The rise of all these young DBs got me thinking ... It's time that receivers take the league BACK.
When I came into the NFL in 2001, it seemed that most of the tall, freakishly athletic guys played the wide receiver position. Today, it feels as if many of those guys are defensive backs. And, as my colleague Matt Harmon recently chronicled, they are dominating the league right now. I mean, some Pro Bowlers fell to the bonus notes below Harmon's top-10 list -- that's how good this group of players is.
With the NFL Scouting Combine coming up at the end of this month, I felt it was time to look at some of the wide receiver prospects. You'll notice a few of the top guys (Calvin Ridley and Courtland Sutton) aren't listed below. That's because we already kind of know what we're getting with them. The guys spotlighted below are lesser-known, but I think they all have impact potential.
All of these receivers will get an opportunity, regardless of their eventual draft position (most are Day 2 or Day 3 prospects). I've been in their shoes, as a third-round draft pick in 2001, and the foundation of the National Football League is made up of guys drafted in the middle to late rounds. I'm interested in learning who is the next Terrell Owens (third-round draft pick in 1996), Antonio Brown (sixth-rounder in 2010), Adam Thielen (undrafted in 2013) or Cooper Kupp (third-rounder in 2017). The list goes on and on.
Here are the 10 wide receiver prospects (in no particular order) I'm most looking forward to seeing in Indy.
Christian Kirk, Texas A&M: Captain Kirk is a tone-setter, can line up anywhere on the field and can do everything a coach asks based on his physical ability. Honestly, the kid could be great at quarterback if that's where he wanted to play. At Texas A&M, Kirk played in a non-traditional system. The question I have is can he line up across an A.J. Bouye and beat him in press coverage? He's never been put in that position, so there are questions about if he can thrive in a traditional pro-style offense. I also want to see him catch the ball more consistently with his hands (and less with his body). Today's DBs are too good and make a play on the ball long before it reaches the receiver's body.
James Washington, Oklahoma State: A top dog at Oklahoma State, Washington took the Batman role in the offense. The 6-foot, 205-pound receiver is a pure hands catcher and uses his strong physique to finish defenders. He's aware of the sideline and has a great resume coming out of college. Check out the 2016 Alamo Bowl, when Washington repeatedly beat Chidobe Awuzie, who started six games for the Dallas Cowboys this past season. The only knock I have is he can be too stiff at times. I'm curious to see how Washington performs with some of the upper-echelon quarterbacks of this class throwing to him at the combine. The ball was often late, overthrown or thrown behind him at Oklahoma State, so I want to see how he does with good ball placement.
Marcell Ateman, Oklahoma State: Lining up opposite Washington at Oklahoma State, he was often referred to as the Robin. But no sir -- Ateman absolutely has the makeup to be a WR1. He's an aggressive pass catcher who attacks the ball and plays with a low center of gravity for being 6-4. Ateman's willing to block in the run and steadily improved through the years. His college offense pushed the ball downfield, so he ran a ton of comeback and go routes. I want him to show that he can run more routes than the ones displayed in a typical high-flying offense.
Anthony Miller, Memphis Miller's track background shines through the minute he steps on the field. He runs fast, but plays faster. Miller walked on at Memphis and later earned a scholarship, proving he isn't afraid to work. He carries a boulder-sized chip on his shoulder (reminding me of someone I know ...), and he's proven he has what it takes to play at the next level through his explosiveness and blue-collar work ethic. Miller is good at a lot of things, not great at one. He's one of my favorite prospects coming into the combine, and I want to see if the "it" factor he displays on tape shows up at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Michael Gallup, Colorado State: Gallup, a.k.a. "Big Smooth," has a PhD in route running. The 6-1 wideout has great body control and can out-jump defenders regularly. He's a well-rounded receiver whose smooth movements make it seem like he's bored when he isn't directly involved in the game (I can't say I blame him). That could hinder his stock.
Richie James, Middle Tennessee: When the ball is in his hands, unbelievable things happen. James, who never shies away from contact, is very raw, but resembles clay -- he could be molded into whatever the team needs. With the right team and offense, James has the potential to be a Pro Bowl punt returner and chain mover. He needs to get stronger against the press. And I want to see how much work he really needs in Indy.
Allen Lazard, Iowa State: The 6-4 receiver is very physical, catches the ball in traffic well and is a willing blocker in the run game. His size allows him to shield defenders from the ball and he can line up in multiple positions. Lazard doesn't blow the top off coverages, so I'm interested to find out if he's quick or fast when running routes.
Jordan Lasley, UCLA: The UCLA product high-points the ball extremely well and checks all the boxes as a receiver -- speed, YAC (yards after catch) and height (6-1). Plus, he's out of my hometown, so I know he's got that Cali swag. Lasley tends to not be locked in for the full 60 minutes. So through the long combine days, will he stay alert and honed in?
Marquez Valdes-Scantling, South Florida: At 6-4 and 204 pounds, Valdes-Scantling is a big target and tough for defenders to guard. Like a gazelle, he can run around and out-jump defenders. The South Florida product understands zone coverages and does a good job finding holes and sitting in the right space. On film, it's easy to see he has big-play ability, but he seldom got the opportunity to show it. In addition, he wasn't asked to run all the routes on tape, so will he be able to execute the full route tree at a high level?
Braxton Berrios, Miami: Berrios can play all over the field and makes tough catches look easy. I love what he brings to the table. He looks capable of being the next Danny Amendola or Julian Edelman. A lot of scouts focus on what players can't do, but if they look at what he can do, they'll be pleasantly surprised. Berrios is certainly deserving of an opportunity. Plus, you know 89 always rolls with the 5-10-and-under crew ...