When Kenny Golladay stormed onto the scene in 2017, Lions fans were deservedly excited about the future. Looking into 2018 with Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, and an ascending talent like Golladay gave fans hope for a receiving corps with no visible holes, where arguments about who makes the roster as WR4 were basically just conversation pieces and not reflective of who is going to impact the team’s chances at victory every week.
Fast forward to 2019 and the Lions are pairing #19 with Jones coming off of injury and a 34-year-old slot receiver. With uncertainty for Jones’ future in Detroit and the risk that Danny Amendola brings (He has never started all 16 games in a season and only twice even played in all 16), the Lions’ depth pieces are all potential starters in 2019, which is hardly encouraging.
Thankfully, the 2020 draft class brings the goods. While the 2019 class brought a bunch of complementary receivers—guys who could act as WR2 for a team with an established star or provide value in specific roles—the upcoming class is loaded with starter talent worthy of early investment. Whether you’re looking for an outside guy you can rely on for every route, a red zone threat you can rely on to score, or a quick option you’re looking to open up the middle of the field, this class has it all. With the Lions looking to have a need going forward, we’re going to look ahead at who the team could target once the next draft cycle hits.
Laviska Shenault Jr., Colorado
Anquan Boldin didn’t make his prolific career in the NFL work because he was more athletic than those around him. He wasn’t the fastest, he wasn’t the most explosive, and he certainly wasn’t the most agile or quick. He was stronger than everyone on the field, however, and when you’re hands up with a corner making business decisions you’re going to win every time. That type of aggressiveness made him a warrior on the field and an absolute terror for anyone thinking they can cover him.
Laviska Shenault offers a similar attitude, if a different playstyle. Where Boldin was no-nonsense, Colorado lined up Shenault in a variety of different ways to take advantage of his power. Need a slant in traffic and a guy willing to take a hit without dropping the ball? Shenault. Need someone to fight for the ball downfield on a go? Shenault. Fourth and 1 on the goal line and don’t want to risk a turnover but want that damn touchdown? Screw it, Wildcat Shenault (five rushing TDs in 2018). While he may not wow you with his athleticism, Shenault isn’t lacking in that area, but it’s also not how he wins. He’s just going to get that ball.
Jerry Jeudy, Alabama
In today’s age of high-volume passing, it’s tough being an old dog and looking back on the trailblazers that led the way into the modern NFL. Calvin Johnson hadn’t been retired for a minute before new “best in the NFL” types were crowned and his achievements were passed off as simply volume. One player who exemplifies this sort of hindsight is Steve Smith. After playing until he was nearly 40, many fans simply remember those later years and think that’s what he was. Early career Steve Smith, though, embarrassed fools on the field. With the speed and absurd agility to make defenders look like they forgot how to football, he forced defenders to recite their weekly prayer, “Dear God, please don’t let me contemplate retirement today. I’m not really as bad as I’m going to look against Steve.”
I feel bad for defensive backs who have the unenviable task of covering Jerry Jeudy. Like Steve Smith in his prime, I feel like I have to give those poor fellows their due and watch a game where they’re not facing Jeudy, just to give them a fair shake. Jeudy can adjust to the ball in the air without tipping his movements to the man covering him. He can catch the ball away from his body, extending to make the play, or take a tight throw into his body without getting too flashy. He runs a crisp route tree, and his head fake has claimed many victims, whether it’s during the route or after he gets the ball. He’s a dynamo to watch and it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where he isn’t an early selection in 2020.
CeeDee Lamb, Oklahoma
NFL teams always fall in love with big and explosive receivers. Your Calvin Johnsons, your Julio Joneses, the guys who can out-jump anyone in the universe and outrun anyone in two steps. Those guys, however, are rare. That brings us to the second most common group that NFL teams fall in love with every year: dudes who can jump and catch passes that seem to be a mile away from their body, with a catch radius measured in garage doors.
Lamb runs a decent route tree, but what sets him apart is just how explosive he can be with the ball in the air. He’s the type of guy that will have the “when he’s covered, he’s open” type of label applied early and often. Those types of guys are riskier picks than the YAC types, who usually have to worry more about getting hurt than living up to the hype, but the reward part of risk/reward tends to be higher. Lamb was productive in Oklahoma’s favorable scheme, but he looks like a guy that can find a role immediately in any offense. Every team needs a dude like him catching footballs even if he isn’t always open.
Tee Higgins, Clemson
When Jarvis Landry came out in 2014, the Miami Dolphins were taking a pretty big risk. The NFL is a wasteland for receivers who lack serious athletic traits, and the few that do succeed without them tend to have some specific trait that they excel at so much that they can overcome athletic limitations. For Landry, it was his route running ability and strong hands with a solid catch radius to make him a reliable target who could put up huge numbers in the receptions department.
Higgins doesn’t look like a guy with plus athletic traits, and while he probably won’t measure in the ‘nearly the worst athlete ever’ range that Jarvis Landry did (who measured on an injured hamstring, but even his healthier pro day measurements weren’t good), I don’t expect big numbers from Higgins athletically. That will most likely keep him out of the first round, but outside of day one teams start taking bigger risks, so he’s a prime Day 2 candidate. Teams can always find value in a guy who can attack zones and consistently catch the football, and Higgins’ favorite work space is the red zone where he hauled in 12 passes in 2018.
Tylan Wallace, Oklahoma State
With a Hall of Fame career under his belt, you could point to any number of traits that made Larry Fitzgerald the star that he has been. “Sticky Fingers Larry” will go down in history as having the best hands ever and he did it with a parade of inept play-calling and quarterbacks with only a few notable exceptions. He caught more than 1,300 passes in the NFL, but it seemed like every week we were talking about one of the most amazing catches we’ve ever seen. Whether defenders were around him or not, Larry Fitzgerald was open. An expansive route tree took his skillset from dangerous to legendary and there were few in their career who tried to cover him who could claim they did so well and none who could claim they did so easily.
Tylan Wallace was a lot of fun to watch, to the point I had developed a game by the end of my early review. When the ball was in the air and Wallace in frame, I would pause the video and answer two questions. 1: Would an average receiver catch this pass (most weren’t on target)? and 2: Will Tylan Wallace catch it?
By the end of my review, I had learned that the answer the first question may vary from play to play, but the answer to the second question was always going to be yes. Wallace was so incredible to watch that I entered a state of denial when he dropped a pass against Iowa State (around 2:17:25), rewinding it a few dozen times because I didn’t believe it. It’s very early, but he may be my WR2 coming into this season.
Henry Ruggs III, Alabama
Displaying plus athleticism, a developing route set, and YAC ability, Ruggs is part of the best receiving corps in college football. Also possessing one of the best quarterbacks in the nation, any or all of Alabama’s talented pass catchers could break out depending on circumstance, and if they lean a bit more heavily on Tua Tagovailoa’s creativity, then we could be seeing a lot more of Henry Ruggs.
Donovan Peoples-Jones, Michigan
One of the most highly-touted receiving prospects coming out of high school in recent memory, Donovan Peoples-Jones hasn’t quite delivered on the immense talent seen prior to landing in Michigan. More reliant on his athleticism than route running savvy or elite ball skills, Peoples-Jones still has a ways to go before he’s a top prospect, but I wouldn’t rule him out just yet.
Collin Johnson, Texas
A frustrating watch, Collin Johnson displays examples of both solid athleticism and poor. I’ve seen him pluck a ball out of the air from what seemed like miles away and take a pass into the numbers that he could and should have caught away from his body. His route running can be both great and lazy. All the traits appear to be there for an elite receiver, but they’re never consistent enough for me to be confident that’s what I’m going to get. Got a bit of a Kris Durham vibe.
Antonio Gandy-Golden, Liberty
Size is going to be the big draw for Antonio Gandy-Golden, but he uses that one trait very well. His route tree is unimaginative, which speaks more to Liberty than the player himself, but he uses his size and length well to pull in passes he would see in the NFL. A guy likely to be tapped with that ‘developmental’ label, you can see a role on any offense in any scheme, which means teams are going to find value here, even if it projects to be a steeper learning curve.
Marquez Callaway, Tennessee
Easily the most underrated player I’ve talked about so far, Marquez Callaway has a chance to be the biggest riser of this group. His athletic traits pop on tape, but it’s his technical savvy that could see him make huge strides in 2019. He does stuff to college defenders that you see daily from the NFL’s best receivers on the outside, and if he can build on that and develop even a little bit you could hear his name in day one of the 2020 NFL draft.