Ranking the 30 best wide receiver draft prospects of 2017
[Editor’s note: This article was originally published on March 20, 2017, and updated on April 25 to reflect PFF’s final draft board.]
This year’s class of wide receivers has a little bit of everything. While there are three that really stand out ahead of the pack, there are a ton of interesting prospects in the next tier with high potential. A team looking for a slot receiver will have just as much talent to choose from as a team looking for a big outside threat. The following list is PFF’s ranking of the top 30 wide receiver prospects.
Davis has been phenomenally productive over his career at Western Michigan, and will now look to translate that strong play to the NFL. In the three years we’ve graded college football, Davis has finished as a top-10 receiver in every single year. He isn’t the biggest receiver, or the fastest, but he’s one of the most impressive ones because of his fantastic route-running ability and strong hands. Davis does all the little things you want a receiver to do, whether it’s adjusting his routes based on the coverage, using his hands to subtly create separation, or knowing when a big hit is coming and positioning himself to absorb it. While his lack of size and speed may prevent him from being a No. 1 option right away in the NFL, he can instantly contribute as a second option for a team and could very well develop into a high-level No. 1 receiver.
Williams capped off an impressive season with a performance for the ages in the National Championship game, propelling Clemson to the title. That game looked to be a sign of just what kind of weapon Williams could be at the next level. Nobody in this class can win at the catch point better than Williams can. He’s big and strong, has a massive catch radius and really strong hands. All of that combined means that a quarterback needs to just get the ball in his area, and Williams will have a good shot of hauling it in. His 3.35 yards-per-route-run average in 2016 ranked inside the top 10 among all receivers. His lack of high-end speed may be an issue for some teams, but he’s so good at the catch point that it might not matter. Williams should be able to step onto the field in the NFL and contribute instantly as a receiver that you can just throw the ball near and rely on him to make a big play.
After a combine in which he set the record for fastest 40-yard dash (4.22 seconds), there may not be a more talked-about receiver than Ross. When you watch him on tape, the pure speed is instantly evident. Ross can absolutely blow by any corner that stands across from him. But he’s more than just a one-speed deep threat. He has shown he can run both short and intermediate routes, and run them well. Ross makes good, quick breaks and doesn’t slow down or give them away with movement. He has strong hands and rarely drops the ball. Once the ball is in his hands, he can see the field very well and can make defenders miss. The biggest knock on him is his size (5-foot-11, 188 pounds) and an injury history that covers both knees. If he can stay healthy against NFL-sized players, Ross could develop into a true number one option fairly quickly.
Westbrook was one of if not the most productive receiver in college football last season, winning the Biletnikoff Award as well as getting an invite to the Heisman Trophy ceremony as a nominee. While it’s easy to dismiss Westbrook as a product of the wide-open Big 12 offense of Oklahoma, he’s much more than that. Westbrook is more than just fast, he’s incredibly quick out of his breaks and knows how to run every route. He knows how to set up routes with double moves and head fakes, and once he has a step on a defender they probably aren’t catching him. He’s got great hands, and is very impressive after the catch. While on tape he seems to play bigger than he is, his size may force him into the slot early in his NFL career. But watching him play outside, he definitely has the potential to move out there in the future.
Jones has become the epitome of a sure-handed underneath receiver over the past couple years. While the East Carolina wide receiver has amassed an incredible 462 targets over the past three years, he dropped only 17 of his 360 catchable targets. Still, due to coming from a small school and having played against lesser competition, Jones was flying under the radar for quite a while and people have really started talking about him mainly because he surpassed expectations with an impressive week at the Senior Bowl. Although Jones’ play is not necessarily extremely eye-catching, but he can be one of the most useful and reliable members of an offense. Overall, Jones’ production speaks for itself and he could become immensely useful for teams in moving the chains in an unspectacular way.
Godwin’s is a name people have been talking about all draft season as a very intriguing prospect. He was a great deep threat for Penn State mainly because of his ability to win at the catch point. He uses his body well to keep defenders off him and can high point the ball. He’s a solid route-runner with tools to develop further. One of his attributes that NFL teams will like most is his tenacious run-blocking. Godwin was our 10th-highest-graded run-blocker among all college receivers last season. While there are some issues, such as his speed sometimes not showing up on tape and lack of open-field explosiveness, Godwin remains a solid prospect. He should find a role with the team that drafts him and one day may work himself into a consistent role as an intermediate/deep receiving threat.
Even though some expected Taylor’s production to drop off with the departure of Western Kentucky quarterback Brandon Doughty to the NFL, the wideout still had more than 1,700 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns in 2016. Furthermore, Taylor remained the same type of deep threat last season as he led the wide receiver position by a significant margin with his 948 receiving yards on passes that traveled 20 yards or more in the air and was tied with teammate Nicholas Norris for the most touchdown receptions on such passes. In addition, nearly one-third of Taylor’s targets came on post and go routes, which signify his usage in Western Kentucky’s offense and how his speed was put to use by the Hilltoppers. While Taylor may not be as sophisticated route-runner as some others in this year’s class, his speed and ability to take the top off defenses will help him find his way on to the field in the NFL.
One of the most talked-about names in this draft class is Kupp, from FCS school Eastern Washington. While it is true that Kupp dominated teams against which he was clearly athletically superior and far more talented, Kupp cannot be overlooked in this class. He’s an incredibly smart receiver and knows how to break off or adjust his routes depending on what coverage he’s against. He’s not the fastest out there but he uses very good route-running in order to create space to catch the ball with very strong hands. Kupp will be pigeonholed as a slot receiver by many, but he has the size and skills to play outside as well. He averaged 5.11 yards per route run as an outside receiver last season. Kupp is another guy that likely will never be a true No. 1 receiver, but he has the tools and skills to be an effective NFL starter for many years to come.
Hansen was never considered to be an elite or even a much above-average college wide receiver, yet whenever the ball went his way, he kept making plays for Cal in 2016. Even though Hansen does not necessarily have the measurables (6-2, 202 pounds) and ran a 40-yard dash of just 4.53 seconds, he excelled at catching deep passes and winning contested catches last year. Perhaps most impressively, the wide receiver did not drop any of his 16 deep targets at Cal. The fact that he can high-point passes and go up and outmuscle defensive backs for the ball makes him very effective in coming down with contested catches in close coverage. The biggest knock on Hansen is how he was used and the lack of experience he has running different type of routes as he lined up almost exclusively on the right side and 73.6 percent of his targets came on screens, hitches and go routes.
Ford is one of those guys who does a lot of things well, but just doesn’t seem to have enough pieces to be a No. 1 receiver. What he is good at, though, is using his hands while running routes to create separation, which is good because he isn’t really fast enough to separate on speed alone. He’s not the strongest receiver, but he has good body control that allows him to haul in contested catches even when the ball isn’t thrown perfectly. He also has a very good release off the line of scrimmage, which helps him consistently beat press coverage. Ford may not have what it takes to be the No. 1 guy on a team, but he should be able to provide a very valuable complementary role wherever he ends up.
Hollins is a sleeper prospect here with not a lot of college production to back him up. But he’s ranked this high because of what he can do when he’s on the field. At 6-4 and 221 pounds, Hollins is one of the biggest receivers in the class. But he also has phenomenal straightaway speed. He effortlessly blew by defenders throughout his career, evidenced by his 20 career touchdowns on just 71 receptions. Hollins was also a workhorse on special teams, a captain who played on every single unit. There are certainly issues with Hollins, such as a very limited route tree and the mystery about lack of production for a receiver with his tools. But watching his tape you can see that Hollins can play. With the natural size and speed he has, if Hollins can develop his route-running and show the ability to compete in contested catch situations, it’s not such a crazy stretch to say that Hollins has No. 1 receiver potential.
Probably the most exciting college tape of this receiving class belonged to Henderson. In 2016 for Louisiana Tech he forced an insane 48 missed tackles, nearly double the second-most at the position. The one thing that stands out over everything that Henderson does is his vision. Nobody in this class is better with the ball in his hands. Henderson at times looked like he was three steps ahead of the defense, making the exact right cut, hesitation, fake, etc., in order to force a missed tackle or break a small pass into a huge gain. Henderson is raw as a receiver, running very few routes for LA Tech’s offense and showing very little in terms of catching contested passes. But he is a guy you want on your team, simply to get him the ball and let him make plays. If he can develop as a receiver, he has the potential to be one of the best receivers to come out of this class.
Smith-Schuster seemed to have lost some momentum in the draft process after a down year production-wise compared to 2015, but don’t let that fool you. Smith-Schuster is a strong, physical receiver who knows how to use his body to make catches. He’s not the fastest or quickest receiver by any means, but he does run some routes well enough to get open. Once the ball is in his hands he’s hard to bring down, especially by smaller secondary defenders. Smith-Schuster is the kind of guy who loves underthrown deep balls, because it allows him the chance to get under it and high point the ball over a defender. He still needs to get more consistent at those contested catch situations, but his size and hands should help him there. Smith-Schuster may never be more than a good second option receiver but in today’s pass-happy NFL, that is something a lot of teams should covet.
Another under-the-radar prospect in this draft is Alabama’s Stewart. He never really had the production level of the top receivers, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t skilled. Stewart is a guy who should be able to jump right in and contribute in some way as an NFL receiver. Stewart has solid speed and acceleration, wasting no time in getting up to top speed. His after-the-catch ability is among the best in this class, and the reason that Alabama used him on jet sweeps as often as they did. Stewart knows how to read zones and is very good at finding holes in them for his quarterback to make a big throw. One issue with Stewart is that he has played almost exclusively against zone defenses, and there’s reason to think he’ll struggle early on against man coverage. But he’s a great mid-round option for any receiver-needy team.
For a team needing a deep-threat receiver, Reynolds might be just the ticket. He’s a long strider and has good straightline speed that allows him to separate from defenders. He’s great at tracking the ball in the air and has very strong hands. Reynolds may be the best end-zone fade route-runner in this entire class. With his combination of size, hands, jumping, and timing, he should be able to fill that role immediately in the NFL. Because of his long stride speed he’ll likely never develop into much of an underneath receiver. But if he works on his route running and gets a little stronger, there’s a good chance he could develop a strong intermediate game to add to his already impressive deep threat ability.
Taylor will find a role as a slot receiver right out of the gate thanks to his high-level quickness and incredible hands. His 3.28 yards per route run out of the slot last year was the second-most in the country. He knows how to get open against different coverages and that will be a huge advantage for him at the next level.
Carr was incredibly productive last season, finishing as our highest-graded receiver at 89.5 overall. He runs smart routes out of the slot and has good hands to finish with. He could develop into a reliable security blanket for an NFL QB much like he was with Northwestern last year. QB Clayton Thorson had a rating of 118.6 when targeting Carr and 77.6 when targeting any other receiver.
Cannon is another Baylor receiver that’s more athlete than finished receiving product at this point. His speed and acceleration are very impressive, but his lack of a route tree may hold him back a bit. He’s very good at what he does run, though, as evidenced by his 2.72 yards per route run last season, 22nd-most among all FBS receivers.
Zamora is essentially a Josh Gordon clone, with nearly identical size, athleticism and ability. Whether he can reach his potential, though, remains to be seen. Zamora has very inconsistent hands and doesn’t run many routes, but his size, speed, and strength make him one of the highest-ceiling receivers in the class. Baylor QBs had a rating of 106.6 when targeting him last year.
Malone is young, which works in his favor, as there is still much to his game that needs to improve. But with good deep speed and strong hands with a big catch radius, he could make an impact immediately while continuing to grow down the road. Last year, Tennessee QBs had a rating of 144.4 when targeting Malone, the highest mark in the SEC.
Darboh is a nice prospect because he offers a full route-tree in a pro-style offense and is a very good run blocker. He lacks high-level athleticism, but does have some speed and can make contested catches over the middle. He also can make defenders miss, forcing 17 missed tackles over his past two seasons.
Dupre has deep speed to go along with 6-foot-4 height, which makes him an intriguing prospect. He lacks a big route-tree but he can still take the top off any defense. If he can improve on some of the more technical aspects of a being a receiver, he could develop into a solid wideout. Dupre gained more than 43 percent of his yards the past two seasons on deep receptions.
Switzer is a nice mid-round prospect for a team in need of a slot receiver. He has impressive footwork and his quickness is high-level, meaning he can reach top speed almost immediately out of his breaks. He also has consistent hands — a necessity for slot receivers. He averaged 2.73 yards per route run out of the slot last season, 11th in the NCAA.
Gentry is an underrated prospect who had some very impressive tape at Wyoming. He has a very large catch radius and hands strong enough to make some circus catches. He’s very physical at the catch point, which will help at the next level. He can be a deep threat out of the gate, as his 49 deep targets last year were the most among all FBS receivers.
Brown is a tough receiver to project, as he saw just 50 targets in his entire career at Ohio State. Still, in those limited opportunities he showed big-play potential thanks to his ability to make spectacular catches and strong physicality at the catch point. He’s also a very impressive run blocker, (71.9 run-blocking grade, 16th among receivers that played at least 200 snaps), which will help him at the next level.
Robinette is an intriguing project at receiver in this draft, as his numbers at Air Force were very solid. He averaged 5.48 yards per route run, which was more than a yard better than the second-best receiver. Still, much of that had to do with the offense, and Robinette lacks speed and quickness to separate against NFL receivers. That said, he has tools that NFL teams will look at with a later pick.
Chesson has a big frame and knows how to use it to his advantage at the catch point. Unfortunately he doesn’t have a high ceiling, and may max out as a player who can move the chains with a few catches a game against zone coverage. He has solid hands, only dropping two passes last season.
Patrick is an extremely raw route-runner that will need to improve if he wants to succeed at the next level. He can still offer vertical-threat ability for an NFL team, though, as he’s got the speed to get behind defenders and a huge catch radius that allows him to make receptions even if he doesn’t separate. Over a third of his targets last season (34.1 percent) came on deep passes.
Marks had fantastic production at Washington State, but he is more than just a product of that system. He’s a great route runner who knows how to attack at all levels of the field. He’s likely not fast or strong enough to play outside consistently, but his quick footwork and strong hands should do well in the slot. Over the past two seasons, Washington State QBs have a rating of 119.8 when targeting Marks.
Although Dural showed off his athletic ability at LSU, he was never able to put up big numbers due to the Tigers’ inept passing game. However, he became a reliable target last season, as he did not drop any of his 28 catchable targets in 2016.
Best hands: Zay Jones, East Carolina
Jones had some issues with drops in 2014, but has really cleaned it up since then. In 2015 and 2016, Jones saw a combined 265 catchable passes and dropped just nine of them (3.40 drop rate). He also has an impressive catch radius for his size, and should be used as a consistent safety valve for any team’s quarterback in the NFL. Anyone who watched him at the Senior Bowl knows how impressive his hands are.
Best route runner: Corey Davis, Western Michigan
Davis isn’t the fastest guy on the field, but he gets separation by running very good routes. Whether it’s shallow, intermediate or deep, Davis knows how to run them all. But it’s not just the routes, but the small things he does while running them. Whether it’s head fakes, double moves, or subtle hand usage to get separation, Davis can do it all.
Best in contested situations: Mike Williams, Clemson
The first of three easy superlative selections, Williams is far and away the best contested catch receiver in this class. Just watch the national championship game for proof. His combination of size and strength are hard for any defender to overcome. He’s got strong hands and knows how to play the ball perfectly even when it’s not quite on target. He’s also shown he can take a hit and still hold on to the ball.
Best deep speed: John Ross, Washington
This was the easiest of all these superlatives. Everyone knew Ross was fast going into the NFL combine, but he shattered expectations by breaking the 40-yard dash record with a time of 4.22. That’s a speed that translates on tape, as he’ll be five steps past a defender seemingly only 20 yards downfield at times. The biggest thing to watch out for with Ross is that he doesn’t overrun his QB’s throw distance limit, which happened several times at Washington with Jake Browning.
Best after the catch: Carlos Henderson, Louisiana Tech
Any time you force 48 missed tackles as a receiver, heads should turn. That’s what Henderson did last year, showing incredible vision when it came to reading the field and knowing where to go. Henderson just seemed to be a step ahead of everyone else whenever he caught the ball. He’d make the perfect juke at the perfect time, power through a defender when he needed to. He just seemed to know exactly where to go and when to go there to maximize his yards after the catch.
Best downfield threat: Dede Westbrook, Oklahoma
This was a tough one, but Westbrook’s combination of skills and abilities put him at the top of this for us. He’s really fast and can burn guys deep when he needs to. But he’s also got quick cuts and incredible double moves, shaking some players out of their cleats at times last year. He plays bigger than he is and has shown the ability to go up and win tough contested catches. He may not be the fastest or the biggest and strongest, but his combination of everything makes him a huge downfield threat.