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NFL 2016 Draft: Top 10 WR prospects

An initial RealSport NFL Top 100 draft boa

An initial RealSport NFL Top 100 draft board is now out, which will be getting updated and expanded upon over the coming months leading up to the draft.  In addition to that, we begin a look at some of the top prospects at each position in a little more depth, beginning with our Top 10 WR prospects.  The last couple seasons have seen some historically good rookie classes that have flooded the NFL with exciting young talent.  This year’s group might have a tricky time living up to those, but once again there is a lot of playmakers at the position on offer in the 2016 draft.  Here’s an early look at our top T0 WR prospects:   Sr = Senior, Jr = Junior, So = Sophomore.  An “r” prefix indicates a redshirt year (sat out for a year without playing, usually their first year of college).  

1) Michael Thomas, Ohio State, rJr. 6ft 3, 210 lbs

Grade: 1st Round 2015/16 Bowl: BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl

Thomas could be a great example of a college football player who can far outplay what he did as an amateur and thrive as a pro in the NFL.  Some of his peers in this wide receiver class have made a more obvious impact and have put up bigger numbers statistically, but arguably none have the potential and upside that Thomas has at the next level.  For a number of reasons, Thomas hasn’t been one of the more prominent names at his position, at least from a national recognition standpoint.  The Ohio State system and the play of his quarterbacks, including the best of the bunch being more of a run threat, along with a group of talented targets that results in the ball being spread around a bit, has resulted in modest numbers for the junior.  When the opportunities come his way however, Thomas is able to make plays and flash his impressive skill set.  While not an elite burner, Thomas is impressively athletic to go with his size which he uses to make plays on all levels –  short, intermediate and deep.  Though he was not asked to run a full route tree for the Buckeyes, his routes are precise and effective, which he follows up by using his size well to position himself in front of DBs or his height to high point the ball above them.  Thomas also offers a legitimate threat after the catch to create yards and maximise the open space in front of him.  Drops have at times been an issue.  Often going long stretches without seeing any targets might suggest simply a concentration issue here.  There could also be a little adjustment period; Thomas took some time early in his Ohio State career to learn the system, so much so that the decision was made to redshirt him in 2013 while he worked on his game within the scheme (and to focus on some academic struggles off the field).  With his role in the offensive system already not being overly complex, learning an NFL calibre route tree, terminology and scheme might result in a relatively quieter rookie campaign.  It could be worth the wait, however, for his exciting potential.  Thomas began the year with a bang, facing one of the better cornerbacks in the country in Virginia Tech’s Kendall Fuller. Thomas dominated his opponent all game long, gaining separation, forcing panicky pass interference fouls from Fuller, before embarrassing the Hokie corner with one of the most aesthetically pleasing little moves all season on a sharp stop-and-go move to pull wide open in the end zone for the simplest of touchdowns.  Thomas finished his junior season with 56 receptions for 781 yards (13.95 yards per catch) and 9 touchdowns, before declaring his intentions to enter the upcoming draft.  laquon treadwell

2) Laquan Treadwell, Ole Miss, Jr. 6ft 2, 229 lbs

Grade: 1st Round 2015/16 Bowl: Allstate Sugar Bowl

Treadwell joined the Rebels as a five-star recruit, being ranked #1 of all high school WR prospects in the country, and one of several members of a historic recruiting class for Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss that turned around the fortunes of the school as a top football program.  Not only did he deliver during his three-year spell, he leaves as the leading receiver in the SEC for 2015 with all-American recognitions and with multiple career school receiving records.  All this without staying for his senior season, and having to recover from an awful leg injury that ended his 2014 sophomore campaign early.  Not only did he come back from that, enduring some gruelling rehab, but came back better than ever for a superb 2015 season with 82 catches, 1,153 yards and 11 touchdowns.  Treadwell brings outstanding physicality to the position with an exceptionally strong and muscular frame that he uses to his advantage in various ways, to position against DBs, to fight for extra yards after contact, and also as possibly the best and most effective blocker at his position in the country.  That strength extends to his mental game, where scouts are going to fall in love with his passion for the sport, his toughness and drive to succeed.  If that wasn’t already evident in the respect shown by his teammates even early in his college career and his determined play on the field, then his work to overcome the injury setback sealed it.  Treadwell does lack a number of ideal traits looked for in a number one receiver in the NFL.  He’s not got ideal speed, which also results in him rarely being targeted deep down the field, and he doesn’t always manage to shake tight man coverage.  What he does do though, along with using his physical frame, is do a superb job tracking the ball, timing his moves and jumps, and extend his hands away from his body to catch almost anything within his radius.  The body control he consistently demonstrates is hugely impressive.  Having said that, there’s work to do in his routes, which can be a bit sloppy at times.  Given the aforementioned issue at times with not being able to separate, that could be helped with more sharply defined route running, something that may become clearer when he faces with NFL level corners.  Treadwell has his limitations, but there’s not many safer picks that a team could make in the first round come April.  

3) Corey Coleman, Baylor, rJr. 5ft 10, 190 lbs

Grade: 1st Round 2015/16 Bowl: Russell Athletic Bowl

During Art Briles’ tenure in Waco, there has been a long list of offensive skill players who have exploded statistically with some spectacular numbers that leap off the page.  Coleman is next on that list after a quite ridiculous season that resulted in 74 receptions for 1,363 yards (that’s 18.4 yards per catch) and 20 TDs.  It would be easy to look at recent receivers from this system who have had mixed success in the pros such as Kendall Wright and Terrence Williams, or that Coleman measures in at around 5ft 9 & ½.  But breaking down the film reveals a talent that ought to extend beyond Briles’ offence, to an electric and dynamic athletic talent that could see Coleman be what the Rams wanted Tavon Austin to be when they selected him #8 overall in the 2013 draft.  Coleman brings elite level speed and athleticism with fantastic quick-twitch movement and changes of direction that completely flat-foot cover men.  He may be short, but has an outstanding vertical leap that limits the issue somewhat.  His ability to get himself open makes him a nightmare to try and cover.  A lot of his big plays come purely from the mistakes he forces out of defensive backs.  His routes are very simple, as is commonplace for Bears receivers, but whether it be by deep go routes down the field or quick receptions designed to get him the ball in space and make yards after the catch, Coleman is an exceptionally dangerous playmaker who can strike big on any touch of the ball.  He’ll face the prejudice of being a Baylor receiver, but Coleman could be the talent that finally excels in the NFL.  As an additional note, you’ll frequently see some extremely casual routes and seeming lack of effort on plays that aren’t going his direction  This isn’t laziness on the part of Coleman, but something that is specifically taught by his coaches, who don’t believe in wasting energy running full go on plays that are never intended to go his way.  It’s not something to be concerned about once on an NFL team.  

4) Travin Dural, LSU, rJr. 6ft 2, 192 lbs

Grade: 2nd Round 2015/16 Bowl: AdvoCare V100 Bowl

Most of the juniors on this list are already known to be declaring early for the NFL draft or very likely to.  The exception here is Dural, who may be removed from the rankings soon should he indeed return to school.  The redshirt junior reportedly wanted to leave early, and indeed was considering doing so the previous year as a redshirt sophomore.  He’ll already be 23 years old by the start on his first NFL season if he does enter the pros now, and 24 if he sticks around another year in college.  In addition, he has been reported as struggling to remain academically eligible to play.  The sticking point that may now see him return is a torn right hamstring that he suffered in late November, ending his season and requiring surgery to repair.  He will be fit well in time to play year one, but it may limit his pre-draft workouts.  Were he to be a part of the 2016 draft, Dural’s appeal to teams is obvious, as a fantastic athlete with great hands.  Bringing elite level acceleration to quickly hit top speed, he frequently catches defenders out to get wide open.  LSU look to get the ball into his hands in as many varied ways as possible, with short out routes, fly sweep hand offs, quick throws over the middle and deep balls down the field.  All this resulting in an exceptional career mark so far of 19.4 yards per catch over 3 seasons.  He has however been limited by some pretty bad QB play over the years, severely reducing his and the rest of a talented Tigers’ receiver group’s chance to excel.  Dural will be sure to be a better pro than he was able to consistently show in college.  The only question remaining is whether that happens in 2016 or 2017.  

5) Josh Doctson, TCU, rSr. 6ft 2, 195 lbs

Grade: 2nd Round 2015/16 Bowl: Valero Alamo Bowl

In terms of production, few can match that of Doctson over the last two seasons.  After a breakout junior year, TCU’s top receiver has put together back to back 1,000+ yards seasons, and a combined 25 touchdowns since 2014.  The Wyoming transfer wins with his polished technique, excellent hands, and his outstanding ability to track the ball in the air and adjust, a trait which he arguably has no rivals for in this year’s class.  On 50/50 balls mid-air, it’s only a surprise when Doctson doesn’t come down with the ball, as such a reliable target whose ball skills and concentration results in almost never failing to make the plays expected of him at this level.  The big issues with Doctson, and that likely results in a second round selection rather than going on Thursday night in the opening round, is that he lacks the ideal measurables looked for.  He moves well, but does not have great speed to separate, and has a slight build lacking bulk and strength.  He should still prove an effective receiver at the next level, but the numbers perhaps will be more solid than spectacular.  sterling shepard

6) Sterling Shepard, Oklahoma, Sr. 5ft 10, 193 lbs

Grade: 2nd-3rd Round 2015/16 Bowl: Capital One Orange Bowl

In the (indirect) battle of the shifty smaller receivers, it was the Sooners’ Shepard who excelled over Baylor’s Coleman in a key Big-12 conference match up that saw Oklahoma really begin their momentum toward the playoffs they ultimately reached this winter.  Shepard had a career performance that day that showcased everything his game is about as he grabbed 14 catches for 177 yards and 2 touchdowns to help inspire the win.  Having had struggles staying healthy each of the last couple years, Shepard was finally able to put together a full season and fulfil his potential, and finished with 86 receptions, 1288 yards and 11 touchdowns.  Of course, with his small build, staying healthy and available is going to remain a little bit of a concern going forward when NFL teams make that decision on when to draft him, so his big 2015 was critical in helping towards easing that concern.  There’s no doubt though that when on the field, Shepard is an exceptional playmaker.  Few can match him this year for route running ability and to create space and separation.  He gives corners fits trying to stick with him as he utilises his sharp, quick changes of direction and breaks in his routes with perfect timing that will serve him well as a pro and make him an ideal slot receiver.  With his athleticism, creativity and vision also making him a great candidate to return punts early on, and something he did at times in his Oklahoma career, he is this year’s version of Tyler Lockett.  The success of the Seahawks third round pick will encourage that Shepard can have a similar impact and ought to see him drafted in a similar range.  

7) Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina, Jr. 5ft 11, 208 lbs

Grade: 2nd-3rd Round 2015/16 Bowl Game: N/A

Given the horrendous play at quarterback and overall downturn for the Gamecocks’ offence this year, it really speaks to what an exceptional player Cooper is and how well he played despite the adversity that he still was able to earn All-Conference selection in 2015 in the SEC.  Cooper has been one of the most versatile playmakers since joining college football, with his intelligent and instinctive football brain and dynamic athleticism allowing South Carolina to use him in a multitude of ways to maximise his touches.  On top of his primary role as a receiver (both in the slot and outside), he is just as dangerous as a runner out of the backfield, a returner on special teams, or even on trick plays throwing the ball, having thrown for 3 touchdowns in his career.  Cooper has all the skills of a receiver, but within a running back’s body, which helps him excel after the catch and in space, where he shows all the vision and balance of a true RB.  The possibilities for a creative offensive coordinator are endless, as he should continue to be a versatile offensive weapon at the next level too, especially with a more effective quarterback conducting the operation.  Given that he ran fairly simplistic routes that involved a lot of quick screens and dump-offs or deep straight line go routes, he can become even more dangerous as he develops a more expansive route tree with time.  He ought to be a very useful addition to any roster on Day 2.  NCAA Football: North Carolina at Pittsburgh

8) Tyler Boyd, Pittsburgh, Jr. 6ft 2, 200 lbs

Grade: 3rd Round 2015/16 Bowl Game: Military Bowl

Exploding on to the scene as a freshman, Boyd broke many first year school records held by one Larry Fitzgerald, and leaves after 3 consistently productive years as Pittsburgh’s all-time top receiver.  That alone is eye-opening and speaks to his achievements in college.  Similarly to Pharoh Cooper above, Boyd is a player that Pitt try to get the ball to in as many ways as possible.  With starting a new QB this season, and after losing their bell cow runner James Conner, the Panthers had to try and make the most of Boyd’s talents.  That meant a lot of touches, but a drop in yards per touch from previous years.  It’s hard to blame that on Tyler, as every defence they faced all year knew what was coming and keyed in on the junior.  His 91 receptions therefore failed to get him to 1,000 receiving yards, but his 40 rush attempts going for an average of over 8.7 yards per carry was impressive and highlights his versatility.  Overall, Boyd, a smooth athlete with great ball skills, projecting nicely to an effective long-term slot receiver in the NFL who should be able to contribute early.  While he’s listed currently at 200 lbs, that is up from a previous measurement of 185 lbs.  He looks fairly slight on film so it will be interesting to see whether his size numbers turn out to be legitimate when he is checked out at the Combine.  

9) Will Fuller, Notre Dame, Jr. 6ft 0, 184 lbs

Grade: 3rd Round 2015/16 Bowl Game: BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl

Perhaps the most dangerous deep threat, big play receiver in the country this season in college football, Fuller tore up defences early and often in 2015.  Fuller was able to consistently stretch the defence, open up opportunities for teammates underneath, and deliver regularly with the production to back up the threat.  Initially, the junior receiver announced that he would be returning for his final year of eligibility, but ultimately decided to cash in on two big years now.  While statistically Fuller has been great, he has plenty questions for how he projects to the next level.  He has a very skinny build and lack of strength that will make it difficult for him to be a threat in other areas of the field, where defensive backs will be able to out-physical him and knock him off his routes.  He could end up being limited to being a one-dimensional player.  Adding to that issue of perhaps not offering much other than when going deep, he will have to deliver and come through with the catch on the occasions that he is targeted deep.  Unfortunately, a significant issue this season for Fuller, despite the big production, has been too many drops.  He prefers to cradle the ball into his body as much as he can, lacking consistent natural hands.  There will be plenty corners in the NFL who will be able to run with him down the field, and he shall have to come up with contested catches more often than he had to in college.  It’ll be interesting to see who takes a shot on Fuller and at how early on in the draft.  

10) Braxton Miller, Ohio State, rSr. 6ft 1, 215 lbs

Grade: 3rd Round 2015/16 Bowl: BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl

Every year there are some wildcard WR prospects that are big unknowns on draft weekend.  Miller is the ultimate wildcard pick this time around.  There’s no doubt that Miller is one of the most outstanding athletes out of this entire draft class regardless of position.  The situation might have factored in, due to the emergence of both Cardale Jones and JT Barrett while he sat out 2014 with an injured shoulder, but his decision to convert to wide receiver/H-back for his last year was a big boost to his draft stock.  Regardless of that decision, Miller would have projected to either wide receiver or running back for the NFL.  The fact that he gave scouts a full season of film to show what the potential could be greatly helps.  While he didn’t put up huge numbers, and was quiet for long stretches of games, Miller really surprised with how natural the foundations of the position came to him.  His often crisp routes and natural hands frequently resulted in some highlight reel plays, which combined with that exceptional creativity with his athletic abilities makes it really difficult to ignore the exciting potential upside.  Something tells me that a team is going to take a shot on Miller in the second round and I’m certainly not going to bet against that move paying off big time down the line.  

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Rebecca Rennie

RealSport College Football Editor, as well as writer and NFL Draft analyst, while occasionally contributing to the NFL section as well.  A fan of most sports and enjoy discussing with fellow fans, so do please comment on articles and interact.  A big fan of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and of the Central Florida Knights in college.

NFL 2016 Draft: Top 10 WR prospects

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