NFL Draft: What to watch for when scouting wide receivers

Wide receivers are the cause for a ton of NFL Draft volatility, so what should you watch for when scouting these pass catchers?
Dec 31, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) looks on before the game against the Green Bay Packers at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 31, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) looks on before the game against the Green Bay Packers at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports / Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The wide receiver position has become an interesting one for NFL Draft analysts and evaluators to find consensus on. There is so much variety and difference across the board at this position. This makes it difficult to understand what to look for when scouting them for analysts.

The Daft on Draft Podcast has sought to make it a bit easier an episode with The Athletic's Dane Brugler. In this episode, Brugler and I break down the position by traits, what to watch for, and more. This episode can be found on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

You can find breakdowns of other position groups below:


Running backs

Here is a transcript of the episode with one of the best in the industry:

Treading the line between production metrics and what the tape shows

Brugler: "I never look at the advanced metrics before I watch a player. I try to go in kind of a process, and it's tough to do that because we can't evaluate these guys in a vacuum. You know, you can't help, but hear this or that or see something on Twitter or whatever, we can't do this in a vacuum. But I try to get a tape grade and a tape opinion based off of just what I'm seeing with this guy on the field, how he's moving, how he's winning down the field. And so I'm trying to get my own conclusions there, and then I use the stats as more of a cross-checking exercise.

It's kind of the same way we use the combine, right, with the athletic testing. On film, he looks like a great athlete, and then at the combine runs a 4.4, okay, you know, check that box. But if he runs in a 4-6, it's like, oh, okay, well, maybe I missed something on the film, or he's slower than I thought, or maybe he's faster than I thought. And so it's a cross-checking exercise. And if I grade a player as, oh, he's playing really well through contact, but then I look at the advanced metrics, and oh, he had a 22% catch rate in contested situations, oh, okay, maybe I wasn't watching the right tape, so I need to go back and watch some more of that to make sure I'm finding out what the truth is. I'm not just going by the tape, I'm not just going by the production metrics, I'm trying to find what the truth is, and that's sometimes somewhere in the middle, and so that's always a sometimes longer process than you want it to be, but for me, it starts with the tape. It doesn't matter the position.

I'm a big believer, firm believer in traits over production. That's at the core of my scouting and what I think a lot of NFL teams, how they view this, and that's not the same thing as saying stats don't matter, of course they do. I want guys that were productive in college and there's different, not all production is created equal, put it that way. And I think that's important to factor in as well."

Does alignment matter for WRs?

Brugler: "I think it's maybe an old school thinking with the way things used to be, how you need that X, you need that, and you're looking for a very specific play style and body type. But I think nowadays, you want interchangeable guys. It's no different than looking at safeties, and it used to be free safety, strong safety.

Now, I mean, the lines are blurred more than ever, and you want guys that can play interchangeably, play high, can play low, can do all these different things. It's the same thing with the receiver. Now, not every receiver can play the slot, play the Z, and then can also play the X. I mean, that's just, some players have their restrictions.

But when you look at this class outside the top three, how many true X receivers are there in this draft class? I don't think that what most people or most teams believe is an X receiver, there's just not always a lot of those guys, and at least guys that you project as NFL starters. So, yeah, I think it's maybe out of necessity more than anything, and I think with offenses evolving, teams are more open to just getting the best receivers out there and then accommodating them based off of what your quarterback can do.

And we've seen more and more offensive coordinators think outside the box and be creative with how they want to attack defenses. And so you look at the teams that are winning in the NFL, and you look at the Chiefs, and you look at the Bills, and obviously, they've got good quarterback play, but they also look at some of their receivers and how they use them in these different ways. It's not as cookie cutter as just X, Y, Z, and the lines are more blurred than ever."

Breaking down what it takes to be a good route runner

Brugler: "The way I look at it is you almost have to separate route running in two categories. For lack of a better term, there's route athleticism and there's route awareness.
And so being able to be sudden and have the quickness needed to snap off the route, but also having the understanding of depth and pacing to understand when to do it and how to set up the defensive back. And so that's the route awareness part. And some guys, the best of the best have both. Some guys lean one over the other.

But I think when you talk about route running, it starts with at the line of scrimmage, making every route look the same. I think that is a key thing that a lot of receivers, especially in college, they're not worried about that. But in the NFL, if you don't want that defensive back to play sticky coverage and get a beat on what you're doing, making every route look the same is so pivotal because those DBs will study you. They will know exactly what's coming based on the way you line up, what you're doing with your hands, what you're doing with your feet. And if you don't mix it up and make every route look the same, you're in trouble from the get-go. So that's where it starts.

And then with the route awareness, you want to attack defenders at the stem, you want to understand how to find their blind spot. And so you could be a four, three athlete, but the understanding of how to do that is so pivotal. And so, yeah, I want my receivers to be sudden in short areas where they can accelerate, decelerate on command, break off these routes. But almost more importantly, I want them to understand, all right, I'm more advanced with the way I'm attacking defenders. I understand, okay, give zero indicators to the defensive backs about what I'm doing. And it could be on a double move, it could be on a dig.

It just, whatever route you're running, it needs tempo, it needs purpose. And it's really something that takes repetition. It takes a lot of practice to get those down. Some receivers are very natural at route running. Others, it takes a lot more work. But yeah, ideally, you want guys that are sudden and crisp in every route but also understand the pacing and timing of what it takes to get open."

On the necessity of needing to run a diverse route tree at the college level

Brugler: "When these guys make that jump to the NFL level, it's for some of these guys, it's tough. And that's where, that's why the draft process is the draft process, where, you know, the interviews are so important. Getting these guys on the whiteboard to understand, okay, or, you know, watch film with them. Okay, you did this, this and this. Was it based on the coverage? Was it based off of something you saw during the week? Was it, you know, what made you do this? And if the wide receiver understands, and this was a big question, you know, and it works both ways.

A guy like DK Metcalf at Ole Miss was not running this advanced route tree. And, you know, that was one of the reasons he fell to the end of the second round was, okay, he's just, he's big, strong, going to run on a straight line. But obviously, he's been more than that. Now that he's not the most advanced route runner in terms of running the full tree with the Seahawks, he's done enough where, and he's got the physical traits, obviously, where he can go make plays happen. So I think it depends.

It's not as strict as I need all my receivers be able to run every branch of the route tree at a high level.It's just, that's not realistic. But I do need them to understand what every branch of the route tree means and what's expected of him based off of what we're going to be asking him to do. So some guys aren't equipped for that. It's going to take time, and we have to remember, too, when you play receiver in the NFL, timing is paramount.It's everything. If you're not on time with your quarterback, it's an interception or it's incomplete, and every little microsecond matters when you're playing receiver.

So it's having that mental acumen and that experience, it really is important, but it also is not always easy to project to the next level because a lot of these guys don't run full route trees, but some of them are capable. Some of them have that in them, and they have the athleticism and the know-how. It's just you have to project that, and it's a little bit of an unknown variable with a lot of these receiving prospects."

How well does a wide receiver separate?

Brugler: "I think a lot of carryover from what we just mentioned with route running, how timing is so important because, yeah, I know like a Ladd McConkey has the short-area quickness where he can sink and snap off a 90-degree cut and get open, give his quarterback a target. But what makes him such a dynamic player is the fact that it's also timing-based too. With the way that he will attack the top of the stem, the way that he will sell his moves, the different body movements that he has, it's able to be timing, but also have the athletic traits to do it.

And so separation, it is one of those things where it's not as black and white or cut and dry as maybe some of these other traits that you're looking for one of these other categories. But I think just when you watch enough tape of a player, you get a sense of whether he can or he can't, or it's natural for him, easy for him, or if defensive backs are always going to be able to read him and kind of get a beat on what he's trying to do.

So there's so many, we mentioned Garrett Wilson earlier. He was a guy that, there were times where he was unable to get that separation because he's okay with winning in contested roles because he feels like he can do it. So he didn't always feel the need like, oh, I have to separate from this guy. If my quarterback throws it up, I'm going to come down with it. And a lot of guys come through high school with that mentality because they were always bigger, faster, better than whoever they went up against. And so once you get to the college level, that's when you really hopefully see from these guys the ability to hone in on the timing aspect of separation.

And I mentioned before, finding the blind spot at defensive backs, getting them to turn their hips, things like that. Really, lulling corners to sleep before you switch those gears. Some receivers have a better feel for that than others. While others are going to be more relying on their traits, more than the physical traits, more so than some of the technical savvy."

Defining body control and what to look for

Brugler: "The ability to make a play, I mean, the way I kind of look at it is, I call it GGI skills, it go and get it skills, the ability to go and get the football. And, you know, it is something that, kind of like what you're talking about, like, and that's why we love Marvin Harrison Jr. so much, right, is because he is big, he is fast, he does have a lot of these things you're looking for, but he's so good, you know, he's late with his hands, even late with his eyes.

So he's not giving away these little, you know, breadcrumbs for corners to understand when that ball is coming. And a lot of these guys, you see the basketball background, and I think that helps with down the field and the ability to box out, go make a catch. You mentioned stacking, that is a really, I think, yeah, underrated skill to, you know, the ball is at its apex in the air, but you know where you need to be down the field to catch the ball perfectly. So you're already stacking that receiver, maybe slowing your route a little bit, understanding how to maintain that space so you can run underneath it. You're not going to be late, you're not going to overstride and give the corner a chance at it. That ball tracking, and so even when it's high in the air, you know where it's going, and that's not easy to do. A lot of receivers are inconsistent when it comes to the ball-tracking aspect. So yeah, the body control, to me, that's, it's on one hand, it's contorting your frame to adjust to the football, but yeah, there's an art to it as well.

It's not just, having the biomechanics to be able to do it, it's the understanding of body position and where you need to be to make it happen as well. So again, I feel like a common theme we've talked about with route running and separation is the physical ability to do it, but also there's a know-how aspect where it's an understanding, both technically and intellectually, where you know where you need to be so you can make a play on the ball and the defender can't."

How well does YAC-ability translate to the NFL and can it be the identifying trait of a WR?

Brugler: "When the majority of your targets are within five yards of the line of scrimmage, it makes it difficult because, okay, does that mean that's what you have to be at the next level or are you more than that? And that's where the Senior Bowl and East-West Shrine and these all-star games hopefully give you a better sense for what they are that you didn't see enough of on film. Because, yeah, a lot of these receivers, you see them mostly used on screens, on jets, manufactured touches to get the ball in their hands to let them go make a play, be a catch-and-go creator. And there's certainly value in that. There's no doubt about it. But we've seen, I think, seen enough of these guys where it's not being a more complete receiver makes it tough to keep them on the roster unless you're really, really good in that area...

If you're not good enough as a return man, and if you're not a dynamite player in that role, it's going to be tough to keep you on the roster and really make a case for why you deserve to be there if you're not just, if you aren't Deebo Samuel and aren't high level in that role. So yeah, that does make it tough as you're, and Malachi Corley is a great example of that this year. We'll have to see how that plays out and see if how that adjusts how we think about those guys."

Let's talk about a WR's ability to block

Brugler: "I think it's more of a mentality than anything. Like if he shows, okay, and it could be digging out a safety, it could be just, you're not shy of those second-level collisions. And it's different than what tight ends are asked to do or running backs are asked to do. You're on the edge. It's more about, okay, do you have a sound, square, balanced blocking base? And do you stay after it? Do you stay in between ball and defender?

That's really the key. Can you stay in between those two? And yeah, it's not sealing an edge block. It's not, but there is a mentality to it, running your feet at contact. And you don't have to be an asset in the run game. You just can't be a negative in the run game. Not every receiver is going to be an A plus blocker. You just can't be an F or a D. You can't be someone that teams can't trust out there.

And there are some, Marvin Harrison Jr., he has some nice blocks on film. He also has some other times where he's just very disinterested in getting the block done. And that's one of the areas where he can get better. So yeah, blocking is not going to just pull you down.

If you're that good as a receiver, teams can overlook it. But if you are a B-level receiver, you better be a B-level blocker or they will find another B-level receiver who is a better blocker than you. And there are so many receivers out there. It's a high-volume position. And if you're not good enough as a receiver, you better have all your ducks in a row and blocking is a big part of that."

Cory Kinnan