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Replay: Patriots Unfiltered Tue Apr 16 - 02:00 PM | Wed Apr 17 - 09:55 AM

Lazar's NFL Draft Tiers: Pre-Combine Wide Receiver Rankings

With the NFL Scouting Combine taking place in Indianapolis next week, here is a pre-combine ranking of the wide receiver class in the 2024 NFL Draft. 

Pictured are Ohio State WR Marvin Harrison Jr. (left) and LSU WR Malik Nabers (right).
Pictured are Ohio State WR Marvin Harrison Jr. (left) and LSU WR Malik Nabers (right).

The Patriots will be undergoing an offensive overhaul this offseason following a season where they ranked tied for last in scoring.

Along with quarterback and offensive tackle, head coach Jerod Mayo has already noted that wide receiver is a major need for New England. In recent years, the Pats have struggled to acquire top-end talent at the position. They've had some productive complementary skill players like Kendrick Bourne, Jakobi Meyers, and Hunter Henry. But the Patriots continue to search for an elite number-one receiver.

Luckily, the 2024 NFL Draft is loaded with talent at the receiver position. At the top, this class has elite, blue-chip prospects that some believe could be all-time talents. However, this group is also filled in the first three rounds with potential instant-impact playmakers. This class has high-end talent, depth, and different skill sets throughout the draft.

Now, the NFL Combine is where these athletes will round out their profiles and potentially improve or hurt their draft stocks. Although player tracking data is in vogue, scouts still believe the 40-yard dash and other athletic testing numbers are valuable pieces to the evaluation for wide receivers.

"The big piece a lot of times is the testing results because that's such an athletic position. What they run in the 40, how they jump, their hands, and all those things in the pro day and workout settings, that'll be a big piece to it," college scouting director Camren Williams told Patriots.com.

With that in mind, here are my pre-combine wide receiver tiers based strictly on film study. After the combine, we can adjust these rankings with the benefit of athletic testing numbers:

Note: A quick aside about my player comparison methodology. I understand player comps aren't for everyone. But the goal is to better inform people who don't watch these guys regularly about what type of player they are. I base pro comparisons on playing style: when you watch this guy play, who does he remind you of and why? So don't look at them as setting expectations for career accolades. For example, when I compare Rome Odunze to DeAndre Hopkins, am I saying that ten years from now Odunze will be a five-time Pro Bowler with seven 1,000-yard seasons? No. There's no way to predict that. Again, the goal is to compare skillsets. I hope that makes sense.

Tier One - Elite, Blue-Chip Prospects (Projection: Top 10)

Ohio State wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. (18).
Ohio State wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. (18).

1. Marvin Harrison Jr., Ohio State

Pro Comparison - Davante Adams, Position: X receiver

Harrison Jr. could be in his own tier, but we'll settle for putting him as the clear-cut WR1 in this year's class. The Ohio State product is one of the most well-rounded receiver prospects to enter the draft in years, with a 6-foot-4 frame allowing him to run the vertical route tree while possessing the separation quickness and fluidity of a much smaller player.

On the perimeter, Harrison excels with a highly refined release package to defeat press coverage, gliding build-up speed to threaten defensive backs on vertical stems, and physicality through the break and at the catch point. To round out his game, Harrison also has the flexibility to run routes from any alignment, where his rare separation quickness for his body type allows him to win at the top of the route on in-breaking patterns out of the slot. Harrison will be a day-one impact player with the potential to be the best wide receiver in the NFL someday.

LSU Wide Receiver Malik Nabers.
LSU Wide Receiver Malik Nabers.

2. Malik Nabers, LSU

Pro Comparison - taller Jaylen Waddle, Position: X/Z receiver

There's no argument here about who is the top receiver in this class. However, my favorite receiver to study on film was Nabers. Only so many prospects have the game-breaking speed to threaten a defense vertically, horizontally, and after the catch like the LSU product. Nabers's acceleration to instantly pull away from coverage is outstanding on deep posts, crossers, and slot fades, while he's incredibly elusive and bursty as a ball carrier. Nabers doesn't have the polish as a route-runner that Harrison possesses, but his instant acceleration/play speed might be the best superpower of any prospect in this class — defenses will need to account for big play ability on every play.

Washington wide receiver Rome Odunze.
Washington wide receiver Rome Odunze.

3. Rome Odunze, Washington

Pro Comparison - DeAndre Hopkins, Position: X receiver

Odunze deserves to be a tier-one receiver, and some folks around the league believe he might be the most productive pro. Odunze is a long, fluid mover who excels on the vertical route tree thanks to his physicality, route running, and incredible ball skills. Odunze is a crafty route-runner who doesn't declare his intentions until he's already eaten up leverage to set up his break, subscribing perfectly to the theory that everything is a fade in the early stages of the route. Then, he'll break off an in-cut or stop on a dime to create separation on a comeback or back-shoulder fade. Odunze's body control to track, adjust, and snag passes outside his frame is also outstanding, and he's a physical runner with the ball in his hands. Odunze will need to be more efficient with his footwork at the top of his routes to be a better pure separator, but his playing strength and hands will allow him to win through contact consistently – Odunze is a stud.

Tier Two - High-End Starter Potential (Projection: First Round)

LSU Wide Receiver Brian Thomas.
LSU Wide Receiver Brian Thomas.

4. Brian Thomas Jr., LSU

Pro Comparison - slim DK Metcalf, Position: X receiver

Thomas is an explosive big-play receiver who racked up an insane 17 receiving touchdowns catching passes from Jayden Daniels last season. The knocks on Thomas are that he ran a basic vertical route tree and needs to be more efficient on horizontal cuts to create separation at the top of the route. However, his burst and lateral agility to slither around press coverage at the line of scrimmage opens pathways for immediate vertical separation. Plus, with some added mass, Thomas stands at 6-foot-4 with a large catch radius and decent ball-tracking skills. It's not a fluke that Thomas averaged 17.3 yards per catch with the Tigers in 2023. He's a home-run hitter.

Oregon Wide Receiver Troy Franklin.
Oregon Wide Receiver Troy Franklin.

5. Troy Franklin, Oregon

Pro Comparison - Jameson Williams, Position: X/Z receiver

Franklin won't be for everyone due to his slender frame, but his game has more nuance than expected. At his core, Franklin is a deep threat in a similar mold to Jalin Hyatt. But his release package and route details are far more sophisticated than Hyatt's, or let's say, Tyquan Thornton, coming out of school. The Oregon product has a good feel for route pacing, where he'll vary speeds throughout the early stages of the route to create separation. He'll also put some seasoning on his crossing routes, such as stair steps and head fakes, to stretch the field horizontally. Franklin could get bogged down against physical corners to the point where he's a one-trick pony/field-stretcher. But he's more savvy and sudden in his breaks than the players he often gets compared to as a prospect. There's plenty of evidence of snappy route breaks and sudden lateral agility to defeat press.

Tier Three - Above-Average Starter Potential (Projection: Top 40)

6. Xavier Worthy, Texas

Pro Comparison - taller Zay Flowers, Position: Z/Slot receiver

As many of you know, my draft crush last cycle was Boston College's Zay Flowers. Although the AFC Championship Game was a dud for Flowers, he finished his rookie season with 77 catches for 858 yards and five touchdowns in Baltimore – not too shabby. Worthy has a very similar profile as Flowers as a twitched-up mover with the separation quickness to win as a jitterbug slot, burst/acceleration to create vertical separation, and is a game-breaking ball carrier. Worthy will have the same concerns as Flowers when it comes to playing through contact, as he only caught five of his 21 contested catches last season. However, Worthy is a natural separator who can avoid contact with his quickness and speed.

7. Adonai Mitchell, Texas

Pro Comparison: Michael Pittman Jr., Position: X receiver

Sticking with the Texas receivers, it would be great to recreate the Longhorn's pass-catching group with Worthy, Mitchell, and TE Ja'Tavion Sanders. That might be challenging since they're all projected Top-50 selections, but, hey, a Patriots fan can dream. As for Mitchell, his craftiness as a route-runner in a prototypical X receiver's body stood out. Mitchell is more a possession receiver than a deep threat, flashing an advanced understanding of attacking CBs. He'll create separation on slants and dig routes, allowing him to stack moves together on double moves to create vertical separation. Mitchell is also very graceful, with excellent body control and hands to make acrobatic catches outside his frame. If he pans out in the NFL, Mitchell's stat lines should look exactly like Pittman's in Indy: 109 catches for 1,152 yards, 10.6 yards per catch.

8. Keon Coleman, Florida State

Pro Comparison: Courtland Sutton, Position: X receiver

As we said with Troy Franklin, it's a flavor thing when it comes to evaluating Coleman. His game has impressive qualities, mainly out-muscling smaller corners with flashy wins at the catch point and sticky hands to make acrobatic catches. Coleman is also better than expected after the catch, averaging 6.3 yards after the catch on his 50 receptions last season. However, my concerns are a lack of separation and a lower contested catch rate. Coleman was tied for third in the FBS with 30 contested targets and only caught 10 (33.3%). For comparison, Odunze caught 21 of 28 contested targets (75%). Coleman has an NFL future as a bully-ball receiver, but I'm lower on him than most due to his inefficient skillset.

Tier Four - NFL Starter Potential (Projection: Day Two)

Michigan Wide Receiver Roman Wilson.
Michigan Wide Receiver Roman Wilson.

9. Roman Wilson, Michigan

Pro Comparison - Amon Ra. St Brown, Position: Z/Slot receiver

The best way to describe Wilson's game is silky smooth. With above-average burst, efficient routes with minimal wasted movement, and lateral quickness to create separation, Wilson projects as a high-volume contributor. He was also an effective schemed touch player on routes in motion or as a ball carrier, and he tore up the Senior Bowl with his crafty, quick routes that made him tough to cover in space. In an offense that puts him in stacks, bunches, and in motion to hunt free releases off the line, Wilson is a natural chain-mover who would've put up much better numbers in a different college offense.

10. Ladd McConkey, Georgia

Pro Comparison - Emmanuel Sanders, Position: Z/Slot receiver

Don't fall for the stereotypes with McConkey, who has legit speed to threaten vertically, especially in the first ten yards with burst off the line of scrimmage. McConkey uses instant acceleration in the initial stages of the route to open his bread-and-butter in the intermediate area of the field, where his stop/start ability and foot quickness shine. McConkey will put down a solid time in the 40-yard dash, with some projecting in the low 4.4s for the Georgia wideout. McConkey has legit traits, but his injury history (nine games in 2023) and smaller frame/catch radius put him in the early day-two category.

11. Ja'Lynn Polk, Washington

Pro Comparison - Jaydeen Reed, Position: Z receiver

When you turn on the film, you might initially be underwhelmed by Polk's lack of flash. However, as the tape marinates, you recognize that he's always finding ways to get open and plays with a certain level of toughness needed to battle through NFL cover talent. Polk mainly won on slot fades and crossers with needed refinement as a route runner to add branches to his route tree, but he's a very reliable target with great ball skills and a certain smoothness to his game. He has some of the best hands in this class.

12. Malachi Corley, Western Kentucky

Pro Comparison: discount Deebo Samuel, Position: Z/gadget receiver

Corley is a classic catch-and-run receiver built like a running back to accumulate 8.6 yards after the catch per reception in 2023. He has excellent speed and contact balance to create explosive plays on quick-hitting routes, but his lack of downfield development as a route runner gives you pause about his role at the next level. A large chunk of his production came after the catch versus creating downfield targets with his routes. He'll either be the next Deebo Samuel or another D'Wayne Eskridge/Amari Rodgers.

Honorable Mentions

13. Jalen McMillan, Washington - Dane Brugler nailed it with his more explosive Jakobi Meyers comparison. Crafty, sudden footwork to set up route breaks with separation skills in a bigger frame. McMillan needs to develop stronger finishes at the catch point, but he should be a nice complementary piece as a second or third receiver.

14. Ricky Pearsall, Florida - Profiles similarly to Ladd McConkey as a smooth route-runner with noticeable change of direction, some sneaky burst/speed, and strong hands. Pearsall is also a hard-nosed runner with the football who can create in YAC mode.

15. Devontez Walker, North Carolina - Walker had a rough week in Mobile with poor separation and several drops. However, he should test well with good long speed to be a legit vertical threat at the next level. Walker needs more nuance to his route-running to create separation.

16. Xavier Legette, South Carolina - Laviska Shenault 2.0: wide, explosive body type who will be tough to bring down once he gets rolling and could have moments where he runs through coverage. Legette struggles to separate, and his ball-tracking skills on vertical routes were all over the place at the Senior Bowl. But he can win on verticals and in YAC mode.

17. Brenden Rice, USC - Creeping up draft boards due to his NFL-caliber athletic profile, toughness to play through contact, and ability to find the end zone as a red zone threat. You wish he had more of his dad's quickness, but Rice has potential in his own skillset.

DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization. Read Full Disclaimer

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