By Chris Burke
April 11, 2014

2014 NFL draft position rankings: Mike Evans, Sammy Watkins top loaded WR class Few players can match Mike Evans' ability to win contested balls in the air. (David J. Phillip/AP)

At least a few seasons are required before any sweeping judgments are passed on a draft class. On paper, as the 2014 draft approaches, this group of receivers has the potential to be one of the best ever.

The support for such a claim travels far beyond Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans or any other Round 1 pick. The strength here really lies in the talent teams may find on Day 2 or Day 3 of the draft. Starting with a few of the names on our top-10 list and continuing through guys like Cody Latimer, Shaq Evans and Robert Herron, there are receivers who may suffer draft falls only because the comparable talent around them is so vast.

All of the 10 receivers highlighted here could be off the board before the top 50 picks are over.

MORE: 2014 NFL Mock Draft | Top TEs | Top guards | Top tackles | Top RBs | SI64

1. Mike Evans, Texas A&M: Far too much time has been spent having this chicken-or-egg argument over Evans and Johnny Manziel -- Was it Manziel's talents that made Evans look better than he was? Did Evans improve Manziel's stock by bailing him out repeatedly?

The answer: Who cares? They're both really good.

Evans still has extensive work to do on his own game, but being 6-foot-5 with incredible hands and exceptional leaping ability buys him some leeway. Few receivers already in the NFL (Calvin Johnson? Alshon Jeffery?) can win in the air the way that Evans can. He's also extremely effective when plays break down, finding holes in coverage while working back to the ball, hence his success with the ad-libbing Manziel.

The rest may come in time, which is why the more polished Watkins leads most draft boards. But even as is, Evans can be a very dangerous threat.

"Everybody can improve on route-running. That's a quality to have," Evans said. "My freshman year, I felt my route-running wasn't as good. This past year, I felt I improved.

"But I have a high ceiling. I think I'm one of the best players in this draft, and I think I can just keep getting better."

Draft projection: Top 10

1a. Sammy Watkins, Clemson: Slight spoiler alert here, but Watkins and Evans are back-to-back (though not necessarily in this order) in our SI64. Both may -- and arguably should -- be taken within the top 10.

The case for Watkins is a rather obvious one. At 6-1, 211 pounds and with 4.4 speed, Watkins has the size and speed to match what already is an NFL-ready game. He appears more than capable of stepping in as a No. 1 receiver, even as a rookie, or pairing with an established option to form a dominant unit.

"To be that dominant receiver I need to have that total package," Watkins said at the combine. "Every one knows all wide receivers can catch balls and score, but for me I’m focusing on the little things: blocking, getting off the press and being a physical, dominant receiver."

Watkins averaged more than 1,100 yards receiving during his three Clemson seasons, plus found the end zone 27 times. The Tigers offense took full advantage of Watkins' ability to catch and go, though he and Tajh Boyd also hooked up on more than a couple deep balls. Watkins' next offense may be a little more structured, asking him to improve his route-running. That's about the only thing standing between him and stardom.

Draft projection: Top 10

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3. Marqise Lee, USC: Had Lee been eligible to enter the 2013 draft, he may have been the first receiver off the board, ahead of Tavon Austin, DeAndre Hopkins and Cordarrelle Patterson. A year later, he may be the most forgotten potential first-rounder of them all. Most of the buzz has landed on Evans and especially Watkins above Lee, and on the rising Beckham Jr. below him. Lee's dazzling 118-catch 2012 season -- and the skills he has that helped produce it -- have slipped under the radar.

Do not mistake the relative silence for disinterest. The athletic Lee, a savvy receiver, is now healthy again after struggling en route to 57 receptions in 2013. He could be dropped into a starting lineup from Day 1 and challenge for Rookie of the Year honors. When all is said and done, the spotlight will find its way back here.

Draft projection: Round 1

4. Odell Beckham Jr., LSU: Here lies Exhibit A for the depth of receiver talent in this draft. Will teams feel the need to trade up for Sammy Watkins or to use a top-10 pick on Evans when Beckham, a walking highlight reel with the ball in his hands, could be had later in Round 1?

Several teams will have their focus cast on Beckham, who averaged nearly 20 yards per catch for LSU last season. There is a little less size here (5-11) and just average strength, which could hurt his ability to power through NFL cornerbacks. Everything else has the look of a plug-and-play NFL receiver.

Draft projection: Round 1

5. Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State: Benjamin may answer the question once and for all of how much emphasis NFL teams put on having size at wide receiver. The ex-Seminole is absolutely huge for a WR at 6-5, 240 (about 10 pounds heavier than Evans). He plays a tight end-style game to match that bulk, too, doing some of his best work in the red zone -- he scored 10 TDs last season -- and up the seam.

The rub: Benjamin is far from a finished product, with the latest knock coming in self-inflicted fashion this week as Benjamin reportedly blew off a workout because he was "too tired." Drafting Benjamin would be a roll of the dice, but one that may pay off several times over.

Draft projection: Late Round 1

6. Brandin Cooks, Oregon State: Pretty much the exact opposite end of the spectrum from Benjamin. Cooks stands barely 5-10 and weighs less than 190 pounds. He will not blow through physical defenders nor will he win jump balls downfield.

What he will do is make just about every other catch, then threaten to turn those plays into home runs. Cooks ran a blazing 4.33 40 at the combine, solidifying himself as a valuable after-the-catch weapon.

"For me, I’m a playmaker. I’m able to create plays from nothing," Cooks said. "Be able to catch a three-yard ball, I’ll take it the distance. ... Speed kills and I feel like that’s what I’m going to bring to the game."

Draft projection: Late Round 1-early Round 2

7. Allen Robinson, Penn State: After leading the Big Ten in receiving in back-to-back seasons, Robinson has a shot to sneak into Round 1 and should not slip very deep into Round 2. He uses his 6-2, 220-pound frame well, both in nabbing contested passes and in setting up his routes against defenders. Penn State leaned on him heavily to help keep its offense moving. Robinson responded with 97 catches for 1,400-plus yards.

Draft projection: Round 2

8. Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt: Like Robinson, an ultra-productive college player -- Matthews caught 94 passes in 2012 and 112 last season, overcoming average QB play. He, too, has some of that coveted size at a solid 6-3. Vanderbilt put his versatility on display, moving Matthews inside and out in offensive sets; he produced no matter where he was, showing no hesitation to take his routes over the middle. Matthews probably will be a No. 2 or No. 3 receiver in the pros.

Draft projection: Round 2

9. Jarvis Landry, LSU: Landry tweaked a calf at the combine and struggled through his workout as a result. Unfortunately for Landry, he then followed that up with a shaky showing at LSU's pro day. The end result may be that Landry slides in a very deep receiver class.

Even in Round 2, he may prove to be a bargain. As a pick in Round 3 or later, Landry might turn into the steal of the draft. He certainly has the ability to prove people wrong. His talents start with decent size and strong hands, and continue with a knack for working his way open with smart routes. The 1,200 yards Landry put up in 2013 did not happen by accident.

Draft projection: Round 2

10. Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin: Put Abbrederis' tape up against that of Watkins or Beckham and he might not look all that hot. Taken on his own for what he is -- likely a second or third receiver at the next level -- and NFL teams will be thrilled with what they see.

He caught 78 passes for 1,081 yards last season, most of those coming because he worked his way open against a top cornerback. Abbrederis' torch job against Ohio State draft hopeful Bradley Roby really thrust his status forward, as he made several contested catches plus worked Roby with deep moves. Is he a Pro Bowler? Maybe not. But it is not out of line to expect Abbrederis to go for 60-plus catches as a rookie.

Draft projection: Round 2-3

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