With the NFL draft around the corner, here’s everything you need to know about the top WRs in this class. Pat Kerrane takes an in-depth look at the five WRs that made the first round of Evan Silva’s Mock Draft 1.0.
Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU
- D.J. Moore
- Calvin Ridley
- Odell Beckham Jr.
- Hakeem Nicks
Age. Ja’Marr Chase will play the entire 2020 season at 21. WRs who begin their rookie years at age 21 have out-produced WRs who enter the league at 22+ and have been the best values in dynasty.
Declared Early. Chase is entering the NFL just three years after graduating from high school. WRs who forgo college eligibility to enter the NFL draft have strongly out-performed WRs who stayed for their senior season, even after accounting for age.
Underclassman Breakout. To qualify for a “breakout” we’re looking for WR prospects to produce a season where they average 30% of their team’s receiving yards and receiving TDs (the average of these is called Dominator rating). Chase hit that threshold as a true sophomore with 84 receptions for 1,780 yards and 20 TDs in 2019. That was good for 32% of LSU’s receiving yards and 34% of their TDs.
Played with Other Talented WRs. Chase achieved this breakout despite playing with future NFL rookie sensation Justin Jefferson. Jefferson was a year ahead of Chase in school and, as we now know, a total stud. But Chase still outproduced him in yardage share, 32% to 26%, and in TD share, 34% to 30%. Moreover, Terrace Marshall, another potential first-round pick, played in 12 of LSU’s 15 games that season–and that didn’t stop Chase from dominating either.
Yards per Route Run. Chase’s next-level college dominance shows up in the YPRR data as well. Again, despite playing alongside a future NFL star and another high-end prospect, Chase was markedly more efficient than his teammates. Chase had a truly elite 3.52 YPRR in 2019, while his teammates combined for just 1.60. He was also much stronger than Jefferson (2.64) and Marshall (1.59) specifically. This combination of per route efficiency and a wide separation from talented WRs in the same offense points to an extremely high NFL ceiling.
Career Market Share of Yards. Despite playing alongside talented teammates and not playing football his junior season (which may have been another barn burner), Chase still had a strong career yardage share of 26.6%. Compared to last year’s class, that’s a stronger mark than every single underclassman selected in the first round of last year’s draft.
Athleticism. Without the Combine, this year’s 40-yard-dash times are harder to trust. But with athletic measurables at WR, we mostly want to make sure the player has the minimum size and athleticism typically necessary in the NFL. Otherwise, the main reason to care about Combine/pro day measurables is that they can have a big impact on draft position. Neither issue is in doubt here.
Chase ran a sub 4.4 40, jumped 41″ and 132″, and ran a 6.96 3-cone and 3.99 short shuttle at 6 feet, 201 lbs. There is absolutely zero doubt that Chase has first-round NFL athleticism to go with his elite production profile.
Took 2020 off. If Chase took the year off and flopped his pro day, I might actually be worried. But given the numbers he put up, it’s safe to say he was putting in the work despite not playing football in 2020. That said, he has a lower floor than a hypothetical version of Chase who also dominated college football in 2021.
Chase is a stronger prospect than any of the WRs in last year’s historic class. While that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll have the instant success of his former teammate Justin Jefferson, or even match the flashes we saw from CeeDee Lamb last year, keep in mind that Chase would have likely been the WR1 in last year’s class, if eligible. He is a special prospect and should be the 1.01 in 1QB rookie drafts regardless of landing spot.
Prospect Grade: Rookie 1.01
Devonta Smith, WR, Alabama
- Santonio Holmes
- Kendall Wright
- A.J. Jenkins
- Diontae Johnson
- Emmanuel Sanders
Dominant Final Season. As you’re well aware, Devonta Smith won the Heisman. During his historic season he racked up 40% of Alabama’s receiving yards and 55% of their receiving TDs. He did so at a fairly young age for a senior, and won’t be 23 until November. His age-adjusted final season was quite impressive.
Played with Other Talented WRs. Smith dominated Alabama’s offense despite playing alongside fellow first-round talent, Jaylen Waddle. Moreover, Smith also shared the field in 2019 with Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs and it was Smith who was the most productive of the four.
Yards per Route Run. As you would expect, Smith was off the charts in 2020 with a YPRR of 4.39. But he was also excellent in 2019 with an elite 3.52. His 2019 was all the more impressive because he was better than Jeudy (3.3), Waddle (2.98) and Ruggs (2.45). There’s no denying that Smith was a special college WR, even before his 2020 explosion.
Special Teams Ability. Smith wasn’t used a ton in the return game, but he averaged a ridiculous 21.5 yards per punt return on 11 career attempts, with one TD. We don’t have pro day measurables for him, but that kind of dynamic playmaking in the return game is generally a strong sign that a player has functional NFL athleticism.
Career Market Share of Yards. Those WRs that do tend to succeed despite not declaring early were usually dominant throughout their entire college careers. However, Smith–even with his ridiculous 40% yardage share in 2020–had just a 27% career MSY. This is because Smith started his career slowly. He had just a 10% yardage share as a freshman and a 16% yardage share as a sophomore.
No Underclassman Breakout. Successful four-year WRs also tend to have a breakout season within three years of leaving high school. Smith did not. While his 2019 season was good, he didn’t clear the predictive 30% breakout threshold.
Size. Smith has an extremely slender frame. He’s 6 feet tall but weighs just 170 lbs.
Athleticism. Small WRs have found success at the NFL level before… but they’ve almost always been exceptionally fast. Unfortunately we don’t have any pre-draft measurables for Smith.
Smith doesn’t technically fit a number of the criteria I value. As a four-year player who didn’t dominate his offense until his final season, he looks a lot like a potential bust… and that’s before we get to his small frame and unknown athleticism.
However, team situation has been one of the most critical pieces of context for WRs in recent years. A.J. Brown didn’t post a 30% Dominator rating in his final season at Ole Miss while playing alongside D.K. Metcalf. Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry similarly held each other’s college market share numbers in check. And there’s the issue of not being able to dominate your offense when you’re not on the field in the first place. We saw this with Tee Higgins, who didn’t have a breakout season at Clemson, but was spectacular in YPRR. He simply didn’t get the opportunity to run enough routes due to Clemson’s absolutely dominant 2019 season.
With Smith, both issues are at play. Not only was he playing alongside three other first-round WRs as an underclassman (actually four since his freshman year overlapped with Calvin Ridley), but that glut of talent kept him from running a full slate of routes. When out on the field, he was the best of Alabama’s WRs in 2019 and utterly dominant in 2020.
But of course, there’s also the weight issue. I personally don’t consider Smith’s weight as a major impediment to him being a good NFL player. But keep in mind that as fantasy owners, we’re looking for NFL superstars. In my view, Smith’s weight combined with a likely absence of elite speed, does create a narrower path to him becoming a fantasy football difference-maker. That concern, along with the fact that his advanced statistical profile requires a little bit of squinting before it impresses, has me slightly lower on him than the other top-tier WRs in this class.
Prospect Grade: Late First-Round Rookie Pick
Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama
- Henry Ruggs
- Marquise Brown
- Ted Ginn
- Jeremy Maclin
Played with Other Talented WRs. Waddle was one of Alabama’s Big Four in 2019 and then played alongside the Heisman Trophy winner in 2020. Traditional measures of college dominance are going to find him unimpressive… but those metrics are missing important context.
Yards per Route Run. Like Smith, Waddle’s performance in YPRR is a lot more impressive than his market share. This is intuitive since Alabama had a glut of first-round talents over the last three seasons, none of which posted dominant market share.
But Waddle’s career YPRR wasn’t just good; it was arguably even more impressive than Smith’s. As a true freshman in 2018, Waddle put up an elite 3.58 YPRR, better than sophomores Jeudy (3.32), Smith (2.18) and Ruggs (1.99). He had a very strong 2.98 YPRR in 2019 as well. This was below both Jeudy and Smith, but still better than Ruggs.
In 2020, Waddle played just five games but was an absolute force when on the field. He essentially tied the Heisman winner with 4.38 YPRR, and was far better than the rest of the Alabama WRs–the next highest of which had a YPRR of just 2.23.
Special Teams Ability. Waddle was electric as Alabama’s return man. He scored three TDs on 47 career returns, and averaged 23.8 yards per kick return and an impressive 19.3 yards per punt return. Given question marks around the size of his role in the offense and lack of measured athleticism, it’s a great sign that Waddle was highly dynamic with the ball in his hands.
Did Not Break Out. Waddle never hit the 30% Dominator rating threshold that qualifies a breakout season. He got closest in 2020 with 29% of receiving yards and 24% of TDs. (These metrics only include games that Waddle played, so he’s not being penalized for his abbreviated 2020 season).
Career Market Share of Yards. Waddle also falls short when looking at his career as a whole. He accounted for just 18% of Alabama’s receiving yards in his 33-game career. This is well below what we’d like to see, even for three-year prospects. His abbreviated 2020 season did hurt him here, but even with a full junior season it’s still unlikely he would have been in the mid to high 20s, where I prefer to see three-year prospects.
Size. A lot is made about Smith’s size (I’m guilty of it myself), but Waddle is only 5′ 9 1/2″ and 180 lbs. He’s got 10 lbs on Smith but is also 2.5 inches shorter, so it’s hard to see him bulking up a ton at the NFL level.
Unknown Athleticism. This is more of a technicality. I wish we had timed speed for Waddle since his profile depends on him being a burner at the NFL level. But when SEC defenders are throwing themselves at a guy and not even getting a hand on him… he’s probably fast.
Waddle’s profile is a bit reminiscent of Henry Ruggs. Both WRs were early declares with speed as their calling cards, who had low career market shares and who never had a breakout season in college. But while the two are similar in some ways, they’re also mirror opposites in terms of the question marks in their statistical profiles.
With Ruggs, we were certain that he was a burner. But the question was if his athleticism would fully translate into NFL playmaking. Meanwhile, Ruggs never flashed elite efficiency on a per route basis, nor was he a dynamic return man. As a result, he was essentially a bet on NFL draft position, timed athleticism, and youth. Ruggs was and is a project WR. He comes with an immense ceiling, but also a very low floor.
With Waddle, we’re not certain about how athletic he is. But with multiple seasons of elite YPRR and elite return ability on his résumé, we have strong evidence that he does in fact have playmaking ability. The question now becomes whether he has the physical tools to translate that skill to the NFL against bigger and faster competition.
Entering the NFL older, smaller, and likely slower than Ruggs, I think Waddle has a lower pure ceiling than Ruggs did as a prospect. But as a WR who began flashing elite ability the moment he stepped on the field, I also think he’s a stronger bet overall.
The question now is whether Waddle can be the focal point of his NFL offense in a way he was not in college. Personally, I’m comfortable taking a leap of faith on Waddle’s low market share, given his exceptional per route efficiency. But bets on unproductive college WRs are objectively risky, even when backed by first-round draft capital.
Prospect Grade: Early First-Round Rookie Pick
Rashod Bateman, WR, Minnesota
- Calvin Ridley
- Nelson Agholor
- Stefon Diggs (fifth-round pick but very similar outside of draft position)
- Marquise Lee
Age. Bateman doesn’t turn 22 until November.
Underclassman Breakout. Bateman nearly broke out as a true freshman with a 28% DR. In his final two seasons he never had less than 30% of Minnesota’s receiving yards or receiving TDs. His sophomore season was particularly impressive. Playing alongside future NFL WR Tyler Johnson, he produced 1,219 receiving yards and 11 TDs for a 36% DR.
Career Market Share of Yards. Bateman accounted for 34% of Minnesota’s receiving yards over his three-year career. This is a rare achievement for a three-year college WR.
YPRR. In Bateman’s 2019 season he also had a ridiculous 3.48 YPRR, 1.6 yards per route better than his teammates. In 2020, he moved to the slot and had another stellar season: 3.45 YPRR, 2.18 better than his teammates. Over his career, Bateman isn’t far off of Chase’s spectacular YPRR.
Versatility. Although Bateman looks like an outside WR at the pro level, he played both inside and outside in college. For fantasy purposes, the ability to work from the slot is a beautiful thing.
Athletic Thresholds. You’ll sometimes see Bateman’s athleticism cited as a red flag, but he hits all of the minimum thresholds Adam Levitan has identified for fantasy WRs.
Weight. Bateman profiles as an outside WR at the NFL level. Yet he weighed in at just 190 lbs. And despite being listed at 210 lbs at Minnesota, he says he’s never weighed more than 200. This weight range keeps his ceiling intact, but it produces statistical comps with a much lower floor than if his listed weight was accurate.
With first-round draft capital behind him, Bateman looks a lot like Ja’Marr Chase. He’s not the athlete that Chase is, but his athleticism should be more than sufficient. He didn’t dominate at LSU next to Justin Jefferson, but he was even more dominant (as you would hope) playing at Minnesota next to Tyler Johnson. And he won’t go top 10 in the draft, but he may end up in a highly desirable landing spot as a late first-round pick. Don’t get me wrong… Chase is without a doubt the better prospect, But Bateman is an incredibly exciting prospect in his own right–particularly if he comes off the board on Day 1.
Prospect Grade: Early First-Round Rookie Pick
Terrace Marshall, WR, LSU
- Tee Higgins
- Justin Hunter
- Cody Latimer
- Jerry Jeudy
Age. Marshall doesn’t turn 22 until June.
Played with Other Talented WRs. Marshall was a part of the historic 2019 LSU offense, playing alongside fellow sophomore Ja’Marr Chase and junior Justin Jefferson.
Underclassman Breakout. In 2020, Marshall finally had the offense to himself and took full advantage. His 731 yards accounted for 34% of LSU’s receiving yards and his 10 TDs accounted for 47% of LSU’s receiving TDs.
YPRR. In 2019, Marshall’s teammates combined for 1.97 YPRR. In 2020 they combined for just 1.25 YPRR. Meanwhile, Marshall’s YPRR jumped from 1.59 to 2.91. In other words, the 2020 team had far less talented receiving options, and needed Marshall to step into a much bigger role. He posted borderline elite efficiency while doing so.
Athleticism. Although not quite to the level of Chase, Marshall has impressive athleticism. He ran a sub 4.4 40 at 6′ 2.5″, 205 lbs with a 39″ vertical. He has plus athleticism for his size, which is one of the reasons he’s now getting first-round buzz.
Career Market Share of Yards. Marshall’s career yardage share is a lowly 17%. This has shown up as a red flag for other highly-drafted early declare WRs like Cody Latimer, Devin Funchess, Dorial Green-Beckham and Laquon Treadwell. It was also a red flag for early declare stars like Josh Gordon, D.K. Metcalf and Tee Higgins.
Like Tee Higgins last year, Marshall’s statistical profile points to a very wide range of outcomes. He could be a future top-10 NFL WR. Or he could be a seven-game mirage who quickly washes out of the league. Personally… I’m inclined to bet on Marshall’s ceiling more than his floor. But keep in mind that Marshall’s small sample of college dominance comes with a low floor as well as a high ceiling.