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The Past Three NFL Drafts Have Produced Instant Success at Wide Receiver. Will 2023 Do the Same?

With young pass catchers tearing it up, it’s time to look at the future of the position. Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Jordan Addison, and Kayshon Boutte headline another noteworthy class.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For the third straight season, the NFL’s rookie receiver class has made an immediate impact. In 2020, we saw Justin Jefferson, CeeDee Lamb, Tee Higgins, Chase Claypool, and a handful of others quickly break out, and in 2021 Ja’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith, and Amon-Ra St. Brown wasted no time in establishing themselves as future stars. This year, teams are seeing early returns once again on receiver investments: Drake London is already the Falcons’ most productive pass catcher, and so is Chris Olave for the Saints. Jahan Dotson has already reeled in three touchdowns; Garrett Wilson has shown he can be a big-time playmaker for the Jets; and George Pickens, Treylon Burks, and Alec Pierce have all earned starting roles for their respective teams.

There seems to be a steady stream of talented receivers flowing from college to the pros, but no two classes are ever the same. With the college football season now in full swing, it’s time to take a look at the playmakers who could headline the 2023 receiver class. We don’t yet know whether any of these guys will be future NFL superstars, but next year’s receiver group has no shortage of talent. Here’s a breakdown of six receivers who could make waves in the NFL this time next year, along with a watch list of a few others who could rise quickly as the season goes on.

Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Ohio State (6-1, 200)

Smith-Njigba was hampered by a hamstring injury that limited him to just two games this season (and he’s been quiet in those outings, reeling in only four passes for 36 yards), but looking back at his record-setting 2021 campaign, it’s easy to see the potential he brings to the next level. The former five-star prospect out of Rockwall, Texas, notched Ohio State records last year with 95 receptions and 1,606 receiving yards (scoring nine touchdowns), ridiculous production that’s even more impressive when you realize he was lining up and playing alongside a pair of early first-round picks in Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave (drafted 10th and 11th, respectively). Smith-Njigba put an exclamation point on his season with 15 catches for 347 receiving yards and three touchdowns in the team’s Rose Bowl win over Utah.

Smith-Njigba isn’t the biggest or fastest player on the field, but he has excellent body control, good acceleration, and sudden-movement skills to pick up yards after the catch (he knows how to use a stiff-arm in space, too). You can see some of those traits in this catch-and-run against Penn State last season: He uses quick footwork to avoid the press, gets into his route, hits the brakes to create separation, and after catching the ball effortlessly turns up field in one fluid motion to break free for a huge gain.

Smith-Njigba is strong at the catch point and shows a knack for catching the ball in traffic. He has incredible ball-tracking skills and knows how to separate late in his route, creating room at the perfect moment. That was apparent from this play at the Rose Bowl.

NFL scouts and decision makers will likely have questions about Smith-Njigba’s top-end speed and average frame, but he’s a smooth, savvy pass catcher with plenty of quickness and body control to separate at all three levels. His production from 2021 speaks for itself. Hopefully he can get onto the field for the Buckeyes soon and continue to build on his already impressive résumé.

Jordan Addison, USC (6-0, 175)

Addison started his college career at Pitt, where he put himself on the national map catching passes from future first-round Steelers pick Kenny Pickett. The former four-star prospect out of Frederick, Maryland, totaled 160 receptions for 2,259 yards and 21 touchdowns over two seasons there, adding 16 carries for 114 yards and a score on the ground. He won the Biletnikoff Award (given to the nation’s top receiver) as a sophomore in 2021 after totaling a mind-blowing 100 catches for 1,593 yards and 17 scores in 14 games. Addison took his talents to USC during the offseason, where he’s wasted little time syncing up with Caleb Williams in Lincoln Riley’s high-octane offense. The junior pass catcher has totaled 21 catches for 337 yards and six touchdowns in four games so far, with his best game coming against Stanford (seven catches for 172 yards and a pair of touchdowns).

Quickness, burst, and after-the-catch creativity are three hallmarks of Addison’s tool set. Those attributes were apparent when he was making plays at Pitt:

And he’s already showing those traits off in cardinal and gold:

Addison is a smooth route runner with excellent acceleration and the type of contact balance that belies his limited size. He regularly spins away from tackle attempts to stay on his feet and is slippery in space, keeping his legs churning to pick up extra yards. He’s a dangerous deep threat with the build-up speed to take the top off a defense. He lets a few passes go off his fingers, but has a large catch radius and shows competitive toughness at the catch point. He plays bigger than his listed height and weight.

Evaluators may have questions about his slender frame, which shows up at times when he’s knocked around early in his routes—but there’s no doubt he has playmaking talent, and he’s on pace to put up big numbers in the Trojans offense this season.

Kayshon Boutte, LSU (6-0, 205)

Boutte’s going to be one of the most interesting prospects to track throughout the season. A former five-star prospect out of New Iberia, Louisiana (the no. 2 receiver in the country and 24th ranked player overall, per 247Sports), he arrived in Baton Rouge facing sky-high expectations—and quickly delivered. He collected 45 catches and a team-high 735 yards as a freshman in 2020 (tallying five touchdowns), capping his season with a 14-catch, 308-yard, three-touchdown day against Ole Miss. Boutte started strong again in 2021, reeling in 38 catches for 508 yards and nine scores in just six games—but a broken ankle ended his season prematurely. His injury didn’t heal properly initially, and he had a second surgery to correct it, extending his rehab and forcing him to miss spring practices. He’s subsequently gotten off to a rough start under new LSU coach Brian Kelly; Boutte scrubbed all mentions of LSU from his social media accounts after the team’s opening loss to Florida State, and on the field he’s caught just 10 passes for 93 yards in three games.

Still, Boutte has time to salvage what’s so far been a disappointing junior campaign. With a thick, muscular build and explosive run-after-the-catch speed, the LSU star is a threat to score from pretty much anywhere on the field. He has the blazing speed (he was a sprinter in high school and ran 20.87 in the 200 meters, which ranked top three nationally at the time) to take crossing routes to the house, and the dynamism to break a few tackles and turn short catches into long plays. He showed off that skill set last year against UCLA.

Yeah, I know he got a little help from an official in the above clip, but Boutte is also technically nuanced as a pass catcher. He shows excellent awareness of the sideline and unflappable concentration to track the ball downfield. This pair of catches against Auburn last season serve as prime examples.

Boutte has special physical traits, but evaluators could have concerns about inconsistencies catching the ball. That said, I can’t wait to see what he’s able to do over the rest of the season for LSU.

Quentin Johnston, TCU (6-4, 215)

Johnston is a former four-star prospect out of Temple, Texas, and boasts the exact type of long, sinewy frame you’d expect a former high school state medalist high jumper and basketball star to have (my first thought was that he reminds me of Sidney Rice). Johnston broke out early for the Horned Frogs, catching 22 passes for 487 yards and two scores as a true freshman. He followed that up with a 33-catch, 634-yard, six-touchdown line in nine games as a sophomore, and while he’s started slowly this year (eight catches for 73 yards in three games), there’s plenty of time for him to finish strong.

Johnston is a bendy and flexible athlete who routinely reaches low or leaps up high to reel in off-target throws. He brings with him a massive catch radius and incredible body control. He’s a long strider with gazelle-like speed and can pick up yards after the catch.

He’s an effective deep option (19.0 career yards per catch average) and is capable of a circus catch, even when double-covered.

Johnston is more than capable of winning jump balls, but he’s a bit inconsistent at the catch point. He has long speed, but his long, lanky frame limits his short area quicks. Johnston’s lack of production this year is a concern (and he’ll surely be connected to TCU’s recent highly drafted busts, Jalen Reagor and Josh Doctson), but it will be interesting to see how he bounces back during the rest of the year.

Josh Downs, North Carolina (5-10, 175)

Downs is fun to watch. An undersized speedster with lightning-quick feet, he’s a former four-star prospect out of Suwanee, Georgia, who dabbled in track as a prep star (finishing third in state in the triple jump, and fourth in the long jump). He’s an explosive, twitched-up athlete who racked up 101 catches for 1,335 yards and eight touchdowns for the Tar Heels in 2021, earning first-team All-ACC honors. He’s missed two games this season after suffering a knee injury against Florida A&M, but he’s still managed 14 catches for 110 yards and four touchdowns in two games of action.

Downs’s short-area quickness and overall suddenness are the first things that stand out. He easily discards coverage and has one of the nastiest whip routes in college football.

He’s also a lid-lifting deep threat and surprisingly competitive at the catch point; despite his lack of size, he’s shown the ability to go up high and pluck the football at the highest point—even when he knows a hit is coming.

Downs is a creator after the catch and blows by defenders with burst and acceleration. He shows a good feel for spacing and finding the soft spot in the zone. Teams will likely have some concerns about his lack of bulk, but Downs makes up for it with blazing speed and short-area elusiveness.

A.T. Perry, Wake Forest (6-5, 205)

I’d contend that scoring touchdowns is an important part of playing football. A.T. Perry seems very good at this particular skill. A former three-star prospect out of Lake Worth, Florida, Perry won first-team All-ACC honors as a redshirt sophomore in 2021, on the back of a 71-catch, 1,293-yard, 15-touchdown performance (tied for third in the FBS). A big-bodied receiver, he brings excellent coordination and ball-tracking skills. He has the foot quickness to get off press and into his route, uses shoulder leans and head fakes to sell routes, and has both legit build-up speed and ability to extend plays after the catch.

Perry has a talent for the circus catch, too. On this walk-off touchdown against Syracuse last year, he showed excellent concentration and Gumby-like bend to reach back and reel in an underthrown ball.

Perry isn’t the most sudden athlete in the short area, but he knows how to use his frame to win at the catch point or separate late. He has tallied 16 catches for 273 yards and two touchdowns in four games this season, including a five-catch, 142-yard, one-touchdown performance against Vanderbilt. He’s a potential sleeper this year and is on my short list for favorite receivers to watch so far.

The Extended Watchlist

Those six receivers are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to prepping for next year’s draft. I’ll be watching along and putting together in-depth breakdowns on the best of the rest of next year’s draft-eligible receivers as the season progresses, but here’s a handful of names to track in the run-up to #draftszn.

Marvin Mims, Oklahoma
Jermaine Burton, Alabama
Dontayvion Wicks, Virginia
Dontay Demus Jr., Maryland
Jayden Reed, Michigan State
Cedric Tillman, Tennessee
Rashee Rice, SMU
Rakim Jarrett, Maryland
Xavier Hutchinson, Iowa State
Zay Flowers, Boston College
Tyler Harrell, Alabama
Bru McCoy, Tennessee
Charlie Jones, Purdue
Ainias Smith, Texas A&M
Chris Autman-Bell, Minnesota
Jacob Cowing, Arizona
Joe Ngata, Clemson
Jalen McMillen, Washington