No one’s had a better seat for the wide receiver revolution than Jeff Scott. During his 12 seasons as Clemson’s receivers coach, the program became a factory for elite pass-catching talent. No school produced more first-round receivers in the past decade—a trend that should continue this week, with Clemson star Tee Higgins projected to be taken on Day 1. Since Scott arrived in 2008, only four schools have seen more receivers drafted overall than the Tigers.
During that time, football has also undergone a titanic shift. Production among wide receivers—in college and the NFL—has reached unprecedented levels. Of the eight players with the highest per-game receiving average in NFL history, seven are currently active. Pass-happy modern football has created an ideal feeding ground for the sport’s best pass catchers, and like many coaches, Scott believes the position is more polished and nuanced at every level than ever. “They’re just further along whenever we get them, than maybe the typical freshman we would have 10-12 years ago,” says Scott, now the head coach at South Florida.
There’s no better evidence of that theory than the 2020 draft class. Veteran evaluators consider this crop of receivers one of the deepest ever. In his latest mock draft, The Ringer’s Danny Kelly has nine wideouts coming off the board in the top 60 picks. When a talent pool of that caliber appears, the logical follow-up is whether it’s just a blip on the radar, or a harbinger of what’s to come.
We’ve seen exceptional classes before. In 2014, five receivers were drafted in the first round. From that group, Odell Beckham Jr. and Mike Evans developed into superstars, while Sammy Watkins and Brandin Cooks became sought-after starters who earned huge second contracts. What stands out most about the 2020 class, though, isn’t the amount of talent at the top—it’s the amount in the middle.
In February, NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah gave 27 receiver prospects a third-round grade or better. Teams that bypass a wideout in the first round could potentially snag a competent starter in the third, which would follow a pattern that’s emerged in recent years. Young receivers like Chris Godwin, Terry McLaurin, and Kenny Golladay have all been plucked from the middle rounds and thrived right away. To those who study the position closely, that’s not an accident. “I think the difference between the upper echelon and the elite guys is not as great as what some people may think,” says Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis. “You could find some high-quality receivers in the third round.”
From training methods, to schematic evolution, to the exchange of information, changes across the receiver pipeline have fundamentally altered how quickly players can function in the NFL. And those changes could have a lasting impact on where teams find receivers in the draft.
As recently as a decade ago, offseason football wasn’t an option for most high school players. Football hotbeds like Florida and Texas have long held spring practices, but the majority of kids in other states were on their own from Thanksgiving to the Fourth of July. That group once included Alex Brink, a former two-sport star at Sheldon High School in Eugene, Oregon (the same school that would later produce Justin Herbert). Brink was a damn-good quarterback in the early 2000s, one with enough chops to eventually rewrite the record books as a walk-on at Washington State. But like most kids, he crammed the bulk of his football training into a few short months. “This is one of the hardest sports to play, at any position, and we were spending the least amount of time doing it in the offseason,” Brink says.
After his five-year career as a CFL quarterback ended in 2014, Brink and his business partners surveyed the landscape and decided to open EForce Sports—an athletic training facility just outside Portland. Complexes like Brink’s have become more prevalent in recent years, and their popularity has made year-round training commonplace for high school players. “The way guys train nowadays, the type of workout facilities, I think there is a definite change,” says Wisconsin wide receivers coach Alvis Whitted, who spent last year in the same position with the Packers. “There are a lot more guys who are ready from a physical standpoint.”
The football program at EForce and places like it typically starts in January. Brink’s players meet every weekend to work on football-specific drills. He does his best to accommodate kids who play other sports in the offseason, which allows multisport athletes to still train for football around the clock. The staff at EForce is filled with ex-football players, including former Oregon and Eagles receiver Jeff Maehl. Rather than lining up some cones in their backyard, Portland’s top high school receivers can now drive down the road and learn the intricacies of the position from a guy who spent four years in the NFL. “Kids are starting to specialize in stuff a lot sooner than what they did years ago,” says Oklahoma receivers coach Dennis Simmons. “In turn, that’s helping them hone their craft. If you’re a talented kid and you started earlier, of course you’re going to be better.”
Brink’s focus is on individualized instruction, but he isn’t delusional. He knows why most of the kids are there. “7-on-7,” Brink says, “is the carrot on the end of the stick.” More than any other factor, the proliferation of 7-on-7 has changed the way that young receivers develop. With no linemen or running game involved, 7-on-7 is an offshoot of football specifically designed for quarterbacks and receivers. The teams that Brink fields out of his facility play in about six tournaments every spring, and each event includes about six games. In a few months, Brink’s guys play an average of 1,200 live-action snaps. “It’s really an entirely ‘nother season for wide receivers and QB,” Scott says. “Because of that, the kids that we’re getting are further along from a developmental standpoint—just in football knowledge, route running, and overall skill set.”
The criticism of 7-on-7 is that it’s not “real” football and doesn’t mirror what kids will see at higher levels of the game. But for skill-position players, it’s close enough. Some coaches even argue that the difference between the structure of 7-on-7 and full-contact games can actually help receivers develop. At the high school level, coverages tend to be overly simple and predictable. In an effort to hide their cornerbacks and slow down the rise of running quarterbacks, most defenses stick in soft zones throughout the game. In 7-on-7 tournaments filled with all-star talent, though, those concerns disappear. “7-on-7 is set up for press and man coverage,” Scott says. “And they’re playing against really good athletes, not just whoever’s on their high school schedule.”
With increased experience working against press coverage, more receivers are reaching the college level with a deep understanding of release techniques and other nuances of the position. But beyond the technical aspects, those 7-on-7 reps can also help hone a player’s grasp of route combinations and ways to attack specific coverages. “If a guy comes up to me with inside leverage, and I’m trying to run a slant inside, I now am working over and over again about how to do that,” Brink says. “Whereas if I showed up in August for fall camp, and I’ve never repped how to get inside on a slant against inside leverage, then I’m in trouble.” In his early days at Clemson, Scott says it used to take months to teach his players the subtleties of different coverages. Now, it takes weeks.
Multiple college coaches noted that freshman receivers have significantly more advanced pre-snap plans than they did in the past. Gattis points to Jerry Jeudy, who he coached at Alabama in 2018. Jeudy is considered by some to be the top receiver available in this year’s draft, in large part because he’s the class’s most refined prospect. “I think the thing that separates Jerry from most receivers in this draft—and most of the receivers I’ve ever been around—is his ability to have a plan before the snap,” Gattis says. “Jerry’s nuances come from setting people up. He’s intentional with his movements.”
Brink also spent time with Jeudy in 2016 as a counselor at The Opening—the annual Nike event that features the top 150 high school players in the nation. Brink’s team that weekend featured Jeudy, Penn State commit K.J. Hamler, and future TCU star Jalen Reagor—all of whom are expected to be taken in the first three rounds of this year’s draft. At that point in their development, Jeudy and Hamler were the more polished playmakers, but the gap wasn’t all that obvious. “Jalen is the guy I might have said, among those three, was the least developed, and he was an impact player right away [in college],” Brink says. “The difference between them was not that far off.”
Gattis has lived the evolution of football in the past decade-plus. A fifth-round pick by the Jaguars in 2007, he spent two years toiling in the NFL before transitioning to a career as a college coach. In less than a decade, he coached receivers at Western Michigan, Vanderbilt, Penn State, and Alabama, before finally taking over as Michigan’s offensive coordinator last season. Few college coaches have gotten such a complete, up-close look at how football’s passing boom has transformed a receiver’s education. “[Last season], I believe [the NFL] was somewhere close to 65, lower 70 percent pass-to-run ratio,” Gattis says. “Ten to 15 years ago, it was completely opposite. You felt like you needed to run the ball to win. Well, now, you have to get to throw the ball to score.”
Young pass catchers have more outlets than ever to sharpen their skills, but schematic changes have also increased those opportunities. Spread-out, high-flying offenses have become all the rage in both high school and college, and that’s led to receivers running more routes and catching more passes than at any point in history. “With everybody throwing the ball around all over the place, it’s almost like 7-on-7 now,” says Ravens wide receivers coach David Culley. “In college football, you see them getting a bunch of guys on one team who are getting a bunch of targets, where in the past, it wasn’t that way.”
Simmons doesn’t believe that the wideouts of this era are necessarily better than those of the past, but he does think they’re more self-aware. He’s watched CeeDee Lamb, Marquise Brown, and Dede Westbrook all make an immediate impact at Oklahoma, in part because they understood exactly what they could contribute. “Guys are just understanding what their strengths are and what their weaknesses are,” Simmons says. “Through practice, they’re able to figure out, ‘What do I need to use in this particular situation to get myself open?’”
By playing out situations over and over, today’s receivers have a better sense of how to approach any given scenario. Gattis mentions body control as an area where his players have improved, and he points to Chris Godwin—the former Penn State wideout and current Buccaneers receiver—as a prime example. Last season, Godwin racked up 1,333 receiving yards and nine touchdowns in just 14 games en route to being named second-team All Pro. And he did it all as a former third-round pick. “He’s different in his movements,” Gattis says. “He’s got exceptional ball skills. He’s got some of the best ball skills and the best catch radius I’ve ever been around.” At 6-foot-1, Godwin isn’t built like a traditional no. 1 option, but coming out of Penn State, he was exactly the sort of reliable, overlooked receiver who could help a team immediately. “Jerry Jeudy’s much more flashy with the ball in his hands, but he’s not as consistent as what Chris Godwin was at the catch point,” Gattis says. “You’re going to have some high-upside guys that are high risk and high reward, and then you’re going to have some really good guys that are low risk and high reward, because you know that consistency is what they bring to the table.”
Pass-heavy offenses have undeniably helped receivers improve, but Gattis says the increase in volume has also accelerated his development as a coach. As players have learned which footwork techniques are most effective, or how to best use a head fake to create separation, Gattis has been able to take those lessons and ingrain them in his teaching. “I laugh sometimes when I look back on my 2010 drill tape,” Gattis says. “I’m like, ‘That thing’s garbage.’” Back then, Gattis didn’t understand how a player’s foot placement at the top of a route helped a guy open his hips. He used to think that releases were won with a player’s feet or hands. These days, he believes it’s all about how a wideout moves his shoulders. “You can’t stop growing at this position,” Gattis says. “There’s always new things to learn.”
Before Alvis Whitted began his college coaching career, he spent nine seasons as an NFL receiver. The Jaguars took Whitted in the seventh round of the 1998 draft, and he spent his first four seasons learning from Keenan McCardell and Jimmy Smith—arguably the best receiving duo of their era. “I learned through observation,” Whitted says. “I watched how they got into their releases, their stems. That was it for me.” Twenty years ago, a receiver’s education was mostly limited to the coaches and players around him. But these days, anyone with a cellphone can tap into an entire universe of receiver-specific content. “They spend a lot of time on social media, looking at that,” Scott says. “Getting on YouTube, watching videos of guys training. I do think that technology has helped these guys develop.”
Accounts like Receiver School and Receiver Factory have amassed huge followings, and with the rise of niche content creators, the latest releases from stars like Odell Beckham Jr. or Julio Jones are only one tweet away. That unfettered access has made it possible for younger players to steal specific techniques or tricks—and the sheer number of passing reps in modern football has provided a laboratory for receivers to test those ideas within their own offenses. “There’s so much good film and so many good clips out there these days, whether it’s Twitter or the internet, that everyone thinks they can do what someone else did,” Gattis says. “But you can’t. You’ve got to see what they did and know how to apply it to what you do.”
Most of Scott’s young receivers utilize the internet to learn the position, but he mentions Joseph Ngata as one particularly tech-savvy student. Ngata was a role player within Clemson’s offense last season, but he was still able to catch 17 passes for 240 yards as a true freshman. That sort of production from young players has become the norm at Clemson. Scott estimates that twice as many true freshmen are ready to contribute right away compared to when he first took the job in 2008. “The kids that we’re getting are further along, from a developmental standpoint: football knowledge, route running, and overall skill set,” Scott says. “When they get to us, we’re able to really go to the next level. Their freshman year, we’re already teaching Algebra II and Precalc, if you will. As opposed to maybe 10-12 years ago, when we were having to really start in Algebra I.”
Players are arriving in college two steps ahead of where they used to be, and that’s already enough to deepen the pool of available receiver talent. But the process hardly stops there. Every aspect of football, at every level of the sport, now seems engineered to stimulate a receiver’s growth. “The style of offenses that high schools are running, it’s very similar to what we’re running in college,” Scott says. “And that’s becoming very similar to the offenses that NFL teams are running.”
Receivers are now immersed in the position earlier and deeper than they’ve ever been, and because of that, the talent pool will expand. First-round studs like Jeudy and Lamb will steal most of the attention later this week, but less-celebrated picks may very well make the same type of impact as rookies this fall. Teams that need a receiver are in luck. Because it’s never been easier to find one.