The Watch List 2021: Early WR Tiers

Updated: February 12th 2021

Throughout the offseason I will be compiling early positional tiers for the 2021 NFL Draft. In past years I’ve done early rankings but in hindsight those feel counterproductive to my ultimate goal of creating RSO’s rookie rankings that are used in the draft room. Frankly, it’s hard to change a ranking because it feels “locked in” once I put it out into the world. When I would create my early rankings I would always start by grouping the players into themed tiers first, so that’s what I will be sharing in this series. Each tier includes players whose potential and plot line feel similar to me; the sequence of tiers is indicative of a general order of expected draft value. I’ll repeat though: these are not rankings. Within each tier players are sorted alphabetically. (Note: this article was written on February 7th.)

Dear reader, today we come to the end of my positional tiers series. I hope you have found these loose rankings as instructive as I have while I prepare to create the rookie rankings for the RSO rookie draft room. I saved the receivers for last because it was the hardest group for me to nail down my expectations. The top of this receiver class is stronger than last year: we may end up with three WRs off the board by the 12th pick which is where last year’s WR1 (Henry Ruggs) went. Things stay strong into the second round but then it feels like there is a drop and leveling off after the top 6-7 names. Would I love for my NFL team to add Seth Williams? Definitely, but he’s not on par with Chase Claypool or Denzel Mims who were similarly ranked in last year’s class. I am interested to see if NFL teams start to reach in the late second or early third rounds, worried that they need to get their receiver now or they may be on the wrong side of a run. You may encounter the same phenomenon in your RSO rookie draft so be prepared. Enough stutter-stepping, let’s get to it…

First Round Locks

  • Ja’Marr Chase

  • DeVonta Smith

  • Jaylen Waddle

Do you know the popular gif of a raggedy looking Elmo seemingly summoning a wall of flame? That’s what I envision in my mind’s eye when I think of #DraftTwitter arguing over the order of these three wide receivers. You could make an argument that any of them will be the first receiver off the board in April because they all have elite talent but some perceived “knock” against them. Unless you’re hosting your rookie draft before the NFL Draft (please don’t, unless you’re a devy league) there’s no need to settle on an order just yet. Scheme and team fit will be huge in determining their fantasy prospects. Ja’Marr Chase was last seen on the field in 2019 when he led the NCAA in receiving yards (1,780) and touchdowns (20) on his way to consensus All-America honors. I’ve wondered what impact Chase’s decision to opt-out of the 2020 season will have on his draft stock — it’ll be an interesting case study for future studs who might want to preserve themselves for the pros. I last profiled Chase when I was writing about potential rookie draft 1.01 picks and I heaped on the praise. His short-area quickness, leaping ability, and hands are all fantastic. Plus he’s physical on his route and doesn’t shy away from a battle with a corner. There were moments though when I wanted to see more from Chase, specifically when he wasn’t the primary target of a play. He’s a superb talent, is just 20 years old, and has a crazy high ceiling; Chase will be the top receiver for most heading into the draft. If I had to choose today, I would rank DeVonta Smith just a hair higher than Chase. Smith, the Heisman winner, had a superlative-laden season that even eclipsed Chase’s standout campaign last year. Smith’s eye-popping line was: 117-1,856-23. He’s a technician who is consistently open, has ridiculous body control and has go-go-gadget arms to snag balls that other receivers could never reach. Smith is a bit slight (listed 6010/175) and is two years older than Chase so I can understand why some discount his future production.  Until Smith shows otherwise he’s my favorite in the class. If Jaylen Waddle didn’t suffer a midseason injury he would have been in the WR1 conversation as well (and some might still have him there). Waddle is a singular talent as an athlete with the ability to break any play for a score. Waddle is small (5100/182) and has a small-ish sample size (just 106 career receptions) but speed sells. Like Henry Ruggs last year, Waddle may end up going higher than expected because an NFL team fell in love with his gamebreaking nature. To recap, these three guys are essentially locks to be first rounders in your rookie draft as well as the NFL Draft; don’t get too hung up on their order just yet.

Fringe Firsts

  • Rashod Bateman

  • Terrace Marshall

  • Rondale Moore

I envision “Number of First Round Wide Receivers” being an oft-discussed prop bet in April. Last year’s class saw six go in the first round; 2015 was the only other year in the last decade that we had that many. The 2018 and 2019 drafts had just four receivers combined go in the opening round. If I was the book, I would probably set the line at 4.5 this season. I believe the three players mentioned above are locks to go in the top twenty so squeezing in two or three of these fringe firsts feels about right. Terrace Marshall was a beneficiary of Ja’Marr Chase’s decision to sit out the year. Marshall led a mediocre Tigers team with 48 receptions and 10 TDs, his 731 receiving yards was just barely bested by freshman Kayshon Boutte. It was hard for me to distill what Marshall does well into one or two sentences: put simply, he’s a dude. He has perfect size at 6030/200, isn’t easy to bring down, has super strong hands, has a keen sense of timing, and knows when to check back to his quarterback to make himself an easier target. I really liked what I saw out of Marshall and I’m sure NFL scouts will too. Back in early 2019, we were talking about the wrong Golden Gophers receiver (hmm, interesting transition after talking about Terrace Marshall [thinking emoji]). Instead of ruminating on Tyler Johnson, we should have been paying more attention to Rashod Bateman. Bateman originally opted out of the 2020 season but ended up playing after the Big Ten reversed course. He leapt off the screen during the opener against Michigan (9-101) and again against Illinois (10-139-1). Bateman is a contested catch king; I have previously called out his timely leaping and strength at the catch point. Bateman is also dangerous on slants and crossing patterns where he can leverage his acceleration, fearlessness and shiftiness to great effect. Rondale Moore started his career as the most exciting player in college football as a true freshman back in 2018. Disappointingly, things have mostly been downhill from there for Moore though. His sophomore season was cut short due to injury and his junior year was delayed by an undisclosed injury. Those two shortened years combined for seven games and a 64-657-2 line. Moore’s 2020 highlights were encouraging but his medicals will be more important to monitor. Moore is a dynamic playmaker whose talent is worthy of a first round pick when he’s fully healthy. After writing this blurb, I would guess that Marshall is the most likely of this bunch to land in the first round, with Bateman right there behind him, and Moore lagging behind pending his medical evaluations. (Mocking Kadarius Toney, see below, in the first has also become en vogue so he may be due for a jump up to this tier soon.)

Day Two Targets

  • Amon-Ra St. Brown

  • Tylan Wallace

  • Seth Williams

I’m happy I was able to squeeze these three into a tier together because they are my favorites as compared to their expected draft value. Said another way, I would draft these guys higher than they inevitably will be in both the NFL Draft and your rookie drafts. St. Brown averaged 7-80-1 in the shortened season and continued his high-floor run. By my rough PPR math, St. Brown has had 8+ fantasy points in 37 of 41 career games. I love how physical he is and can’t wait to see him in the NFL, dominating nickels as a strong slot. Tylan Wallace came back strong after an injury-shortened 2019 season, tallying a respectable 59-922-6. Wallace is a consensus pick for the All Catch Radius team and has ample speed and acceleration to make him a threat to stretch the defense. Seth Williams is probably my favorite receiver in the class to root for. He’s a bit boom-and-bust but when he’s on, I relish watching his hands-catching, toe-tapping, defender-hurdling style. Williams plays bigger than his sizeable 6030/211 frame so I’ll be interested to see how he measures in officially. It’s looking like St. Brown, Wallace and Williams have Day Two written all over them and will be solid investments for your fantasy team.

Regular Season Risers

  • D’wayne Eskridge

  • Elijah Moore

  • Kadarius Toney

The three players in this tier have seen a Gamestop-esque rise in their value the last few months. Using data from www.mockdraftdatabase.com, here’s how their overall ranking has gone to the moon: Eskridge from 300th to 125th, Moore from 292nd to 68th and Toney from 121st to 29th. It’s not crazy to say that these three guys might go from off the radar in the preseason to first rounders. I owe each of these three rocketing risers a closer study because I did not delve into them at all during the 2020 season. Toney is the freakiest of the bunch and cannot be stopped by single man coverage. Many of his touches are manufactured (screens, sweeps, returns) so I expect he’ll need some work to refine himself as a receiver but it’s hard to argue against somebody who can move like he can. Elijah Moore had possibly the quietest 86-1,193-8 season ever (especially when you realize that line was compiled in just eight games). He has some of the same speed and shiftiness that Toney offers but looks like a bonafide receiver in the highlight packages I viewed. The buzz around Eskridge is growing; a recent CBS mock draft had him going at 28th overall, meanwhile one from SI had him as a second rounder. Eskridge looks smaller than both Toney and Moore (or at least is about the same) and put up worse numbers (33-768-8) against lesser competition. I’ll be jumping into his tape soon because it must be spectacular. Let’s continue to monitor these guys throughout the draft process to ensure they offer some return on investment.

Undervalued, Underdrafted

  • Dyami Brown

  • Dazz Newsome

  • Ihmir Smith-Marsette

The players who land in my “Undervalued, Underdrafted” tier are Power 5 players who are solid yet unsexy prospects. Brown and Newsome were the primary targets of Sam Howell and the Tar Heels prolific passing offense in 2020. I wrote about the dynamic duo back in September ahead of their season opener. I noted that Brown is a “home run hitting downfield threat” and that proved true: 47% of Brown’s receptions went for 15+ yards and 25% went for 25+. He was most successful downfield on first down which highlights just how much their dominant rushing game opened up the passing game. Newsome, on the other hand, is more of a make-a-man-miss receiver and punt returner. Newsome has superb balance, no surprise given his punt return prowess, and succeeds in the open field. In addition to Brown and Newsome, draftniks will also be considering running backs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter: this Tar Heel fatigue is why I think the pair may end up undervalued for fantasy purposes. Ihmir Smith-Marsette may be the most underappreciated Power 5 receiver coming out this year. Smith-Marsette looks like the new wave NFL receiver to me: he’s long (6020) and fast (4.40) and can be deployed on screens or jet sweeps (he does need to put on some pounds though). He’s also a great kick returner who owns the modern Big Ten record for career kick return average (28.7). I’ll bet Smith-Marsette goes undrafted in all but the deepest leagues but I’d also bet that somebody picks him up midseason after he makes a big play. If you have an extra late rookie draft pick try to snag one of these guys to stash before they make a name for themselves in camp.

Spacey Satellites

  • Tutu Atwell

  • Amari Rodgers

  • Anthony Schwartz

The aforementioned axiom that “speed sells” returns for this tier of receivers. Chatarius “Tutu” Atwell is a sub-4.40 burner who led the ACC in receiving in 2019 (69-1,272-11) and followed that up with a solid junior year (46-625-7 in nine games). Atwell is tiny at 5090/165 but if you can get him in space he’s a big play waiting to happen. Amari Rodgers, Clemson’s leading receiver at 77-1,020-7, isn’t much taller than Atwell (5100) but packs on an extra 20+ pounds on his compact frame. Rodgers is an A-1 punt returner who could make you miss in a phone booth. He’s often typecast as an underneath receiver but he also shows the ball tracking, lower body control and strong hands to be a downfield receiver too. I would want Rodgers on my football team, I have a feeling he’ll be one of those players we realized we were sleeping on because he was outshone by his teammates. My love for Seth Williams might have created a blindspot for his teammate Anthony Schwartz. I didn’t have any preconceived notions about Schwartz when I started researching this article so I had to do a quick dive into his stats and Youtube clips. Schwartz is taller than Atwell and Rodgers, an even 6000, and looks more durable than his 179 listed weight would indicate. When he has the ball in his hands, Schwartz moves like an upright running back with the vision to utilize his blockers and make the most of his angles. Admittedly I have only watched highlights of Schwartz so I can’t say with certainty but he looks promising in those snippets. When this playmaking trio finds space, good things will happen for your fantasy lineup.

Known Unknowns

  • Nico Collins

  • Damonte Coxie

  • Sage Surratt

  • Tamorrion Terry

At one time or another over the last two years, I valued these four players higher than the consensus. Now, however, their value is at its nadir. Collins, Coxie and Surratt all opted out of the 2020 season; Terry played in six games but played through injury and ineffective quarterbacking before deciding to leave the team early. I think Terry’s was a good decision because I still believe in his size/speed combination — nothing positive would have come out of catching passes from a rotating quarterback while hobbled by a wonky knee — but the other three may have allowed others to pass them in scouts’ minds. Collins, like Terry, never realized his potential because of the poor passers the Wolverines trotted out. He has prototypical size (6040/215) and the attributes to be a starting possession receiver at the next level. Coxie, on the other hand, has shown us how dominant he can be with back-to-back seasons with 70+ receptions and 1,100+ yards. He played in two games in 2020 before ending his year early (16-175-1). I love the description I wrote for his physical play when I profiled him last spring: “he reminded me of a skilled heavyweight boxer: constantly throwing jabs to set up a future haymaker and using his size to lean on his opponent to gain leverage.” Coxie has fallen out of favor on #DraftTwitter but I’m still a believer. Sage Surratt had a surprising 2019 which ended with him eking out a 1,000 yard season before going down with a shoulder injury (66-1,001-11). He’s not fast or elusive but his size and play strength make for a good redzone receiver (10 career redzone scores). These four “known unknowns” will probably go late-ish in the NFL Draft, but don’t be surprised when they pop up on our fantasy radars and remind us of why we loved them a year or two ago.

Small School Sleepers

  • Marlon Williams

  • Marquez Stevenson

  • Warren Jackson

As I mentioned in my RB Tiers article, I would typically highlight some FCS and DII hopefuls in this section. However, most FCS teams did not play in the fall and the impending spring season is full of question marks. Instead, I’ll hit a few guys here who have excelled at the Group of 5 level. I wrote about Williams back in Week 9 and was a fan of his all-around skillset. UCF featured him frequently on screens from a stack formation and otherwise he showed up all over the formation. Williams played out in 2020 and easily eclipsed last year’s totals in four less games (71-1,039-10). He’s likely a late rounder but should catch on if given a chance. Contrary to a few of the risers listed above, Marquez Stevenson saw a precipitous drop in his NFL Draft value in 2020. Per the www.nflmockdraftdatabase.com, Stevenson was a target as high as 28th overall in mocks in the fall. Lately, he’s been all over the place, from the third round all the way down to the seventh. Houston had a strange covid-riddled season so I don’t put too much weight on Stevenson’s disappointing output (20-307-4 in five games). Stevenson will win the workout — on his most recent Freaks List, Bruce Feldman predicted 4.30 speed — and as such I expect he’ll be drafted ahead of current predictions. Warren Jackson is bound to be the next small school guy who breaks my heart. Jackson caught my eye last spring after a 77-1,119-8 junior season but unfortunately opted out of 2020 to prepare for the NFL. I fell in love then, writing “backed up deep in their own end, the Rams take a deep shot. Jackson, forty yards downfield, times his jump well and rips the ball out of the air. He lands, keeps his feet, avoids contact with the colliding defenders and gallops off. None of the pursuing tacklers make it within five yards.” I also felt that his versatility belies his stature (6060/215) and thought he could be more than just a redzone target. I’m unsure what the future brings for Jackson but I’ll be watching closely, the same goes for Williams and Stevenson.

 

Notes: Heights listed are using a notation common among scouts where the first digit corresponds to the feet, the next two digits correspond to the inches and the fourth digit corresponds to the fraction, in eighths.  So, somebody measuring 5’11” and 3/8 would be 5113.  This is helpful when trying to sort players by height. Full disclosure, I am not watching film of every single game any player plays, instead I am looking for a representative sample.  There are a lot of analysts out there who have a deeper depth of knowledge about certain players but I pride myself in a wide breadth of knowledge about many players.  When researching my articles I use a number of valuable resources. I would recommend bookmarking the below sites:

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, pro-football-reference.com, cfbstats.com, herosports.com, fcs.football, mcubed.net, expandtheboxscore.com, washingtonpost.com
  • Recruiting: 247Sports.com, espn.com, sbnation.com, rivals.com
  • Film: 2021 NFL Draft Database by Mark Jarvis, youtube.com
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, draftscout.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com, thedraftnetwork.com, nfl.com, nflmockdraftdatabase.com
  • NFL rosters, depth charts and contract info: ourlads.com, spotrac.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com, mockdraftable.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s, Athlon Sports
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty, Draft Dudes, Saturday 2 Sunday, Locked on NFL Draft, Cover 3 College Football
  • Logos & Player Media Photos: collegepressbox.com
  • Odds & Gambling Stats: vegasinsider.com

Robert F. Cowper is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey.  He is a proud member of the Football Writers Association of America and the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.  Robert works as a certified park and recreation professional, specializing in youth sports, when he isn’t acting as commissioner for his many fantasy sports leagues.

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List: 2019 Week 2 Preview

Updated: September 5th 2019

Welcome to The Watch List, a resource to help RSO owners identify the players and games from college football that deserve your attention.  To view more of my observations, follow me on Twitter @robertfcowper.  Check back throughout the season as The Watch List will continue to let you know who is fantasy relevant and worth your valuable draft capital.

Storylines to Watch

Freshmen Quarterbacks: A number of true freshman signal callers got the start in Week 1.  The top names to watch are Hank Bachmeier (Boise State), Sam Howell (North Carolina), Bo Nix (Auburn) and Jayden Daniels (Arizona State).  Each of these four led their team to victories to start the season.  Bachmeier, Howell and Nix all helped engineer comebacks against teams that were either higher ranked or favored by the oddsmakers; Daniels had an easier task against Kent State but still looked good from what I saw.  It will be fun to follow this quartet throughout the season, especially once they get into the heart of their schedule.

Hurts for Heisman: Speaking of quarterbacks, I think Jalen Hurts’ Sooner debut went well enough to jump him ahead of Trevor Lawrence as a 2019 Heisman hopeful.  Hurts looked like an NFL prospect against Houston, more so than I recall while he was playing for Alabama.  His final Week 1 stat line was fantastic: 20-23 for 332 yards and 3 TDs passing and 16 rushes for 176 yards and 3 TDs.  I would be feeling encouraged today if I took “the field” over Lawrence or Tua Tagovailoa as the Heisman winner.

Games to Watch

Nebraska (-7.5) at Colorado, Saturday 3:30pm on FOX: This matchup will feature two of the nation’s most talked about all-purpose players: Colorado’s Laviska Shenault and Nebraska’s Wan’Dale Robinson.  Shenault, who is currently my WR3 in the 2020 class, had a decent output against Colorado State of 83 scrimmage yards and a score on six touches.  Robinson is a 4-star recruit who 247Sports ranked as the top prospect coming out of Kentucky and as a Top 100 player in the nation.  In his Cornhusker debut he had seven touches for 54 yards — given the hype, expect his usage and production to steadily grow.  I’m taking Colorado, at home, to win straight up. My prediction: Colorado 25 – Nebraska 22

#6 LSU (-4) at #10 Texas, Saturday 7:30pm on ABC: This is the only Top 10 matchup for Week 2, so on paper it’s a must watch.  Both teams won easily in Week 1 so this will be their first test.  Texas QB Sam Ehlinger started strong, tossing 4 TDs, while WR Collin Johnson once again showed off his incredible catch radius.  I wasn’t able to catch any of the LSU opener but Joe Burrow dominated the boxscore, completing 85% of his passes for 278 yards and 5 TDs.  Despite all of the points these teams scored in Week 1 (100), I have an inkling that this one will be a low scoring, defensive affair favoring the Tigers. My prediction: LSU 19 – Texas 15

Players to Watch

Chuba Hubbard, RB, Oklahoma State

Hubbard just missed the cut when I was working on my Big 12 season preview back in August. I had read some hype about him as a prospect but as a redshirt sophomore I figured that I should prioritize players more likely to enter the 2020 NFL Draft. It didn’t take long for Hubbard to make his case for The Watch List after erupting against Oregon State in Week 1 for 221 rushing yards and 3 TDs. The Beavers are far from a top defense but they are a Power 5 opponent so I’m not going to discount the performance too much.

Hubbard is a deliberate runner who gets north-south with above average speed and power.  He deploys an effective stiff arm and modulates his speed and acceleration to deceive tacklers.  He did not show it in the opener, but Hubbard is also a capable receiver who tallied 22 receptions in 2018.  I loved the nuance of his opening touchdown scamper against Oregon State.  The replay angle allows you to better see the play develop.  He stretches the defense horizontally as he awaits the pitch.  Once he secures the ball he gets upfield and uses a nearly imperceptible hesitation move to get around his engaged blocker.

The Pokes face off against McNeese State and Tulsa in their next two contests so Hubbard will have a chance to pad his stats before getting into conference play. We will see Hubbard tested again when they travel to Austin to face the Texas Longhorns on September 21st.  It’s not crazy to think that Hubbard will be leading the FBS in rushing at the end of September.

 

Sage Surratt, WR, Wake Forest

 

Sage Surratt is another redshirt sophomore whose stellar showing last week put him on the radar of amateur draft analysts like myself. Surratt contributed as a redshirt freshman last season, finishing as the Demon Deacons’ second-leading receiver (41-581-4). With Greg Dortch now fighting for an NFL roster spot, Surratt stole the spotlight early against Utah State. Surratt caught the first points of the game, less than three minutes in, on a 22-yard rainbow from the opposite hash. The corner was over-matched and wasn’t physical enough to keep Surratt from making the play. Later, Surratt made a nice play by attacking the ball at its high point, shrugging off the tackle as he landed and ran for a big gain. He lacked the long speed to score but it proved to be the vital play that led to Wake Forest taking the lead.

Surratt is built well at 6030/215 and showed off his play strength on this key third quarter play. It was 3rd and 9 with Wake Forest trailing. Surratt runs a simple hitch but his route is a few yards short of the sticks. No matter, because he breaks three tackles and needs to be dragged down by four defenders.

Overall it was a great showing for Surratt to start the 2019 season.  I’ve added Surratt to my watch list for the 2020 class and you should too.

 

Notes: Heights listed are using a notation common among scouts where the first digit corresponds to the feet, the next two digits correspond to the inches and the fourth digit corresponds to the fraction, in eighths.  So, somebody measuring 5’11” and 3/8 would be 5113.  This is helpful when trying to sort players by height.  When studying a player I rely on game film “cuts” which are most frequently found on Youtube. If game film is not available I will search for highlight reels.  Keep in mind these highlight reels are the best plays of that player. When I have the option, I will choose to watch a game versus the better defense. Full disclosure, I am not watching film of every single game any player plays, instead I am looking for a representative sample.  There are a lot of analysts out there who have a deeper depth of knowledge about certain players but I pride myself in a wide breadth of knowledge about many players.  When researching my articles I use a number of valuable resources. I would recommend bookmarking the below sites:

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, pro-football-reference.com, cfbstats.com, herosports.com, fcs.football, mcubed.net, expandtheboxscore.com, washingtonpost.com
  • Recruiting: 247Sports.com, espn.com, sbnation.com, rivals.com
  • Film: 2020 NFL Draft Database by Mark Jarvis, youtube.com
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, draftscout.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com, thedraftnetwork.com, nfl.com
  • NFL rosters, depth charts and contract info: ourlads.com, spotrac.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com, mockdraftable.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s, Athlon Sports
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty, Draft Dudes, Saturday 2 Sunday, Locked on NFL Draft, Cover 3 College Football
  • Logos & Player Media Photos: collegepressbox.com
  • Odds & Gambling Stats: vegasinsider.com

Robert F. Cowper is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey.  He is a proud member of the Football Writers Association of America and the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.  Robert works as a certified park and recreation professional, specializing in youth sports, when he isn’t acting as commissioner for his many fantasy sports leagues.

More Analysis by Bob Cowper