MIKE O'HARA

O'HARA'S DRAFT PREVIEW: Rating the wide receivers and tight ends

Posted May 6, 2014

In the final installment of his draft preview series, Detroitlions.com columnist Mike O'Hara rates the top wide receivers and tight ends available

There is no lack of talent in the prospects who rank as the top wide receiver and tight end in this year’s draft.

There is no shortage of self-confidence, either.

Wide receiver Sammy Watkins of Clemson and tight end Eric Ebron of North Carolina are clearly No. 1 at their positions. Both possess immense physical skills, and they have produced big numbers in college.

Watkins is the best wide receiver prospect since 2011, when the Bengals took A.J. Green with the fourth pick and the Falcons traded up to get Julio Jones at No. 6.

Ebron has been compared to Vernon Davis and could be the highest-drafted tight end since the 49ers took Davis sixth overall in 2006.

The receiver group – and that includes Ebron – is one of the deepest positions in the draft. As many as six receivers could be first-round picks. Ebron would make it seven, but as a tight end.

In addition to Watkins, Mike Evans of Texas A&M, Odell Beckham Jr. of LSU, Marqise Lee of Southern Cal and Brandin Cooks of Oregon State are solid first-round candidates but others could sneak into the first round. Ebron is the only tight end with a first-round grade.

After Watkins and Evans, size and speed could shuffle the draft order of the remaining receivers. Beckham and Cooks are both under 6 feet tall. Even Watkins, at just under 6-1, is on the short side for the bigger model of receivers that NFL teams prefer.

The Lions met with Watkins at his Pro Day workout in March, and brought him in town for a visit. Jim Caldwell did not hide how much Watkins’ ability and character impressed him when he spoke to reporters at the NFL meetings.

“There’s not much to dislike about that young man,” Caldwell said.

Watkins closed out his college career in style with 101 catches in 2013. He’s confident that his game will translate to the pros.

“I think I can do just about anything on the field, from wide receiver to running back to slot,” he told reporters at the NFL Combine earlier this year. “I can make plays all over the field. What I love doing is dominating defenses.

“When I come into the NFL, I think I can be that dominant receiver.”

At the Combine, Ebron was asked if teams not pressing him helped him set the ACC record for receiving yards in a season with 973. Davis, who played at Maryland, held the previous record.

“I think why teams don’t press me is because they can’t,” Ebron said. “I will not be pressed at the line of scrimmage.

“I just do different things than other tight ends do.”

O'Hara's Top 10 wide receiver prospects
RankNameSchoolHeightWeight40
1 Sammy Watkins Clemson 6'1 211 4.39
2 Mike Evans Texas A&M 6'5 231 4.46
3 Odell Beckham Jr. LSU 5'11 198 4.38
4 Brandin Cooks Oregon State 5'10 189 4.31
5 Marqise Lee Southern Cal 6'0 192 4.43
6 Kelvin Benjaminn Florida State 6'5 240 4.61
7 Davante Adams Fresno State 6'1 212 4.56
8 Cody Latimer Indiana 6'3 215 4.45
9 Jordan Matthews Vanderbilt 6'3 212 4.44
10 Allen Robinson Penn State 6'3 220 4.57
10 Jarvis Landry LSU 6'0 205 4.77

O'Hara's Top 5 tight end prospects
RankNameSchoolHeightWeight40
1 Eric Ebron North Carolina 6'4 250 4.56
2 Austin Seferian-Jenkins Washington 6'5 262 4.74
3 Jace Amaro Texas Tech 6'5 265 4.70
4 Troy Niklas Notre Dame 6'7 270 4.86
5 C.J. Fiedorowicz Iowa 6'6 265 4.73

BREAKDOWN:

Wide receivers

The best

Sammy Watkins, Clemson: The former Florida high school sprint star’s speed converts to the football field. No break-in period was needed in college. As a true freshman in 2011 he had 82 receptions and 12 TDs. He took a step back in 2012 – 57 catches, 3 TDs – but posted 101 catches and 12 TDs in a career-closing 2013 season that included 16 catches for 227 yards and 2 TDs in Clemson’s Orange Bowl win over Ohio State. Return skills add value. He’ll be somebody’s No. 1 receiver – if he isn’t No. 2 to Calvin Johnson in Detroit.

The rest

Mike Evans, Texas A&M: He has limitations – route-running in particular -- but size, toughness and hands are not among them. He uses his height, reach and catching radius to play like a power forward, and he’s smart. He had 151 career catches, 17 TDs and a 16.6-yard average per catch playing with Johnny Manziel.

Odell Beckham Jr.WR Odell Beckham Jr. (Photo: AP Images)

Odell Beckham Jr., LSU: He played at the same New Orleans high school as Eli and Peyton Manning.  He has speed, hands and athleticism and might be the best route runner in the draft. He never had a big season at LSU. His catch totals were 41, 43 and 59 catches in his three seasons, but he set the school record in 2013 with 2,315 all-purpose yards. Size moves him down in the first round.

Brandin Cooks, Oregon State: You have to stretch the tape measure to get him to 5-10. His speed is legit. He was a Junior Olympics sprinter. He had a huge 2013 season and won the Biletnikoff Award and set PAC-12 records with 128 catches for 1,730 yards in 13 games as a flanker. His future is as a slot receiver.

Marqise Lee, Southern Cal: Another track background, and he used his at USC as a sprinter and long-jumper. On the gridiron, the jump to college was easy. As a freshman in 2011 he had 73 catches for 1,143 yards and 11 TDs. He followed that with 118 catches and 14 TDs in 2012 and 57 catches and 4 TDs in 2013, missing 3 games because of injuries. Lee could get drafted ahead of Beckham because of superior production.

Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State: He lacks experience. He was a red shirt in 2011 and a backup in 2012 before becoming a full-time starter in 2013. But the 2013 season was a big one on a national championship team – 84 catches, 17.9-yard average and 19 TDs. Size matters --he’s 6-5, 24, but without great speed.

Davante Adams, Fresno State: He posted a double-triple his last two seasons – 102 catches in 2012 and 131 in 2013. He had 14 TD catches in 2012 and almost doubled it in 2013, finishing with 24. Fresno State’s system lends itself to a lot of catches. With average speed, don’t expect him to churn out receptions in the pros.

Cody Latimer, Indiana:  As a high school athlete in Ohio, basketball was his primary sport. Only 12 catches as a freshman at Indiana in 2011 but 51- and 72-catch seasons followed the last two years and a average more than 15 yards per catch both seasons. With good speed to go with size (almost 6-3) he’s a solid second-round talent.

Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt: He’s a cousin of all-time great Jerry Rice, which means if he’s half as good as Rice he’ll be one of the 10 best receivers in history. Like his older cousin, Matthews holds his league’s records – the SEC records for career receptions (262) and receiving yards (3,759). He’s also intelligent.

Allen Robinson, Penn State: He’s from Detroit and played at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s. He didn’t make much of an impact as a freshman in 2011, but he was the Big Ten (or is it Big 14 and growing?) leader the next two years with 77 catches in 2012 and 97 in 2013. He also led in yards both years – 1,013 and 1,432.

Jarvis Landry, LSU: I put him in a tie with Robinson in the top 10 because of toughness. He ran the 40 in 4.77 at the Combine, and that didn’t surprise most scouts. Landry is a tough, competitive receiver who has no fear going inside and competing for the ball. He had 133 catches his last two seasons. He’ll be a second or third receiver.

Tight ends

The best

Eric Ebron, North Carolina: There’s no debate about who’s No. 1 at this position. Ebron has been compared to the 49ers’ Vernon Davis, but he does not have the same explosive athleticism. A team looking to add to its receiving corps – and that could be the Lions – can do that with a pass-catching tight end with Ebron’s ability. He has sure, soft hands. As a true junior in 2013, he broke Davis’ ACC record for receiving yards by a tight end with 973 on 62 catches. He’s not just a receiver, either. He turned 21 on April 10. There’s a bright, long career ahead of him.

The rest

Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Washington: He started and produced as a true freshman in 2011 with 51 catches. He stepped that up to 69 in 2012 but fell to 36 in 2013. In the spring of 2013 he was arrested for a DUI, pleaded guilty and spent a day in jail and paid a fine. He has a high school basketball background. Washington also used him as a blocker, not just a receiver.

Jace Amaro, Texas Tech: After two limited seasons – he missed six games in 2012 because of a lacerated spleen – he set the FBS record for receiving yards by a tight end in 2013 with 1,352 on 102 catches. He was used primarily as a receiver, not a two-way tight end, but is effective when called on to block.

Troy Niklas, Notre Dame: He played high school ball in California and is a nephew of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews. Niklas is a tough guy with size, long arms and big hands. He began his career at South Bend as a linebacker/defensive end in 2011 and moved to tight end in 2012 as a backup to Tyler Eifert. He had 32 catches, a 15.6-yard average and 5 TDs in 2013 as a full-time starter. He’s a prospect on the rise.

C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa: The only four-year player in the top 5, he played 13 games as a freshman in 2010 without catching a pass. His best season was 2012, with 45 catches. He had 30 in 2013. He’s more of a traditional tight end than the new wave of receiving specialist.

Lions depth chart:

Receivers

Returning: Starters – Calvin Johnson, Kris Durham; Backups – Kevin Ogletree, Jeremy Ross (return man), Ryan Broyles (injured reserve in 2013), Corey Fuller, Patrick Edwards and Cody Wilson (practice squad).

Newcomers: Golden Tate, Naaman Roosevelt.

Tight ends

Returning: Starter --  Brandon Pettigrew; Backups – Joseph Fauria (part-time starter), Michael Williams (injured reserve), Matt Veldman (signed late in 2013).

Lions’ draft probability: Watkins, Evans and Beckham all have been mentioned in mock drafts as possible draft candidates. The Lions would have to trade up to draft Watkins, and probably the same for Evans. Beckham is a skilled receiver but a reach at No. 10. Ebron is a possibility at No. 10 because of his receiving skill.

A receiver is certain to be drafted. The only issue is when.