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NFL: Panthers Draft Review – Wide Receivers

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Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

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Ed note: With the rapid rise of former Mac Attack Intern turned NFL draft savant Josh “Casper” Norris, we’re at it again. This time, former Mac Attack intern/draftnik Danny Guy will be covering the lead up to the NFL Draft for the show here on WFNZ.com, with a focus on the Panthers specific needs and breaking down the draft class by position. Have any questions, ask in the comments or interact with Danny on twitter: @danny_g13]

Grading the 2013 Draft: Wide Receivers

Tavon Austin – 5’9” – 174 lbs – West Virginia – As far as playmakers in this Draft, there may not be a better one than Austin.  He has elite speed and elusiveness, and can not only be a weapon catching passes, but also taking hand offs, and returning kicks and punts.  But is he the best Wide Receiver in this Draft?

Strengths

Top End Speed: One of the fastest players in this Draft.  Not only does he have exceptional speed, he also has incredible acceleration at well.  When he catches the ball he explodes away like he was shot out of a cannon, and he shows the ability to run up under balls when needed.
Elusiveness: The only thing deadlier than a fast guy, is a fast guy who can evade tacklers.  Austin, is one of the best in the class at doing just that.  He shows excellent vision once the ball is in his hands to find cutback lanes to exploit.  He’s quite simply a YAC machine.
Versatility: It’s almost unfair to call Austin a Receiver, a much better label is probably “weapon”.  You can potentially line him up outside, in the slot, get him the ball on end arounds, put him at tailback, and back deep as a returner.  Austin is a “chess piece” if you will, that you can move around the field to exploit mismatches.
Toughness: Even at 5’9” Austin has a little nastiness to his game.  He plays much tougher than his size would indicate, and has good upper body strength for a man his size to fight through tackles.  He also fights for every inch, at times bouncing off tackle attempts to pick up extra yards.  When he’s popped, he routinely jumps right back up ready for the next play.

Weaknesses

Size: Even though he plays bigger than his 5’9” frame, his size does hinder him at times.  He may be limited to the slot position at Wide Receiver due to his size, and will likely have trouble fighting off press coverage from more physical Cornerbacks.  While durability was never a concern at West Virginia, the hits will be much harder from much stronger players at the next level.
Hands: Has good, but not great hands.  At times has trouble cleanly catching passes with a good deal of velocity.  Also lets more passes into his chest then you would like to see.
Route Tree: Ran most quick screens, fly routes, shallow crosses, and jet patterns at West Virginia.  Will need to prove he can run a larger variety of routes to excel at the next level.

Projection: Austin lately has been one of the hottest names in the 2013 Draft.  He came into the combine needed to prove he was a first round prospect, and did just that with a blistering 4.34 second 40, and a respectable showing in the receiver drills.  He has an exceptional combination of speed and elusiveness, and despite his size is a tough football player.  His versatility should have most offensive coordinators drooling, however he may be limited as far as the Wide Receiver position at the next level.  He still needs to improve his hands, and evolve his route tree, but with that said I expect Austin to be a definite top 15 pick, with a strong chance he goes in the top ten.

Cordarrelle Patterson – 6’2” – 216 lbs – Tennessee – Another hot name at the Receiver position, is a guy from just down the road in Rock Hill, Cordarrelle Patterson.  Patterson has a rare mix of size and athleticism that has most comparing him to Julio Jones.  But while Jones has been ever bit worth his top ten Draft choice in 2011, Patterson may be a much riskier first round pick.

Strengths

Physical Gifts: Patterson is a freak specimen in every sense of the word.  He’s got a large frame to shield defenders, and has elite level top end speed.  He has great leaping ability, and the ability to stop and accelerate again in an instant.
Hands: Uses his hands well to fight Corners throughout a route.  Shows an ability to position his hands on a defenders bodies to create separation without drawing penalties.
Acceleration: Gets to top speed in very few steps after the catch.  Is a long strider who can cover a lot of ground in a short about of time.
Vision: Great vision with the ball in his hands.  Finds cutback lanes, and eludes tacklers down field.  Shows good ability as a returner, and when getting the ball on an end around.  Also was used sparingly as a running back, showing some versatility in what you can do with him.

Weaknesses

Raw: Patterson is still an extremely raw athlete, and while there’s a ton of upside, there’s also a very low floor at the next level.  Will need to learn how to run a complete route tree, as well as proper technique for fighting off press coverage.  He also wasn’t asked to high point the football on a regular basis, so he will need to prove he can do so.
Hands: Consistently lets the ball get into his chest, instead of catching with his hands.  This could cause issues with completing catches on a regular basis at the next level.
Aggressiveness: While you always like to see a player fight on plays, sometimes it’s best to know when to call it quits.  Patterson shows a great desire to make plays out of nothing, however at times it can come back to bite him.  At times he found himself losing yards after the catch just because he tried to cut back to the other side of the field instead of lowering his shoulder and picking up what he could.

Projection: There may not be a player with more upside at the Receiver position than Patterson in this Draft.  With that said, there may not be a  riskier pick either.  Patterson possesses rare natural ability and physical skills that are normally reserved for the elite Receivers at the next level.  He also shows great instincts with the ball in his hands to make plays happen, however, he’s extremely raw, and has shown a tendency to catch the ball with his body where you would like to see him use his hands more.  He also will need to learn proper technique, as well as a complete route tree.  He’s a bit of a project, and there’s no guarantee he will pan out, but in my opinion his upside will assure a top 25 selection.

Justin Hunter – 6’4” – 196 lbs – Tennessee – Patterson’s teammate might be the better or the two when all is said and done.  Hunter has some of the same incredible physical gifts as Patterson, in a slightly more refined and complete product.  He does have some consistency concerns, and well as a knee injury that will need to be checked out, but in my opinion he has too much ability to not go in the first round.

Strengths

Physical Gifts: Hunter doesn’t have the same large frame that Patterson has, but he’s got great length at 6’4” with 33” arms.  He’s a blazer with sub 4.4 speed, and has great leaping ability with a 40” vertical.
Route Running: Hunter is a smooth route runner, who shows the ability to run a more complete route tree.  He’s clean out of his breaks which helps him create separation, and makes sharp cuts instead of rounding off his routes.  He also shows his ability to get on and off the gas in order to deceive Corners throughout the route.
Elusiveness:   Possesses good quickness, and shakes, showing the ability to elude and break tackles on quick screens as well as downfield.  Routinely makes the first man after the catch miss, picking up YAC on a regular basis.
Ball Skills: Tracks the ball exceptionally, showing the ability to run under catches as well as high point the football well.  The majority of the time, he displays soft hands, plucking the ball out of the air before it can get into his body.

Weaknesses

Consistency: At times his technique can lapse, causing his routes and hands to get sloppy.  Makes the incredibly hard catches look easy, and then drops the easy receptions more than you would care to see.  Despite showing the ability to hand catch consistently, has times where he reverts back to body catching and double catching the football.
Focus: Has shown at times to get visibly frustrated with bad passes.  It appears he lets this get to him, as his game can suffer afterwards.
Lean: Has a very lean frame despite his prototypical height.  Will need to bulk up in order to fight through the press, and contribute as a blocker.
Injury: Tore his ACL in 2011, and will need to show he can play without setbacks, and show he can continue to be explosive as he was before the injury.

Projection: Hunter is a really interesting prospect.  He’s graded by most Draft sites as a second round prospect and most years I would agree.  However, there’s no real can’t miss Wide Receiver in this draft, just a lot of really good players at the position.  Hunter has a chance to be a special Wide Receiver if he can correct some of the mental issues he seems to have, in addition to continuing to evolve his game.  He needs to bulk up to be more effective in all situations, however he has a physical skill set that’s hard not to like.  If a team can keep him focused, he can be an exceptional player.  For this reason, I expect a team to take a chance on him in the late first round area.

Robert Woods – 6’1” – 201 lbs – Southern California – While putting a USC Wide Receiver on my playmakers list might be a little unsettling to some Panthers fans, at the end of the day it’s about finding the best football players.  In my, and many scout’s opinions, Woods is one of the best Wide Receiver prospects in this Draft.  He may not be the fastest, biggest or strongest guy, but he does a lot of things exceptionally well that transition to the NFL.

Strengths

Route Running: Perhaps his best trait.  He cuts sharply rather than rounding off routes, which helps him to create natural separation.  His route tree may be the most complete of any Wide Receiver in the draft, showing the ability to not only run any route, but excel at them.
Vision: Great vision for cutback lanes when he has the ball in space.  Makes quick cuts to evade tackles, despite not being the most elusive player.  Doesn’t have elite top end speed, but shows a nice burst after the catch.
Hands: Natural hands catcher, plucking the ball out of the air before it hits his pads on a regular basis.  Rarely does he drop a catchable pass.
Intangibles: Woods has been regarded as one of the hardest workers on the Trojans football team ever since arriving in 2010.  Not only is he a hard worker, but he’s a competitor.  He fights for position in jump ball situations, and despite his size more than holds his own on these 50-50 balls.

Weaknesses

Physical Traits: His physical ability isn’t going to wow anyone.  He’s got average size, and while he’s not slow nobody will mistake him for Mike Wallace.  Wins many matchups by outworking his man, which will be more difficult at the next level.
Aggressiveness: Woods has a nose for big plays, but sometimes he needs to know when to go down.  At times he can make bad decisions trying to cut back across the field trying to make a big play where there shouldn’t be one to be made.  While it worked more than it didn’t against Pac 12 opponents, he could find himself with negative yardage plays in the NFL.
Injury Concerns: Woods battled multiple ankle injuries throughout his career, including an issue that had to be surgically corrected in 2012.  While he appears to be fully healthy now, I have concerns that his ankles may be troublesome throughout his career.

Projection: Most Panthers fans probably still have a sour taste in their mouth from the last two rounds with USC Wide Receivers, but rest assured Robert Woods is a much different player than Keary Colbert or Dwayne Jarrett.  Unlike the other two Woods is an exceptional route runner, with soft hands.  He’s got great vision with the ball in his hands, but most importantly you would have a difficult time finding a harder worker.  He does have several issues including a past dealing with ankle injuries that concerns me, but I still feel he is a late first round selection.

Other Early Wide Receivers I Like

DeAndre Hopkins – 6’1” – 214 lbs – Clemson – A strong Wide Receiver who has an extra gear when he needs it.  He catches the ball well, and generates a good amount of YAC with good vision once the ball is in his hands.  He competes for the ball at a high level, and uses his body well to shield defenders.  Hopkins does have a tendency to go down on first contact, and like Woods doesn’t have the physical attributes (height, speed) you would ideally want.  He still needs to improve his consistency, and I would like to see him improve his ability as a hands catcher more.  I expect Hopkins to be a late first to early second round pick.

Keenan Allen – 6’2” – 206 lbs – California – Allen is a local prospect, who grew up in Greensboro and left home to play with his half-brother Zach Maynard at Cal.  In hindsight, it may not have been the best decision, as Maynard’s play probably hurt his Draft stock.  With that said, Allen is a physical Wide Receiver who fights for yards after the catch.  He has great hands, and knows how to shield defenders with his body.  He’s not fast, but creates separation with exceptional route running and quick feet.  He competes well for the ball, and has experience playing at the outside Receiver positions and in the slot.  He lacks elite top end speed, and exceptional elusiveness.  He needs to continue to improve as a blocker to be an every down Receiver, and he has an injury concern with a PCL injury that ended his 2012 season.  I expect Allen to be drafted somewhere between the late first round to middle of the second round.

Markus Wheaton – 5’11” – 189 lbs – Oregon State – Wheaton is a Wide Receiver I love in the second round, as he reminds me a lot of another elite playmaker in Mike Wallace.  Like Wallace, Wheaton is an exceptionally quick Receiver with speed to beat most Corners in the NFL.  He accelerates exceptionally well, and despite his size works well against press coverage.  He keeps working throughout the route, and shows an ability to catch the ball with his hands on a regular basis.  He tracks the ball well, and has good elusiveness to generate YAC.  His frame is on the lean size raising concerns about his durability, and there are concerns he may be a product of a system.  He also doesn’t cut as sharply as other Receivers throughout his routes, and he’s an inconsistent but competitive blocker downfield.  I expect Wheaton to be selected somewhere between the middle of the second round to early in the third.

Da’Rick Rogers – 6’3” – 217 lbs – Tennessee Tech – One of the more gifted pass catchers in the Draft is the former Volunteer Da’Rick Rogers.  Rogers is a large physical Wide Receiver, who has enough top end speed to be a threat downfield as well.  He’s got some versatility, playing all three Receiver positions while at Tennessee, and he’s extremely difficult to press because of his physical nature.  He’s a tough player who takes big hits and keeps going, and he competes well, fighting for extra yardage.  He has several maturity issues including his effort on field being questioned, as well as legitimate character concerns after his dismissal from Tennessee.  He also doesn’t possess the extra gear you like to see in number one Wide Receivers, and at times struggles to find the football in flight.  I expect Rogers to be a solid third round selection.

Sleepers

Kenny Stills – 6’1” – 194 lbs – Oklahoma – One of my favorite players available in the middle of the Draft is the Sooners Kenny Stills.  Stills is a great athlete, who has exceptional quickness and balance.  He’s got good ability to adjust to the pass, and displays soft hands as a natural catcher.  He runs good (not great) routes, and utilizes great footwork to create space.  He’s got A+ top end speed, including a second gear to run by defenders down field.  He’s also tougher than his size would lead you to believe, and appears to take pride in his blocking.  He does need to improve the sharpness of his cuts, as well as being consistent throughout an entire game.  He also has some character questions after several off the field incidents during his time at Oklahoma.  I expect Stills to be a solid fourth round pick.

Marquess Wilson – 6’3” – 194 lbs – Washington State – One other sleeper at Wide Receiver that I will be certainly keeping my eyes on is Washington State’s Marquess Wilson.  The CA native had an exceptional start to his college career, before having it end unceremoniously as a Junior with him quitting the team.  Despite that though, Wilson has some tools that make him a very attractive developmental Wide Receiver.  He’s got great length, and is a long strider with very good top end speed.  He competes well in jump ball situations, and shows ability to be a natural hands catcher.  He adjusts well to the ball, and has a very large catch radius.  He is physical after the catch, and has enough elusiveness to make some things happen after the catch.  Outside of obvious character issues, Wilson needs to bulk up some, and be more consistent with his hands.  While his top end speed is good, his acceleration with pads is not ideal for a downfield threat.  Also while he’s a willing blocker his technique is severely lacking.  Wilson’s Draft position is a bit hard for me to grade due to character concerns that are sure to turn some teams off.  While some teams may have Wilson as a fifth round prospect, others may have him off their board all together.  In my opinion though, he’s a solid sixth round Draft pick.

Much like the Cornerback class, this year’s Wide Receiver class is one of my favorite in the Draft.  While it may be lacking in potential superstars, the depth of the class is special.  There’s also a variety of players, from great third down possession receivers, to guys who can take the top off a defense, to elusive YAC machines.  With the Panthers obvious interest in Wide Receivers during the Draft process, I expect them to take advantage of one of the deeper classes in the Draft.  Overall I feel the Wide Receiver class is one of the strongest in the Draft because of its depth, which is why I’m giving it an identical grade as the Corner class of an A.

Previously from Danny Guy:
NFL Combine Standouts: Panthers Edition
Panthers Draft Preview: Defensive TacklesPanthers Draft Preview: Defensive Ends
Panthers Draft Preview: Linebackers
Panthers Draft Preview: Cornerbacks
Panthers Draft Preview: Cornerback Sleepers
Panthers Draft Preview: Safeties
Panthers Draft Preview: Offensive Line

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