Alabama Wide Receivers: Ranking the big four trait-by-trait

All four Alabama wide receivers were top-75 recruits in their respective high school classes. Now, with two having already left for the NFL, let's rank them based on their individual skillsets.

Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs both went inside the top 15 picks in the 2020 NFL Draft. The Alabama wide receivers were well regarded prior to the season, with Jeudy coming off winning the Fred Biletnikoff Award in 2018 and Ruggs scoring 11 touchdowns. But they weren’t the only pass catchers on the team held in high regard. DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle both produced in 2018, and in 2019 the question became, “how do we stack these four guys?”

But before we get into the nitty-gritty of their college careers and pro potential, we must appreciate the fact these four receivers are together at all. All four Alabama wide receivers were top-75 recruits in their respective high school classes according to 247 Sports. All four were comfortable four-star players and top-12 at the wide receiver position. Jeudy, Ruggs, and Smith all were part of the 2017 class. Kudos to the dominance that is the “roll tide” recruiting machine.

There were many in the evaluation (train) station that regarded Smith as the best of the bunch after his breakout 2019 campaign where he tallied 1,256 yards on 68 catches and 14 touchdowns. Meanwhile, others believed the flashes in limited action from Waddle were impressive enough to think he could be the best.

At what point do we just shrug our shoulders and say it? All ice cream is good, it’s just about what flavor you’re feeling today. So we’ll compare and contrast some ingredients and see if we can find what we’re looking for.

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Ranking Alabama’s wide receivers

Route running

We all see and understand that there’s no contest here. Jeudy is the best of the bunch and it’s not particularly close. His ability to change direction paired with the nuance he possesses makes this no contest. So the battle comes down to the final three places.

What makes this a difficult discussion is that each of the others show flashes of outstanding route running ability, albeit inconsistently. First, let’s stop pretending that Ruggs is a bad route runner or that he lacks nuance. He had the ability to gear down that speed and fluidly change direction on complex routes like blaze outs and double moves. He also vastly improved his ability to efficiently and violently hit the brakes on stop routes and back-shoulder fades.

Right now, Waddle is at the point Ruggs was this time last season as a route runner if not even a bit more raw in his abilities. He’s at that weird point where his change of direction with the ball in his hands and the way he runs routes don’t match. He doesn’t quite have that same suddenness or nuance in his ability to change direction as Jeudy, but it’s close. And if he pairs that with some nuance in route running he could end up being the best of all four given his superior high-end athleticism compared to Jeudy.

Smith is a unique case study as a route runner. He’s very physical at the top of routes for his size, which helps him separate at the breakpoint coming back to the football against man coverage. He also shows flashes of efficient feet that allow him to not waste steps on comeback and curl routes vs off. He is a STOUT downfield target. He also possesses some very nice hands and a very smooth shoulder dip that reduces his surface area to beat press immediately. However, he doesn’t consistently put a foot in the ground and explode in and out of breaks and is forced into more contested catches and non-targets than you’d like to see from a potential first-round pick.

At days end, as route runners they rank like this:

  1. Jeudy
  2. Ruggs
  3. Smith
  4. Waddle

Related | 2021 NFL Draft: Receivers Smith and Waddle next great Alabama duo

Ball skills

This next aspect of the game turns things on its head a bit. As easy as it was to crown Jeudy the best route runner, it’s similarly as easy to admit this is the weakest part of his game, and by far the weakest of the four. That’s not to say Jeudy has bad hands, they just aren’t on par with the others. That’s nothing to be ashamed of though.

All three of Ruggs, Smith, and Waddle can go up and get it. Despite Waddle’s shorter stature and slighter frame, he’s an absolute bully in the air. His cocked head with fists-on-hips celebration almost shouts “don’t even try me in the air.” Smith’s LSU game is all the film you need to see when it comes to finishing plays, and against one of the best cornerbacks in college football. And we’ve all seen what Ruggs is able to do with those massive 10 1/8-inch hands and we know of his 2.4% drop rate.

However, Smith has shown some instances of concentration drops whereas Ruggs and Waddle haven’t shown the same inconsistencies, as few and far between as they may be.

  1. Ruggs
  2. Waddle
  3. Smith
  4. Jeudy

Related | Jerry Jeudy’s dynasty value following the 2020 NFL Draft

Yards after catch

Fortunately, we finally have a category that’s not too difficult to wade through. We know about the speed Ruggs possesses. We’ve seen the dead leg that Jeudy drops post catch. We’ve witnessed Waddle return punts and score on slants. We’ve watched Smith make a tackler miss and then break another for a score. All four Alabama wide receivers are pluses in this area.

That said, this is easy.

  1. Waddle
  2. Ruggs
  3. Jeudy
  4. Smith

Why so easy if they’re all good? Well, it’s basic deduction based on athleticism, if we want to really simplify it. Waddle is the most explosive athlete of the bunch. He’s a blend of Jeudy and Ruggs. He’s might be just a tick slower than Ruggs in a straight line, but he changes direction close to the level of Jeudy. He is the best of both worlds, and it showed as he averaged 24.4 yards on 20 punt returns and scored a touchdown on one of his five kickoff returns. He’s silly with the ball in his hands, and the clear top here.

Ruggs and Jeudy would be debatable for most, but Ruggs has enough wiggle to make you miss, good vision, and the ability to negate even the most obtuse of angles. He’ll turn a slant into a 75-yard touchdown. Jeudy will make three guys miss on a tunnel screen and turn no gain into a first down, but won’t break the big one as often.

Smith is no slouch, and that showed in his many opportunities on manufactured touches in his junior season at Alabama. However, it’s a bit peculiar that the clear basement-dweller in this area of the game got the touches when the offense had three others more suitable for the job.

Related | 2021 wide receiver class is special and has a chance to be historic


We aren’t here to talk about blocking, and honestly, none of the four Alabama wide receivers are here for it either. Smith and Ruggs’ effort is normally admirable, but none are physically dominant enough to write home about here.

Overall, these four players can stack any which way one could find a way to justify it. If we were to base this process off what these players are today, they’d rank like this.

  1. Jeudy
  2. Smith
  3. Ruggs
  4. Waddle

But that’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works. We’re in the business of seeing into the future or more accurately attempting to see into the future. In eight years, who will have had or who is in the process of having the best career? Based on their 2018 and 2019 tape and how they could progress, it looks like this.

  1. Waddle
  2. Ruggs
  3. Jeudy
  4. Smith

As PFN draft writer Scott Gorman wrote in April, it’ll be interesting to see how the departure of Tua Tagovailoa affects Smith and Waddle’s productivity. But a team won’t be wrong to have any of the four. There are few scenarios (barring injury) where any of these four are anything but solid number two receivers at the NFL level.

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