With the thick of the offseason upon us, it's the perfect time for me to dig through my old notes to see if I can learn from my past scouting reports as I begin to evaluate the next wave of top talents in the college game. I've already taken a look at the top quarterback and running back prospects that I've evaluated throughout my career based on how I graded their college film. This week, I'm taking a deep dive into the wide receiver position to reevaluate how I ranked WRs based on the way I viewed their potential during the pre-draft process.
The evolution of the NFL into a passing league has made the WR position one of the marquee spots on the team. Scouts and coaches are placing a greater emphasis on finding playmakers on the perimeter, which has changed the job description for aspiring pass-catchers. Evaluators want guys who can put the ball in the paint from anywhere on the field to occupy the WR1 position instead of "chain movers" with pedestrian games. With that in mind, here are my top 10 WR prospects from my time as a scout (since 2001).
Editor's note: Click through the tabs above to see rankings for other positions.
1. Calvin Johnson, Georgia Tech
Drafted: Second overall, 2007, Detroit Lions
There aren't enough adjectives to describe Megatron's rare combination of talents as a super-sized WR1 in the college game.
The 6-foot-5, 235-pound pass-catcher overpowered defenders in the ACC as a three-time all-conference performer with exceptional size, speed and leaping ability. Johnson blew past defenders on vertical routes, displaying outstanding acceleration and burst, but also created separation on short and intermediate routes as a "speed-cut" route runner. The 2006 Biletnikoff Award winner (top CFB WR) finished his collegiate career with 178 receptions for 2,927 receiving yards and 28 touchdowns in just 38 games. With Johnson also showing off world-class athletic traits at the NFL Scouting Combine (4.35-second 40-yard dash, 42.5-inch vertical jump and 11-foot-7-inch broad jump), it's not a surprise many scouts rated Johnson as the No. 1 prospect in his class.
The six-time Pro Bowl selectee definitely played the part as the Detroit Lions' WR1 on the way to amassing 731 receptions for 11,619 yards and 83 touchdowns in a spectacular nine-year career. Considering Johnson also shattered the single-season receiving yards mark (1,964) in 2012 and changed the way scouts view big-bodied receivers on the perimeter, I believe Megatron deserves the top spot on this list as a revolutionary player.
2. Andre Johnson, Miami
Drafted: Third overall, 2003, Houston Texans
It's hard to find big-bodied receivers with the combination of size, speed, athleticism and ball skills Johnson displayed as the No. 1 receiver at "The U" during the early 2000s. The 6-foot-2, 230-pounder dominated opponents on the perimeter as a vertical playmaker with explosive route-running ability and exceptional ball skills. He scored 19 touchdowns over his final two seasons while thriving as the lead receiver in an offense that featured stars at every skill position.
In addition to his gridiron exploits, Johnson impressed scouts with raw explosiveness in track when he captured Big East titles in the 60-meter dash (6.81) and 100-meter dash (10.59) in 2002. He hammered that point home when he blew up the combine with a stellar performance in workouts prior to the 2003 draft (4.40 40; 39-inch vertical and 11-foot broad jump).
As a pro, Johnson was even better than advertised as a big-bodied WR1 with outstanding speed and burst. The seven-time Pro Bowl selectee racked up seven 1,000-yard seasons and 70 career touchdowns in 14 seasons. In addition, Johnson surpassed the 100-catch mark five times and led the NFL in receiving yards in back-to-back years (2008 and 2009). Given his credentials as a 10,000-yard-club member (14,185) and consistent dominance as a No. 1 receiver, Johnson is arguably the gold standard at the position.
3. Julio Jones, Alabama
Drafted: Sixth overall, 2011, Atlanta Falcons
Whenever a five-star recruit is expected to take the college football world by storm from the time he steps onto campus, NFL scouts pay close attention to his development to see if he lives up to the hype.
Jones didn't disappoint evaluators tracking his progress. He displayed a rare combination of size, speed, route-running ability and ball skills that made him a bit of an avatar as a No. 1 receiver. Measuring 6-foot-3, 220 pounds with 4.36 speed, Jones dominated the college game on the outside as a big-play specialist for the Crimson Tide. He finished his three-year career at Alabama with 179 receptions, 2,653 yards and 15 touchdowns as the team's primary playmaker in the passing game. While those numbers were certainly enough to confirm his status as a top prospect, Jones' remarkable performance at the combine (4.36 40, 38.5-inch vertical jump and 11-foot-3-inch broad jump) captivated the imagination of NFL coaches and scouts looking for a dominant WR1 prospect on the perimeter.
As a pro, he's been nothing short of spectacular with four Pro Bowl berths and a pair of All-Pro selections with the Atlanta Falcons, who traded up to land him in the 2011 draft. Jones has the highest receiving-yards-per-game average (96.3) of any receiver in NFL history and he nearly broke Calvin Johnson's single-season receiving yards record (1,964) with an 1,871-yard campaign in 2015. Jones has certainly met expectations as a five-star talent in the NFL.
4. Larry Fitzgerald, Pittsburgh
Drafted: Third overall, 2004, Arizona Cardinals
Despite having just two years of major college football experience, the scouting community was excited about Fitzgerald's talent and potential after watching him dominate between the lines for the Panthers.
The 2003 Biletnikoff Award winner posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and scored 34 touchdowns in 26 career games. As a smooth route runner with impeccable timing and pace, Fitzgerald lulled defenders to sleep during routes before separating with a sneaky burst. With the 6-foot-3, 225-pound receiver also exhibiting outstanding combat-catch skills in traffic, scouts easily envisioned the Pitt standout blossoming as a WR1 at the next level.
Fitzgerald certainly hasn't disappointed as a 10-time Pro Bowl selectee with more than 1,100 catches and 14,389 receiving yards in 13 seasons. He is already viewed as an all-time great, and historians will debate about whether he should be remembered as the best pass-catcher ever based on his sticky hands and incredible ball skills. It's easy to point to Fitzgerald as one of the best receiver prospects to enter the league over the past 20 years.
5. A.J. Green, Georgia
Drafted: Fourth overall, 2011, Cincinnati Bengals
There's nothing like having a big receiver with the size, speed and length to overwhelm defenders on the perimeter. That's why NFL coaches and scouts were fawning over the Bulldogs' WR1 after watching him terrorize SEC defenses for three seasons. Green showed rare balance, body control and agility as a vertical playmaker. He impressed evaluators with his crafty route-running skills and hands. He tallied 50-plus catches in each of his seasons with the Bulldogs and finished with 23 career touchdowns despite playing in a traditional offense that didn't inflate his production with bubble screens and other layups.
As a pro, Green has been nothing short of spectacular as the Bengals' lead receiver. He is a six-time Pro Bowl selectee with five 1,000-yard seasons on his resume. In addition, he has scored 49 career touchdowns in 86 games while displaying ballerina-like footwork and body control on the perimeter. Green is the master of the acrobatic catch and his extraordinary length (and vertical jump) expands the strike zone for the Bengals' quarterbacks. With Green posting outstanding numbers despite facing constant double teams, it's fair to say he has lived up to the hype as a transcendent talent.
6. Braylon Edwards, Michigan
Drafted: Third overall, 2005, Cleveland Browns
I know Edwards' placement on this list will raise some eyebrows, but the 2004 Biletnikoff Award winner was a dynamite receiver at Michigan. He was the only receiver in Big Ten history to post three straight 1,000-yard seasons and he finished his Wolverine career with 17 100-yard games.
Measuring 6-foot-2, 210 pounds with 4.36 speed, Edwards was a bit of a unicorn at the position as a big receiver with explosive speed, quickness and ball skills. He routinely came down with 50-50 balls and exhibited outstanding ball skills in traffic.
As a pro, Edwards was the ultimate tease as a WR1 due to his remarkable talent but inconsistent focus and concentration. He earned his one and only Pro Bowl appearance after his only 1,000-yard season (1,289 yards in 2007) but led the NFL in drops (23) the following season. Despite tremendous physical tools and potential, he never found his way as a WR1 and ranks as a major disappointment.
7. DeSean Jackson, Cal
Drafted: 49th overall, 2008, Philadelphia Eagles
It's uncommon for a diminutive pass-catcher to earn big grades from scouts unless he's a big-play specialist with speed to burn. Jackson certainly checked off multiple boxes as a "field flipper" with the capacity to score from anywhere on the field as a receiver and returner at Cal.
He scored 29 total touchdowns (22 receiving, six punt returns, and one rushing) in 36 career games at Cal while displaying explosive speed, quickness and burst with the ball in his hands. As an electric athlete with breakneck acceleration, burst and running skills, Jackson was a rare find. Despite concerns about his slender frame and perceived diva-like persona, he was a big-time playmaker with the kind of skills coaches covet in a homerun hitter in the passing game.
As a pro, Jackson has exceeded those expectations on the way to becoming one of the most prolific big-play threats in the league. Jackson ranks behind only Jerry Rice in touchdowns of at least 60 yards (22) and has 57 career receptions of 40-plus yards in his nine-year career. Not to mention, he has five 1,000-yard seasons and a career average of 17.7 yards per catch. Considering his standout production as a big-play specialist, Jackson has more than met expectations as one of the premier receivers in the league.
8. Roy Williams, Texas
Drafted: Seventh overall, 2004, Detroit Lions
It's easy to forget the spectacular plays delivered by the Longhorns' WR1 during his time in Austin, but scouts were so smitten by his combination of physical tools (size, speed and length) and natural playmaking ability that many rated him as arguably the best prospect in his class. The 6-foot-3, 212-pounder clocked a 4.36-second 40 time at the combine and displayed all of the explosive playmaking qualities that helped him leave Texas as the all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown receptions. From his outstanding speed to his spectacular ball skills, Williams was a prototypical WR1 built in the mold that coaches and scouts covet in the NFL.
That's why there were plenty of disappointed evaluators when Williams didn't necessarily light up the league during his nine-year career. Granted, he earned a Pro Bowl berth in 2006 following his only 1,000-yard season (1,310 yards) but he never dominated the game in the way many expected based on his physical tools and collegiate resume.
9. Anquan Boldin, Florida State
Drafted: 54th overall, 2003, Arizona Cardinals
Scouts are susceptible to making big mistakes in the player-evaluation process when they place greater emphasis on combine and pro-day workouts than film evaluation. That's one of the reasons why Boldin fell to the second round of the 2003 draft despite being one of the best playmakers in the class.
The former high school quarterback snagged 118 passes for 1,790 yards and 21 touchdowns over three seasons with the Seminoles. Boldin exhibited impressive skills as a chain mover between the hashes. He played with a physicality and toughness that made him a perfect fit as a "catch-and-run" specialist in a quick-rhythm offense. After posting a pedestrian 40 time (4.71 seconds) at the combine, scouts openly questioned whether Boldin could create separation against NFL defenders due to his lack of speed and burst.
The big-bodied pass catcher has certainly proved all of the doubters wrong during a 14-year career that's included an Offensive Rookie of the Year award (2003) and three Pro Bowl berths. As a body banger with extraordinary strength and power, Boldin has mastered the art of the push off to create separation from defenders at the top of breaks, particularly on option routes between the hashes. He has used the maneuver to effectively create space on the way to nearly 14,000 receiving yards and 82 touchdowns. Needless to say, he has more than outplayed his draft status and cemented his spot as one of the top receivers in NFL history.
10. Chad Johnson, Oregon State
Drafted: 36th overall, 2001, Cincinnati Bengals
Before the Beavers' star became known for his fancy footwork and outlandish touchdown celebrations, he was a dazzling playmaker in the Pac-10 with an unstoppable game. Johnson torched opponents with extraordinary route-running ability, while also showing outstanding ball skills during his lone season in Corvallis.
The 6-foot-1, 192-pounder finished with 37 receptions for 806 yards and eight touchdowns on an 11-1 team that capped off the season with an impressive Fiesta Bowl win over Notre Dame. Although his modest numbers as a "one-year wonder" didn't necessarily suggest that he would blossom into a game changer as a pro, Johnson's unique combination of quickness, body control and ball skills helped him become one of the most prolific receivers in NFL history. The two-time All-Pro topped the 1,000-yard mark seven times and led the league in receiving yards in 2006 with 1,369. With more than 11,000 receiving yards and 67 touchdowns in a 10-year career, Johnson certainly exceeded the expectations that surrounded him as a second-round pick.