Wide receiver isn’t quite the new running back, but college football is producing enough high-quality pass catchers that some believe teams are wise to wait on taking that position in the NFL draft.
Mel Kiper Jr. said Wednesday he has 40 or so receivers with draft-eligible grades this year, but three elite players at the position still are worth taking high in the first round: LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase and Alabama teammates DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle.
“They’re guys that are just special,” the ESPN analyst said. “To me, they’re the highest-rated players in this draft and that goes to (Florida tight end) Kyle Pitts as well. DeVonta Smith, Ja’Marr Chase and Jaylen Waddle, they’re all special players. They’re not just forced up there.”
Chase, Waddle and Smith have been popular mock draft choices for the Detroit Lions at various times this spring, and with this year’s draft less than two weeks away, all remain firmly in the mix to be the Lions’ pick at No. 7.
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Kiper gave Chase to the Lions in his latest mock draft as the first receiver off the board, with Waddle and Smith going in the top 11.
Chase, the leading receiver on LSU’s 2019 national championship team, is considered a notch above his Alabama counterparts, though he opted out of the 2020 season. He is bigger than Waddle and Smith at 6 feet and 201 pounds, and he ran a 4.38-second 40-yard dash and posted a 41-inch vertical jump at his pro day.
Waddle is one of the fastest players in the draft, though he still is recovering from a fractured ankle suffered during the season. Smith, who remains on the mend from a finger injury from the national title game, is the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.
“Waddle is a great punt returner and an impactful slot guy who is a coast-to-coast player,” Kiper said. “You look at how compact he is, how explosive he is, how competitive he is, and you’ve got the Splendid Splinter 2 in DeVonta Smith. They’re both great and they both have pushed each other. They’re both remarkable talents and remarkable workers.”
Drafting Chase, Waddle or Smith would fill a significant need for the Lions, who return just one receiver — Quintez Cephus — who caught a pass for them in 2020 and signed Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman to one-year “prove it” deals in free agency.
With myriad needs, though, the Lions may prefer to fill a spot such as linebacker, offensive tackle or quarterback early and rely on the draft’s depth to procure a pass catcher.
Purdue’s Rondale Moore, Western Michigan’s D’Wayne Eskridge, Louisville’s Tutu Atwell and Auburn’s Anthony Schwartz are among the receivers Kiper projects to be available with the Lions’ second-round pick, No. 41 overall.
The Lions have not taken a first-round receiver since Calvin Johnson in 2007, and while Johnson is Hall of Fame-bound this summer, NFL teams have had much more suspect draft history at the position of late.
Of the nine receivers picked in the top 10 since 2012, just two — Mike Evans and Amari Cooper — have made the Pro Bowl, while just as many (Justin Blackmon and Kevin White) became unqualified busts.
Half of the league’s 10 most productive receivers last season — Stefon Diggs, Davante Adams, D.K. Metcalf, Tyreek Hill and Allen Robinson — were drafted in the second round or later, and none of the top 10 went higher than No. 20.
The 2017 draft presents an especially cautionary tale for teams in the receiver market, as Corey Davis, Mike Williams and John Ross all went in the first nine picks. Williams is the only one who had the fifth-year option exercised on his rookie contract, and he has never had a 50-catch season.
Kiper, though, said Davis, Williams and Ross were overdrafted and not comparable prospects to the trio of receivers who should go high this year.
“That’s not that kind of thing here,” Kiper said. “These guys are up there because they were phenomenal players and they tested out great and they did all the things that you need to do. … In any draft they’d go high, not just this one.”