2014 Cowboys Weekly Draft Notebook - Episode 12 - Wide Receivers
APR 10, 2014 11:41a ET
This week, we're going to tackle the top part of the Wide Receivers group. My stated and intended goals in this series was to make sure we have a feel for just about any and all players that go in the Top 2 rounds and hopefully most of the Top 3. A Top 100 list is too ambitious, but this group takes us past 60 player profiles and we still have a month to go.
I do not count Wide Receivers at the top of the list of priorities - or even close in comparison, really - for the 2014 Dallas Cowboys, because with Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams (now the #2 with Miles Austin gone), Cole Beasley, and Dwayne Harris they should be ok to start the season, but as you can see, there is no real depth to speak of and Beasley and Harris are plenty limited in what they can bring to the table.
However, the first time there is an injury to one of them, this could unravel rather quickly. Further, we are a point in the NFL now where we should begin to discuss wide receivers like we do cornerbacks. For years, cornerbacks are that position where at any point of the draft in any year, a team takes a cornerback not because they need another one, but because you can always use another one. Now, same for receivers. In a league that passes more than ever and runs less than ever, you can never have too many capable receivers that can be inserted into situations that are built to simply spread out the defense, isolate the weaknesses, and allow your QB1 to pick them apart.
And that is why we should not be surprised if the Dallas Cowboys spend on a receiver, and if the right guy is there as high as in the 1st round, you can understand the logic behind investing heavily in making your offense dynamic and dangerous.
So, here is the top of the group, but you should know that receivers are widely thought of as extremely deep in the 2014 draft, so while I consider these the best of the WRs, we should not be shocked if another several go in the top 2 or 3 rounds. As many as 15 or 16 could go in the Top 100 picks quite easily.
Let's take a look briefly at each of these potential studs:
Mike Evans - Texas AM
The player who I think is the very best of the bunch (although I realize I am certainly not joined by the masses who love Watkins more) is Evans, best known as the "guy Manziel would throw jump balls to who would then constantly bail out his QB" from people who do not think highly of Johnny Football.
Given that I think they are both wonderful prospects - and perhaps the player at each position with the highest ceilings - I think that is a bit of a reduction of Manziel. But, it does properly seem to summarize what Evans is capable of doing. He is an absolute freak in every sense of the word, and if you have to find a kid from the college ranks that may have a shred of Megatron-level DNA, I might start here with a guy of similar physical attributes. It should be noted though, that Megatron ran sub 4.4 in the 40 and also had a vertical over "40, so I am not saying they have similar physical scores on the testing.
But, 4.5 is very fast for a player of this size and if you watch his film, he is absolutely strong enough to bully pretty much anyone who tried to cover him and borders on offensive pass interference on a regular basis. That, to me, is what you are looking for at the NFL level - a receiver that not only defeats physical coverage, but punishes it so that the last thing you want to do is try to press cover him. Evans does that and just throws your press coverage off to the side and runs by with no concern at all.
I assume if you are a fan of football on any level that you saw the Aggies play Alabama last fall and saw one of the most ridiculous performances ever put together by a wide receiver as Evans put on an absurd clinic of dominance against a defense loaded with NFL prospects. He showed aerial skills that were crazy, speed that pulled away from everyone - despite being bigger than everyone, too (thus the Megatron comps) - and then, when needed, was too strong for people to handle, too.
He also has the upside card working for him, as he has only 26 college games and almost no football experience until late in his scholastic career. He is a basketball player that converted and you can clearly see the crossover application of skills in the air.
So, why do people like Watkins more? Obviously, Watkins is great, too, but to me Watkins has no issues at all and Evans has one or two.
First, speed wise, if there are so many that are sub 4.5, it is tough to say a guy at that speed is the best of the bunch and I understand that debate but given that Dez Bryant is 4.5, I can deal with that.
But, if Evans is fairly debited for anything at this point in his development, it would be that he seems to not be great close to the line of scrimmage in crosses and short routes that require precision and perfectly-run timing movements. That is something that can generally be fixed with coaching and precision, but he can do so many things that are unreal and frankly, uncoachable that this would not frighten me away at all.
I think he has superstar capabilities and if he somehow gets to #16, he is the type of player that would make me consider scrapping all defensive objectives and just go take the guy who could change the offense immediately.
So, now, the respected Mr Watkins, a guy who needs no introduction. There is nothing stopping Watkins, as he has almost no weaknesses as a polished player who can step right in and take over games on Sundays from September on.
He is as fast as you may ever find a big receiver in that he is over 6-feet tall and over 210 pounds and can still run right at 4.4 with a 10-yard split that is quickness generally attributed to guys who run 4.3s. He combines that with silly strength in breaking tackles and running across the middle. He is so physical as a runner that Clemson had no problem routinely running him out of a RB alignment - sometimes as a decoy because the defense would have to account for him so heavily - and then running all manner of end arounds, screens, and fakes all based on making you respect Watkins.
His hands are phenomenal and has catching skills that stick out even in a group of guys who all snag the ball with ease. He looks like he is incapable of drops sometimes and then high-points the ball in an aerial battle and makes it look unfair as a defensive back stands idly by.
The argument on why this guy is so dynamic is that he can dominate the entire route tree right now, rather than having a guy that can only excel either deep or shallow, either inside or outside. Watkins can do whatever you want, wherever you want and can instantly take over. He finds a crack at 4.4 and he is gone, but then, as he showed against 1st round LB prospect Ryan Shazier from Ohio State, he decides to just run you over with his power and can make you look silly, too.
If there is anything that sticks out that may be a tad disconcerting, it is that he appears quite comfortable showing up his QB if he was not happy with the ball location from Tajh Boyd, but that should not surprise us that a WR has expressive habits that may not fall in line with our sensibilities, right?
He is awesome and a franchise guy. I like Evans more, but that is purely ceiling based because this guy has no weaknesses. He looks like he could be a better version of Dez, and that really says something. He is more than a WR. He is a devastating weapon that can be used in so many ways, and it starts with something as simple as a smoke screen or even a handoff.
After those top two, it becomes a game of "what flavor of ice cream do you prefer" rather than some industry consensus on who is next off the board.
For me, that guy is Beckham from LSU who really looks like the real deal, although his production is behind the others on a per-game basis until his 2013 at LSU. This, to anyone who follows that program, is clearly a reflection of the QB chaos that the program has dealt with, rather than an issue with Beckham, and he clearly looked better as that situation improved.
Beckham is a player with blazing speed and while he has average size, he can play with some physical pop in his game as well. He plays with routes that look precise and proper, but still packs a ferocity that is quite appealing. He can play in the slot or on the outside, and with massive paws is a player that wants the ball and is ready to do something with it.
In the games I watched, he really showed he could make adjustments on the ball and come up with catches on passes that may not be on the numbers. That ability to scrape a pass off the ground or to go up by the uprights and grab a pass in the sky is the sign of a playmaker and he does all of that.
He also has KR/PR ability, which never hurts a player's total package value, and there runs with confidence and intent as well. He saw lots of press coverage and battled it as you would want, and if you want to know his biggest flaw, I would say it is the common practice of not looking too terribly interested in run blocking. While that is something you would want to see improved, it does stick out like a sore thumb at a place that runs it as much as LSU does.
The next player on my personal preference list is Robinson from Penn State. Obviously, I have not watched much Penn State recently, but when I gave him a chance on the tape, he blew me away. He won at least one game all by himself, it seemed, and I would not pass on a chance to add this guy to my squad.
Robinson is very good in traffic, as he is quite strong and finds the ball well. He is what you would call a big YAC (yards after catch) guy, which may seem a bit odd given his 4.6 40, but look at that 10-yard quickness split. Very quick in short spaces - like maybe in traffic in the secondary. He also has that gigantic vertical which would make many NBA players jealous. He can run the entire route tree as well, and it is tough to say if he looks better in the middle of the field or out by the sideline.
He throws a corner out of his way on a physical pass route, and then runs hard on an end around for a big gain. He appears at times to be simply too strong for a corner to deal with. Penn State is not loaded with talent these days, so you know defenses had him circled all day, so to see his productivity was still very high is more impressive.
He will have the occasional drop and I am not sure he is quite as comfortable on the deep pass as others on this list, but he is the everything you want when it comes to a must-convert play in the NFL - you know where the ball is going and you still cannot stop him. That is something that was said about him quite a bit over the last few years. He is a real stud. Perhaps not as spectacular as some of the others, but if you want a real solid guy, keep him in mind.
Lee is a bit difficult to figure out, because the first time you watch him you are ready to call him elite and maybe at the top of this class. And, there is plenty to like about him for sure. In fact, when you watch the tape, his strength is very Dez-like and you love the ferocity that he plays with.
He is very impressive in space and looks like a bull in a china shop in traffic and appears to be the type of guy that some defensive backs are not looking forward to dealing with. He runs those dig routes very well and that is one of the primary bread-and-butter routes of any X receiver in the NFL.
But, my biggest issue is his drop rate. He clearly is having some issues with either concentration or technique because I have seen his drop rate at over 10% which doesn't sound like a ton, but it really is.
Now, there are some players that you are willing to deal with the occasional drop because they are so dominant - Terrell Owens comes quickly to mind - and Lee is making some massive plays and by the way, averaging over 100 yards per game for his entire college career.
He is really good and it is because he is built as a very thick human being, but still possesses top end speed to boot. I also like his technique in using body position to make himself difficult to get around in battles for the ball (something Kelvin Benjamin could use help with) and is a very willing blocker.
Overall, I like him a ton, but just know that there are going to be moments where you have a big play about to happen and the ball falls harmlessly to the ground.
There is a place in the NFL for the smallish WR, we definitely know that. Now, with this league all about quick passes to players with quickness and the ability to run away form everyone, the ability for these guys to head up the list is clearly happening.
Well, what if that guy ran a 4.3 40, and also put up stunning performances on a routine basis like Brandin Cooks did at Oregon State? 1st Round, please.
He has great PR ability and will definitely flip field position on a regular basis in the NFL on that front, but his real ability is just amazing short routes that are some of the more electric crosses you have seen. He runs at top speed in short order and runs his routes very well. He takes a beating in traffic and pops right up and is absolutely difficult to track down in traffic because he is incredibly slippery.
I have heard one scout say that he is not DeSean Jackson in terms of being a big-play guy. I think I disagree. He looks just like DeSean Jackson, save for the enormous pain in the butt that Jackson was to all of those on his coaching staff. His hands are not perfect, but they are really good and he is dangerous in many, many ways. Screens, crosses, deep, digs, between the hashes, on the sidelines. Cooks can do a lot.
Now, he is small. There is no way around the fact that he is 5'9, but if I am a team that is not worried about that and believe that Randall Cobb, Steve Smith, Jackson, and many others have shown that receivers don't need to be 6'4 to break down secondaries, I am all over Cooks.
He really seems like just the type of guy Chip Kelly could do wonders with for 12 targets a game.
I will be the first to admit that I don't watch Vanderbilt play under normal circumstances. The exception is when word filters out that the most underrated receiver in this draft has been doing his work in that conference at a very high level for 4 years in a row, without ever really playing for a strong team. Again, like Allen Robinson, this provides quite a test for receivers on poor teams in that they are constantly crowded and receivers of attention from safeties constantly.
Now, if both of these players are any indication, it makes them and their teams become more creative in ways to use them, which in turn develops their skills on a really versatile level. Matthews can do just about everything and the distant cousin of Jerry Rice looks like a guy who just loves to study his sport. There are certain players who get a reputation for trying to study the game on a higher level, and when Matthews mentioned he was disappointed that the Senior Bowl did not provide him with game film to study those who would cover him, we figured he wasn't your average bear.
Let's get to his skills, which are substantial. The first thing that sticks out when you watch Matthews play is his hands are just so awesome. He catches everything that is even close. And, then he varies his routes in such a way that you come away convinced that he can do just about anything you ask of him. He is capable of all of the routes and and depths. He catches everything close (as you would expect from a guy who has just about all of the SEC receiving records).
If I had to find a comparable receiver from my rolodex, it would be Greg Jennings, except 4 inches taller. But, he has the same catch skills and versatility in what you can ask him to do. I am not suggesting he is the best receiver in this class, but I was very, very impressed with watching what this guy has done - which is pretty much demonstrate ability on all of the routes.
In nearly every positional grouping, there is a prospect that it seems gets plenty of buzz and praise in draft season from the usual suspects that when I make sure I do my due diligence on, I just don't fully get it. For me, that is Florida State's Benjamin.
Now, don't get me wrong. He has some very impressive positive markers. For instance, he is huge and very, very imposing. He had a crackback block on a linebacker in the NC State game that hurt to watch. He has some catches that are just insane. He had the Florida game this year which looks like it could be candidate for game of the year by a receiver where he just went nuts. He also had this catch against Clemson that should not be overlooked at all.
He has giant hands and despite not having great speed on the stop-watch, he really seems to get behind a lot of defensive backs who are supposedly faster.
So, what are my issues with Benjamin?
Well, many. First, I don't really think he is quick enough to stay at receiver. In fact, as Bill Parcells used to say, he appears to be a few biscuits from being a tight end. Now, if you want to sell me on him being the next amazing tight end with power forward skills? I am interested, but that constitutes an unknown about a transition and I don't like spending 1st round picks on unknowns.
His routes are sloppy and often awkward, his hands are inconsistent, and he flashes high and low. You love him and then he frustrates you. But, more than anything, I think his technique lacks in that his body should be his greatest weapon. Instead, on passes, he waits on the ball and reaches with his hands back to the QB, which of course, is a high school mistake that is then corrected by going to meet the ball and using your body to box out your defenders. Too many times, he reaches and basically plays like a guy much smaller than he actually is.
I want to be clear - there is a lot to like and I think he could fix a lot of that with simple coaching. But, at 4.66 as a kid, that is a time that generally doesn't age well. I think he will always be a red zone talent, but in this draft there are so many more complete WR candidates for me that I really don't value him like many others in this group.
Good, but well down the list for me.
Finally, this is a player that you cannot help but notice due to the amount of games we are all watching to evaluate Derek Carr. I came away from those games a bit underwhelmed with his QB for a number of reasons - mostly having to do with the preponderance of passes he throws behind his line of scrimmage.
But his main target - Adams - is a real interesting player who is now squarely on everyone's radar with his tremendous productivity. A redshirt sophomore who caught over 100 passes in both of his 2 college seasons and had 14 TDs in 2012 and followed it up with 24 more in 2013. He is a playmaking WR.
Now, I am a little concerned with some catching technique issues with his hands, but beyond that, he runs all sorts of routes, including a number of shallows, followed by a double move deep. He is as confident as they come, and seems to catch a fade pattern with as smooth a process as you can imagine.
He is a real competitive playmaker and is also coming off a college career that was absurdly productive and had plenty swagger to let you know that he doesn't think he can be covered.
His issue was his timed speed at the Combine which was before a 4.56 and a 4.59 depending on who you believe. From there, it dropped into the mid 4.45-4.49 range at his pro day according to published reports which could be enough to get him into play for the Cowboys 2nd pick at #47. He is amazingly slippery underneath and has caught more screens at Fresno than you would ever need. For the slot/3rd receiver in Dallas, he makes plenty of sense from where I sit. He also loves going up and winning battles for the ball with a crazy 39.5" vertical leap.
My summary is this: I like Evans more than Watkins, but they are both franchise wide outs. The next tier is sort of taster's choice with Lee, Beckham, Cooks, Robinson, and Matthews all Top 20-40 talents and could go in any order.
Then, tier 3 for me is headlined by Matthews, Benjamin, and Adams are all guys who belong in the 2nd round (roughly).
By the way, the depth in this draft might mean that everyone gets pushed down because you might not want to use a pick if you think there will still be receivers later. And there will be. In fact, there are several more than I like that I didn't include here, who could also be in the Top 2 rounds as well.
Big Board #1 - April 3, 2014
Weekly Notebook - Quarterbacks - Episode 10 - Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr, David Fales, Zach Mettenberger, Jimmy Garoppolo
Weekly Notebook - Offensive Guards - Episode 9 - David Yankey, Xavier Sua Filo, Gabe Jackson, Cyril Richardson, Brandon Thomas, Dakota Dozier
Weekly Notebook - Offensive Tackles - Episode 8 - Jake Matthews, Greg Robinson, Taylor Lewan, Zack Martin, Cyrus Kouandijo, Antonio Richardson, Jack Mewhort, Morgan Moses, Billy Turner
Weekly Notebook - Linebackers - Episode 7 - Khalil Mack, Anthony Barr, Ryan Shazier, Kyle Van Noy, CJ Mosley, Telvin Smith, Jeremiah Attaochu, Carl Bradford
Weekly Notebook - Safeties - Episode 5 - Calvin Pryor, Lamarcus Joyner, HaHa Clinton-Dix, Jimmie Ward, Terrence Brooks, Ed Reynolds, Ahmad Dixon
Weekly Notebook - Defensive Ends - Episode 4 - Dee Ford, Kony Ealy, Jackson Jeffcoat, Scott Crichton, Stephen Tuitt, Trent Murphy, Chris Smith