quarterback took the field for UNC over the last two years, their eyes were going to Josh Downs first and foremost. Don’t expect that to change anytime soon.

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