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Senior slumps suggest Dontayvion Wicks could be a better NFL receiver than Jayden Reed

Why the Packers’ fifth round receiver is a better bet than their second.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 24 Wake Forest at Virginia Photo by Lee Coleman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Green Bay Packers drafted a trio of receivers in the 2023 draft, and with apologies to seventh rounder Grant DuBose, I think it’s worth a quick comparison of second rounder Jayden Reed of Michigan State and fifth round selection Dontayvion Wicks of Virginia. There are a few important similarities between the two as well as some key differences. I was critical of the Reed pick on draft day as a second round pick seemed like a reach, and there were several other receivers still available who I preferred, like Rashee Rice and Marvin Mims.

Both Reed and Wicks excelled in the 2021 season while tapering off badly in 2022, and my issues with Reed are, I think, best explained in comparing what happened to both players from one season to the next. Let’s dive in.

In 2021 Reed led Michigan State in every important category, and established himself as one of the Big Ten’s best players. He caught 59 of 105 targets for 1076 yards and 10 scores, averaging over 17 yards per receptions, and also contributing as a punt returner on special teams. His 56% catch percentage was a bit low, but acceptable for a big play threat. Plus quarterback Payton Thorne, who played with Reed all the way from middle school through the end of the 2022 season, was a poor quarterback. It’s not that surprising that Reed’s catch% was a tad low given Thorne’s limitations.

In 2022 though, Reed crashed hard, catching 55 of his 90 targets (for an improved 61% catch rate), but for a paltry 636 yards and 5 scores. His yards per catch declined from over 17 to just 11.6. If Reed’s usage had changed drastically, this could have made sense, and he was slightly miscast as an outside receiver in the MSU offense, but in 2021 he played out wide on 84% of his snaps, and in 2022 that only slightly declined to 77%. Reed was still serving primarily as an outside threat, while putting up mediocre slot receiver numbers.

Meanwhile, over in the ACC, no receiver in football was crashing harder than Dontayvion Wicks. Wicks was incredible in 2021, as he caught 57 of his 95 targets (60%) for 1203 yards and 9 scores. His 21.1 yards per catch was one of the best numbers in college football, and putting up such explosive stats with a 60% catch rate is extremely rare and extremely difficult. By my WROPS rankings (glossary here), which aggregates catch% and Y/C, Wicks was the 3rd best receiver of 121 qualifiers in 2021, behind only Jaxon Smith-Njigba, and Jameson Williams. (Jayden Reed ranked 21st, which is still quite good.) He was simply outstanding.

However, Virginia experienced a massive shift when head coach Bronco Mendenhall abruptly retired and was replaced by Tony Elliott for the 2022 season. Under Elliott, the entire Cavaliers’ offense cratered, despite returning almost every skill position player from the previous season. The players did not adapt well to the new scheme, and their points per game plummeted from 34.6 in 2021 (21st overall in college football) to 17 points per game (126th of 131 teams). Wicks was not immune as, per WROPS, he went from being the 3rd best receiver in football to the 8th worst. (Over at Michigan State, Reed fell from 21 to 118th, out of 141 qualifiers.)

So both crashed hard after a very good penultimate season. Reed was better regarded and was drafted significantly higher than Wicks, but I personally don’t think that makes much sense, especially given the nature of those crashes, and the relative versatility each player provides.

Two Different Crashes

In 2021, both Wicks and Reed showed us what they can be when involved in competent offenses, but Wicks was unequivocally better. Wicks bested Reed in catch%, in yards per catch, and in total yards, by a healthy margin, despite catching two fewer balls. Reed was good, but Wicks was truly elite. Sometimes a player will post less efficient college numbers because they spend extra time in the slot, where players give up some explosive plays in exchange for a higher catch%, but there is no slot bias here. Reed spent 84% of his time outside while Wicks ran 82.3% of his routes outside. And while Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong is, I think, clearly better than Michigan State’s Payton Thorne, in 2021 the difference wasn’t immense. Armstrong was 10th in Yards per Attempt at 8.9, Thorne was 32nd, at 8.3 (out of 94 qualifiers). Armstrong was much more accurate than Thorne, which may excuse some of Reed’s catch%, but Wicks was still better as a pure outside deep threat.

It’s important to keep these baselines in mind for their respective crashes because while Wicks’ crash was far more severe, I also think he had a far better excuse, and the evidence backs this up. Virginia suffered an enormous downgrade in coaching, and we can be incredibly sure that the coaching was primarily responsible because outside of tight end Jelani Woods, every player involved in the passing game returned and crashed right along with Wicks. Back was Brennan Armstrong, crashing from 8.9 Y/A in 2021 to 6.5 in 2022. Receivers Keytaon Thompson and Billy Kemp both returned along with Wicks and suffered similar declines. The Virginia run game is mostly based on Armstrong keeping the ball, but in 2022, back Perris Jones (4.5 Y/C) wasn’t a huge downgrade from Wayne Taulapappa (5.2) and in any case, each had fewer than 100 carries. It’s hard to blame a catastrophic decline in the passing game on a little-used running back.

The bottom line is that the Virginia crash is clearly the fault of Elliott, and not some seachange of personnel, or really anything to do with the players. All of the players all got worse simultaneously. That’s on scheme, and coaching.

Wicks did suffer his own issues with drops in 2022, however even there, he gave a good explanation of how Elliott’s system required far more thinking on the fly, and essentially split his concentration between “playing receiver” and “thinking about all of the new adjustments on every play.” If you’re comfortable and practiced, and know where you’re supposed to be, as Wicks did under Mendenhall, a receiver can simply focus on executing. In a new system that requires you to make mid-route reads, that multi-tasking can come at a price. Overthinking is a common issue in all sports, from batting in baseball, to free throw shooting in basketball, and getting your receivers out of their rhythm can result in an uptick in drops.

Which is not to say Wicks will just show up to camp with good hands, but his 2021 tape shows that he is more than capable of catching what’s thrown to him.

And so Wicks has established an excellent ceiling, and a clear explanation for his severe downturn in 2022. What then, is Reed’s excuse?

Many were quick to point a finger at Payton Thorne’s play in 2022, and while it was quite poor, it’s important to remember that Thorne has been a constant for Reed through his entire football career, and that he has played well with him, including in 2021. Mel Tucker has been the coach at Michigan State since 2020, and so Reed has had continuity of scheme for his career. The issue for Reed then, seems to be the mass exodus of the other skill position players around him.

In the 2022 draft, Michigan State saw four offensive players graduate to the next level: Running back Kenneth Walker, who went to Seattle in the 2nd, receiver Jalen Nailor, who went to Minnesota in the 6th, tight end Connor Heyward, who went to Pittsburgh in the late 6th, and tackle AJ Arcuri who went to the Rams with the 2nd last pick in the draft, one pick ahead of Brock Purdy.

Reed was Michigan State’s leading receiver by a healthy margin in 2021, but without Nailor and Heyward to spread out defenses, and without Walker’s outstanding running, Reed’s efficiency crashed in a bigger role. Perhaps more alarming was the ascension of Keon Coleman. The 6-4 junior shot by Reed, surpassing him in receptions, targets, catch%, yards per catch, touchdowns, everything really, while playing on the outside just like Reed. Returning senior Tre Mosley, who worked primarily out of the slot in both 2021 and 2022, also saw his efficiency crater as well, however it was Reed, as the consensus best player on offense, who was charged with stepping up, drawing coverage and making life easier on his teammates. Most highly drafted receivers are capable of such things at the college level.

Reed’s problem then, seems to be in adapting to larger role in the offense, and dealing with the coverage that comes with it. Given the level of talent on NFL defenses, I think it’s an open question as to whether he can further adapt.

The last big knock on Reed is his tendency to make contested catches. In 2022 he had 17 contested catch opportunities (which his a lot) and to his credit, pulled in 11 (also a lot). Reed’s highlight reels are full of him “Mossing” people, and honestly, those plays are among the most impressive, and most fun I watched last season. The problem is that Reed almost certainly will not be able to do this in the NFL. Reed’s struggles with catch% aren’t just a result of Thorne’s accuracy. The contested catches and the lack of a big catch radius caused issued for Reed as an outside guy. He’s simply not very big, and he’s not going to have anything close to the same level of success outmuscling defensive backs, which brings us back to the general question of projectability.

Dontayvion Wicks is a bigger (or at least, more normal sized) receiver with a good first step, and an enormous catch radius due to some gangly arms. He dominated college football, for at least one season, and possesses sufficient athleticism, having posted a 9+ RAS, with elite explosion, and good agility scores, to play both outside and in.

Reed is just so much harder to project. While he played some slot at Michigan State during the Covid season in 2020, he played almost exclusively outside thereafter. The problem is that Reed is relatively small at just 5-11 and 187 pounds. People swear up and down that he plays closer to 195, but that’s cold comfort given how poorly he performed in the explosion and agility drills at the combine. Reed is a burner with an outstanding 1.53 second 10 yard split, but if he cut some weight in an attempt to get shiftier and faster for the combine, I’m not sure it worked.

I think a lot of prospects make a huge mistake trying to cut down for speed, as most teams and analysts are now well versed in concepts like RAS, SPARQ, Speed Score, and the like, and are much more interested in whether someone is athletic given their size. Changing your size simply raises more questions than it answers, and for me, I keep wondering why he didn’t run a 3-cone at all, and what that shuttle would look like up a few pounds.

Reed is likely going to be limited to a role he didn’t really play in college, with an athletic profile that doesn’t always work as well at that position. He struggled when his teammates graduated despite working under the same system with the same quarterback. Scouts love his first step and his route running, and it’s a nice bonus that he can return punts. I just see a lot of red flags in that profile, and if Wicks winds up as the better of the two, I will not be surprised.