Back when people were finalizing their rankings of the 2020 NFL Draft wide receiver class, the names at the top were fairly similar. Henry Ruggs III, Jerry Jeudy, Justin Jefferson, CeeDee Lamb, Laviska Shenault, Jalen Reagor; those were the players constantly talked about as potential first-round picks.
And then former Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer threw a curveball at us when he discussed Michigan wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones.
“I think that guy should be a top-10 pick,” Meyer said before the draft. “In high school, Donovan was one of the best receivers I’ve ever seen.”
Peoples-Jones decided to declare for the draft after his third year in what was a disappointing career at Michigan. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Peoples-Jones never eclipsed the 1,000-yard receiving mark, and only had more than 500 receiving yards in one single season. His best year was a pedestrian 612 yards with eight receiving touchdowns on just 47 catches. Boasting those stats as the best we saw from him in college was not what anyone expected from the former 5-star receiver who was the top receiver in the 2017 recruiting class—and the No. 12 overall player in the country.
But because of the lack of pass-game talent and creativity, Peoples-Jones went underutilized. After three years of stagnant production in the passing game, Peoples-Jones decided he’d have a better chance at making it by getting out of Michigan and taking his chances being a later draft pick—despite that being nowhere near the first-rounder he was projected to perhaps become many years ago. He was an afterthought among the names mentioned in the opening paragraph. Sure you’d find people who liked Peoples-Jones’ upside and what he was able to show in his flash plays at Michigan and believed the best was ahead for him (he ended up as a top-15 receiver in the class for me), but that was about as good as it got.
Then the NFL Scouting Combine came around and Peoples-Jones reminded everyone why he was once regarded as the next best receiver in college football when he had just an insane 44.5 inches in the vert and 139 inches in the board, both in the 99th percentile of NFL wide receivers. Perhaps that was the lighting of the spark that got people back on the Peoples-Jones train. Perhaps Meyer wasn’t so crazy after all.
Unfortunately for Peoples-Jones, those jumps couldn’t overcome three years of disappointing production at Michigan. In the end, he fell all the way to the sixth round—which was insane, even for the people who were low on Peoples-Jones—and joined the Cleveland Browns.
In a lineup that already featured star receivers in Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, a reliable veteran pass-catcher in Rashard Higgins, three tight end options in Austin Hooper, David Njoku and Harrison Bryant, plus two stud running backs in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, Peoples-Jones’s path to early playing time was bumpy.
Peoples-Jones didn’t see the field until Week 4 of the season, but his playing percentages remained low up until Beckham’s injury. In the game Beckham got hurt (Week 7), Peoples-Jones played in 69% of the team’s offensive snaps with three catches on three targets for 53 yards and a touchdown, making great work of his first real call to action. We thought that could have been the start to Peoples-Jones’ rise, but the following week he played in just 8% of the team’s offensive snaps.
It has been a slow rise since then for him, but over the last two contests, he’s played in 57% and 70% of the team’s offensive snaps while KhaDarel Hodge (the regular No. 3 receiver) has been out with a hamstring injury. The results have been favorable, even for the somewhat streamlined role they’ve asked Peoples-Jones to play. As the No. 3 receiver, he isn’t getting a ton of looks in the passing game, but he’s playing a big role in the offense when it comes to blocking.
The Browns are one of the most run-heavy teams in the league, and success in that area goes well beyond just having good running backs. They have two great ones in Chubb and Hunt, but their blocking up front and blocking to the boundaries with their wide receivers has also been good. For the season, Peoples-Jones has earned a PFF run-blocking grade of 68, which is a respectable number for a receiver.
Jones also has incredible production with his big-play ability. He has just 14 targets on the year, so his averages being as high as they are is sort of skewed because of very limited production from a limited role. But when they target Peoples-Jones in the passing game, it’s often in a big way, as he is averaging more than 23 yards per catch with 238 receiving yards on 10 catches.
Peoples-Jones wasn’t the first-round pick Meyer thought he was going to be, but he shouldn’t have been a sixth-round pick, either. Even in a stacked offense, Peoples-Jones is showing off some of his best traits: his deep-ball ability and his attention to detail as a good blocker. Those things will always keep you in good graces with coaches for offense and special teams (as Peoples-Jones has been moved to lead blocking duties on kick returns).
His place on the team will likely stay streamlined this year because of all of Cleveland’s options, but he’s showing a baseline of characteristics that keep you around and open doors for more offensive emphasis in the future.