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Impact receivers at top of draft highlight this year's class

  • By Pat Kirwan NFL.com
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It's a foregone conclusion that A.J. Green and Julio Jones are the top two receivers in this draft, and both look like future NFL stars. Both are sure-fire first-round picks, maybe even top-10 picks, and are NFL-ready. Green is more of an acrobatic-type receiver, while Jones more of a physical type who reminds me of Irving Fryar when it comes to blocking. Another potential first-round pick is Maryland's Torrey Smith, who can take the top off a defense and would be an excellent compliment in Baltimore or Atlanta. Smith has Lee Evans-type speed to open up things for Anquan Boldin or Roddy White.

2011 NFL Draft preview
NFL.com's Bucky Brooks and Pat Kirwan took an in-depth, position-by-position look at the key players to follow in the 2011 NFL Draft.

Quarterbacks: Overview | Scouting | Chat
Running backs: Overview | Scouting | Chat
Receivers: Overview | Scouting | Report | Chat
Offensive tackles: Overview | Scouting | Chat
Guards/centers: Overview | Scouting
Defensive ends: Overview | Scouting | Chat
Defensive tackles: Overview | Scouting | Chat
Linebackers: Overview | Scouting | Chat
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Safeties: Overview | Scouting | Chat

Keep in mind, teams are also looking for slot receivers in the mold of Wes Welker for their three-wide receiver packages. Randall Cobb (Kentucky), Jerrel Jernigan (Troy), Titus Young (Boise State) and Jeremy Kerley (TCU) are just a few of the players being evaluated at that position.

Back in 2008 there wasn't a wide receiver taken in the first round, but the second-round produced both Jordy Nelson and DeSean Jackson. This year, at least two wide receivers in the first round and probably three more in the second round will make an immediate impact.

Player with most upside

We all know about the upside of Green and Jones, but a guy who impressed me at the Senior Bowl was Miami receiver Leonard Hankerson. He runs good routes, has demonstrated he catches with his hands and is fast enough to be more than a possession receiver. There really aren't enough No. 1 wide receivers to go around in the NFL, and teams such as New England have won a lot of games with guys much like Hankerson. With the right quarterback, Hankerson will have a very productive career.

Wade Payne / Associated Press
NFL.com and NFL Network experts all believe A.J. Green will be the first receiver off the board on April 28.
Top five wide receivers
Rk
Player
School
*Grade
1
Georgia
8.6
Analysis: Green possesses prototypical height and very good speed; a true vertical, big play threat. More ...
2
Alabama
8.4
Analysis: Jones possesses NFL-ideal receiver size; Explodes off the line and eats up cushions in a hurry More ...
3
Kentucky
7.8
Analysis: Cobb possesses rare competitiveness; not afraid of contact, going over the middle, or pass blocking. More ...
4
Maryland
7.5
Analysis: Smith possesses outstanding straight-lined speed and good size; explodes off the line of scrimmage. More ...
5
North Carolina
7.2
Analysis: Little possesses big strong hands and shows terrific body control to make the acrobatic catch. More ...
* Grade: Expert assigned mark based on estimated quality
» Draft Tracker: All wide receiver prospects
Top five tight ends
Rk
Player
School
*Grade
1
Notre Dame
7.5
Analysis: Rudolph is tall with a monster frame; has explosive first step and the speed to stretch the field. More ...
2
Wisconsin
6.2
Analysis: Kendrick runs good routes and finds soft spots in zone coverage; fluid runner after the catch. More ...
3
Tennessee
6.0
Analysis: Stocker has a big frame and is thickly built; runs well for his size and can stretch the field. More ...
4
Nevada
5.7
Analysis: Green has great speed for a tight end; explodes off the line and out of his breaks to gain separation. More ...
5
Arkansas
5.5
Analysis: Williams is a smooth, intelligent route-runner, who excels vs. zone coverage; has really good hands. More ...
* Grade: Expert assigned mark based on estimated quality
» Draft Tracker: All tight end prospects

Biggest boom-or-bust prospect

Pittsburgh's Jonathan Baldwin has all the tools. If he matures, improves his route running and catches more with his hands instead of his body, Baldwin could be a star in the NFL. There are clearly mixed opinions on him, but the talent is there for a guy who is 6-foot-4, 228 pounds and ran 4.49 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. Baldwin is a solid second-round selection, and a steal if he falls to the third round.

As for the tight ends, Nevada's Virgil Green has the measurables to be a receiving threat and the strength to be a decent blocker. He loves the weight room and is a "team" guy, but he is raw and has to develop quickly to play in the NFL. I have interviewed him, and I really like his attitude. But it takes more than that to succeed.

My favorite sleepers

Boise State has two draftable wide receivers. Titus Young gets the top billing, but Austin Pettis really impressed me at the Senior Bowl. He's a smooth athlete who has size (6-2 ½, 209), but don't be fooled by his 4.59 40 time. His 3.9-second short shuttle which was the best of all the wide receivers at the combine. Pettis gets open downfield and reminds me of the Jets' Jericho Cotchery. He is also the holder for field goals, which is a plus.

USC's Jordan Cameron caught only 16 career passes at USC, but his skills have not gone unnoticed. Cameron was a transfer from BYU, where he played basketball. He has ideal size (6-5, 254) and a 4.09 short shuttle time that reflects cornerback quickness, and could be just coming into his own as a tight end.

Players with most to prove

There will be plenty of pressure on Green and Jones to perform early in their careers. The one that winds up with the Rams -- where Sam Bradford is already averaging 40 pass plays a game -- should put up big numbers. The other guy might find himself in a Browns uniform, and it might be more difficult to have the same sort of production.

It seems like a one-horse race for the top spot among tight ends, which puts a lot of pressure on Notre Dame's Kyle Rudolph. He left school early, has had hamstring issues and caught only eight touchdowns during his three-year college career. Rudolph has to stay on the field in all down and distance situations to be productive as a rookie, and that means his blocking has to improve.

Small-school prospect with a chance

Abilene Christian's Edmund Gates follows in the footsteps of Johnny Knox, who made the jump from the same school to the Bears in 2009. Gates ran a 4.38 40 at the combine, had a 40-inch vertical leap and a 10-foot, 11-inch broad jump. All of that speed and explosion shows up on the football field, as Gates averaged 19.8 yards per reception and scored 27 times, equating to a touchdown once every six receptions.

Debunking a myth

Speed is important, but it's not the greatest criteria for a wide receiver. Unless a receiver can get in and out of breaks and be a solid route runner, his speed isn't much of a threat to defensive backs.

Teams with the greatest need

NFL teams are throwing the ball more than ever, and thus using three- and four-wide receiver sets more frequently. There's isn't a team in the league not studying the receivers in this draft. Teams most likely to take a wide receiver early include the Browns, Redskins, Rams, Falcons, Chiefs and Ravens. The Bears and Jaguars will also be in the hunt at the position.

As for teams in need of a tight end, look for the Falcons to find an eventual replacement for Tony Gonzalez. The Panthers, Rams and Dolphins would love to find a vertical threat tight end.

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