Why does the NFL suck at drafting wide receivers?
That was a question posed to me on Twitter the other day and it’s not something I had really considered in recent years. After doing a bit of digging, I came across an article by Arrowhead Pride posted in 2015, that concluded only 58% of first round receivers are a ‘success’ and 42% are ‘busts’. This would make it the joint worst position overall in terms of ‘busts’ in the first round. The rate of ‘success’ drops slightly to 49% in the second round too.
This is pretty scary stuff to see as an Eagles fan considering the Eagles are going to need instant production from at least one rookie wide receiver this year. Luckily, this receiver class is excellent and there are a ton of talented receivers available. Despite this, the odds are that there are almost certainly going to be a few busts in the first two rounds of this years draft. So I decided to look at why the NFL struggles with drafting wide receivers and what the Eagles could do this year to help them solve this issue.
Let’s start by looking at what the NFL wants at the position. These are the first round receivers taken over the past few years.
Marquise Brown (Pick 25)
N’Keal Harry (Pick 32)
DJ Moore (Pick 24)
Calvin Ridley (Pick 26)
Corey Davis (Pick 5)
Mike Williams (Pick 7)
John Ross (Pick 9)
Corey Coleman (Pick 15)
Will Fuller (Pick 21)
Josh Doctson (Pick 22)
Laquan Treadwell ((Pick 23)
For the most part, I would say most NFL teams are looking for two things when they are drafting a receiver in the first round. They are looking to draft an ‘X’ who can beat press coverage. These receivers often have good size and they can use this size to get off press coverage and win on the sideline. Looking at the list above, a lot of these players drafted have struggled to be their teams ‘X’ because they were unable to get off the line of scrimmage and defeat quality press coverage. This has led to busts such as Doctson, Treadwell and arguably Corey Davis. Looking at the list above, DJ Moore and Mike Williams are the only ones who have worked out as an ‘X’ for their current teams which shows you how hard it is to find these guys.
Secondly, NFL teams are looking to draft an explosive playmaker who will provide their offense with a vertical element. These guys will often play the ‘Z’ role so they get a free release and will often provide a spark from the slot too. This need for speed has lead to guys such as John Ross, Will Fuller and Marquise Brown being first round picks. Hitting on an explosive playmaker can change your offense - just look at how much the Eagles missed DeSean Jackson last year. These playmakers are the ones who will keep defensive coordinators up at night and they are crucial for an offense to succeed. If you want to have a great offense in the modern day NFL - you need to have explosive playmakers in your team that can create chunk plays and change a game in a few plays. These guys will also force a team to play deeper coverage, put a safety over the to help and they can therefore help your ‘X’ get open without even catching a ball by opening up the middle of the field. Guys like John Ross and Will Fuller were drafted in the first round even though both the Bengals (AJ Green) and Texans (DeAndre Hopkins) two of the best ‘X’ receivers in the league on their rosters. This shows you just how valuable these vertical threats are.
As Benjamin Solak recently wrote, finding an outside ‘X’ receiver who can defeat press coverage is the hardest receiver to find and that makes him the most valuable on a team. Finding an explosive playmaker to pair with an ‘X’ is also a difficult thing to find. This is why players like John Ross went in the top 10! Teams are desperate for an explosive vertical element to add to their offense. Sadly, a good 40 time does not mean you will be a good vertical threat. You need way more than straight line speed to be an elite vertical threat. You need incredible speed off the line of scrimmage, the ability to play through contact and the ability to track the football while it is in the air. As Eagles fans, (sorry Nelson Agholor) we know this is not easy. If you are incredibly lucky, you might even be able to find an ‘X’ receiver who also provides an explosive vertical element, such as an Odell Beckham or a Julio Jones, if you believe you have found this guy then you are extremely lucky and you should not trade them away...
So why are there so many busts at the receiver position? Just draft the great ‘X’ receivers who beat press consistently in college and then draft the best vertical threats to play opposite them... easy right?
The single biggest problem with the receiver position is how they win in college probably isn’t going to cut it in the NFL.
The AFC General Manager above hits the nail on the head. In the college game, there are way too many examples of receivers not facing press coverage and winning with a free release. It is far easier to defeat man coverage when a CB is 5-10 yards off you and letting you get off the line of scrimmage with ease. Even worse, you will often see receives facing a ton of zone coverage and getting open without even defeating man coverage. At the NFL, life is not this easy. When we begin to understand this, we start to realize why players like Nelson Agholor could be explosive deep threats in college and struggle to do this in the NFL.
Kyle Shanahan was asked about Deebo Samuel’s route running last year and he said this:
Shanahan had an interesting point on Deebo Samuel and why route running isn’t as important in college as it is in the pros pic.twitter.com/iNywEkd1Lm— KP (@KP_Show) January 7, 2020
‘Working on routes so much in college is kind of a waste of time. They’re just going against zone. Just get them open in zone and have them run’. That is a terrifying quote to read as an Eagles fan considering we need instant production from at least one rookie receiver next year. The 49ers took Deebo Samuel in the second round and Kyle Shanahan still didn’t think he was a good route runner! Shanahan was willing to bet on his own scheme using Deebo’s physical traits to help him succeed.
A great example of this is Justin Jefferson vs Ole Miss last year. Jefferson went for 9 catches, 112 yards and 2 touchdowns. Sounds like a brilliant game. Now watch the All22 of the game and tell me how many excellent routes you saw that will carry over to the NFL.
I saw short out routes and curls with free releases. I saw a crossing route with absolutely no one to beat go for 50 yards. I saw a bubble screen for a TD and a flat route from the backfield. The best route was his final catch, where he won inside and caught the slant for a TD. If you are nitpicking though... the cornerback was 7 yards off him and didn’t even lay a finger on him. This will not happen in the NFL and it highlights why it is so hard to project players to the NFL.
Lastly, let’s listen to what Mike Mayock said about why receivers struggle transitioning from the NFL to college.
Mayock on why WRs are so hit and miss early in drafts: pic.twitter.com/Au0fRczSMw— Vic Tafur (@VicTafur) February 25, 2020
‘Reason number 1 is, the lack of quality press coverage in football’. As I have said earlier, finding a receiver who has faced and defeated press coverage consistently in college is incredibly hard. Mayock then talks about how receivers look slower in the pros because they are thinking too much. Receivers can survive by running a couple of routes well in college. This isn’t the case in the NFL. Finally, he talks about having to learn different positions in the NFL, ‘you better get in there and learn 3 positions not 1’. A common excuse for JJ Arcega-Whiteside is that he had to learn too many positions last year. Sadly, that is not uncommon in the NFL so he better get used to it. You need to be able to play multiple positions so offensive coordinators can take advantage of different skill sets depending on who they are playing each week. It is not good enough anymore to simply be able to play one position well.
So, what can the Eagles do to hit on a wide receiver this year?
This is incredibly difficult to do and it may sound obvious, but they need to try and find examples of players defeating press coverage consistently and playing through contact on the outside if they want to draft an ‘X’ receiver. The problem is, the guys who do this consistently (Ceedee Lamb, Jerry Jeudy) won’t be there at 21 because as I’ve mentioned already, these are the most valuable players so they will go early. So if you cannot find examples of a player beating press (because he was simply never pressed) you need to then project and basically guess - who has the skill set to get off press coverage? You want to see receivers who explode off the line of scrimmage, who can play through contact, who can make tough contested catches and have the footwork to separate from cornerbacks. Watch the first second of each rep closely, it will tell you a lot about that wide receiver and whether they are explosive enough to create vertical plays or get off press coverage. Athletic testing is useful here too, you can use the testing to try explosive athletes and then see if their tape matches up. However, even if you think you have found a great prospect - if he wasn’t pressed in college you are taking a risk if you ask him to get off press in the NFL! This isn’t a flaw with NFL general managers but a flaw with the way receivers are used in college.
If the Eagles are looking to find a vertical threat who can play the ‘Z’ role and also take snaps in the slot then they have to find receivers who have done this in college and decide if it will translate to the pros. Don’t just look for receivers who look explosive when they are running through huge gaps in zone coverage. They have to find receivers who are explosive off the line of scrimmage, can beat man coverage, have shown the ability to play through contact, show elite ball tracking skills and win at the catch point. Taking into account what Mayock said earlier too, you also want to find receivers who run a variety of routes and line up in different positions in college as they will need to do this in the NFL.
The good news is - I believe there are receivers outside the top 3 who have the potential to either be that ‘X’ receiver (Denzel Mims or Tee Higgins for example) and there are receivers who can be that explosive vertical threat (Brandon Aiyuk or Jalen Reagor) and these are the types of players that the Eagles must prioritize. The worst thing the Eagles can do, is draft someone and ask them to do something completely different to what they were asked to do in college. This leads to Nelson Agholor 2.0, a good slot receiver who was explosive in college but could not play outside as he could not play through contact.
All the the 4 receivers mentioned above could certainly ‘bust’ if drafted by the Eagles and I like all 4 of those receivers. There are certainly safer prospects in the draft. I feel extremely confident that Justin Jefferson will be a very good slot wide receiver. I also believe Van Jefferson, who will likely be drafted in the 3rd and 4th round, will be a very solid slot wide receiver. Van Jefferson could even give you snaps at the ‘Z’ and possibly do well there. So why will NFL teams risk drafting players with a ‘bust’ potential rather than just take the safer prospect? Lets go even further down the draft, I feel confident saying KJ Hill could be a good WR3/4 and he will almost certainly go on day 3.
The answer comes back to the impact a player will have on an offense. Look back at the list of wide receivers earlier drafted in the first round earlier. None of them are strictly slot receivers only. It is simply too easy to find a slot receiver in the draft that you do not need one with a first round pick. It is also far easier to scheme open a slot receiver who has the ability to go either in or out on routes and he will also be more likely to face linebackers and safeties on occasions. Look at what Greg Ward did last year for the Eagles. Also, this is why Jordan Matthews had 16 touchdowns and 1759 yards in his first two seasons despite not being able to separate! In the end, the Eagles decided to replace Matthews with Agholor in the slot. Matthews put up great numbers but it wasn’t down to his own ability and he had absolutely no explosive vertical element to his game. The Eagles decided Agholor was more explosive and he therefore gave the offense something it didn’t have with Matthews.
In the first round you want to get yourself an ‘X’ receiver who can defeat press coverage or an explosive playmaker who can create big plays in the passing game from the outside and the slot. These guys will not be there in the later rounds whereas guys who can win with a free release in the slot will be. If they can find a player who can successfully play the ‘X’ and/or create vertical plays, it will have a huge impact in the passing game and also help open up the field which will help Ertz, Goedert and JJAW win on intermediate routes. This is why players such as Aiyuk, Reagor, Mims and Higgins will likely go earlier than people think in the draft. NFL teams will take a risk on them because the value they could bring to an offense if they ‘hit’ are massive.
This brings me to Justin Jefferson, a popular pick for the Eagles at 21. Jefferson is a very good prospect, but he is a slot receiver only in my humble opinion. He played outside in 2018 and had some pretty bad reps against press. He struggles to play through contact and is far better with a free release. There is a reason he was moved to the slot full time in 2019, that is his best position and there is nothing wrong with that. If the Eagles draft him at 21 though, I would assume they must believe he can play outside as well as inside. Drafting a slot receiver at 21 would be a bad allocation of resources, especially when the Eagles had Zach Ertz line up in the slot 47% of the time last year and Dallas Goedert 40% of the time. Jefferson is a safe pick if you ask him to do in the NFL what he did in college, which is win from the slot. I do not believe Jefferson would provide the Eagles with a receiver who can beat press coverage or provide them with an explosive vertical threat. That means they will need to try and find those guys later on and that is very, very hard.
If the Eagles want Jefferson to be something he could not do last year, which is win outside, this is when ‘busts’ can happen. Another example of Laviska Shenault, a good prospect who should not be drafted early and made to be something he is not. If you draft Shenault and expect him to be an ‘X’ receiver or an explosive vertical threat because of simply how athletic he is, you will likely be trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. He was not asked to do this in college so it is a massive risk to ask him to do this in the NFL.
None of the prospects in the draft class are ‘bust-proof’. If the Eagles want to avoid a disaster though and really improve their receiving talent, they need to make sure they are drafting players based on what they have shown in college and not asking them to do different things. They also need to prioritize finding a legitimate ‘X’ receiver who can defeat press coverage or finding another explosive playmaker to complement DeSean Jackson or replace him when he is hurt. You won’t find explosive vertical threats or ‘X’ receivers in the middle rounds so you best go and get your guy in the 1st round too. Howie Roseman has left this team with a huge need at wide receiver and I do not believe he can afford to wait until the middle rounds to fix it.
So, overall, NFL teams will always ‘bust’ with the receiver position more so than other positions for numerous reasons. Largely though, it is a position that requires a huge amount of projection because the college game is simply so different from the NFL game. It is easy to criticize NFL teams, why draft the risky players and not just draft the ‘safe’ prospects like a Van Jefferson or a KJ Hill? It is because these players, although good players, can be easily replaced. Neither of these players really provide an explosive element or are particularly big or fast. They can be replaced. The Eagles can replace a Jordan Matthews type. Greg Ward had a good season last year but he can be replaced easily enough. Replacing a DeSean Jackson though is so much more difficult. Similarly, the value that a legitimate ‘X’ receiver can bring is simply huge and they cannot be easily replaced.
Don’t be surprised if Howie takes a risk on a Reagor or a Mims in the first round. If the risk pays off, the Eagles offense might just be excellent again next year...