(Ben Fennell is an Emmy Award-winning producer, editor and researcher across several media platforms, including the NFL Network and ESPN College Football. He worked with Mike Mayock on the NFL Network’s draft coverage for five years, and has worked the last two years with Daniel Jeremiah. You can follow him on Twitter at @benfennell_NFL. For the second straight year, Ben is breaking down each position in the draft for The Inquirer. Today, in Part 3 of our eight-part series, he examines the wide receiver position.)
For wide receiver needy teams like the Eagles, this draft is the equivalent of a candy lover getting to spend three days in Hershey’s Chocolate World.
NFL scouts and draft analysts have suggested that this wide receiver group might be the best — and deepest — in league history.
Before the scouting combine in late February, the NFL Network’s senior draft analyst, Daniel Jeremiah, said that he had no less than 27 wide receivers with top-three-round grades. At a position where the average number of players taken each year over seven rounds is 31.
“This is a really phenomenal group of wideouts," Jeremiah said. “Not all those guys are going to go early. They’ll end up spreading throughout the draft because of teams having needs at other positions. But it’s a really good group."
This is a pick-your-flavor wideout group. Big, thick receivers with huge catch radiuses who are going to earn their keep on 50-50 balls and in the red zone. Vertical-threats who can take the top off of a defense.
Tall, lean, wiry guys who can play in the slot. Swiss-army-knife gadget receivers you can move all over the field and utilize in both the run and pass games.
“There’s something for everybody with this group," said Jeremiah’s NFL Network colleague, Ben Fennell. “All different shapes and sizes. Whatever you’re looking for, whether it’s a matchup player, a slot presence, a vertical threat or a gadget guy, this draft has a player for you at every tier. That’s an exciting proposition for a lot of offenses.’’
Tee Higgins (Clemson) and Michael Pittman Jr. (USC) top Fennell’s list of size wide receivers. His top speed receivers are Jerry Jeudy (Alabama, who is expected to be the first wideout off the board) and CeeDee Lamb (Oklahoma).
The fastest wide receiver in the draft actually is Jeudy’s Alabama teammate, Henry Ruggs, who ran a blazing 4.27-second 40 at the scouting combine. Ruggs tops Fennell’s list of gadget receivers because he expects the team that drafts him to use him in a number of ways on offense, as well as a returner and gunner on punt coverage.
“Deebo Samuel’s success with the 49ers has everybody wanting that gadget guy,’’ Fennell said. “And there are a lot of good ones in this draft — Ruggs, Laviska Shenault (Colorado), Jalen Reagor (TCU), Devin Duvarnay (Texas), Lynn Bowden Jr. (Kentucky) and Antonio Gibson (Memphis), who has 4.39 speed and looks like a running back, but played in the slot at Memphis.’’
Tee Higgins, Clemson, 6-4, 216, N/A
Michael Pittman, USC, 6-4, 223, 4.52 in 40
Chase Claypool, Notre Dame, 6-4, 238, 4.42
Antonio Gandy-Golden, Liberty, 6-4, 216, 4.6
Collin Johnson, Texas, 6-6, 220, N/A
Arms: 34 1/8 inches
Hands: 9 ¼ inches
40 time: 4.55 seconds
Vertical jump: 31.0 inches
Bench press: N/A
Fennell’s take: “Higgins is a tall, long, above the rim, catch-point type of receiver. He has good body control. He’s a back-shoulder, 50-50 guy out of the Braylon Edwards-Justin Hunter-Alshon Jeffery school. He’s a really good athlete. Springy. Explosive. He was on Clemson teams with a lot of other offensive stars, so he didn’t have the great production. And he had some issues with press coverage.
“A lot of people view him as an AJ Green-style of player. But he just wasn’t a guy who got himself open a ton. He was a guy who relied on being big and being able to play above the rim. There are some guys who almost want to feel the DB on them so they know how to put their butt on them and box them out and out-leverage them. He’s a guy who almost likes the Velcro play so he knows where you are as opposed to trying to separate from you. Which is how these big guys play. He’ll be a good red-zone player.’’
Round projection: 1, back half of the round
Arms: 32 ½ inches
Hands: 9 7/8 inches
40 time: 4.42 seconds
VJ: 40.5 inches
225 Bench: 19 reps
Fennell’s take: “Claypool’s an interesting player. He’s from Canada. He’s a couple of pounds away from being a move tight end. But he went to the combine and really lit it up, running a 4.42 and jumping 40-plus inches, which is pretty impressive for a guy his size. He wasn’t particularly productive at Notre Dame. He’s a guy you want to isolate one-on-one in the red zone. I didn’t love him in 2018. I viewed him as a slightly bigger version of Riley Cooper. But he put on some more pounds and ran fast and now everybody loves him.
“I don’t particularly like this style of receiver. They just don’t ever seem to work out. I’m talking about the big, 225-plus-pound wideouts. The DGB’s of the world. The corners are bigger and stronger and faster in the NFL. If you don’t know how to get yourself open, it’s tough just being a catch-point guy. But his workout at the combine really helped him.’’
Round projection: 2-3
Arms: 31 ¾ inches
Hands: 9 5/8 inches
40 time: 4.6 seconds
VJ: 36.0 inches
225 Bench: 22 reps
Fennell’s take: “This kid’s the Day 3 version of Tee Higgins. Reminds me a little bit of (the Lions’) Kenny Golladay. He was a really productive player the last two years at Liberty. He’s an explosive receiver. He can win down the field. He’s good in the red zone. He had a really good week at the Senior Bowl against some good competition. He didn’t test particularly well at the combine. Ran a 4.6, which was fine for his size and speed. Jumped OK. But he’s got long arms. He’s a guy who knows how to get himself open at that size.
“It’s a good value to have that size, that length, that frame and the route-running acumen. All of his production numbers are just behind the best in the country — the Jerry Jeudys of the world — as far as catches of 20-plus. At one point late in the season, he led the NCAA in receptions of 10 yards, 20 yards and 50 yards. So he was very productive. But again, he played at Liberty. Though they did play Virginia, Syracuse, Rutgers, and BYU. So they played some bigger schools.
“He’s been on people’s radar since the summer. But anyone that’s just getting into the draft right now will see Liberty and say ‘so what.’ It’s not exactly a household name.’’
Round projection: 6-7
Jerry Jeudy, Alabama, 6-1, 193, 4.45
CeeDee Lamb, Oklahoma, 6-2, 198, 4.5
Denzel Mims, Baylor, 6-3, 207, 4.38
Justin Jefferson, LSU, 6-1, 202, 4.43
Brandon Aiyuk, Arizona State, 6-0, 205, 4.5
Arms: 32 1/8 inches
Hands: 9 ½ inches
40 time: 4.45 seconds
VJ: 35.0 inches
225 Bench: N/A
Fennell’s take: “Jeudy is a route-running technician. From releases, in and out of breaks, strength at the top of the routes, hands, suddenness after the catch, he’s the whole package. Pick your who’s who of those types of receivers, whether it’s Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr., Santonio Holmes, Peter Warrick from the early 2000s, he’s every bit of those people.
“He’s every bit the player he was at Deerfield Beach (High School) and at all of those Nike camps coming out of high school. He played in a variety of offenses at Alabama. I think it was two different schemes in three years. Last year (2018), he had 1,300 yards and 14 touchdowns. And there’s a lot of mouths to feed on that Alabama team. So this year’s numbers, at least yards- and touchdowns-wise, weren’t quite as good. But that doesn’t mean anything with this guy. He knows how to get himself open and is an absolute problem in every phase of being a receiver. He could slide a little in the first round because many of the quarterbacks, offensive tackles and interior defensive linemen could get pushed up. But he’s going to step in and be an immediate impact player in somebody’s offense.’’
Round projection: 1
Arms: 33 7/8 inches
Hands: 9 3/8 inches
40 time: 4.38 seconds
VJ: 38.5 inches
225 Bench: 16 reps
Fennell’s take: “Mims has an impressive track background. He was the state 200-meter champion in high school. Also was a quarterback in junior high. I love seeing that kind of pedigree from receivers. He played on both sides of the offense at Baylor and was very productive. You see a lot of college kids who only played on one side. So that’s a benefit to him.
“Mims has long limbs. He plucks (the ball) away from his frame. He’s explosive. The adjustments — the back-shoulder plays, hanging in the air, working the sideline, playing above the rim, red zone, 50/50 balls — he can do all of that. He’s got some drop issues. But he has amazing catches for every one of his drops. He’s a high-volume guy. You’re going to have a couple of drops when you’re targeted a lot. It just happens. He’s a bit of a raw route-runner. Runs a little high at times.
“Showed up at the Senior Bowl and looked really good in the one-on-ones against some of the top corners. He really does a lot of things that AJ Green did at Georgia and even early in his career with the Bengals. Green had a lot of drops his first 3-4 years in Cincy. But you don’t think of AJ Green as a guy who has drop problems, because he had a lot of impressive grabs as well. Mims’ trajectory, with the offseason he had — his bowl game against Georgia, his Senior Bowl performance, running 4.3 at the combine, he’s a perfect example of a riser.’’
Round projection: 1-2
Arms: 31 ½ inches
Hands: 9 ¾ inches
40-time: 4.43 seconds
VJ: 38.5 inches
225 Bench: N/A
Fennell’s take: “Hightower has a chance to be a presence the way Darius Slayton was for the Giants this past year. He’s a Day 3 player who came off the bus being a fast guy. That’s what John Hightower is — a fast guy. He finished fourth in the 400 meter hurdles at the JUCO nationals.
At 6-1 and just 189 pounds, he has an undersized frame. But he’s a speed demon. He’s explosive. The past two years, he had 12 plays of 40-plus yards. So he’s an over-the-top guy all day long.
“He had a strange college career. Played two years at Boise. His first year there as a junior, he played with a senior at quarterback. Then this past year, he had to play with a true freshman, which is an interesting situation for a senior receiver to get thrown into. But he averaged 18.5 yards per catch and had eight touchdown grabs. They used him on a lot of run-game stuff. Jet sweeps. End-arounds. All the gadget stuff. So he not only was a vertical threat, but a horizontal threat as well. He made defenses cover every bit of grass.
“If you can’t get your hands on Penn State’s K.J. Hamler on Day 2, you can get Hightower on Day 3. He is just as good as Hamler in my opinion.’’
Round projection: 4-5
Henry Ruggs, Alabama, 5-11, 188, 4.27
Laviska Shenault, Colorado, 6-1, 227, 4.58
Jalen Reagor, TCU, 5-11, 206, 4.47
Devin Duvernay, Texas, 5-10, 200, 4.39
Lynn Bowden, Kentucky, 5-11, 204, N/A
Arms: 30 ½ inches
Hands: 10 1/8 inches
40 time: 4.27 seconds
VJ: 42.0 inches
225 Bench: N/A
Fennell’s take: “The guys’s got track speed all day long. He ran one of the fastest times in history at the combine (4.27). He’s a guy who’s a little bit of a raw route-runner. But that’s offset by the speed. Just like Tyreek Hill, who also was a little bit of raw route-runner coming into the NFL.
“But you see his speed in a variety of ways. The effort, the hustle. Whether it’s running down a player in the Tennesee game after Tua throws a pick, or last year when Alabama’s tight end, Irv Smith, fumbled against Arkansas 40 yards down the field. Because he was hustling to help block, Ruggs was there and picked up the ball and ran it in for a touchdown. So he uses that speed in different ways. As a punt gunner. As a returner. On offense, he’s not just a straight vertical guy. Everybody’s looking for the vertical speed, but he gives you the horizontal threat as well on jet sweeps, end-arounds and all of the rest of the gadget stuff.
“Because he’s a little bit raw in his route-running, that’s why I’ve got him as a gadget player rather than a speed wide receiver. Just give him the ball. Make it easy. Bubbles, perimeter screens, jet sweeps, end-arounds. It doesn’t have to be so hard. Just look at the way Tyreek Hill gets the ball. I think that’s what you’re looking for out of Henry Ruggs.
“And don’t be afraid of the production (just 40 catches), because, as with Tee Higgins at Clemson, you have to factor in all of the stars they had. Lot of mouths to feed. He’s going to be a slot guy in the NFL. I don’t see him lining up much outside the numbers. You could even put him in the backfield in some situations.’’
Round projection: 1, mid-to-late-round
Arms: 31 3/8 inches
Hands: 9 ½ inches
40 time: 4.47
VJ: 42.0 inches
225 Bench: 17
Fennell’s take: “Reagor only ran a 4.47 at the combine after running an official 4.29 last summer. So they were expecting him to run a little bit better at the combine. The interesting thing about him is he has the profile of a small, little gadget receiver. But they lined him up outside the numbers on, like, 85 percent of his snaps in his career at TCU. I don’t think that’s how he’ll be used in the NFL.
“In combination with how he was used, they had a litany of quarterback issues at TCU that affected his production. But he’s an exciting, explosive athlete that can win down the field, get yards after the catch. He’s really competitive in the red zone and is competitive going up to get the ball. He caught a Hail Mary at the end of the half against SMU as a true freshman. As a 5-11 receiver, he literally jumped over six different defenders to get the ball. He’ll high-point the ball in the red zone. He’s an excellent back-shoulder receiver.
“He had a bunch of good plays as a returner, on jet sweeps, in the Wildcat. They just didn’t do it very often. I’m not sure why. But he’s a guy who I think will wind up being a better pro than he was a college player. He reminds me of Curtis Samuel coming out of Ohio State or Brandin Cooks coming out of Oregon State. Just get them the ball in some YAC situations or throw it to them down the field and let them make plays.’’
Round projection: 1-2
Arms: 31 1/8 inches
Hands: 8 5/8 inches
40 time: 4.39 seconds
VJ: 35.0 inches
225 Bench: 16 reps
Fennell’s take: “Gibson is one of my favorite players in this draft. This guy has the Deebo Samuel body. Like Deebo, this guy has a huge butt on him. He looks like a running back when you see him walking around in pregame warmups.
“But he ran a 4.39 with that size, which is really impressive. He was one of four players in FBS this year to have 500 receiving yards and 300 rushing yards. So he’s got that dual-threat ability where you can hand him the ball in some gap-scheme stuff or some zone schemes and let him pick and choose an alley.
“He lined up primarily in the slot at Memphis. He was in the slot 79 percent of the time this year. Ran a lot of stuff down the field. He’s really good in the screen game after the catch. When you look at the history of the players with 500 (rushing yards) and 300 (receiving yards), those dual-threat guys, you have Tavon Austin, Curtis Samuel, Randall Cobb. A lot of those who’s who players in the NFL right now that do those roles.
“There are a lot of teams that want this (gadget) presence in their offense. Teams like the Packers, the Eagles, they want that gadget player, to make life easier for the quarterback. That’s what these kind of guys can do. Take pressure off of the quarterback.’’