NFL

NFL Draft: Ja'Marr Chase, DeVonta Smith headline another potentially historic wide receiver class

By Sports Desk April 23, 2021

The 2020 NFL Draft delivered one of the best wide receiver classes of the modern era, headlined by Justin Jefferson producing an historic rookie season for the Minnesota Vikings. Unfortunately for NFL defenders, the 2021 crop may well be even better.

Jefferson, having gone 22nd in the draft last year as the fifth receiver selected, set a league record for the most receiving yards by a rookie as he racked up an incredible 1,400 in 2020.

Six receivers went in the first 32 picks last year, with CeeDee Lamb, Brandon Aiyuk and Jerry Jeudy all impressing in their debut seasons in the league.

That number might not be matched this year, but it looks likely there will be at least four receivers taken on day one.

Ja'Marr Chase, DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle and Rashod Bateman all possess skill sets that should mean they too can take the league by storm as Jefferson did so emphatically last season.

Beyond that quartet, there is a deep crop of likely day-two picks who can make an immediate impact for teams looking to bolster their pass-catching options.

Franchises eyeing an infusion of talent in the slot won't be short of options and, as the league tilts ever further towards pass-heavy offenses, it is an excellent year to be in need of a receiver regardless of where they line up.

Here we take an in-depth look at the consensus top four as well as some of the best of rest in another class of wideouts that has the potential to transform offenses across the league.

Ja'Marr Chase - LSU

Widely regarded as the top receiver in the class, Chase earned that moniker despite not displaying the ability to separate from coverage at an elite level.

In 2019, Chase was open on 61.8 per cent of his targets, well below the average of 69.7 per cent among Power 5 receivers with at least 20 targets.

Yet he put up 127.1 yards per game, second in the FBS behind Arkansas State's Omar Bayless (127.2), and was second in yards per reception among receivers with at least 40 catches with an average of 21.2 that trailed only Lamb (21.4).

His pass rating when targeted of 233.0 was second in the same group, with Smith (238.6) the sole man ahead of him.

Chase excelled in spite of a lack of separation because of two factors: his hand usage and his proficiency at the catch point.

To watch Chase is perhaps as close as you will come to watching a pass rusher play receiver, excelling at working off physical press coverage and showing the willingness to aggressively handfight with defenders throughout the route to gain an advantage.

At the catch point, the explosion in his lower body that helped him record a 41-inch vertical jump at his pro day comes to the fore, with Chase consistently succeeding in elevating over the heads of defenders to come down with the ball in contested-catch situations.

His success in those areas helped Chase finish sixth among Power 5 receivers with a minimum of 50 targets with a big-play percentage of 45.6, far outranking that of former Tigers team-mate Jefferson (38.8).

After a year away from the game following his 2020 opt-out, teams picking in the top 10 must decide if Chase's skill set can translate to the NFL as well as Jefferson's did. The majority of the numbers from his critical role in LSU's march to the National Championship present a compelling case.

DeVonta Smith - Alabama

Smith could have declared for the draft last year and been considered the top Alabama receiver in a draft that saw Crimson Tide stars Henry Ruggs III and Jeudy go in the first round after a stunning 2019 in which he outperformed both.

His decision to return for 2020 was emphatically vindicated, though, with Smith becoming the first receiver since Desmond Howard in 1991 to win the Heisman Trophy.

Doubts over Smith's 166-pound frame will persist, yet there was nothing during his career with Alabama to suggest his lack of bulk will be something that prevents him from succeeding at the next level.

Adept at creating separation with his route-running, Smith was open on 85.8 per cent of his targets - seventh among all Power 5 receivers with at least 50 targets - while his burn percentage of 76.4 trailed only Ohio State duo Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave.

His talents in getting free from coverage allowed Smith to rack up 142.8 receiving yards per game, that average second in the FBS, while his passer rating when targeted improved to 283.9.

And rather than allowing himself to be hindered by his slender frame at the catch point, Smith relied on his leaping ability and body control to haul in one spectacular grab after another, his catch percentage of 79.6 eighth on the FBS list for receivers with a minimum of 50 targets.

Deceptively quick and elusive with the ball in his hands, Smith's yards after catch per reception average of 8.33 saw him rank sixth among wideouts with 40 or more receptions.

In short, there is not a facet of the game in which Smith did not excel at Alabama. Perhaps his lean frame, and the doubts over whether he can succeed against press that come with it, will put off some top-10 teams, but there is scarce little evidence Smith cannot live up to the weight of expectations that come with being drafted in the first round.

Jaylen Waddle - Alabama

The same durability concerns surrounding Smith could be applied to Waddle after his final season with Alabama was curtailed by an ankle injury, though he made an ill-advised return for their National Championship game win over Ohio State.

However, any lingering doubts over his health will likely be put to one side, with Waddle firmly established as the premier deep threat in the draft.

Blessed with game-changing speed and a remarkable talent for elevating at the catch point for a receiver of his 5ft 10in and 182-pound frame, Waddle was sensational over six games in 2020 for the Crimson Tide.

He averaged 21.1 yards per reception, a number only bettered by Western Michigan's D'Wayne Eskridge (23.3) among those with 25 catches in the FBS, frequently gaining substantial separation from defenders to make huge plays downfield.

Waddle was open on an astonishing 90.6 per cent of his targets in 2020; the average was 72.8 among receivers with a minimum of 20 targets.

That number can partially be attributed to the success of Steve Sarkisian's scheme last season. However, a burn yards per target average of 19.96 - bettered by just two receivers who met that 20-target threshold - speaks to his ability to defeat coverage with a frightening combination of agility and acceleration that helped him produce 10.3 YAC per reception (13th in the FBS for wideouts with a minimum of 25 catches).

In addition to his explosiveness, Waddle brings reliability that is not always a fixture of deep threats in the NFL. He dropped only one pass on 32 targets last year, catching 87.5 per cent of balls thrown his way (third in the FBS among receivers with at least 30 targets).

Waddle finished his final season in Tuscaloosa with a catch rating of 0.966, further illustrating his status as a receiver who excelled at hauling in catchable passes and consistently ensured those receptions ended in big plays. Nothing scares NFL defenses more than speed and, regardless of where Waddle lands, corners across the league can consider themselves on notice.

Rashod Bateman - Minnesota

While Chase, Smith and Waddle have garnered the vast majority of the attention, Bateman has an extremely credible claim for being the most well-rounded receiver in the entire class.

His case was not helped by a 2020 season in which he only played five games following a battle with coronavirus, but his 2019 campaign was one illustrative of a prospect with all the tools to blossom into a number one wideout at the highest level.

A talented downfield weapon who was open on 70.8 per cent of his targets in 2019 with an average depth of target of 16.2 yards, Bateman does an excellent job of engineering separation with his route-running.

His burn yards per target average of 16.15 was sixth among all Power 5 receivers with at least 50 targets two seasons ago and only Ruggs and Olave in the same group had a higher big-play percentage than Bateman's 50.4.

Bateman can use his 6ft 190-pound frame to dominate at the catch point, while his abilities after the catch have been severely underrated. Indeed, his missed/broken tackle per touch rate of 0.300 was superior to that of Smith (0.299) in the same year, though Chase (0.353) and Waddle (0.441) each outperformed him in that regard.

He could go well outside the top 10 but, should Bateman put everything together in pros with the same consistency as he did in college in 2019, he could prove the best of an ultra-talented bunch.

Best of the rest

For as exciting of a prospect as Bateman is, many believe Terrace Marshall Jr. is even better.

He was the forgotten man in that juggernaut LSU offense of 2019 and impressed last year when thrust into the lead receiver role following the exits of Joe Burrow, Chase, Justin Jefferson and play-caller Joe Brady.

Boasting an intriguing blend of size and speed, Marshall ranked 14th in the FBS in 2020 with 104.4 receiving yards per game. Only two receivers - Smith and Jaelon Darden - caught more than Marshall's 23 touchdowns over the last two seasons.

North Carolina's Dyami Brown is of a similar physical profile to Marshall but used it in a very different way, developing into one of college football's premier deep threats.

With an air yards per target average of 17.6 last season, Brown led FBS receivers with a minimum of 40 catches as he averaged 20.0 yards per reception.

He was open on 75.6 per cent of his targets despite having the fourth-highest average depth of target (18.0 yards) among Power 5 receivers with at least 20 targets. His burn yards per target average of 17.30 was seventh.

While Brown does the bulk of his damage getting downfield before making the catch, teams eyeing receivers who can pick up significant yardage after the reception will have taken a strong look at Florida star Kadarius Toney.

Toney enjoyed a breakout year in 2020, using the elasticity in his legs to rack up 6.93 yards after catch per reception, that average 20th among receivers with a minimum of 40 receptions.

He had a missed/broken tackle per touch rate of 0.360 that was bettered by just four wideouts among Power 5 receivers with a minimum of 50 targets.

And though there is concern about Toney's status as a one-year wonder who often ran undisciplined routes, his hands have proven extremely reliable, his catch percentage of 83.3 fourth among FBS receivers targeted at least 50 times.

Elijah Moore can't quite match Toney for YAC (6.02 per reception in 2020) but he was the picture of reliability for Ole Miss last season as he led the FBS in receiving yards per game with 149.1 while catching 84.3 per cent of his targets (third in FBS among those with 50 targets).

Ultra-dependable at the catch point, Moore demonstrates extremely strong hands, excellent ball-tracking ability and the body control to adjust to inaccurate passes. His catch rating, which measures how well a receiver successfully brings in throws that are considered catchable, of 0.989 was bettered by just one receiver in the Power 5 with at least 50 targets in 2020.

Beating defenders consistently with his lower-body agility and stop-start quickness that makes him a significant threat on double moves, just five Power 5 receivers with a minimum of 50 targets did a better job of getting open than Moore.

He was open on 86.3 per cent of his targets. Expecting Moore to immediately have the same success in the pros is unrealistic, but he has all the makings of a second-round steal.

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  • Is Chelsea new-boy Enzo Fernandez worth over £100million? Is Chelsea new-boy Enzo Fernandez worth over £100million?

    Football can feel like a Formula One race at times, with things moving so rapidly that if you blink for a second, you could miss something.

    For example, few would have been able to predict six months ago that in January 2023, a player called Enzo Fernandez would be joining Chelsea for a British-record transfer fee of £106.8million (€121m).

    Not even many Benfica fans knew much about the midfielder when he arrived from River Plate for a reported fee of €12m in July.

    Fernandez had been making a name for himself in his home country, with a loan spell at Defensa y Justicia under former Chelsea and Argentina striker Hernan Crespo convincing River Plate to give him a chance, which he took.

    After 52 appearances for Los Millonarios, interest from Europe saw Fernandez linked with some big names, and it was Benfica who took the plunge.

    The Lisbon club will be pleased they did after making a profit of well over €100m after just half a season, with the midfielder not only impressing in the Primeira Liga and Champions League, but also starring for Argentina as they lifted the World Cup in Qatar last month, with Fernandez claiming the FIFA Best Young Player of the Tournament award.

    Is he really worth all that money, though?

    Chelsea clearly think so, and in Fernandez they have bought a player who will feel like a dream come true for head coach Graham Potter.

    In his time at Brighton and Hove Albion, Potter delighted in building midfields that could dominate the ball, that could keep hold of possession while also making incisive passes to turn the opposition around.

    Despite being one of the smaller clubs in the Premier League, Potter's Brighton averaged 54.3 per cent possession in league games in 2021-22 (only Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea had more), while averaging 496 passes per game, and 59 passes into the final third per game (sixth in the league for both metrics).

    Only Man City, Arsenal and, funnily enough, Brighton have a higher possession average than Chelsea since Potter took charge at Stamford Bridge in September, while only City have attempted more passes than the Blues, which will be where Fernandez comes in.

    The man who only turned 22 earlier on January 17 is a passing machine, having completed 1,431 in total in just 17 Primeira Liga games, over 200 more than the player with the next most in the Portuguese top-flight.

    It is not simply quantity over quality either, as Fernandez has also made 248 passes into the final third, at least 51 more than any other player.

    Not only do they lead the league in terms of the table, but Benfica are also league leaders in averages for possession (66.0 per cent), passes per game (623) and passes ending in the final third per game (70.6). Their style enables Fernandez, but in turn, his ability allows them to execute it, which must have Potter salivating. 

    Fernandez showed similar form in the Champions League as Benfica surprisingly won a group that included Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus, before going on to star in the World Cup as well.

    Several big clubs had already taken a shine to him, but the astonishing figure shelled out for him by Chelsea was no doubt rubber-stamped after his performances in Qatar, with Fernandez leading all players in the epic final between Argentina and France for touches (118), successful passes (77) and tackles (10). His 10 tackles were the most of any player in a World Cup final since Gennaro Gattuso in 2006 (15).

    But is he better than what Chelsea already have?

    In the Blues' midfield this season, Mateo Kovacic leads the way in terms of number of passes per 90 in Premier League games (69.0), ahead of Jorginho (61.7), with no other player to have played more than five games averaging even 50.

    Fernandez has been averaging 84.18 successful passes per game in Portugal, though consideration must be given to the difference in strength between the Premier League and Primeira Liga. In fact, it is the second-most of any midfielder in any of Europe's top 10 leagues this season, behind only Manchester City's Rodri (84.58), and ahead of Paris Saint-Germain's Marco Verratti (78.06) and Real Madrid's Toni Kroos (74.53).

    There is also the Argentine's creativity to take into account, with Chelsea struggling to score goals this season having only managed 22 in 20 league games so far.

    In league games, of those to have played more than twice, Conor Gallagher is averaging the most chances created from open play of Potter's midfield options at 1.59 per game, followed by Carney Chukwuemeka (1.38) and Mason Mount (1.24). Fernandez has averaged 1.62 per game.

    When you consider that Potter already had Kovacic, Mount, Gallagher, N'Golo Kante, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Denis Zakaria, Lewis Hall and Chukwuemeka to choose from, with Jorginho having departed for Arsenal on deadline day, you might think spending nine figures on another midfielder to be somewhat indulgent.

    With the early promise and potential trajectory of Fernandez though, Chelsea have quite probably taken the next step in a long-term rebuild. Jorginho and Kante are both 31 years old and out of contract at the end of the season, and investing in the future rather than the past makes sense for a team that always wants to be challenging for the biggest trophies.

    With great spending comes great expectations though, and the pressure will be immense on Fernandez to not just shine on the big stage, but to do so immediately.

    Chelsea's newest addition could justifiably insist he has done just that with every challenge thrown at him in a short space of time, including the biggest challenge of winning the World Cup.

    Enzo will no doubt back himself to prove he can live up to the price tag and be the Ferrari that Graham Potter needs.

  • Chelsea sign World Cup star Fernandez for Premier League record fee Chelsea sign World Cup star Fernandez for Premier League record fee

    Enzo Fernandez has finally signed for Chelsea, becoming the Premier League's record signing after the Blues met his £106.8million (€121m) release clause at Benfica.

    Fernandez, who was named Young Player of the Tournament after helping Argentina win the 2022 World Cup, was strongly linked with Chelsea earlier in the transfer window before talks broke down.

    However, the big-spending Blues went back in for him with the end of the window drawing closer, signing Fernandez to a long-term contract – rumoured to run until 2032 – with confirmation arriving an hour and a half after the transfer window closed.

    Chelsea submitted the relevant paperwork in time and Benfica were first to announce details of the deal on their official website on Wednesday.

    His arrival takes Chelsea's spending to a reported £288.5m (€328.5m) in January alone, with the midfielder becoming their eighth signing of the window.

    Fernandez only joined Benfica from River Plate last year but has played a starring role for them since making that move, helping the Portuguese giants top their Champions League group.

    He had looked likely to remain in Lisbon at least until the end of the season, but Chelsea revisited the deal with head coach Graham Potter reportedly keen for midfield reinforcements.

    The fee surpasses the previous Premier League transfer record, set by Jack Grealish's £100m switch from Aston Villa to Manchester City in 2021.

    Fernandez could make his Chelsea debut against Fulham at Stamford Bridge on Friday, as the Blues look to climb the table after a poor run of form saw them drop to 10th position. 

    A dogged competitor with an eye for the magnificent, Fernandez featured in all seven of Argentina's games in Qatar, starting five of them after he came off the bench to net a superb goal against Mexico in the group stage.

    Fernandez's ability on the ball, as well as his tenacity, will add a new facet to Potter's midfield options.

    Only 11 players carried the ball further than Fernandez (1,239.7 metres) at the World Cup, while just 10 were involved in more shot-ending sequences than his 27.

    Fernandez boasted a duel success rate of 58.8 per cent, winning 40 of his 68 engagements at the tournament.

    He made just 17 league appearances during his short stint with Benfica, though he also featured in five group games in the Champions League.

  • BREAKING NEWS: Chelsea sign World Cup star Fernandez for Premier League record fee BREAKING NEWS: Chelsea sign World Cup star Fernandez for Premier League record fee

    Enzo Fernandez has finally signed for Chelsea, becoming the Premier League's record signing after the Blues met his £106.8million (€121m) release clause at Benfica.

    Fernandez, who was named Young Player of the Tournament after helping Argentina win the 2022 World Cup, was strongly linked with Chelsea earlier in the transfer window before talks broke down.

    However, the big-spending Blues went back in for him with the end of the window drawing closer, signing Fernandez to a long-term contract – rumoured to run until 2032 – with confirmation arriving an hour and a half after the transfer window closed.

    Chelsea submitted the relevant paperwork in time and Benfica were first to announce details of the deal on their official website on Wednesday.

    His arrival takes Chelsea's spending to a reported £288.5m (€328.5m) this month alone, with the midfielder becoming their eighth signing of the January transfer window.

    Fernandez only joined Benfica from River Plate last year but has played a starring role for them since making that move, helping the Portuguese giants top their Champions League group.

    He had looked likely to remain in Lisbon at least until the end of the season, but Chelsea revisited the deal with head coach Graham Potter reportedly keen for midfield reinforcements.

    The fee surpasses the previous Premier League transfer record, set by Jack Grealish's £100m switch from Aston Villa to Manchester City in 2021.

    Fernandez could make his Chelsea debut against Fulham at Stamford Bridge on Friday, as the Blues look to climb the table after a poor run of form saw them drop to 10th position. 

    A dogged competitor with an eye for the magnificent, Fernandez featured in all seven of Argentina's games in Qatar, starting five of them after he came off the bench to net a superb goal against Mexico in the group stage.

    Fernandez's ability on the ball, as well as his tenacity, will add a new facet to Potter's midfield options.

    Only 11 players carried the ball further than Fernandez (1,239.7 metres) at the World Cup, while just 10 were involved in more shot-ending sequences than his 27.

    Fernandez boasted a duel success rate of 58.8 per cent, winning 40 of his 68 engagements at the tournament.

    He made just 17 league appearances during his short stint with Benfica, though he also featured in five group games in the Champions League.

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