NFL Draft 2017: Ranking the top 15 wide receivers

NFL teams are always on the lookout for dynamic game-changing receivers. Who are the 15 best receivers available in this year’s NFL Draft class?

In the NFL, passing attacks have increasingly mirrored college designs as they spread out the field with three or more receivers. That forces franchises to put an emphasis on identifying skilled pass-catchers who can get separation from cornerbacks and make highlight-reel plays. These days receivers can change games more than ever. The best make their quarterbacks look like superstars and are an integral part of deep playoff runs.

The problem is that there are so many receivers available in the NFL Draft every year. At this year’s NFL Combine, no position featured as big a list of pro prospects as the receiver position. Only 58 individuals were invited to participate in drills in Indianapolis, and some boosted their draft stock with strong efforts. Others opted to refrain from participating in the physical drills, yet still remain high on draft boards.

So which receivers from this draft class will prove themselves in the long run at the pro level?

As it stands, the total number of wideouts and slot receivers available in the this year’s draft numbers well into the triple digits. So which ones will you most likely be watching on Sundays?

Narrowing down the list to the 58 individuals who went to Indianapolis, we’ve evaluated the Combine numbers along with receiving stats for each players’ last two seasons of college. These numbers were normalized against the field on a 1-10 scale, combined, and then weighted based on the division (FBS, FCS, II, III, and NAIA) of each player.

This list thus represents the 15 players who have demonstrated both consistent production and raw athletic skills that should translate to future NFL success.

Note: These are the top 15 receivers in the 2017 NFL Draft not named Mike Williams.

Jan 2, 2017; New Orleans , LA, USA; Oklahoma Sooners wide receiver Dede Westbrook (11) catches a pass against Auburn Tigers defensive back Stephen Roberts (14) for a touchdown in the third quarter of the 2017 Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

15

Dede Westbrook

WR, Oklahoma

Dede Westbrook broke out in 2016 as one of the best receivers in college football as a senior. He earned the Biletnikoff Award as the top receiver in the nation and was also named Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year. Westbrook tied for third nationally in receiving touchdowns and sixth in receiving yards. The Oklahoma receiver averaged more than 117 yards per game and a touchdown on every fifth catch as the Sooners won their league for the second straight year.

He falls a bit on this list for two reasons. First, his stats were not as big in his first season with the Sooners after transferring from Blinn Community College in 2015. He was overshadowed by Sterling Shepard, posting solid if unspectacular stats as a redshirt junior. Second, he opted out of participating in every drill at the Combine. He has been clocked at 4.39 in the 40, which would have ranked third in the event among available receivers — had he replicated it in Indianapolis.

Westbrook offers sensational vertical speed, though at 6-foot-0 and 178 pounds he is a bit undersized compared to other NFL receivers. The team that picks him up, though, is getting a player who has shown the ability to succeed at both the junior college and FBS levels.

Dec 31, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Washington Huskies wide receiver John Ross (1) breaks the tackle of Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Ryan Anderson (22) during the first quarter in the 2016 CFP Semifinal at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

14

John Ross

WR, Washington

John Ross blew up the internet when he broke the modern Combine record for the fastest electronically-clocked time in the 40. The only other events in which he participated were the vertical leap and the broad jump. Ross tied for third in the broad jump, hitting a mark of 133 inches. In the vertical leap, he reached 37 inches to tie for fifth in the test among receivers.

The lack of even an attempt in any of the other events knocked him down this list a bit, but it is understandable that he would only want to push his body so hard.

After all, Ross was forced to miss the entire 2015 season after playing on damaged knees throughout his sophomore year. Even as an underclassman he demonstrated big-play ability, but 2016 showed that surgeries had not slowed Ross at all. The Washington receiver had one of the best home-run rates in college football, averaging a touchdown every fifth time he caught the ball.

Some teams might still hesitate to draft Ross due to the injury history, especially since he went in for labrum surgery to repair his shoulder after the Combine. But between playing a key role in the Huskies winning the Pac-12 and reaching the College Football Playoff, and his record-breaking showing at the Combine, Ross has effectively demonstrated that he has not lost a step after his recover.

Dec 27, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Baylor Bears wide receiver KD Cannon (9) catches a pass for a touchdown in the first half against the Boise State Broncos during the Cactus Bowl at Chase Field. Baylor defeated Boise State 31-12. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

13

KD Cannon

WR, Baylor

KD Cannon rebounded from a sophomore slump in 2015 to post a second 1,000-yard receiving season last year. Cannon also led the Big 12 with 87 receptions and hauled in 13 touchdowns, nearly doubling his scoring production from the previous two seasons combined.

Yet with Baylor falling out of Big 12 contention, Cannon received less attention than he might have in recent years when the Bears were national contenders.

At the Combine, Cannon posted one of the fastest times among receivers in the 40. He also reached 37 inches in the vertical leap, finishing in a tie for fifth at the position. Cannon put in a middle-of-the-road performance with 13 reps in the bench press and a 119-inch broad jump. He avoided the cone and shuttle drills, which dropped his overall Combine score, but did enough in those events in which he did participate.

Cannon fell out of the top 10 because of that Combine performance as well as the fact that his freshman campaign was stronger than his second season in 2015. Nevertheless, the NFL team that picks up Cannon will land one of the draft’s most dangerous receivers.

Nov 19, 2016; Greenville, NC, USA; East Carolina Pirates wide receiver Zay Jones (7) makes a second quarter catch against the Navy Midshipmen at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

12

Zay Jones

WR, East Carolina

The all-time FBS leader in career receptions, Zay Jones also broke the single-season receptions record last season, hauling in 158 passes for 1,746 yards. Jones isn’t a big-play threat, necessarily, having taken just 23 of his 399 career catches for touchdowns.

But he has sure hands, having caught 71 percent of his targets last year, and he has experience both outside and in the slot. He also has a pedigree that bodes well for future NFL success, with his father and uncle both enjoying long pro careers.

Jones took full advantage of his invitation to the Combine, participating in every drill offered. He finished second behind Chris Godwin in the 20-yard shuttle, just 0.01 seconds off the pace. His 4.45 time in the 40 was respectable. The prolific Pirate also tied for the third-best showing among receivers in the broad jump. All in all, Jones had one of the most complete showings in Indianapolis.

Jones has decent height for a receiver at 6-foot-2 but weighs just 201 pounds. But any NFL team would be happy to find space for the hard-working receiver who improved consistently over his four seasons with East Carolina.

Jan 2, 2017; Pasadena, CA, USA; USC Trojans wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (9) makes a catch for a touchdown against Penn State Nittany Lions cornerback Christian Campbell (1) during the third quarter of the 2017 Rose Bowl game at Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

11

JuJu Smith-Schuster

WR, USC

Had JuJu Smith-Schuster been able to enter the NFL Draft in 2016, he might have been selected ahead of all other receivers. As a sophomore, he doubled his receiving yards from his freshman numbers to finish ahead of all other Power Five receivers in that statistical category. But the slump came as a junior rather than as a sophomore.

In 2016, Smith-Schuster caught the same number of touchdown passes as he had the year before, but he hauled in 19 fewer catches and compiled 500 fewer yards.

Part of that can be attributed to the learning curve of working with new quarterbacks Max Browne and Sam Darnold. He has also been prone to rely too heavily on his size to win matchups against defensive backs, and could stand to work on his route running and hands. His performance at the NFL Combine was also underwhelming. Smith-Schuster ran just 4.54 in the 40 and finished 11 full inches off the top mark in the vertical leap.

But at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, Smith-Schuster still offers prototypical split end size. While his junior season and his Combine performance dropped his draft stature a bit, whichever team has the Trojan fall in its lap is going to gain a major weapon for its aerial attack.

Dec 28, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Texas A&M Aggies wide receiver Josh Reynolds (11) makes a reception over Kansas State Wildcats defensive back Kendall Adams (21) during the second quarter at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

10

Josh Reynolds

WR, Texas A&M

In three years at Texas A&M after transferring from junior college, Josh Reynolds was perhaps the most consistent receiver on the roster. He certainly outplayed teammates and fellow draft prospects Speedy Noil and Ricky Seals-Jones last season.

Reynolds led the SEC in 2016 with 1039 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns. The Aggie receiver averaged a score every fifth catch. He also outpaced his teammates in 2015.

Other than the bench press, Reynolds participated in every other drill at the NFL Combine this year. Though he wasn’t nearly as fast as some of the other receivers, Reynolds demonstrated athletic consistency across the board. He finished in the top 10 in both shuttle drills and tied for fifth in the vertical leap. Reynolds is light at 194 pounds, but he is 6-foot-3 and has prototypical size to play outside.

Teams will reasonably question Reynolds’ build. They would be foolish to question his productivity, though. More polished as a receiver than the other options from Texas A&M, Reynolds should develop into one of the 10 best receivers in this year’s NFL Draft.

Dec 29, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Virginia Tech Hokies wide receiver Isaiah Ford (1) tries to push off Arkansas Razorbacks defensive back Jared Collins (29) in the third quarter during the Belk Bowl at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

9

Isaiah Ford

WR, Virginia Tech

Isaiah Ford’s touchdown rate dropped in 2016, but the Virginia Tech receiver still finished with a 1,000-yard campaign for the second straight season. He has a propensity for making highlight-reel catches, but has also struggled with drops at times and isn’t the most technically gifted pass catcher.

That said, Ford led the ACC in receiving yards as a sophomore in 2015 and finished fourth in the league last year. He has demonstrated a consistent level of production over multiple seasons of ACC play.

At the NFL Combine, Ford didn’t do a ton that would tip the scales on his draft position. The Hokies receiver had one of the 12 worst times in the 40 and finished in the middle of the pack in every other drill in which he participated. That could be the difference between first-round potential and getting drafted on the second day, but Ford still has plenty of game tape to demonstrate his ability to play at the next level.

There might be some concern among franchises about Ford’s slim build, but he has been durable at the college level. Wherever he gets the chance to begin his pro career, Ford should develop into a valuable contributor in little time.

Jan 2, 2017; Arlington, TX, USA; Western Michigan Broncos wide receiver Corey Davis (84) catches a touchdown pass in front of Wisconsin Badgers cornerback Sojourn Shelton (8) during the second half of the 2017 Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

8

Corey Davis

WR, Western Michigan

In most cases, it would be detrimental for a mid-major receiver to skip every drill at the NFL Combine after receiving an invitation.

For Corey Davis, one of the most consistent receivers over the past four seasons, it had next to no impact on his place in the prospective draft order. He’s been projected as a first-round talent, and he slides down this list mainly because we have little to compare in terms of physical drill stats. His best time in the 40, clocked at 4.48 seconds, would have been just 17th best among receivers.

That said, skipping the Combine might have been the smartest possible move for the all-time leader in FBS receiving yards. Mediocre numbers would have cost him precious position in the draft order more than doing nothing in Indianapolis. As a four-year starter for P.J. Fleck at Western Michigan, Davis posted improved numbers each year he suited up for the Broncos. He had three straight 1400-yard seasons and tied for the FBS lead in receiving touchdowns last year.

In our evaluation, Davis drops a bit because any comparable numbers are better than no comparable numbers. But a dynamic route-runner with a demonstrated record of consistency — especially one who stands 6-foot-3 and 209 pounds — is going to be a boon for the NFL team that snags him for their roster.

Jan 2, 2017; Pasadena, CA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions wide receiver Chris Godwin (12) makes a catch for a touchdown against the USC Trojans during the second quarter of the 2017 Rose Bowl game at Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

7

Chris Godwin

WR, Penn State

The lasting memory of Chris Godwin in college will be the monster performance he put up in his final college game. At the Rose Bowl against USC, Godwin caught nine passes for 187 yards and two scores.

Over his last two years at Penn State, Godwin racked up over 2,000 receiving yards. He always seemed to save his best showings for the postseason. As a senior, he had one of the highest scoring rates in the FBS as he needed fewer than six catches to score a touchdown.

Godwin certainly didn’t hurt his draft stock at the NFL Combine, either, as one of the few Power Five receivers to participate in every drill. He topped all receivers in the 20-yard shuttle with a time of four seconds flat. His 4.42 time in the 40 was only obscured by the fact that John Ross broke the modern record in the drill. He proved his strength by hoisting 19 reps in the bench press, and showcased decent hops in both the vertical leap and broad jump.

Scouts know Godwin performs well on the biggest stages. At 6-foot-1 and 209 pounds, he has sufficient size to muscle defensive backs on his routes. The NFL team that lands Godwin will be getting a crisp and polished receiver who can contribute immediately.

Dec 27, 2016; San Diego , CA, USA; Washington State Cougars wide receiver Gabe Marks (9) is defended after a catch by Minnesota Golden Gophers cornerback Coney Durr (16) during the first quarter at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

6

Gabe Marks

WR, Washington State

Some NFL teams will probably look at Gabe Marks and see a system player. He certainly benefitted from Mike Leach’s air-raid offense. But Marks also showed himself to be a versatile receiver both outside and in the slot. His production fell in 2016 even as Washington State improved, yet he still completed his college career as the Pac-12’s all-time leader in receptions and second in career receiving touchdowns.

At the Combine, Marks participated in all events except the 60-yard shuttle. None of his performances were especially noteworthy, especially a 40 time that ranked outside the top 30 times among receivers. His best showing, in the 20-yard shuttle, still fell two-tenths of a second off the winning pace in the drill. That could hurt Marks over the NFL Draft weekend and cause him to fall down the rounds.

The team that ultimately does take a chance on Marks, though, will be getting a 6-foot-0 receiver who showcased his skills against Pac-12 competition. They’ll also be getting someone who isn’t merely a possession receiver but who also scores touchdowns on every seventh catch.

Dec 23, 2016; Fort Worth, TX, USA; Louisiana Tech Bulldogs wide receiver Carlos Henderson (1) catches a touchdown pass against Navy Midshipmen cornerback Tyris Wooten (17) in the fourth quarter at Amon G. Carter Stadium. Louisiana Tech won 48-45. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

5

Carlos Henderson

WR, Louisiana Tech

While his teammate Trent Taylor put up bigger raw stats, Carlos Henderson was the more versatile all-purpose receiving threat at Louisiana Tech. He finished 2016 as the Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year and its Special Teams Player of the Year. He had the highest touchdown rate among receivers that played a full season. Henderson finished fourth nationally in all-purpose yardage. He also averaged nearly two full touchdowns per game with a 10.6-point average.

He did not necessarily impress at the NFL Combine, but neither did Henderson embarrass himself in Indianapolis. The Bulldog finished eighth in the broad jump, and his time in the 40 stacked up as just the 15th best among receivers. He was also outside the top 30 receivers in the three-cone drill and the 20-yard shuttle. The Combine showing ultimately shouldn’t do much to diminish his draft stock.

Henderson has the size at 5-foot-11 and 199 pounds and the game speed and strong hands to prove valuable to any passing attack. He has a propensity for getting into the endzone that would serve any NFL team well.

Nov 26, 2016; Ames, IA, USA; West Virginia Mountaineers wide receiver Shelton Gibson (1) catches a 71 yard touchdown pass from quarterback Skyler Howard (not pictured) as Iowa State Cyclones defensive back Kamari Cotton-Moya (5) chases from behind during the third quarter at Jack Trice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

4

Shelton Gibson

WR, West Virginia

Before the Combine, Shelton Gibson was being talked up as one of the fastest receivers in the country. His performance in Indianapolis can be looked at in two ways. His 40 time was disappointing in the context of this claim.

Gibson he finished tied 19th among receivers with a 4.50 time. Yet Gibson also dominated the 60-yard shuttle, finishing four-tenths of a second ahead of Trent Taylor and Ryan Switzer.

What the Combine performance failed to capture is Gibson’s home-run potential. He scores a touchdown on every fifth touch, one of the highest scoring rates among receivers in this year’s crop of prospects. He didn’t put up huge numbers at West Virginia, but he also averaged 23 yards per catch over his final two seasons in Morgantown. At 5-foot-11 and 191 pounds, he is compact but fast at game speed.

Gibson didn’t dazzle with huge compiling numbers in college, but he did produce some of the most eye-popping rate numbers in the country. NFL teams would be wise to take a long look at Gibson, who could end up the best Power Five prospect among this year’s class of receivers.

Sep 3, 2016; Pullman, WA, USA; Eastern Washington Eagles wide receiver Cooper Kupp (10) makes a touchdown catch against Washington State Cougars defensive lineman Samson Ebukam (3) during the second half at Martin Stadium. The Eagles won 45-42. Mandatory Credit: James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

3

Cooper Kupp

WR, Eastern Washington

In his last two years of college ball at Mississippi Valley State, Jerry Rice caught 205 passes for 3,132 yards and 41 touchdowns. Cooper Kupp also dominated his competition as a junior and senior, notching 231 receptions for 3,342 yards and 36 scores.

The FCS career leader in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving TDs didn’t just pad his stats against overmatched competition either. In four games against Pac-12 opponents, Kupp averaged 178 yards and two touchdowns per game.

In addition to his record-setting career at the FCS level, Kupp also bolstered his draft stock thanks to a strong NFL Combine performance. He declined to participate in the bench press and 60-yard shuttle, but took part in every other physical drill. He posted a subpar 4.62 time in the 40, but performed much better in both the three-cone drill and the 20-yard shuttle. Those showings demonstrated his crisp movements that translate to his route running.

The son and grandson of former NFL players, Kupp has the pedigree to understand what it takes to play professionally. With a chip on his shoulder, Kupp has the size (6-foot-2 and 205 pounds) and skills that transcend playing in the Big Sky rather than a bigger conference.

Dec 23, 2016; Fort Worth, TX, USA; Louisiana Tech Bulldogs wide receiver Trent Taylor (5) runs for a touchdown in the second quarter against the Navy Midshipmen at Amon G. Carter Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

2

Trent Taylor

WR, Louisiana Tech

Trent Taylor received just one scholarship offer coming out of high school, and he made the most of the opportunity. The slot receiver started all four years at Louisiana Tech, repaying the school’s confidence with over 4,000 career receiving yards.

Last season, Taylor caught 136 passes and led all FBS receivers in yardage. Throughout his career, he also averaged seven catches for 93 yards and a touchdown against eight Power Five opponents.

Taylor was stellar at the Combine, tying for second in the 20-yard shuttle with Zay Jones and finishing second as well in the 60-yard shuttle. He also tied for sixth in the three-cone drill, helping make up for a slower-than-hoped 40 time. Though undersized at just 5-foot-8 and 181 pounds, Taylor has proven capable of overcoming his diminutive stature to pressure defenses as a four-year starter in Ruston.

The Bulldog probably will be drafted long after teammate Carlos Henderson, if he gets drafted at all, due to his size. But Taylor offers similar elusiveness in the slot as other smaller receivers, and if a team takes a flyer on him he could pay huge dividends.

Dec 3, 2016; Bowling Green, KY, USA; Western Kentucky Hilltoppers wide receiver Taywan Taylor (2) reaches for a pass against Louisiana Tech Bulldogs cornerback Prince Sam (23) during the first half of the CUSA championship game at Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

1

Taywan Taylor

Wide Receiver, Western Kentucky

Interestingly, even after balancing for differences in schedule quality by division, the top few receivers available in this year’s NFL Draft hail not from Power Five schools but rather lower-tier programs. Taywan Taylor, the productive pass catcher from Western Kentucky, tops this evaluation. Last year, Taylor finished fifth in the FBS in receiving yards per game and also tied for third nationally in touchdowns.

What was most impressive, though, was how he performed against Power Five opponents over his last two seasons. Taylor averaged eight catches for 117 yards, capped by a nine-reception, 121-yard performance against Alabama last September.

Given his Combine performance, he stands out as a solid talent among slot receivers available to NFL teams. He finished ahead of all receivers in the three-cone drill, reinforcing the fact that he can change direction in tight spaces quickly.

At 5-foot-11 and 203 pounds, the Hilltopper prospect is one of the best pro prospects among mid-major receivers. Taylor could ultimately emerge as the steal of the 2017 NFL Draft depending on where he lands.

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