In a 2017 rookie class that features an elite crop of running backs and tight ends, the wide receivers have flown a little under the radar. That’s a phrase dynasty owners are not accustomed to reading, as receivers are often the long-term building blocks with which owners look to construct championship rosters. The reduced injury risk and the lure of 10-15 years of production give receivers the edge over running backs in a vacuum. We’ve all heard it before: “all else being equal, pick the WR.”
The problem with this rookie class is that all else is not equal. Dalvin Cook and Leonard Fournette have catapulted into the 1.01 and 1.02 spots in rookie drafts, rightfully so, and seem to have a stranglehold at the top. Despite the apparent weakness, by comparison, there is still value to be had in this year’s wide receiver class. Beyond the clear two-man tier of Mike Williams and Corey Davis, however, choosing from the next group of WRs is a dangerous and challenging proposition.
As I explained in the running back edition of this article, I always assess the NFL value of incoming prospects before considering their dynasty value. The two tend to go hand-in-hand, but understanding the mindsets of NFL player evaluators can go a long way towards predicting opportunity for players at the next level. NFL scouts are good at their job, and draft pedigree will always have a strong correlation with fantasy success.
Our best bet is to define and investigate traits that NFL scouts will look for in their prospects, and find prospects whose skill sets include those traits. The goal of this exercise is to help sift through the clutter and pluck out players with at least one dominant characteristic. This is not a rankings list (although I include each player’s rank as well); this is a list of players who have the ability to carve out a role in an NFL offense because they possess a specific trait that the NFL values.
Keep an eye out for the tight end edition (Part 3) of this series in the coming weeks, and please feel free to comment or reach out to me on Twitter @FF_Trev with any questions or concerns.
K.D. Cannon, Baylor (WR4)
K.D. Cannon is a former high school 100-meter dash champion who walked onto the Baylor Track and Field team after spring football practice. He is one of the fastest players in the country, regardless of position, and is more explosive after the catch than any receiver not named Corey Davis. An NFL comparison that I like to use is a slightly smaller and faster Pierre Garcon. Garcon and Cannon play with the same toughness and fire, and I envision Cannon making a similar impact as a WR2 in an NFL offense. K.D. Cannon gets the edge in the rankings over John Ross due to his stronger build, contested-catch capability, and because he and I were both born on November 5th. It’s a factor. If you can find a bigger K.D. Cannon fan than I am, please introduce me.
John Ross, Washington (WR5)
As we saw last year when the Texans drafted one-trick pony Will Fuller in the 1st round, the NFL values receivers that can take the top off of the defense. Forcing the defense to stretch vertically is one of the easiest ways to open up the running game and the intermediate passing game. Wide receivers in this role, however, are typically more valuable to their NFL team than to their fantasy teams, especially if consistency is an expectation. John Ross has drawn comparisons ranging from Kenny Stills to Brandin Cooks and Antonio Brown, representing a solid floor and an astronomical ceiling. I personally am not as bullish on Ross as others clearly are, but his likely pedigree as a late 1st/early 2nd round NFL Draft pick will give him a long leash and ample opportunity in the league.
Dede Westbrook, Oklahoma (WR16)
DeDe Westbrook was extraordinarily productive in 2016, racking up 80 receptions for 1,524 yards and 17 TDs this season for the high-powered Sooners offense. No one can question Westbrook’s playmaking ability, but his lack of size and strength might become more concerning when matched up against bigger and faster NFL cornerbacks. He is listed at 175 lbs., the same weight as Desean Jackson, but many believe that Westbrook will not be able to compete with the 4.35 40-yard dash time that Jackson recorded at the 2008 NFL Combine. A good performance at the Combine might mean more for Westbrook than any other player in this class because of his reliance on speed as his calling card. If he can prove to scouts that he can separate from corners with the same ease that Jackson has been able to do, his slight frame will become less of an issue. If not, his stock will plummet.
Others: Taywan Taylor (WR14), Ardarius Stewart (WR18)
Elite Route Running
Corey Davis, Western Michigan (WR2)
It doesn’t feel right to restrict Corey Davis to one category when he possesses almost every trait that you look for in a receiver. You could make an argument that he also belongs in the “Physicality” and “High-Point Ability” categories, and I would be inclined to agree. Davis blends unique athleticism, speed, and strength within a prototypical 6’3”, 213 lb. body, and has all of the physical tools to be a WR1 in the NFL. What truly sets him apart from the pack, however, is his smooth and effortless route running. Davis is a likely 1st rounder in the NFL Draft and is a good landing spot away from leapfrogging Mike Williams as the top dynasty WR in this class. His latest ankle injury might keep him from participating in the NFL Combine, but it won’t keep him out of the top 4 dynasty rookie picks.
Cooper Kupp, Eastern Washington (WR7)
Another one of my personal favorite WRs in this class (joining K.D. Cannon), Cooper Kupp finally garnered some media recognition with a very solid week of practice before the Senior Bowl. Reportedly catching everything thrown his way, Kupp has continued to display excellent hands, ideal size, and proficient long speed. He may not make it look quite as easy as Corey Davis does, but Kupp is a route-running technician who focuses on precision rather than relying on explosive athleticism. He brings elite versatility to an offense and is capable of lining up outside or moving to the inside in a big-slot role. The two most common knocks for Kupp are his small-school competition in the Big Sky Conference and his age. He will be 24 at the start of his rookie year (by comparison, JuJu Smith-Schuster will be 20), and is older than established NFL receivers Stefon Diggs, Donte Moncrief, and Brandin Cooks.
Others: Isaiah Ford (WR8), Amara Darboh (WR11)
JuJu Smith-Schuster, USC (WR3)
As mentioned above, JuJu Smith-Schuster is 20 years old and will be the youngest player in the NFL next season. That fact, combined with the rollercoaster of quarterback play for USC in 2016, provides a legitimate justification for the decreased production from his sophomore to junior season. After taking the nation by storm in 2015 with 89 receptions, 1,454 yards, and 10 TDs with now-Browns QB Cody Kessler at the helm, JuJu’s receptions and yards slipped this season by 19 receptions and over 500 yards. He has excellent strength and uses his body to his advantage when competing for the ball, but could use work in gaining separation and fine-tuning his footwork. They are two totally different players stylistically but don’t be surprised if Smith-Schuster experiences some of the same developmental challenges in his first year that fellow youngster Laquon Treadwell did this season. I still believe in Treadwell’s NFL future, so try not to take this as a harsh criticism of JuJu. He is still very raw, but his upside is well worth the wait.
Noah Brown, Ohio State (WR21)
After missing all of 2015 with a broken leg and hauling in only 32 receptions in 2016, Noah Brown’s decision to declare for the draft after his redshirt sophomore season may have come as a bit of a surprise. Brown is the latest victim of Ohio State’s modest passing game (see Michael Thomas of 2015), yet was still able to score 7 touchdowns with limited opportunities. It is worth noting that 4 of those TDs were scored in the same game (vs. Oklahoma), which means he only scored 3 times in the other 12 games combined, but let me offer a slightly different perspective. When given the targets, he capitalized on them. He repeatedly dominated the Sooner defense, boxing out his defenders and finishing catches through contact. I understand that the sample size is minuscule, but when evaluating players in the 4th-5th round rookie draft range, it is more beneficial to look at NFL-caliber physical skills rather than raw statistical production. Noah Brown is one of my favorite late-round sleepers at the wide receiver position.
Others: Zay Jones (WR10), Jehu Chesson (WR19)
Mike Williams, Clemson (WR1)
Speaking of receivers that missed the 2015 season due to injury, Mike Williams returned from his devastating neck injury with a vengeance this season. Williams is the next elite prospect to emerge from the wide receiver factory known as Clemson University, and coach Dabo Swinney even proclaimed that Williams might be better than former Clemson stars Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins. With the game on the line and a 30-yard lob in the air, I trust Mike Williams more than any WR in this class to come down with it. Williams’ high-point ability was on display with two huge receptions late in the National Championship Game and catches like those became a recurring theme throughout his 2016 tape. He has excellent body control, tracks the ball in the air at an elite level, and has the softest and strongest hands in this class. Mike Williams is a potential top-10 pick in the NFL Draft and will have an opportunity to compete immediately for a WR1 role in an offense.
Malachi Dupre, LSU (WR6)
The former 5-star and #1 overall WR recruit in the 2014 high school class, Dupre struggled to produce the numbers expected from such a highly touted prospect. In an offense dominated by star running backs Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice, however, Dupre was never a focal point. The offense was so run-heavy that incumbent (and incompetent) QB Danny Etling completed only 59.5% of his passes for 2,123 yards and 11 total passing TDs. Those are staggeringly low numbers that make Dupre’s 41 receptions for 593 yards and 3 TDs a little easier to swallow. Dupre’s exceptional 42.4-inch vertical jump and 6’3” frame will allow him to reach the football at a higher point than any NFL cornerback can compete with. He has 4.58 speed (not great) and could tighten up his route running, but his hands are solid and he is a tremendous athlete. It’s taking everything in my power not to rank Dupre and his mouth-watering physical profile above John Ross, and I’m not sure how much longer I can last.
Others: Josh Reynolds (WR17), Amba Etta-Tawo (WR22)
Ryan Switzer, North Carolina (WR13)
The slot receiver position has become a staple in the modern NFL offense, and these undersized jitterbugs are capable of finding legitimate fantasy success in the right system. Cole Beasley, Jamison Crowder, and the entire New England receiving core have made a living out of beating their man with quick cuts and slant routes over the middle of the field. Ryan Switzer is the next in this mold of receiver. Recording 96 receptions and 1,112 yards while competing for targets with other NFL Draft hopefuls Bug Howard and Mack Hollins, Switzer always found a way to get open. I could have included Switzer in the “Elite Route Running” category because of his suddenness and ability to gain separation at a moment’s notice. Make no mistake, Switzer will find a niche in the NFL.
Artavis Scott, Clemson (WR15)
No receiver in Clemson history has more career receptions than Artavis Scott. With 245 catches over 3 seasons, Scott emerged as Deshaun Watson’s security blanket in an offense with a myriad of other options. Scott should be drafted in the middle rounds of the NFL Draft and should be an option in dynasty drafts any point after the mid-3rd round. This class has depth at all positions, and there is a variability in skill sets within the WR position alone. As rookie drafts approach, size and athleticism tend to move players up draft boards (I’m guilty of this more than anyone), but try not to overlook the potentially stable role that Scott could find himself in. The Raiders, Lions, and Broncos are teams to watch that are likely to address their slot receiver position this offseason.
Others: Travis Rudolph (WR24), Trent Taylor (WR30)