The NFL's transformation into a passing league has thrust pass-catchers into prominence over the past few seasons.
Teams have increasingly relied on spread formations to exploit aggressive defenses, while also taking advantage of the favorable rules for the offense.
Scouts are scouring the college ranks looking for pass-catchers capable of filling multiple roles. And it's important to distinguish the difference between No. 1 receivers and complementary pass-catchers when evaluating this year's class.
A No. 1 receiver is best described as a pass-catcher with the skills to command double coverage on an every-down basis. They are typically polished route runners capable of running the entire route tree, but most excel at getting open on an assortment of intermediate routes (curls, outs, square-ins and comebacks) against man or zone coverage. No. 1 receivers also possess the ability to take their game to another level in key moments.
Complementary receivers might lack the all-around skills of No. 1 receivers, but they still possess a trait that allows them to excel. This trait is often speed or explosiveness, and they function best as vertical threats on the outside. While they might not rack up the gaudy production of their peers, in terms of receptions, they typically sport robust yards per catch averages due to their ability to generate explosive plays (receptions over 25 yards). Some are also regarded as dynamic returners because they combine their natural explosiveness with running skills that make them dangerous in the open field.
The 2011 draft class features an assortment of No. 1 and complementary receivers, but the headliner is Georgia's A.J. Green.
He is a dominant playmaker with the skills and polish of an NFL veteran. He shows a keen understanding for the timing of the passing game and routinely uses deft fakes and stems to create space over the middle. He was nearly impossible to slow down in the Southeastern Conference, and his consistent dominance over his three-year career suggests that he should make a seamless transition into the pro game.
Julio Jones is another receiver with No. 1-type skills. He has been Alabama's top receiving option since starting as a true freshman, and his final season featured a handful of dominant performances. He finished with four 100-yard games, and his ability to come down with big catches in key moments suggests that he is ready for the big stage.
Both are explosive big-play threats with speed to burn. They excel at getting behind defenders on vertical routes, but can also turn short passes into big gainers. Smith, in particular, showcased his extraordinary combination of skills as one of the country's top multi-purpose threats during his final season at Maryland.
Complementary weapons also come in the form of tight ends, and Kyle Rudolph is one of the country's most dynamic players. He didn't rack up gaudy totals at Notre Dame, but his flashes of brilliance have led scouts to tab him as a potential all-star.
With so much depth and versatility at the wide receiver and tight end spots, the NFL Scouting Combine will play an important role in determining the pecking order:
1. A.J. Green, Georgia: It's a rare occurrence when a receiver ranks as the top player in the draft, but Green might be the first pass-catcher since Keyshawn Johnson to hear his name called as the No. 1 overall pick. He dominates the game from the perimeter and is a polished route runner capable of getting open against man or zone coverage. He routinely gains separation from corners by changing speeds or using a clever assortment of stems to keep defenders off balance. He displays outstanding hands and ball skills. He tracks the ball well with his eyes and adjusts well to throws that are slightly off target. His ability to come down with the spectacular catch stood out on tape. Although Green doesn't appear to be a speed merchant, he makes explosive plays down the field and is a dangerous playmaker with the ball in his hands. Green will factor heavily into the mix as a potential No. 1 pick.
Possible landing spots: Cincinnati, Cleveland, Washington
Deciphering the draft
2. Julio Jones, Alabama: He has thrived as the Crimson Tide's No. 1 receiver since his arrival on campus three years ago. He is a big, physical receiver with outstanding strength and skills. He shows good body control getting in and out of his breaks, and effectively uses his superior size to gain separation from defenders. He has excellent hands and ball skills. He tracks the ball well, and makes easy adjustments on errant throws. He demonstrates outstanding concentration and focus by extending to grab passes away from his body. He does occasionally drop an easy toss, but not enough to be a concern. Jones is a dynamic runner with the ball in his hands. He makes defenders miss in the open field and possesses the strength to run through arm tackles. If teams are searching for a classic No. 1 receiver with the skills to make an instant impact, Jones should rank near the top of the list.
Possible landing spots: Washington, St. Louis, New England, San Diego
3. Jonathan Baldwin, Pittsburgh: As a junior, he was unable to match the production of his sophomore season, but he still enters the league regarded as one of the top players at the position. He is a big, athletic receiver with outstanding overall skills. He is a natural pass-catcher with exceptional ball skills. He adjusts well to poor throws and has a penchant for coming down with difficult throws in traffic. Although his junior season was littered with drops, his inconsistencies as a pass-catcher are due to lapses in concentration rather than suspect hands and ball skills. He is ideally suited to play as a possession receiver, but still flashes big-play potential when running vertical routes. He routinely wins jump ball situations on 9-routes, and quarterbacks will look to utilize his athleticism near the red zone. He occasionally flashes that athleticism while running with the ball in the open field, but isn't a dynamic or explosive player with the ball in his hands. Regardless, he possesses the talent and skills to be a No. 1 receiver in a ball-control offense.
Possible landing spots: New England, San Diego, Baltimore, Pittsburgh
4. Titus Young, Boise State: He has been one of the most dominant playmakers in the country the past two seasons, and he opened eyes with his sensational play at the Senior Bowl. He is a dynamic vertical playmaker with exceptional speed, quickness and burst. He routinely runs past defenders on deep throws, and his ability to separate with the ball in the air is impressive. Young also shows exceptional quickness and burst getting in and out of his breaks on intermediate routes. He is an excellent open-field runner with the speed to turn short passes into big gains. While his diminutive size (5-foot-10, 170 pounds) is a concern, his big-play potential is tantalizing and has led to comparisons with DeSean Jackson. If he posts sizzling times in workouts, Young's stock will skyrocket.
Possible landing spots: Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago
5. Torrey Smith, Maryland: He is a multi-purpose threat with the size, speed and athleticism to be an immediate impact player on the next level. He finished as the ACC leader in kickoff return yards and set the school's single-season mark with 12 touchdown receptions a year ago. Smith specializes in running past defenders on deep posts and 9-routes. While his route running needs work, he routinely finds a way to get open, and his open field running skills shine when he gets the ball in his hands. Smith will rank as one of the top kick returners available, so teams coveting an explosive all-purpose weapon will have to pull the trigger early to land him.
Possible landing spots: Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, New England
1. Kyle Rudolph, Notre Dame: Evaluators will look beyond his pedestrian career numbers to appreciate his outstanding talent and skill level. He is a polished receiver with the physical tools to become a force at the next level. He shows natural hands and ball skills. He tracks and adjusts well to errant passes, and shows an uncanny knack for winning jump-ball situations. His speed and athleticism often surprises defenders on vertical routes, and he is a sneaky big-play threat. As a route runner, he shows excellent balance and body control while using an assortment of stems to get separation from tight coverage. He has a great feel for getting open against man or zone coverage. Rudolph spent most of his time as a flex-tight end, so his in-line blocking skills need refinement. However, he is aggressive and tenacious in his attempts, and should improve with more repetitions as a pro. Rudolph rates as the top tight end.
Possible landing spots: Cleveland, Arizona, Atlanta
2. Luke Stocker, Tennessee: He is a big, imposing athlete with the skills to function as a conventional tight end in the pro game. He excels as a run blocker on the perimeter. He is stout at the point of attack and shows strong hands while engaging with defenders. He understands how to properly gain position on reach blocks, and his aggressiveness in the running game stands out. As a receiver, he is a big target with good hands and ball skills. He plucks with ease away from his body, but showed some inconsistency coming down with difficult throws in traffic. He is at his best when working against zone coverage because he lacks the body control and quickness to separate from defenders. In spite of those flaws, he is a solid option in the passing game capable of moving the chains when given opportunities. If he can show better-than-anticipated athleticism and movement skills during workouts, he can solidify his status as one of the top tight end prospects.
Possible landing spots: Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Miami
3. Lance Kendricks, Wisconsin: He has terrorized Big Ten opponents the past three seasons and ranks as one of the top pass-catchers at the position. He is a fluid, playmaker with good movement skills. He shows good body control getting in and out of his breaks, and flashes a little burst to separate from tight coverage. Although he has problems getting away from physical defenders early in routes, he has the frame and length to make difficult grabs in traffic. His size, athleticism and ball skills also stand out in the red zone. He scored eight touchdowns in college, and his sticky blocking skills routinely helped Badgers runners get tough yards near the end zone. While he isn't a physical or aggressive blocker at the point of attack, he effectively seals the edge on outside runs. He will need to continue to develop, but he shows the potential to develop into a serviceable blocker. If Kendricks can display good speed and athleticism during workouts, he is certain to come off boards during the mid-to-early stages of the draft.
Possible landing spots:New York Giants, New York Jets, Seattle