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Ranking the top receivers in the NFL Draft

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From the best route runners to the best vertical threats.

Iowa State v Oklahoma Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

We have written about the following wide receivers for this upcoming NFL Draft:

Baylor’s Denzel Mims

Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy

Alabama’s Henry Ruggs

Oklahoma’s Ceedee Lamb

Clemson’s Tee Higgins

LSU’s Justin Jefferson

TCU’s Jalen Reagor

What we haven’t done is separate the group of wideouts into “the best route runners” or “the best red-zone threats.” That’s what we’ll do today. Here is my list from last year. As you read this, just know it won’t likely match up with the consensus you’re used to seeing, and I’m fine with that. This time last year, most analysts knew players like D.K. Metcalf, A.J. Brown, and Deebo Samuel would be big-time players in the NFL. There was a small group of people that pegged Washington’s Terry McLaurin or Pittsburgh’s Dionte Johnson as formidable options.

The 2020 wide receiver class is loaded. There are going to be starters that are drafted in the third round, and possibly even after that. Whatever you’re looking for, this class offers has it. Let’s start with winning at the line of scrimmage, and I’ll tie in the top three from last year to see how much each correlates.

Ridiculous releases

Winning at the line of scrimmage takes the pressure off a receiver having to make a contested catch or separate at the top of the route. With the way the college game has headed, we see less and less press coverage, so receivers aren’t getting the practice at beating press coverage. You can scheme around this in the NFL, but, eventually, third-down comes, and you have to get off the line of scrimmage. Last year my top three in this category were Hollywood Brown, Deebo, and D.K. I’d say each of them had okay rookie years. Here are the top three this season:

  • Jerry Jeudy, Alabama
  • Gabriel Davis, UCF
  • Quartney Davis, Texas A&M

Lamb and Florida’s Van Jefferson deserve an honorable mention, but we’re not scouting the back of the jersey, so I’m giving the Davis boys the credit they deserve. Gabriel will beat you deep on a simple “speed release,” then he’ll turn you around on a slant route. Gabriel’s releases are effortless, and what makes him so difficult to cover is that there are a handful of different techniques Gabriel uses.

Quartney is efficient and is a master at keeping himself clean. Quartney effectively dips his shoulder to avoid contact and his savvy with his feet, which allows the former Aggie to run freely off the line. Both Davis receivers make releasing off the line look easy.

Jeudy takes it to another level with his attention to detail. He’ll give an illusion that a route is going one direction, and as soon as you open up and overcommit, Jeudy is two steps ahead of you heading in the opposite direction.

Terrific at the top

Last year in this category, I had Andy Isabella, Terry Godwin, and A.J. Brown in this category. Brown had the perfect combination of route savvy and acceleration to separate at the top of the route. You don’t need to be a burner to get open in the NFL. Michael Thomas and Nuk Hopkins are prime examples. The best receivers understand leverage and how to set defenders up and use their body, hands, or feet to make space.

  • Jeudy
  • K.J. Hamler, Penn State
  • Van Jefferson, Florida

Stop making this about yourself, Jeudy!

As for Hamler, he was a pleasant surprise. He was always open. Penn State primarily lined Hamler up in the slot where he had a chance to use his blazing speed to build momentum, and Hamler’s ability to change directions at full speed made him a nightmare to cover. He might be one of the biggest “sleepers” in this class with how he wins and his home run ability.

Jefferson is the opposite. He’s more of a smooth, lull you to sleep type. Then once you think you’re in a position to make a play, Jefferson uses a sharp head fake and cut to head a different way. I have a hard time seeing both him and Hamler not being productive in the NFL.

Texas’s Devin Duvernay is an honorable mention.

Best vertical threats

If your offense is lacking a deep threat, this is the draft for you. Last year I had Hollywood, Isabella, and Boykin listed here. That tells you height isn’t a requirement to be a legitimate deep threat. This year’s class is so strong that those three would struggle to make the top-10, and that is not an exaggeration. It’s impossible to narrow it down to three, but here they are:

  • Antonio Gandy-Golden, Liberty
  • Hamler
  • Davis, UCF

I can already see you fuming because these weren’t the names you were expecting to see here. Gandy-Golden is a man. What makes him special down the field is his body control, tracking, and ability to shield the defender off. He’ll be pushed down the draft and end up outperforming half of the wideouts taken above him. Gandy-Golden’s timing and strength make him one of the best vertical threats in the draft.

Hamler isn’t Desean Jackson, but he’s the closest one we have in this draft. His issue is he’s likely relegated to the slot with his frame, strength, and drop issues. When it comes to separating down the field, Hamler is as good as it gets.

Davis pops up again, and deservedly so. Like Gandy-Golden, Davis knows how to track the ball in the air. Add in Davis’s leaping ability and his awareness to high-point the ball, and some team will be pleased with the UCF wideout.

King of the contested catch

The more years go by, the less impressive contested catches become. If you’re constantly in a position to make a contested catch, that means you’re not getting open. Last year I had N’Keal Harry, Miles Boykin, and David Sills V here. There is value, as a quarterback will need to make a tight window throw a handful of times during a game. Here are the receivers I trust to make a play with a defender draped all over them:

  • Tyler Johnson, Minnesota
  • Tee Higgins, Clemson
  • Michael Pittman, USC

If a smart team gets its hands on Johnson, lookout. He’s like an undersized power forward that always finds himself in an excellent position to box the defender out. One trait that all of these receivers have in common is their body control and ability to stay focused through contact.

Higgins makes contested catches look routine. A 50/50 ball with Higgins is closer to 70/30 or 80/20. Not all bigger receivers use their size to their advantage. Higgins does. He has no issue going outside of his frame to finish the play, and he’s not thrown off by contact.

Pittman’s hands are superb. It helps that he is a large human being and is comfortable enough to go outside of his frame to make a play, but if he gets his hands on it, the ball is his, and there’s not much you can do about it.

Mims from Baylor and Reagor from TCU get an honorable mention.

Surest hands

Contested catches are fun, but give me somebody I can rely on every down. Someone comfortable going over the middle, down the field, or on a screen. Here are the players with the best hands in the draft. Because there are so many, I’ve extended this list to five:

  • CeeDee Lamb, Oklahoma
  • Justin Jefferson, LSU
  • Higgins, Clemson
  • Henry Ruggs, Alabama
  • Pittman, USC

Even extending the list, Oregon State’s Isaiah Hodgins deserves mention. When I say “sure hands,” this is not related to a players “drop rate.” Focus drops aren’t concerning. Deebo was one of the league leaders in drop rates as a rookie, but you can see he has strong hands and is comfortable catching the ball.

Lamb’s strength, body control, and competitiveness when the ball is in the air give him some of the best hands in the class. He could have easily been in the contested catch category. When you are watching these receivers, look to see if they are attacking the ball. Not just down the field, but on underneath routes as well. All of the receivers listed do this very well.

Ruggs may catch some off-guard here as he’s thought to be a “speedy only” receiver. Ruggs has no issue catching the ball at any level of the field and has soft, natural hands that will allow him to stick around in the NFL even as he gets older and loses his speed advantage.

I wouldn’t argue anyone who said Jefferson had the surest hands between all of the receivers.

Touchdowns matter!

Having a receiver that you can count on in the red zone takes your offense to another level. Being able to catch a fade route isn’t the only way you can make an impact in the red zone. Fighting through contact is key. Speed never hurts; neither does being able to win at the line of scrimmage. Here are the top red-zone threats in this draft

  • Hodgins, Oregon State
  • Lamb
  • Mims
  • Higgins
  • Ruggs

I’d go to bat with any of these five as the top red-zone threats in this draft. Lamb will beat you at the line, on a screen, or in the air.

Mims transforms into a different player in the red zone, and that’s the main reason I’m so high on him. The best parts of his game show up near the goal line, from high-pointing passes to his athleticism, and even hand-work as a route runner.

Higgins will flat out “Moss” you, but don’t sleep on Ruggs’ jumping ability. I’ve heard he can run, too.

Hodgins goes up and gets the ball, and it’s a joy to watch. If he uses his body, it’s to shield the defender off. Hodgins has the leaping ability plus timing and concentration to make him a sure-fire red zone threat in the NFL.

Best when the ball is in their hands

The final category is the most vital part of playing receiver: catching the ball. I’ll rank the receivers by position next week. If your team needs a receiver that can create after the catch, draw a name out of a hat, and you’ll find someone in this draft. Last year I had Deebo, Hakeem Butler, and A.J. Brown listed here. Butler wouldn’t make this year’s top-20, and the other two would be fighting to get in the top-five. This list isn’t in any order, but here are

  • Jeudy
  • Lamb
  • Brandon Aiyuk, Arizona State
  • Devin Duvernay, Texas
  • Donovan Peoples-Jones, Michigan
  • Lynn Bowden, Kentucky
  • K.J. Hill, Ohio State
  • Bryan Edwards, South Carolina

Jeudy’s start/stop acceleration is not from this planet. He’s going to embarrass a lot of defenders as a rookie.

Lamb has the “dog” in him, which makes it difficult to bring him down 1-on-1. What makes Lamb a special player is once the ball is in his hands, he immediately turns into a running back and maximizes the yards he can get.

Ayiuk pops up on the list for the first time. Ayiuk averaged a silly 10.9 yards after the catch in 2019. He’s one of those receivers that you give him the ball and can count on a big play to happen. He’s easily one of the top-3 receivers in the draft after the catch.

Duvernay isn’t too far behind. He’s a walking explosive play. Duvernay will surprise you with his strength and how Duvernay breaks tackles. Oh, and he runs a 4.3. Pray Kliff Kingsbury doesn’t get his hands on Duvernay.