I’ve read enough articles, heard enough podcasts, and happened across enough Tweets that I figured it was time to fight back.
I simply cannot get my head around the idea that this WR class is weak.
As is often the case with peculiar Draft narratives, the myth was first spun by NFL scouts speaking with reporters. The issue with a quote from a scout is that it’s not necessarily representative. One scout may say this class is “weak,” but not only is that opinion potentially a singular one, the schema by which a scout determines the value of a class changes drastically from team to team.
Take, for example, the rumor circulating that the Cowboys traded a first for Amari Cooper because they looked forward into the 2019 NFL Draft class and determined there was no receiver worthy of a first-round pick.
Looking at top 50 players for 2019 draft (incl underclassmen I think are coming out) I understand what Dallas is thinking. No WR in top 25. Say Cowboys draft around 20, they'd be reaching for WR less capable than Cooper & they get him for 9 games in 2018. Good deal for Cowboys.
— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) October 22, 2018
This perspective comes from the same front office that, in desperate need of a WR in the 2018 class, passed over eventual early picks Calvin Ridley, Courtland Sutton, and Christian Kirk (among others). All of those players have looked strong in their first year of professional play. Do we trust their evaluation of the 2019 WR class?
The frequent response details the need for a “No. 1 receiver.” Calvin Ridley wasn’t a “No. 1 receiver,” he was a “strong No. 2 receiver” — I have no idea what that means, frankly. Christian Kirk projected best to the slot, sure — that’s only the fastest-growing position on NFL offenses right now. And Courtland Sutton? He certainly profiled as an X receiver, which is the archetype people are typically calling to when they say a “No. 1 receiver.”
So, what is an X receiver?
X refers to the alignment of an outside receiver that is on the line of scrimmage. That’s…it.
The X, or the split-end, as it can be called, differs from the Z (flanker) only in that the X is typically on the line of scrimmage, and thereby has to deal with the possibility of press coverage. The slot receiver (here identified as the A) is also free from press concerns as he’s off the line of scrimmage, and he will have a different route tree as compared to the X and the Z.
Now, because the X receiver has to deal with press coverage, typically your “No. 1” receiver is your X. He has the toughest job, so make him your best player. X receivers are prototypically your height/weight players, who can make big boy catches through contact with good vertical jumps and big catch radii. Dez Bryant, DeAndre Hopkins, and Julio Jones are good molds from which to work.
But fans of the modern NFL should know already smell something fishy. The prototype for an X receiver can still exist; the desire to have a go-to target in your offense is an understandable one. But with the changes in NFL offenses, this idea that your No. 1 wide receiver has to be your X, and he has to look and play a certain way.
Well that’s just bananas.
The best passing attack in the NFL, by yards per game, belongs to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Their No. 1 receiver is Mike Evans — a 6-foot-5, 225 first-rounds stud that came straight out of the X receiver factory. Go ahead and check that box — and that of the next offense, the Atlanta Falcons, with Julio Jones.
Then comes Green Bay, with Davante Adams as their leading receiver. Adams is a 6-foot-1 possession guy who wins as an explosive route-runner. Adams has run 20% of his routes this season from the slot; earned 22% of his targets and his catches, too.
Fourth is Pittsburgh: leading receiver by yards/game is JuJu Smith-Schuster, their slot receiver. (If you want it to be Antonio Brown, who garners more targets/game, then fine: Antonio Brown is the league-leader in target share when lines up in the slot.) Fifth is Kansas City, a team whose most targeted player is actually their tight end.
To continue with the chorus is to strike the dead horse: X receivers aren’t necessarily a dying breed, but offenses simply don’t need them as much anymore. If your scouts think this is a weak wide receiver class because there aren’t any Round 1 X receiver players, then the issue isn’t with the class. It’s with your offensive philosophy.
But perhaps the argument is that this is a weak wide receiver class because it doesn’t have a Top-15 player, or multiple Round 1 players. To that point, we’re quibbling over our evaluations — though again, if you need a bonafide Top-15 player to deem a class good, your staff is unimaginative and restricted by prototypes and structure.
This wide receiver class is absolutely loaded with talent. I’m not here to tell you that three wide receivers will leave the board before the tenth pick, as was the case in 2017. (Not a single one of those receivers has been able to stay healthy/offer much to their team yet, mind you.) I also won’t say that four will come off the board in the first round, as they did in 2016 (Corey Coleman, Will Fuller, Josh Doctson, Laquon Treadwell — what a class!) or six, as it was in 2015. That class had (brace yourself) Amari Cooper, Nelson Agholor, Kevin White, DeVante Parker, Philip Dorsett, and Breshad Perriman all go in Round 1.
The last good class of receivers was 2014. Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr., and Brandin Cooks all left the board in Round 1. Davante Adams, Allen Robinson, and Jarvis Landry joined in Round 2.
But if that’s the standard to which you hold every WR class, you will be disappointed, year after year after year. And note: the only true X receiver molds in that group were Evans and Robinson. Include Watkins if you feel like his career deserves it. Teams also swung and missed on Kelvin Benjamin, Jordan Matthews, and Cody Latimer as potential outside receivers in those first two rounds.
The age of the X is over. No. 1 receivers don’t need to be big, strong, and win against the press. Those sort of players still exist in this class, carry Round 1 grades from me, and will provide value to NFL teams that know how to use them — but this class is strong because it offers high-caliber players in every mold, to feed targets from every alignment. And again: if your NFL team is denying that (this is directed at you, Dallas), their understanding of pro offense and personnel is antiquated and crippling.
The X receivers in this class are Stanford’s JJ Arcega-Whiteside, NC State’s Kelvin Harmon, Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry, and Georgia’s Riley Ridley. Throw in Texas’ Collin Johnson and Iowa State’s Hakeem Butler. All six are Top-50 players on my board if they declare; as will Ole Miss’ DK Metcalf be, if he enters the Draft despite his neck injury. Each receiver listed is at least 6-foot-2 and north of 200 pounds, so they fit the general X receiver mold. Some struggle more with press (Harry; Johnson) than others, and could find more success off the line of scrimmage.
Of course, only one of the listed players is a senior: Arcega-Whiteside. But we should expect the juniors to declare. Why? Because underclassmen have been declaring at record-setting rates annually, and that’s why this class is so devoid of talented senior to begin with! The first three receivers off the board in last year’s draft? All juniors. Talented players come out.
What about A.J. Brown and Deebo Samuel? Both Top-50 Consensus Board YAC threats who run good routes, but have shown over long college careers that they’re best when protected from the press. Throw them in the slot — or outside, as a Z receiver — along with players like Oklahoma’s Marquise Brown, Georgia’s Mecole Hardman, and Ole Miss’ DaMarkus Lodge.
I just dropped 12 names. Every single one — along with four more names I haven’t watched — made it into the Top 100 on the Consensus Board.
If you aren’t impressed with this receiver class, I’m not impressed with you. A smorgasbord of traits, talents, and roles should be Christmas Day to NFL front offices, if they know what their offense needs to run, what their offense already has, and how to identify the players their offense lacks. Unfortunately for many NFL teams, those requirements are too steep to surmount — and evaluators are left whining, pining after a class of Odells, Julios, and Greens.
The cardinal rule of player evaluation: tell me where a player wins. This is a WR class full of winners, and clever coaches will work in lockstep with their front offices to acquire the players that fit their offensive philosophy and needs. And, as always, those coaches and executives who cannot, will get rinsed out in the wash.