Get excited, folks. After a couple of down years, wide receivers are back, and the SEC is leading their triumphant return to the top of draft boards. The conference is brimming with wide receiver talent, with 8-10 facing legitimate shots to be top 100 picks in next year's draft. Narrowing down just five SEC wideouts for this list was hard, but the talent in a few spots was overwhelming.
1. D.K. Metcalf, RS Sophomore, Ole Miss
6-foot-3. 225 pounds. Vines for arms and hands that look like Venus flytraps. Metcalf is the rarest of rare specimens, and I'm all in on his upside. He's built like a tight end, but runs like a track star, eating up ground with long strides and better-than-expected acceleration. Ole Miss used him as a deep threat often, and Metcalf made good on most of his opportunities.
If Metcalf doesn't outrun you, he can moss you down the field at the catch point. His game-winning touchdown against Kentucky was one of those plays you rewind for the next 30 minutes because it was so perfectly executed. Granted, more consistency as a catch-point finisher and cutting down on drops should be a big point of emphasis for Metcalf this season, as he struggled in those areas in 2017.
I expected Metcalf to look pretty raw on tape given his age and lack of experience, and while that was true in his route-running and approach to the football at times, it was not in his releases. Good luck matching up in press man against Metcalf, not only because he can physically beat the brakes off your best corner, but his feet and attention to detail are outstanding as well.
Right now, Metcalf isn't the best receiver on this list. That honor belongs to the guy in slot no. 2. But I'm predicting big things are in store for Metcalf, who should establish himself as the top dog in the SEC this season.
2. Deebo Samuel, RS Senior, South Carolina
I've already written about my love for Samuel's game in last week's Draft Class Heroes, but playmakers like the Gamecocks wide receiver don't come along every year. Not only is Samuel far more dominant than you'd expect in contested catch situations, but he's also the best receiver in the class at creating after the catch.
Samuel consistently makes defenders miss in the open field, has excellent vision, is patient enough to let blocks develop and finishes plays by lowering a shoulder to maximize the reception. He is a true nightmare to contain with the ball in his hand, yet still has the ball skills to make tough adjustments and reel in catches outside his frame.
Sure, Samuel may not be the biggest or fastest receiver, but he isn't slow, and he's so physical and technical in his releases that press corners still have their hands full. I think he can be a day one NFL starter on the outside, with the capability of kicking to the slot as needed. Samuel will also be a monster return man. If he can return to form from a broken ankle that ended his 2017 season very early, I think he'll prove to be a round one talent.
3. A.J. Brown, Junior, Ole Miss
Oh man, I struggled with this one. Brown's teammate DaMarkus Lodge is the most polished of the Ole Miss crew, but a couple of things about his game held me back from giving him the no. 3 slot. Having said that, Brown isn't deserving of the hype he's currently getting as WR1 in the class, but he's still a talented playmaker.
My issue with Brown isn't primarily that he doesn't look like a great athlete on tape, nor that he isn't as big as his listed size (6-1, 225). I'm not even focused on the fact that Brown's production fell off a cliff against many of Ole Miss' top-tier opponents, while he feasted on the weaker squads.
No, my main issue comes with Brown playing almost every rep in the slot, where he rarely saw press coverage or took on a team's best cover man. Most of the time, Brown was working to space on clean releases, getting a lot of easy catches in the process.
Now, Brown has flashed the ability to win at the catch point and the ability to make plays with the ball in his hands. The latter might actually be his calling card, as he's slippery and creative post-catch. Brown has good hands and toughness, but I don't see a receiver technically prepared to make a quick impact in the NFL.
That could change over the course of this season, as Brown has shown enough on tape to get excited about. But he needs to test well in Indy during the pre-draft process, because most of Brown's stock will be in his upside unless his role changes this season for the Rebels.
4. DaMarkus Lodge, Senior, Ole Miss
Most believe Lodge will be the third Ole Miss wide receiver drafted next April, but while that may be the case, we still could be talking about a top 60 player. Lodge needs to see his route tree get a little more diversity and he needs to finish better in contested catch situations. He also drops too many passes. But his game is more NFL ready than Metcalf or Brown.
Lodge is a deep threat for Ole Miss, getting very few manufactured touches and consistently having to work off of press coverage. He has legit speed, as Greedy Williams found out during their meeting last fall, when he got behind the future first round corner three times. Lodge has made some acrobatic catches during his time at Ole Miss, showing wonderful body control and concentration along the boundary.
Right now it is about consistently finishing at the catch point, as Lodge seems to have the length, athleticism, speed and enough size to be a priority for NFL teams next draft.
5. Riley Ridley, Junior, Georgia
This is a preseason top five, which means there is room to project Ridley to that billing, despite the fact that Van Jefferson and Terry Godwin are currently more NFL-ready pass catchers. But neither can offer the ability Ridley does to make high degree of difficulty plays look easy.
Ridley's body control and ability to make catches outside his frame are exciting, but he's also more polished in his releases and footwork than given credit for right now. His route tree will need further development, but he plays sudden and shows better attention to detail than you'd expect for a receiver with 26 career catches.
As much suddenness as he shows vs press coverage, getting more active and technical with his hands is important. On top of that, Ridley will face questions about his long speed, as he doesn't look like a true burner on tape. More than anything, we just need a steady role for Ridley in Georgia's starting lineup, so we can properly evaluate his game from a large sample size.
Also add to watch list:
Van Jefferson, Florida
Bryan Edwards, South Carolina
Ryan Davis, Auburn
Darius Slayton, Auburn
Terry Godwin, Georgia
Mecole Hardman, Georgia
Demeteris Robertson, Georgia
Eli Stove, Auburn
Jauan Jennings, Tennessee
Tyrie Cleveland, Florida
Jonathan Nance, Arkansas
Jonathan Giles, LSU
Will Hastings, Auburn
Emanuel Hall, Missouri