The Patriots are once again in need of wide receivers, and luckily for them, this year’s draft class is one of the best we’ve seen in recent memory.
Based on my pre-combine rankings, there are 13 wide receivers with grades that fall in the first three rounds of the draft, and a few more that could climb my board with strong combines.
This draft is both top-heavy with three elite talents and deep with a dealer’s choice of skill sets sprinkled throughout all three days.
Here are my pre-combine tiers that doubles as a watch list for Patriots fans eying receiver help next week in Indy.
(Note: you can find links to my twitter threads on all 20 prospects here.)
TOP TEN OVERALL PROSPECTS
1. Jerry Jeudy, Alabama: Jeudy will be the top receiver on my board, barring something unforeseen happening. He does everything well but is at his best in the slot where his rapid acceleration and route breaks are devastating against off-coverage. When on the boundary, though, very few corners could effectively jam him at the line of scrimmage as his releases are pretty too. Jeudy’s flexibility and fluidness make him an extremely difficult cover and one of the best route runners I’ve studied in the last three drafts.
2. Ceedee Lamb, Oklahoma: Lamb is also the complete package with impressive reps both on the outside and in the slot. A little more physical than Jeudy, Lamb’s body control and ability to adjust to make catches outside of his frame make him a downfield threat, even though he doesn’t have top-end speed. He has a deep bag of press releases, sets up breaks well in his stems, and is a bully after the catch.
3. Henry Ruggs, Alabama: Ruggs is not just a burner. He’s going to run in the 4.2s, but he also has technical savvy. The Alabama product has a huge release package that gets defenders to open avenues for him to open up his strides quickly.
Don't think he'll be on the board but the #Patriots might have a chance at Alabama's Henry Ruggs at 23. Blazing speed, start-stop ability, vertical threat, and YAC.
Eats up the cushion, sells break w/hips, explodes past the DB, turns it on again after waiting for the ball. pic.twitter.com/CLDxNM4yl0
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) January 27, 2020
He’ll run routes to all three levels, can take a five-yard slant to the house, and has terrific tracking and finishing speed on deep balls. Ruggs could win on speed alone, but he understands the science of the game as well. If any of these three falls outside the top ten, I consider trading up if I’m Belichick.
Back-Half of the First Round
4. Laviska Shenault Jr, Colorado: Shenault is an explosive do-it-all receiver that has the body type, explosiveness, and versatility of a Cordarralle Patterson with enough skill offer traditional receiver upside. He lined up everywhere for Colorado, including as a standup tight end and wildcat QB, and rumor has it he’s going to run in the high-4.3s at 220 pounds. He’ll also win his fair share of contested catches down the field. Although he’s more explosive than N’Keal Harry, Shenault’s route running gives me pause. Everything needs polishing from his releases, attacking angles and leverage, pacing out of his breaks, and cutting horizontally without drifting upfield.
5. Justin Jefferson, LSU: Now we are talking. The Patriots don’t often take receivers early, but when they do, they’re usually of the size-speed ilk (Harry, Chad Jackson, etc.). Jefferson makes a living with dynamic route running that fits the Pats offense perfectly. He mostly plays in the slot, but can play outside too, and is one of the best pure separators in this class.
Justin Jefferson is lethal on these option routes. Lot more space than he'll get in the NFL probably but very savvy. Squares up the DB, reads out coverage/leverage while slow-playing his intentions, then breaks it off quickly into space. Love the change of speeds. #Patriots pic.twitter.com/qjFrypeoQW
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) January 29, 2020
Jefferson’s at his best on option routes and crossers. He loves to slow-play option routes where he’ll approach the DB at half speed, read the defenders’ leverage, and then accelerate through the break to create separation. He’s the best scheme fit in the draft.
6. Jalen Reagor, TCU: If the Patriots want to add some serious speed, and miss out on Ruggs, Reagor is going to be among the fastest players in Indy. He quickly accelerates both to run away from the defense and create explosive plays as a ball carrier. His footwork in his releases and breaks are smooth, and he understands how to move corners to create space for himself at the line. Reagor also shows a decent understanding of leverage and how to attack defenders based on body positioning. He’ll need to expand his route tree and become more competitive at the catch point to reach his ceiling, but speed kills, and he has plenty of it.
7. Tee Higgins, Clemson: Higgins grows on you as you study his tape. He’s a bit of an upright runner and doesn’t have elite speed, but his length and alpha mentality to attack the ball downfield are attractive traits. He’ll take good angles against off-coverage to set up his breaks, and there are flashes of nuance against press coverage that are great to see. He’ll open up defensive backs at the line and get himself in an advantageous position to win on contested catches down the field. There’s some gitty-up there when he opens up his long strides, and his catch radius is immense with excellent tracking and body control. His horizontal cuts could be smoother, but he’s a quality vertical route runner.
8. Brandon Aiyuk, Arizona State: Aiyuk is one of my favorite players flying under-the-radar in this stacked class. He’s an explosive playmaker, who creates enough separation at the top of his routes to call that a strength. Aiyuk has the speed to threaten the coverage and house it from anywhere and has elite return skills in the kicking game that translate to after the catch as well.
Big fan of ASU's Brandon Aiyuk. Might be my favorite WR prospect so far. Explosive, easy change of direction. Watch him set up the slant on the goal line here. Uses a dead leg into a stretch release to sell a fade. Then the quick change of direction and its over. #Patriots pic.twitter.com/icO0pohanF
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) January 29, 2020
Aiyuk also has underrated hops to win above the rim down the field. He had some struggles against press coverage and playing through contact, and will need some help from the scheme early on to make an immediate impact, but he gets open and is a problem after the catch.
Day Two Prospects
9. K.J. Hamler, Penn State: Hamler is a house call waiting to happen on every play with the hip fluidity to snap out of a variety of different breaks giving him plus-route running skills as well. He is impossible to tackle in the open field and is excellent at making his releases look the same to set up defensive backs. My biggest concern with him is his hands. Hamler tends to clap at the ball and struggles to play through contact because of his size. But he’s a smooth route runner with game-breaking speed before and after the catch.
10. Denzel Mims, Baylor: I might be a bit higher on Mims than some, but his initial burst off the line and competitiveness as a ball carrier and blocker are impressive. Mims has a track background, and it helps him really burst off the line, easily accelerating past defensive backs. He is also excellent at the catch point using little nuances to stave off defenders and open up his huge catch radius. Although he lacks the flexibility to sink and explode out of his breaks, Mims will fit perfectly at the “X” for teams looking for a vertical threat.
11. Van Jefferson, Florida: an absolute technician as a route runner, Jefferson needs to test well at the combine to be in the day two conversation. His releases are tremendous, resetting the line of scrimmage, closing down space, masking his intentions, and getting defenders leaning in the wrong direction. Then, at the top of the route, he’ll change directions with ease accelerating through the break, and although there are a few extra steps in there at times, he creates plenty of separation.
Van Jefferson's route running is so advanced. Always one step ahead and setting things up throughout the game.
1st play – gets up on the CB, works outside, shows late for the back shoulder
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) January 30, 2020
Jefferson is also excellent at finding throwing lanes and soft spots in zone coverage and adds special teams value as a gunner. Again, how fast is he? That’ll be a big talking point at the combine.
12. Michael Pittman Jr, USC: Pittman isn’t the type of receiver that we’d like to see the Patriots take, but he has contested-catch wins all over his tape. Although his size-speed combo is why he wins, Pittman’s got enough foot speed and throws plenty of fakes to get defensive backs leaning, and he’ll stack both vertically and coming across the field to protect the catch point. His ball tracking skills and catch radius are also his calling cards, but he needs time to build up his speed and lacks the flexibility to make successful horizontal cuts regularly.
13. Tyler Johnson, Minnesota: another receiver that needs a big combine to solidify his draft status. Johnson is a slick route runner with terrific releases against press coverage, so Big Ten defenses eventually played off of him, and he had some trouble building up enough speed to separate down the field. Still, he has arguably the best release package in this class, and his feet are on fire through his breaks. He knows how to vary speeds, work the sidelines, find soft spots in zones, and will stack defenders with hesitations and double moves. The only thing missing from the equation is the top-end speed.
Early Day Three Prospects
14. Bryan Edwards, South Carolina: Edwards’s tape was better than his ranking, but I have concerns about his explosiveness translating to the pros. Edwards’s splash plays were him making things happen as a ball carrier, and he was particularly dangerous on schemed touches (screens, jet sweeps, etc.). He has a diverse route tree and is smooth in his releases at the line of scrimmage. But does he have the speed to make plays consistently in the NFL? That’ll be the question.
15. James Proche, SMU: the reported darling of the Patriots at the Senior Bowl, Proche is a very polished receiver with adequate, but not great, athleticism. His hands are unreal, plucking the ball at all angles and heights with acrobatic catches all over his tape.
#Patriots scouts were reportedly impressed by SMU WR James Proche at the Senior Bowl. He’s got unreal hands and body control to pluck the ball in traffic and contort his body. Varies speeds in his stems and has some wiggle too. Mid-round prospect. pic.twitter.com/OH8xvqVvy8
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) January 23, 2020
He also shifts gears and varies his speed early in the route to set up breaks and a second gear on vertical patterns. As a blocker and ball carrier, he’s a tough and physical player. He got open plenty at SMU and the Senior Bowl, but his speed doesn’t jump out at you on tape.
16. Donovan Peoples-Jones, Michigan: my favorite out of this tier, Peoples-Jones is much better than his production suggests. The Wolverines never unlocked all of his physical gifts. He’s got plenty of juice to make defensive backs uncomfortable and has a great set up into his breaks to step on the toes and snap off his horizontal cuts, although his sink and explode could be better to change directions. He also has a decent catch radius, going high or low to make grabs. When you watch him as a returner, you see the athleticism and open-field abilities.
17. K.J. Hill, Ohio State: a team captain for the Buckeyes, Hill is a perfect mid-round fit for the Pats in the slot. He’s incredibly shifty with electric feet to change directions and works underneath zones well. He’s got good hands and is a friendly target for quarterbacks, but he’s on the smaller side, gets bodied off his breaks some, and doesn’t test the defense vertically.
18. Collin Johnson, Texas: Johnson is massive standing at 6-6, and he plays like it too. Classic above the rim receiver with a large catch radius and a willingness to big-body defensive backs. His route tree might resemble more of a move tight end than wide receiver.
19. Devin Duvernay, Texas: Duvernay isn’t the best route runner, but the dude can fly. He stems nicely to create room for downfield releases, has good tracking skills, and possesses legit 4.3-speed. The jets also help him in YAC mode, where he’s extremely dangerous as a ball carrier, making him useful on screens and fly sweeps/reverses. His role, however, will likely be limited to deep balls and schemed touches.
20. Jauan Jennings, Tennessee: Jennings struggles to separate down the field, but he wins with brute force and body positioning between the numbers. He knows how to box out, uses subtle arm bars to stave off defenders, and will run through contact as a ball carrier.