Preseason Top 5: Pac-12 Wide Receivers

Photo: Nov 10, 2017; Stanford, CA, USA; Stanford Cardinal wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside (19) reacts in the game against the Washington Huskies in the first quarter at Stanford Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

How do we get to preseason sensationalism for draft prospects? I think it's a combination of a few things.

Firstly, the biggest factor that we cannot avoid: how high-profile the recruiting status of the player in question. Of course we're gonna talk about Rashan Gary when he's finally eligible for the NFL Draft -- he was the top recruit of the darn class! We've known his name for years; and so have color commentators. That's what brings us to item number two: commentator bias.

Commentators talk about Gary because he already has that clout, that name recognition -- when you turn on a Michigan broadcast, you expect to hear him discussed the same way you'd be shocked to hear a Clemson broadcast hyping up the linebackers when the defensive line is on the field. Commentators, B-roll cameras, on-field interviews all serve to keep the big names rolling around in our mind as we watch the game.

And finally, there's always splash plays. When you haven't yet evaluated a player -- sat yourself down, dissected all of his reps independent from the results, and understood his game as whole -- your opinion of him is highly reliant on the plays that stood out in casual watching/social media/highlight reels. It's the memorable plays -- either good or bad -- and we instinctively use those to color in the rest of the evaluation without thinking. It is not that they haven't been statistically strong, impactful in their on-field play -- or even that they aren't good prospects! It's just that the preseason is inevitably, and delightfully, a honey trap.

It is with this spirit that I tell you: I don't think N'Keal Harry is the best wide receiver in the Pac-12.

1. J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Senior, Stanford (6'2 222)

No, I did not misspell ‘N’Keal Harry.’

J-Jaw is not the athlete N’Keal is. Nobody is. And that means N’Keal can make catches that J-Jaw can’t make -- heck, catches than nobody else can make. But when we scout, we aren’t always looking for players who can make 100% of the possible plays, because that last 5% of possible plays -- those absurd circus catches -- happen rather infrequently. They don’t provide as much value on a game to game basis as the 95% of plays that occur far more regularly -- and on which success is more predictable and consistent, rep in and rep out.

Simply put, at this stage of their careers, that’s where Arcega-Whiteside has Harry beat. Both players’ best plays come down the field, with Harry’s plays often outshining Arcega-Whiteside’s objectively spectacular reps. But in the intermediate level and in the short level, at the release and the break point, in terms of hand usage and route stem manipulation, Arcega-Whiteside has more polish and is better prepared to play on Sundays. That’s what I can see on film, and it ain’t no lie (baby bye bye bye).

J-Jaw plays with excellent 10-yard burst, with long and explosive strides that just gobble up space against smaller corners. He can maintain deep speed as well to stack corners downfield, and has the frame and physical mindset to win with leverage through his entire route. He’ll box out with elbows and low hips -- his basketball background is clear -- and frequently attacks the football away from his frame at the point of greatest safety from oncoming defenders. His hand-fighting and boxing out may draw a few more penalties than most in the NFL, but his monster catch radius, burst, and intelligence to separate and win in contested situations is an NFL-ready blend.

What to watch for in 2018: Press coverage. J-Jaw should be able to handle it well, as he’s decently quick, has that blow-by explosiveness, and knows how to use his hands. The simple reality is that I didn’t see it attempted on tape very often against him, and I can’t give him marks for just having the potential to handle it well. High-quality, press-beating reps make NFL decision-makers drool.

2. N’Keal Harry, Junior, Arizona State (6'3 216)

N’Keal Harry does some of the stupidest stuff I’ve seen on an NCAA field. He wins the sort of balls that, halfway through their trajectory, you already know there’s a 0% chance it gets caught, AND YET.

It’s just bonkers.

His body control in the air is sublime. His tracking ability from early in the ball’s trajectory is special. The burst to immediately win leverage downfield, then gear down to keep leverage, then explode at the last second to win the catch away from the defender? That’s high-quality stuff. He’s got strong hands at the end of long arms, a powerful vertical, and an innate sense of timing.

But he doesn’t work very hard to release at the line of scrimmage. He doesn’t recruit his hands often to keep his chest plate clean, and he’s all too willing to take wide angles off the line of scrimmage and get worked too far into the sideline on vertical stems. Honestly, I think N'Keal thinks he’s quicker than he actually is when working to get around cornerbacks, and he doesn’t include enough jab steps or head fakes to help soften the angle accordingly. If he’s running a short route, forget it -- he’ll try to get through contact within the 5-yard window with exclusively his shoulders/mass, essentially eliminating himself as a valid target for the play.

N'Keal's a special athlete and has a 90% chance to be a first-round pick -- there’s no reason he shouldn’t be, if he takes even pedestrian strides in terms of release moves and hand usage. I expect his Combine to impress almost as much as his highlight reels do. But at this stage, he's an incomplete prospect -- that's the short of it.

What to watch for in 2018: Hand usage. Even if you win the release, even if you win leverage downfield, if you’re unwilling to use your hands to keep your chest clean, you’re gonna get bothered at every catch point; rerouted at every break. You might still be able to win on athletic domination--but your life will be 10x harder than it should have been.

3. Tyler Vaughns, Redshirt Sophomore, USC (6-2 185)

I’ll keep it a buck: after J-Jaw and N’Keal, I am -- oh, what’s the technical term? -- not thrilled about the state of the Pac-12 receiving corps. There are a ton of role players, and I went through at least some cursory film on a ton of ‘em: Kyle Sweet, Vic Wharton III, Chico McClatcher, Michael Pittman Jr.

What I got in return was left with a whole lotta: “Yeah they can do this, but can they do that or this other thing?” From here on out, we’re discussing limited players. One or two may really round their game out by the time they declare -- and I’ll be happy to see it. I’m just not sure who’s the right bet there.

So I guess I’m putting some chips behind Vaughns, a player who also makes his best plays down the field. He’s got a lanky frame and powerful hands to snatch the football out of the air, and he’s a great tracker who can make some acrobatic snags. I especially appreciate how willing he is to attack the football late, thereby not tipping off the cover man as to the arrival of the pass.

His athletic profile isn’t anything to write home about, though his long strides serve him well when looking for five step burst to separate. His YAC often comes not from agility or explosiveness, but from his intelligence and anticipation of angles. He can drops his hips and decelerate to a quick stop, which gives him a natural counter to his go route with a hard stop route that can cause problems for cornerbacks.

What to watch for in 2018: Reads. Vaughns often works the same plan against press coverage as he does against off coverage, and it makes for some silly reps. He’ll just barrel into off coverage corners after barely trying to move them off their spot with head fakes or stem manipulation; he won’t even acknowledge press attempts with a swat or a stiff arm, and thereby can get swallowed up. He needs to create better plans to generate separation more frequently.

4. Juwann Winfree, Redshirt Senior, Colorado (6'3 210)

Winfree has been limited to the slot up to this point in his career, but there’s a whole lot that goes into that. A dismissal from the Maryland program in 2014 as a four-star recruit; a knee injury in 2016 after transferring to Colorado from community college; three senior receivers above him on the depth chart last year. So why does a 6’3, 210 lb wideout end up in the slot?

Cause Winfree runs some sexy routes, let me tell you. He manipulates stride length really well, and with good flexibility and body control, he can really sell his fakes and generate throwing windows. He puts an unsuspecting off-man corner in a blender at least once per game. Add in the size, catch radius, and a good ability to catch through contact, and he should respond well to an expanded role in 2018.

But there are significant hurdles to clear. All of them could be chucked under the umbrella of ‘polish’ or ‘experience,’ and the hope is that his starting role will help him thereby. But as of his 2017 tape, Winfree struggles immensely to find space between zones and doesn’t know how to work with a scrambling quarterback. His routes might be sharp, but he doesn’t always know what he’s looking at and how he fits into the offensive structure. His timing will be off with his quarterback; he’ll take too many steps and not get into his break with urgency. He’s got one year in a big role to prove he can handle multiple responsibilities, and right now, that projection isn’t great.

What to watch for in 2018: YAC. With poor spatial awareness comes poor YAC ability. Winfree’s a tough athlete to riddle out, because he can be smooth and he can show explosiveness, but in the open field he seems to be lacking. It might be that he’s processing too much and not playing with instinct, which, again, may come back to playing time. He’s a big question mark right now -- but the ability to generate extra yardage will help regardless of the alignments/responsibilities he eventually fulfills.

5. Theo Howard, Junior, UCLA (6-0 180)

Some folks are bullish on Howard, and I get it. He can do two things really nicely: he can release, and he can fly. With smart route stems that regularly attack the appropriate hip, Howard can use head fakes to get you twisted, and then really blow by you. His hands are true down the field, and if you hit him in stride, you’ve got a stick of dynamite in your hands.

But everything else is just uninspiring, man. He’s another high-cut player who struggles to operate tight corners because of his low step frequency, so corners can play his breaks pretty easily: they see the strides shorten and they know he’s about to gear down and change direction. Accordingly, Howard can struggle to be explosive out of sharp breaks -- think comebacks and curls -- which allows defenders to close gaps and play over the top. Supposedly a big YAC player, he really needs a runway to be effective -- in a phone booth, he struggles to make players miss.

And that brings us to another issue: Howard seems really turned off by physicality. He’ll shrink from expected hits and can’t reel in the ball through contact. He’ll get bullied from press alignments frequently, and without increased mass or a sudden affinity for violence, he’ll need to play in the slot categorically.

What to watch for in 2018: The deep ball. Howard can release and he can fly, as we discussed -- but he has yet to demonstrate notable tracking abilities, let alone the physicality to win with leverage downfield and make catches at tough angles/through contact. As of right now, he isn’t a true deep threat and he isn’t a true slot YAC weapon. I don’t know what he is.

Name to keep an eye on:

Dillon Mitchell, Junior, Oregon (6'3 201)

I don’t have enough tape on Mitchell to firmly tell you how good I think he is -- but the bits and pieces are promising. He’s got great flexibility and body control, which creates a shockingly sudden player who can cause issues with the ball in his hands. I like his competitiveness down the field, but there’s work to do in regards to releasing against press. His route tree also seems mighty limited.

Notable omission:

Shun Brown, Senior, Arizona (5'8 177)

I wanted to like Shun Brown, the undersized jitterbug that Arizona uses in a lot of different ways. But he needs to win as a space playmaker at his height, and he just doesn’t. His vision and decision-making are highly suspect; he isn’t really explosive; he doesn’t take on contact well. He’s quick, but there’s nothing else there that excites me.

Written By:

Benjamin Solak

Director of Special Projects

Director of Special Projects and Senior NFL Draft Analyst for The Draft Network. Co-host of the Locked On NFL Draft Podcast. The 3-Wide Raven.