Following a college season that was anything but normal, it is certainly daunting to try to sort through this year's wide receiver prospects. Some wideouts only played six games. Some skipped the season entirely. And not a single wide receiver ran the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine.
Although not immune from the problems created by the uneven pre- and post-draft season, Playmaker Score—Football Outsiders' system for projecting college wide receivers to the NFL—still has certain advantages. For one, history has shown that good 40-yard dash times don't tell us any more about a prospect than data we can get otherwise. Moreover, Playmaker Score uses a player's peak season, so a receiver is not penalized if he had an off year in a very strange 2020.
Playmaker Score is based on a statistical analysis of all of the Division I wide receivers drafted in the years from 1996 to 2018, and measures the following:
- the wide receiver's projected draft position from Scouts Inc.;
- the prospect's best or "peak" season for receiving yards per team attempt (i.e., a wide receiver with 1,000 receiving yards whose team passed 400 times would score a "2.50");
- the prospect's peak season for receiving touchdowns per team attempt;
- the difference between the prospect's peak season for receiving touchdowns per team attempt and the prospect's most recent season for receiving touchdowns per team attempt (this factor is simply "0" for a player whose peak season was his most recent season);
- a variable that rewards players who enter the draft as underclassmen and punishes those who exhaust their college eligibility;
- the wide receiver's rushing attempts per game during their peak season for receiving yards per team attempt; and
- a factor that gives a bonus to wide receivers who were teammates in college, entered the draft for the same year, and are projected to be drafted.
Playmaker Score has two outputs: "Playmaker Rating" and "Playmaker Projection." Playmaker Rating is the "purest" output for Playmaker Score: it is expressed as a percentage that measures how highly the player ranks historically based on the factors evaluated by Playmaker Score. For example, a player with a 75% Playmaker Rating scores more highly than 75% of wide receiver prospects drafted since 1996. Playmaker Projection (which projects each wideout's average receiving yards over the course of his first five NFL regular seasons) is a more realistic measurement. Playmaker Projection acknowledges that a player with a first-round grade and a mediocre Playmaker Rating is more likely to succeed than a seventh-rounder whom Playmaker Rating loves. Thus, in addition to the Playmaker Score factors, Playmaker Projection also incorporates a transformed variable based on the player's projected draft position from ESPN's Scouts Inc.
Also, longtime readers may note that we suspended Playmaker Rating last year out of concerns that adding the projected draft position into Playmaker would have some weird effects when comparing two players from the same team. However, we are bringing it back this year, because the issue seems to be a theoretical concern and not so much of an issue in practice. That said, it's probably wise to use caution when using Playmaker Rating to compare two players from the same team with different draft projections.
Below, we take a look at some of Playmaker's top prospects in the 2021 NFL draft, along with some similar prospects from previous drafts. Our similar historical prospects are based on former players who were similar in their Playmaker statistics, so you might see us compare two physically dissimilar players because they were similar statistically.
DeVonta Smith, Alabama Crimson Tide
Playmaker Projection: 777 Yards/Season
Scouts Inc.: No. 7 Overall
Similar Historical Prospects: Larry Fitzgerald, Torry Holt
DeVonta Smith has a monster projection that leaves everyone else in this draft class in the dust. Smith's projection is all the more impressive considering that he gets a significant penalty for entering the draft as a senior. Smith is Playmaker's highest projected senior wide receiver ever, and it is not even close. That spot had previously belonged to former Buffalo Bills wide receiver Lee Evans, whose projection was more than 100 yards/season lower than Smith's.
Why is Smith's projection so high? The bottom line is that Smith had eye-popping statistics even though Alabama did not attempt many passes. The Crimson Tide passed only 425 times in 2020, yet Smith managed to record 1,856 receiving yards and 23 touchdowns. Smith scored a touchdown once every 19 times that Alabama attempted a pass. Only two drafted wide receiver prospects since 1996 scored touchdowns at a higher rate than Smith: Randy Moss and Dez Bryant.
However, what makes Smith's numbers arguably more impressive than those of Bryant or Moss is that Smith had to compete with a lot of talented teammates. Moss' most notable receiver colleague was future undrafted free agent Nate Poole; Bryant's was future first-round tight end Brandon Pettigrew, who was considered more of a blocker than a receiver. By contrast, Smith had to compete for targets with fellow first-round prospect Jaylen Waddle. Of course, Waddle played less than half the season due to injury. However, as a junior Smith also had to compete with future first-round picks Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, and Smith outproduced them both.
The conventional argument against Smith is that he is unusually light for a top receiver prospect. Smith weighs in at only 170 pounds. There have only been 14 wide receivers drafted since 1998 who were lighter than Smith and none of them were stars. (Marquise Brown, who has 1,353 yards in his first two seasons with the Ravens, has pretty clearly been the best of the lot.) However, it is also true that none of those wide receivers were especially notable prospects, and none dominated top competition like Smith did at Alabama.
Smith is a one-of-a-kind prospect who managed to put up elite numbers despite consistently having to compete with other first-round picks for catches. Any prospect can bust for any number of reasons, but Smith is about as solid as they come.
Ja'Marr Chase, LSU Tigers
Playmaker Projection: 719 Yards/Season
Scouts Inc.: No. 2 Overall
Similar Historical Prospects: D.J. Moore, DK Metcalf
Ja'Marr Chase, in a move that is likely to become increasingly common, skipped his junior season in anticipation of entering the 2021 NFL draft. Chase's numbers as a sophomore are superficially similar to Smith's—1,780 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns. However, the LSU Tigers passed 567 times in 2019, which makes Chase's rate statistics significantly worse than Smith's.
However, comparing Chase to Smith is somewhat unfair. Smith is an unusual and historically great prospect; Chase is just a typically solid first-round prospect. Indeed, Chase's projection is slightly higher than any of the wide receivers available in the past three drafts. There is also reason to believe that Chase's prospects are better than Playmaker suggests—Chase dominated as a sophomore, and he could have been even more dominant as a junior.
Elijah Moore, Ole Miss Rebels
Playmaker Projection: 616 Yards/Season
Scouts Inc.: No. 37 Overall
Similar Historical Prospects: Jeremy Maclin, Percy Harvin
Elijah Moore had good but not great numbers—1,193 yards and eight touchdowns in 2020. However, the Rebels only passed 335 times, which make Moore's rate numbers significantly better than his raw totals would suggest. To top it off, Moore was used heavily in the running game, notching 14 rushing attempts. Moore's rushing attempts and his deceptively good receiving numbers are enough to give him the No. 3 spot in this year's Playmaker projections, leapfrogging more highly touted prospects Jaylen Waddle and Kadarius Toney. Even factoring in Waddle and Toney's higher draft projections, Playmaker still thinks Moore is the most likely to succeed of the three.
Tutu Atwell, Louisville Cardinals
Playmaker Projection: 602 Yards/Season
Scouts Inc.: No. 43 Overall
Similar Historical Prospects: Golden Tate, DeSean Jackson
If you remove projected draft position, Tutu Atwell is Playmaker's second-favorite prospect in this year's draft. Even accounting for Atwell's status as a likely second-round pick, Playmaker places Atwell as the fourth-most likely wide receiver to succeed in the NFL.
Atwell was solid but not amazing in 2020 until his season ended in injury. However, Atwell was spectacular as a sophomore, catching 70 passes for 1,276 yards and 12 touchdowns on a 2019 team that only passed 302 times. Historically, the best indicator of success is the prospect's high-water mark for performance. A great example is Stefon Diggs, who was great as a freshman but fell to the fifth round due to injury-shortened sophomore and junior years. There is, of course, no guarantee that Atwell will enjoy similar success.
The knock on Atwell is his small size (he weighed in at only 155 pounds at his pro day). While large wide receivers do not necessarily perform better than smaller ones, Atwell and Smith will provide an interesting test to see if the talented receivers on the smaller end of the scale can star in today's NFL.
Jaylen Waddle, Alabama Crimson Tide
Playmaker Projection: 556 Yards/Season
Scouts Inc.: No. 11 Overall
Similar Historical Prospects: Laveranues Coles, DeVante Parker
From a Playmaker perspective, Jaylen Waddle has two things going for him: he is projected as a first-round pick, and his numbers are deflated because he had to share the field with DeVonta Smith. Still, overall Playmaker thinks that Waddle is a below-average first-round prospect.
Waddle's best year was his freshman season, where he recorded 848 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. Waddle had a promising start to his junior year, but only played six games, recording 591 yards. A team picking Waddle is making a risky bet that those six games represent Waddle's true potential. Although that bet could certainly pay off, even if you prorate Waddle's numbers, he still falls well short of Smith's production.
Terrace Marshall Jr., LSU Tigers
Playmaker Projection: 513 Yards/Season
Scouts Inc.: No. 34 Overall
Similar Historical Prospects: Dexter McCluster, Justin Hunter
Terrace Marshall is a similar prospect to Waddle. He played for a big-time college program but lacks a history of sustained production. Marshall had decent production on a per-game basis as a junior but missed three games.
Rashod Bateman, Minnesota Golden Gophers
Playmaker Projection: 498 Yards/Season
Scouts Inc.: No. 42 Overall
Similar Historical Prospects: Sidney Rice, Keenan Allen
Rashod Bateman benefits from Playmaker's use of the player's peak season rather than his most recent. Bateman was not tremendous in the weird 2020 season, when he played in five of Minnesota's seven games. However, he was great in 2019, recording 1,219 receiving yards and 11 receiving touchdowns on a team that only passed 323 times.
Kadarius Toney, Florida Gators
Playmaker Projection: 497 Yards/Season
Scouts Inc.: No. 19 Overall
Similar Historical Prospects: Chad Jackson, Limas Sweed
Kadarius Toney did not have a true position at Florida until his senior year, when he settled in at wide receiver. Toney has some positives. First, he was a versatile player who ran the ball a lot for a wide receiver. Historically, wide receivers who run the ball during college tend to over-perform expectations after joining the NFL. Second, Toney's unusual path to the upper echelon of draft projections makes it impossible to rule out that he may just be that diamond in the rough.
However, Toney also has potential red flags. Unlike Alabama, Florida was never overflowing with elite talent at the wide receiver position—yet Toney was a non-factor for most of his college career. Even when Toney "broke out," his season was not good relative to former first-round picks. Toney recorded 984 receiving yards, but his team threw 473 passes, resulting in 2.08 yards/team attempt. There are only four first-round picks with lower peak numbers: DeVante Parker, Yatil Green, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Travis Taylor. That is not an encouraging list.
Playmaker Score is not a guarantee. However, Toney remains a dangerous prospect because he so closely fits the profile of past wide receiver busts.
D'Wayne Eskridge, Western Michigan Broncos
Playmaker Projection: 489 Yards/Season
Scouts Inc.: No. 102 Overall
Similar Historical Prospects: Stefon Diggs, Tyler Lockett
In a draft that is filled with wide receivers with abbreviated seasons, teams should not sleep on D'Wayne Eskridge. Eskridge was great during Western Michigan's pandemic-shortened season, recording 768 yards and eight touchdowns in only 157 team attempts. Eskridge loses points for being a senior, but his rate statistics in 2020 were so good he comes out with a great projection.
That said, all of the same caveats that apply to Jaylen Waddle and Terrace Marshall Jr. apply to Eskridge as well. Eskridge did not produce like a future NFL wide receiver in his three full seasons in Kalamazoo, so there is good reason to believe that he may not be as great as his 2020 rate statistics suggest. However, Eskridge will likely come at the relatively cheap price of a third- or fourth-round pick, which could make him a great value choice.
The following table shows the Playmaker Score numbers for all of the eligible prospects available in this year's draft.
|Playmaker Score 2021|
|Elijah Moore||Ole Miss||1-2||616||96.3%|
|Terrace Marshall Jr.||LSU||1-2||513||84.0%|
|D'Wayne Eskridge||Western Michigan||3-4||489||97.9%|
|Tylan Wallace||Oklahoma State||2-3||315||50.5%|
|Sage Surratt||Wake Forest||2-3||355||71.0%|
|Tamorrion Terry||Florida State||4||270||71.6%|
|Dax Milne||Brigham Young||UDFA||224||89.0%|
|Dyami Brown||North Carolina||UDFA||197||84.7%|
|Amon-Ra St. Brown||USC||UDFA||175||82.4%|
|Warren Jackson||Colorado State||4||137||16.8%|
|Javon McKinley||Notre Dame||5||87||14.4%|
|Shi Smith||South Carolina||6||80||23.4%|
|T.J. Vasher||Texas Tech||4||55||2.7%|
|Rico Bussey Jr.||North Texas||5-6||49||13.1%|
|Jhamon Ausbon||Texas A&M||5||46||5.6%|
|Ben Skowronek||Notre Dame||5-6||41||8.7%|
|Dazz Newsome||North Carolina||UDFA||40||33.9%|
|Frank Darby||Arizona State||6-7||4||9.0%|
|Tim Jones||Southern Mississippi||UDFA||2||16.6%|
An edited version of this article originally appeared on ESPN+.