College football has continued to bless the NFL with an abundance of elite, young receivers over the past few years, and this 2021 class appears to be no different. Thanks in large part to the adaptation of collegiate offenses to the NFL game, we are seeing more receivers than ever before have success early on in their NFL careers.
Just over the last two NFL draft classes, there has been a huge influx of young talent at the receiver position, and these young players are stepping in and contributing almost instantly.
The 2019 draft class, which leading up to it was a bit underwhelming given the fact that there was no unanimous No. 1 receiver and no surefire top-10 pick, has more than outperformed their pre-draft reputation. That year saw just two receivers come off the board in the first round, with Baltimore drafting the undersized yet speedy Marquise Brown, and then New England later drafting N’Keal Harry, a receiver with excellent size and athleticism. While the talent at the top of that class wasn’t great, the depth in the second and later rounds was historic. That draft wound up yielding players such as D.K Metcalf, A.J. Brown, and Terry McLaurin, all of whom are now top-15 receivers in the NFL. The trio of Metcalf, Brown, and McLaurin all made immediate impacts as rookies, and each took a step forward in their second season.
Unlike the 2019 class, the 2020 receiver class was heralded for its star power and elite prospects at the top of the class. Last year’s class saw six receivers taken in the first round, and then another seven drafted in the second round. Similar to the 2019 group, this class instantly came in and produced at an elite level, and now boasts some of the top young receivers in the NFL.
Led by Minnesota Vikings rookie Justin Jefferson, who had a historic rookie campaign, last year’s class is now seen as the gold standard when it comes to talent at the receiver position. We saw other players such as Dallas’ CeeDee Lamb, Pittsburgh’s Chase Claypool, San Francisco’s Brandon Ayuik, and Cincinnati’s Tee Higgins (to name a few) all step in and contribute in a big way early on in their rookie campaigns. Of the 13 receivers drafted in the first two rounds of last year’s class, eight of them surpassed 500 yards receiving and finished at or near the top of their team’s depth chart by the end of the season.
The amount of success NFL teams are finding when drafting these receivers early is going to affect how front offices evaluate the position for both the draft and free agency moving forward. Why would a team pay big money to a receiver in free agency when recent history has shown that they can draft a receiver in the first or second round and have that same production for a fraction of the cost? This is why teams will continue to invest top draft capital in the receiver position, as it has proven to be a high hit rate for NFL general managers. That being said, it is another excellent year for NFL front offices if their team is in need of more pass-catching talent.
The 2021 receiver class is a mixture of both the 2019 and the 2020 classes in that it offers very good talent at the top of the draft but does have a nice amount of depth in the second and mid-round ranges. At the top of the receiver rankings in this year’s class you’ll find three names, and the order in which these names are in is entirely up to the evaluator. In any order, the names at the top this year include LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase, and the Alabama duo of Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith. These are the clear top three receivers and there is a very high chance that these three receivers will all wind up getting drafted within the top 12 picks of this year’s draft. For comparison sake, the first receiver drafted in the historic 2020 class went 12th overall with Henry Ruggs going to Las Vegas. This year’s top group is outstanding and is a very rare, special group of prospects.
Things get a bit more inconclusive after the top three receivers in this class, and there is no unanimous choice about who's next after Chase, Waddle and Smith. The names we see normally round out the receiver rankings include Florida’s Kadarius Toney, Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman, LSU’s Terrance Marshall, and Purdue’s Rondale Moore. All four of these receivers are excellent prospects, but again, there is much debate on who will be the fourth receiver off the board.
While one could make a strong case for any of these receivers, based on the evaluations I have done, I believe the WR4 is Bateman.
Bateman was one of the most talked about players last summer leading up to this season after he had an outstanding sophomore year for the Golden Gophers. In his sophomore campaign, Bateman had 60 receptions for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns, finishing as the Big Ten’s Receiver of the Year and as a Third-Team All-American. Bateman was being talked about in the same first-round conversation with Chase, Waddle, and Smith.
Due to the uncertainty of a Big Ten season actually taking place, Bateman originally opted out of the season and intended to prepare for the 2021 NFL Draft. Bateman eventually filed for reinstatement after it was announced that the Big Ten season would be taking place, and Bateman was allowed to rejoin his team for his junior campaign. With the constant cancellation and postponement of games, Bateman decided to opt out yet again after five games of the season, officially ending his collegiate career. Bateman finished his junior season with 36 receptions for 472 yards and two touchdowns.
Of all of the receivers competing to be the fourth receiver off the board, Bateman is the most complete and well-rounded. While he may not be as explosive as Toney or Moore, Bateman has the ability to win on the outside as a traditional “X” receiver and will not need manufactured touches to affect football games. Bateman has good size for the position, being listed at 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds. He was used all over the field for Minnesota, playing both on the outside and inside in the slot.
Bateman is a smooth athlete with good speed overall. He is very nuanced with his releases and is sudden to make people miss at the line to defeat press coverage. Bateman isn’t a burner or an explosive athlete by any means, but he has more than enough speed to push vertically and create separation down the field. He has excellent stop and start ability and can get in and out of breaks effortlessly. Bateman runs crisp routes, and is outstanding at using leverage, head and body fakes, and changing his speed to create separation. He is at his best on in-breaking routes and comebacks, where he can sell vertical and quickly snap off defenders to create separation for an easy completion.
Bateman’s best quality is his ball skills and how comfortable he is catching the ball outside of his frame. He displays an outstanding ability to play the ball in the air, and effortlessly plucks the ball in the air with his large catch radius. Bateman is competitive after the catch and can make defenders miss with his change of direction and elusiveness in the open field.
While Toney, Marshall and Moore all offer more big-play ability than Bateman, it's Bateman’s consistency that sets him apart from the rest. Specifically with Toney and Moore, two undersized receivers who win with the ball in their hands due to the speed and ability to make defenders miss in the open field, the conversation starts how they need creative play-callers to scheme them open and create manufactured touches in the form of quick screens, bubbles, and designed reverses to get the ball in their hands because it may be hard for them to win in a traditional receiver role due to their lack of size on the outside. This is not an issue for Bateman, and he won’t need manufactured touches. He will be able to win within a normal NFL offensive scheme, and has the size, strength, and athletic ability to handle NFL corners with little issue.
When it comes to evaluating receivers, a lot of it comes down to preferences. Some people prefer speed above all else, while others prefer size, strength, or route-running. For me, while I do place a high emphasis on speed, I believe that a receiver's ability to consistently create separation on the outside with crisp route-running and then having the natural ball skills to bring in the ball effortlessly is more important than being a burner. Bateman projects as a No. 1 option at “X” in the NFL, and even though he may not be the biggest, fastest, or most dynamic, he has the necessary skills to come in and produce day one.