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Thor's Wide Receiver Rankings

by Thor Nystrom
Updated On: April 22, 2020, 12:42 pm ET

My previous two entries in this scouting series examined the quarterback and running back classes. Spiderweb graphs sourced from mockdraftable.com, SPARQ scores from Three Sigma Athlete, Adjusted SPARQ from Rotoworld's Hayden Winks and RAS from Kent Lee Platte

1. CeeDee Lamb (Oklahoma) | 6'2/198


SPARQ percentile: 70.5

Adjusted SPARQ: .57

RAS: 7.64

Comp: DeAndre Hopkins (Mike Renner)

Neck-and-neck with Jerry Jeudy for WR1 distinction heading into the NFL Combine, Lamb pulled away by answering questions about his athleticism while Jeudy had a down week. Perhaps some of those questions were overblown. Lamb’s just so dang smooth that his hang-glider movement style didn’t steal your breath on the field as often as Jeudy’s breakneck explosion, despite the evidence of its efficacy. 

Lamb is an utterly sensational route runner, varying tempo, crisp cuts, manipulating defenders, impossible to stick to.  He’s one of those high-volume receivers who could potentially lead the NFL in receptions multiple times. And once the ball is in his hands, watch out.

Lamb isn’t a burner, with 4.50 speed, and he’s built thin at 198 pounds. Despite this, he’s a YAC monster who ranked No. 11 in the country per reception last fall. And for all the talk of his frame, Lamb forced 26 missed tackles in 2019, good for No. 2 in the country, per PFF. Because of his agility, balance, body control and innate understanding of leverage, Lamb rarely offers a square target. He bursts through arm tackle attempts like air.

Lamb has a particular skill for out-breaking routes – which require a combination of athleticism, route running, timing, footwork and contested-catch ability – and hitches, screeching on the breaks and working back to the ball in a fluid motion. 

The two biggest concerns are the skinny frame and the fact that he didn’t face much press coverage at Oklahoma. Lamb’s releases looked fine when he did, so I’m not so concerned by that. His dimensions are a little spooky just in terms of precedent, though. Lamb measured in at the Combine at 6’1 5/8 and 198 lbs. 

Since 2000, here are the 10 NFL receivers 6’1/200 (or taller/or lighter) who have drawn the most targets: Chad Johnson, Nate Washington, Keenan McCardell, Brian Hartline, Marvin Jones, Bernard Berrian, Curtis Conway, Allen Hurns, Steve Breaston and Robbie Anderson. Not an inspiring list! The best of the bunch, Ocho Cinco, Lance Zierlein’s comp for Lamb, ran a 4.57 forty. Lamb feels like an outlier – destined to move to the top of this list down the road.

2. Jerry Jeudy (Alabama) | 6'1/193


SPARQ percentile: 21.8

Adjusted SPARQ: .38

RAS: 6.38

Comp: Odell Beckham

A five-star recruit and top-20 overall prospect coming out of high school, Jeudy picked Alabama over Miami and entered college ranked behind only Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tee Higgins at his position. Jeudy’s breakout age was 19.5, and he won’t turn 21 until right after the draft.

An absurdly athletic burner, Jeudy boasts a killer blend of rocket propulsion movement, Ferrari body control, and pool shark feet. The former Biletnikoff winner is most often comped to Odell Beckham. When you see a sub-200 pound SEC receiver with high-octane athleticism, ludicrous body control and polished ball skills, your mind really only goes to one place. It’s a treat to watch him screech on the brakes at full speed as a hapless defender hugs the air in front of him.

Due to his explosiveness and exceptional playmaking ability with the ball in his hands, Jeudy has also been likened to Peter Warrick and additionally draws natural comparisons to Calvin Ridley due to his school and game. Like Ridley, Jeudy is a fabulous route runner who baits defenders and then steals their lunch money. When he gets picked in April, though, Jeudy will be two-and-a-half years younger than Ridley when Ridley was drafted.

He’s slightly built, with a thin frame, and he was seldom pressed in college due to his athleticism and system in which he played. He rarely came through with contested catches, though it’s fair to note that not many corners were able to force them against him. If there’s another nitpick, it’s that Jeudy turned in a surprisingly poor NFL Combine showing, with a shuttle in the Antonio Gandy-Golden range, the same vertical as Gabriel Davis and a broad jump near the bottom of his position group.

You can chalk some of that stuff up to a bad week at the office. Jeudy’s athleticism pops off the tape in a way that can’t be denied. And despite questions about his build and ability to pluck the ball in cramped quarters, Jeudy’s hasn’t had durability issues in the past and his athleticism generally enforces a sort of social distancing at the catch point. He’s going to be a star at the next level.

3. Henry Ruggs III (Alabama) | 5'11/188


SPARQ percentile: ~99

Adjusted SPARQ: .99

RAS: 9.66

Comp: Tyreek Hill

If you’ve seen Ruggs’ basketball highlights floating around the internet, you know that he was a multi-sport star in high school. His highlight reel of dunks is unreal: alley oops, 360s, jumping over kids… well, see for yourself.

The former five-star recruit, also a prep track standout, ultimately hung up the sneakers to focus on the gridiron as a junior in high school. And by his senior year, all the bluebloods had come calling, with Ruggs choosing to stay home to play for the Crimson Tide.

Ruggs will be one of the fastest players in the NFL the moment he’s drafted. Not just a finesse pop-the-top WR2 behind Jerry Jeudy, Ruggs’ catalogue of unthinkable catches is quite long. He boasts one of the largest set of mitts in the class (10.13) and he only dropped five balls his entire career in Tuscaloosa, including just one last fall. He plays with a dog-on-a-bone desire to come down with the ball, and the same attitude can be seen after the catch, where in addition to speed he runs with balance and verve.

Where Ruggs lags behind Jeudy is route running and polish. Jeudy buys separation by setting up corners via footwork, head movement and varying of tempo before shaking them with crisp cuts. Ruggs is a bit more of a straightforward proposition, leaning on his touched-by-God straight line speed and throwing in some pitter-patter steps along the way.

Ruggs’ speed is a field-tipping trump card. It will have to be accounted for on every play. And he’s going to be a fabulous special teams contributor, which needs to be baked into his eval. He ought to be returning kickoffs from Day 1, and should be a tremendous gunner on the punt team.

4. Laviska Shenault (Colorado) | 6'1/227)


SPARQ percentile: N/A

Adjusted SPARQ: N/A

RAS: 7.18

Comp: JuJu Smith-Schuster (Daniel Jeremiah)

I’ve been obsessed with Viska since he clowned the Pac-12 for 1,126 all-purpose yards in nine games in 2018 despite playing with a cannon-armed quarterback who refused to throw the ball 20 yards downfield. Last year, all creativity seeped out of Colorado’s offense. Viska was a marked man. His body inevitably (and perhaps predictably) gave out on him.

Shenault is a fortified 227-pounder – he measured in almost identically to Ezekiel Elliott – who’s hell to bring down. Shenault is not only physically dominant – legendary Colorado coach Gary Barnett said he’s the best player to play for the Buffaloes in the past 20 years – but he's extremely versatile. The Buffaloes lined him up all over the place, including all three receiver positions, tight end, and Wildcat QB. He gets to top speed so quickly you’d think he had a head start, and once he’s there, he runs over defensive backs (44 broken tackles over the past two years to lead the WR class, per PFF, despite all the missed time).

He’s both a big-play maven and a high-volume playmaker. Shenault is so tricky to defend because he can pop the top off the defense whenever he's sent on a fly route, but you have to simultaneously be cognizant of all the damage he can do around the line of scrimmage and in the intermediate sector. 

Shenault has drawn comps to Anquan Boldin, Mike Williams, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Sammy Watkins. The comp he doesn’t want is Mr. Glass. A foot injury wiped out three games of his breakout 2018 campaign, and he underwent shoulder and turf toe surgeries that offseason. Last year, a nagging core muscle injury stole one game and haunted him in others. He was diagnosed with an inflamed pubic bone over the winter. And then he underwent core surgery after the combine. 

The medicals are scary, and that, along with work-in-progress route work, introduce an element of risk into Shenault’s profile that is too great for some. His detractors assume he’ll never shake the injury bug and comp him to Cordarrelle Patterson. I saw Shenault take on mobs of opponents and prevail too many times in college over the past few years to dismiss him, though. With a good quarterback and a sharp coaching staff, I go the other way: I wonder what he can become. 

5. Justin Jefferson (LSU) | 6'1/202


SPARQ percentile: 81.8

Adjusted SPARQ: .68

RAS: 9.84

Comp: Chris Godwin

Despite being the brother of noted LSU alumni Jordan (QB 2008-2011) and Rickey (S 2013-2016), Justin Jefferson was scarcely recruited. ESPN didn’t even give him a star rating. The 247Sports Composite listed him as the No. 2,164 prospect in the 2017 class. Outside of LSU, only two other FBS schools made an offer: Northwestern and Tulane.

Jefferson played at a powerhouse high school program, put up strong numbers as a senior and had collegiate bloodlines in spades – how could he have been overlooked like this? Because he ran a verified 4.88 forty coming out of high school with a SPARQ score of 82.8 (100 marking average athleticism).

Ed Orgeron took a stab on the legacy and boy oh boy did he strike gold. As a sophomore, Jefferson broke out for a 54-875-6 line on a team whose next-highest receiver had 23 receptions (read that again – in 2018, LSU’s WR2 had 23 catches!). Last fall, in Joe Brady’s pyrotechnic attack, Jefferson went supernova with a 111-1540-18 line, ranking first, third and second nationally, respectively, in those categories.

And then he arrived in Indianapolis and put the athleticism questions to bed once and for all, running a 4.43 forty with a 37.5” vertical and elite showing in the 10- and 20-yard splits. He ranked No. 1 among all receivers in RAS score, even above athletic freaks Henry Ruggs and Denzel Mims (Hayden Winks’ adjusted SPARQ was a little lower on Jefferson’s showing but still had it in the 68th percentile). 

Of Jefferson’s 949 snaps last year, 870 came in the slot. He proved to be exceptional at shooting off the line of scrimmage, picking through garbage, keeping his man guessing with shiftiness, and catching any ball within the distended halo around the frame. Kid’s hands are magnets, and Joe Burrow, if you remember the graphic above about on-target throws, seemed especially connected to them.

Jefferson may be relegated to the slot in the NFL, but he’s likely to be a very, very good one. Don’t put outside work beyond him, either. Jefferson spent most of the 2018 season outside, and he averaged over 16 yards per catch while dominating the aerial touches in what was at the time a ground-oriented offense. 

His move inside was inspired. Jefferson is extremely comfortable in congested quarters, not only finding space while maneuvering around bodies, but snatching balls outside his frame while under heavy duress. And he’s a tougher runner after the catch than you’d assume by looking at him, ranking No. 3 in the country last year with 23 missed tackles forced, per PFF.

6. Denzel Mims (Baylor) | 6'3/207


SPARQ percentile: 94.6

Adjusted SPARQ: .89

RAS: 9.78

Comp: DJ Chark

A track star who moonlighted on the hardwood in high school, Mims entered 2019 as a post-hype sleeper after taking a backseat to Jalen Hurd in 2018, a season in which Mims struggled to acclimate to a supporting role (11 drops on 66 catchable balls, per PFF). Mims roared back with a strong 2019 campaign (66-1015-12) followed by utterly dominant showings at the Senior Bowl and NFL Combine.

He’s a downfield killer, with world-class athleticism at 6’3/207, a helipad catch radius and that ever-rare ability of seeming to be able to float in the air for an extra split-second longer than ought to be humanely possible. Those 4.39 wheels sneak up on you with the long, giraffe-like strides he takes. Near the sideline, you won’t believe his body control.

Few receivers in this class have the reel of highlight catches that Mims does. If he has a chance to come down with the ball, he’s taking to the sky, and he’s willing to splay himself up there for the catch. He was also dominant in the intermediate sector at Baylor, ranking No. 11 in the nation with a 92.3 receiving grade 11-19 yards down the field (and No. 1 with nine TD), per PFF. Charlie Brewer loved taking advantage of his size and speed on slants.

Some depict Mims as a loafer, but I saw plenty of examples on tape of him getting after it as blocker. And for all the fear of drafting Baylor receivers, keep in mind that Mims wasn’t playing in the Briles offense these past three years. Mims caught one screen pass for zero yards last year and did very little damage within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.

That said, his route tree is absolutely pruned at the moment, limited to his downfield specialty and in-breaking stuff in the intermediate area. And while he’s a bear to defend because of his athleticism, Mims gives defensive backs a bit of a break by sprinting through his assignments, generally tipping his hand immediately as to what pitch is coming. Perhaps the scariest element of the profile is the drops, with 19 over the last three years. The discrepancy between his highlight reel and his lowlight reel is jaw-dropping – Mims has numerous catches on his resume that shouldn’t be possible, and several drops that your nephew could have secured.

Despite the risk profile, I’m sky-high on him. Mims played with a noodle-armed quarterback in college but ended up as one of college football’s most dangerous receivers beyond 10 yards downfield. At worst, he’s a very strong pop-the-top No. 2 NFL receiver. And there’s the possibility for a lot more.

7. Jalen Reagor (TCU) | 5'11/206


SPARQ percentile: 93.3

Adjusted SPARQ: .57

RAS: 7.48

Comp: Brandin Cooks (Lindy’s)

The son of former Colt Montae Reagor, Jalen is a blur of an athlete. He’s sort of been lost in the shuffle among this high-wattage receiver class, in large part because TCU’s bumbling quarterback corps made sure to deprive him of as many YAC opportunities as possible.

A guy with this much juice will level up in the NFL with a quarterback who can facilitate space.

Only 31% of the passes Reagor saw last season were "on target", per PFF – by far the lowest percentage among the top receiver prospects in this class. Justin Jefferson had 69%, Laviska Shenault 62%, Jerry Jeudy 60% and CeeDee Lamb 59%. Such a tragedy! This guy is utter magic with the ball in his hands.

Reagor tested fine, but his NFL Combine didn’t do his athleticism justice. As one example, he turned in a 4.47 forty after he’d been clocked by TCU coaches at 4.29. Turn on the tape: He’s a 4.3 guy.

More than just a burner, Reagor is a flashy sports car of an athlete, explosive and sleek. When the quarterback play is right, he wins all the over field. His movements are so sudden, and they come at such high speeds, that the feet of defensive backs sometimes get confused. 

Reagor is a victim of circumstance. The school he chose just so happened to go through a spat of rough quarterback play at the end of his career. And once he set off for the NFL, he found himself in one of the most loaded receiver classes of all-time. I think all of that could conspire to make Reagor available at a discount in April. He’s a unique weapon with a game that’ll play up at the next level when he unites with a quarterback that can hit him on the hands.

8. Michael Pittman Jr. (USC) | 6'4/223 


SPARQ percentile: 85.7

Adjusted SPARQ: .47

RAS: 9.19

Comp: Kenny Golladay

A steady riser at USC -- he posted escalating receptions, yards and touchdowns in every season of his career -- Pittman topped out with a robust 101-1207-11 receiving line in 2019 playing in a revamped offense under HC Graham Harrell and a sudden-star freshman quarterback in Kedon Slovis.

Harrell’s involvement in Pittman’s ascension is an important one for the next level, because it allowed Pittman an opportunity to play in a wide-open, up-tempo system -- the kinds which are blossoming in the NFL -- after two years in the wilderness with Clay Helton and Tee Martin.

Pittman catches seemingly everything that's on target, dropping just five passes on 176 catchable targets for his career at USC. Pittman is a killer possession receiver, but the exciting part is that his upside is beyond the short-to-intermediate. Last season, Pittman posted a deep grade on PFF of 90.6.

Pittman had an eye-opening showing at the NFL Scouting Combine, with a 4.51 second 40-yard dash and 85th percentile athleticism. Think Kenny Golladay, who might as well be Pittman’s clone in terms of college production and athletic testing.

He might make his bones as a possession receiver while offering a high floor as a starting WR2, but I’m intrigued by what he could develop into given what he’s already shown on the field and what he proved about his athletic profile in Indy.

9. Brandon Aiyuk (Arizona State) | 6'0/205


SPARQ percentile: 89.4

Adjusted SPARQ: .76

RAS: 8.62

Comp: Robert Woods (Zierlein)

A former JUCO All-American who took a backseat to N’Keal Harry in 2018, Aiyuk exploded for a 65-1192-8 line in 2019 as Arizona State’s go-to receiver. That earned him third-team All-American honors. Aiyuk continued to be a menace as a return man, too, both on kicks and punts.

Aiyuk is a fascinating prospect who requires some projection, as he’s early on the developmental curve. He’s short but well-built, with a fascinating physiological quirk: Aiyuk boasts an 80-inch wingspan. That’s the same wingspan as Chase Claypool, and it’s bigger than guys like Colin Johnson and Michael Pittman. Those unnaturally long arms give Aiyuk a deceivingly large catch radius for a player his size. 

He’s also a home-run hitting athlete. Aiyuk tested near the 90th percentile athletically in Indianapolis, and every ounce of it translates to the field. Per PFF, he led this WR class in yards after the catch between 2017-2019 with 9.9 (minimum 500 snaps). The next closest was Henry Ruggs with 9.0. Whereas a decent chunk of Ruggs’ YAC yards came on sprints across green grass after getting behind the defense, Aiyuk’s elusiveness, power and vision evoke a running back in the open field. He broke 14 tackles last year. And once he finds a crack of daylight, the defense is toast.

There’s a lot to love about the package, especially since Aiyuk will likely be available at a discount because of the depth of this receiver class. He falls outside of the first few tiers of receivers because he was only an FBS standout for one year and remains raw. Despite his athleticism, Aiyuk has had problems consistently separating deep, an issue he tried to solve at ASU by using his long arms as barriers. 

That’s not sustainable. This issue is exasperated by his Achilles heel of coming up short in contested situations (only three contested catches on 14 targets in his career). To become more than a special teams standout and No. 3 WR specializing in underneath stuff, Aiyuk will have to improve in those areas.

10. Tee Higgins (Clemson) | 6'4/216


SPARQ percentile: N/A

Adjusted SPARQ: N/A

RAS: 4.2

Comp: Mike Williams

Higgins, a former five-star recruit, is such a gifted athlete that basketball programs were all over him before he elected to give his athletic future to football. Following a forgettable first season-and-a-half playing with QB Kelly Bryant, Higgins immediately began to live up to his mega-stud billing after Trevor Lawrence took over six games into his sophomore campaign. PFF graded Higgins as a top-10 national receiver in each of the last two seasons.

With Lawrence at the helm, Higgins became a cheat code. Arguably the most reliable jump-ball player in the nation the past few years and equipped with an enormous catch radius, the former hoopster would reliably come down with the rebounds Lawrence served up downfield. Higgins finished in the top-10 of the nation in both downfield receptions and deep yards.

Not only does Higgins’ frame and leaping ability give him the ability to reach just about any ball, but his hands are amongst the surest in the class. He was a touchdown machine at Clemson because of this skillset, and he’ll continue to terrorize defensive backs in the red zone in the NFL.  

My concern with Higgins is the lack of athleticism. He sat out NFL Combine testing and then had a thoroughly underwhelming pro day, with decent showings in the 40 (4.54) and broad jump (10’3) and unsightly showings elsewhere, save for the 3-cone, which he declined to run. Maybe for the best. Higgins is a straight-line mover (101.69 speed score) who is otherwise an underwhelming athlete (4.2 RAS). 

He does not change directions crisply, which hurts him both running routes and after the catch. Good college corners were able to crowd him, though Higgins many times got the last laugh by introducing a sliver of cushion before taking off for flight and then out-skying his opponent. For a presumed first-round receiver in a stacked WR class, the translation of his game into the speed-and-space NFL concerns me slightly. But Higgins' ball skills and downfield acumen are so strong that you can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Thor Nystrom

Thor Nystrom is NBC Sports Edge’s lead CFB writer. The 2018 FSWA College Sports Writer of the Year, Nystrom’s writing has also been honored by Rolling Stone magazine and The Best American Essays series. Say hi to him on Twitter @thorku!