Nelson Spruce put together one of the most productive seasons by a wide receiver in 2014, with 106 receptions for 1,198 yards and 12 touchdowns. However, a disappointing statistical campaign in his senior season (84-942-3) and poor 40-yard dash time (4.69 seconds) haven't done him any favors as draft season rolls on. Still, what Spruce lacks in natural athleticism he makes up for with the skills he displays on tape. Will those be enough to outweight his lack of speed and allow him to immediately contribute in the NFL and for fantasy football fans? Let's find out.
» Excellent route-runner
» Sets up double moves well
» Natural hands catcher
» Physical, fights through contact for contested catches
The first thing that pops off the tape while watching Spruce is the nuance and ability he showcases as a route runner. He might not have the speed to separate from defensive backs, but his ability to fake them out with his head, feet and body creates plenty of space for him to work in. I was honestly reminded of Greg Jennings while watching Spruce, as Jennings entered the NFL as a less-heralded prospect, but one who had refined route-running skills from Day 1. Spruce's ability and understanding of route concepts is never more apparent than when he executes double moves, often leaving his defender completely grasping at air. This level of technique could help Spruce earn early snaps as a rookie, much like Stefon Diggs did in Minnesota.
Spruce is also smart about using his body to shield defenders at the catch point, and using his hands to catch the ball (and not his body). His physicality showed up in winning many contested catches, and when it came to beating press coverage off the line. It was clear his quarterback trusted him, as there were plenty of third and fourth down plays where Spruce was targeted, and came up with a big catch. NFL Media's Gil Brandt noted that Spruce reinforced what was on tape at Colorado's pro day, as he put on a show during his positional workouts.
» Speed, speed, speed
» Overall average athleticism
» Relies on double move to get open deep
» Bit of a 'tweener size-wise
The big, glaring knock against Spruce has been and forever will be his speed. He ran a 4.69 at the combine, and pushed that up to a 4.65 and 4.56 at his pro day, but those almost always end up in the athlete's favor at his pro day. Spruce's lack of speed is evident on tape, as no cornerbacks fear him as a deep threat and leave him with plenty of cushion. Spruce struggled to get open deep unless he was able to use a double move, something that will definitely keep him in the middle rounds of the NFL draft.
Also disconcerting is that Spruce's overall athletic profile isn't anything special. Per mockdraftable.com, his closest athletic comparison is Jordan Shipley, a four-year slot receiver journeyman who spread out 79 career catches across four NFL teams. That's not a huge endorsement for Spruce, but comps like this are only a small piece of the puzzle. Spruce is bigger than Shipley, but he kind of falls into a 'tweener size category. He'll likely play in the slot in the NFL and dabble on the outside, but he's neither as small/fast as traditional slot wideouts (think Randall Cobb) nor as big as the newer large slot receiver (think Marques Colston).
Ideal NFL fantasy fits
Spruce is very likely never going to be a No. 1 wide receiver in the NFL -- his lack of pure athleticism basically assures that. However, he could be a very good role player (and fantasy contributor) on the right team. He'll be best served landing on a team with a true No. 1 (and maybe even a true No. 2) wide receiver. You'll notice most of the teams I recommend here are the same as I recommended for Tyler Boyd, and that's because Boyd and Spruce are relatively similar players, with Boyd getting the slight edge in athleticism. I added Tampa Bay, as Spruce could be a nice complement to what Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson do on the outside, while giving Jameis Winston a reliable, chain-moving target in the short/intermediate range.
Early fantasy draft projection
Were it not for his lack of athleticism, I'd be much higher on Spruce. However, I'm a big enough fan of his game that I think he could make an impact in fantasy next season -- on the right team. Fantasy fans will want to watch where he goes in the draft (I'd guess a late Day 2, but likely Day 3 pick), and hope that he falls on a team with a good quarterback adept at working timing-based routes. Spruce is certainly worth a stab in the later rounds of rookie drafts, but his name shouldn't be called in redraft leagues just yet. He will absolutely be a name to monitor on the waiver wire through training camp, as he could be a lower-round draft pick from this class who surprises people in Year 1.