2020 NFL Draft: USC wide receivers look to carry the sword of strong NFL pedigree

The USC Trojans have a rich history of producing NFL wide receivers, especially as of late. They'll add two more to that group in the 2020 NFL Draft.

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In the early parts of the 2000s, the USC Trojans emerged as one of the great dynasties in college football history. Under the tutelage of Pete Carroll, they were a force to be reckoned with, week after week and year after year. Of course with such success, they were bound to ship off a heap of players to the next level via the NFL Draft. This was especially true at the wide receiver position.

During Carroll’s tenure in Los Angeles, he generated five drafted receivers. This included Mike Williams, who was a top 10 pick in 2005; as well as the dynamic duo of Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith, who were both second-round picks in 2007. However, as a whole, the group didn’t amount to much and Williams was one of the biggest flops of that decade.

With such disappointment, many started helmet scouting USC wide receivers and deemed them un-draftable. Since then, we’ve seen a fresh injection of talent out of Southern California. Over the past six years, we’ve seen three USC wide receivers go in the second round and one in the opening round. The lone first rounder being Nelson Agholor, while the others include Robert Woods, Marqise Lee and JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Now they have two wide receivers with a strong chance to hear their names called during the 2020 draft, along with a sophomore waiting in the wings who could be the most talented of them all. Michael Pittman Jr. and Tyler Vaughns look to keep pace with USC’s tradition as they transition to an air raid offense under new offensive coordinator Graham Harrell.

Michael Pittman Jr.

The higher touted of the two, Michael Pittman Jr. received a third-round grade from the NFL Draft advisory board. He returns as the team’s leading receiver and the Pac 12’s leader with an astounding 18.5 yards per catch. Still, he decided to forego the 2019 NFL Draft in what was a surprising decision.

With Pittman you’re getting that big body on the outside in his 6’4”, 220-pound frame. He uses his length to his advantage when working vertically. Not a natural separator, Pittman often relies on a pesky longarm to keep his opponent off-kilter. Long and rangy, he offers a mismatch in contested situations with the physicality to boot.

As a route runner Pittman is adequate at getting in and out of his breaks. Although for a big man he moves quite well. However, I was most impressed with the depth in his breaks. Pittman showed a strong grasp of spacing when operating over the middle of the field. Coupled with his length, Pittman provides a huge throwing window for his quarterback. He also has the strong hands to pluck balls away from his body into his frame.

Perhaps his greatest trait is his competitive toughness. As much as you’ll see him fighting through contact for the ball, you’ll see him dragging defenders and fighting for extra yards just as frequent. He’s a struggle to bring down and battles for additional yardage on every touch. Although, his extra will after the catch resulted in a couple of fumbles last year.

The son of former longtime NFL running back, Pittman looks to follow in his father’s footsteps. After already receiving a third-round grade from the advisory board, it’s a good bet that he ends up a day two pick in 2020. However, it’s a class littered with uberly talented juniors, which could force Pittman down the board a bit. The reliable chain mover has shown a lot of promise as the go-to guy in USC’s offense. Now in an air raid system, Pittman will see a much heavier dose in the passing game as he looks to leave Los Angeles as a 1,000-yard receiver.

Tyler Vaughns

Barging onto the national scene in 2017 was USC’s, Tyler Vaughns. Then a redshirt freshman, Vaughns played understudy to current New York Jet Deontay Burnett. He made a reputation for the big play as he established a tremendous rapport with Sam Darnold. While there weren’t as many highlights this past season, Vaughns remained an integral piece in the offense.

The better athlete of the two, Vaughns could see an increase in draft stock following the week in Indy at the NFL Combine. He’s showcased the speed time and time again, but his most impressive athletic trait lies elsewhere. Vaughns can jump through the rafters as he possesses a remarkable vertical. At his size, he’s not expected to be a tantalizing jump ball guy. However, his ability to launch up and high point often gives him leverage to the ball. He also showed an uncanny ability to make the concentrated, sideline grabs with fluid body control.

Last season Vaughns’ role altered a bit from 2017. He wasn’t utilized as much vertically and instead saw more manufactured touches in passes at or behind the line of scrimmage. That should change in the new system and I believe we’ll get a deeper look at his route running toolbox. He has the quickness and suddenness to shake guys at the stem but too often looked unenthusiastic going into breaks. Although I was impressed in his release variation.

It’s exciting to imagine the possibilities of Tyler Vaughns in the air raid. He can beat you underneath with shiftiness and superb YAC skills. At the same time, he possesses the speed to beat opponents deep and that’s something I hope to see more of this season. At this point Vaughns has a wide NFL draft range, although he’s most likely a day three pick with such a loaded draft class.

Thunder and lightning

Something every great wide receiver tandem has in common is the ability to compliment each other. In the case of Pittman Jr. and Vaughns, one of the best duos in the nation, they do just that. The thunder and lightning of wide receivers, if you will.

The 6’4” Pittman is a thundering presence as an X receiver. He uses his body and physicality to outman opponents. Also as a runner, he pounds defenders to the turf. Thus, Vaughns, of course, strikes the lightning. He has the elusiveness and ability to bolt downfield in a hurry, as you’ll see on punt returns as well.

While neither of these guys is a Laviska Shenault caliber prospect, they both bring a lot to the table and win in different ways. Both have day two potential, although Vaughns is most likely a day three guy. Plus, as stated, the stacked wide receiver class could force them down the board. Regardless of where they fall on draft day, both could make an instant impact at the next level with their skillsets.

Waiting in the wings – Future NFL draft prospects

Aside from Pittman and Vaughns, there is some serious talent standing by to be the successors. Amon-Ra St. Brown led the team in receptions last year as a freshman. He holds stupendous rapport with quarterback J.T. Daniels as the duo played high school ball together at Mater Dei. St. Brown could be the most talented receiver on this team and in his own family.

Then there’s Velus Jones Jr., who is the fastest receiver on the roster. He could break out this year with heavier wide receiver sets. Overshadowed by St. Brown, fellow sophomore Devon Williams hopes for an expanded role. Williams was widely rated as the top wide receiver recruit in California entering college. Then Bru McCoy finds himself back at USC. He’s one of the most polarizing players in college football despite no snaps to the ledger.

Even when Pittman and Vaughns depart for the NFL, the USC Trojans are in good hands. As the program sends another pair of wide receiver draft picks to the NFL (assuming Vaughns declares), the spectacular play will go on. St. Brown flashes legitimate first-round potential and the other holds a ton of untapped potential. Following in the footsteps of Pittman and Vaughns, there could be another two or three receivers drafted from this roster in the succeeding years. The legacy will live on in Los Angeles.