Alabama sure has had its embarrassment of riches, hasn’t it? In just the last two NFL drafts, head coach Nick Saban has had four wide receivers taken within the first 15 picks.
In 2020, Henry Ruggs III was the first of the receivers to go when he was taken No. 12 overall by the Las Vegas Raiders; only to be shortly followed by Jerry Jeudy, the sleek, polished route-runner who was snatched just three picks later by the Raiders inter-division rival Denver Broncos. This past April provided a similar story. Jaylen Waddle (No. 6 overall) and DeVonta Smith (No. 10 overall), both former Crimson Tide standouts, were drafted in the top 15. The wildest part: all four aforementioned donned the crimson and white uniforms at one point at the same time.
Quarterbacks Jalen Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa, and Mac Jones thanks them. No matter how special each of their skill sets are under center, a group of talent like that on the boundary may never be matched again in Alabama’s illustrious history. Now, it’s onto Sundays, and with Ruggs and Jeudy now entering their sophomore campaigns, Waddle and Smith seem eager to chomp at the bit as they enter their respective facilities as the clear WR1. But, how do they each stack up against each other? They each have All-Pro traits and individually could develop into dominating receivers as time goes on. Looking to 2021, and each receiver's current projection within the Raiders’, Broncos’, Miami Dolphins’, and Philadelphia Eagles’ respective offenses as a whole, here is how I project each of the former core-four wideouts at Alabama to produce this fall—all things considered.
Jerry Jeudy leads this group
The question remains who will be slinging the rock in Denver when Week 1 comes, but Jeudy’s presence within the Broncos’ offense cannot be ignored. Whether it’s Drew Lock or Teddy Bridgewater, Jeudy’s game is still developing, and the more reps he gets, the better he’ll become as a potential top-five receiver in football. After recording 853 yards receiving as a rookie, which was the fifth-best among first-year pass-catchers, the return of Courtland Sutton will open things up even further for the ultra-smooth route-runner in Jeudy. At just 22 years old, Jeudy enters his sophomore season with still his best football ahead of him. His progression as an elite offensive weapon within all three levels of the Bronco offense will be crucial to the overall projection of Denver’s attack led by Lock or Bridgewater.
Jaylen Waddle is an all-too close second
It’s tough putting Jeudy over Waddle as we head into training camp, but a year of professional experience and Jeudy’s ability to stay healthy pushed him over the top. Waddle, however, is one of the most electric athletes to come out of the college ranks in some time. If Waddle is able to stay healthy within a Miami offense surrounded by eye-popping talent in Will Fuller and DeVante Parker, Tagovailoa could enjoy a dynamic breakout campaign.
Waddle’s ability to go from zero to 60 was matched by none in the 2020 class, and it would be far-fetched to find someone other than Tyreek Hill who can start and stop like he can in the entire league. Too often you see players with elite speed be described as gadget players who offer little as a receiver in structured concepts. Waddle is the complete opposite; he dominated the SEC with elite footwork, a full route tree, and sure hands to pair with his game-breaking speed. If he’s able to stay on the field, his chemistry with Tagovailoa has the potential to develop into a long-lasting, fruitful tandem for head coach Brian Flores’ exciting Dolphins unit.
DeVonta Smith shouldn't be underestimated
You’ve probably heard the slander against the 2020 Heisman Trophy winners’ potential play weight and the proceeding worries over his durability, but sit back and watch his film this past season and it would be a disgrace to discuss Smith in the category of one-dimensional receivers under 180 pounds. Taking a look back at history, sure, one could attest his fragility could become worrisome; but Smith isn’t your typical run of the well pass-catcher, and his fundamental talent and production within the top conference of college football for four seasons should offer a glimpse more into his potential as a pro instead of downgrading his projection because the NFL is bigger, stronger, and faster. The SEC has some fast, strong, and big players too; Smith did just fine. In a pass-happy league as linebackers, cornerbacks, and safeties become increasingly light to adjust to the high-speed offenses, Smith’s role could be muddied with the run and gun style of Hurts, but head coach Nick Sirianni will get him targets, similar to T.Y. Hilton in the Indianapolis Colts offense. I expect Smith to become a dynamic talent from the onset of his career in Philadelphia.
Henry Ruggs III has a sophomore leap to make
The world-class speed is there with Ruggs, but the Raiders meandered just 43 targets to the explosive wideout in 13 games. That’s a touch over three per game, simply not enough for Ruggs who is far and away the top wideout within the Raiders’ passing game. Lack of consistency and injuries aside, Ruggs’ 452 yards—good for 17.4 yards a pop—is just an okay number when looking at his draft slot and projection in Vegas. At 6-foot flat, Ruggs offers the most vertical prowess of any of the other potential starters in an undersized receivers room and should be looked upon as a threat not just as a nine-ball go-getter; but his development on crossers, posts, and dig routes over the middle of the field is where his biggest progression needs to be made if Gruden envisions him as Derek Carr’s featured weapon within a rather underwhelming Raiders offense led by Ruggs’ former Alabama teammate Josh Jacobs.