News & Analysis

2021 NFL Draft: Preseason wide receiver rankings

The NFL is a passing league, and that’s only going to grow more true in the coming years with the influx of receiver talent. While everyone raved about the 2020 wideout class, there’s a legitimate possibility that 2021's group is even more talented. It’s a young class with both physical freaks and some extremely polished route-runners. Let’s get to the top 10.

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[Editors Note: PFF’s customizable NFL Mock Draft Simulator gives you the opportunity to be the GM of any team and is now updated with a select group of 2021 prospects]

1. Ja’Marr Chase, LSU

Chase is the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner and is very unlikely to be unseated from his position as WR1 on PFF’s Big Board. Unlike some of the top wide receivers in last year’s class who had minor holes in their profiles, Chase ticks pretty much every key box. He’s well-built at 6-foot, 208 pounds and fast. In addition, he has beaten press coverage in multiple ways, been productive at all levels of the field, played against the best competition in America and won as an outside receiver. That’s about as safe a projection to the NFL as you’ll see.

2020 Outlook

Don’t take any of the bait when Chase’s numbers inevitably fall back down to earth a bit this year. He will still be a special talent who has done more than enough already against NFL cornerbacks to secure his spot in the top 10.

2. Rondale Moore, Purdue

With Moore opting out in 2020, he’ll head into next year’s draft with all of 185 offensive snaps since 2018. That’s unprecedented territory. However, he is still second in our receiver rankings, which should tell you all you need to know about how special his tape is.

Moore is listed at 5-foot-9, 180 pounds, which will cause many to pigeonhole him into the slot before he ever touches an NFL field. His tape tells a different story. As Rondale himself says, “How tall is fast?” With his blend of speed, strength and ball skills, he can get the job done wherever. He hasn’t lined up as an outside receiver a ton, but he’s gained 263 yards on 57 such routes. His 4.61 yards per route would lead the nation if he had enough snaps to qualify. While he’s not Tyreek Hill, Moore is the closest thing we’ve seen in recent drafts.

2020 Outlook

More snaps on the outside could have pushed Moore's draft stock into Tavon Austin territory this upcoming season. Unfortunately, he won’t get that opportunity. Even with his limited playing time, I wouldn’t expect to see him fall out of the top 20 picks.

3. Jaylen Waddle, Alabama

With two confirmed first-round receivers on Alabama last year and another likely one beside Waddle, the fact that Waddle himself was chosen to handle return duties shows how the Tide coaching staff feels about him with the ball in his hands. With legit 4.3 speed and home-run ability every time he touches the ball, Waddle is primed for a big breakout year in 2020.

His 560 yards this past season may have seemed to show regression, but it’s only because he struggled to see the field with Alabama’s bevy of weapons. Waddle averaged a ridiculous 12.2 yards after the catch to lead all receivers in the country. His 2.98 yards per route average was over a half-yard more than teammate — and the first receiver taken in the 2020 NFL Draft — Henry Ruggs.

We do still need to see a good deal more from Waddle as an outside receiver at this point, however. He took only 17 snaps split wide last season and saw press coverage on only 21 total routes. Those sample sizes are too small to have any sort of feel for how he gets off the line of scrimmage and runs an outside route-tree.

2020 Outlook

Waddle shouldn’t have to worry about consistently seeing the field this year as we get to see his talent fully unleashed snap after snap. While he won’t have a top-five pick at quarterback getting him the ball, Mac Jones can more than facilitate a big year for the rising junior receiver.

4. Rashod Bateman, Minnesota

Bateman has already opted out of the 2020 season and will be entering the 2021 NFL Draft. That should tell you he feels pretty secure about his draft stock — as do we. He led the nation as a true sophomore in yards per route run from a split-wide alignment (3.6). He’s a big-bodied receiver at 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, yet is still sudden in his route breaks and at the line of scrimmage. I’d rank his release package as the second-best in the entire draft class — behind Ja’Marr Chase. Bateman excels at the catch point (caught 12 of 19 contested targets last year) as well as after the catch (17 broken tackles). There are few holes in his game, which is incredible to say for a rising junior.

2020 Outlook

I already took a deep dive into where Bateman’s draft stock stands after opting out. The gist is, Bateman has already produced at an elite level. We don’t need to see any more to say he’s a first-round talent.

5. Amon-Ra St. Brown, USC

St. Brown is crafty well beyond his years and has been productive for the Trojans ever since he stepped foot on campus. He played the slot role for them last season in every game except against Cal (5-of-6 targets for 85 yards). Don’t think for a second he was thrust into that role because he can’t beat coverage on the outside. The 6-foot-1, 195-pound St. Brown was the only USC starter with a versatile enough skill set to line up in the slot — the 6-foot-4 Michael Pittman Jr. and 6-foot-2 Tyler Vaughns would have been ill-suited.

For a slot-only wideout, St. Brown can win at every level of the football field and had nine deep receptions last season. He’s at his best with the ball in his hands, breaking 18 tackles last season.

2020 Outlook

Michael Pittman’s 100-plus targets from a year ago and spot on the outside are up for grabs, so expect Brown to fill those shoes admirably in 2020. He also returns to one of the best quarterback situations in the country, as sophomore Kedon Slovis had outstanding accuracy numbers in his true freshman season.

6. DeVonta Smith, Alabama

With all the talent in Alabama’s receiving corps last year, it was Smith who often played the ‘X’ role and was tasked with winning the go routes from the outside. And he did just that, finishing with 10 deep receptions to lead Alabama last season. He’s far more impressive at the catch point than you’d expect at his size and has tremendous ball skills. For his career, he’s dropped six passes on 123 catchable targets.

The worry with Smith is obvious. He’s about as skinny a top wide receiver as you’ll see in college football nowadays at 6-foot-1, 175 pounds. The guys who can get by being that skinny run in the 4.3s, which Smith reportedly will not.

That doesn’t mean he can’t get there from a weight perspective, but it’s almost certainly the reason he didn’t declare for the draft after leading the Tide in receiving yards.

2020 Outlook

Adding muscle is the top priority for Smith’s 2020 outlook. More consistency is priority number two.  Even though he racked up nearly 100 yards per game last season, he only had three games of 100-plus yards.

7. Tutu Atwell, Louisville

In a receiving class full of freak athletes, Atwell may be the freakiest. He reportedly has run a 4.26-second 40-yard dash and a 3.9-second short shuttle at 5-foot-9, 190 pounds. Both those figures would have been tops at the receiver position at the 2020 NFL Combine.

They’ve already translated to the football field, as well, where Atwell was the heart of Louisville’s passing offense last season. He racked up 1,270 receiving yards in a unit that threw for only 3,035 yards all season.

However, for as dynamic as Atwell is, he’s not much more than a pure gadget player at this point. His route running is still a work in progress, and he racked up yards either on screens or with pure speed downfield. Atwell’s 334 yards on passes caught behind the line of scrimmage were the most of any Power Five wide receiver.

2020 Outlook

Considering the massive leap Atwell took from his freshman to his sophomore campaign, I have high hopes for what we could see in 2020. Atwell has reportedly gained a good deal of muscle after Louisville listed him at 165 pounds a season ago, so it will be notable to watch how that impacts his game.

8. Chris Olave, Ohio State

Olave is pretty much the exact opposite type of receiver to Atwell. He’s far from a physical freak and is not the guy you want to pump screens to — he has broken three tackles on 61 catches for his career. What he is, is arguably the best route-runner in college football. Olave stems his routes as well as anyone in college football, never giving away his intentions before his breaks. The only reason he didn’t end up with more yards is that so many of his catches end up in the end zone. Twelve of his 49 catches last season resulted in scores. Olave also did almost all of his work from the outside, as he took only 50 snaps in the slot all season.

2020 Outlook

No one receiver in Ohio State's offense is ever going to be featured enough to put up jaw-dropping numbers. Replicating the type of production we saw from Olave last season would be just fine from a draft stock perspective. Some added muscle to his frame and a little more production after the catch would help, as well. I’m not sure he’s the type of athlete that traditionally goes high at the position, but he could be one of the steals of this loaded class.

9. Tamorrion Terry, FSU

Terry’s catch radius is among the largest in college football. The 6-foot-4 redshirt junior can go up and pluck it out of the air with the best of them. He can also straight-up scoot when those long legs get up to full speed. Terry has averaged over 20 yards per reception on 95 catches for his career. Taller receivers often struggle with sinking their hips and throttling down on route breaks. That’s not the case with Terry whatsoever, as he makes a living on hitch routes and comebacks.

Terry is yet another receiver who needs to add a little more strength to his game. He went only 11-of-26 in contested catch situations last season and has struggled against jams from larger corners. He could also stand to clean up his drops, with 11 on 106 career catchable.

2020 Outlook

Terry has to prove he can get off press coverage more efficiently in 2020. Otherwise, he’ll be falling out of the top 10. He’s sudden enough to figure it out, but the track record for tall, skinny receivers against press isn’t good.

10. Sage Surratt, Wake Forest

Surratt burst onto the scene in 2020 as one of the most consistent receivers in college football. He racked up over 1,000 yards in nine games before a shoulder injury ended his season. Surratt is an ultra-physical route-runner at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds who also bullies defenders after the catch (17 broken tackles on 65 catches). He’s got prototypical possession receiver traits.

Surratt lacks wheels, though. He’s firmly a 4.6-plus type of wideout. It's encouraging that his lack of speed didn’t stop him from being productive downfield, where he hauled in 12 deep passes for 470 yards. We usually prefer separators when projecting to the NFL, but Surratt plays such a physical brand at the receiver position that he looks like he’ll be able to keep getting the job done at the next level.

2020 Outlook

After only 581 yards as a redshirt freshman, Surratt qualifies as a bit of a one-year wonder. Combine that with his shoulder injury, and it’s not hard to see why he came back to school. It’s going to be difficult for him to replicate those numbers without quarterback Jamie Newman throwing him the ball, and his biggest weakness — speed — won't improve overnight.

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