Now that the NFL combine has passed, we have a plethora of new athletic data on this upcoming rookie class. That information can be applied to athletic models and used to shape out the full portfolio for prospects to go along with production profiles, which is a general overlay of what these players put on tape for NFL teams.
With that, we’re laying out the positional rankings for each position pre-NFL Draft from a fantasy stance. Yesterday, we started with the tight end position. The WRs 11-20, and WRs 21-55 segments can be found in those links. You can also find the rest of the rookie rankings and all other 2020 rankings for seasonal and dynasty formats as they arrive in our 2020 rankings hub as they arrive and are updated throughout the offseason.
For purposes of having the most information, these early ranks will cover only the players invited to the combine at each position. Although I do models for each of the skill positions and will share the ranks for the players in those models, my personal ranks don’t strictly follow those models linearly. I use the prospect models in a similar fashion as I do projection models for the NFL season. We’re looking for immediate market inefficiencies in leagues where we’re drafting rookie prior to the actual NFL draft.
Athletic testing has low correlation to actual fantasy output and when it does, it’s typically counted twice from a very productive player in the first place. But when a prospect has subpar athletic testing paired with a limited or nonexistent production resume, then we’re playing with fire when attempting elevate or count on that player for NFL production. Athletic testing doesn’t go heavily into the model, but when discussing a physical profile for wide receiver, we’re looking at weight-adjusted speed, explosion, and agility.
When discussing player breakout age in production, I use the first season in which a wideout accounted for a 20% dominator rating (the percentage of the teams receiving production that player accounted for). I’ve longed worked with dominator rating from my days at RotoViz, but if you want to read a few more pieces on the importance of it, Ben Gretch at CBS has a post on age-adjusted production with multiple links to other pieces of work covering the subject.
With that in hand, I will be bringing things up for production within the context of age and if a player was an early declare or not, which we’ll discuss further in an upcoming post once we get the rankings hub all squared away.
Post-draft we’ll have the added influence of draft investment and landing spot to add to the layout. Those two components carry the most influence in predicting immediate player usage, especially at wide receiver. So things will be shaken up a bit come April and we will revisit both ranks and adjust accordingly.
This wide receiver class lacks a Calvin Johnson-esque alpha wide receiver prospect a the top, but this class is littered with strong options anticipated to be selected early in this spring’s draft. Everyone has their favorite flavor of wideout in this class, so this is the position where we’ll see the most variance amongst analysts in ranks for rookie drafts once we clear top few names of the position.
2020 Pre-draft Rookie Wide Receiver Rankings
1. CeeDee Lamb, Oklahoma, Final Year Age: 20.8 (Model Rank WR2): Lamb’s resume is top-notch and he produced at a young age. In three years at Oklahoma he accounted for 3,292 receiving yards and 32 touchdowns. His 19.0 yards per reception over his collegiate career is the highest among wideouts in this class. At age-19 in 2018, Lamb posted 65-1,1158-11 playing alongside the top wide receiver selected in the NFL Draft, Marquise Brown. In 2019, Lamb led all wideouts in touchdowns from outside of the red zone (nine) while finishing third in yards per team pass attempt (3.48 yards) among wideouts in this draft class. Averaging 9.2 yards after the catch over the past two seasons and ranking second in forced missed tackles for all wideouts a year ago, Lamb is a playmaker with the football and has a sprinkling of return usage with 475 career punt return yardage.
2. Jerry Jeudy, Alabama, FY Age: 20.8 (MR WR3): Jeudy tallied 1,315 and 1,163 receiving yards to go along with 14 and 10 touchdown catches in the SEC at ages 19 and 20. He has versatility with over 300 routes run from the slot in each of the past three seasons while still averaging over 15.0 yards per catch in each of those seasons. Jeudy played in a crowded pass-catching corps, but still averaged 2.86 yards per team pass attempt, which ranked seventh in this class. The one knock on Jeudy was that he was anticipated to be more explosive at the combine, but the production and level of competition speaks for itself. Jeudy registered a 22nd percentile physical profile score. Expected to be a top-15 pick in this class, Jeudy would just be the second wide receiver selected in the first round with a physical score below 25% over the past decade. The other was someone he played behind in 2017, Calvin Ridley.
3. Justin Jefferson, LSU, FY Age: 20.6 (MR WR1): Jefferson had a monster 2019 campaign (111-1,540-18) that was aided by playing in the best passing game in the nation. While that environment boosted his total line, Jefferson still accounted for 29.5% of the LSU receiving yards and 35.2% of the team receiving touchdowns at age 19 in 2018. He showed he can win outside as he played primarily outside in that 2018 season (19.1% slot rate) while playing heavily inside this past season (78.0% slot rate per Pro Football Focus). The model loves Jefferson for being hyper-productive as the second-youngest wideout in this class, but also that he tested out as a better measurable athlete than both Lamb and Jeudy at a higher weight than both. Jefferson scored in the 61st percentile in physical profile. With a first-round investment this April, Jefferson could be the safest bet to make in this class.
4. Henry Ruggs, Alabama, FY Age: 21.0 (MR WR11): Here’s where we get into out first pushback in ranking versus the model. I’m anticipating Ruggs to be selected in the first round of this upcoming draft and I believe he’ll even be selected ahead of Jefferson. We know the NFL pays the cost for speed and Ruggs’s 4.27 40-yard time paired with a 96th percentile explosion score (vert + broad) is going to carry a lot of allure for teams. The intersection of his athleticism and lack of production is where the difference is the question at hand. Despite his physical gifts, Ruggs’s best collegiate totals were 46 receptions and 746 yards through the air. Even accounting for a stellar Alabama receiving unit top-to-bottom, his production profile is extremely light. Despite his speed, Ruggs wasn’t the Alabama wideout getting downfield targets, posting an 11.7-yard average depth of target with just four catches on throws 20-plus yards downfield per Pro Football Focus. To me, that’s a positive in the subjective support he’s getting as a better all-around receiver than he’s credited for over just being the fastest man on the field. But even with the small sample, Ruggs’s rate stats are strong, catching 70.5% of his collegiate targets for 17.9 yards per catch while 24.5% of his career receptions went for a touchdown, the highest rate in this draft class.
5. Tee Higgins, Clemson, FY Age: 21.0 (MR WR7): Higgins is young and productive, matching the Clemson record with 27 career touchdown receptions. 20.0% of his career catches resulted in touchdowns. Higgins doesn’t have the versatility of the previous wideouts, profiling as a primary boundary/downfield target while playing just 8.3% of his collegiate snaps in the slot. But at 6’4” and 216 pounds, that size and career-boundary production are going to get him selected highly this April. His usage could create variance at the next level if the separation concerns some have with him hold true. It’s something Higgins didn’t alleviate at the combine when he declined to participate in drills until his pro day, but at worst, Higgins projects to be a touchdown producer at the next level.
6. Denzel Mims, Baylor, FY Age: 22.3 (MR WR6): Perhaps no wideout has done more for his stock since the end of the season than Mims has after he registered a 92nd percentile physical score at the combine at 6’3” and 207 pounds after garnering buzz at the Senior Bowl. But Mims’s production resume was already strong, accounting for over 20% of the Baylor receiving yardage and over 9.0 yards per target in each of the past three seasons. The only thing Mims gets docked a bit for is being a non-early declare among the previous prospects and being older than the rest of the top of the position.
7. Jalen Reagor, TCU, FY Age: 21.1 (MR WR9): After an impressive 2018 season (71-1,040-9), Reagor’s 2019 production took a nosedive (43-611-5) as the team transitioned to freshman quarterback Max Duggan. Reagor received just 88 targets after 131 in 2018. Only 30.7% of those 2019 targets were deemed catchable per Pro Football Focus. But in context of that miserable passing game, Reagor still accounted for 20.4% of the TCU receptions, 25.0% of their receiving yards, and 33.3% of their receiving scores. Over his past three seasons, Reagor caught 39.3% of the TCU passing scores. He also has a strong return pedigree, averaging 17.8 yards per punt return and 24.2 yards per kickoff return over his career. My fear with Reagor at the NFL level is that he’s going to be more of a home run threat over a complete wideout. At 6’1” and 206 pounds at the combine, Reagor notched an amazing 98th percentile explosion score and a strong 66th percentile speed score, but just an eighth percentile agility mark.
8. Brandon Aiyuk, Arizona State, FY Age: 21.9 (MR WR13): The model discounts Aiyuk’s later collegiate breakout and non-early declare draft status in comparison to the field, but playing alongside target-hog N’Keal Harry in 2018 as a JUCO transfer will limit opportunities. Aiyuk broke out is a big way this past season with 65 catches (27.9%), 1,1192 yards (36.9%), and eight touchdowns (38.1%) after Harry left the program. Aiyuk (6’0”, 205) is strong after the catch (10.9 YAC in 2019) to go along with a stellar return resume, averaging a robust 31.9 yards per kickoff return and 16.1 yards per punt return this past season.
9. Laviska Shenault, Colorado, FY Age: 21.3 (MR WR12): Shenault is one of the most popular players that I subjectively struggle with and believe he has one of the widest range of outcomes in this class. Shenault’s production was buried this season under new offensive coordinator Jay Johnson. After 103 touches (86-1,011-11 receiving) for 1,126 yards in just nine games in 2018, Shenault managed just 79 touches (56-794-4 receiving) for 925 yards and six scores in 11 games this past season. At 6’1”, 227 pounds, Shenault has one of the more alluring potential alpha-WR builds in this class, but enters the NFL more playmaker with the ball than without it. He carried 42 times for 280 yards and seven touchdowns over his career and has forced the most missed tackles of any wideout in this class over the past two seasons. But just 6.7% of his career receptions resulted in a touchdown, which ranks 51st out of these initial 55 wideouts we’re ranking. Shenault also carries a red flag in terms of injury history. Already scheduled for surgery for a core injury he had during the combine, Shenault has also missed time over the past three seasons with toe and shoulder surgeries to go along with the rare (but impressive) inflammation of the pubic bone.
10. Tyler Johnson, Minnesota, FY Age: 21.4 (MR WR5): Johnson is some kind of conundrum. On one hand, his career production is nearly unparalleled in this class. At age-19 in 2017, Johnson had over 30% of the Minnesota receptions, yardage, and touchdowns through the air. He then followed that up with seasons of 78-1,169-12 and 86-1,318-13 while leading all wideouts in this class in yards per team pass attempt in 2019 (4.08). In 2019, Johnson was the only wide receiver to account for 40% of all of his team’s receptions, yards, and touchdowns. But Johnson never declared early after a strong 2018 and is receiving little to no recognition among the scouting community and those wired into the NFL perception of him. Johnson then didn’t do anything to help his cause since the season ended, foregoing the Senior Bowl and then opting out of doing any physical drills at the combine.