Wide receiver is one of the more exciting positions to watch in the NFL these days, as the position is littered with freakish athletes who sky through the air to make jaw-dropping plays on the ball and then zip around on the turf after the catch. NFL executives, however, may be growing wary of targeting pass-catchers at the top of the draft.
Wide receiver has become a position that can be addressed with mid-to-late-round fliers and bargain free-agent pickups. Last season, just three of the top 10 leaders in receiving yards were first-round draft picks, with four having been drafted in the fifth round or later.
In addition, ever since the loaded 2014 draft class that saw Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Odell Beckham, Brandin Cooks, and Kelvin Benjamin come off the board in the first round, many of the high draft picks at the position have underwhelmed. Names like Kevin White, Breshad Perriman, Phillip Dorsett, Laquon Treadwell, and John Ross are just a few of the first-round pass-catchers who have done virtually nothing since entering the league within the past few seasons. There are obviously draft busts at every position, but the bust rate on wide receivers seems to be particularly high over the past three years.
What could also cause receivers to fall in the draft this year is the simple fact that there aren't any elite prospects at the position. Analysts can't seem to agree on a consensus top pass-catcher in this draft class, with names like Calvin Ridley (Alabama), Courtland Sutton (SMU), and D.J. Moore (Maryland) each offering some exciting potential but plenty of reason for concern, as well.
So when will a wide receiver come off the board when the 2018 NFL Draft gets started Thursday night?
First, let's take a look at what teams are in need of a perimeter playmaker.
This is probably the first team in the draft order that would even consider taking a wide receiver without trading down. The 49ers will probably still use the pick on another position, but it should be noted that head coach Kyle Shanahan's offenses over the years have typically featured a top-notch, high-volume receiver (e.g. Andre Johnson, an in-prime Pierre Garcon, and Julio Jones). San Francisco's top receiver right now is Garcon, but he's five years removed from leading the league in receptions, will be 32 years old before the start of the season, and is coming off a neck injury. Garcon is a rock-solid player, but the team should be looking for an elite talent who can grow a long-term rapport with promising young quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
The Bills are going to be looking to trade up and snag a top quarterback prospect if one begins to fall, but a number of variables need to play out the right way for that to happen. If the Bills get stuck at No. 12, they could look to give whomever starts behind center this season a little help, as Buffalo's wide receivers gave last year's quarterbacks virtually nothing to work with. That being said, the team traded for Kelvin Benjamin and drafted Zay Jones in the second round a year ago, so the front office may feel that it's invested enough in the position already. But the simple fact is that, as of now, it doesn't look like there is nearly enough wide receiver talent on this roster.
Another team that needs a quarterback but might not have a shot at a top prospect, the Cardinals could look to bolster their pass-catching corps. It wasn't long ago that the Cardinals seemed to be loaded with receiver talent, but the team has since lost John Brown and Michael Floyd, and Larry Fitzgerald, who will turn 35 before the season, won't be able to play forever (I'm pretty sure). Grabbing a pass-catcher to pair with whomever the quarterback of the future in the desert may be could prove to be a solid move.
The Ravens overhauled their receiving corps this offseason, but what they didn't do was add a true No. 1 option. This offense was 27th in yards last season due to a number of flaws, but one of the biggest was that the receivers were not good enough to give pedestrian passer Joe Flacco decent targets downfield. Michael Crabtree, Willie Snead, John Brown, and Jeremy Maclin make for an interesting group of pass-catchers, but who here legitimately scares opposing defenses? The Ravens are still in need of a go-to guy.
The Cowboys were 26th in passing offense last season and lost their two most talented pass-catchers, Dez Bryant and Brice Butler. That leaves the perennially disappointing Terrance Williams and free-agent addition Allen Hurns, who's been quite the disappointment himself since his thousand-yard 2015 campaign, as the team's top two perimeter weapons. If Dallas wants Dak Prescott to develop behind center, the front office is going to need to give the young passer some more help.
Having shipped Kelvin Benjamin to the Bills, the Panthers finished 2017 ranked 28th in passing. The receiving corps was led by Devin Funchess, who posted 840 yards. After Funchess, the team's leading receivers were running back Christian McCaffrey, the now-departed Benjamin, and backup tight end Ed Dickson. The team is hoping for a second-year leap out of 2017 second-round pick Curtis Samuel, but he's still more of a slot/gadget player than a true wide receiver. The need here is obvious.
Now, let's take a look at the contenders for the first receiver to come off the board.
A five-star recruit out of high school, Ridley burst on the scene with over a thousand yards receiving as a freshman at Alabama. He posted underwhelming numbers the rest of his collegiate career, however, averaging 868 yards per season (59.8 per game). Granted, Ridley's numbers can to an extent be blamed on quarterback play, but he still didn't quite look like the five-star player many expected him to be. In a league where players who embrace contact and make plays in traffic are most successful, Ridley's skinny frame and adversity to physicality don't bode well for his NFL outlook. That being said, he can still be an explosive playmaker on the field.
Possibly the most exciting prospect at the position, Sutton has the combination of size and speed that makes NFL scouts' mouths water. At 6-foot-4 and 218 pounds, Sutton managed a 4.54 40-yard dash to go along with a 35.5-inch vertical jump. In addition to being big and fast, Sutton is incredibly smooth on the field and finished his collegiate career with back-to-back thousand-yard, double-digit-touchdown seasons. Sutton certainly has some raw aspects to his game and isn't necessarily an explosive, quick-twitch athlete, so he's far from a lock to develop into a productive NFL pass-catcher, but he has as close to much upside as anyone at the position in this class.
If someone in this class of receivers can match Sutton's upside, it's Moore. At 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, Moore blazed his way to a 4.42 40 time. In a sense, he has Sutton's size with Ridley's explosiveness. Moore managed over a thousand yards last season despite catching passes from a quarterback who completed a putrid 51.9 percent of his throws. Unlike Sutton, Moore can explode past defensive backs, but his route-running is suspect (most of his collegiate catches came on simple routes—screens, streaks, etc.), and he doesn't high-point the football as well as his size would indicate. Even so, a coaching staff will be excited to get its hands on these tools early in the draft.
It's tough to envision anyone other than the three aforementioned players being the first wide receiver off the board, but there are some dark-horse candidates.
James Washington posted huge numbers at Oklahoma State, finishing his collegiate career with three consecutive thousand-yard, double-digit-touchdown seasons. As a senior, he racked up 1,549 yards on a whopping 20.9 per catch and scored 13 times. At 5-foot-11, Washington isn't what NFL scouts are looking for early in the draft these days, but he's built well at 213 pounds and has one of the best college resumes in the draft.
Brown is 6-foot-5 and 214 pounds with 33-inch arms (the longest of this bunch by more than half an inch), and he impressed with a 4.48 40-yard dash at the combine. Like many tall receiver prospects, St. Brown needs work refining skills such as route-running, and he doesn't seem to give to give a hundred percent effort on every play. But there is clearly a ton of talent here, and St. Brown's upside may be rivaled by only Sutton and Moore.
Any of these receivers would be a reach at No. 9, and the 49ers have too many other needs to make a pick like that. Even if the Bills can't land a quarterback, they'll likely view the Kelvin Benjamin trade and Zay Jones pick as prohibitive to drafting a receiver at No. 12. The Cardinals are certainly a threat to nab the wideout of their choice, but they seem more likely to take a swing at Lamar Jackson (QB, Louisville) or attempt to solidify the offensive line, which badly needs to play well this season with the team relying on the frail Sam Bradford at quarterback. The Ravens don't have a long-term No. 1 option, but they may feel they have enough to hold them over in the short term and address another need.
That leaves all the receivers on the board for the Cowboys, who have a franchise quarterback, elite running back, and dominant offensive line—what else is needed but someone to catch passes? The team could surely target a defender at this spot, but with their pick of the wide receiver litter, the executives may find it too tempting to give Dak Prescott a new weapon.
Ridley seems like the most likely pick for Dallas in part because he's a big name from a big school—we all know how owner Jerry Jones likes to make a splash in the headlines. While the team could use some more size on the perimeter, there isn't a huge need for it with Hurns standing at 6-foot-3 and Williams at 6-foot-2. Ridley, 6-foot-1, would provide precise route-running and strong speed that would give Prescott a more reliable target downfield.