The Deep Route Draft Notebook features takes on the latest draft discussions and reports on players and teams ahead the 2018 NFL Draft. Unless stated otherwise, all stats are accumulated using Pro/College Football Reference, ESPN, Spotrac.com or 4for4.com.
THINGS I KNOW
I know teams are better suited getting wide receivers through the draft than through free agency. I haven’t dove extensively into the wide receiver class yet, but it is already looking very deep. So far, no one seems to have a consensus on who the top receivers are. I put the most common three in this week’s Position Primer, but there are realistically six to seven guys who I could argue deserve first-round consideration. Of course, the class looks better when comparing it to a lackluster free agent group. The best available players are either inconsistent (Paul Richardson, Marqise Lee) or have injury concerns (Allen Robinson, Sammy Watkins). While the potential is there, it seems smarter to invest in a cheaper, younger prospect than pay millions for a riskier, older veteran. Also, the best (and safest) teams tend to develop players they drafted through their own system rather than teach a veteran that same system. Of course, having too many receivers is not a bad problem, especially for teams like the Bears or Ravens who desperately need one (or a few, for that matter).
I know Trey Burton should be paid like a top tight end. Burton perfectly exemplifies the modern tight end in that he can line up anywhere on the field and have success. Heck, he can even play quarterback if needed. Burton was never the first option at tight end in Philadelphia, but he was always a reliable option. His limited role also explains why his stats were underwhelming, yet he still flashed major potential when given the chance. Burton’s combination of quickness, strength and, most importantly, his versatility, will be highly coveted by many NFL teams. At 26-years old, expect Burton to command a massive market in a league where good tight ends are scarce.
I know Jordan Reed is not a reliable option anymore. Reed and Burton are similar players and actually college teammates, too. The difference is Reed has been a long-time starter who has performed at a Pro Bowl level, when healthy. Health is the main problem with Reed, who has yet to play a full season in his five-year career. With that said, Reed’s ceiling is as high as any tight end in the NFL, but his floor is a three-four game season riddled with injuries. If I am a tight-end needy team, and there are many, I would be cautious before spending heavily on Reed’s upside. If Reed can stay on the field and produce at the elite level he has before, he could be the steal of free agency. I would bet on the downside, however, because some players just simply don’t have the body necessary to sustain a healthy career. Unfortunately for Reed, he is one of those players.
THINGS I DON’T KNOW
I don’t know how I feel about Jarvis Landry’s inevitable departure. It is no secret that I am a Miami Dolphins fan, so naturally I have a lot of mixed feelings about this whole thing. Look, I love Landry. On the field, he is a reliable playmaker who has consistently been Miami’s top offensive option. Off the field, Landry is an energetic, charismatic icon who fans (including myself) have come to adore. Clearly, his outspoken personality has likely clashed with the staff, most notably Adam Gase. However, the real issue here is that Landry demands to be paid like a top receiver, which would be around $14-$15 million a year. Ironically, Landry is making slightly under $16 million on the franchise tag he just signed, which ranks as the second-highest salary a receiver will earn this season. The big question is whether Landry deserves the hefty contract or not. He’s posted two seasons with over 1,000 receiving yards (he was 13 yards short this past year) and is one of the most targeted players in the NFL. He can also line up anywhere, though his deep ball success is not great. (Credit that to whichever vertically challenged quarterback was throwing Landry the ball.) While he has certainly been productive in his four seasons in a Dolphins’ uniform, Landry is simply demanding too much money. Money that Miami isn’t willing to pay him. Should the Dolphins pay him? Yes. Should they pay him on the same level as Antonio Brown and DeAndre Hopkins? Definitely not. I may be sad to see Landry go, but I understand why he has to leave and wish him well on his next team. Luckily, there are multiple options at wide receiver for the Dolphins to choose from.
I don’t know what is going on with this quarterback market. Let’s step back to the signal-callers for a second because things are getting weird. A couple weeks ago I previewed the quarterbacks this offseason and predicted Kirk Cousins to the Broncos and Case Keenum to return to the Vikings. While I warned about Keenum’s potential risks, I still argued that logic points to a happy reunion between Minnesota and their former 30-year old quarterback. Then, Mike Zimmer decides to call some shots on the guy who led them to the Conference Championship only days after making fun of Sam Bradford’s injury-prone knees. What are you doing, Mike? These guys, mostly Keenum, are like gods now in Minneapolis and Zimmer is pushing them out. At least the Vikings have their eyes on Cousins (who reportedly returns the infatuation), but what happens if Cousins lands with the Jets or Broncos? I would be surprised if Keenum or Bradford would want to don purple and gold again. That opens the door for Keenum to potentially sign with Denver, which is a great fit but I wonder if he can perform at the same level as he did in Minnesota. Also, that leaves the Vikings out to dry. The next best options are A.J. McCarron (I still think he’ll sign with Cleveland) and a first-round rookie, whom the Vikings are in no position to draft. This could be one of the craziest offseasons for quarterback movement in recent NFL history.
I’ll give a weekly rundown of the top players at a certain position, including a potential sleeper. The players will be ranked, but of course, these rankings are EASILY SUBJECT TO CHANGE. Let’s take a quick look at this year’s Wide Receivers/Tight Ends.
1. Calvin Ridley (WR) Pros: Quick. Outstanding route running skills. Great body control. Creates separation easily. Reliable. Quick release. Excellent burst. Above average hands. Tracks the ball very well. Well-rounded. Athletic. Dangerous RAC ability. Great footwork. High football IQ. Reads defenses well. Agile.
Cons: Production and age concerns (I’ll get to those later). Unreliable at 50/50 balls. Doesn’t have strong hands. Not strong through contact. Needs to add bulk. Bad blocker.
Outlook: Ridley is the most pro-ready receiver in the draft. He can do everything well except block, though his hands can be inconsistent.
Big Question: Can he become a more consistent catcher?
2. Christian Kirk (WR) Pros: Quick. Elusive. Tough. Mature. Smooth route running. Excels in open field. Explosive. Good at separating. Intelligent. Can win with power after catch. Very balanced. Gets open with agile cuts, quickness and superb field vision. Good at tracking football. Shifty. Lethal in one-on-one.
Cons: Can basket-catch when should have high-pointed the ball. Not overly strong. Doesn’t always win 50/50 balls due to lack of physicality and size.
Outlook: Size limits Kirk but his quickness and excellent route running ability could be enough for Kirk to become a very good receiver.
Big Question: Will Kirk’s size and physicality be enough to compete with stronger NFL bodies?
3. Courtland Sutton (WR) Pros: Tall (6-4). Red-zone threat. Extremely productive. Long strides. Length helps him get past defenders. Strong. Surprisingly quick feet. Athletic. Not afraid to lower shoulder. Insane physical tools. Juke specialist. Not afraid to catch over middle. Strong hands. Unreal concentration.
Cons: Lack of competition was concerning. Wasn’t great at beating press coverage. Inconsistent high pointing skills. Committed offensive PI too often. Lack of route tree. Chest catches too often. Temperament can impact play.
Outlook: Sutton is a big receiver who often plays too small. If he can learn to use his height, consistently beat press coverage and control his emotions, he can be great.
Big Question: Can Sutton learn to use his big body to his advantage?
Sleeper – Antonio Callaway (WR) Pros: Very fast. Shifty. Playmaker. Explosive. Instinctive. Very athletic. Said he’s matured since having a daughter. Versatile. Was productive before leaving team. Fights for extra yards. Flexible hips. Separates well. Experience in multiple positions.
Cons: Multiple off-field issues, including year-long suspension. Injury history. Inconsistent hands. Slight fumbling issue.
Outlook: Super talented but has multiple red flags. A big risk/reward player.
Big Question: Can Callaway stay on the field (by avoiding suspensions and injuries)?
1. Dallas Goedert (TE) Pros: Good size (6-4, 260). Long. Tracks ball well. Good concentration before catch. Large catch radius. Productive. Athletic. Can box out defenders. Not afraid to catch over middle. Surprisingly fast. Physical. Great situational awareness. Excels at one-handed catches. Strong, especially in his upper body. Versatile. Experienced route tree. Smooth route running.
Cons: Can drop easy balls, likely due to mental lapses. Lack of competition concerns. Rarely faced double coverage. Blocking needs work. Relies on athleticism when blocking.
Outlook: Goedert’s athleticism and catching ability has helped him make some unreal plays. He has all the tools to be a successful receiving tight end and a solid blocker.
Big Question: Was Goedert’s collegiate play just a factor of weak defenses?
2. Mike Gesicki (TE) Pros: Very athletic. Explosive. Good field vision. Processes field well and can adjust routes accordingly. Tracks ball well. High vertical. Fast for a tight end. Smooth release off line. Very reliable hands. Long catch radius. Excels at head fakes. Advanced route runner. Loose hips. Creates separation nicely.
Cons: Can struggle with press coverage. Strong, but doesn’t always play like it. Not overly physical. Ball awareness isn’t great. Unreliable blocker. Needs to learn how to use hands better when blocking.
Outlook: An incredible receiver who needs to build strength and improve blocking if he wants to have a long, successful career.
Big Question: Can Gesicki improve as a blocker?
3. Mark Andrews (TE) Pros: Tall (6-5). Very productive. Athletic. Surprisingly nice footwork. Tracks ball well. Good ball awareness. Can adjust to throws easily. Uses body well to grab ball. Adjusts routes well. Red-zone threat. Shown he can handle heavy workload. Proven to be a reliable target.
Cons: Not that quick. Not explosive, kind of slow coming out of routes. Has Type 1 diabetes, which is manageable but has impacted him before. Doesn’t seem to try hard enough as a blocker. Size only proven asset as a blocker.
Outlook: A former wideout who plays like one, Andrews’ lack of speed and blocking ability could be a huge limiting factor.
Big Question: Will Andrews’ lack of speed and blocking ability cap his upside?
Sleeper – Durham Smythe (TE) Pros: Excellent all-around blocker. Fearless catching over middle. Good hands. Above average athleticism. Flashed as receiver in Senior Bowl, in terms of catching and creating separation. Strong upper body. Prototypical frame. Physical. Catches well in traffic. Surprising burst. Tough. Experienced blocker. Intelligent.
Cons: Not used too much. Wasn’t good at separating on routes. Slow route runner. Injuries derailed 2015 season.
Outlook: Old-school player who can make long career due to great blocking and reliable hands.
Big Question: Will Smythe’s athleticism limit his impact as a receiver?
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Every week I’ll talk a little about an incoming player who has dominated recent draft talk, either for good reasons or for bad. This week, I’ll be highlighting Calvin Ridley.
I have watched Ridley for a couple years now tearing up the SEC, and it’s been a few years since I have had this much confidence in a receiver prospect. Ridley might be the best route runner not only in this year’s draft, but in the last three to four years. He can vary his routes so effortlessly; one second he is exploding off the line, the next he jab cuts to the inside. Reggie Bush would call him ‘7-11’ because Ridley is always open. Ridley is quick in almost every way: release, footwork, decision-making. Not to mention, his quickness and field vision are on full display anytime he has the ball. Ridley is a true RAC (run-after-the-catch) machine. When Ridley catches the ball, he does a great job of controlling it to the ground. He also is so aware of the field and can adjust his body to best accommodate the situation, like on sideline catches or overthrown balls (which happened too often).
Let me dispel two of Ridley’s biggest concerns: production and age. It doesn’t take a genius to see that the Alabama quarterback situation has been dire these past few seasons. Too often Ridley would be so, so open and the quarterback would either launch a terrible pass or fail to see Ridley at all. If people are really hellbent on Ridley’s statistics, though, consider that he led the the Crimson Tide in receptions with 63. The second most was only 17. As for his age, Ridley (age 23) is two years older than JuJu Smith-Schuster (entering his second season) and three months older than Kendall Fuller (entering his third season), but using that as an excuse is just pathetic. All it means is that Ridley will be more mature and more NFL-ready entering is rookie year. As for actual concerns, I wouldn’t trust Ridley in jump balls as he has a relatively thin body (6’0, 189) and doesn’t have the strongest hands. He tends to let those 50/50 balls get batted away or he just gets outmuscled.
Nonetheless, I am stoked on Ridley’s skill-set and think he can become a number one receiver right away. He can easily add on weight and improve his hand strength, so his floor is relatively high. Ironically, Ridley reminds me of another Bama superstar: Amari Cooper. Both are excellent route runners with the traits to separate and rack up yards with ease, yet have dealt with a case of the drops. I am a little disappointed Cooper hasn’t resolved his issues by now, so hopefully Ridley can because there are plenty of teams desperate for a top receiver. The only way Ridley gets screwed over is by getting drafted into a run-first team or gets stuck with a terrible quarterback, just like he was in his collegiate days. However, I think Ridley will make an impact wherever he lands and can become one of the league’s best receivers.
Best Fit: Green Bay Projection: Top-10 Risk Factor: Safe
THE ‘HANDS’ REPORT
As a former wide receiver, I not only have a special affection towards the position but have had a relatively good eye for receiving prospects. Hopefully I can find my next ‘Man-Crush’ as I talk about a new player each week. Today I’ll be discussing D.J. Chark.
If you’re looking for a reliable, fast vertical threat, Chark is your man. He ran a 4.34 40 at the Combine last week and it’s not hard to see that speed when watching Chark in games. Speed isn’t the only reason why Chark is such an athletic freak. He is just under 6-3 and had the longest reach (height, arms and vertical combined) out of all the receivers at the Combine. He is a lean, lanky guy and his hands might be a little small but he makes up for it with that incredible body length and blazing speed. He is explosive and has shown insane burst, especially as a return man. Chark’s best trait is his incredible, instinctive awareness when finding the ball. He is good at making in-air adjustments to the ball, which is another reason why he was such a reliable target, especially on deep balls.
The thing that concerns me most with Chark is that he prefers to catch the ball with his chest. At the Combine, this wasn’t an issue but almost every one of his receptions last season featured Chark allowing the ball into his body, though he did use his arms to guide the ball in sometimes. This style may be effective in short yardage gains or in-stride deep routes, but too often Chark caught the ball in his chest while in traffic. Chark may get away with it in college, but NFL defensive backs will take those balls in an instant. Besides, Chark has all the physical traits to be successful at winning jump balls; by allowing the ball to land in his chest, it gives defenders a better chance at breaking up the pass. Chark could also improve on his route running, which at times seemed stiff and awkward, though again, his quickness has led to some nasty double moves. I suggest Chark bulks up a little more and works on his physicality, especially when going for jump balls. If Chark wasn’t so lean, he could use his long reach as another advantage in the passing game.
Overall, I like Chark but he is limited. If Chark could just learn to play to his height better, he would be a very complete, very good receiver. As for off-the-field concerns, nothing has come up with Chark so far. I have heard some Will Fuller comparisons, mainly due to their speed and big play ability, but Chark has much better hands and can work in the middle of the field. I see more of Kenny Stills in Chark, though Stills is two inches shorter. Both have excellent ball tracking skills who have good hands, but don’t really use them as appropriately as they should. They are also reliable deep options who can blow open a play with their speed. Until Chark can improve his physicality and take advantage of his freakish physical traits, he can be a very good number two and would be a perfect complement to a bigger receiver.
Pro Comparison: Kenny Stills Projection: Mid-late 2nd round Man-Crush Meter: 7.6/10
ONE LAST THING
I decided to combine wide receivers and tight ends for purely time purposes. My goal is to have a new entry every Friday, but I have very jam-packed next few weeks between week-long trips to Nashville and London. Therefore, I laid out a plan of what to expect until the Draft on April 26th.
March 9th – Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
March 23rd – Offensive Linemen
April 6th – Defensive Linemen
April 13th – Linebackers
April 20th – Defensive Backs
April 26th – Draft extravaganza, probably including my second annual Official Terrible Mock Draft.
Again, this could all change as I find more time to work on stuff, but until then this is a realistic expectation of the next few weeks. As always, thanks for reading and Happy Free Agency!