Billick evaluates wide receiver prospects

BY foxsports • April 8, 2011

Billick ranks the top wide receiver prospects in the NFL draft.

 

1. A.J. Green | 2. Julio Jones | 3. Leonard Hankerson 4. Jon Baldwin | 5. Torrey Smith | 6. Titus Young 7. Randall Cobb | 8. Greg Little

Green could make quick impact

 

Georgia's A.J. Green has been considered the top wide receiver prospect since the day he became eligible for the draft. While, Alabama's Julio Jones is gaining ground, Green still remains at the top of the list.

Green measures in at 6-foot-3 5/8 and 211 pounds. He ran a 4.5 40-yard dash and jumped a 34.5-inch vertical. He uses that height, size, speed and jumping ability very effectively on the field. He attacks the ball in the air and often catches the ball at its highest point, making it very difficult for defenders to get a hand on the ball. He has a good burst into his routes and great body control to adjust to poorly thrown balls, making a tough catch look almost effortless. He shows good agility and running skills to gain yards after the catch and make the most out of his touches.

Even with his height, he shows above average ability to get off bump coverage and get back into his route quickly. All in all, he is a big-threat receiver that will have an early impact on whatever team selects him.

He has been drawing comparisons anywhere from Calvin Johnson to Randy Moss, but I am not quite ready to go that far. For now, I liken his game play to Tampa Bay's Mike Williams. Coming out of Syracuse, Williams had first-round talent, but dropped into the fourth round due to off-the-field concerns. Last year, as a rookie, Williams had 65 receptions for 964 yards and 11 touchdowns. I would look for Green to have a similar impact to his respective team next year.

 

Jones compares to Boldin

 

Julio Jones plays tough. Jones is a three-year starter from Nick Saban's Alabama Crimson Tide. He measures in at 6-foot-2 3/4 and 220 pounds. Jones has always been considered an elite prospect with a high first-round grade, but he raised his stock even more during the NFL Scouting Combine. It was there that he ran a 4.39 40-yard dash and jumped a 38.5-inch vertical, all while having a bone injury in his foot. Not only does that show supreme athleticism but also a certain level of toughness that some NFL prima donnas at the wide receiver position lack.

Jones carries that toughness onto the field as well. He shows a no-fear mentality when going across the middle, and often gives up his body in order to make a catch. He also displays that 4.39 speed in his route running by maintaining close to full speed when coming in and out of breaks. He also shows the ability to be a great double-move receiver who is so often used in NFL passing systems. When the ball is in his possession, he runs "angry" and often picks up yards after contact.

Jones is best when the defensive back tries to play press coverage but could work on his technique to eat up separation when the corner is playing off coverage. He has above average hands but will sometimes drop an easy pass by letting it get into his body.

Jones' Combine workout was very impressive and encouraged NFL scouts and talent evaluators to go back and look at additional tape. Some teams have claimed to move him ahead of A.J. Green on their draft board, but I would still consider him a close second. I believe Jones to be very comparable to Anquan Boldin and will give his future team that tough presence at the wide receiver position.

Hankerson more than just big body

 

Miami Hurricanes wide receiver Leonard Hankerson has been a budding prospect since his 2009 season of 45 receptions for 801 yards and six touchdowns. He followed that up with a senior year in which he broke the single-season records for receptions (72), receiving yards (1,156) and receiving touchdowns (13). Hankerson is a two-year starter for the Hurricanes and a team captain.

On the field, he is surprisingly quick in and out of breaks and catches the football with his hands rather than in his body. He is a big-frame target who has nice long arms to make for a big catch radius for the quarterback to throw into. Additionally, he uses those long arms to get off press coverage by holding the corner off his pads. He wasn't just a one trick pony who caught deep jump balls over and over, he ran routes of the passing tree, very similar to what NFL teams will ask of him.

Hankerson backed up his very productive final year with a stellar performance at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. He quickly became one of the more trusted receivers and was targeted frequently in practice and in the game.

The biggest question mark for Hankerson was his top speed, but he quickly dissolved those doubts by running a 4.43 40-yard dash at the Scouting Combine. That was the exact time of Maryland's Torrey Smith, the supposed burner of the draft. In comparison, Hankerson gives an NFL team much more diversity and consistency at the wide receiver position.

 

Basketball background helps Baldwin

 

Jon Baldwin is an athletic wide receiver who was a two-year starter for the Pittsburgh Panthers. Baldwin was quite the high school basketball player and was selected to the McDonald'a All America team. I met Jon at the NFL Scouting Combine, and he told me that his high school coach is the one who encouraged him to pursue football at the next level. His coach told him there were "100 other kids in New York City that could do what he does on a basketball court."

You can see those basketball influences in him as a football player. He tracks and adjusts to the ball well in the air and attacks at its highest point in jump-ball situations. He is a big, physical receiver who uses his body to "box out" defenders and shield them from the ball.

Similar to most tall rookie receivers, he will need to learn how to get off press coverage, which is more prominent in the NFL game than college. He is a little upright in his stance at the line of scrimmage, exposing a lot of shoulder, which gives the corner a big target to jam him out of his route.

Having top-end speed was a huge question mark going into the Combine, but he did run a better-than-expected 4.5 40-yard dash. That speed combined with his 6-foot-4 3/8 and 228-pound frame will make him an intriguing prospect.

Baldwin is in the discussion as the third-best WR prospect in this year's draft class, but some teams think of him as having a "diva" personality. He will continue to address those concerns during visits and individual workouts with teams prior to the draft, and I look for him to be selected in the second round.

 

Smith needs more than speed

 

Maryland's Torrey Smith reminds me of another speedy Maryland Terrapin, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and not just because of their college roots. They are both straight-line speedsters who can be explosive playmakers but inconsistentcy taints their overall ability.

On tape, Smith appears to be a little tight in his routes and struggles maintaining his elite speed in and out of his breaks. Additionally, he shows a lack of flexibility when trying to adjust to poorly thrown balls. On a field-stretching "go" route — his best — he seems uncomfortable adjusting to balls thrown over his outside shoulder, losing track of the ball when rolling his head inside out. Also on deeper routes, he has a tendency to attack the ball with just one arm, he will need to reach out with two to consistently bring balls down in the NFL.

I do like how Smith eats up cushion off the snap, but he will need to prove he can snap off a comeback route for the deep threat to be more meaningful. He is better at running by defenders in man coverage, but has shown the awareness to throttle down in zone coverage. After the catch, he is a major threat, as it was very difficult for tacklers to bring him down with just an arm tackle. Once in the open field, there won't be many who can chase him down.

Some talent evaluators have Smith as the third-best wide receiver in the draft, but I hesitate to give him such a high grade. His speed will be enticing, but I would encourage teams to look at the full tape before using a first-round pick on him.

 

Young a productive receiver

 

Titus Young has had back-to-back seasons of 70-plus receptions and 1,000-plus yards at Boise State. Last year, Young broke Boise's single-season receiving yards mark with 1,215 and finished his career as the all-time receiving yards leader with 3,063. His production numbers could be a little inflated based on the passing system the Broncos utilize, but I think he has the skill set to be a fine receiver in the NFL.

Young has good top-end speed (4.53 40-yard dash), but his quickness and ability to snap in and out of breaks is what sets him apart. He may have been the best route runner at the Senior Bowl, easily breaking off routes and creating instant separation from the defensive backs in one-on-one drills. He has great hips and head motion out of his plant and drives his body back to the ball. He is a little undersized (5-foot-11 3/4, 174 pounds) for a prototypical outside receiver in the NFL, but he could be a DeSean Jackson type if plugged into the right system. He has a similar ability to stretch the field and break games wide open.

With 71 receptions last year, it is hard to suggest he could have more consistent hands, but he appears to have some concentration lapses which lead to drops on what should be easy catches.

I had the chance to do an on-field demo with Titus about a week ago, and he proved to me that he was an intelligent receiver who studies defenses and techniques. He was an impressive young man (especially for someone that has some maturity concerns coming into the draft). I look for him to go somewhere in the middle of the second round.

Cobb may thrive as 'wildcat' option

 

Kentucky's Randall Cobb has a similar skill set to Percy Harvin when he was coming out a couple years ago. In 2010, Cobb broke the SEC single-season record for all-purpose yardage with 2,396 including 1,017 receiving and 424 rushing. Last season, he scored at least one touchdown as a receiver, running back, quarterback and returner — accounting for 16 touchdowns overall.

As expected, when watching him on the field, you see an extremely versatile athlete who displays very natural movements on the field. He catches the ball with ease, extending his arms out fully to catch the ball away from his body and the defender. He runs crisp routes and adjusts and tracks the ball in the air extremely well. He shows the skill to play either outside or as a slot receiver, but I think he would be best suited inside. This way, he can get the ball quickly and use his run-after-catch ability to make big plays.

He has great acceleration in short bursts that make him tough to tackle in the open field. Outside of his playmaking ability, I really like the fact that he is a tough and willing blocker to help spring his teammates for bigger gains. He also will be a special teams contributor from Day 1.

With the "wildcat" offense still being prevalent in today's NFL, this former Kentucky Wildcat will give his future team a ton of versatility and productivity. Most teams will be looking for him as the fifth best receiver in this draft.

 

Little possibly a draft steal

 

North Carolina's Greg Little is often overlooked in this year's crop of wide receiver prospects, but he has a skill set and body type that could make him a very memorable player in the NFL. Like many other Tar Heels, Little was suspended for the entire 2010 season.

During the NFL Scouting Combine and North Carolina's pro day, Little showed off his very well put-together 6-foot-2 1/2, 231-pound frame. He is a very smooth and fluid athlete who displays very natural hands. NFL Network's Mike Mayock even suggests he has the best hands in the draft.

He doesn't have an elite burst and acceleration off the ball, but he does get in and out of his breaks efficiently and has the body type to seal defenders away from the ball. While he won't be a consistent deep threat, he is physical enough to get tough yardage and runs through tacklers once the ball is in his hands. He also shows the ability to be a great jump-ball threat in the red zone as he adjusts well to the ball in the air and attacks it at it highest point.

Greg Little has the prototypical NFL size that will make him an attractive prospect but not having an entire year's worth of tape is going to make some teams nervous. I think he will fall into the late second or possibly early third round, and whoever gets him that late may be getting a huge value. I liken him to Andre Johnson with his physical playing style and body type.

For more analysis, follow Billick on Twitter at @coachbillick.



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