(A series looking at the top players at various positions leading up to the 2014 NFL Draft, set for May 8-10.)
Used to be, the first thing you wanted to know about a wide receiver prospect was: how fast is he? Anymore, the first thing is: how tall is he?
Six of the seven receivers generally identified as the top prospects at the position in this class are 6-foot or taller, and Odell Beckham is 5-11. In the NFL, where what qualifies as being open often can be a window the size of a sheet of paper, height is a help to the quarterback, especially in the red zone where the geography becomes more restrictive.
Listed in descending order by height, the top seven prospects here are Mike Evans, Kelvin Benjamin, Donte Moncrief, Davante Adams, Sammy Watkins, Marquise Lee, and Odell Beckham
Did Evans make Johnny Football's reputation at Texas A&M, or was it the other way around? In his two seasons with Johnny Manziel, Evans caught 151 passes for 2,499 yards and 17 touchdowns, and in televised games vs. Alabama and Auburn he was dominant. Evans, 6-5, 231, was able to physically overpower secondaries in the SEC, but in the NFL his lack of dynamic speed could force him to make his living making catches in traffic. Evans' biggest adjustment is going to be that he won't be able to depend solely on physical superiority in the NFL to be successful.
He's the guy who made the catch for the game-winning touchdown in Florida State's victory over Auburn for the national championship, but his statistics over 2012-13 were a rather pedestrian 84 catches for 1,506 yards and 19 touchdowns. Benjamin is 240 pounds to go along with being 6-5, and this will make him a matchup nightmare in the NFL just as he was in college. But Benjamin will drop the ball, and his speed is more tight end than wide receiver when projected to the NFL. Because he's not fast, Benjamin will have to become a better route-runner to get open on Sundays.
Unlike Evans and Benjamin, speed is not an issue for Mississippi's Moncrief, who posted a 4.39 in the 40-yard dash. As a freshman in 2011, Moncrief broke into the starting lineup and finished with 31 catches and four touchdowns, and then in 2012-13 he combined for 125 catches for 1,917 yards and 16 touchdowns. Moncrief, 6-2, 221, is a willing blocker and he also has good run-after-catch ability, but he will trap some balls against his chest, which has led to some drops. He will be a 21-year-old rookie.
In 2013, Adams, 6-1, 212, led the nation in catches and receiving touchdowns, and he set a Fresno State record for receiving yards when he had 131 receptions for 1,718 yards and 24 touchdowns. Again, those numbers are for one 13-game season, but it was in the Mountain West Conference. Another guy who will be a 21-year-old rookie, Adams is seen more as a possession-type receiver in the NFL because of his 4.58 speed, but he is considered to have significant upside as he continues to mature physically.
Maybe not the tallest but by most projections the best, Watkins, 6-1, 211, left Clemson with school records for career catches (240), receiving yards (3,391), and he's tied for first with DeAndre Hopkins for first in touchdowns (27). In 12 starts in 2013, Watkins caught 101 passes for 1,464 yards and 12 touchdowns, including a 16-catch, 227-yard, two-touchdown game against Ohio State in the Orange Bowl. Watkins has run a 4.43, and scouts will tell you he has an exciting combination of rare speed, soft hands, and big-play ability. There doesn't seem to be a realistic scenario in which Watkins is not a top 10 pick come May 8.
As a freshman at USC in 2011, Lee caught 73 passes for 1,143 yards and 11 touchdowns; in 2012 he started opposite Robert Woods (now in Buffalo with the Bills) and won the Biletnikoff Award after catching 118 passes for 1,721 yards and 14 touchdowns. Last year, Lee, 6-0, 192, missed three games with ankle and shin injuries, and his production dropped to 57 catches and four touchdowns. Scouts will point to some concentration drops, and there also is the matter of nagging injuries that could be symptomatic of him having a rather slight frame.
ODELL BECKHAM JR.
Both of his parents were athletes at LSU: Odell Sr. a running back and Heather Van Norman was an All-American and national champion in track. Odell Jr.. 5-11, 198, was the Paul Hornung Award winner in 2013 as the nation's most versatile player when he broke the LSU single-season all-purpose yardage record with 2,315. Of that total, 1,152 yards came on 59 receptions. Beckham (pictured above) also left LSU with 557 yards on 68 punt returns and another 1,044 on 42 kickoff returns accumulated over his three seasons at the school. His playing style has been compared to Lynn Swann's for the ability to go up and get the football.
THE 2013 NFL DRAFT, WR STATISTICS
Number drafted: 27
Picks by round: 3 in the first; 3 in the second; 5 in the third; 4 in the fourth; 2 in the fifth; 5 in the sixth; 5 in the seventh
Highest pick: Tavon Austin, West Virginia, Round 1, 8th overall, by the St. Louis Rams
Biggest impact: Keenan Allen, and it wasn't even close. Allen, the second receiver picked in the third round, caught 71 passes for 1,046 yards (14.7 average) and eight touchdowns for the San Diego Chargers