NFL teams won’t complain about the amount of wide receiver talent that’s come out over the past two years. The massive influx of talent is both a blessing and a curse. This April, teams will have plenty of opportunities to claim contributors on offense, but pinpointing the best of the group is a tougher task. Statistical leaders like Ja’Marr Chase and DeVonta Smith share a claim of the crown. However, who is the top WR in the 2021 NFL Draft?
Ja’Marr Chase vs. DeVonta Smith: Who is the top WR in the 2021 NFL Draft?
The 2020 NFL Draft was widely hailed as one of the best WR draft classes in history. History itself will re-evaluate that distinction in a decade or so. Nevertheless, one year later, the group looks as strong as it did in April of 2020.
Justin Jefferson broke the rookie record for receiving yards in a season with the Minnesota Vikings. Jerry Jeudy made waves with his prowess as a route runner, and CeeDee Lamb gravitated to highlight reels with the Dallas Cowboys. Even farther down the list, players like Brandon Aiyuk, Tee Higgins, Michael Pittman Jr., Laviska Shenault, Chase Claypool, and Gabriel Davis showed promise.
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Last year, the topic of WR1 between Jeudy, Lamb, Jefferson, and Henry Ruggs III was hotly contested. This offseason, that debate might be even more contentious. Just like last offseason, there is no consensus WR1 to this point. Additionally, a recent comment by Tony Pauline in his weekly mailbag has many revisiting the question. Who is the top WR in the 2021 NFL Draft? And who, at the very least, are the contenders?
Tony Pauline raises questions surrounding 2021’s WR1 in mailbag
In his recent weekly mailbag article, PFN’s Chief Draft Analyst Tony Pauline was asked by a reader if the Miami Dolphins would consider taking Penei Sewell at third overall after they drafted both Austin Jackson and Robert Hunt early on in 2020. Pauline answered with one simple line, but that line carried plenty of weight.
“Not if Ja’Marr Chase is available to them.”
Pauline’s answer directly implies that the Dolphins clearly view Chase as WR1 in the 2021 NFL Draft. However, the answer also opens up questions surrounding team preferences across the league. Is Chase the favorite for the majority of NFL teams? Or do other draft prospects also have supporters in the WR1 debate? More importantly, who should actually take home the mantle?
Should Ja’Marr Chase be WR1 in the 2021 NFL Draft?
It makes sense why Chase is one of the more popular contenders for the WR1 title. He’s the ultimate alpha receiver, as his 2019 season showed. During LSU’s championship campaign, at just 19 years old, Chase amassed 84 receptions for 1,720 yards and 20 touchdowns. He also put up 221 yards in the championship game against Clemson.
Statistically, he was dominant, and it wasn’t a coincidence. Chase is solid in a number of areas, including his route running, physicality against press coverage, and run-after-catch ability.
Nevertheless, the foundational aspect of Chase’s game is at the catch point. There, he has some of the best pure instincts for catching the football that you’ll find in a prospect. He’s an elite vertical athlete, and he’s excellent at timing his elevation. He’s able to contort for passes and wrench them away from defenders. In addition, he brings an intimidating attitude to those one-on-one situations.
Chase’s ability to convert so consistently at the catch point is what gives him a reputation as one of the safest receivers in the draft. Yet, he’s not totally reliant on his contested-catch ability, either.
On top of all this, Chase is no slouch when it comes to speed. Although he’s not elite in terms of elusiveness, his density and toughness allow him to earn yards after the catch. Simply put, there aren’t many holes in Chase’s game, and his one elite trait is one that is fundamental for success at receiver.
DeVonta Smith’s case for WR1 in the 2021 NFL Draft
Make no mistake. Chase is as good as advertised. However, as he sat out the 2020 season, other wide receivers surged toward his position. One of those wide receivers was Alabama’s DeVonta Smith.
Smith also broke the 1,000-yard mark in 2019, catching passes from eventual top-five pick Tua Tagovailoa. However, Smith was overshadowed by Ruggs and Jeudy. Therefore, he came back in 2020 to be the top target for quarterback Mac Jones. Smith followed Chase’s example in 2020, amassing 117 catches, 1,856 yards, and 23 touchdowns on his way to winning a Heisman Trophy.
Smith isn’t nearly the imposing physical specimen that Chase is. At the Senior Bowl, he measured in at 6-foot-1, 175 pounds. However, Smith, like Ja’Marr Chase, was consistent in 2020. Where Chase lacked elite sharpness as a route runner, Smith provided crisp routes and effortless displays of deception and nuance. Smith also put to use near infallible hands while showcasing underrated athleticism.
For his pure consistency in all phases, Smith has been lauded by some as WR1. Still, he doesn’t quite have the size or RAC potential that Chase has. Chase also had his success at a younger age, thus suggesting a wider base of natural talent and traits.
Do other receivers have legitimate arguments to be WR1?
Although the discussion may center around them, Ja’Marr Chase and DeVonta Smith aren’t the only ones who can contend for the top WR spot in the 2021 NFL Draft. Fellow Alabama receiver Jaylen Waddle has the game-breaking potential and otherworldly athleticism to earn that title.
Minnesota wide receiver Rashod Bateman could also feasibly have an avenue to the WR1 slot. Bateman is steady, well-sized, and has some of the best route-running ability in college football.
Just like last year, there are several receivers who have legitimate arguments to make in the WR1 conversation. How one ranks them is entirely up to preference. For example, if you’re asking me, the conversation at WR1 should instead be Chase vs. Waddle and not Chase vs. Smith.
That’s the best part of draft season, though. Different analysts will place a greater weight on different things, and no two big boards are alike. In the end, production in the NFL is what sorts it all out.
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