MOBILE, Ala. – The impressive depth of the wide receiver class in the 2020 NFL draft was on display at the Senior Bowl this week.
There are 13 receivers in the college all-star game, and none of those practicing this week are projected to be first-round picks. Yet at least nine of them have produced some highlights over the three days of practices that ended Thursday. Most of them look like viable picks somewhere between the second and fifth round.
Wide receiver is a strong possibility for the Buffalo Bills with the 22nd overall pick in the first round. If the Bills go WR at 22, it will be an underclassman.
But if the Bills wind up picking a different position in the first round, there will be plenty of receiver options in the second round. There also will be candidates in later rounds if the Bills opt to pick two receivers in the draft.
“There are some guys out here,” said Bills General Manager Brandon Beane. “The list a couple weeks ago was even better but a couple guys had to bow out due to injury. This was a pretty good list of guys. . . . There’s definitely some guys here who could come in and help us. There’s a decent amount of underclassmen who came out, too. Right now, it looks to this point like there will be some options for us. It’s a pretty deep position.”
The 2020 receiver class might not be as good at the top as the heralded 2014 draft class. That year’s picks included Odell Beckham Jr., Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Brandin Cooks, Kelvin Benjamin, Davante Adams, Jarvis Landry and John Brown, among others.
But the 2020 class might be deeper 1 to 20 than in 2014.
The only Senior Bowl wideout who could go in the first round is Arizona State’s Brandon Aiyuk, but he isn’t practicing due to injury.
Arguably the top-rated wideout in the game and a potential second- or third-round pick is Southern California’s Michael Pittman Jr., 6-foot-4 and 219 pounds.
He’s one of a fleet of big wideouts in Mobile. Others include Tennessee’s 6-3 Jauan Jennings, Baylor’s 6-3 Denzel Mims, Texas’ 6-6 Collin Johnson and Liberty’s 6-4 Antonio Gandy-Golden, all of whom might last until the third round, or later. Notre Dame’s 6-4 Chase Claypool, built almost like a tight end at 229 pounds, is probably a late-round pick.
The challenge for big receivers is to prove they can get enough separation so that every throw that comes their way isn’t a 50-50 ball.
Pittman, who caught 95 passes for 1,222 yards this year, has looked smooth for his size in practices, although he was sitting out Thursday due to injury. He’s the son of the former Bucs and Cardinals running back of the same name. Pittman caught a pretty dig route Wednesday, selling the corner route to the outside and easily beating a cornerback.
Jennings showed his length Tuesday with a sideline catch over Oklahoma State cornerback A.J. Green. And Jennings called himself a “cheat code” after catching a red-zone TD pass Thursday. Jennings is no burner, but he’s physical and plays with an edge.
“Jauan is truly, truly unique,” said Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy. “Going back to my time scouting receivers, there’s not really a good comparison for him, at least that I’ve done, that’s that physical and that aggressive, with that mindset. Get the ball in his hands, he’s a junkyard dog. You talk to the guys up at Tennessee, he’s been a really good special teams player for them, they think they could play him at safety on defense.”
Johnson took the top off the South defense Wednesday in catching a deep pass from Jalen Hurts. He beat Pitt corner Dane Jackson, who has been one of the secondary standouts this week.
Mims has better long speed and good body control but is raw. He looked good in blocking drills, as did Gandy-Golden, a 220-pounder who had a 174-yard day vs. UB this season.
Wideouts not in the giant category who have stood out include Florida’s 6-1 1-2 Van Jefferson, Southern Methodist’s 5-10 James Proche and Ohio State’s 6-foot K.J. Hill. All of them are likely middle-round picks.
Jefferson is the son of former NFL wideout Shawn Jefferson, currently the receivers coach of the New York Jets. Not surprisingly, he has looked like the best technician in Mobile, sharp getting in and out of his breaks.
“He probably didn’t put up the production he could have in another offense,” Nagy said of Jefferson, who had 49 catches. “They had four senior receivers, and they were OK at the quarterback position. I think he’s a really good route runner, he’s polished, he’s sneaky fast.”
Hill is a slot receiver who finished with 201 career catches, tops in Ohio State history. He made the catch of the day Thursday, reaching behind to make a one-handed grab of a poorly thrown crossing pass from Jordan Love. Like Hill, Proche also is a crafty slot receiver.
The Bills’ top priority is an outside threat.
Most of the Senior Bowl receivers also will have to prove they can play special teams.
“Receiver was the position group where we had the least amount of guys drafted last year,” Nagy said. “I think we had seven or eight receivers not get drafted last year, and it’s not because they weren’t good receivers.”
West Virginia’s David Sills, who the Bills signed and released, and UB product Anthony Johnson, both were Senior Bowlers who went undrafted.
“If you’re not going to come into the NFL and be a top-three receiver on the team right out of the gate, then as a No. 4, 5 or 6 receiver you’re gonna have to play in the kicking game,” Nagy said. “That’s what happened to some of our crew last year. I was mindful of that through the process this year. I think a bunch of these guys do project to be top three guys next year as rookies.”