2016 NFL Draft Preview: WRs on the Fantasy Radar
The NFL has shifted away from dominant ground attacks and toward prolific passing offenses over the past decade or so. Over the past ten years, the NFL’s leading passer has averaged 4,973 yards -- 577 more per season than the top passers of the previous decade. As a result, the wide receiver position has transformed from one that used to be full of boom-or-bust producers into one with increasingly steady, consistent options for your fantasy roster.
The increase in passing has altered the value of rookie receivers, who used to take a couple years before hitting their stride. In just the last two seasons, Odell Beckham Jr. has dominated while Mike Evans, Kelvin Benjamin, and Amari Cooper have turned in excellent fantasy seasons. The times are changing and rookie receivers are now worth serious consideration in fantasy.
Last year's wide receiver class was deep, but injuries derailed the rookie seasons of Kevin White, Breshad Perriman, and DeVante Parker, although there’s no questioning the potential of that talented trio. This season's class is deep as well. Once again, we could see three or four receivers come off the board on Day 1 of the draft, with several following quickly behind on Day 2.
I’ll break the wide receivers out into three groups for fantasy owners to note: Impact WRs, who should be dynamite from day one; Situation-Dependent WRs, whose fantasy stock will depend on the scheme and role they get drafted into; and Sleeper WRs who have the potential to make an impact despite being projected as late round picks.
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Josh Doctson, TCU – Doctson and Laquon Treadwell are both excellent prospects, but the 6-foot-2 former TCU walk-on has a little more upside than the possession receiver from Ole Miss. Doctson is a tough receiver who attacks the ball and has a relentless work ethic. After transferring to TCU as a walk-on, he quickly earned his way to a starting role, exploding for over 2,300 yards and 25 touchdowns during the past two seasons. Doctson works hard off the line, and while he lacks elite straight line speed, he uses his body well and can create separation by being physical while the ball is in the air. Doctson should go off the board in the mid-to-late first round, and should win a starting job wherever he ends up.
Laquon Treadwell, Mississippi – If Treadwell ran a 4.4-second 40-yard-dash, he’d likely be drafted in the first five picks. As it stands, however, he runs in the 4.65 range, and lacks the deep speed that NFL teams covet when looking for an elite receiver. What Treadwell lacks in speed, he more than makes up for in competitiveness and reliability. Treadwell is sure-handed and runs with intensity after the catch. He out-muscles defenders for the ball and uses technique rather than athleticism to find spaces in the defense, using his 6-foot-2 frame to wall off defenders when tracking the ball in the air -- he compares favorably to Alshon Jeffery as a prospect. Treadwell should go off the board in the middle of the first round and be an immediate NFL starter.
Corey Coleman, Baylor – The 2015 Fred Biletnikoff Award winner, Coleman is an elite playmaker who caught an NCAA-leading 20 touchdowns last season for Baylor. Coleman is a little undersized at 5-foot-10, but plays with a swagger and competitiveness that is infectious on the field. He has excellent short area quickness that allows him to be explosive in and out of his cuts, and he demonstrated elite straight line speed at his pro day, clocking 4.38 seconds in the 40. Coleman needs to work on running clean routes and catching the ball with more consistency, but his drops seem to be more about focus and less about his hands. He does track the ball well downfield, and with some coaching, he could become one of the best deep threats in the NFL. Coleman should be drafted toward the back end of the first round and could make an impact early.
Braxton Miller, Ohio State – Miller is an interesting prospect. He’s a converted quarterback who was a star recruit as a passer, but then moved to the receiver position after an injury left him fighting with Cardale Jones for the starting QB role. Miller’s competitiveness and willingness to change positions lends credit to his character, and his elite athleticism made the transition out wide a successful one. While he only had 25 catches last year, he averaged 13.6 yards per catch and showed surprisingly consistent hands. Miller has adequate size and speed, but demonstrates elite after-the-catch ability. His obvious versatility should allow him to find a home quickly, with him likely going off the board in the second or third round. If he winds up playing for a creative offensive mind, he could make an early impact.
Sterling Shepard, Oklahoma – Shepard would be on the top of my sleeper list if I wasn’t so sure he’d go in the second or third round. He’s a prototypical slot receiver and likely won't wind up playing on the outside. However, his route-running ability and elite hands will give him an opportunity to see a ton of snaps in multiple receiver sets at the NFL level. His ability to separate and run after the catch would make him an excellent addition to a prolific passing attack. Shepard should contribute on special teams as well, and his ability to work the slot might allow him to lead all rookies in receptions this season if he winds up in the right offense.
Michael Thomas, Ohio State – Thomas is a going to be a good pro. I’m not sure he’ll be a great pro, but he’ll be a solid possession receiver with the ability to move the chains and make clutch catches for his quarterback. He’s a physical player who flashes the ability to develop into an elite blocker outside the hash marks, and he’s the quintessential jack-of-all-trades type of receiver, doing everything well without any particular skill standing out. He gets downfield, but doesn’t have an extra gear. He catches the ball well and runs good routes, but isn’t going to beat top-level corners. All in all, Thomas should be drafted somewhere in the second round and will likely earn a job as a consistent WR2 on a team with an open spot. If he ends up on a team in need of a possession receiver, he could win a starting job as a rookie and become a viable, albeit unspectacular, fantasy option.
Tyler Boyd, Pittsburgh – The most prolific receiver in Pitt history, Boyd is a savvy route-runner who demonstrates excellent short area quickness. He fights for position, runs with abandon after the catch, and has excellent hands. Boyd translates to the NFL as a slot receiver, but could find a way to contribute early if he ends up in the right spot. A team like New England would love to have him if he drops far enough to the back end of the second round, and a similar pass-heavy offensive scheme could make Boyd a viable fantasy receiver as early as next year.
Will Fuller, Notre Dame – A similar prospect to Coleman, Fuller and his supersonic speed could make him the top receiver taken if a team falls in love with his raw ability. Fuller ran the second-fastest 40 at the combine, clocking in at 4.32 seconds. He had 29 touchdowns over the past two years and averaged 20.3 yards per catch last season for the Fighting Irish. The problem with Fuller is that he drops the ball at an alarming rate and his small hands make it unlikely that he can be coached out of the bad habit. He could end up being an elite playmaker at the next level, but is just as likely to be another Troy Williamson -- a speedster who washes out of the league because of inconsistent hands.
Aaron Burbridge, Michigan State – After a modest first three years at Michigan State, Burbridge broke out his senior season for 85 catches, 1,258 yards, and 7 touchdowns. He demonstrated tenacity with the ball in his hands and was a reliable target for quarterback Connor Cook. Burbridge has excellent instincts when going for the ball, and uses his body well to elevate and play bigger than his 6-foot frame. One of the rare rookie receivers who won’t need to adapt to NFL press coverage, Burbridge could be a surprise starter as a rookie if he winds up on a team thin at the position. He’ll likely go off the board in the third or fourth round and could be a steal.
D.J. Foster, Arizona State – Foster is an undersized, slow receiver with a small catch radius. By all measures, he’s a player who shouldn’t show up on the radar of most NFL draft scouts. However, Foster turns on a dime, reacts well to defenders, and has great vision for a receiver. He’s a versatile talent who could juke a safety or a nickel corner working from the slot, and he has natural running instincts, making him a viable option on gadget plays and sweeps. Foster may lack the physical gifts of a player like Percy Harvin, but his skill set is in the same ballpark. He likely won’t be taken until the fifth round or later, but could surprise if he winds up on a team with a creative offensive mind calling the shots that needs a slot receiver.
Thomas Duarte, UCLA – Duarte had 10 touchdowns last season for the Bruins, demonstrating an ability to locate the ball in the air and outmuscle defenders. He possesses a similar skill set to Jordan Reed, and may convert to tight end. In the right system, Duarte could excel as a pass-catching tight end that stretches the seam. Fantasy owners should keep an eye on where he ends up, as he could make an impact if given the opportunity to play in motion and challenge opposing linebackers and safeties. He’ll likely be an early Day 3 pick.
Other Wide Receivers to Note: Chris Moore, Cincinnati; Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina; Malcolm Mitchell, Georgia; Charone Peake, Clemson; Devon Cajuste, Stanford; Geronimo Allison, Illinois; Tajae Sharpe, Massachusetts; Leonte Carroo, Rutgers; Jordan Payton, UCLA; Kenny Lawler, California
Be sure to follow along on draft day as John Paulson updates the fantasy impact of drafted players on Days 1 and 2, and stick around for Day 3 as I continue to update the back end players and clue you into potential steals.