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NFL Draft

Can Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle Be WR1?

  • The Draft Network
  • October 3, 2020
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By Brentley Weissman

The 2020 NFL wide receiver class was one of the best in recent memory. There were six receivers taken in the first round and seven in the second round; the early returns for these players look promising. 

Players such as Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb, Justin Jefferson, Laviska Shenault Jr., and Chase Claypool have all experienced early success this season, and the rest of the receiver class is primed to share in that success as the year progresses. The 2021 receiver class may not be as deep as this past year’s, but one could argue that at the top, it may be better. 

As it stands, the consensus top receiver is LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase, who had a record-breaking year in 2019 playing with Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow. Chase had one of the best statistical years ever for a receiver last season and routinely torched NFL caliber cornerbacks. Chase, feeling like he had nothing else to prove as a prospect, decided to opt-out of the 2020 college football season and begin to train for the 2021 NFL Draft. You will be hard-pressed to find a mock draft where Chase isn’t the first receiver off the board right now, and rightfully so. His 2019 tape was outstanding, and there are little holes in his game, but could a receiver potentially pass him come April? 

While I sit here and write this article in early October, I admit it is a long shot that someone other than Chase is the first receiver selected, but I do think if there was one player with the potential and skill set to pass him: Alabama’s star receiver Jaylen Waddle

Waddle, a true junior, is finally getting his chance to be the go-to guy for the Crimson Tide after playing behind a pair of top 15 picks in Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III. He also played behind current teammate and another top prospect, DeVonta Smith, who actually led Alabama in receiving yards and touchdowns. While Waddle hasn’t had a lot of opportunities to showcase his ability, when he has gotten his chances, he sure makes the most of them. As a freshman, Waddle burst onto the scene finishing with 45 receptions for 848 yards and seven touchdowns. Thirty of his receptions went for either a first down or touchdown, a testament to his playmaking ability. In Waddle’s sophomore season, he finished with 33 receptions for 560 yards and six touchdowns, which was down from his freshman year, but still quite impressive.

Even without ever being a full-time starter for the Tide, Waddle is already viewed as a sure-fire first-round selection in the upcoming draft. The question is, can Waddle do enough in the 2020 season to potentially be the first one off the board? Let’s first take a look at what makes Waddle such an enticing prospect.

The Positives

Waddle is a player who routinely makes that rare play. He has exceptional speed and quickness to beat man coverage and can separate both laterally and down the field. Waddle has immediate acceleration; he eats up a cushion and shows a second gear to blow past defenders. He can track the long ball, adjust, and make the over the shoulder catch. Waddle shows natural hands, strong at the catch point, and able to compete for the ball when defenders are draped on him. For a shorter receiver, Waddle has shown an ability to make contested catches and play above the rim. He shows excellent stop-start ability and is very sudden at the top of his route to snap defenders off on comebacks and in breaking routes.

Waddle is one of the best kick returners we have seen at the college level in quite some time, averaging an astronomical 24.4 yards per punt return as a sophomore. His skills as a returner translate to his ability as a receiver. He has rare, and I mean a seriously rare, ability with the ball in his hands. His combination of outstanding vision, burst, and top-end speed makes him a threat to score anytime he touches the ball.

The Critics Will Say

At this point in time, it's hard to find knocks in Waddle’s game. For me, I’d like to see Waddle show that he can be the player when you are in a got-to-have-it moment. Where the defense knows the ball is going to Waddle, can he make that crucial play? In years past playing behind those studs in front of him took a lot of the pressure off of him, and he could just play freely. I want to see how he handles this new pressure and adversity. Will he step up or back down? 

Secondly, I want to see him expand his route tree. In 2019, he was primarily used on bubbles, slants, and go routes—all of which he did exceptionally well. I want to see him add some more tools to his tool belt and show he can really be that No. 1 option in an NFL system. Improving his strength will also be a key moving forward so he can be better equipped to dealing with press coverage at the next level.

2020 Season

Waddle is off to a heck of a start in his first season as a full-time starter. In his season-opening game, Waddle went off on Mizzou finishing the game with eight receptions on 10 targets for 134 yards and two touchdowns. It was truly a dominating performance and Waddle put the rest of the college football world on notice. Waddle demonstrated all of his top traits, including his tremendous speed, ball skills, and playmaking ability.

Waddle followed up his Week 1 performance with another dominant game. When up against Texas A&M linebacker Braden White, Waddle displayed his game-breaking talent yet again finishing the game with five receptions for 142 yards and one touchdown. Waddle’s touchdown was an 87-yard score where he beat the defense deep with a filthy double move and outrageous burst to get vertical.

It is somewhat of a long shot Waddle passes Chase, but I do believe crazier things have happened. One obvious factor that will help Waddle potentially pass Chase is the fact that Chase won’t be playing this fall, giving Waddle the opportunity to be top of mind for NFL general managers. Another thing that is in Waddle’s favor is that the NFL values speed above all else, and Waddle will most likely be the fastest of any of the top receiver prospects and will certainly test much faster than Chase. The ability to create big plays on his own and create yards after the catch with his athleticism sets him apart from the other top receivers in this year’s draft. While I personally think Chase is in a class of his own, the fact of the matter is that Ruggs went ahead of Jeudy, John Ross went ninth overall in 2017, and Tavon Austin at one point went in the top 10. Speed is something coaches can’t teach, and it wouldn’t shock me one bit if a team can’t pass on the upside and athletic ability of Waddle.

There’s still plenty of time from now until then NFL draft, and the NFL evaluation period is long; things can change in an instant. Whether its Waddle, Chase, or someone who comes out of left field, whoever is the first receiver off the board will be the first of what is sure to be another extremely talented and exciting receiver class. 

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