NFL Draft News & Analysis

Fantasy Football: Ranking the top rookie vertical threats in the 2021 NFL Draft

Jan 11, 2021; 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

To wrap up my evaluation of the 2021 wide receiver class, I’ve decided to look at the rookies who excel as vertical threats. The top slot receivers, alpha outside wide receivers and end-zone target hogs have already been identified, so chasing the high-aDOT monsters is next on the agenda.

These are the high-upside prospects who command valuable downfield targets. During their final college seasons, Gabriel Davis, Tee Higgins, CeeDee Lamb and Chase Claypool all compiled over 500 receiving yards on targets of 20-plus yards. Air yards and aDOT are key metrics worth pursuing as prospects enter the next level. 

View PFF's 2021 NFL Draft position rankings:

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

1. LSU WR JA’MARR CHASE 

Since the start of the 2019 season, Ja’Marr Chase leads the draft class with a near-perfect PFF receiving grade (99.0) on targets of 20-plus yards. His total receptions (24) and receiving yards (860) rank third, and no receiver has more deep touchdowns (14) than Chase despite the fact that he didn't play in 2020. 

WRs/TEs on 20-plus yard targets since 2019 | 2021 draft class
Player PFF receiving grade
Ja'Marr Chase 99.0
DeVonta Smith 97.9
Isaiah Weston 97.0
Kyle Pitts 96.3
Dyami Brown 94.3
Jaylen Waddle 93.7
Rashod Bateman 93.2

Chase has a special ability to win at the catch point and pluck the ball out of thin air. On 26 catchable deep targets (tied for third-most), he had just one drop. 

Inserting Chase into the Cincinnati Bengals’ offense is exactly what Joe Burrow needs to take another step forward in 2021. Burrow finished with the second-worst on-target rate on 20-plus yard throws (21%) in 2020.

Swapping out A.J. Green for Chase will be a huge boon for the Bengals’ vertical passing game. When the LSU duo won a national championship back in 2019, Chase saw the highest percentage of catchable deep targets (68%). 

2. FLORIDA TE KYLE PITTS 

Kyle Pitts seized the title of college’s best deep threat in 2020, posting a league-leading 98.6 PFF receiving grade and 100% catch rate on bombs thrown his way. Pitts’ rating when targeted 20-plus yards downfield (142.8) led the draft class — WRs included.

WRs/TEs on 20-plus yard targets in 2020 | 2021 draft class
Player PFF receiving grade
Kyle Pitts 98.6
DeVonta Smith 96.9
Dax Milne 95.0
Dyami Brown 94.4

3. ALABAMA WR DEVONTA SMITH

DeVonta Smith isn’t particularly known for being a field-stretcher, but his elite route-running prowess allows him to thrive when called upon. Since the start of 2018, he is PFF’s seventh-highest-graded WR on deep targets (97.3).

The undersized playmaker also ranks third in deep-ball yards (1,183), second in deep-ball receptions (1,211) and second in deep-ball touchdowns (15). 

Smith finished the 2020 season second in total air yards (1,765) and second in team air yards share (44%). 

4. NORTH CAROLINA WR DYAMI BROWN

While the receivers listed ahead of him have more well-rounded skill sets, Dyami Brown belongs in the conversation with this year's best field-stretching WRs. 

Brown’s effectiveness getting off the line of scrimmage helped him become one of the deadliest vertical threats in all of college football. No player had more total yards (1,116) or catches (26) on targets of 20-plus yards over the past two seasons.

He has averaged 20.1 yards per reception over the same time period (No. 2 overall, trailing only Chase). That's an absurd figure considering the junior out of North Carolina doesn't boast elite speed.

Brown only posted a 4.46 40-yard dash, but he has proven to be a precise route-runner who tracks the ball well. He ranked above the 80th percentile in both the broad and vertical jumps, demonstrating the athleticism that helps him get off the line of scrimmage. 

5. ALABAMA WR JAYLEN WADDLE 

Jaylen Waddle is one of my favorite wide receivers in this class, and he stacks up with the best of this year's WRs when it comes to deep targetsSince the start of 2018, Waddle’s PFF receiving grade (97.5) and passer rating generated (142.3) when targeted 20 yards downfield rank second in the class. 

The only reason Waddle ranks lower than the other receivers is that he’s more dangerous as a YAC receiver. His aDOT ranks outside the top 80, while his yards after the catch per reception (9.8) is second behind only D'Wayne Eskridge since 2018. 

HONORABLE MENTION

NORTH TEXAS WR JAELON DARDEN 

The Mean Green slot machine from North Texas knows how to get open downfield. During his breakout 2020 campaign, Jaleon Darden finished second in deep targets (32) and separation percentage (81%) on 20-plus yard targets (at least one step on the closest defender). 

separation percentage on 20-plus yard targets | 2020
Player Separation percentage
Jaelon Darden 81%
Elijah Moore 68%
Marlon Williams 65%
Tutu Atwell 63%
Anthony Schwartz 63%
Dyami Brown 59%
Dax Milne 57%
DeVonta Smith 54%

Darden is a savvy route-runner who uses quickness and speed to detach from opposing DBs. He also uses his hands to gain extra separation, showing moves that belie his experience. 

AUBURN WR ANTHONY SCHWARTZ
AUBURN WR SETH WILLIAMS

Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz were both dragged down by the Auburn offense, and their downfield stats dramatically suffered. Schwartz saw the fourth-lowest rate of catchable targets on 20-plus yard throws (32%), and Williams wasn’t much better (41%).

Lowest % of catchable deep balls since 2019
Player % of catchable deep targets
Shi Smith 23%
Marquez Stevenson 28%
Josh Palmer 31%
Anthony Schwartz 32%

Williams was able to make the most of his 56 deep targets (fifth), converting them into 20 receptions (sixth) for 660 yards (10th) and six scores (17th). In 2020, the contested-catch fiend commanded a 47% air yards share — a mark that ranked fifth-best in the nation in 2020 and No. 1 among the 2021 draft class.

Schwartz wasn’t as lucky. With the Auburn offense unable to take advantage of his 4.26 40-yard dash speed (99th percentile) to create explosive plays downfield, he was regulated to low-aDOT duties. Schwartz's career average depth of target is the fourth-lowest for receivers in the top 200 of 2021 PFF Big Board.

It’s a shame, too, because Schwartz was able to separate — his 64% rate of separation on deep targets tied Elijah Moore and Tutu Atwell for fourth-best in the country. Those guys combined for 36 receptions of 20-plus yards. Schwartz had six. 

Schwartz only brought down three of 16 deep targets in 2020, but those catches averaged a ridiculous 56.7 yards per pop. 

UAB WR AUSTIN WATKINS 

UAB’s Austin Watkins was an air yards monster in 2019, finishing third in total air yards (2,062) and first in team air yards share (45%). The cousin of Sammy Watkins, Austin’s 19.1 aDOT since 2019 leads all wide receivers in the 2021 class.

He also ranks fifth in catches (22) and receiving yards (787) and third in contested catches on 20-plus yard targets. Watkins makes up for a lack of straight-line speed with precise route-running and a big catch radius. 

His usage changed in 2020 — a lower aDOT (15.7 compared to 19.6) sapped some of the overall production, but the skills are there to reprise a downfield role at the next level.

 


More of PFF's 2021 NFL Draft tools here: 
2021 NFL Draft Big Board | 2021 NFL Draft Guide | 2021 NFL Draft Stats Export | NFL Mock Drafts | NFL Mock Draft Simulator

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