Breaking down 2021 NFL Draft’s top available wide receivers

Photo of Ja’Marr Chase
Tammy Anthony Baker/Creative Commons

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Is it Friday, already? You know what that means — another top three and a sleeper pick. This week’s focus is on the playmakers out wide: the receivers. There’s a little bit of a twist to this week’s list; there will be a small section on tight end Kyle Pitts because his game deserves recognition, but there may not be time to do a tight end-specific article. Let’s get into it.

1. Kyle Pitts (TE), Florida

I told you he was in here for a reason. Pitts is not a receiver; he’s a tight end through and through, but his versatility and freakish ability put him at the top of this list of offensive weapons. At 6’5” and 245 pounds, his running of a 4.44 40-yard dash puts him in rarefied air and Calvin Johnson-type discussions. He’s not just a pure athlete, though. He is a complete football player

In case you saw those and thought maybe he should stick to playing wide receiver, here’s a few clips of him showing out in the run game, too.

For the sake of brevity, that will conclude my segment on Pitts, but there simply isn’t a better pure weapon in this year’s draft. He is almost so “can’t miss” I feel nervous not being able to locate any serious areas of improvement. But that’s where we find ourselves; this is what a star looks like.

2. DeVonta Smith, Alabama

I went back and forth on this placement for a long time, but at the end of the day, Smith’s consistency and excellence speak for themselves. There are some concerns about his size — listed as 6’1” on the Crimson Tide’s official roster, he recently stated that he is currently 170 pounds – significantly underweight for the NFL. If we’re being honest, though, that doesn’t really matter. The adage “it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog” is proven true every time Smith steps foot on the field.

Sometimes Smith does stuff like that. And honestly, I have no coaching points for the defensive back, just “better luck next time”.

For context, Derek Stingley — the cornerback covering Smith in the previous clip — will probably be LSU’s No. 1 corner next season. Respectfully, Smith spent four quarters putting him in the torture chamber. The Heisman winner makes watching film almost irrelevant. I absolutely could post 40 clips of him making plays, but I hope you see the point. Smith’s size is certainly a concern, but sometimes it’s just not as important as we think it is. That is exactly the case here.

3. Jaylen Waddle, Alabama

The latter of back-to-back receivers from Alabama, Jaylen Waddle is quite literally just built differently. Running a 40-yard dash that is suspected to be in the low 4.3s or mid-4.2 range (he declined to run at Alabama’s pro day), Waddle is a gamebreaker.

There’s “fast” and then there’s “no one in the SEC can keep up” fast. Waddle is the latter and he is not afraid to come out of the blocks firing. An underrated part of Waddle’s game is his ability to actually go up and snag the ball for a contested catch. A huge ding often cited with regards to so-called “speed” receivers is that they are usually not very physical at the catch point. Needless to say, nothing could be further from the truth for Waddle.

Waddle is beyond special, and he’s more of a WR1a than a true No. 2. He has a chance to be an instant star at the professional level if he lands in a scheme that allows him room to work as an athlete.

(?) Ja’Marr Chase, LSU

Before I reveal this year’s sleeper, I want to say a quick word about Chase. Honestly, I simply wasn’t able to get access to film LSU’s 2019 season, so I couldn’t form a proper, fair opinion about Chase. From my initial impressions, he appears to be an amazingly physical receiver, but defensive backs get their hands on him a little too much. While he blazed to a 4.38 40-yard dash time at his pro day, his game speed appears much slower than that. I wish I would have had the chance to analyze him more, but I have a feeling there will be plenty of opportunities to watch him ball out Sundays this fall.

Sleeper: Cornell Powell, Clemson

Powell is so interesting. He was buried on Clemson’s depth chart for most of his collegiate career, but he really turned on the heat during his final season. At 6’0’’ and 204 pounds, Powell runs a 4.53 40-yard dash. In short, he has almost everything a coach would want in a secondary receiver.

Powell is a technician, as evidenced above, and he regularly gets himself very open on passing downs. The other thing I love about Powell is his excellent hand usage and physicality both during routes and after the catch.

That was Powell matched up against my sleeper pick from last week, Syracuse’s Ifeatu Melifonwu. From a receiver coach’s perspective, the hand work and stem on this is perfect; there is almost no wasted motion, and Powell gets his head around quick for the ball.

So what’s holding him back? As of right now, he lacks some fluidity and the ability to be a total gamebreaker. But again, this was Powell’s first year as a starter. He sometimes tries to do too much during his routes in an effort to make up for a slight lack of elite athleticism.

There is a lot to love about Powell, and I’ve seen him selected anywhere from the fourth to the seventh round in mock drafts, but I think he’ll go a lot earlier in the draft than that. He deserves to.

So that’s it for this week. One more name I’m going to throw out into the realm is Iowa’s Ihmir Smith-Marsette — a name that crossed my desk this week. Join me on Twitter to learn some new things about him, and next week, as I continue this breakdown series.

Jesse Stewart covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @jessedstew.