News & Analysis

2021 NFL Draft WR Superlatives: Best route-runner, freakiest athlete, safest hands and more

Dec 28, 2019; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; LSU Tigers wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase (1) reacts after carrying the ball for a first down against the Oklahoma Sooners during the third quarter of the 2019 Peach Bowl college football playoff semifinal game. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021 NFL Draft brings with it yet another loaded wide receiver class, making this exercise far more difficult than I had originally planned. There were several times when it felt plain wrong to leave certain players out, but they will have to settle for shoutouts in the writeups below.

Here is your “best” everything at the receiver position.

View PFF's 2021 NFL Draft position rankings:

QB | RB | WR | TE | T | iOL | DI | EDGE | LB | CB | S

Best Deep Threat: Jaylen Waddle, Alabama

Ja’Marr Chase was the most productive deep receiver in 2019, and DeVonta Smith laid claim to that title this past year, but no one brings the “threat” quite like Waddle. In the four games prior to his injury in 2020, Waddle hauled in six deep receptions on seven deep targets for 329 yards. Extrapolate that out to a 13-game season, and that’s 19.5 deep catches and 1,069 deep receiving yards — figures that would have far and away led college football. That’s what some lucky NFL team is getting early in the first round.

Best Route-Runner: DeVonta Smith, Alabama

This is how a 170-pounder can light college football on fire in a way we’ve never seen before. Smith simply doesn’t let cornerbacks get their hands on him. The nuance and polish in his route-running is unlike anything we have seen from any receiver prospect we’ve graded. You won’t find Smith “going through the motions” any time soon on tape.

Best Releases: Rashod Bateman, Minnesota 

This one could have been Smith too, but Bateman has the added physical element to get off the line of scrimmage. It’s why we feel so strongly about him as WR4 on the PFF draft board. His release package is NFL-ready, and it’s why he led the country in yards per route from the outside as a true sophomore in 2019.

Best After The Catch: Kadarius Toney, Florida

Rondale Moore, Tutu Atwell, Jaylen Waddle, Ja’Marr Chase and Jaelon Darden all have a case here, but none of them quite move the way Toney does. He broke 43 tackles on 120 career catches and added 23 more on 67 career rushes. Those are the kind of numbers you’d put up in NCAA Football with the difficulty on Freshman, not real life.

Best Contested Catch: Ja’Marr Chase, LSU

Chase is PFF’s WR1 because he’s not just a contested-catch guy. But when he is asked to play through contact, nobody in the draft class is better. And to think he was bodying defenders to the tune of 16 contested catches in 2019 as a true sophomore. The way he attacks the ball in the air is nothing short of special for a prospect and is a must to be a top dog at the NFL level.

Freakiest Athlete: Jaylen Waddle, Alabama

Sadly, we’ll never get to see how a healthy Waddle would have tested at the combine or his pro day after breaking his ankle last season. On tape, though, he’s truly the closest thing to Tyreek Hill from a size and twitch perspective that we’ve seen in recent years. Just look at the way he accelerates with the ball in his hands.

It’s decidedly different, even from the other elite-tier receivers in the draft class. He has the highest career yards per route run average in the draft class, and the highlight reel he put up on only 588 career passing snaps is a sight to behold.

Best Slot: Elijah Moore, Ole Miss

While he can be much more than a “slot only,” there’s no better option in the draft class if that’s what you want in your offense. Over the past two seasons, Moore has racked up 1,738 yards from the slot, the most of any receiver in college football. He’s also done so without the advent of a ton of “phony” production, as only 86 of those yards came on screens. He can be a vertical threat from the slot with 4.35 speed or easily shake defenders underneath.

Best Gadget Player: Rondale Moore, Purdue

While Kadarius Toney may have the slight edge after the catch, Moore gets the nod here for what his 4.29 speed can do as a gadget player. I feel bad lumping the Purdue receiver into such a role because he is so much more than that. If that’s all you wanted him to do, though, Moore could still bring a ton of value to the table. He’s not your everyday 5-foot-7, 180-pounder. Moore has legit play strength as well and can run through as well as around you.

Best Hands: Austin Watkins, UAB

Watkins isn’t going to win any athleticism contests, and he may be a late-rounder, but I’m not sure there’s an argument to be made for anyone else here. Watkins caught 99 balls with only one drop in his UAB career and went a ridiculous 19-of-31 in contested situations for his career. The man has ball skills for days. His separation ability doesn’t quite match up, but if it’s in his vicinity, he’s coming down with it.

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