Is Chase Claypool A First-Round Talent?

A recent mock draft has Notre Dame WR Chase Claypool in round one, but does he have the game to support that kind of hype?
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Notre Dame wide receiver Chase Claypool dominated at the NFL Scouting Combine, and the result is draft analysts boosting him in their mock drafts. A recent NFL.com mock draft bumped Claypool into the second round, and shortly after a Pro Football Focus mock draft put the former Irish standout in the first round.

The question that needs to be asked is whether Claypool is worthy of a first-round pick based on his all-around skillset and potential for production, or is he a workout warrior that is being bumped up because of what he did in shorts?

Let’s take a look at Claypool’s game to answer that question.

STRENGTHS

Size — This is the first trait you notice when evaluating Claypool, he’s a massive wide receiver on film, and that size is even more imposing when you see him up close. Claypool is not just tall and thick, but he’s quite long. His 80” wingspan was fifth best among the over 50 wide receivers that measured in at the NFL Scouting Combine.

Claypool’s size obviously drew talk about him moving to tight end, but it also aids him as a wide receiver. Much of the criticism of Claypool is that he doesn’t gain a great deal of separation, which to a degree is a fair critique.

As Claypool gained more experience and matured his game, the ability to properly use body positioning became a bigger part of his game. There’s still plenty of room for this to be enhanced, which I will talk about in the technique section below. But the point is, while separation is important for wideouts, Claypool doesn’t have to create the same level of separation as a player like Jerry Jeudy or Laviska Shenault.

Claypool’s size and strength are assets for him after the catch. I compared Claypool’s Pro Football Focus stats to the other top ranked wide receivers in this draft class. Claypool broke 14 tackles on 66 catches. Only four other wideouts had more than Claypool, who used his size and speed combination to be an impact player after the catch as a senior.

While I don’t see him making a living in the NFL with his after-the-catch ability, what he can do with his size will help him be an effective chain-mover after the catch. Claypool can bounce off tackles at the moment he makes the catch, he’s difficult to bring down in space and he developed a quality stiff arm in his final season.

Claypool’s size and strength also makes him a significant weapon as a blocker.

Catching Ability — Claypool’s size enhances his ability as a pass catcher by creating an exceptionally wide catch radius. Analysts will focus on his lack of separation as a route runner and use it as a negative, but the reality is Claypool’s length gives him the unique ability to make plays on the ball that most players cannot.

Some wide receivers use speed, athleticism and/or precise route running to gain separation; Claypool uses his length and wide catch radius to gain separation.

Claypool has certainly enhanced his ball skills over the years. His timing playing the ball has gotten much better, he used his hands more in the final season and a half at Notre Dame and as I discussed above, he developed the ability to use his size to gain leverage advantages.

The former Irish standout has big, strong hands and when he gets his hands on the ball is quite’s difficult to knock it loose.

Part of his strength as a pass catcher is his willingness and ability to make plays in traffic. Claypool makes a high number of contested grabs, not just on deep balls but also in other parts of the field. A confident quarterback with a strong arm is going to use the smallest of windows to force the ball to Claypool knowing the former Irish star will stay locked onto the ball and not who is closing in on him.

Vertical Speed — Claypool is a bit of a slow starter, but once he gets going he can cover a lot of ground in a hurry. He has deceptive speed due to his long strides and somewhat unorthodox running style. Watch enough Notre Dame film and you’ll see Claypool getting open downfield a lot more than you’d think for someone who analysts say should play tight end.

Claypool’s best comp as a player is Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans, the No. 7 overall player in the 2014 NFL Draft. Evans has gone over 1,000 yards in each of his six seasons in the NFL. Evans measured in at 6-5 and 231 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine and ran a 4.53 with a 37” vertical leap. Claypool measured in at 6-4 1/4 and 238 pounds, and he ran a 4.42 with a 40.5” vertical leap.

Claypool’s slow get off reminds me a great deal of Evans, and Evans has averaged 15.7 yards per catch throughout his career. Evans has averaged 17.5 yards per catch over the last two seasons. He has no problem making plays down the field. I’d argue that Claypool has even better long speed than Evans, and that’s based on film and not just looking at the 40-yard dash time.

Ability To Work Open vs. Zone — Claypool’s long speed also makes him effective after the catch when he gets the ball in space. Once he gets to full speed he can do serious damage after the catch. We didn’t see that earlier in his career, but as Claypool got older and learned how to better work open against the zone he was able to better use his size and speed to make plays.

Claypool’s hands and wide catch radius make him a force against zone defenses, and the more comfortable he got at finding the soft spots the more effective he became as a pass catcher.

Versatility — Part of what makes Claypool such an intriguing player is his versatility as a wide receiver. He started in the slot as a sophomore, he started as the outside field receiver as a junior and he was the boundary receiver as a senior. Even as a senior we saw Claypool moved around into different spots, and I would expect an NFL team to do that to an even greater degree.

Claypool’s strength, length and ball skills make him a dangerous player on the outside. His size, catch radius and ability to work open against the zone make him a threat over the middle of the field.

On the outside his size presents matchup problems for cornerbacks. Inside his athleticism makes him a matchup problem for linebackers, and his size plus speed makes him a threat against safeties.

At 238 pounds, some teams might view Claypool as more of a hybrid tight end. His athleticism, catch radius, strong hands and ability to matchup against linebackers and safeties makes him an attractive player in this type of role, and it is this level of versatility that I believe makes him a highly valuable weapon for any offense. Most of the wideouts in this class are just that, wideouts. Claypool can do a lot more than most, and that kind of value is important, and rare. If you choose to pass on one of the smaller, more dynamic wideouts in round one there are comparable players in round two and round three. If you pass on Claypool and round one there isn’t anyone else in the draft class capable of doing what he can do.

For comparison’s sake, let’s look at Washington’s Hunter Bryant, who most draft analysts view as the best “small” tight end in the draft class.

Claypool - 6-4 1/4, 238 pounds, 80” wingspan, 4.42 in the 40, 40.5” vertical
Bryant - 6-2 1/4, 248 pounds, 76 1/2” wingspan, 4.74 in the 40, 32.5” vertical

Claypool is not only much longer, he’s a significantly better athlete. It will be much easier for Claypool to add 10 pounds than it will for Bryant to ever come close to the level of athleticism and explosiveness that Claypool brings to the game.

Special Teams — You don’t draft a player in the first round because he’s a top-notch special teams player, but it certainly doesn’t hurt if a team is looking for a reason to decide between several players it grades as first round picks.

AREAS FOR IMPROVEMENT

Technique vs. Press — The biggest thing holding Claypool back right now is technique. He came to Notre Dame as an incredibly raw player that dominated against inferior prep competition because he was just so much bigger, stronger and more athletic than his competition in Canada.

Claypool started to become a bit more sound as a junior and the results were by the end of the season I would argue he was Notre Dame’s best wideout. His demeanor changed as a senior, and that led to his breakout season, but his technique still lags behind.

The first area where this proves problematic is at the line of scrimmage. There are enough corners in the NFL that will have the size and strength to give Claypool issues if he doesn’t improve his footwork, get better with his hands and enhance his repertoire of moves at the snap. He uses his size to get by against college players, but against some of the top corners he faced, Claypool wasn’t as effective at the line.

Route Running — Claypool needs a lot of work as a route runner. When I read analysts talk about his playing speed being an issue I see what they are seeing, but I don’t think it’s about his athletic talent. Claypool’s playing speed isn’t as good as it should be, and could be, because he lacks the necessary route technique to play at full speed.

Claypool will never be an explosive player at the snap, but he can get to full speed relatively quickly for his size. The issue he has is that he doesn’t show the grasp for using the nuances of the position to his advantage. Claypool doesn’t attack leverage the way he should, he rarely attempts to manipulate defensive backs with his stem or top end, and he’s often too choppy getting out of his breaks.

This clip is an example of Claypool lacking the necessary technique, not the necessary speed and explosiveness, and there are many like it.

There are snaps where Claypool will drive his hips down and explode out of breaks, so I believe the ability is there. This staying a problem depends on whether or not Claypool is willing to really work on his craft the way he should, and if a team is willing to invest in helping him develop this part of his game.

Evaluators must decide if a player is a poor technician because he lacks the physical tools to do what is required, or if he is a poor technician because he has yet to develop the tools that are there to be tapped into.

If I'm correct on this it's quite important, because it would mean the thing holding Claypool back from being an elite player is something that is correctable.

I’m of the belief that Claypool is the latter, and that’s why I view him as having the chance to be an even more dynamic player in the NFL than he was in college. He was a late bloomer, and if he gets the right coaching his game could explode at the next level. When Claypool did use the techniques I discussed, even to the slightest degree, he would blow past defenders.

Concentration — Claypool dropped seven passes as a senior and he had 18 drops during his four-year career. That’s not an incredibly high number, but it isn’t a great number either. Claypool has very strong hands, but early in his career his timing catching the ball wasn’t ideal, but he has improved that part of his game.

His drop issues as a senior had to do with him losing focus and not locking in on the ball. He would also lose focus as a route runner and blocker, so being a more locked in player snap after snap will be key for him at the next level.

CONCLUSION

As with any player, where you get picked is partly about fit and need. If you’re a team like the Denver Broncos, who already have Courtland Sutton (6-4, 216) and Noah Fant (6-4, 249) odds are Claypool isn’t on your radar. But there are plenty of teams that are looking for a player with the size/speed/alignment versatility that Claypool brings to the game.

I do view Claypool as a first-round caliber talent for a number of reasons. First, he has a very rare combination of size and speed, which he showed at the NFL Scouting Combine.

Second, Claypool was a productive player at Notre Dame that got better and better as he got older. When you consider he started behind most from a technique/experience standpoint, having gown up in Canada, there is a case to be made that he’s still got plenty of room to enhance his game.

Third, Claypool is a guy you can do more with from a matchup standpoint than most wide receivers in this class. Much of the focus on Claypool when knocking him down the list is pointing out that his playing speed isn’t as good as others, which is true. But there are things Claypool can do with his size/speed/strength combination that a very small number of wideouts in this class can do.

For those reasons I won’t be surprised if Claypool does in fact go late in the first round or early in the second round. As more teams evaluate him, break down his game and get to know him I believe his draft stock will continue to rise.

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