Underclassmen WRs Face Big Draft Risk

Photo: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It's that time of year when the underclassmen declarations start pouring in. Many of them will ultimately end up high picks and have outstanding careers, but the unfortunate reality is that the majority won't.

Over the last several years, there has been a massive uptick in underclassmen declarations overall, but wide receivers specifically are declaring at a high rate. With how the game is evolving both at the college and NFL level, production for receivers is increasing rapidly. At the same time, so is the demand for weapons in the passing game in the NFL so it would only make sense for talented college players to meet that demand. But are they?

Some are, but you may find the following figures startling. In 2017 and 2018, a total of 44 wide receivers left behind college eligibility to pursue the NFL. Here's a round-by-round breakdown of where those receivers ultimately got drafted.

  • Round One - 4
  • Round Two - 3
  • Round Three - 3
  • Round Four - 4
  • Round Five - 2
  • Round Six - 3
  • Round Seven - 5
  • Undrafted - 20

Where a player gets drafted is not nearly as important as what they do with the opportunity, but it does provide insight into career expectations. There is a stark difference in the career expectations for a first round pick compared to a seventh rounder, much less an undrafted free agent.

I talked to TDN's wide receiver expert Brad Kelly about the above numbers and he offered the following insight:

The wide receiver position features a wide-range of skill sets that won't always fit every team's scheme or preferences at the position. That's why you will see guys like Dante Pettis and Courtland Sutton get drafted within a few spots of each other despite being wildly different players. Even if a receiver gets a mid-round grade from the advisory board, they could still go undrafted because they won't fit half of the teams desires for the position. Also, the wide receiver depth in the league right now is fairly solid across the board, pushing down the need and value of drafting a wide receiver in the middle rounds. The evolution of pass catching running backs and tight ends also play into this. Teams can get away with only carrying 4 or 5 wide receiver on the roster if they are quality pieces. 15 years ago if a team went four or five wide in terms of receivers in a formation on a given play, it would be 4 or 5 actual wide receivers. Now teams could have 2 or 3 of them as running backs or tight ends.

Interesting perspective and I believe Brad is spot on. If teams are going to invest draft capital in the position, being able to upgrade and challenge what currently exists on the roster is critical. Receivers with middling traits and modest ceilings are simply not going to be valued as high despite how NFL passing games are evolving.

In my discussion with Brad, he also mentioned offensive lineman as an interesting contrast to wide receiver. It's widely accepted that offensive line play in the NFL is lacking right now. Because of that, teams are more apt to invest draft picks in lesser prospects on the offensive line because the need is so great. Surveying last year's draft where developmental offensive tackles like Brandon Parker, Geron Christian, Joseph Noteboom and Alexa Cappa where all top-100 selections, Brad has a point. In 2017, Julie'n Davenport and Zach Banner were taken in the forth round. The examples go on and on.

In the last two draft's, just over 20 percent of all underclassmen were wide receivers and that pace is continuing so far this year. Here's a look at the wide receivers that have declared so far.

Anthony Ratliff-Williams, UNC - He's a fun player that can win at every level of the field. While the poor QB play around him at UNC has limited his production, his flashes have been highly intriguing. Whether it's creating after the catch or winning in a contested situation, Ratliff-Williams has dynamic playmaking upside. The No. 1 quarterback recruit in North Carolina, Ratliff-Williams converted to wide receiver and has transitioned nicely.

AJ Brown, Ole Miss - Brown is a big-bodied target that has thrived from the slot working the middle of the field for Ole Miss. He offers terrific hands and surprisingly good post-catch ability. How he tests at the NFL Scouting Combine will be critical to his valuation.

Kelvin Harmon, NC State - Logging back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons, Harmon has been one of the ACC’s most productive receivers over the last two seasons. He is a true alpha with dominant play strength and underrated athletic ability. I think he’s very smooth for his size and can be a Davante Adams-like performer in the NFL.

N'Keal Harry, Arizona State - Listed at 6-foot-3 and 216 pounds, Harry is an alpha wide receiver that plays up to his physical gifts. His ability to win as an above-the-rim power forward is evident when studying his tape. His hands are extremely strong and his ball tracking ability accentuates his size and play strength.

DK Metcalf, Ole Miss - Likely to be my personal WR1, this dude is special. His technique in his release, burst, size and length have me drooling. His blend of traits for his size are rare. While he does have some inconsistencies to clean up at the catch point, Metcalf has just over 20 games of collegiate experience and his ceiling couldn't be higher.

The early group of wide receiver prospects that have declared provide plenty if intrigue and I expect them all to hear their names called in April. With that said, remember that 20 of the 44 receivers to declare in 2017 and 2018 went undrafted. We''ll have to wait and see if that trend continues again this season.


Written By:

Joe Marino

Chief Administrative Officer

CAO & Senior NFL Draft Analyst for The Draft Network. Co-host of the Draft Dudes podcast. Member of the FWAA.