If a football skill is beyond the grasp of Bill Belichick, it likely flummoxes the entire league. The Patriots have taken six receivers in the second or third round since Belichick became head coach in 2000, and the team whiffed on five of them (surely you remember Bethel Johnson, Chad Jackson, Brandon Tate, Taylor Price, and Aaron Dobson). The sixth was Deion Branch, who was drafted back in 2002.
It’s not just Belichick’s weakness. The entire NFL struggles to identify wide receiver prospects, who are among the hardest in football to project. The differences between pro and college rules, schemes, and level of competition makes judging how pass-catchers will fare tougher than most positions.
“The issue in college football is there just is not the same passing game in college football that there is in the NFL, period,” Belichick told reporters in early April. “So it’s hard to evaluate the receivers, it’s hard to evaluate the quarterback, it’s hard to evaluate the offensive linemen.”
The recent history of receivers in the NFL draft backs up Belichick’s thoughts. Below are the leaders in receiving yards per game from each draft class between 2010 to 2017, along with where they were drafted.
2017: JuJu Smith-Schuster (no. 62 overall, sixth receiver taken)
2016: Michael Thomas (no. 47, sixth receiver taken)
2015: Amari Cooper (no. 4, first receiver taken)
2014: Odell Beckham Jr. (no. 12, third receiver taken)
2013: DeAndre Hopkins (no. 27, second receiver taken)
2012: T.Y. Hilton (no. 92, 13th receiver taken)
2011: Julio Jones (no. 6, second receiver taken)
2010: Antonio Brown (no. 195, 22nd receiver taken)
Every NFL position features late-round gems, but wide receiver is particularly unpredictable. Of the eight draft classes listed above, the most productive receiver has come out of the first round only four times (though Stefon Diggs, a fifth-rounder, is less than a yard per game away from Cooper’s per-game mark). But even that point undersells the difficulty of scouting receivers. Two of those receiver classes were considered loaded. A.J. Green and Julio Jones were elite prospects in 2011 and Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, and Odell Beckham Jr. were top prospects in a star-studded 2014 draft. In the years that lack great prospects but are full of good ones, teams have difficulty sorting the cream from the crop, and that’s exactly the situation with the 2019 NFL draft.
No receiver was selected in last weekend’s draft until Oklahoma’s Marquise Brown at no. 25 overall, the latest the first receiver has gone since 2008, when none were taken in the first round. This year, when the Patriots finally had their chance to pick, they said “screw it,” and took Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry with the 32nd pick—the first time Belichick has drafted a wideout in the first round. But if history is any guide, there is a strong chance that one of the receivers selected in rounds 2 or 3 has a serious chance to separate himself from his peers and emerge as the steal of the 2019 NFL draft. Let’s run through past receivers drafted on Days 2 and 3 and figure out which team pulled off a heist.
Deebo Samuel, San Francisco 49ers (Round 2, no. 36 Overall)
San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan has more say in the draft process than most head coaches due to his unique partnership with general manager John Lynch, so the 49ers drafting Samuel with the fourth pick of the second round suggests Shanahan has a strong sense of how he wants to use Samuel on the field. Samuel’s numbers at South Carolina weren’t exceptional until his senior year, when he snagged 11 touchdowns in 12 games. His otherwise pedestrian numbers don’t do justice to his play. He’s great in the red zone and in the open field, and unlike many college receivers, he is already an advanced route runner.
That skill set makes him versatile, a crucial aspect to playing time in a Shanahan offense. Samuel could quickly become the best receiver Jimmy Garoppolo has ever had (unless you count the six quarters he played with Julian Edelman). He could also see playing time quickly. Wide receiver Pierre Garçon is gone, Marquise Goodwin has had trouble staying healthy, and while Dante Pettis broke out at the end of last season while catching passes from Nick Mullens, he profiles as a less athletic version of Samuel. If Samuel can eventually step in as the no. 2 receiver (behind tight end George Kittle) in Shanahan’s offense, he could quickly become one of the most prolific receivers in football.
It’s worth noting that San Fran used their next pick to draft receiver Jalen Hurd out of Baylor at no. 67 overall. Hurd is a former running back who didn’t post a great 40-yard dash time (4.66), but he has already been able to create separation from defenders, which is more important than straight-line speed. Hurd doesn’t have the same chance for immediate production or long-term upside as Samuel, though he could be a strong complement.
A.J. Brown, Tennessee Titans (Round 2, no. 51 overall)
Brown was not as famous as his college teammate D.K. Metcalf, but he was far more productive at Ole Miss and he’s a good bet to be one of the better receivers in this class. In 2018, he averaged seven catches, 110 yards, and .5 touchdowns per game across 12 contests. His 1,320 receiving yards were seventh in the country, and he ran a far more diverse set of routes than Metcalf. A question about Brown has been whether he can perform on the outside, but plenty of receivers have made names for themselves in the slot, and the Titans drafted wide receiver Corey Davis with the no. 5 pick in the 2017 draft, so there is less pressure to play on the outside.
As talented as Brown is, his immediate challenge will be producing in the air. The Titans have not had a consistent passing game in years, and despite moving away from a run-heavy game plan last year under first-year head coach Mike Vrabel, they fell from 23rd in passing yards in 2017 to 29th 2018. Offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur left to become head coach in Green Bay, and the Titans promoted Arthur Smith, most recently the team’s tight ends coach.
Smith will be Marcus Mariota’s fourth coordinator in five years, and the job comes with quite a bit of pressure. Mariota, the no. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft, is entering the final year of his contract and has played sporadically, so another injury-riddled season could have Tennessee looking to move on. (Trading for Ryan Tannehill could be more than just injury insurance.) Unless Mariota takes a big step in 2019, the Titans may not have consistent QB play for quite some time.
JJ Arcega-Whiteside, Philadelphia Eagles (Round 2, no. 57 Overall)
Arcega-Whiteside’s touchdown-snagging prowess in the red zone is perhaps the most NFL-ready skill of any pass catcher in the draft class. His mother was a legendary NCAA basketball player and both of his parents played professional hoops in Europe. JJ fouled out too often in high school to make it in basketball (seriously) but he stuck with football. After years of announcers reminding us that “Jimmy Graham played basketball!” we finally have Graham’s spiritual successor.
Philly is an ideal spot for him to succeed. Quarterback Carson Wentz is an aggressive quarterback in the red zone. Tight end Zach Ertz will see a lot of double-teams after having the second-most targets among all players in 2018. Alshon Jeffery usually attracts the opposing team’s most physical defensive back near the end zone, so not only will Arcega-Whiteside see a lot of single coverage in the red zone, he will have favorable matchups against teams that lack cornerback depth. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he produces the most touchdowns of any receiver in this class.
Parris Campbell, Indianapolis Colts (Round 2, no. 59 Overall)
Just like his Ohio State predecessor Michael Thomas landed with Sean Payton and Drew Brees in New Orleans, Campbell has been put in a position to succeed his with head coach Frank Reich and quarterback Andrew Luck in Indianapolis. Campbell has elite speed. He ran a 4.31 40-yard dash, tied with UMass’s Andy Isabella for the fastest among all wide receivers, and he showed it at Ohio State. Campbell was known for getting the ball close to the line of scrimmage—crossing routes, screens, end-arounds, anything to get the ball in his hands—and racking up yards after the catch.
Campbell lands in an offense well-suited for his skill set. The Colts have prioritized quick passing in Reich’s offense. Luck was tied for 25th in average pass length in 2018, the lowest ranking of his career. That means there will be plenty of opportunities for Campbell to get the ball underneath and over the middle as T.Y. Hilton works over the top and Eric Ebron attacks the defense’s seams. The Colts didn’t use misdirection or end-arounds as often as the Rams, Chiefs, or Bears did in 2018, but they also didn’t have the same personnel. With Campbell, expect the Colts to add far more of those plays.
Andy Isabella (Round 2, no. 62 Overall) and Hakeem Butler (Round 4, no. 103 Overall), Arizona Cardinals
This is the most fun pairing to come out of the draft. Isabella is 5-foot-9 and 188 pounds, but he led the nation in receiving yards last season (1,698) and tied for the most 40-plus-yard reception (11) and fastest 40-yard dash speed of any receiver at the combine (4.31 seconds). Butler is an athletic marvel with size and speed but not much refined route-running ability. Still, he’ll be asked for his deep-route specialties often in Arizona.
The Cardinals have gone all in on the newest of new offenses by hiring Kliff Kingsbury, the foremost Air Raid disciple this side of Mike Leach. Kingsbury told NBC’s Peter King he expects to use those same principles in the NFL, including plenty of four- and five-wide-receiver sets to spread defenses out and use the entire length of the field. If drafting Kyler Murray no. 1 overall was a sign of the Cardinals’ commitment to that system, then filling out the offense with Isabella and Butler in the second and fourth round is setting themselves up for success. King noted Kingsbury is likely envisioning four-receiver sets that feature Larry Fitzgerald and Isabella on the inside with Butler and Christian Kirk, last year’s second-rounder, on the outside. In an offense based on spacing, Isabella’s speed, deep-receiving ability, and agility in the open field could make him one of the more productive (and exciting) receivers in football quickly.
D.K. Metcalf, Seattle Seahawks (Round 2, no. 64 Overall)
Metcalf captured our imaginations at the NFL combine because he runs faster than a cigarette boat but he fell to the final pick of the second round because he turns slower than an aircraft carrier. While Metcalf was too risky of a prospect to be a first-round pick, he could still become the most dominant member of this draft class. Seattle receiver Doug Baldwin may retire before the 2019 season, and if he does, receiver Tyler Lockett is the favorite to move into the slot, as Rotoworld’s Evan Silva pointed out.
Doug Baldwin essentially missed 4 games last year & in them Tyler Lockett was a 60% slot WR.— Evan Silva (@evansilva) April 30, 2019
If Baldwin retires, we're likely getting Lockett as #Seahawks primary slot with some combo of DK Metcalf, David Moore, Gary Jennings outside.
David Moore was a Seattle seventh-rounder in 2017, but he played well enough last year that he has the edge over Metcalf and Gary Jennings Jr., Seattle’s fourth-rounder out of West Virginia, for the no. 2 receiver role. Metcalf ran a limited route tree in college, but he insists that he can run a more varied at the pro level:
“[Critics] think, ‘He’s not a football player, he’s just athletic,’” Metcalf told Trysta Krick of SportsPulse. “I’ve been training and playing receiver my whole life, so I know what to do. I know how to run routes.”
It might take a season or two, but if Metcalf can develop a more varied route tree, he could become a dominant force. “You haven’t seen a D.K. Metcalf in the league yet,” Metcalf told Stephen A. Smith on First Take one week before the draft. “You haven’t seen a 6′3″, 230 [pound receiver] run a 4.33 with a 40.5-inch vertical.”
“I haven’t seen that,” Smith said. “That’s a good point.”
If Metcalf can convince Stephen A. Smith to admit he was wrong, he can probably convince 31 NFL teams too.