I’ve wavered on my opinion of the top WRs in this class since January when we saw Corey Davis, John Ross and Mike Williams playing in their post New Year bowl games. In fact, I ended up putting Ross ahead of Williams halfway through writing this piece but decided to flip-flop them again before publishing. I’m not sure if the fact that the three of them played on very good teams (combined 39-4 in 2016) is correlation or causation but the reality is that they will each be drafted in the first round and will be difference makers in 2017. It would be cliche to say that you can’t go wrong with any of them, so I won’t, but I will definitely revisit their order after the draft based on the fit with their NFL team because that will help provide some separation between them.
The production put up by Corey Davis at Western Michigan is astounding. The counter-argument regarding his numbers is typically about the quality of his opponents. That’s fair, but also keep in mind he’s not having passes thrown to him by a future NFL quarterback like Deshaun Watson. In addition to his production, Davis has good size (6’3″ 209lb; same measurements as Devante Parker last year) and because of that, I’m not scared away by Davis’ “mid-major” resume.
I watched film of Davis playing against Buffalo and Wisconsin. Time and again throughout both games, I was impressed by his field awareness and how he turns that into perfect routes. Whether it is knowing exactly where the first down marker is or knowing when to drag a route versus turning up field. He’s very physical and uses his body well, which was highlighted by a 2nd Quarter touchdown against Wisconsin when he basically boxed the defender out and made the catch look easy. He did something similar against Buffalo where he ran a great route near the goal line which caused the defender to hold him as he cut towards the pylon, he fought through the hold and by sheer strength turned the play into a touchdown rather than an accepted penalty. In addition to his physicality, he has quick feet which help him after the catch – specifically two spin moves he pulled against Buffalo, one of which went for a score.
I think Davis himself would admit that he’s not very fast, but he looks slow coming off the line in the tape I watched. Probably for this reason, he often lines up in the slot where he can gain some momentum before making contact with the defender. He’s the target of the occasional quick or bubble screen and even some jet sweeps to get him in open space where he can try to make tacklers miss but his lack of elite speed prevents either from being a true weapon in the playbook. Davis was not called on often to block but when he did I would say he was below average, there was not a single time where I noted that he really helped a teammate gain extra yardage. Against Buffalo, Davis did have a number of drops but that could have been caused by the intermittent snow that fell early in that game.
Finally, let’s take a closer look at Davis’ aforementioned record-setting stats. He is 1st ALL-TIME in career receiving yards in the FBS. He is 2nd all-time in career receiving touchdowns. He is 4th all-time in career receptions. When compared to fellow rookie Mike Williams, Davis nearly doubles Williams in the main counting stats (Williams did miss all but one game in 2015, but I was still surprised to see such a difference). Corey Davis haters will point out that the top of those all-time stats are full of unrecognizable names but it’s still an impressive resume and if he performs well enough at his pro day (if he is healthy enough) it should cement his place atop my rankings.
The most important film you can watch of Mike Williams is of this play from 2015. That neck injury forced him to miss essentially the entire 2015 season. It was a scary injury that thankfully was not worse. If I was drafting for my NFL team, that would most definitely be on my mind as it is for my RSO team.
In my notes from the Clemson vs Ohio State semi-final game, I wrote “Mike Williams is a man. If he were 2 inches taller he would be a Top 3 pick in the NFL Draft.” I still agree with that sentiment, but he isn’t taller and after watching film I’ve learned to love Corey Davis more. Against Florida State, Williams faded into the background a bit, only catching 7 balls for 70 yards (he did catch a key 2pt conversion late). What stood out most against FSU wasn’t Williams’ size or ability to catch the ball, it was actually his blocking. On three occasions, one with Watson rushing and Gallman the other, Williams’ blocking on the edge allowed the team to get a first down and advance down the field. I was similarly nonplussed by Williams’ performance against Louisville even though he was the victim of a few bad throws from Watson. His best play against Louisville was a short catch where he fought back through the defender to catch the ball.
Like Davis, Williams has the physical size (6’4″ 218lb) to be a great NFL wide receiver, but after reviewing his combine results I am starting to question his athleticism. Williams’ vertical jump of 32.5″ was 30th best and his broad jump of 121″ was 24th best. I do have to admit that for his size, Williams ran a good 4.50 40-yard dash at his pro day.
Ultimately, I am too hesitant to take Williams ahead of Davis. At this point, I’d rather be the guy who misses on Williams but gets solid production from Davis than the guy who takes him despite the neck injury, some lackluster tape and concerns about his athleticism and is stuck with a bad contract.
John Ross is fast, no doubt about it. My concern though is how does that fit into his NFL team’s offense. I’m not willing to bump Ross above Williams or Davis at this point because his best trait could easily be wasted if he is not drafted by a team/coach with a good track record who would be willing to utilize him properly. Imagine if Ross was on the Chiefs offense instead of Tyreek Hill last year. Hill is a former high school track athlete who showcased his speed on his way to a 12 TD rookie season. Now, think about the fact that Hill ran a 4.29 40-yard dash at his pro day (which is typically a more favorable environment than the Combine) while Ross ran a record 4.22 last week. That .07 may not sound like a lot but it is and it shows just how Ross could make the most explosive NFL players look pedestrian.
What makes Ross’ speed more impressive is that he is doing it after knee injuries to both knees. Like Williams, he missed the entire 2015 season. Ross is also now dealing with a shoulder injury. If I’m being fair, I have to knock Ross significantly for his injury history like I did for Williams.
It should come as no surprise given his raw speed, but Ross has great release off the line of scrimmage. He easily gets past defenders and can then accelerate downfield. Against Rutgers, he had two of these plays in the 1st Quarter that resulted in touchdowns (38 and 50 yards) and he also had one in the 3rd Quarter against USC (70 yards). Once he got past the defender at the line of scrimmage there was really nothing the defense could do. Even with safety help, Ross is at full speed in an instant and by the time the safety flips his hips and pursues it is too late. Ross did not run as many screens as I expected, but I do imagine this being a bigger part of his game in the NFL where corners will be bigger and more adept at keeping him in front of them. Not surprisingly, Ross did not block much; his contribution to the running game was often running a pattern in the opposite direction of the play to draw defensive attention. He did add a kick return touchdown against Rutgers (and had 4 on his career) which could help Ross contribute right away on whatever team drafts him.
Honestly, I was expecting Ross to be smaller than what I saw when I started watching film. I had not seen much of him (yeah, yeah East Coast Bias) prior to my research and based off what I had heard on talk radio I assumed he was in the 5’8″ or 5’9″ range. He measured in at 5’11” 188lb at the combine which puts him in the same vein as guys like Odell Beckham, Markus Wheaton and Corey Coleman; none would be considered tall receivers but they aren’t Dri Archer which is more like what I was expecting. That bodes well for his ability to stick as a featured receiver in the league.
**Note: When watching film for a player, I typically pick two games at random to watch. I do not necessarily want to watch games where they did very well or very poorly as that may not be a great illustration of their true ability. If possible, when comparing players at the same position I also like to watch film against common opponents. Full disclosure, I am not watching film of every single game any player plays, instead I am looking for a representative sample. When researching college players I use a number of resources, I would recommend bookmarking the below sites…
Robert F. Cowper is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey. Robert works as a recreation professional, specializing in youth sports, when he isn’t acting as commissioner for his many fantasy sports leagues.
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