If you’ve turned on the news at all this week, you’ve probably read about the wild and crazy saga of GameStop stock, which has increased exponentially in value after a group of Reddit investors decided they wanted to stick it to “the man.” It’s one of the wildest stories that you’ll likely read this year and feels destined to become a feature film in the future. But Gamestop’s stock isn’t the only one soaring this week, not by a long shot—and we’re not talking about AMC, either. Because down in Mobile, Alabama, we’re seeing a collection of wide receiver prospects ball out and completely change the narrative about the 2021 NFL Draft’s class of wide receivers.
Entering this week in Mobile, the general consensus was that there was a “big three” of 2021 prospects: Alabama’s DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle plus LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase. And make no mistake, they’re still the cream of the crop. But the perception of the receivers behind them in the positional rankings and the order in which they’re coveted feels very much up for debate as we watch a plethora of receivers let it all hang loose for this week’s Senior Bowl.
The Senior Bowl event is always a staple of the NFL draft process, but it is even more essential this year given the uncertainties of the rest of the pre-draft process. There are few guaranteed chances to get out in front of NFL evaluators. This week may be the only one, period.
And that’s what makes the performances of the D’Wayne Eskridges, Kadarius Toneys, Amari Rodgers’, Nico Collins’, and Tylan Wallaces of the world so fascinating. And that doesn’t even include Cade Johnson, Sage Surratt, and Shi Smith—all of which have flashed in their own right throughout the course of the Senior Bowl’s first two days of practices with their respective skill sets.
The performance of this year’s group, on the heels of so many successful Day 2 wide receiver picks in recent NFL drafts, will certainly reignite the debate and discourse of if you should be spending a top-10 selection on a wide receiver in the first place. Is Waddle or Smith with the No. 7 pick really a better return on investment than securing Eskridge in the middle of the second round?
(Sidebar: I do agree with the assertion on ESPNU’s broadcast that Eskridge is destined for a lofty draft status, likely one higher than we considered within the realm of possibility entering the week. He’s been sublime. But I would also pass on the idea that he’ll push into the late first-round consideration given the depth of the top of the class—we haven’t even acknowledged 2021 eligible receivers like Terrace Marshall Jr., Rashod Bateman, and others yet.)
Smith and Waddle and Chase are better, more complete prospects. But the opportunity cost of drafting one of them over some of the receivers balling out at this year’s Senior Bowl event is what, exactly? It depends on what other foundational positions are on the table for your respective team. The drop off in the secondary is real—so as tempting as Chase is at No. 6 overall for Eagles fans, drafting a top-flight corner and transitioning to receiver in the early second round may be in your best interest for a timely reconstruction.
Which 2021 NFL Draft receivers have stood out the most thus far in Mobile? Here are my top five through Wednesday’s practices—plus an updated prediction for their NFL draft range come April based on their backgrounds, film, and what we’ve seen this week.
5. Nico Collins (Prospect Profile)
Collins had a bright finish to one on ones on Wednesday, finishing a contested catch on a hook route before completing a vertical shot down the field on a target that created easy vertical separation. That’s where he wins the most consistently. Although he does have a touch of build-up speed, it is forgivable when you consider he’s as big as he is. Remember all that talk about how limited a route-runner D.K. Metcalf may be? Perhaps that’s the fate we’ll see for Collins with his size and long speed. But we’ve also seen in a vertical passing offense, that can be lethal.
Projected Draft Range: Top-64
4. Kadarius Toney (Prospect Profile)
Toney endured a scare on Wednesday after a calf cramp saw him pull up lame on a route up the near sideline. That’s not a position anyone wants to be in for an all-star event, but Toney appeared to be no worse for wear and returned to the field after initially hobbling off in the late practice. Toney is exactly the player we thought he was at Florida: an explosive separator who is difficult to track from the slot and capable of taking manufacture touches (like an end-around he’s already seen this week) for big chunk gains.
Projected Draft Range: Top-40
3. Tylan Wallace (Prospect Profile)
Remember when James Washington came to the Senior Bowl a few years back with the narrative that he only ran gos and posts? Washington dispelled that talk fairly quickly in Mobile, even if they are the routes he’s most dynamic in. I feel we’re getting a similar experience from Wallace this year, who is finding success over the middle of the field and finding plenty of separation there too, running away from outside leverage, taking winning angles, and being calculated with hand fighting near the top of his breaks. It turns out he’s much less of a one-trick pony than the Cowboys offense asked him to be.
By the way, Washington went on to run 4.54s in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine and was drafted 60th overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2018. I can see the parallels between the two receivers continuing beyond a good showing this week.
Projected Draft Range: Top-75
2. Amari Rodgers (Prospect Profile)
Rodgers has enjoyed two days of cooking most comers thus far this week. Press him out of the slot? Good luck. Rodgers has the lateral quickness to defeat tight release windows and the acceleration within the first 10 yards to stack receivers and continue running to grass. His footwork looked effective on some of the individual drills the American team put their receivers through, too. Rodgers is looking more and more dynamic as he continues his recovery from a March 2019 ACL injury.
Projected Draft Range: Top-75
1. D’Wayne Eskridge (Prospect Profile)
Any receiver who exits Mobile as more of a folk hero than draft prospect is worth being a bit leery of, but Eskridge certainly doesn’t feel like fool’s gold. A few years back it was Braxton Miller who was regarded as the belle of the ball for the week. Penny Hart had a few days in the sun as a Senior Bowl darling, too. But Eskridge has more experience running routes than Miller did, he’s more explosive than both, and he’s been more dominant. This is a legit weapon and he’s only going to get better. How high is the ceiling? I’m not ready to suggest he’ll end up being a first-round pick, but any dreams you had of securing Eskridge in the middle rounds are likely gone. With how well he’s won his routes against anyone who has tried to cover him, these separation skills and run after catch potential are going to be in high demand.
Eskridge is one of the biggest winners of the week already, regardless of position.
Projected Draft Range: Top-50