It has become an unwritten warning in the NFL Draft: Do not select a wide receiver in the first 10 picks.
That’s nothing against the wide-outs in the 2014 Draft Class, but more a lesson-learned reaction from previous drafts. In the past 10 years, 14 wide receivers have been Top 10 picks. But the fools-rush-in cautionary label came after the 2005 NFL Draft, when three were selected – Braylon Edwards at No. 3 by the Cleveland Browns; Troy Williamson at No. 7 by the Minnesota Vikings; and Mike Williams at No. 10 by the Detroit Lions.
They are no longer in the league. They combined for one Pro Bowl (Edwards in 2007). They produced two seasons with at least 65 receptions (80 by Edwards in ’07 and 65 by Williams in 2010 for the Seahawks). They played for a total of 11 teams (five for Edwards, four for Williams and two for Williamson).
In the next three drafts combined, two wide-outs were taken in the Top 10. Both in 2007, as Calvin Johnson went to the Lions at No. 2 and Ted Ginn was selected by the Miami Dolphins at No. 9.
But when NFL Network and NFL.com analyst Mike Mayock looks at the wide receivers in this year’s class, he is reminded more of Johnson, and Larry Fitzgerald (No. 3 to the Arizona Cardinals in 2004), and Julio Jones (No. 6 by the Atlanta Falcons in 2011); and less of Darrius Heyward-Bey (No. 7 to the Oakland Raiders in 2009), and Reggie Williams (No. 9 to the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2004), and the 2005 trio.
Especially at the top of the group, and that starts with Clemson’s Sammy Watkins.
“I’m not usually a big proponent of Top 10 wide receivers,” Mayock said at the NFL Scouting Combine last month. “But this kid, he runs fast, he catches the football, he’s explosive and what’s my favorite thing about him is he has a chip on his shoulder. He has more toughness than most wide receivers have. I think he’s a franchise wide receiver.
“Sammy Watkins is what you want.”
Here are Mayock’s top-rated receivers – with tight end Eric Ebron wedging his way into the No. 3 spot; as well as an analysis of each by NFLDraftScout.com senior analyst Rob Rang and the players’ take from the Combine:
WR Sammy Watkins, Clemson
Mayock’s ranking: No. 1
Rang’s take: “Watkins caught his passes on a variety of routes, including quick screens to take advantage of his ability to make defenders miss in close quarters, deep passes due to his acceleration and jump balls to highlight his leaping ability and hand-eye coordination. Every fan of the sport knows that there is a difference between timed speed and football speed. Football is rarely a game of straight-lines, making fluidity and general athleticism much more critical than just a 40-yard dash time. In much this same way, some receivers possess a natural ability to pluck the ball, tuck it away and accelerate in one smooth motion that makes them even greater than the sum of their parts. Sammy Watkins is one such receiver.”
Watkins’ take: “For me, I try to be physical out there on the field as far as getting off press, blocking down the field. To be that dominant receiver I need to have that total package. Everyone knows all wide receivers can catch balls and score, but for me I’m focusing on the little things – blocking, getting off the press and being a physical, dominant receiver.”
WR Mike Evans, Texas A&M
Mayock’s ranking: No. 2
Rang’s take: “Highly physical receiver who uses his size and strength to simply bully defenders. Possesses an NFL-ready body – aiding him in his fight through press coverage, pushing off to generate consistent (if illegal) separation and when boxing out defenders on jump balls and in providing excellent downfield blocking for teammates.”
Evans’ take: “It's helped a lot. I think a lot of other basketball players should play football. We have the qualities. If there's a jump ball in the air, treat it like a rebound. It helps me get off the press; use my quickness like when I used to dribble. Everything just incorporates into football.”
TE Eric Ebron, North Carolina
Mayock’s ranking: No. 1 among the tight ends, but with a higher grade than the No. 3 wide receiver
Rang’s take: “With multiple tight end formations becoming all of the rage in today's NFL, oversized, athletic pass-catchers have never been more valued. Ebron needs polish but he boasts the tools to warrant strong first-round consideration.”
Ebron’s take: “I don't know. I don't know (why I should be the first tight end selected). There are a lot of great tight ends – Jace (Amaro), (Austin) Seferian-Jenkins, C.J. (Fiedorowicz), Arthur Lynch. There are a lot of great tight ends. What makes me different is who I am. My play, my style of play, but there's a lot of other great tight ends. I don't believe I'm the No. 1 tight end because I've still got work to do. But every tight end, every person, has work to do. We'll just see on the draft board.”
WR Marqise Lee, USC
Mayock’s ranking: No. 3 among the wide receivers
Rang’s take: “Lee's build and struggles with injury in 2013 will certainly draw red-flags from scouts, but when healthy his talent is obvious. Further, he's not as polished as his former teammate, (Robert) Woods. Few can boast Lee's explosiveness, however, which will almost certainly result in his earning a first-round selection come May.”
Lee’s take: “I think I hold my own. We have a lot of great receivers, I can honestly say. I think we’ve all got a little bit different games. I say, as far as myself, I hold up pretty well, compared to everybody else.”
WR Brandin Cooks, Oregon State
Mayock’s ranking: No. 4 among the wide receivers
Rang’s take (he ranks Cooks at No. 5 among the wide receivers): “Special athlete with explosive feet and natural burst; springs in his legs. Fluid body control with excellent start/stop moves, open-field vision and patient hesitation to elude defenders; joystick moves with loose hips and joints. Beautiful acceleration with speed to burn – electric after the catch. … At just 5-10 and 186 pounds, he lacks elite size for the position, but he shines with his natural athleticism and dynamic ability before and after he touches the ball.”
Cooks’ take: “I’m a playmaker. I’m able to create plays from nothing. Be able to catch a 3-yard ball, I’ll take it the distance. Those YAC yards, yards after the catch. Speed kills and I feel like that’s what I’m going to bring to the game.”