With less than a month remaining before the 2013 NFL Combine gets underway, it's time to hunker down and get familiar with the prospects who make up the bulk of this year's receiver class. It's not a star-studded group by any means, but it's certainly one in which the Dolphins can find primo talent that satisfies Joe Philbin's West Coast offense-based receiver criteria: sure-hands, precise route-running and effective blocking. Everything else is negotiable.
Also, please note that these rankings are simply a commentary on which 2013 receivers are best suited to don aqua and orange next year. This isn't a "best of" list with the entire league in mind.
(As an aside, I'd like to believe that Jeff Ireland last spring took a look at the 2012 receiver class and thought, "F*** this, I'll load up on picks, wait for next year's receiver crop and then make it rain during the draft's first three rounds." That, of course, would've been a stroke of genius, as the 2013 receiver class is indeed overflowing with prospects who snugly fit into what the Dolphins are looking for at the position. Not a lot of No. 1 receivers this year? Miami doesn't necessarily need an overpowering No. 1 presence at wideout. Too many undersized prospects in this class? Green Bay receivers in 2012 averaged a height of 6'0"--not really what you'd call a length-based group).
Enough with the daydreaming, though. Here's how the 2013 receiver class breaks down from the Dolphins' point of view.
The big-play monsters
Cordarrelle Patterson, Tennessee (6'3", 205)
Style: Slasher playmaker, vertical threat
Strengths: Prototypical size and vision; excellent top-end speed; a threat to score every time he touches the ball; shifty and elusive
Weaknesses: Raw as a route-runner; hands look inconsistent on tape
Patterson is king in this year's wide receiver class, and it's easy to see why: he was simply a destructive force in the SEC this season (and while playing on a bad Vols team, no less). The one-year wonder has the size, speed and overall athleticism to warrant consideration as a No. 1 receiver at the NFL level, but might not have the natural hands and route-running ability to draw serious consideration from the Dolphins or any other teams in search of WCO-style wizardry.
Terrance Williams, Baylor (6'1", 205)
Style: All-around playmaker, multi-dimensional threat
Strengths: Good size, better speed; can create separation downfield; tracks the deep ball well and has the ability to go up and get the football; a physical presence coming off the line of scrimmage
Weaknesses: Big-time body catcher; long-strider who struggles to get up to top speed quickly; can be lazy as a route-runner, but flashes the ability to run the route tree with precision
The presence of quarterback Robert Griffin III and receiver Kendall Wright in Waco last season certainly freed up Terrance Williams to post impressive numbers, but he proved in 2012 that he didn't need to ride anyone's coattails on the way to establishing himself as the best receiver in the Big 12. Williams is a candidate to be the first receiver selected in the 2013 draft, but he will have to demonstrate consistency, reliable hands and improved polish as a route-runner in order to land the top wideout spot. Regardless, several teams in the latter half of round one (Minnesota, Seattle, etc.) will likely consider bringing on the former Baylor terror.
They might be giants
DeAndre Hopkins, Clemson (6'1", 204)
Style: Do-everything playmaker, ultra-reliable target
Strengths: Possesses strong hands and a very good frame for the position; extremely difficult to jam at the line of scrimmage; tracks the deep ball well; creates yards after the catch; knows how to use his body to shield the ball from defenders; doesn't flinch in the spotlight, and wants the ball with the game on the line
Weaknesses: Route-running could use some polish; not extraordinarily fast for the position (likely a low 4.5 guy)
Hopkins has been a popular receiver prospect among Dolphins fans since early last fall, and he has the chance to score a mid-first-round selection if he really gets after it at the Combine later this month. Hopkins certainly isn't a burner in the open field, but he is fast enough to warrant consideration as a deep threat and big-play guy (one of many reasons why I compare him to Falcons receiver Roddy White). Where Hopkins really separates himself from the pack, though, is his willingness to work the middle of the field. LSU simply had no answer for him during the 2012 Chick-Fil-A Bowl, and that was with safety Eric Reid practically hanging off of Hopkins for most of the contest.
Keenan Allen, California (6'3", 207)
Style: Big-bodied playmaker, premier red zone option
Strengths: Possesses ideal size, strong hands and precise route-running ability; reliable target who likes to work the middle of the field; ability to go up and get the football; red zone asset
Weaknesses: Doesn't really explode off the line of scrimmage; long strider who possesses only average top-end speed
Keenan Allen is kind of like the David Lee Roth of this year's receiver class: highly visible, yet somewhat overrated. Allen has a well-rounded skill set and could work well in either a West Coast set or vertical-oriented offense, but he's no more talented than Packers receiver Jordy Nelson, who was a second-round pick in 2008. That fact makes it difficult to buy Allen's worth as a top 15-caliber receiver ... very, very difficult.
Aaron Dobson, Marshall (6'2", 205)
Style: Multi-dimensional threat
Strengths: Big-bodied target with excellent hands and above-average speed for the position; budding route-runner who bursts out of his breaks; consistently creates separation; adequate downfield threat; proven YAC ability; willing blocker; natural leader
Weaknesses: Speed is marginally above average; long strider who has to work up to top gear; could use further refinement and tutelage as a route-runner
Expect Dobson to come on strong over the next few months, as he has enough speed, technical acumen and playmaking ability to warrant a day two selection. Dobson's on this list because he's built in the James Jones mold--a sturdy frame combined with great hands and a natural feel for the position. That "natural feel" also tells me that Dobson will greatly improve as a route-runner early in his NFL career.
Robert Woods, Southern Cal (6'1", 190)
Style: Multi-dimensional threat, linear-based playmaker
Strengths: Precision route-runner who possesses good hands, speed and functional size; capable of swinging for the fences whenever he touches the ball; able to separate in tight spaces; possesses the suddenness and balance to turn defensive backs inside-out; qualifies as a deep threat; physical enough to qualify as a viable option over the middle of the field; typically makes the first defender miss; excellent YAC ability
Weaknesses: Not much of a factor in the jump-ball department; ability to fight off initial jam is still in question; hands were somewhat inconsistent during 2012 season
In terms of overall skill set and system fit, Robert Woods is a top three receiver prospect for the Dolphins this spring, and he might be No. 1 if he hadn't dropped a few passes this season. Still, Woods' hands are strong and typically reliable, and his ability to zip out of breaks and quickly reach top gear make him a tough assignment, especially over the middle of the field. Simply put, Woods would be a dynamite addition to the West Coast offense, as he possesses top-level linear movement (ala Jerry Rice) and route-running skills (ala Greg Jennings), and is also an effective blocker. Slowed by a banged-up ankle in 2012, but should run very well at the Combine if he's healthy (likely mid-4.4 range).
Quinton Patton, Louisiana Tech (6'0", 200)
Style: Multi-dimensional threat, linear-based playmaker
Strengths: Excellent route-runner who combines good top-end speed with strong, natural hands; ability to make plays downfield, but excels in the mid-range game; difficult to jam at the line of scrimmage, and looks comfortable in hand-fighting situations; lightning-fast gather at the top of initial stem will frustrate defensive backs at the next level; hits top speed quickly and will make the initial defender miss; a gamer who wants the ball in crunch-time situations; excellent and willing blocker; works the sideline; consistently generates YAC
Weaknesses: Not very strong in jump-ball situations; average height for position; susceptible to the occasional push-off move while working downfield
If Keenan Allen is the DLR of this receiver class, Patton is its Jon Bon Jovi--workmanlike, yet overwhelmingly effective. Patton pairs very good speed with excellent hands and pinpoint route-running chops. His competitiveness on tape is impressive, and his willingness to roll up his sleeves and get dirty (going out of his way to generate blocks, muscling through initial contact on quick-hit passes, etc.) show the kind of drive and unselfishness that Joe Philbin looks for in receiver prospects. When it's all said and done, Patton should be a top two receiver option for the Dolphins.
Stedman Bailey, West Virginia (5'10", 195)
Style: WCO-type assassin, multi-dimensional threat
Strengths Supreme route-runner with flawless hands and excellent overall agility; viable downfield threat; surprisingly effective in jump-ball situations, but fits best in linear role; physical off the line of the scrimmage, and isn't afraid to mix it up with defenders; enjoys working the middle of the field, and consistently generates separation in tight spaces; skill set translates well to the red zone; effective blocker; proven YAC ability
Weaknesses: Lacks ideal size for the position
Bailey boasts several skills the Dolphins' current receiver group lacks--he's exceptionally fast, hits top gear in a blink, creates separation and can beat defenses horizontally or over the top. When it comes to the West Coast offense, the prospects don't get any better than Bailey. His undersized stature could push him as far as the early third round, but that's great news if you're the Miami Dolphins--this guy is a must-have, and will likely fly under the radar of most teams this spring. Their loss.
Markus Wheaton, Oregon State (5'11", 190)
Style: High-octane playmaker, multi-dimensional threat
Strengths: Boasts rare speed, good hands and adequate route-running ability; surprisingly physical for a receiver of his size--doesn't shy away from contact; rocket-like get-off at the line of scrimmage; creates separation with ease, and is a threat to take it to the house every time he touches the ball; willing as a blocker, but could use more polish in that area; first-class deep threat who also enjoys working the middle of the field; tracks the deep ball extremely well; YAC machine
Weaknesses: Below-average height and weight; still somewhat raw as a route-runner; ability to beat jam at line of scrimmage still in question
Wheaton made himself a lot of money during Senior Bowl practices, as he showed off excellent hands (especially with contested catches) and improved route-running ability throughout the week-long event. The emergence of undersized receivers like Randall Cobb and Percy Harvin will help market Wheaton as nothing less than a day two talent in this draft, but he's actually a more natural receiver prospect than Cobb and Harvin were coming out of college. Wheaton will likely run one of the faster 40-yard dashes at the Combine, but he's far from a one-trick pony, and has the natural hands and route-navigation ability to do great work in the West Coast offense.
Tavon Austin, West Virginia (5'9", 175)
Style: High-octane playmaker, multi-dimensional threat
Strengths: Chops to burn, and can reach top gear in a blink; one of the best route-runners in this year's class; elite-level wiggle and shiftiness; good hands; seamless and deceptive runner through initial stem; proven ability to slip press coverage; home-run threat anytime he touches the ball; YAC machine who consistently makes the first defender miss; legitimate downfield threat; displayed Percy Harvin-like flexibility by working as a wide receiver and running back this season
Weaknesses: Non-factor in jump-ball situations, and isn't much to write home about in the blocking department, either; moonlights as a body catcher; severely undersized for the position
Austin is an enigma in that he combines an elite-level skill set with a tremendously undersized frame. We're not talking about Darren Sproles-type small, either--Austin's frail will make it difficult for him to absorb and withstand hits at the NFL level. Still, his blazing speed and elite-level wiggle will garner him looks in the late first and early second round. He's certainly worth the risk at that juncture, too.
Marquise Goodwin, Texas (5'9", 176)
Style: Flat-out burner
Strengths: Speed you can see; budding route-runner; natural hand catcher; explosive downfield threat; creates separation, but would benefit from more efficient footwork during routes; absolutely willing as a blocker despite size; good awareness along sideline; home-run potential every time he touches the ball
Weaknesses: Undersized; footwork looks a bit choppy during routes; linear-based receiver who won't challenge for many jump balls; needs to work on looking the ball into his hands
Goodwin and fellow burner Markus Wheaton were both nightmare assignments during the Senior Bowl; as a result, Goodwin is probably a late-second/early-third prospect. Far from just a "track guy," Goodwin flashes a surprising amount of grit and tenacity, and does plenty of work underneath.
The wild cards
Justin Hunter, Tennessee (6'4", 200)
Da'Rick Rogers, Tennessee Tech (6'3", 215)
Style: (Hunter) Speed merchant playmaker, multi-dimensional threat; (Rogers) Physical possession wideout
Strengths: (Hunter) Outstanding length and speed (mid-4.4s); smart, capable route-runner; proven ability to go up and get the football; separates from defenders; stretches the field with ease, and has the juice to quickly reach top gear; tracks the deep ball very well; elite-level fluidity; elusive after the catch; (Rogers) great size and strength for the position; nearly impossible to re-route or jam at the line of scrimmage; very good route-runner with upside in that department; viable downfield threat despite lack of home-run speed; excels in jump-ball situations, and consistently hauls in contested passes; bulldozer in YAC situations; quality blocker
Weaknesses: (Hunter) Injury history; frame is a bit narrow; multiple dropped passes in 2012; not an overly physical receiver, and can get hung up at the line of scrimmage against experienced press coverage; (Rogers) average acceleration and overall speed; considerable character issues; struggles with overall consistency
It's interesting that the two biggest question marks in this receiver class are former Rocky Top members. Hunter's recovery from a 2011 ACL tear has been well documented, and he's absolutely a primo receiving threat when healthy. Rogers' issues are a bit more complex in that he has struggled to abstain from using the substance we'll refer to simply as the "green behavioral modification device." This led to his dismissal from the University of Tennessee prior to last season, and subsequent transfer to Tennessee State. Talent wise, Rogers is a borderline first-round prospect; add in his character issues, though, and you're looking at a likely mid-day two pick. Still, he's arguably the strongest and most physical receiver in this class, and that will get him plenty of looks over the next couple months.
The "other guy"
Ryan Swope, Texas A&M (6'0", 205)
Style: Possession wideout, occasional downfield threat
Strengths: Brainy route-runner; smart player who doesn't mind getting his hands dirty; developed into somewhat of a downfield threat for Johnny Manziel and the Aggies last season; decent speed, but certainly not a burner; surprisingly good open-field runner; works the sideline like a champ (get your Hartline comparisons ready); a pig ... in a cage ... on antibiotics (just making sure you're still paying attention)
Weaknesses: Not much in the strength department, and will get pushed around by aggressive press corners; drops a pass every once in a while
The definition of "game speed," Swope is a pedestrian-looking receiver capable of doing some impressive things on the football field. He has the ability to turn a short completion into a big play, and he's gritty enough to work the middle of the field. Swope also has rich history with Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill, and was his No. 2 receiver at Texas A&M. He also played for Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Sherman, so there's that. Am I drawing enough parallels here?
Guys to watch (or "the artists formerly known as 'acorns'")
1. Kenny Stills, Oklahoma (6'0", 190)
2. Aron Mellette, Elon (6'2", 210)
3. Josh Boyce, TCU (5'11", 205)
4. Chris Harper, Kansas State (6'1", 230)
The final cut
Six months removed from my first real foray into scouting the 2013 receiver class, I've finalized a list of the prospects I believe the Dolphins will zero in on this April. Now, Joe Philbin's not a GM, and he certainly didn't have any say over Ted Thompson during his time in Green Bay, but it's fairly reasonable to suggest that his exposure to the Packers' draft process could carry over to the way the Dolphins re-build their receiver corps this spring. In the five years Philbin was offensive coordinator in Green Bay, the Packers ...
1) Never drafted a wide receiver in the first round
2) Selected two receivers in the second round (Jordy Nelson in 2008, Randall Cobb in 2011), a receiver in the third round (James Jones in 2007), a pass-catcher tight end in the third round (Jermichael Finley in 2008) and two tight ends in the fifth round (Andrew Quarless in 2010, D.J. Williams in 2011)
4) Spent a first-round pick on Tennessee defensive tackle Justin Harrell (hey, you can't win 'em all)
Given the above evidence, as well as Philbin's statement that Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland is a flexible, inclusive decision maker come draft time, it's rational to believe that the Dolphin' much-maligned general manager will pick up on the Packers' way of drafting receivers and tight ends. And with that, here's my final 2013 receiver class ranking/big board as far as the Dolphins are concerned. Read 'em and weep:
1) Robert Woods, USC
2) Quinton Patton, Louisiana Tech
3) Stedman Bailey, West Virginia
4) Markus Wheaton, Oregon State
5) Aaron Dobson, Marshall
The reason why Patterson, Williams and Hopkins are absent from this list is because they'll likely come off the board within the first 40 picks. And if Ireland and Philbin remain true to Green Bay's receiver acquisition formula, the five receivers listed above represent the best value and fit (meaning they pair an ideal skill set with the ability to contribute sooner rather than later) for Miami, regardless of whether Greg Jennings or Mike Wallace is on the roster this spring.