We aren’t supposed to take too much stock in what happens at the NFL Combine, which Peter King once named the “underwear olympics.” But there are winners and losers each year nonetheless, and nowhere is that more apparent than in this year’s mixed-up class of wide receivers.
Unlike last year, where AJ Green and Julio Jones gave us a consensus top two at the top of the talent chart, dwarfing the rest of the field, this year’s group of receivers is remarkably ripe for debate. Assemble any five scouts and you’ll get at least three different answers for who the first WR picked should be, with Justin Blackmon, Michael Floyd and Alshon Jeffery all collecting votes and plenty of room for underdog picks.
Thousands of hours of tape study among collected scouts haven’t broken the logjam, so a few days with measuring tapes and stopwatches threatens to radically reshape our draft expectations. Here’s a rundown of winners and losers among the biggest names at the WR position.
Michael Floyd (Notre Dame)
Standing still, Floyd has always looked the part of the #1 wide receiver. He’s physically and athletically gifted, one of these players that just looks impressive coming off the bus. His combine measurements — 6′ 2 5/8″ and 220 pounds of lean muscle — only reinforce that impression.
Where he surprised is with his speed. In two unofficial runs at the 40-yard dash, he sprinted out to 4.42 and 4.44 times, far faster than he appears on tape, and plenty fast enough with his size to qualify as a “vertical threat” in an NFL offense. However, many will point out that this speed rarely shows up in game tape.
Floyd has two-pronged character concerns to put to rest, having been officially charged with DUI, and unofficially charged with wildly fluctuating levels of effort at Notre Dame. However, NFL draft analyst Mike Mayock notes that he has “cleaned himself up on and off the field,” and had him ranked in the first round before his impressive runs. Now, he may legitimately re-enter discussion as the first WR off the board.
Stephen Hill (Georgia Tech)
Run a 4.3 40 and you’ll make headlines. Do it at 6’4″ 215 pounds, and those headlines have the words “athletic freak” in them.
By comparison to Hill’s exploits, Randy Moss stood at 6’4″ 210, and ran a 4.25 in 1998, on his way toward tearing up the NFL record books. However, where Moss was also torching records in college, catching 54 touchdowns in two seasons at Marshall, Hill has only 9 TDs in three seasons at run-heavy Georgia Tech. The fact that he was invited to the combine at all with such paltry production is a nod to his obvious talent.
Hill has seemingly solidified standing as a worthy 1st-2nd round pick, with hype pushing his ceiling higher and higher. Those looking for the next Randy Moss might be disappointed to get a slightly faster version of Demaryius Thomas. But those looking for a slightly faster Demaryius Thomas to groom for the future are going to be delighted.
Rueben Randle (LSU)
Randle didn’t wow, but he didn’t disappoint draftnik observers. A week ago, the LSU receiver barely cracked Yahoo’s list of top-50 prospects. However, a solid 4.55 40 time and confirmation of his impressive stature (6’3″ 210) helped him in a steadily building campaign to move up draft boards, potentially into the first round. So did underwhelming or nonexistent performances by some of his peers in this class.
Justin Blackmon (Oklahoma State) and Alshon Jeffery (South Carolina)
Both players have been mentioned in conversation as the top WR in the draft, with Blackmon having become the near consensus pick up until this weekend. However, very few are comfortable considering Blackmon as an elite receiver worthy of a top-5 or even a top-10 pick. And according to SI draft analyst Tony Pauline and others, Jeffery’s stock has fallen out of the first round all together.
Either or both could have silenced doubters with strong combine performances, but both backed out. Blackmon cited a tender hamstring in avoiding the 40 yard dash, while Jeffery flat-out declined to run. For both, this is a risk-management strategy, plain and simple. They will work out in friendlier settings at their pro days, and the times they record on those pro days will have shakers full of salt thrown on them.
Edit: Blackmon did participate in most WR drills, drawing praise for his hands and routes while reinforcing what scouts have seen on game tape. However, standing at 6’0″ and failing to run the 40 on a level playing field aren’t helping him make the leap from “very good” to “elite” prospect status.
Kendall Wright (Baylor)
No player hurt his stock more this weekend than Kendall Wright, who was expected to run a sub-4.4 time in the 40 yard dash. Instead, he pumped out a sluggish 4.61 in an official time. And with the measuring tape barely cracking the 5’10″ mark, a dark horse candidate for a top ten pick becomes fodder for a massive drop.
However, this is where game tape will work in his favor. Pete Prisco of CBS Sports offered this defense: “Kendall Wright ran slower than Michael Floyd. I ask this: Who plays faster? It isn’t Floyd.”
That said, several observers commented that Wright looked thicker and less athletic than he should have, raising questions where there were none before, while existing doubts about his height and sub-elite three-star recruiting status continue to dog him.
As 49ers beat reporter Grant Cohn asked rhetorically in a Twitter conversation with us: “Who was the last 5-10 receiver who didn’t run a 4.3 to get drafted in the first round?”
Mohamed Sanu (Rutgers)
Sanu, a 6’2″ 211 pounder with very good hands, has been in the thick of a set of receivers clustered together with high 2nd-round aspirations. However, he did not help himself separate from that crowd with a poor 4.67 time in the 40. That’s possession-receiver time, and players who acquire the “possession receiver” tag often fall back into the 3rd or fourth round. Or later.
For what it’s worth, Matt Miller of New Era Scouting cautions us not to put too much stock in that time: “Don’t freak out about Mohamed Sanu’s 4.65…not what he does. His burst and ‘L’ times will be much better. Short-area guy.”
That may be true, but for every Anquan Boldin, there are dozens of “Anquan Boldin types” who fail to make their own name in the league.
Despite all the short-term ups and downs associated with the Combine, there is a larger question that is a constantly running current under this group: does their inability to separate from each other potentially spell doom for their inability to separate from NFL defenses? Is this a draft class reminiscent of the brutal WR class of 2008?
Flashing back to that fateful year, no wideouts were taken in the first round, something that has happened only twice in the last forty years. However, a huge group of ten intriguing-but-flawed players went in the second round. Of those ten, only three are making an impact in the NFL – DeSean Jackson (7th WR picked), Jordy Nelson (3rd), and Eddie Royal (5th). The rest busted out or are steadily on their way.
Plenty of teams needed WRs that year, but the skill-position talent in that draft was at running back instead: Chris Johnson, Darren McFadden, Matt Forte, Reggie Bush, Ray Rice, Rashard Mendenhall and Jamaal Charles all came out of that class.
This year’s skill position competition is far lighter than that, with only three running backs – Trent Richardson, Lamar Miller, Doug Martin – and two quarterbacks comfortably in the “difference-maker” conversation. That pushes an unsettled crop of WR talent uncomfortably high in the draft, and makes for a compelling few weeks of Pro Day drama to come.