INDIANAPOLIS – Once upon a time, the NFL's dominant offense had a group of wide receivers given the handle The Fun Bunch because of the orchestrated end zone celebrations that followed any time one of them scored a touchdown. But within The Fun Bunch was a sub-set also nicknamed, but this time for the size of its three members. Charlie Brown was 5-foot-10, Alvin Garrett was 5-6, and Virgil Seay was 5-8, and they were The Smurfs.
None of the wide receiver prospects here for the NFL Scouting Combine were born when those receivers, plus Art Monk, helped the Washington Redskins win Super Bowl XXII, and none of these top prospects ever will be confused with a Smurf.
When it comes to what NFL teams covet in wide receivers, small and quick has given way to long and physical. Not everybody has to be 6-2-plus, but it's an asset if they are. And 5-10 or less is something seen fewer times than 6-4 and above.
"This is the best class of wide receivers I've seen in years and years," said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock. "In normal years, (Penn State's) Allen Robinson would probably be like the fourth or fifth guy at the position and be a borderline first-round pick. I think this year, he's closer to a late second-round pick, and I think overall there are 10 or 11 guys who can step in and be starters in the NFL. Robinson is one of them."
This in fact might be the best class of receivers in years and years, but recent history reveals that wide receivers make up one of the most consistently talented and deep groups among those players seeking entry into the NFL each spring. The most logical explanation here is the proliferation of spread offenses, even down to the junior high school level, and so by the time those 15-year-old boys become 22-year-old men they have a lot of experience playing pitch-and-catch.
Then the evolution of the human body and training methods and nutrition kick in, and in the 25 years worth of advancements in those and other areas since The Smurfs, the athletes go from 5-8, 165, to 6-4, 230.
"A great NFL coach once said to me, 'You're getting too much into the minutiae when you're watching wide receivers on tape," explained Mayock. "He said, 'It really comes down to two things: can he separate on his own, and can he catch the football? That's what it comes down to, because I get tired of scheming guys open. Tight-bunch sets, and rub-routes, and picks. Can I get a get a guy who can get open by himself? That's the guy I want. That's your No. 1.'"
Those requirements haven't changed, but separating from today's big and physical defensive backs and then holding onto the ball when they bang on you trying to get it out is a job for a big and physical wide receiver.
After running a 4.43 and catching everything during the receiving drills, Clemson's Sammy Watkins should have cemented his status as a top-five overall pick. At 6-1, 211, Watkins isn't in the skyscraper category, but he will be a sufficiently physical presence anywhere in an NFL secondary.
"I usually don't get too excited about wide receivers in the top 10, but this kid is different," said Mayock about Watkins. "What I really like about this kid is he's got some toughness. He'll go over the middle. He'll physically beat press coverage. He high-points the ball. He's got a little attitude about him. He blocks people. He's got an attitude like he wants to be the best player there is and when you combine that with his physical ability, I think it's awesome."
Included in the group of the next wide receivers expected to be picked after Watkins are in the skyscraper category.
Mike Evans of Texas A&M is 6-5, 231, and he ran a 4.53 inside Lucas Oil Stadium. Kelvin Benjamin of Florida State – the guy who caught the game-winning touchdown pass in the final seconds to defeat Auburn for the BSC Championship – is 6-5, 240, and he ran a 4.61 here. These guys aren't the fastest, but they're fast enough to take advantage of their height and wing-span down the field to provide their quarterbacks with a large area in which to drop the football.
But in Mayock's mind, there's a player who fits on the tote board in between Watkins and the skyscrapers.
"I think you're going to see three guys in the mix as wide receivers in the top 20 of the first round, and one of them isn't a tall guy – that's Marquise Lee from USC," said Mayock. "Sammy Watkins, the wide receiver from Clemson, is going to be long gone (by the time the Steelers pick at No. 15). Really what you're talking about at that point is either Mike Evans from Texas A&M, and then whether you buy into Kelvin Benjamin from Florida State."
Lee measured 6-0, 192, and he posted a 4.52 in the 40-yard dash here, which make him neither the biggest nor the fastest. In the 2011-12 seasons, Lee had 191 catches and 25 touchdowns, but those numbers dropped off to 57 and four in 2013. Lee did finish up with seven catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns vs. Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Contrast Lee with Benjamin, who is an eyelash slower but five inches taller and 48 pounds heavier. Benjamin played only two seasons at Florida State, and he progressed from 30 catches for 495 yards and four touchdowns in 2012 to 50 for 1,011 and 15 scores in 2013 when Jameis Winston became the quarterback.
"I have Benjamin as the fourth wideout, and I have him somewhere between Nos. 20-32 (overall)," said Mayock. "He's got really good hands, and he makes the spectacular catch, but there are too many drops. Some people say, 'That's just a concentration drop.' My answer to that is, 'That's 15 yards (in the NFL).' He's got a lot of drops, and that's the only thing that worries me about him. Benjamin is 6-5, 240, and in today's NFL with the back-shoulder fade – which I think has changed the way the game is played and the way that teams draft – Evans and Benjamin make a lot of sense."
This is a guy whose number of catches dropped off from 2012 to 2013, but his average-per-catch and number of touchdowns increased dramatically. Evans caught 82 passes for 1,105 yards (13.5 average) and five touchdowns in Johnny Manziel's Heisman Trophy winning season of 2012, but last season those numbers went to 69 for 1,394 (20.2 average) and 12 touchdowns.
Against Alabama, Evans caught seven passes for 279 yards and a touchdown; vs. Auburn it was 11 for 287 and four touchdowns. But the defenses of LSU and Missouri frustrated Manziel by keeping him in the pocket, and Evans caught a combined eight passes for 59 yards in those games.
"He's got spectacular hands, strong hands," said Mayock. "I wish he had more routes that developed inside – he's an outside-the-numbers, red-zone guy, and then when the play breaks down, with Johnny Manziel he finds a way to get open. I think he fits with what Ben Roethlisberger does, but he needs to develop a little bit more as a route runner."
JARVIS LANDRY = HINES WARD?
And then Mayock concluded with a comparison that he knew Steelers fans would understand. He sees LSU's Jarvis Landry as playing a style similar to Hines Ward's. At 5-11, 205, Landry is similar in size, and because he ran a 4.75 at the Combine before pulling out with a calf injury he could slip into the third round area of the draft where Ward was selected. But there's more.
"When I watch a wide receiver on tape," said Mayock, "I don't want to see a highlights tape. I want to watch a game, watch what he does on every snap. This guy, Jarvis Landry from LSU earholes linebackers on crack-back blocks, and Hines Ward was the best who ever did that. He blocks 25 yards down the field for the other receivers. He catches the ball in traffic. Odell Beckham is the guy from LSU who is believed to be a No. 1 pick by a lot of people, and he's going to run a 4.35. Jarvis Landry is going to run a 4.55, but I still like Jarvis Landry because his toughness will prevail over time."
Actually, Beckham ran a 4.43 at 5-11, 198, but Mayock's point is clear:
Toughness often is the deciding factor in whether a guy can make it as a wide receiver in the NFL, and having some size sure doesn't hurt.