NFL Draft News & Analysis

Ranking the best YAC receivers in the 2021 NFL Draft

Oct 3, 2020; Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA; Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle (17) runs for a touchdown after catching a long pass from Alabama quarterback Mac Jones (10) at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Alabama defeated A&M 52-24. Mandatory Credit: Gary Cosby Jr/The Tuscaloosa News via USA TODAY Sports

Some of the NFL’s best young wide receivers have recently transcended previous expectations for total yards after the catch and forced missed tackles at the position. San Francisco 49ersDeebo Samuel and Tennessee TitansA.J. Brown are two of the league’s best at adding yards above expectation regardless of target depth and basically have been since first setting foot in the NFL

Both A.J. Brown and Deebo Samuel have some of the highest YAC per reception and forced missed tackles per reception averages of any NFL wideout with 100-plus catches since 2016. 

While Samuel’s YAC per reception figure (9.64) is a bit of an outlier because so many of his targets come at or behind the line of scrimmage on screens, jet sweeps, etc., both he and Brown have more than exceeded expectations from a YAC perspective even when controlling for target depth. 

Samuel has the second-lowest average depth of reception of any NFL receiver with 100-plus receptions since 2016 but has still managed to more than exceed expected yards per reception totals.

Both Samuel and Brown offer NFL offenses so much additional value with their ability to create yards above expectation and force missed tackles after the catch. The following is a list of receivers entering the 2021 NFL Draft primed to join Samuel and Brown at the next level.

1. Jaylen Waddle, Alabama

No Power 5 wide receiver with 100-plus receptions since 2014 averaged more yards after the catch per reception than Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle (9.8). After averaging a stellar 8.0 yards after the catch per reception as a true freshman in 2018, Waddle cleared 10.0 in both his true sophomore (12.2) and true junior (10.1) seasons in Tuscaloosa. The 5-foot-10, 182-pounder is a stick of dynamite with the ball in his hands with absurd straight-line speed and dynamism. 

Waddle’s rare athletic talents also translated to high-end production as a return man at ‘Bama. Among the 88 college football players with 30 or more punt returns since 2014, Waddle ranks first in average yards per return (18.1). Only three other receivers even cleared a 15.0 yards per return average: KaVontae Turpin (16.1), Mecole Hardman (15.4) and Dante Pettis (15.0). 

2. Kadarius Toney, Florida

Get the ball in Kadarius Toney’s hands, and good things happen. The 6-foot, 193-pound Florida product is one of two receivers in this class that ranked inside the 90th percentile for both yards after the catch per reception (8.77) and forced missed tackles per reception (0.358). In fact, no Power 5 wideout with 100-plus receptions over the past seven collegiate seasons (2014-20) has forced more missed tackles per reception than Toney. 

Top eight WRs in the 2021 NFL Draft class, per PFF
Player Receptions ADOT YPR YAC/Reception Missed Tackles Forced/Reception
Jaylen Waddle 106 9.3 18.86 9.83 0.179
DeVonta Smith 234 8.44 16.94 8.77 0.141
Kadarius Toney 120 4.78 13.19 8.5 0.358
Ja'Marr Chase 107 13 19.56 6.92 0.252
Rondale Moore 178 3.2 10.75 7.54 0.264
Elijah Moore 190 7.48 12.89 5.48 0.168
Rashod Bateman 147 10.43 16.29 6.16 0.245
Terrace Marshall Jr. 106 10.63 15.04 5.1 0.132
Percentiles among all Power 5 WRs with 100+ catches since 2014
Player Receptions ADOT YPR YAC/Reception Missed Tackles Forced/Reception
Jaylen Waddle 10% 67% 98% 100% 66%
DeVonta Smith 98% 56% 94% 97% 48%
Kadarius Toney 31% 10% 51% 95% 100%
Ja'Marr Chase 14% 98% 100% 83% 93%
Rondale Moore 83% 4% 9% 90% 95%
Elijah Moore 88% 42% 45% 50% 60%
Rashod Bateman 60% 82% 88% 71% 90%
Terrace Marshall Jr. 10% 87% 78% 38% 42%

Though Toney didn’t clear the 65th percentile for the short shuttle (4.25 seconds) or three cone (6.88), he dropped jaws in the explosive testing. His 40 inch vertical and 11-foot-4 broad jumps ranked in the 90th and 99th percentile, respectively, among wideouts with pro day or combine testing since 1999. He also adds an extra layer to his raw athletic ability with creative footwork before and after the catch. 

3. Rondale Moore, Purdue 

While two hamstring injuries sidelined him for a lot of his collegiate career, Purdue’s Rondale Moore put on an absolute show after the catch in the limited opportunities he had on the football field. Like Toney, Moore ranked inside the 90th percentile in both yards after the catch per reception (7.5) and forced missed tackles per reception (0.264) among qualifying wideouts. As an 18-year-old true freshman in 2018, he ranked inside the top 10 among Power 5 receivers in yards after the catch per reception (7.8) and forced missed tackles per reception (0.325). Only then-South Carolina wideout Deebo Samuel ranked ahead of him in both statistical categories. 

The 5-foot-7, 180-pound frame will scare some teams away from Moore’s services, but there’s no doubting his ability to make the most of every touch in the NFL. He possesses Julio Jones-level explosiveness and dynamism but is stuck in a Cole Beasley-esque frame. He recorded a 4.29-second 40-yard dash, 1.50 10-yard split, 43-inch vertical and 6.68 three-cone at his pro day — all ranking inside the 90th percentile among wideouts. 

4. DeVonta Smith, Alabama 

Probably one of the more underrated parts of DeVonta Smith’s game is his ability to create yards after the catch. His 8.77 YAC per reception average across his collegiate career ranks in the 97th percentile among Power 5 wideouts with 100-plus receptions since 2014, and his numbers stand out even further when controlling for reception depth. 

The correlation coefficient for yards per reception and average depth of reception averaged among qualifying Power 5 receivers since 2014 is 0.80 (R^2 = 0.644). Receivers like Smith, Waddle, Louisville’s Tutu Atwell and LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase are among the few with significantly higher yards per reception averages when considering their respective reception depth averages. 

Smith isn’t on the same level as Waddle, Toney or Moore from a pure explosiveness or dynamism perspective, but his craftiness after the catch has paid dividends and led to high-end YAC production across his career. 

5. Ja’Marr Chase, LSU

Ja’Marr Chase’s play strength and overall ability to bully receivers shows up big time before and after the catch. At just 19 years old in his true sophomore season (2019), Chase ranked seventh in yards after the catch per reception (8.1) and sixth in forced missed tackles per reception (0.262). His career YAC per reception average (6.92) ranks in the 83rd percentile, and his forced missed tackle per reception average (0.252) ranks in the 93rd.

Waddle, Toney and Smith best Chase in YAC per reception average, but his forced missed tackle per reception average across his career is still among the more notable figures over the past seven collegiate seasons. 

Chase’s insanely high target and reception depth averages (shown in the graph under DeVonta Smith) create far less opportunity after the catch than other wideouts, but he still managed to exceed expectations with the ball in his hands at every turn. 

Really Fast but Missed the Cut

Tutu Atwell, Louisville 

There's no denying that Tutu Atwell can fly. The former Louisville wideout runs in the low 4.4s and torched ACC secondaries en route to some of the highest yards per route run, yards after the catch per reception and total yards per reception averages in all of college football. However, he misses the cut because he’s really just fast and fast alone. 

Atwell weighed in at 5-foot-9 and 155 pounds at his pro day, good for the lowest weight recorded at a pro day or combine since 1999. He also totaled just a 4.42 40-yard dash (78th percentile) and didn’t clear the 25th percentile in either the vertical or broad jumps. With such a small frame and just slightly above-average athleticism, Atwell will likely struggle to break tackles and make a name for himself after the catch with fewer wide open spaces in the NFL. His career forced missed tackle rate ranked in just the 26th percentile among qualifying wide receivers.

Anthony Schwartz, Auburn

Anthony Schwartz is in a similar spot as Atwell — the kid can fly but that’s about it. At 6-foot and 186 pounds, Schwartz clocked a 4.26 40-yard dash (99th percentile) but failed to clear the 65th percentile in vertical, broad, short shuttle and three-cone drills. He also recorded just 0.09 forced missed tackles per reception, ranking in the 12th percentile. 

Honorable Mention

Amari Rodgers, Clemson

While he isn’t particularly explosive or dynamic, Amari Rodgers is an extremely strong wideout who had defenders bouncing off him throughout a very productive collegiate career at Clemson. The 5-foot-10, 212-pounder averaged 7.9 yards after the catch per reception and 0.215 forced missed tackles per reception with the Tigers, ranking inside the 93rd and 83rd percentile among qualifying wideouts, respectively.

Rashod Bateman, Minnesota 

Rashod Bateman’s career YAC per reception and forced missed tackle per reception averages ranked inside the 71st and 90th percentiles, respectively, among qualifying Power 5 wide receivers since 2014. There are no wasted movements with Bateman’s game. He works with efficient feet before and after the catch, which translates to easy separation and yards above expectation. 

Tamorrion Terry, Florida State

Tamorrion Terry was largely a big-bodied deep threat at Florida State who ranked in the 93rd percentile for average depth of reception and the 98th percentile for yards per reception, but he still managed to do a lot of damage after the catch. The 6-foot-3, 207-pounder ranked in the 91st percentile among qualifying pass-catchers in yards after the catch per reception since 2014 (7.62). 

D’Wayne Eskridge, Western Michigan 

D’Wayne Eskridge is an older prospect (he turns 24 in 2021) with great straight-line speed and YAC production at Western Michigan. He averaged an FBS-high 14.4 yards after the catch per reception this past season and stood out well above the rest of the Group of 5 pass-catchers when controlling for reception depth. 

There’s a strong positive correlation between yards per reception and average depth of reception at the Group of 5 level among wide receivers. D’Wayne Eskridge and Marquez Stevenson stand out with well above-average yards per reception averages when considering reception depth. 

Marquez Stevenson, Houston

At 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, Marquez Stevenson recorded an insane 6.46-second three-cone that ranked in the 100th percentile among wideouts at the Houston pro day. His change-of-direction ability shows up after the catch. He averaged a whopping 10.5 yards after the catch per reception in 2019 and ranked highly among fellow Group of 5 wideouts in forced missed tackles per reception. 

Marquez Stevenson and D’Wayne Eskridge are two of the more productive Group of 5 wide receivers in terms of yards after the catch and forced missed tackles per reception since 2014. 

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