Every year, mirroring the explosive nature of the wide receiver position, there’s a prospect who breaks out and announces himself on the NFL draft stage. Which 2023 NFL Draft receivers stand out as the most compelling breakout candidates? Let’s take a closer look at the list.
2023 NFL Draft breakout candidates at WR
Which wide receivers in the 2023 NFL Draft class offer the most breakout potential ahead of the 2022 campaign? Predictably, an Alabama receiver leads the pack, following in the footsteps of 2021 breakout Jameson Williams.
Jermaine Burton, Alabama
Jermaine Burton is perhaps the most anticipated breakout candidate of the 2023 NFL Draft cycle, and it isn’t close. It’s natural for the hype to build around Burton as he arrives in Alabama. He’s a former highly-rated recruit switching over from an up-and-down Georgia passing attack to a legitimate wide receiver factory led by Heisman-winning QB Bryce Young. The stars could very well align for Burton, much like they aligned for Williams a year prior.
Before any one-to-one comparisons emerge, Burton doesn’t have the speed that Williams has. Few players do. Burton isn’t the same type of player, but he’s a dynamic threat in his own right. At 6’0″, 200 pounds, Burton has a strong frame, and he couples that size with sudden twitch and agility against tight coverage. He can cut stems with brutal quickness, then explode into space, and he can extend beyond his frame for catches as well. With Williams, John Metchie III, and Slade Bolden all gone, there’s a void for Burton to fill.
Trey Palmer, Nebraska
Nebraska has been active in the transfer portal in recent years, albeit by necessity. Losing eventual second-round pick Wan’Dale Robinson in 2021 hurt, but the Cornhuskers were able to somewhat recoup his impact by acquiring Samori Toure from the FCS level. The transfer portal can help unlock unrealized potential in players, and the Cornhuskers are hoping that’s the case for Trey Palmer this year.
Palmer is an extremely intriguing addition for Nebraska. He’s a former five-star recruit from Kentwood, Louisiana, who doubled as a track star and a state champion in the 100m dash. At 6’1″, 190 pounds, Palmer is a phenomenal athlete with both speed and short-area freedom. And yet, he logged paltry career-best numbers of 30 catches, 344 yards, and three scores for LSU in 2021. Perhaps Palmer needed a change of scenery, and perhaps Nebraska is where he finally achieves a long-awaited breakout.
Nick Mardner, Cincinnati
There are two types of breakouts that often coincide. There are statistical breakouts, and there are conceptual breakouts. Unlike most on the list, you could argue Nick Mardner already achieved his statistical breakout in 2021, when he put up 46 catches for 913 yards and five touchdowns at Hawaii. But while Mardner has already produced, he has yet to prove himself on the big stage. Now having transferred to Cincinnati, he’s looking to change that.
After losing Alec Pierce to the 2022 NFL Draft, the Bearcats are in need of a new boundary threat. Mardner profiles well at that spot. Mardner takes what Pierce had in terms of size and expands on it. He’s a massive 6’6″ pass-catching threat with long arms and easy athleticism. And he’s reportedly tacked on 25 pounds since arriving at Cincinnati, going from 190 to 215. No matter who wins the QB battle for Luke Fickell’s squad, Mardner should be a premier target early on.
Jordan Watkins, Ole Miss
Naturally, any receiver in a Lane Kiffin offense is going to command some attention in the pre-season research period. And seeing that the Rebels lost Braylon Sanders, Dontario Drummond, and Jahcour Pearson in the previous draft cycle, there’s an opportunity for someone to emerge as the next premier receiver threat at Ole Miss. On the receiving end of passes from transfer QB Jaxson Dart, Jordan Watkins may be the one that steps up.
Watkins initially played at Louisville, where he was a hometown kid making an early impact. He had a nice 2021 season, putting up 35 catches for 531 yards and four touchdowns, but decided to capitalize on that momentum and take a step up the program hierarchy. At Mississippi, Watkins’ talents could be maximized. The 5’11”, 190-pound receiver has field-stretching speed and burst but also brings loose hips and easy change of direction in the RAC phase.
Jaden Walley, Mississippi State
Mississippi State QB Will Rogers passed for 4,739 yards and 36 touchdowns on 683 attempts last season. There are near-endless targets available in the Bulldogs’ pass-happy offense, and a player that’s poised to benefit in 2022 is junior star Jaden Walley. Walley is already a known quantity for Mississippi State fans. Over his first two collegiate seasons, he’s amassed 107 catches for 1,346 yards and eight scores. Nevertheless, this is Walley’s first season as an eligible prospect. His 2023 NFL Draft breakout may be up next.
With Makai Polk heading to the NFL draft and Malik Heath leaving through the transfer portal, almost 140 additional catches are freed up. Walley has always been a valued weapon in the Bulldogs’ offense, but 2022 might see him become the premier threat that Polk was in 2021. Walley is visibly more athletic that Polk at 6’0″, 185 pounds. He’s explosive but also has terse short-area quickness, and he brings enticing toughness at the catch point.