The 2021 NFL Draft boasts yet another special wide receiver class. But before you think the past two years are the start of a consistent trend, just know that 2022 isn’t shaping up nearly the same. If you need a wide receiver, this is the year to grab one somewhere in the first two rounds.
Best Deep Threat: Jaylen Waddle, Alabama
Best Route-Runner: DeVonta Smith, Alabama
Best Releases: Rashod Bateman, Minnesota
Best After Catch: Kadarius Toney, Florida
Best Contested Catch: Ja’Marr Chase, LSU
Best Hands: Austin Watkins, UAB
Chase is so good that I made a point of making him the subject of my first deep this spring. It’s easy to forget how special he was as a sophomore back in 2019 before opting out this season — 84 catches, 1,780 yards and 20 scores — he outproduced the most productive 2020 rookie receiver in the NFL, for crying out loud!
The physicality he played with at only 19 years old is nothing short of special. It’s one thing to be a contested-catch machine when you’re the literal man among boys, but it's another entirely when you’re the boy amongst men. Chase has a versatile enough skill set to be anything you want him to be in the NFL.
Waddle has “it,” that know-it-when-you-see-it level of speed and quicks that doesn’t come around every year. Even compared to former teammate Henry Ruggs III, who broke 4.3 in the 40 at last year’s combine, Waddle is different.
That’s because speedsters often do their work in a straight line, whereas Waddle can explode any which way at any given moment. That’s why it was Waddle who was the designated returner among that heralded group ever since his true freshman year.
Anybody know an offense that needs help creating chunk plays? Can't help but wonder what a full season stat line would have looked like for Jaylen Waddle. These are from 4 games in 2020…and I left plenty off the reel ???? pic.twitter.com/6Zij5NaKA7
— Kyle Crabbs (@GrindingTheTape) February 15, 2021
While it’s easy to point to his volume numbers as worrisome, that’s very surface-level analysis. Yes, his 45 catches for 848 yards and seven scores as a true freshman would all be career highs, but that’s because he barely saw the field the next two seasons between the talent around him and a broken ankle this past season. In fact, Waddle’s 3.57 yards per route run over his career is the highest of any receiver in the draft class and tops Ja’Marr Chase tops by almost a half-yard. Oh, and despite his size, he’s been excellent in contested situations over his career, hauling in 10 catches from 15 opportunities.
Production plus elite athleticism plus the ability to play through contact equals a special prospect.
We all witnessed what Smith was capable of en route to the Heisman Trophy. There aren’t many words to describe his game quite as apt as effortless. Smith glides off the line of scrimmage and through his breaks like he was born to play receiver — it’s why he amassed over 3,000 receiving yards and 37 touchdowns the past two years. He also has some of the best hands (five drops on 189 catchable the past two seasons) in the country.
All these guys at the top of this receiver class possess elite traits, but Smith has easily the biggest physical question marks of the bunch. Listed at 6-foot-1, 175 pounds, the Bama pass-catcher will immediately be one of the skinniest receivers in the NFL. This millennium, only two receivers over 6-foot and under 180 pounds have been drafted: Snoop Minnis (third round in 2011) and Paul Richardson Jr. (second round in 2014). That’s not a great track record!
Corners get bigger, longer and faster in the NFL, meaning a lack of size to combat that gets amplified. It’s not a massive deal, but it’s bigger than any issue the top two on this list have, in my opinion.
In a class full of jitterbugs, Bateman has a decidedly different skill set. His speed and quicks won’t be his calling card, but he gets open just the same. His ability to get off the line of scrimmage and play through contact at 6-foot-2, 210 pounds is as good as it gets in the draft class after Ja’Marr Chase. It’s why he led the country in yards per route run as a sophomore in 2019 from a wide alignment.
Minnesota's Rashod Bateman (6-2, 210) is an advanced route-runner with strong hands in open and contested-catch situations.
He’s not a rare athlete, but he still creates separation quickly at and away from the LOS — very smart football player and likely top-50 pick. pic.twitter.com/lInR8uwWhp
— Austin Gayle (@PFF_AustinGayle) January 8, 2021
He kicked inside to the slot this past season and remained productive, although many of those vertical targets evaporated. His shake doesn’t only translate along his routes, as he’s broken 36 tackles on 147 receptions in his career. It’s worth noting that focus drops have been a bit of an issue. Even though I’ve got no problems with how he tracks the ball, Bateman has dropped 19 of his 166 catchable targets in his career.
The other Moore is already much more of a polished product heading into the 2021 season — he can man the slot from Day 1 for any offense in the league.
He’s not only got an ideal slot skill set physically, but he also has the mentality to take hits over the middle of the field. You won’t find tougher catches on a 2021 slot receiver's tape.
Elijah Moore goes FULL EXTENSION. pic.twitter.com/Fyg0QrKc6r
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) September 28, 2019
Moore may not give you the super high end, but there are truly not many weaknesses to his game. He’s going to get open, he’s going to break tackles (31 on 153 catches the past two seasons) and he’s going to make tough catches (22-of-39 on contested targets in his career).
Marshall is a long-limbed speedster who offers a little more dynamism after the catch than your average 6-foot-3 wide receiver. After playing primarily on the outside in 2019, Marshall thrived in 2020 while taking over Justin Jefferson’s role in the slot. He would have easily been one of the most productive receivers in the country on a per-target basis were it not for seven drops on 55 catchable targets. Still, he can make some spectacular catches with a massive catch radius, and drops haven’t been an issue for him in the past.
Every #LSU WR Terrace Marshall touchdown from his time in Baton Rouge.
Career Stats: 106 Receptions, 1,594 Yards, 23 TD
Note: TD on 21.6% of his catches (!!!) & double-digit TDs each of the last two years. pic.twitter.com/pUmOEyZORm
— Steve Frederick (@_SteveFrederick) February 13, 2021
He still needs to add some play strength to his game, as he’s a slender 200 pounds at the moment. While not quite a complete prospect yet, he could very well get there soon.
Moore is a rare athlete not only from a movement skills perspective but also from a strength perspective. Before he even stepped foot on Purdue’s campus, the then 174-pound receiver could already squat 600 pounds. It’s what makes him uniquely capable of not only making guys miss but, to quote Marshawn Lynch, “run through a mother***** face.”
Let us never forget the time that Rondale Moore ran over Ohio State.pic.twitter.com/u3GsJ4ttdc
— Connor O'Gara (@cjogara) August 6, 2020
The biggest question at this point is his route tree, or rather the lack of it. Pop passes, wide screens and slants — all from the slot — make up the vast majority of his utilization at Purdue.
Just because we haven’t seen a guy do it doesn’t mean he can’t. But in the cases where he did have to make contested catches or get vertical, it was a clear step behind a similarly elite athlete like Jaylen Waddle. He may have to start as a gadget player, but there is considerable room for development with Moore.
In our seven years of grading college here at PFF, we have yet to see any other receiver move the way Toney does. If you are drafting him early on, it’s because of that.
Can you mold that into a complete receiver? That’s the million-dollar question. With someone like Percy Harvin, who had similarly rare movement skills, that answer was no. With Toney, though, we’ve already seen some high-level creative route-running on tape.
The way Kadarius Toney moves…???? pic.twitter.com/sLp6yvnbJx
— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) January 28, 2021
…before you say anything about the drop, he had only three drops on 123 catchable in his Florida career.
We just haven’t seen him run routes from the outside, nor have we seen him play through contact. He saw only 10 contested-catch opportunities his entire college career. Those make him a difficult eval to pin down.
Brown has got some of the best releases of any receiver in this draft class. And he better with how often North Carolina’s offense asked him to get vertical. His career average depth of target in three seasons for the Tar Heels was a ridiculous 17.1 yards downfield. For comparison, Rashod Bateman’s is the second-highest of any receiver in this top 10 at only 13.7 yards.
Dyami Brown will win vertically at the next level, love him as a Day 2 value. pic.twitter.com/6SbuEtrpv1
— Austin Gayle (@PFF_AustinGayle) February 11, 2021
While he certainly comes with limited-route-tree concerns, Brown proved wholly capable when he was asked to win underneath and at the intermediate level.
10. Josh Palmer, Tennessee
Palmer never caught more than 34 balls or recorded more than 484 yards in a single season at Tennessee, so it's safe to say that he isn't a household name. But given the role he played and the quality of quarterback play at Tennessee, it's tough to blame him. The Volunteers deployed Palmer as a deep threat almost exclusively — his 16.6-yard average depth of target was one of the highest in the country — but they just didn't have a quarterback who could maximize that ability.
After Palmer put on a show at the Senior Bowl one-on-ones, it's easy to see some parallels to Terry McLaurin at Ohio State. While Palmer isn't that level of athlete, he could easily be more productive in the NFL than he was in college.
Courtesy of PFF’s 2021 NFL Draft Guide, find PFF's top draft prospect, biggest riser and wild card to watch at each position here: