Saints Draft Spotlight: Deep Wide Receivers Class in 2020

Aaron S. Miller

We are a mere week into 2020 and, owing to a heartbreaking loss at home to the Minnesota Vikings in the Wild Card round, New Orleans Saints are on the clock for the NFL Draft at #24.  For Saints front office personnel, however, a critical piece of a nascent 2020-21 NFL season is just getting underway.  Scouting future team contributors - pending free agents and incoming rookies - via the NFL Draft will be a vital component to the Saints making another bid for the Super Bowl.

The Saints have a strong team in many regards and boast a slew of talented young players to include WR Michael Thomas, RT Ryan Ramczyk, RB Alvin Kamara, C Erik McCoy and CB Marshon Lattimore, to name just a few.  Recent draft success has played a large part in the Saints return to prominence after a trifecta of losing seasons from 2014 to 2016.  Indeed, going back to the 2017 draft class which featured both Kamara and Lattimore as offensive rookie of the year and defensive rookie of the year respectively, the Saints have gone 37-11 and won three consecutive NFC South division crowns.  Unfortunately, those three crowns yielded three heart-breaking losses in the playoffs, and each season pundits and fans alike have been able to identify this teams' vulnerabilities.

Setting aside untimely injuries to the likes of DE Marcus Davenport and DT Sheldon Rankins - to make no mention even of the time QB Drew Brees, RB Alvin Kamara, and TE Jared Cook all missed with injuries - the three units which observers have been clamoring for the Saints to address are, in particular order, interior offensive line, wide receivers, and linebackers.  Fortunately for the Saints, this year features one of the deepest WR draft classes in recent memory.  With the Saints owning the 24th overall selection in April’s Draft, let’s have a look at some WR's they could draft and immediately contribute in 2020.

It should first be noted that, barring any sort of trade up in the draft or potentially top WR prospects falling due to combine performance, off-field concerns, or injuries, the Saints cannot reasonably expect to land the top-tier prospects such as Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy or Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb.  That’s fine though, because outside of the 2014 class which was headlined by the likes of Odell Beckham Jr, Mike Evans, and Brandin Cooks, as noted above - 2020’s group has playmakers.

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Henry Ruggs III, Alabama

2019 stats: 40 receptions // 746 yards (18.6 average) // 8 TDs (1 rushing)

Ruggs (6’0, 190 lbs) will turn 21 in a couple weeks and he’d be an absolute steal at the 24th spot in the draft. Looking at some of the WR needy teams picking ahead of New Orleans in the draft - Arizona Cardinals, Oakland Raiders, Denver Broncos, Philadelphia Eagles - it’s unlikely Ruggs falls this far.  He’s an absolute spreed demon boasting sub 4.3 speed, and has a knack for slipping coverage and finding openings in defenses for chunk plays.  He’s quite similar to Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill in this regard, and in the Saints offense he’d easily be competitive for the #2 spot right behind super receiver Michael Thomas.

Ruggs is a bit raw with route concepts and his size could be somewhat of a limiting factor when facing man coverage, though if opposing DBs miss the chance to jam him at the line, he will be 10 yards behind them before they even get a chance to turn and run.

The likelihood of drafting Ruggs at #24?  Highly unlikely, though a fan can dream.

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Tee Higgins, Clemson

2019 stats: 56 receptions // 1,115 yards (19.9 average) // 13 TDs

Higgins (6’4, 215 lbs), like Ruggs above, will turn 21 this month and has enjoyed a stellar two consecutive years as a WR at the collegiate level. Hailing from the school which produced the likes of DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins, and Mike Williams, Higgins’ performance at the upcoming combine will be of considerable intrigue to NFL scouts - and could therefore slide his position to within the top-half of the draft. He’s a big bodied, physical WR who routinely lines up outside the hash, but his catch radius is perhaps his most dangerous skill-set for opposing defenses. 

Higgins his a background as a basketball player and it’s clear in his ability, but also desire, to jockey for the ball and body up his man.   It would not be unreasonable to see Higgins fall to #24, though that would owe to the depth of this class, and the nuanced and variable approaches other teams ahead of New Orleans take when evaluating WR prospects. Still though, the Saints picking Higgins at their current spot is far more likely than Ruggs, but don’t hold your breath.

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Justin Jefferson, LSU

2019 stats: 102 receptions // 1,434 yards (14.1 average) // 18 TDs

Jefferson (6’3, 192 lbs) has had, at least statistically, perhaps the most productive season of this class. Hailing from the alma mater which relatively recently produced the likes of D.J. Chark, OBJ, and Jarvis Landry, Jefferson’s numbers and pedigree speak for themselves. Granted, he was getting the ball courtesy of eventual Heisman trophy winner Joe Burrow in an NFL style offense implemented by former Saints assistant Joe Brady, Jefferson has not quite gotten the respect his play has warranted. 

The most common knock against him is his relative lack of athleticism for the position, though not dissimilar to New Orleans’ very own Michael Thomas, Jefferson is a student of the game who is skilled at beating his defender in man coverage and finding soft spots in the defense.  He has good size and respectable speed, and is unafraid to fight not just for the ball, but for YAC after reeling it in.

Fans of LSU, many of whom share an allegiance with the Saints, are well-versed in Jefferson’s game and it is entirely within reason to expect that he be available at #24 in the draft given his current undervaluation. An interesting wrinkle though, as Saints fans are perhaps all too familiar, is that front office in New Orleans has historically been reticent to draft LSU products. At the referral of the trusted Brady however, perhaps 2020 is the year they buck that trend.

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Laviska Shenault Jr., Colorado

2019 stats: 56 receptions // 764 yards (13.6 average) // 6 TDs (2 rushing)

Shenault (6’2, 220), also known as “Viska”, doesn’t boast the gaudy stats that Jefferson and Higgins did in 2019, though NFL scouts are sure to fixate on his consistent production across consecutive seasons. In 2018, Shenault caught 86 passes for just over 1000 yards and 6 TDs, but he also added 5 more TDs on the ground on 17 attempts for 115 yards. Between his utility as a ball handler and his versatility lining up both as an X receiver and within the slot, Shenault is as plug-and-play as they come and precisely the kind of player Sean Payton covets.  Like practically any incoming rookie not named Justin Jefferson, Viska could use some work learning and applying route concepts on the field, though he’s got great athleticism and hands, and he’s every bit as explosive (though not as speedy) as guys like Ruggs.  Shenault harkens, at least to me, to Dez Bryant and that is every bit his ceiling.

Seeing, again, as this is a deep WR class and that he’s consistently projected to the Saints in early mock drafts this year, it is fairly reasonable to expect the Saints to at the very least take a long, hard look at Shenault and imagine his fit within Payton’s creative schemes.  At #24, he would be a great value and high ceiling addition to a team desperate for playmakers.

There are a slew of other WRs the Saints could consider within the first and subsequent rounds, including TCU’s Jalen Reagor and USC’s Michael Pittman, Jr.  The Saints are lacking a second-round pick (conveyed to Miami for New Orleans’ second round selection of C Erik McCoy), thus they will take a long and hard look at their options in the early round.

Addressing the WR position will be critical for the Saints that would add another dimension to a perennially threatening offense.  A dynamic receiver could serve as an option for Sean Payton's offense when teams double cover WR Michael Thomas, RC Alvin Kamara, and TE Jared Cook.

Saints fans, which wide receiver would you want to see donning the Black and Gold this Fall?

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Editorial / Opinion