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NFL Draft 2016: Scouting and ranking the receivers, Part I

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Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

I think, like many, that I bought into the early narrative that "this wide receiver draft class was devoid of talent," yet after a full offseason of research, I've concluded that statement couldn't be any further from the truth. It's honestly ridiculous.

This class is made up of a small blend of all types of playmakers. From big-bodied contested-catch threats, to downfield burners and all the way back around to pure technicians -- there's something for everybody here (even a Cordarrelle Patterson).

I personally spent a countless number of hours picking these wide receivers apart (against my wife's wishes) and have finally put my evaluations on paper. Below you will find a video breakdown with age, height, weight, pros/cons, a college production table, my final player analysis, and my projected draft round grade. All of this embodies my research and these are all those hours of time spent (probably wasted) in their very simplest form.

So without further ado, below are my ranks 6-through-10 of in-coming rookie wide receivers.

6. Sterling Shepard, Oklahoma

Height: 5'-10""

Weight: 193lbs

Age: 23

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For what it's worth, I've seen Sterling Shepard often compared to Tyler Lockett of the Seattle Seahawks. An extremely polished route runner, if not the top route runner in the class, Sterling is the definition of a "technician." However, like Lockett before him, it's his size that will be held against him. Shepard has the tape, production and accolades to garner 1st round consideration but you can't fault evaluators for shying away.

HIGHLIGHT:

VIDEO DESCRIPTION:

Footwork -- It's the allure of Sterling Shepard, and this play shows just how quickly any defender (this will include NFL corners) will get juked out of their cleats against him.

This is a simple slant route inside for Shepard, but the ease in which he sets up his defender for a free angle is spectacular. Right off the line of scrimmage he uses exceptional footwork and a jab step to lead his coverage two feet the wrong direction. Once he's secured his separation inside, he awaits the target. If not for a collapsing pocket this entire play would likely have come off much cleaner -- either way, Shepard showed what high end footwork and quicks can do to defenders. After the catch Shepard is an immediate turn-and-go wide receiver, looking to eat up ground quickly..

PROS:

  • Technician -- Arguably the top overall player in this class in terms of technical tools. At or near the top in: footwork, route running, hand technique, route tree diversity, coverage awareness and natural pass catching ability. His route work alone is something to be marveled at -- this is where I do see the Lockett/Shepard comp's (size too as well).

  • College Production -- Not only does he have four years of production in a major conference, but we've seen growth in many of the statistical categories as he's aged. He ended his senior season with a 86-1,288-11 TD stat line and a total college career production of 233-3,482-26. Of the 21 wideouts in 2015 with 86 receptions or more, Sterling finished 6th in YPC with 15.0.

  • Ball Awareness -- Regardless of ball placement, Shepard was able to locate it mid stride and make a big time play on the ball. He does a great job of tracking over the shoulder on deep routes, and in traffic across the middle of the field.

  • Speed -- A candidate for a top-3 cone time, Sterling has proven he has the long speed and short area quickness (footwork) to become an impossible cover even at the next level. A real rarity in this class for teams looking for a kick returner with NFL ready wideout chops.

CONS:

  • Size -- Truthfully here is the Lockett comparison -- he's unbelievably talented but undersized for the history of the NFL position. His footwork will always make him a tough jam, but he will assuredly have issues with physical NFL corners at his current weight.

  • Role -- NFL teams will likely be hesitant to draft a player of his size as a round one option -- despite him being infinitely better than Phillip Dorsett, a 2015 first round selection. May be forced into a slot/special teams role early on in his rookie year.

COLLEGE STATS:

1

Via Sports Reference.

Bottom Line: Sterling has the biggest bag of tools in this draft class, and they're all sharp. His real issue will be convincing a team to take a shot on an undersized player. With the success of diminutive wide receivers increasing it wouldn't be a surprise to see Shepard go towards the end of the 1st round, but all signs point to a Day 2 selection.

DRAFT ROUND GRADE: Second Round.

7. Rashard Higgins, Colorado State

Height: 6'-2"

Weight: 188lbs

Age: 21

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One of the few true players in this draft with three years of highly impressive college production. Higgins is most noted for his historic 2014 season (96-1,750-17), but saw a significant reduction in production by those 2014 standards. Though many factors attributed to the decline, Higgins tape still shows all the reasons why he was so dominant in 2014.

HIGHLIGHT:

VIDEO DESCRIPTION:

Burst -- as I alluded to below, Higgins' speed isn't so much "apparent" as it is "sudden," He can gain speed quickly and turn what should be a small play into a home run in a matter of seconds.

On this play, Higgins turns what should have been a 15-yard gain into a 50+ yard touchdown. Higgins starts his route using light, choppy feet and a small jab step to set up his inside move. On a nicely thrown ball, Higgins, in stride, makes a nice hands catch and immediately turns upfield looking for more. With space around him he uses head/shoulder fakes and jab steps to set up blocking and create angles to free run for more yardage. Higgins runs with good power here, breaking at least 2 arm tackles and keeping his feet moving all the way to the pylon.

PROS:

  • College Production -- Again, 2014 was historic and even his production in 2013 and 2015 weren't anything to scoff at. As a freshman he posted 68 receptions, and as a senior this season he still produced 74 catches in just 12 games. His total college production equated to a stat line of: 238-3,648-31. His touchdown production has been absolutely outstanding.

  • Crisp Mover -- Higgins may have prototypical height but it's how he plays on the field that stands out the most. Higgins has displayed an ability to waste no movement in his route approach. Making precision cuts and using slight body adjustments to create separation between him and his defender.

  • Catch Radius -- Perhaps the most intriguing metric to Higgins is his overall length. With his frame he's proven he can be a huge target for any quarterback. Logging numerous vertical catches, and impressive mid air-snags along his career.

  • Burst -- A serious factor in YAC -- Higgins can be a serious problem with the ball in his hands. He often flashed above average long speed, getting behind secondaries and eating up ground with long strides.

CONS:

  • Frame -- Could use to add a bit of bulk, but has proved that he can produce at any level - at any age. Like many receivers in this draft,  his slimmer frame could make for tough sledding against NFL corners.

  • Concentration Drops -- Not an overwhelming issue, but one to note. Higgins at times dropped passes due to what appears to be concentration and not "hearing foot steps." Higgins had a notable red zone drop vs Nevada that has stuck with me ever since -- it was truly the definition of "concentration." An NFL job could be the step he needs to tighten up the areas where he isn't consistently producing.

COLLEGE STATS:

1

Via Sports Reference.

Bottom Line: An incredible college prospect. Higgins produced on a significant scale at a very young age. The debate will rage on about whether or not he was a product of a prolific QB/system or if the talent has always been there -- the one thing we do know is that at the college level he was outstanding. Higgins could use to add some weight to his frame, but does have the prototypical NFL body type. Of my second round grades, he is a favorite to become more than just a second option in a passing offense.

DRAFT ROUND GRADE: Second Round.

8. Will Fuller, Notre Dame

Height: 6'-0"

Weight: 184lbs

Age: 21

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Some boards have him higher than this, others have him much lower. He's a dynamic playmaker out of Notre Dame, whose stock will probably get a nudge after he performs at the combine. The bottom line about Will Fuller is that speed kills, and if a team can look past his size and power he could be a steal in the second round.

VIDEO:

VIDEO DESCRIPTION:

Extra Effort -- This play right here screams extra effort by Will Fuller.

Will Fuller in this clip is lined up at the top of the screen (gold box around him). The ball is handed off to C.J. Prosise who works through the offensive line and gets to the outside. Sprinting down the sidelines, C.J. ends up with just one man to beat, and from all the way across the field here comes Will Fuller on a full sprint to make that block and spring his running back free for a touchdown. This play says everything you need to know about the type of player Will Fuller will be for any organization.

PROS:

  • Extra Gear -- Fuller was built to burn secondaries. All over his tape you can see him burning man coverages and turning on the jets to make big catches. Step for step, there are few corners in the country that could stick with him, and that aspect of his game wont really change at the next level either.

  • Technician -- Runs good clean routes whether they are deep, intermediate, or short. Constantly finds separation at the top of routes and uses excellent body mechanics to force defenders into angles or positions he wants. Explosive footwork and release off the line of scrimmage. Uses good hand technique on the stem of routes, or during press coverage to get open.

  • College Production -- Fuller posted back to back 1,000+ yard receiving & double digit touchdown seasons as a sophomore and junior (1,094-15/1,258-14). Coming off his best season of his college career, Will finished with a ridiculous 20.3 YPC -- validating the deep threat label.

  • Extra Effort -- What he lacks in overall size he makes up for in work ethic and hustle plays. Fuller is a notorious fighter, and willing blocker -- something that coaches will love about him.

CONS:

  • Strength -- Fuller, because of his size, doesn't offer the classic number one wide receiver metrics. Not a sure thing in the blocking game, and likewise at times his play as a wide receiver is affected by corners out-muscling him as well.

  • Body Catcher -- As noted by many other analysts before me -- Fuller isn't a natural hands catcher like most organizations would prefer. Oftentimes he forces body catches, which can result in drops and contested catches. Fuller isn't likely to win the jump ball game as much as he is the long bomb one.

COLLEGE STATS:

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Via Sports Reference.

Bottom Line: Fuller runs a solid route tree, but excels deep down the field where he can take the tops off coverage. He's not built to win everywhere, but where he does win on the field is a value to most teams. He's a hard worker, and premier option out of the slot. His short area quickness and deep speed should make Fuller a prime target for teams looking for a versatile threat .

DRAFT ROUND GRADE: Second Round.

9. Braxton Miller, Ohio State

Height: 6'-1"

Weight: 205lbs

Age: 23

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Braxton Miller brings a level of upside to the wide receiver position that has been missing from other draft classes. A converted quarterback that was always known for his athleticism, Miller was given a shot to be a playmaker on the outside and he did not disappoint.

HIGHLIGHT:

VIDEO DESCRIPTION:

Braxton Miller is raw, but his athleticism is clearly the opposite. In this clip, Braxton attempts to lure his corner into a post pattern, and then works back outside. He gains serious separation after the cut and finds himself wide open on the sidelines to make a tough catch across his body. He flashes his body control and balance as he stabilizes and avoids a would-be tackler en route to a big touchdown play.

The "rawness" of his route running is pretty apparent as you see him on tape, oftentimes it appears he is literally "thinking about" what move he's going to use just before he does. These however are the type of big plays teams can come to expect from Miller as he develops from a deep/short route runner to a wideout with a full array of looks.

PROS:

  • SPARQ -- Simply put, Miller is a "SPARQ'd" up athlete. His time at Ohio State revealed a player with explosive levels of vertical leap, foot quickness, lateral movement skills, and straight line speed. Braxton should wreck the combine, but for him the real test is going to be how well he can perform everywhere else.

  • Open Field Ability -- In this draft class, there are few guys scarier with a ball in their hands than Braxton. In minimal work as a wideout in 2015, he flashed it, and as a QB his previous three seasons it was on display often as well. He averaged 5.5 YPC for his career as a rusher with 33 touchdowns, and 13.6 YPC with 3 touchdowns as a receiver in 2015. His open field vision as a rusher, ability to make cuts at full speed, and explosive athleticism are three primary reasons he should immediately excel in this part of the game.

  • Football IQ -- As a long time former QB, Braxton has the ability to understand defensive coverages, and positional assignments as they align across from him. His knowledge of man & zone looks will be a huge factor in how quickly he develops as an NFL talent..

  • Body Type -- He's physically built to be an NFL athlete. His athleticism mixed with the density of his height to weight ratio make Braxton a worthy candidate to succeed at the position. He's built enough to sustain the rigors of the wideout spot, but also otherworldly elusive at his size and weight.

CONS:

  • Raw -- Braxton has one season of Division I competition under his belt as a wide receiver. As a senior Miller posted 25-340-3 in his first opportunity at the position. Though he may understand how to read defensive coverages, he still doesn't fully get the nuances of being a wide receiver (footwork, release, hand technique, etc). His route running like many before him will be tallest mountain to climb.

  • Injuries -- Miller's long term health at a skill position has been called into question. As a member of the Ohio State Buckeyes he constantly battled little injuries over his entire career. The NFL won't be gentle to Braxton but again, he does appear to be built for the next level -- history is more of the issue.

COLLEGE STATS:

1

Via Sports Reference.

Bottom Line: Braxton Miller has all the upside in the world, and he is possibly the most athletic overall player in this wide receiver draft class. With a genetic make up to become a dynamic playmaker for any NFL team, the sky is truly the limit. His rawness, and lack of overall experience at the position will certainly be held against him, but WHEN he blows up the combine teams will be clamoring at the opportunity to test drive the "Miller Experience".

DRAFT ROUND GRADE: Second Round/Third Round.

10. Leonte Carroo, Rutgers

Height: 6'-0"t

Weight: 205lbs

Age: 22

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Leonte is one of the least hyped prospects in this class -- for no real good reason, either. He's a player that you almost have to see on film to fully accept the talents of, because his minimal production just doesn't do him justice.

HIGHLIGHT:

VIDEO DESCRIPTION:

Straight Line Speed -- If you watch enough of Carroo it almost feels like he runs his routes like he wants to bait you into slowing down. In this clip however, his straight line speed is on display and it looks great.

On a screen pass, Leonte Carroo wrangles in the high throw and squares his hips to move up field. Using good vision and getting some incredibly well designed blocking ahead, Carroo flies past defenders all the way to a big catch and score.

PROS:

  • Physical Size -- Carroo is built to battle on the outside, with a thick frame and strong lower body he makes for a tough cover for any corner. Leonte appears to be one of the more physically gifted players in this class as far as muscle density is concerned.

  • Natural Hands Catcher -- Meaning he is rarely body catching footballs or making receptions look harder then they might be. At his size, he has soft hands and uses good technique to haul in passes. Rarely do defenders force incompletions once he has possession of the ball.

  • 50/50 -- Can climb the ladder against defenders. Is able to make adjustments with his leaps to win contested catches or reel in passes that are slightly off target.

  • Straight Line Speed -- Can get behind a secondary if he is given a free release. Good enough long speed to be a deep threat and can use body movements to help create space between him and defenders.

CONS:

  • Off-Field Issues -- In a world where there are plenty of players who aren't involved in any off-field misconduct, Carroo cannot say the same. His has a simple assault incident on his record -- something teams could shy away from.

  • Premier Explosion -- Carroo has flashed the ability to make the big athletic play, but doesn't show "premiere" burst you'd expect from a day one caliber prospect. Shows hip tightness at times limiting his lateral explosive movements.

COLLEGE STATS:

1

Via Sports Reference.

Bottom Line: If we were only grading on tape, it would be hard to put Carroo any lower than a top 15 prospect -- obviously I like him higher. In back to back seasons Carroo has posted double digit touchdowns (10, 10) and since his sophomore season has never owned a YPC average lower than 17.1. Even as a sophomore Carroo posted 9 touchdowns -- good for 29 in his college career. Carroo flashes nice physical ability, in a compact frame. He's proved he can make big plays all over the field, showing improved footwork and touchdown scoring ability. If he can keep his nose clean he should be a good second wide receiver in an offense in need.

DRAFT ROUND GRADE: Second Round/Third Round.

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Thanks to everyone who checks this out, as usual feel free to send all the hate mail to my twitter account listed above. My top-5 ranked receivers will be coming up next, stay tuned...

Photos: Jerome Miron, Ron Chenoy, Gary A. Vasquez, Noah K. Murray, Ed Mulholland