Time for a look at the 2014 class of wide receiver prospects for the NFL draft later this year.
There are as many opinions as there are writers on the subject and especially before all the bowl games have been played and underclassmen declare to enter the NFL draft. The deadline isn't until January 15th.
Furthermore, the NFL Combine always has some players fly up the draft board and plummet as people over-analyze, say, 40-yard dash times. Oddly enough, the best rookie WR for 2013 is the San Diego Chargers' Keenan Allen, who had a pedestrian 40-yard dash time at his combine. Right about this time last year, Allen was projected to be a mid-to-late first-round pick, but didn't get selected until the third round.
What Allen lacks in sheer speed, he more than makes up for in cunning awareness and in his precise route-running ability.
I mention all this because while you can't coach speed, you can coach all the other things that Allen has shown a propensity for doing well. The top five are all underclassmen.
Now, on to the things we know....and the upcoming rookies:
Sammy Watkins (6'1" 205 lbs) from Clemson University is generally regarded as the top WR in his year's class. The junior from the upstate South Carolina school has pretty good 4.47 speed in the 40 and has been very productive in 2013 with 85 receptions, 1287 yards, and 10 TDs. For the icing on the cake, he set Orange Bowl records against Ohio State for receptions and yards with over 200 yards receiving. That really puts the exclamation point on him and solidifies his position as a sure-fire top-ten draftee. He played his best in the biggest game and that's what NFL coaches covet.
Mike Evans (6'5" 225 lbs) is Johnny Manziel's favorite target, and with that size, it's for good reason. However, the Alshon Jeffery clone has only 4.58 speed and is more of a possession-style WR in the NFL. His size would seem to indicate he'd be a good run-blocker for the position, but he lacks elite speed to get deep. From what I've seen, he's a hands-catcher and goes up over defenders to make the grab. Just ask Auburn OR 'Bama, whom he lit up for over 200 yards each. At the NFL level, he'd be a great security blanket for a young QB like a Geno Smith or Mike Glennon. Negatives are his youth and emotional play - he's going to let others at the NFL level get into his head and will draw a LOT of personal foul - type flags his rookie season. If a team can get over that and wants to take him in for the long haul, he's only a redshirt sophomore and seemingly the only direction for him is "up."
Marqise Lee (6'0" 195 lbs) from USC doesn't have elite size but runs a 4.49-40. He has an incredibly good work ethic, watching film almost non-stop. He also won the Fred Biletnikoff award for the nation's best receiver, but that doesn't always translate into NFL stardom. He has an explosively quick first step coming out of his stance and has a way of running the same route with different technique each time, keeping defenders off-balance. That's a nice tool for the toolbox entering the NFL right there and he runs the "stop and go" route very well. Look for a few big plays from this kid as an NFL rookie as he WILL fool some younger NFL defenders once in a while. He needs to work on hand techniques against press coverages and needs to play more a more physical style. That and his pedestrian size these days for the position should be enough to worry NFL general managers enough so that he'll probably see a draft ceiling of about 20th overall as nobody would want to spend a very high pick on someone still this raw and with somewhat limited upside in the short term. I think he's one of those guys who gets to the NFL and that second or third year is when the light bulb will come on for him and he'll really start becoming a very productive wide receiver.
Allen Robinson (6'3" 210 lbs) is from Penn State, and the junior stuck it out with the Nittany Lions through the horrid Jerry Sandusky scandal, which tells me he sticks with things through good and bad, which is a great quality to have in an NFL player at any position. Has a great work ethic that should serve him well and is the one trait that always "translates" well into the NFL. He runs an okay 4.54-40 but has elite body control, strength and leaping ability. He had 97 rec for 1,432 yards while catching passes from a freshman quarterback and looks to be an enticing red-zone receiver at the next level. He needs to improve his focus as he can be inconsistent from one play to the next. I think he could be 2014's Keenan Allen.
Odell Beckam, Jr. (5'11" 193 lbs) from LSU runs a 4.49-40 and projects to be a slot receiver in the NFL due to his less than ideal size. The 2013 Paul Horning winner had an LSU school record 2,222 all-purpose yards and as the stats indicate he is a teriffic kickoff and punt return man. As a receiver, he has great hands, runs great routes, and isn't afraid of contact. Also, like most kick returners, he runs very well after the catch and is very fluid and natural in everything that he does. While he doesn't have the sub-4.40 speed you usually look for in smaller/slot receivers, he more than makes up for it with his versatility.
Florida State sophomore Kelvin Benjamin (6'5" 235 lbs) has similar if not bigger size than NFL stars like Brandon Marshall and Marques Colston. Benjamin's most obvious physical trait is his very long arms and combined with WR/TE "tweener" size, he should present match-up difficulties in the NFL. His best traits are his huge vertical jump, allowing him to go up in traffic and grab passes most defensive backs don't have a prayer of tipping, let alone intercepting it. He also is an outstanding downfield blocker as you might imagine with his huge size.
While finding a "true" 40-time for him was difficult, he is "estimated" to run a 4.60, which sounds about right for a man that size. He does show close-area quickness that allows him to make the first tackler miss, allowing him to gain additional yards after the catch. He's not a player to "take the top off" a defense but rather yet another "lengthy" WR that the NFL has been moving towards in recent years. On the negative side, he'll be 23 years old as a redshirt sophomore after having to repeat two grades in grade school, so his ability to understand and digest the vast and intricate playbooks in the NFL is quite a concern. He's one of few guys that the Wonderlic test will actually be of some real value. Otherwise, he's had some monster games and has broken out this year, especially in the last nine games, and become a true, consistent threat. Watch for him on Monday night's BCS National Championship game to see how he does against a suspect Auburn secondary.
Jordan Matthews of Vanderbilt (6'3" 205 lbs) is included here because he's the lone senior among the entire list, which shows how many talented underclassmen are bolting for the NFL this year. Matthews runs a 4.55-40...nothing to write home about there. Perhaps the biggest positive he has going for him is that he's a cousin to some guy named Jerry Rice, so the pedigree is there somewhat as an extended family member. Matthews is one of those guys who is an overachiever, having been named first-team all-SEC the last two seasons while being rather average overall athletically (compared to the others on this list). He also holds Vanderbilt's school record with 22 career TD receptions. Earl Bennett is the obvious comparison here since they came from the same school that isn't exactly known as a football factory otherwise. He had 19.0 yds/catch, leading the SEC, but that's more a product of the offensive system which focuses on creating mismatches than great pure ability on his part. He's still worth a look...but only well after the first round.