The 2014 class of wide receivers is considered by some to perhaps be the best we've ever seen. The draft has a potential "generational, elite" prospect at the top, a big and elite receiver right behind him, a player that was seen as a potential top-three pick a year ago, another that is built in the mold of Tavon Austin, and perhaps still as many as 10 more that could be viewed as future "number one options" down the line if everything breaks right.
Given the league's continually growing propensity for the pass, there's no reason to think we won't have at least a half-dozen future fantasy stars in the mix, with perhaps a record number of them going in the first round.
Here's a closer look at just some of those names, where they might land, and what you could possibly expect from them in 2014. I used Dan Kadar's (SB Nation's Mocking the Draft) wide receiver rankings as a guide, but nobody really knows how this draft is going to fall.
1. Sammy Watkins, Clemson
6'1, 211 lbs, 4.43 (40-yard dash), 6.95 (3-cone)
2013 stats: 101 catches, 1,464 yards, 12 touchdowns
Watkins' 240 career catches is the second-most in ACC history, despite him only playing three seasons and having a sophomore slump following a May 2012 arrest that caused him to be suspended for two games. The top receiver recruit in the nation out of high school, Watkins was named an AP first-team All-American as a true freshman. The only other three people to do that in NCAA history:
That's the type of company that Watkins keeps on an athletic level. There are few receivers in history that come into the draft with this much hype, and that leaves a lot of room for him to fall before he could fail. It doesn't mean that it's impossible, as every prospect ever comes with some risk.
Keyshawn Johnson was good, not great.
Charles Rogers was derailed early and permanently by injuries.
Braylon Edwards' biggest flaw, his ability to catch the ball, was too big of a flaw.
Watkins' biggest flaw is that he may not be overpowering like Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald and he's still 2-3 inches shorter than A.J. Green and Andre Johnson. Receivers of Watkins' size aren't often drafted in the top five, but that hardly means he can't be great.
Projected landing spot: Jacksonville Jaguars
It's far from out of the question that, like Holt, the Rams could take Watkins. If they can't find a trading partner to move down, then it may be a choice between Watkins or tackle Greg Robinson. If Watkins does make it past the second pick, it would be hard to see the Jags passing on him when he'd immediately be their number one receiver, take pressure off Cecil Shorts, and allow the team to move on from Justin Blackmon, if necessary.
The Jags would likely take a QB in the early second round, or trade up into the back of the first, and then those two players could have all summer to get comfortable with each other. Either way, you don't need a good team or a good QB to put up huge receiving numbers. Just ask Josh Gordon.
In fact, top elite receivers are often picking up the slack for everyone else. (Andre Johnson, Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, AJ Green, etc.)
The furthest that Watkins could possibly fall is five to the Raiders. There's no way that Watkins makes it out of the top five. And since teams are passing more and more, and receivers are getting more quickly acclimated to the pro level, he should be an elite fantasy option by 2015. He should still be a worthy draft choice in 2014 fantasy drafts, as well. Most likely as a low-end WR2, high-end WR3.
2. Mike Evans, Texas A&M
6'5, 231 lbs, 4.53, 7.08
2013 stats: 69 catches, 1,394 yards, 12 touchdowns
For players like Evans, 4.4 speed isn't really necessary if you're 6'5. Whereas "overpowering" corners won't be as necessary for Watkins, Evans comes in as the big receiver who will use his size to make difficult catches over smaller cornerbacks. While Watkins is the consensus number one prospect at the position, some teams may actually prefer the size and physicality of Evans.
Evans led the SEC in touchdown catches last year, despite not playing football until his senior year of high school. The former basketball star had one redshirt year at A&M before dominating the last two seasons. Some say he's the biggest reason that Johnny Manziel is even as successful and popular as he is.
Could he do the same thing for an NFL quarterback?
Projected landing spot: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
This might be the lowest that Evans gets picked. If the Rams (or a team that trades up to two) take Watkins, then the Jaguars, Browns, and Raiders are all feasible landing spots for Evans. He'd be the top threat on Jacksonville or Oakland, or just a nightmare pairing opposite of Gordon in Cleveland.
But with the Bucs getting rid of their big receiver, Mike Williams, it makes perfect sense to take Evans and have him bullying corners opposite of Vincent Jackson next year. Frankly, the Bucs' passing game right now looks like a potential nightmare.
Josh McCown is the QB and his receiving options after Jackson are nil. The Bucs may go with another need here (they have a few) and wait until the second round to take a receiver, but if Evans is here, they probably shouldn't let him go by.
He may need a bit more time to acclimate himself to the NFL, but should be a good option in 2014 and possibly a great one for the next 10 years.
3. Marqise Lee, USC
6', 192 lbs, 4.52, N/A
2013 stats: 57 catches, 791 yards, four touchdowns
Get into the NFL draft while the getting is good. Had Lee been eligible for the 2013 draft, he likely would've been a top five (or top three) pick. He was coming off a monster 118-catch, 1,721 yards, 14 touchdowns season with USC, but after his buddies Robert Woods and Matt Barkley left, his production dropped dramatically.
Posting a 4.52 40 in the combine doesn't help and while some may still view Lee as an elite receiver option, others feel he could drop to the bottom of the first round. How the drafting of receivers goes after the top two is anyone's guess.
Projected landing spot: New York Jets
The addition of Eric Decker sets the table on one side for New York, but its passing game last year was so atrocious that Decker alone won't change much. While Stephen Hill could get better, Jeremy Kerley could rebound, and FA addition Jacoby Ford could stay healthy, that's a lot of "coulds" for an offense that could not do anything last year.
The Jets seem to favor "big name" players, and Lee was one of the biggest names in college football in 2012. Even with Michael Vick in tow, the Jets probably won't be especially pass-heavy in 2014. Still, a rookie like Lee could have a few big games next season, whether it's for New York or someone else.
Even another team in "New York," the Giants, would also be a possible landing spot.
4. Odell Beckham Jr., LSU
5'11, 198 lbs, 4.43, 6.69
2013 stats: 59 catches, 1,152 yards, eight touchdowns
Playing opposite of another LSU receiver that should hear his name called by day two (Jarvis Landry), Beckham had a career season in 2013. In fact, his yardage total was only 36 yards shy of his first two seasons combined. He's entering the draft at just the right time, and could be a top-15 pick.
He's a playmaker who also has handled punt and kickoff return duties, and could provide that edge for any team that drafts him. It could give him added value in 2013, if he becomes a full-time special teams player as he acclimates to a pro offense.
Projected landing spot: Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers have a star receiver in Antonio Brown, but they now need to replace Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery. Pittsburgh signed Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey, but that's probably not enough. Beckham would be an excellent third receiver in 2014, though his fantasy production might not come until later.
He'd be in a pretty good situation with Ben Roethlisberger as his QB. Much better than whoever lands on Cleveland, perhaps.
5. Brandin Cooks, Oregon State
5'10, 189 lbs, 4.33, 6.76
2013 stats: 128 catches, 1,730 yards, 16 touchdowns
The speed (second-fastest at this year's combine after Dri Archer) is nice, but let's not forget the NCAA-leading yardage, either. Much like how Evans has the size but not the speed, Cooks has the speed but not the size.
And both can be highly successful.
We've seen small, shifty, speedy players succeed at high levels in the NFL, and we have no reason yet to suspect that Cooks can't be one of these guys. He could even replace a similar player who was just released this year in the East.
Projected landing spot: Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles couldn't receive anything for DeSean Jackson in trade, but they could potentially get another high-impact playmaker with their first round pick. While there's always a risk to players with slighter frames, there's also a chance that Cooks is the steal of the first round, especially in Chip Kelly's offense.
If Cooks (or any other receiver for that matter) becomes Philly's first-round pick, he'd likely be ranked third for fantasy rookie wide receivers. There's a major hole left in the offense for someone to come in and pick up 1,000 receiving yards next season. The return of Jeremy Maclin probably won't be enough to fill all those yards alone, and that's only if he's healthy. Cooks should have an impact on a team from day one, though as we saw with Tavon Austin last year, it can still take some time to develop any consistency.
6. Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt
6'3, 212 lbs, 4.46, 6.95
2013 stats: 112 catches, 1,477 yards, seven touchdowns
Matthews is one of the few receivers on this list to play four seasons of college football, and he finishes his career first in SEC history in catches and yards. That is certainly impressive, but it's also important to note that great players in SEC history rarely stay for four years. That's probably why receivers from Vanderbilt are all over the career records.
Names like Earl Bennett, Keith Edwards, Boo Mitchell, and Dan Stricker are all top 20 in career catches in the SEC. That would make Bennett as the only player to actually play in the NFL after college, and his career hasn't been much to write about on fantasy websites. Is Matthews more special than the rest?
Projected landing spot: Cleveland Browns
If the Browns pass on a receiver with the fourth pick, they could still land one with pick 26 or in the second round, and they'll almost certainly do that. They don't have much after Jordan Cameron and Gordon. While it may not be Matthews, it will certainly be somebody, and Matthews makes as much sense as anyone else.
This is where it gets tricky for projections, but it seems like a good bet that at least 10-12 receivers will be gone by the end of round two. It really just depends on if teams feel like the deep class means they can wait until round two, or that they need to make sure they get one of the good ones by round one.
For a guy like Matthews to earn third-option behind Cameron and Gordon, he could be in line for 40-50 catches and 600+ yards as a rookie. And that's probably on the high-end, but not impossible.
7. Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State
6'5, 240 lbs, 4.61, 7.33
2013 stats: 54 catches, 1,011 yards, 15 touchdowns
You've seen big, now take a look at bigger.
At 6'5, 240, Benjamin can bully his way into some important red zone catches, but that also means there's a high probability that he won't ever be a star fantasy receiver. Typically, guys this size have their moments, but few of them seem to be consistent 1,000-yard threats every year.
There seem to be a lot of holes in Benjamin's game, from route-running to speed to catching passes, but there's also a chance that he has a few really high-impact seasons. He could possibly catch 10-12 touchdowns a few times in his career.
Projected landing spot: New York Giants
Assuming the Giants don't take a receiver in the first round (or assuming that they don't take Benjamin that early), why not Benjamin in the second? They need more help in that area and while Victor Cruz can be the deep threat, Benjamin could be more of a red zone, first down option.
With a veteran quarterback throwing to him and a solid receiver opposite of him, if Benjamin landed with the Giants, he might have a few good games in 2014. But overall, he's still very much a work in progress.
8. Cody Latimer, Indiana
6'3, 215 lbs, 4.52, N/A
2013 stats: 73 catches, 1,096 yards, nine touchdowns
Though he only ran a 4.52 at the combine, Latimer has been the biggest riser on mock drafts over the last month or so. That's because he ran reportedly as fast as 4.39 at his pro day and had been recovering from a foot injury dating back to last year. He also did 23 reps on the bench, more than any other receiver.
If Latimer is really a 215-pound receiver who can run a sub-4.4, that's something special. And it's why it seems unlikely that he'll get past the Seahawks at 32, if he even fell that far, which he probably won't.
Projected landing spot: New Orleans Saints
There's Marques Colston, of course, but Darren Sproles is gone. Lance Moore is gone. Kenny Stills and Robert Meachem each had more than 20 yards per catch last season, but it's possible neither can be an every-down starter. Who else will be the consistent threat to simply make the first down catch? If they can add one of those to Graham and Colston, Brees could break all the records that Peyton Manning broke a year ago.
Latimer could definitely fit the bill and if he did go to New Orleans, he might be third or fourth on the rookie WR big board. Maybe higher.
9. Davante Adams, Fresno State
6'1, 212 lbs, 4.56, 6.82
2013 stats: 131 catches, 1,718 yards, 24 touchdowns
If you like ridiculous stats, then maybe Adams is your guy. With only two seasons of play, Adams finishes his career sixth all-time in catches in Mountain West history. Other receivers to come out of the MWC are Austin Collie, Vincent Brown, and Malcom Floyd. Can Adams be better than those guys, or are his stats simply a byproduct of the Fresno State offense?
He was only one of three players on the Bulldogs to go over 1,000 yards last year, along with Josh Harper and Isaiah Burse. His 40 time isn't impressive, but actually his three-cone is pretty good. Some people actually prefer the three-cone drill over the straight 40. He was slightly faster at his pro day, with some saying he got under 4.5.
He could be anywhere from late first to late second.
Projected landing spot: San Diego Chargers
They had no problem with Brown and Floyd, why not dip again into the MWC pool? The Chargers need receiver help, too, and Adams could thrive as the third or fourth option in another high-passing offense. There's little guarantee that Floyd will be healthy or that Brown will improve. It'd be worth adding Adams as a possible third threat after Keenan Allen and Antonio Gates.
He'd be an interesting rookie fantasy choice, but possibly not one worth drafting.
10. Donte Moncrief, Ole Miss
6'2, 221 lbs, 4.40, 7.02
2013 stats: 59 catches, 938 yards, six touchdowns
Even all the way down the list this far, some would say that Moncrief could be as good as anyone in this draft. He didn't put up the eye-popping numbers in college as his competitors did, but he's been described as having the ability of a small and shifty player in a big player's body. That's pretty much exactly what you'd ask for in a number one threat.
But will his ability translate to big numbers at the next level?
Projected landing spot: Carolina Panthers
The Panthers don't necessarily need to draft a receiver in the first round (though Moncrief may also grade as a first rounder to them or someone else) and they also might even double-up on the position in the first three rounds.
It really just depends on who is available to them in the first, and if someone like Brandin Cooks falls to them, maybe that's who they grab. Or maybe Latimer. It really just depends but Moncrief, and even others not in this list, could all be upgrades and possibly immediate starts for the Panthers.
'Opportunity' does not mean 'production,' but there's going to be plenty of opportunity for any rookie receiver drafted by Carolina.
And the receivers that for whatever reason aren't on this list:
There's probably even some more receivers that I didn't list that should be offended. It's a ridiculously deep and talented class of receivers, and out of the top 20, it's possible that 8-10 of them become really good players in fantasy. That's actually an extremely high number for just one class of receivers. At least 10 of them should go in the first two rounds, and it's possible that seven or eight are gone on Thursday.
In a league passing as much as the one we see today, it could be a banner year for rookie receivers as well.