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Could the 2021 wide receiver class be even better than 2020?

Could the 2021 wide receiver class be even better than 2020?
Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout the 2020 NFL Draft cycle, much has been made about the quality of the wide receiver class who will be entering the league this season. Between elite prospects such as Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb and Henry Ruggs III, the top of the group is a strong one. Even beyond those prospects, the strength of the middle and depth of the class is the best in recent years. The publicity and praise that the 2020 class has been given has no doubt been earned, but watching enough collegiate tape this offseason has created an interesting development in my eyes. The 2021 wide receiver class will be even better.

Maybe.

It feels like a version of this is said every year.

“Just wait until next year’s class!”

“They should tank for the best players in next year’s class!”

I understand this rhetoric can become a tired one. However, the group that could declare in 2021 has even more potentially elite prospects at the position than the current one.

2021 wide receivers

To kick things off, the group that will be declaring in 2021 includes Biletnikoff Award winner Ja’Marr Chase. He would have been the best wide receiver in the 2020 NFL Draft had he been able to declare this season after leading the NCAA in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns last season.

Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman was an immediate contributor as a freshman and progressed all the way to first-team All-Big Ten as a sophomore. Bateman is a route artist who averaged over 20 yards per reception and scored 11 touchdowns. He has a rare combination of size (6’2 and 210 pounds), fluidity, and ball skills.

Clemson’s Justyn Ross posted nine touchdowns and 1,000 receiving yards on 21.7 yards per reception during his freshman season. In Clemson’s two College Football Playoff games that season, Ross posted 301 receiving yards and three touchdowns. Standing at 6-foot-4 and over 200 pounds, Ross has one of the most developed skill-sets for a receiver with his size in years. Ross will be star quarterback Trevor Lawrence’s top wideout next season, which could cause an explosion in production.

Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle may have been overshadowed by the more experienced wide receivers on the Crimson Tide depth chart, but his freshman season was a revelation of speed and explosiveness. He flies through route breaks, catches everything within his grasp and beats defensive angles after the catch with ease.

Rondale Moore suffered an unfortunate injury just a month into last season but continued to show the traits from his freshman season that led to nearly 1,500 yards from scrimmage. Moore is shifty at the top of the route but has thickness and strength in his lower body to bounce off of contact by defenders.

Chris Olave slid into the Terry McLaurin role of Ohio State’s offense and performed at the same level as just a true sophomore. Olave uncovered vertically with consistency, either because of fluid breaks or double moves. He makes sublime in-air adjustments to the catch point that makes up for his slighter frame.

Seth Williams was Auburn’s leading receiver by almost 400 yards, accounting for 48 receptions and eight touchdowns over their first nine games of the season. At 6-foot-3 and over 220 pounds, he has the physical dominance to project to a starting “X” role in the NFL. His clutch reception to beat Oregon in Week 1 was one of the highlights of the college football season.

Chase’s teammate Terrace Marshall JR. was leading the Tigers in receiving touchdowns with six through four games before suffering an injury. Marshall would come on strong once again when he got fully healthy, scoring five times in LSU’s final three games. His ability to finish in tight spaces led to his success down the field and in the red zone.

Amon-Ra St. Brown, Equanimeous St. Brown’s younger brother, was a part of one of the best wide receiver corps in the country at Southern California. St. Brown was used as an intermediate and vertical threat. He’s a natural mover with advanced ball skills and posted over 1,000 receiving yards as a sophomore.

Chatarius “Tutu” Atwell was one of nine receivers in college football last season with at least 1,200 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns, accounting for nearly 42% of Louisville’s receiving yards. While undersized, his speed stretches defenses beyond their limits.

The 2020 wide receiver class is supported by a strong group of seniors that includes names such as Denzel Mims, Brandon Aiyuk, Michael Pittman Jr., Chase Claypool, and others. The 2021 group won’t have the same depth among seniors, but will likely be stronger at the top.

Alabama’s DeVonta Smith should be a first-round pick in 2021 after returning to school this fall, despite leading the Crimson Tide in receiving yards and touchdowns. His consistent technique leads to separation through route running, and he has the short-area quickness to leave defenders in the dust.

The difference between 2020 and 2021

The group of 2020 Draft wide receiver prospects has been the strongest one since 2014, both at the top of the class and through depth. While that may be the case, the 2021 class could pass them up due to the amount of potentially elite talent. Looking at the rising junior class, a bunch of future prospects don’t have much development to go in order to earn top-50 grades.

Beyond them, players such as Olave and Atwell could join the elite group if they’re able to add physical strength. Auburn’s Williams needs to develop his route running, but can already rely on his vertical breaks. These prospects could be the difference between the 2020 and 2021 wide receiver class.

The comparison between the two classes will be an interesting conversation as each group develops, both as draft prospects and once they enter the NFL.

2021 NFL Draft wide receiver rankings

Here are my current – but very preliminary – 2021 NFL Draft wide receivers rankings:

Juniors

  1. Ja’Marr Chase, LSU
  2. Rashod Bateman, Minnesota
  3. Justyn Ross, Clemson
  4. Jaylen Waddle, Alabama
  5. Rondale Moore, Purdue
  6. Chris Olave, Ohio State
  7. Seth Williams, Auburn
  8. Terrace Marshall Jr., LSU
  9. Amon-Ra St. Brown, USC
  10. Chatarius Atwell, Louisville

Seniors

  1. DeVonta Smith, Alabama
  2. Tamorrion Terry (RS Junior), Florida State
  3. Sage Surratt, Wake Forest
  4. Tylan Wallace, Oklahoma State
  5. Nico Collins, Michigan

Honorable Mentions: Damonte Coxie, Tyler Vaughns, Reggie Roberson, Dazz Newsome, Marquez Stevenson

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