The wide receiver and tight end positions have changed in recent years, and the demand for more talent at these spots continues to grow.
More teams are using three wide receiver sets as their base personnel, making third wide receivers more important than fullbacks in most offenses. Teams also want a vertical-threat tight end who can line up in the slot and push up the field.
In each of the previous two drafts, 15 wide receivers have been selected in the first three rounds, while 69 total wide receivers were taken in both drafts combined. This year I expect close to 15 again to go in the first three rounds. As for tight ends, expect one in the first round followed by three or four in the next two rounds.
The spread offenses have created a number of questions for this year's receivers. Are their stats a product of the system? Can these receivers run all the routes coming from these dink-and-dunk systems?
Finally, as we prepare for this draft the projected top receiver could be a great one or he could be the next Charles Rodgers. Injury history in the receiver and tight end class is significant. My sense is people will tolerate the injury risk over the character risk.
Player with most upside
Golden Tate from Notre Dame is a former running back with lots of raw talent and is very dangerous after the catch. He's really just a two-year player at wide receiver with 22 starts. He is a blend of Percy Harvin and Anquan Boldin. He's plenty fast and averaged more than a touchdown per start. I got the chance to meet him at the NFL Scouting Combine, and his character and love of the game impressed me as much as his unofficial 4.36-second 40-yard dash.
Gil Brandt's scouting report
Jermaine Gresham, Oklahoma
I think Gresham is the next Kellen Winslow (Sr.). He is a tough matchup problem because of his height. He's over 6-foot-5 and weighs more than 260 pounds, and he runs extremely well. A lot of people don't realize that he's as strong as he is; he had 20 reps at 225 pounds at the combine, and yet caught 66 passes for 14 touchdowns in 2008.
Tate can jump into the Wildcat at any time, take a slot reverse, as well as break a long return in the kicking game. Don't worry about paying this guy a lot of money; he already knows what it takes to handle things in a mature fashion. Also up for consideration in this category was Demaryius Thomas from Georgia Tech, also known as "Little Calvin" on campus because of his similar traits to Calvin Johnson.
As for the tight end in this category, Oklahoma's Jermaine Gresham missed his senior year with an injury and has a clean bill of health now. Gresham grabbed 25 touchdowns in the two seasons prior to his injury and has all the skills to thrive in the NFL.
Biggest boom-or-bust prospect
Dez Bryant only caught 17 passes in 2009 after lying to the NCAA and losing his eligibility. But he can still do it all on the field.
Bryant averaged more than 17 yards per catch during his final 100 receptions and caught a touchdown every 4½ receptions. He may be dropping in the first round, which will eliminate some of the financial risk that comes with the first eight picks of the draft.
Not playing out his third college season does leave him as an unfinished product when it comes to route running and reading coverages on his stem. Here's a guy who could either be a perennial Pro Bowl player or out of the league in a very short time.
The tight end in this category is Andrew Quarless from Penn State. I've followed him since high school, and he has the talent to do it all but he also was suspended from Penn State three times.
Player with most to prove
Mike Williams from Syracuse talks a big game, yet he quit on his team midseason. He was ineligible in 2008 and followed that up with leaving the team in 2009. In four years on campus, Williams only started 22 games but did occasionally flash NFL skills. He has hurt his draft status with the off-field issues and could become a solid pro if he grows up and works on his craft. As a player, he has a reputation of having problems with press coverage and needs work on his route running. Does he have the maturity to work on those areas? That remains to be seen.
Small-school prospect with a chance
Wide receiver is the type of position in which small school players can excel in the NFL. When I was director of player administration for the New York Jets, I signed Wayne Chrebet from Hofstra, and he was able play right away. Andre Reed belongs in the Hall of Fame after coming out of Kutztown and becoming a star for the Buffalo Bills. This year the Citadel's Andre Roberts enters the draft as a 5-foot-11, 195-pound athlete with 285 receptions and 37 touchdowns and a 4.4-second 40 time. He is already a solid route runner like Chrebet was coming out of college. Others in consideration for this category included Freddie Barnes from Bowling Green with 297 career receptions and Taylor Price from Ohio.
The tight end with a chance is Missouri State's Clay Harbor. At the combine he measured at just under 6-3, 252 and ran 4.68 in the 40 and did 30 reps on the bench press at 225 pounds. He led the nation in receiving yards per game for tight ends with 66 and has a chance as an H back.
The 2010 Wes Welker
The slot receiver has become one of the most important players on offense. He moves the chains, keeps rolled coverage off the star X receiver and is often the "hot" receiver vs. the blitz. No one does it better than Wes Welker of the Patriots, and this year there are some excellent candidates who can do what he does. Texas' Jordan Shipley is the guy I would be after if looking for a Welker-type. He only ran a 4.57 40 at the combine, but he can change direction on a dime, create separation and catches everything thrown his way. There's no substitute for experience, and Shipley played in 53 college games grabbing 248 passes and 33 touchdowns. Don't worry about beating press coverage, because slot receivers off the line are rarely pressed. Shipley has a great ability to work the underneath routes and has the ability to beat man and zone coverage.
Debunking a myth
So often receivers with sub-4.4 40 speed seem like the best guys to go after, but before teams choose one they had better check his 20-yard short shuttle time. It's not often that a player's short shuttle time is slower than his 40 time, and when it is, the label usually is "track speed." Track speed infers a guy who runs fast in straight lines but can't change direction well, which reduces him to a "9" route guy or deep threat only. I have a red flag up on Clemson's Jacoby Ford because his short shuttle is slower than his 40. He cranked out a 4.28 40, but he had a 4.44 short shuttle.
On the other side of that discussion is the guy with pedestrian straight line speed but is exceptional in and out of breaks. Damian Williams from USC ran a 4.52 40 at the combine but came back with a 4.24 short shuttle. Keep an eye on which player gets drafted first, since their production is about the same (Ford 143 receptions and 16 touchdowns to Williams' 147 and 17).
Teams with the greatest need
Every team will probably select at least one wide receiver somewhere in the draft, but the teams with the biggest need include Carolina, St. Louis, Buffalo, Miami, Cleveland, Chicago, Denver (if they trade Marshall), and Tennessee. As for teams looking for a tight end -- Cincinnati, New England, Baltimore, Kansas City, Arizona and St. Louis.