2014 NFL Draft: Highlighting the Top 10 Wide Receivers

Matt MillerNFL Draft Lead WriterFebruary 5, 2014

2014 NFL Draft: Highlighting the Top 10 Wide Receivers

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    RICHARD SHIRO/Associated Press

    In today's NFL, to have a truly great offense, you need great wide receivers. Period.

    They are the soul-crushers of a defense and the chess pieces for offensive coordinators to make or break each week. They're game-changers. They're playmakers. They're the guys for whom your defensive coordinator stays up all night scheming, trying to find a way to shut down a 6'5", 230-pound nightmare with 4.4 speed. 

    In the 2014 draft class, there is a lot to like at wide receiver: speed, size, a little of both, a lot of both and everything in between. The best receiver in this class isn't 5'9" and a player for whom you must scheme touches.

    No, the best players in this class demand the ball. They go for it. 

    What do scouts want from a wide receiver? Speed—a lot of it—but also the strength to outposition defenders for the ball. They want that Calvin Johnson or Julio Jones build. They want Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery going up to high-point the ball. They want Dez Bryant's strength before and after the catch. They want A.J. Green's route running.

    Want to scout receivers? Our "How to Scout" series breaks it all down.

    But if you just want to sit back and enjoy great football, these 10 wide receivers in the draft are a fine place to start.

10. Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State

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    Boom or bust: That's Kelvin Benjamin. The Florida State redshirt sophomore enters the 2014 NFL draft with the size and speed that NFL teams want, but his inconsistency as a pass-catcher and his limited route tree leave big question marks on his scouting report. 

    Before the combine, he is a tough player to grade. Based on his on-film traits, you'd think he's a third-round pick. But when you look at his eye-popping potential, he's a top-15 player. Where he's drafted may fall somewhere in the middle, but in a height, weight and speed league, Benjamin's length and strength are attractive.

    As a longtime NFL scout once told me, you can't coach size. And at 6'5" and 234 pounds, Benjamin is almost a tight end, but he moves with the grace of a wide receiver. If he can be coached up and become more consistent on easy pitch-and-catch plays, he has the tools to be a dominant NFL wide receiver.

9. Davante Adams, Fresno State

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    Just a redshirt sophomore when he left Fresno State this season, wide receiver Davante Adams is a mixture of immediate impact and long-term projection. That means what you get can ultimately be in question, but his athleticism and existing talents are impressive.

    He has the size and speed to be a factor on the outside, and he uses both well to set up defenders and attack. At 6'2" and with a solid 212-pound frame, he won't get pushed around coming off the line of scrimmage and is positioned well to compete against the trendy press Cover 3 defenses we're seeing in the NFL.

    There will be questions about whether Adams is a system wide receiver, or if quarterback Derek Carr made him look better than he is. But the film doesn't lie, and it shows Adams as being a high-talent player with NFL readiness. In a draft class with less top-end talent, he'd rank much higher than this.

8. Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt

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    The only wide receiver on this list to use all of his college eligibility, Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews is the rare senior on the top-10 list. He's earned his placement here.

    Matthews has the profile of a starting NFL wide receiver as he leaves the SEC. He has the size, hands, enough speed in the open field and an impressive route tree that allows him to separate from coverage using a variety of tools. He is a finished product, which, in a class dominated by underclassmen, might be the best compliment you can give him.

    When you look at the game film, you see a player with the ideal metrics and production to compete in the NFL. The only question mark is whether he'll be able to show up as well against NFL-level defenders. But based on his career at Vanderbilt and a strong week at the Senior Bowl, it's safe to bet on Matthews being a contributor early in his pro career.

7. Jarvis Landry, LSU

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    LSU's Jarvis Landry may not look like much of a threat at 6'1" and 195 pounds, but when you turn on the game film, you'll see a playmaker who consistently attacks the defense.

    He is a tough player to defend. He has the smooth steps to beat a defender off the line of scrimmage and make plays, but he's also fast enough to turn on the jets and accelerate away from coverage. Put a body on him, and he's tough enough to make the play in traffic.

    A top-notch athlete, Landry has a variety of ways to beat you in coverage.

    Where does he need to improve? He has to show that he's able to master a route tree. Too often he was limited at LSU, but that could have been more so due to scheme than his actual traits. Based on what he does well now and what he can be with coaching and development, Landry has starter-level potential early in his career.

6. Brandin Cooks, Oregon State

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    The 2013 Fred Biletnikoff Award winner, Oregon State's Brandin Cooks is a blur in the open field. Defenses in the Pac-12 know this. Now NFL teams will.

    Cooks does his damage with the ball in his hands. He's elusive and fast enough to run away from the defense and adds in the wiggle room to make defenders miss in space. But he's not a one-trick pony. He is a quality wide receiver with the route-running ability to get open on his own without schemed touches.

    This isn't a bubble screen and jet-sweep type of player. Cooks is a legitimate wide receiver prospect.

    He's not the biggest guy on the field (5'10", 186 lbs.), but Cooks' speed and hands make him a deadly weapon for the offense. He can play in the slot or split out wide. He showed at Oregon State that no matter where he lines up, he's capable of making the defense pay.

5. Marqise Lee, USC

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    USC wide receiver Marqise Lee is one of the most recognizable names for the casual fan in this year's draft class. So you might be wondering why he ranks at No. 5 among wide receivers. 

    His struggles with drops in 2012 and 2013 are an issue. More than any of the top receivers I evaluated this year, he puts the ball on the ground. Lee also battled an injury in 2013 that didn't help his stock at all. Put the two together, and it's easy to see why he's tumbled down the board.

    All that aside, Lee has talent. 

    When I watched him at USC over the last three years, it was easy to see him becoming a No. 1 wide receiver in the NFL. Is it a concern that his production dropped instead of rose? Not for me.

    Look at the drop in talent at quarterback for USC since the 2011 season, and you can see evidence to support his drop in production. When you turn on the film, you see a smooth wide receiver with special route-running skills. He just has to learn to put it all together.

    If Lee can improve his concentration and secure the ball better, he has the tools to be special.

4. Allen Robinson, Penn State

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    One of my favorite players in the entire 2014 draft class, Penn State's Allen Robinson has the size to beat up defensive backs in man coverage, but he's also fast enough to make plays after the catch. A 6'3" wide receiver who can high-point in the end zone and make plays in space is tough to defend, and that's what Robinson brings to the table.

    What does he do for your team? He's a true No. 1 wide receiver, and he can be a threat in the red zone or in the open field. As a route-runner, he brings value in working fades equally to slant routes. That versatility is a big part of the allure here, and Robinson brings a variety of skills along with the ideal size and speed you want in a true starting wide receiver.

    The room to grow on his profile is also impressive. He excelled with Bill O'Brien running the Penn State offense, especially once he had a pro-style quarterback in 2013. If he continues to develop like he did this past year, Robinson will be go-to wideout very soon.

3. Odell Beckham Jr., LSU

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    Few players in this year's talented crop of wide receivers can claim the toughness over the middle that LSU's Odell Beckham Jr. brings to the table. He's fearless in traffic, showing the concentration and tough-as-nails mentality needed to catch the ball a second before he knows a safety or linebacker is looking to put a shoulder through his chest.

    And yet Beckham catches them all. He doesn't shy away from that contact over the middle, and more times than not, he's able to elude a big hit and pick up improbable yards after the catch.

    Tough, concentrated and elusive? Yeah, I want some of that in a wide receiver.

    Beckham isn't just a threat over the middle, though. He's an all-around talent with the size and length to play outside the hashes as a true No. 1 or No. 2 wide receiver. The skill set he shows over the middle translates well to routes outside, too. Just get him the ball and let him go to work.

2. Mike Evans, Texas A&M

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    If there's a current trend in NFL scouting as far as wide receivers go, "the bigger, the better" is a fitting one. Mike Evans stands to benefit if that's true.

    Players like Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and others have made the big, box-out-style wide receiver in vogue right now, and rightfully so. Each of the three played at an All-Pro level in 2013 with varying styles of play but one thing in common: They were able to outjump and outposition defenders for the ball.

    Throw it up, and they're coming down with it. And usually in the end zone.

    That sounds an awful lot like what Evans did at Texas A&M. The 6'5", 225-pound athlete has a knack for getting open without great open-field agility, and he uses his frame like a forward posting up in the paint. That works because he's strong, has great length and is crazy good at catching contested passes.

    Evans won't be the most nimble guy at the combine, but his straight-line speed and size make him one of the more attractive wide receiver prospects in this loaded class.

1. Sammy Watkins, Clemson

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    Dominant.

    That's how I would describe Clemson's Sammy Watkins. He's electricity personified, showing the speed and strength to break a play open at any time. He's also a versatile wide receiver, something you rarely see coming out of college these days. 

    As a route-runner and a pass-catcher, he stands out from the crowd. He's the man they're all trying to catch, actually. His ability to take a bubble screen, break tackles and run away from defenders makes for great highlights and will scare any defense, but he's a lot more than that.

    When you watch Watkins break off a route and separate from defenders, you see the footwork and agility to create space on his own. Watch him high-point and fight for a ball, and you see his strength and concentration.

    Basically, watch him and see what NFL teams want at the position.

    Watkins stands to be drafted very high in this year's class, and as the top-ranked wide receiver, his potential is unlimited.