It’s a good time to be a quarterback in the NFL, where the total number of big-play receivers has seemed to multiply each season in recent years. The 2019 rookie class has far outplayed expectations, producing stars in DK Metcalf, A.J. Brown, Terry McLaurin, Diontae Johnson, and Deebo Samuel, just to name a few. And the 2020 class, touted by some as the best ever, has somehow lived up to its pre-draft hype and more, with headliners like CeeDee Lamb, Justin Jefferson, Jerry Jeudy, Tee Higgins, Chase Claypool, Brandon Aiyuk, and a bevy of others putting up impressive numbers and making jaw-dropping plays for their respective teams.
We may never see another receiver class match the almost-immediate impact the 2020 group has made on the league this year, but the deep and talented pool of 2021 draft-eligible receivers looks capable of giving that class a run for its money. The COVID-shortened college season makes a full evaluation tougher than usual, but with the official start of #NFLDraftSZN just around the corner, here’s an early primer on the headlining playmakers of the 2021 receiver class.
Of the handful of receiving prospects who look likely to come off the board in the first round come April, the bluest blue-chip star in this class is LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase, a 6-foot, 208-pound playmaker who reminds me of Davante Adams in the way he attacks the ball in the air. Chase, who opted out of the 2020 season to prepare for the combine and the draft, was a unanimous first-team All-American and the Biletnikoff Award winner in 2019 after catching 84 passes and setting college-football bests in yards (1,780) and touchdowns (20) for the national champion Tigers.
The former four-star recruit out of Harvey, Louisiana, will have to refine his techniques for getting off the line and into his route, but he brings natural talent at the catch point that should make him a quarterback’s best friend early in his career. Chase boasts extremely strong hands, the ability to position himself to win jump balls, and uncanny concentration to pluck the ball at the highest point. He’s not an elite separator, but he’s savvy in his ability to create just enough space before the ball arrives.
With good size and a competitive nature, Chase is a slippery playmaker after the catch. He’s not easy to wrangle in the open field, and the former Tigers star can hit the gas and destroy pursuit angles.
This year’s draft is shaping up to be quarterback-heavy at the very top, but it’d be no surprise if Chase comes off the board somewhere in the top 10―maybe even top five. He’s not going to be alone when it comes to probable first-round receivers, though, and should be joined on Day 1 by a pair of Alabama pass-catchers.
Let’s start with Crimson Tide star DeVonta Smith, whose profile should make him a controversial prospect as draft season heats up. Smith has all the statistical accolades scouts are looking for: After posting a 68-catch, 1,256-yard, 14-touchdown line in 13 games in 2019, he ranks third among all college receivers this year in both receptions (72) and yards (1,074), and is currently tied for the national lead with 12 receiving touchdowns. But while the senior pass-catcher seems good for at least one or two big plays every game, his size will be a big question mark as he looks to make the jump into the NFL. Listed at 6-foot-1 and just 175 pounds, Smith is severely lacking in bulk―a potential red flag for teams who may worry about his durability and ability to deal with physical defenders at the next level.
Still, the dude just goes out and makes plays. He’s caught an SEC- and Alabama-record 35 touchdowns in his career, tied the Crimson Tide record for catches in a single games (with 13 against Mississippi), and was in on one of the greatest single plays in college football history, catching the game-winning touchdown bomb from Tua Tagovailoa in the 2017 national championship game against Georgia.
With a smooth, effortless gait—he almost looks like a speed skater when he hits top speed—Smith possesses the short-area burst and ball-tracking skills that make him capable of getting behind a defense on any play.
But Smith excels above the rim, too, where his excellent body control, strong hands, and long arms make him a reliable target even when defenders appear well-positioned.
Smith is the ultimate competitor when the ball is in the air. He consistently wins 50-50 propositions, knows how to attack the football rather than wait for it to arrive, and comes back to his quarterback to provide him a target when things break down. Smith, who was getting a little first-round buzz last year before making the surprising decision to return to Alabama for his senior season, is likely to hear his name called on Day 1.
His teammate, speedster Jaylen Waddle, should too. The 5-foot-10, 182-pound dynamo racked up 557 yards and four touchdowns in five games this year before suffering a broken ankle against Tennessee (Nick Saban originally called it a season-ending injury but has hinted recently that Waddle could return). Waddle is shifty in space and has turbo-boosted acceleration to make people miss after the catch. In 2019, he was the only wide receiver in the country to average 12 yards after the catch per reception, according to Pro Football Focus. With sub-4.4-second 40-yard dash speed and a natural feel for letting blocks develop in front of him, the Bama star will appeal to teams who know how to get their players open in space.
Waddle’s also dangerous deep down the field. The explosive pass-catcher has averaged 19.1 yards per reception in his career (103 catches for 1,965 yards), including a 22.3-yard average in 2020, and has scored a touchdown on one of every six catches (17 total).
Waddle is strong at the catch point and capable of taking the top off a defense. He’s also been one of the best punt returners in the nation over the past three years, sporting a 19.3-yard average with two returns to the house. Like many college receivers, he’ll have to refine his route-running at the next level, but teams are sure to be enamored with his top-tier speed.
Another playmaking speedster teams could target on Day 1 is Purdue receiver Rondale Moore. The 5-foot-9, 180-pound receiver reminds me a little bit of a smaller version of Deebo Samuel, particularly in the way that the Boilermakers use him in their offense. Deployed on a combination of end-arounds, sweeps, screens, out routes, and slants, Moore excels with the ball in his hands in space. He’s got good vision to pick the right running lane and the burst to avoid would-be tacklers.
Moore is also dangerous down the field, whether he’s running deep down the sideline, on a crosser, or up the seams.
The former four-star recruit was the first consensus All-American freshman in Big Ten history in 2018, thanks to a 114-catch, 1,258-yard, 12-touchdown line, but after missing all but four games of 2019 and a handful more early this season to hamstring issues, the redshirt sophomore lacks a full, multi-season resume. But in his first game back with the Boilermakers on Nov. 20, he reminded everyone why he’s getting some first-round buzz by posting 15 catches for 116 yards with 20 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Also a dynamic punt returner, Moore is tough, shifty, and versatile, capable of lining up in the backfield, in the slot, or anywhere in the formation. He lacks size, but is the type of big-play creator that every team needs.
Size, on the other hand, is not an issue for Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound pass catcher was the Big Ten receiver of the year in 2019 with a massive 60-catch, 1,219-yard, 11-touchdown stat line. He recently made the decision to opt out of the Gophers’ final three games this season, but in five appearances he managed to notch 36 catches for 472 yards and two touchdowns. He’s a big-play threat with excellent hands and great awareness of the sideline. He catches the ball away from his frame, and as a route-runner, understands how to leverage defenders and use his footwork to get them moving in the wrong direction.
Bateman tracks the ball beautifully downfield, and is physical enough after the catch to break through arm tackles and pick up extra yards. He’s not the most sudden or explosive player in this class, but he’s polished and looks ready to contribute early in his career. He’s just really good.
I’d say the same for LSU receiver Terrace Marshall Jr., who took up the mantle as the Tigers’ top pass-catcher this season. He’s big (6-foot-4, 200 pounds), strong, and savvy. He’s a confident competitor with a nose for the end zone who posted 671 yards and 13 touchdowns in 12 games last year, an impressive feat considering he was playing behind both Chase and Vikings rookie Justin Jefferson. This season, he tallied 731 yards and 10 scores on 48 catches in seven games before opting out of the rest of the season over the weekend. Marshall Jr. tracks the ball naturally downfield and presents a huge strike zone for his quarterback, regularly reaching out to pull in slightly overthrown passes or go low to scoop up throws that come right at the turf.
Marshall did enough over the past two years for NFL teams to consider taking him in the first round.
There’s a few other receivers that could enter the conversation as potential Day 1 sleepers. Clemson receiver Justyn Ross certainly has the talent and production to be considered there, but after undergoing surgery in the spring to repair a congenital fusion in his spine, the status of his future football career remains in limbo (Ross has a checkup on December 8 that could provide more clarity). If cleared to return to the field, though, the Tigers wideout has the skill set that will surely intrigue NFL teams: he’s big, smooth, and strong, capable of going up high to pull down passes you’d never thought had a chance of being completed. Ross caught 46 passes for 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns as a true freshman in 2018, then followed that performance up with a 66-catch, 865-yard, eight-touchdown line last year.
Ohio State’s Chris Olave (6-foot-1, 188 pounds) is another playmaker who’s getting some early first-round buzz. The long, slender pass-catcher plays with a silky smooth style and always seems to end up in the end zone. Olave caught 48 passes for 840 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2019, and has followed that up with 389 yards and four scores in four games this year. Oklahoma State receiver Tylan Wallace (6-foot, 190 pounds) is another potential Day 1 pick, a big-play threat who’s returned from a late-season ACL tear in 2019 to post 46 catches for 780 yards and five touchdowns in eight games this year. USC’s Amon-Ra St. Brown (6-foot-1, 195 pounds) is another all-around playmaker who could rise in the process. After netting 77 catches for 1,042 yards and six touchdowns in 2019, the junior has racked up 19 catches for 266 yards in three games this season.
I’m looking forward to watching a few other potential draft risers as the college season winds down and the NFL draft process starts in earnest. Iowa pass-catcher Ihmir Smith-Marsette (6-foot-1, 189) stands out, as do Houston’s Marquez Stevenson (6-foot, 190), Florida’s Kadarius Toney (6-foot, 193), Louisville’s Tutu Atwell (5-foot-9, 165), and Mississippi’s Elijah Moore (5-foot-9, 185), who leads the country in receptions (86) and receiving yards (1,193). Arkansas State receiver Jonathan Adams Jr. (6-foot-3, 220) is a small-schooler who’s generating some buzz right now thanks to his 79-catch, 1,111-yard, 12-touchdown stat line. And a handful of big-bodied guys like Auburn’s Seth Williams (6-foot-3, 211), Wake Forest’s Sage Surratt (6-foot-3, 215) and Michigan’s Nico Collins (6-foot-4, 222) could both get plenty of hype as we get closer to the draft. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I’m sure this list will expand over the next couple months.
We’re still a long way off from the 2021 NFL draft, and the star-studded receiver class from last year set the bar sky-high. But with blue-chip talent at the top and plenty of depth in the Day 2 and Day 3 range, I can’t wait to see how this year’s dynamic group of pass-catchers ends up stacking up.