NFL Draft News & Analysis

2021 NFL Draft: Tiering the loaded WR class that might surpass 2020's rookies

Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver DeVonta Smith (6) against the Ohio State Buckeyes in the 2021 College Football Playoff National Championship Game. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

More and more young, dynamic wide receivers have entered the NFL and made an immediate impact in recent years. The most recent example was the 2020 rookie class, which featured a record-breaking 13 wide receivers selected in the first two rounds of the draft. 

The historic 2020 class was littered with top-tier receiving talent and was headlined by the likes of 2018 Biletnikoff Award winner and consensus All-American Jerry Jeudy, 2019 All-American CeeDee Lamb and 2019 receptions leader Justin Jefferson, among others. This dominant group of wideouts made an almost instant impact on their respective offenses and the league.

Now, it remains to be seen where the 2020 receivers will rank all time, but it might become apparent sooner rather than later that last season’s group will be playing second fiddle to 2021's phenomenal wide receiver class.

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Tier 1

Ja’Marr Chase, LSU

Chase is arguably the top receiving prospect from the 2021 class. The No. 1 receiver on PFF’s Big Board, Chase opted out of the 2020 season after leading the nation in receiving yards (1,780), touchdowns (20), explosive receptions (46) and yards after contact on receptions (431) at only 19 years old in 2019. He can win in almost any way. He’s elite at the catch point and at creating separation in the blink of an eye — all while flashing sneaky speed on the outside.

Jaylen Waddle, Alabama

There might not be a better all-around athlete at the receiver position in this class than Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle. He was finally given his chance to shine after Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III made their way to the NFL, but he suffered a broken ankle against Georgia that sidelined him up until the national title game.

Ranked as PFF’s WR2, Waddle actually outperformed eventual Heisman winner DeVonta Smith when on the field in 2020. During Weeks 4-6, Waddle's 11 receptions of 15-plus yards were tied for first in the country, and he even outgained Smith in receiving yards, 396 to 316, on eight fewer receptions. 

DeVonta Smith, Alabama

Smith is coming off one of the best seasons by a wide receiver in college football history. The Slim Reaper’s 2020 season ranks sixth all time in receiving yards (1,856) and fifth in receiving touchdowns (23). Plus, he recorded the single-highest PFF college grade by a wide receiver in a season (94.9) since we began grading in 2014.

There’s not much that can be said negatively about Smith’s game except for his size. Despite his unique 6-foot-1, 165-pound frame, Smith possesses all the ball skills and dynamism necessary to dominate in college football and succeed in the NFL. 

Tier 2

Rashod Bateman, Minnesota

When your NFL player comp is Keenan Allen, you know you're doing something right. Bateman possesses the size (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) to win against NFL defenses and is also one of the most skillful route-runners in the draft class.

However, it's clear he lacks the top-tier speed that NFL offenses covet. Regardless of that shortcoming, Bateman still has shown he can create separation. The No. 4 wideout on the PFF Big Board played only a few games in the 2020 campaign before opting out, so his 2019 season stands out as his best. His 46 catches on throws of 10-plus yards downfield ranked first among all players that year.

Rondale Moore, Purdue

Moore’s freshman season was absolutely electric. He led the FBS in receptions (114), yards after the catch (892) and missed tackles forced on receptions (37). Unfortunately, the rest of his college career was hindered by injuries, causing him to play only seven games in the past two seasons.

Regardless, Moore possesses some of the most explosiveness at the receiver position in the 2021 class and is tracking as a first-round selection in April. 

Kadarius Toney, Florida

Toney’s 2020 season launched his draft status #tothemoon after being a centerpiece in the dynamic Florida Gators offense. The senior notched career-highs in practically every receiving category while finally getting a full season to show the college football world his elite ball skills.

Toney forced 20 missed tackles on his receptions this season (second in the Power Five) and led the country in 15-plus-yard gains on passes thrown fewer than 10 yards downfield (11). 

Tier 3

Amon-Ra St. Brown, USC

St. Brown’s best year came as a sophomore when he played primarily in the slot for the Trojans and recorded his lone 1,000-yard season. With Michael Pittman Jr. entering the 2020 NFL Draft, St. Brown was bounced outside and was once again a top target for USC quarterback Kedon Slovis in 2020. He led the Pac-12 in receptions (41), touchdowns (7) and contested catches (8).

St. Brown’s strength lies in his ability to make use of the full route tree from either the slot or outside and in his distinct talent to make defenders miss after the catch. His lack of explosiveness is a slight cause of concern, but that hasn't stopped him producing at the college ranks — and the same can be said about his pro potential. 

Tylan Wallace, Oklahoma State

Tylan Wallace has been one of the more explosive receivers in college football during his tenure in Stillwater. He ranks behind only Alabama's DeVonta Smith in explosive receptions (73) since 2018 and leads the nation in contested catches (43) during that same span.

After tearing his ACL in 2019, Wallace returned and did not skip a beat this past season. He ranked in the 93rd percentile in yards per route run (3.26) and in the 95th percentile in receiving grade (86.3). 

Elijah Moore, Ole Miss

Not many receivers had a better season than Ole Miss’ Elijah Moore. If it were not for DeVonta Smith’s ridiculous Heisman campaign, Moore would have had the top receiving year in the SEC. He ranked behind only Smith among all wide receivers in receiving grade (92.4), catches (86) and yards (1,193) since Week 4.

Moore played primarily in the slot during his Ole Miss career, and that is most likely where he'll land in the NFL. Out of the slot in 2020, Moore produced a ridiculous 97.7 receiving grade (tied first in the nation) and was one of just three players with at least 20 receptions of 15-plus yards from the slot since the SEC kicked off. 

Dyami Brown, North Carolina

There were only 29 instances of a 1,000-yard season since 2019 among Power Five players. And North Carolina’s Dyami Brown was one of the few to eclipse that threshold in both years. Brown benefited largely from his Power Five-leading 18.4-yard average depth of target and his quarterback Sam Howell’s willingness to look his way when throwing deep.

Brown averaged over 20 yards per reception in back-to-back seasons and is tied with Alabama's DeVonta Smith for second in touchdown receptions on throws 20-plus-yards downfield (13). 

Honorable Mentions

Kyle Pitts, Florida

Kyle Pitts is not technically a wide receiver, which is why he was left off the initial list, but it would be a disservice to his dominance not to mention him. Pitts was the highest-graded player in all of college football, posting a 96.9 PFF grade, and is a generational talent at the tight end position. He is the perfect tight end/wide receiver hybrid that NFL offensive coordinators will love and NFL defenses will hate. 

Terrace Marshall Jr., LSU

With Justin Jefferson leaving for the 2020 NFL Draft and Ja’Marr Chase opting out of the 2020 season, Marshall was finally setting up to be the primary guy on the outside for the LSU Tigers. He was on pace to put up numbers similar to that of Chase and Jefferson after just four games. He led the country in touchdown receptions (9) and trailed only Alabama's DeVonta Smith in receiving grade from Weeks 4-8 (89.4).  

Jaelon Darden, North Texas

Darden is another slot prototype that NFL offenses crave nowadays. The speedster from North Texas was one of the most electric players when targeted in the slot this season, hauling in 16 touchdowns from that alignment — the most in college football. The closest player to him in that category was Heisman winner DeVonta Smith with 12, and no one else had more than nine.

Darden’s speed puts him in position to take the top off defenses at will. His 4.31 yards per route run ranked second to only Smith’s 4.39 mark, but he ranked first among all pass catchers in 20-plus-yard touchdowns from the slot (8). 

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