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2020 NFL Draft: The Curious Case of Tee Higgins

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Is Tee Higgins the biggest boom or bust prospect in this year’s draft?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 13 CFP National Championship - LSU v Clemson Photo by Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The offseason leading up to the NFL draft can be a bit of a roller coaster for prospects as they prepare for the event, and that absolutely applies to one player, in particular, this year. Tee Higgins, the wide receiver out of Clemson, has seen his draft stock rise, then dip, and slowly but surely rise again.

So what happened? Why do teams, media, and fans seem to be all over the map on their assessments of Higgins? What kind of prospect is he really?

Speed

There’s a bit of a question here about Higgins’ true speed, but let’s start with the facts that we know for sure. Higgins said that he tweaked his groin 2-3 weeks prior to the combine and did not participate in drills. He did perform at Clemson’s pro day a couple of weeks later and ran a 4.54, but said that he re-aggravated the injury while running the 40. So what does the tape say?

Here, Higgins shows enough straight-line speed to get behind the defender, creating enough separation for Lawrence to float it in for the easy six.

Here Higgins makes a nice cut but gets run down by two defenders from behind. Look at #6 for Syracuse fly in from off-screen. That’s Trill Williams, and he reportedly runs a 4.43 40. He looks to be going twice as fast as Higgins. Given that we know 40 times at pro days are faster, what would Higgins have run there? Maybe closer to 4.6?

Hands

Higgins definitely checks the box here. According to PFF, Higgins had only six drops out of 120 catchable passes over his final two seasons with Clemson. And the tape definitely bears that out. Here, Higgins shows amazing balance and concentration as he reels in a pass thrown well out of bounds. Simply put, there aren’t many receivers available in this year’s draft that can make that play.

Again, amazing focus here by Higgins as he elevates over the defender and secures the ball. A quick spin around the second defender and he gone.

Route Running

You’re not going to hear many draft analysts gush about Higgins’ route running ability, mostly because there’s nothing to gush about. The fact is, he’s average at best. There are very few examples of Higgins creating separation based on ability, leading to a ton of contested catches. Of course, the good news is that he excels at contested catches, so it ended up being a wash in college. But will that be the case in the NFL?

Here, Higgins rounds out a crossing route; the defender sticks with him, Higgins uses positioning and a slight push off to create just enough space to make the catch.

Here again, zero separation created here. The DB couldn’t have played this any better, and yet.. Higgins is off to the races.

Size

If you had to choose one word to describe Tee Higgins as a prospect best, this would be the word. His official measurements at the NFL Combine were 6’4”, 216 lbs. That’s 5 inches taller than Henry Ruggs, and about 25 pounds heavier than Jerry Jeudy. It might not seem like much, but it really shows up on tape. Here Higgins is completely covered, but Lawrence still lobs it up with full confidence that his man will come down with the ball. Jimmy G - or any QB - can really benefit from having that type of safety net.

He didn’t just do it to mediocre DB’s either. Here he is blanketed by expected top 5 pick Jeffrey Okudah, but he uses his height to elevate above the DB. See how Okudah face guards to the point of knocking Higgins helmet off, but he somehow maintains focus, and while he doesn’t land in bounds, he does come down with the ball.

And about that 216 lbs. How does he carry it? Does he play with authority? Well. Let’s just say that if anyone wants to question Higgins’ toughness, LSU DB and future 1st round pick Kristian Fulton (#1) can testify to the affirmative.

The Bad

Here’s where it gets complicated. Higgins was an almost guaranteed first-round pick back in January, but he didn’t participate at the combine and then, frankly, had a terrible pro day. The 4.54 40 aside, he registered an abysmal 31 inch vertical. I generally don’t place a ton of value on combine numbers as long as they’re in the ballpark, but his vertical was not in the ballpark. In fact, it’s bottom 7th percentile among wide receivers.

On top of that, his 1.66 10-yard split put him in the bottom 2nd percentile, and his short shuttle was bottom 5th percentile. Not good at all.

The Good

Here’s the silver lining for those looking for one. According to Higgins, he tweaked his groin prior to the combine, and again during the pro day. And while that certainly seems convenient, for anyone that has had that type of injury before it is plausible, and could have affected his pro day results.

On tape, Higgins does seem a bit stiff and isn’t a polished route runner at the moment, but he doesn’t look like a 5th percentile athlete either, at least not to me. But the fact is, only Higgins knows the truth, and with millions of dollars on the line, he’s not talking. And I don’t blame him one bit.

Final Word

Every year in the NFL Draft, there are prospects who were able to produce at a high level in college, but will ultimately fail to do the same at the next level. And everything about Higgins tells me he’s going to be one of those players. But the fact is, it’s hard to believe. He was amazing in college in terms of how he competed on the field, contested catches, ball skills, physicality, run after the catch.

And the more tape I watch of Tee Higgins, the more I’m able to convince myself that he’s the exception. That if the 49ers somehow end up with a day two pick, and he falls, they should absolutely take him that he will continue to be successful at the next level.

And maybe he will. But if those pro day numbers are accurate, and they might be, then history is not on his side, and the 49ers should proceed with extreme caution.