(A series looking at the top players at various positions leading up to the 2015 NFL Draft, set for April 30-May 2.)
Believe it or don't, but there was a time – and not all that long ago – when there was a belief around the league that it was difficult for rookie receivers to contribute right away in the NFL. Not so, anymore.
Maybe some of it has to do with the proliferation of passing offenses throughout college football that's turning out more finished products at the position, or maybe it has to do with just about every NFL team utilizing four-five receivers at a time, which then increases the opportunities for rookies to get onto the field sooner rather than later.
There may not be five No. 1 picks in this class of receivers as was the case last year, but a couple of the guys at the top of the list could end up becoming dominant NFL players.**
He went to junior college out of high school, but he didn't play in either 2010 because of a shoulder injury or in 2011 because he missed the deadline for filing for financial aid. White only had one big season at West Virginia, but it came in 2014 when he finished with 109 catches for 1,447 yards and 10 touchdowns in 13 games. At the Combine, his 4.35 in the 40-yard dash was the fastest among all receivers, and his 23 repetitions in the 225-pound bench press was tied for first. White is 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, and reports from Indianapolis were that he has excellent football intelligence and also the kind of charisma that can light up a locker room. White also has his degree in multidisciplinary studies.
If White isn't the first receiver off the board, then it will be Cooper, who led Alabama in receiving during each of his three seasons there. His best was in 2014 when he caught 124 passes for 1,727 yards and 16 touchdowns in 14 games, a season in which Cooper consistently made the extraordinary look ordinary. He has good hands, catches the ball in traffic, is quick to get to top speed, and since he played all three wide receiver positions in Alabama's pro-style offense, Cooper also has the versatility in the passing game that NFL scouts love. He's a clutch player who has been in a lot of big games. Cooper or White is going to come down to a team's individual preference, but it doesn't seem as though there can be a wrong choice with these two.
View some of the top 2015 NFL draft prospects at the wide receiver position.
The next player among those in this group is Parker, and then some scouts see a bit of a drop-off, but statistics would indicate that there's a big drop-off between White/Cooper and Parker as well. Parker was a full-time starter at Louisville in both 2013 and 2014, but he wasn't able to post a 1,000-yard receiving season either time. In 2014 he was hampered by a broken foot that caused him to miss the first seven games of the season, but he left college never having caught more than 55 passes in a season and never having posted more than 885 receiving yards in a season. His confidence has led some scouts to fear he may have diva tendencies, and as a tall, thin 6-3, 209, Parker doesn't always embrace the physical components of the job.
Another player taking the junior college route out of high school, Strong arrived at Arizona State in 2013 and became an immediate starter. During his two seasons there, he finished with 157 catches for 2,287 yards and 17 touchdowns, one of which was an incredible play on a Hail Mary to beat USC. Strong posted a 42-inch vertical leap at the Combine to go along with 4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash. Individual elements of Strong's game aren't as special as some of the other top prospects', but he's a well-rounded player who has shown consistent improvement. His strength, 6-2 frame and ability to make catches in traffic will be attractive to some teams, but Strong lacks special separation speed. He could become a very good and very physical possession receiver.
He is 6-5, 237, but despite being the most sought-after recruit coming out of high school in Missouri, Green-Beckham was dismissed from the Missouri program in 2014 and then never suited up for Oklahoma before declaring for the NFL draft. In 2012, he was arrested for possession of marijuana and pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and paid a fine. Then in January 2014 he was arrested for possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute, but when another person took responsibility for the drugs, Green-Beckham did not face charges. He was dismissed from the Missouri program following a domestic incident in which he reportedly broke into his girlfriend's home and pushing a friend of hers down the stairs. Many teams won't have him on their draft boards, but he is too talented and has too much upside to be undrafted for very long.
THE 2014 NFL DRAFT, WR STATISTICS
Number drafted: 33
Picks by round: 5 in the first; 7 in the second; 3 in the third; 5 in the fourth; 3 in the fifth; 5 in the sixth; 5 in the seventh
Highest pick: Sammy Watkins, Clemson, Round 1, 4th overall by the Buffalo Bills
Biggest impact: In every way – statistics, wow-factor – it has to be Odell Beckham Jr., who was a first-round pick by the New York Giants. Beckham finished his rookie season with 91 catches for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns, and football fans everywhere were mesmerized by those one-handed grabs he made in pregame warmups and in games.