Loading scores...
NFL Draft Order

2021 NFL Draft Wide Receiver Deep Sleepers

by Eric Froton
Updated On: March 12, 2021, 10:04 am ET

In the course of my duties here at NBCSports Edge, I watch an endless stream of college football from bell-to-bell every Saturday during the fall. While this schedule doesn't do much to enhance my social life, it does allow me to watch sub-Power Five teams with regularity, giving me a real-time perspective on some very talented receivers who I perceive to be getting overlooked in the pre-draft evaluation process. 

My aim is to put their respective collegiate careers into perspective so you have a better understanding of why a particular player could be a valuable selection for your NFL team.

 

Jaelon Darden, UNT

A native of the talent-rich Houston, TX area, Darden was considered a three-star caliber recruit that ranked as the 237th best wideout from the 2017 high school class. He actually played quarterback at Aldine Eisenhower high school, where the diminutive sparkplug was a first-team all-district selection. 

Despite switching positions, he saw extensive action as a true freshman in 2017, flashing a natural ability to make tough catches as 10 of his 32 receptions were contested. Now his target depth was very shallow with an average of 6.5 air-yards per target, but Darden was getting his feet wet against higher level competition.

What I find encouraging about Darden’s trend line is in each of his four years at UNT his counting stats, as well as advanced data, show consistent year over year improvement. For instance he increased his production in receptions, yardage and touchdown, along with advanced metrics such as yards per route, YAC, average target depth, and PFF receiving grade each year for four years in a row. That kind of constant development doesn’t occur unless a player is a tireless worker and coachable. Those vital traits translate in every facet of life, and will bode well for his NFL success.

His elite speed tools were on full display against one of the few Power Five teams in his collegiate career, when the North Texas star faced off against Cal in 2019. His explosive moment came when he motioned right, caught a quick screen, and beat fourth-round 2020 safety Jaylinn Hawkins to the sideline before turning upfield for a 68-yard touchdown. 

In 2020 when he was named a consensus All-American, Darden’s 89.9 PFF receiving grade ranked fourth in the country, while his 61% Dominator rating was the highest single season mark for any receiver in the class. 

His production was top flight last season, averaging 4.31 yards per route (fifth best in nation) and 7.7 yards after catch while finishing third in the country with 1,190 receiving yards despite playing in just nine games. His 74 receptions in 112 targets were good for a 66% catch rate while leading the country in tackles avoided with 23. Though he doesn’t break many tackles when a defender get hands on him, he has an uncanny ability to avoid them due to his incredible elusiveness. 

Darden only made 9 contested catches on the year, which is on the low side considering he had 74 receptions. However that number was actually more than two of the other high-profile slot receivers in this draft class, Kadarius Toney and Amari Rodgers, who both recorded seven contested grabs each. Turns out you don’t have to make as many contested grabs when nobody can keep up with you.

UNT HC Seth Littrell used lots of jet motion to create space for Darden to attack defenses laterally and take advantage of his speed. Though his straight line speed is likely in the 4.3-4.4 range, his ability to hit the gas and accelerate is what really separates JD from the pack. 

Predominantly a slot receiver, Darden gets flexed out wide to exploit favorable matchups on occasion, lining up wide on 14% of his routes in 2020. The prime example being against Charlotte when he ran 25% of his snaps out wide and expanded his average target depth to 19.2 yards. A significant increase from his 12.9 ADOT average on the year. For comparisons sake, Toney averaged a 7.7 ADOT, Rodgers averaged 7.6 and Rondale Moore’s average target depth was just 2.6 yards(!), showing that Darden is much more comfortable working down the field than the more heralded slot receivers from this class. 

Though he is light at 5’9/174 and can be susceptible to physical play, it remains to be seen if his frame can handle extra weight to help him play through contact and still maintain the elite twitch skills that make him special. He actively runs around jams as opposed to using technique in order to free up off the line and avoid disruption, while Darden's excellent footwork and change of direction ability make him a matchup nightmare once he releases off the line.

Darden is not even ranked by several top draft experts, with Tony Pauline being the lowest of those who had him actually listed at WR46. PFF is by FAR the highest on the UNT slot machine, as the Cincinnati data wonks rank him all the way up at WR11. While I’m not quite that high on him, I still have Darden rated as WR15 and think he’s a great value anywhere outside the top 90-100 selections. Value-wise, I’d rather select him in round four than Kadarius Toney in Round 1.

 

Tamorrion Terry, FSU

Only a three-star receiver who was rated as the 52nd best wideout in his high school class by 247Sports, Scary Terry redshirted as a freshman before having a breakout 2018 season at age 20. His explosive bonafides showed up immediately, catching 35-of-67 passes for 744 yards, 21.3 YPC and eight touchdowns. He still had plenty to work on, of course, as his 14% drop rate, 1.65 Y/RR and 52% cate rate will attest. However the Seminole wideout did make a contested catch on 12 of his 35 receptions, so his penchant for making difficult plays was evident early on. With an average target depth of 18.6 yards, Terry was used as a pop-topping field stretcher who mercifully tried to keep Cam Akers from being bludgeoned every down by opposing defenses thanks to a notoriously porous 2018 FSU offensive line.

He built on a revelatory 2018 campaign by reeling in 60-of-103 passes for 1,187 yards, nine touchdowns and a 19.8 YPC. He varied his route tree more as well, with his average target depth dropping to 13.5 yards. The decrease afforded Terry the opportunity to make more plays with the ball in his hands, and he responded by doubling his yards after catch from 5.2 YAC to 10.4. A mark that ranked 13th best in the country. His drop rate also improved from 14% the year prior to 9%. Still not great, but certainly a step in the right direction. His ability to make difficult contested catches proliferated, as he snagged 11 such passes.

A pair of nagging injuries derailed his 2020 as he took a vicious hit to the solar plexus in the season opener against Georgia Tech, while battling a knee injury early in the season before having a cleanup procedure in mid-October. Terry briefly returned in November against ACC rival Pitt, but clearly was still affected by the injury. Even with an upper body ailment and a knee problem that would be operated on mere hours afterwards, his eye-popping nine catch, 146 yard, one touchdown performance against CFP participant Notre Dame showed Terry is capable of producing against high level competition.

Terry has room to put weight on his lean frame and reportedly focused on filling-out in his NFL Draft offseason training regimen and expect to be in the 215-220 pound range for pro day workouts after playing at 203 pounds in 2019. I'm curious to see if he maintains his acceleration and speed at his pro day given his new bulk, as he plays fast and rarely gets caught when he gets a step on opposing defenders. He accelerates well out of his cuts and sets up double-moves (which he utilized to devastating effect for multiple touchdowns) on the outside by breaking slants off for big plays. Just ask Notre Dame DB Shaun Crawford how it felt to get burned for a long TD on a beautifully executed Slant/Go by the FSU wideout

Despite his size, the FSU wideout doesn’t play with the physicality you would like to see from a receiver of his stature. Though he does adjust well to deep balls, Terry could be more assertive in attacking the ball at the catch point as opposed to waiting for it to come to him. 

Regardless, he’s still dangerous in one-on-one situations as his 58 yards per touchdown reception average in 2019 will attest. His 2020 tape shows improved change of direction burst, which I feel is a somewhat overblown criticism being leveled at him by the draft community. That being said, his route running could use work as he has a tendency to round off his cuts. 

PFF rates Terry 26th at the wideout position, while Tony Pauline has him at 29th. TDN is particularly low on him, rating the FSU wideout 37th while McShay is the most bullish at 19th. Put me on Team McShay when it comes to Terry’s NFL Draft value, as I have him as my WR18.

 

Austin Watkins, UAB

A native of Fort Myers, FL, Watkins was virtually off the FBS recruiting radar coming out of high school. As such, he opted to attend Dodge City Junior College before transferring to UAB in 2018, eschewing offers from Akron, Bowling Green, Southern Miss and Marshall. The new four game redshirt rule worked to his favor in 2018, with the 6-foot-3, 210-pound receiver playing in four games and logging seven receptions for 82 yards before sitting out the remainder of the season in order to preserve an extra year of eligibility.

Watkins then broke out in a big way in 2019, recording 57 receptions in 94 targets for 1,092 yards, a 19.2 YPC (19th in the nation) and six touchdowns in 13 games en route to Second Team All C-USA status. A prolific field stretcher, he led the nation in Deep Targets in 2019 with 42, comprising 44.7% of his overall targets, while catching 16 of them. The Blazers' number three all-time receiver also displayed incredible hands, dropping only one pass in 58 catchable targets on the year. 

The former unheralded two-star rated JUCO transfer picked up right where he left off in 2020, as he led the nation in targets without a drop, spanning 55 balls thrown his way. Considering how often he was looked at on throws of 20+ yards, it’s even more impressive that he dropped only one pass in 157 targets during his collegiate career, as longer throws are demonstrably more difficult to reel in than screens or hitches.

Despite solid production, Watkins was victimized by sub-standard QB play in 2020, as Bryson Lucero averaged 6.6 YPA with a 7-to-8 TD/INT ratio in 146 attempts. Conversely, Tyler Johnston III averaged 8.7 YPA with a 7/1 ratio. If Johnston III had stayed healthy, Watkins would have produced numbers more in line with his 2019 breakout.

Instead, his Y/RR dropped from 3.10, which was good for 12th best nationally in 2019, to 2.41. Watkins’ average target depth also cratered from 19.6 yards to 15.7. Even at the G5 level, if you have a quarterback that doesn’t have the juice to propel the ball downfield accurately, there’s not much his receiver can do about it. 

In the long run it might have been better for his development, as it forced Watkins to focus on developing his footwork on short to intermediate routes, making him a more well-rounded wideout. The majority of his work this season came within the first 20 yards of the line of scrimmage, as 33 of his 55 targets were in that range, with only five passes coming behind the line. 

Skills-wise, he has unusually quick ramp-up speed and agility for a wideout with his size. Watkins is tough at the catch point and very physical after the catch. He obviously has deep threat acumen with the craftiness to work intermediate routes as he is fearless in traffic and not afraid to take a hit. These skills make him particularly effective between the hashes, catching 15-of-20 targets in the middle of the field within 20 yards or less. 

The Blazers’ standout is a solid route runner, but could clean up some technical hiccups which can be remedied by proper coaching at the next level. Also of note is Watkins was named to Bruce Feldman’s prestigious freak list, allegedly running a 4.47 40, bench pressing 365 pounds and squatting 500 pounds in UAB testing.

PFF is the highest draft prognosticator on Watkins, ranking him 28th. Whereas McShay is the lowest on him at 35. I have him ranked in the 25 range and view the UAB overachiever as one of my favorite 5th-6th round worthy stabs in the entire WR class.

 

Jonathan Adams Jr, Arkansas State

An all-state basketball star from Jonesboro, Arkansas, Adams is another middling two-star prospect who grinded his way into NFL Draft consideration. He saw the field right out of the gate as a true freshman in 2017, playing in 11 games while catching eight passes for 77 yards and a touchdown in a reserve role. 

He continued to push for playing time in 2018, grabbing 17-of-37 passes for 267 yards and three touchdowns, but struggled with four drops in 21 catch opportunities. You simply cannot drop almost 20% of targets and expect to stick around at The Shield level.

He seized the starting Z-WR position opposite All-American Omar Bayless in ASU’s high-flying offense, securing 62-of-101 targets for a 61.4% catch rate, 851 yards, 13.7 YPC and five touchdowns in his breakout season. He pared down his drops, putting only four balls on the ground in 66 catch opportunities while forcing nine missed tackles. However inconsistency led to a middling PFF receiving grade of 65.8. 

In 2020, with Bayless moving on, Adams finally got the opportunity to be the WR1 and excelled in the primary role. His 78 receptions in 121 targets, 65% catch rate, 1,106 yards and 12 touchdowns were the culmination of years of hard work for the hulking wideout. He led the nation in contested catches with 23. For perspective, the next highest contested catch total in the country was 11. Meaning he literally doubled the next closest receiver in that metric. He improved his production from an advanced data standpoint across the board, including jumping from a 96.6 passer rating when targeted to a smoking 123.5 rating. 

However his issues with drops cropped up again, with Adams duffing 11 passes on 89 opportunities. Concentration drops have been a worrying trend, as the super-sized receiver was even benched for a spell in his first 2020 game against Memphis due to a blatant lazy drop, which led to him logging his season low of snaps with 36. In fact, Adams registered at least one drop in nine of his ten games played last season. Not great, Bob!

Despite those challenges, Adams clearly has highlight-reel playmaking ability due to advanced ball skills, speed, physicality and catch radius. He leverages his thick frame extremely in contested situations and to win on the outside while showing an uncanny knack for making athletic catches thanks to impressive body control. The traits outlined here made him a red zone monster despite questionable change of direction ability. 

Despite weighing 220 pounds Adams posted tantalizing EXOS combine numbers, running a 4.48 second 40-yard dash, 41.5 inch vertical, 126 inch broad jump, 6.9 second three-cone and 4.13 shuttle run. Though his game tape boasts some jaw-dropping catches, I did not expect him to run a sub-4.5 at his size.

Where he gets into trouble is his lack of shiftiness, as Adams does not change direction well and has trouble accelerating on bounce routes. The Red Wolves' star also has a tendency run upright and can struggle to get separation as a consequence of his rather mundane route running polish. 

Prior to his testing numbers being made public, many leading draft aficionados didn’t even have Adams ranked in their top-30 draft eligible wide receivers. PFF rates him the highest at WR22, while Xpand The Boxscore has him slightly lower at 24. I think their rankings are right on the money, as Adams is certainly worthy of a 6th-7th round selection.

 

Warren Jackson, Colorado State

Jackson is a three-star, two-sport athlete who had been committed to Arizona for a year before flipping his commitment at the last minute to Colorado State. It’s an uncommon move for a California kid, since Arizona has a much more temperate climate than Fort Collins, CO. However it turned out to be the right decision, as the 6’6/215 receiver’s skills have flourished at CSU.

He played sparingly in 2017 before spending 2018 as the understudy to current Miami Dolphins WR Preston Williams, catching 32-of-49 passes for 405 yards and four touchdowns as a part-time starter. 

2019 was a spectacular season for Jackson, securing 77-of-120 passes, a 64% YPC, for 1,119 yards, 14.5 YPC and eight touchdowns. The towering wideout made the most of his opportunities, as his 2.99 yards per route ranked 25th overall while sporting an exceptional 89.6 PFF receiving grade paired with 85.2 hands grade. His 89.6 grade is the fifth highest single-season grade in the 2021 draft class. 

Jackson performed admirably against advanced G5/P5 competition as well, posting an 8/87/1 line against Colorado and 8/84/1 against Boise State in 2019. He must have really liked the smurf-turf field, as the skyscraping receiver also lit up Boise for 9/105/2 in 2018 in a game that was effectively his coming out party.

Towering size allows him to absorb blows across the middle on hospital balls that would ruin smaller WRs. Time and time again, Jackson looked like a power forward easily pulling down rebounds over diminutive point guards on crossing routes and slants between the hashes. The defending safeties look helpless to do anything about it. He sets up breaks well despite his long frame, but still needs more refinement in his route running. He does have a tendency to body catch at times when anticipating contact over the middle at times though.

Real tough to cover 1-on-1 in the boundary, as cornerbacks who give up outside releases to him at their own peril. Tracks the ball extremely well on back shoulder throws, which is an advanced skill at the collegiate level that is utilized regularly in NFL offensive schemes where it’s far more difficult to burn starting cornerbacks that run 4.3 40’s. He smartly uses his body to his advantage by boxing out defenders like a power forward, which isn’t surprising considering he was a standout basketball player at Bishop Alemany high school in Redondo Beach, CA. He wasn’t blessed with steady QB play, as poor ball placement was a blatant problem which likely led to Jackson having to make so many contested catches. He wasn’t thrown open very often. 

Needs to fill out more to avoid getting pushed around and jammed at the NFL level, but he’s a punishing blocker who is difficult to disengage from once his hands are locked on. Jackson’s ball skills are well developed as his tape is littered with myriad contested catches that are made possible thanks to a pair of Inspector Gadget arms that seem to extend forever thanks to a vast catch radius.

The latest in a long line of prolific receivers produced by CSU. Former teammate Preston Williams shares similar dimensions as Jackson, however he went undrafted after posting a 4.61 40-time with a top speed of 17.75 MPG. Jackson ran a 4.89 in high school, but has obviously progressed since then and hopes to hit the 4.5 mark, which is right where my favorite Jackson comp, Dorial Green-Beckham, landed. Both Williams and DGB have/had held down NFL roster spots for multiple seasons and I see the same late-round potential for this giant target.

PFF, The Draft Network and Tony Pauline all have Jackson rated in the WR30+ range, whereas McShay is the highest on him at WR20. I have him in the low 20’s as well and think he’s a very worthwhile 6-7th round flier for a team that is looking to add size to their WR corps.

 

Tim Jones, Southern Miss

Jones is another three-star caliber recruit who broke out in high school as a sophomore, snagging 100 passes for 1,364 yards and 15 touchdowns as a 15-year-old. The Biloxi, MS product was a two-time all-state selection who left school a fully formed prospect measuring 6’1/200 at the time of his HS graduation.

He worked alongside Philadelphia Eagles WR Quez Watkins at Southern Miss, reeling in 42-of-59 passes for a 71% catch rate, 508 yards and a touchdown in 2018 while earning a 70.6 PFF receiving grade and averaging a robust 8.4 YAC. 

Similar to the previously mentioned Jaelon Darden, Jones got incrementally better each season at USM. Breaking out in 2019 by catching 73-of-103 targets for another 71% catch rate, 900 yards and three touchdowns while boosting his PFF receiving grade up to a solid 75.8 mark. He improved his yards per route average for the third straight year and finished eighth in the country with 21 eluded tackles. The USM slot wizard also showed the ability to make plays in traffic, recording 18 contested catches on the year.

The slick wideout also gets major points for persevering through some obstacles at Southern Miss this season and not opting out despite getting injured and dealing with, and I’m putting it mildly here, a tumultuous USM coaching situation in 2020. Despite the adversity he faced, Jones secured 30-of-44 passes for a 68% catch rate, 480 yards, 16.0 YPC and four touchdowns in only six games. 

His yards per route run average improved substantially, rising from 2.06 in 2019 all the way to a solid 3.27 YPRR (19th best in the country). Jones also posted an 88.3 PFF receiving grade, which was the 11th highest grade that PFF awarded last season. Of his 30 receptions, 12 were contested. He experienced some hands issues in 2019 (8 in 81 catchable opportunities - 9.8% drop rate) but tightened up in 2020, dropping only two of 32 passes for a much better 6.2% drop percentage. 

Jones worked all around the formation, logging 58% of his snaps on the outside in 2020 after spending the previous three years as a slot only, though he’s likely to project as a slot for NFL purposes. He’s sleek after the catch with fluid hips and wins with agility and quickness. The USM target hog is also extremely adept at getting free from would-be tacklers, as his 21 forced missed tackles in 2019 (eighth most in country) will attest. 

He showed an advanced feel for space against zone coverage with an above average ability to change direction and accelerate off his cuts. Flashed some red zone skills, as he frequently lined up outside in goal line sets to give him more space to work with, allowing him the space to elevate and high point jump balls in end zone. However his production was somewhat inconsistent in the shortened confines, with Jones only punching in nine touchdowns in 150 career receptions over his four years on campus. 

A willing blocker who will occasionally line up tight to help in run support thanks to his rocked up physique. Gets good separation against G5 competition, but not a vertical threat on outside, as is evidenced by him only receiving 14 deep looks out of 147 targets over the last two years. Wins between the hashes and is not as dangerous working the sideline. All reports out of the USM program indicate he is a consummate teammate.

Southern Miss' star wideout is a true deep sleeper, as the composite expert ranks have him in the WR45 range. I've had an affinity for Jones’ talent dating back to 2018 and currently rate him as WR27. I sincerely hope some team gives Mr. Jones - and me - a shot on draft day. 

Eric Froton

Eric Froton is a College Fantasy Football, DFS, gambling and NFL Draft analyst who started his first CFF league back in the dead-ball era of 2000 where he had to collate game stats by hand. He has been with NBC Sports EDGE since 2019 when he won his conference and earned the No. 1 seed in the EDGE 50-Team CFF Expert Ultra-League. Eric also reached the championship game of the 2019 CFF Industry Expert 20-Team IDP Dynasty league. In 2020 he was named the FSWA College Sports Writer of the Year and hit at a 70% rate on his weekly college football player props column. Eric currently lives in San Diego with his wife and baby boy. You can follow Eric on Twitter @CFFroton.