On Friday of the 2023 NFL Draft, I tweeted that I did not care for the Green Bay Packers’ selection of wide receiver Jayden Reed with the 53rd overall pick. This led to me receiving some unpleasant feedback from Packers and Michigan State Spartans fans, in which I was accused of not watching film, not understanding football, etc.
Here was my initial reaction:
Reed is an awful pick. One of the worst WROPS, WRAPS, and RAS in the class, poor YAC generator, undersized, didn't run a 3-cone, only caught 61% of his passes. Even in his superior 2021 season his catch% was WAY too low. Do not like.— BadgerNoonan (@BadgerNoonan) April 29, 2023
Taking some heat is fine and comes with the territory. Along those lines, I thought it might be worth discussing exactly why I might be wrong. I recently wrote on why I prefer fifth round pick Dontayvion Wicks to Reed, but when making any such argument, it’s always important to understand what the other side thinks. In this instance, there really is a very good case for Reed. I probably don’t even really need to explicitly state that, as my opinion is the minority opinion and the Packers actually drafting him in the first place is the strongest endorsement he could have, but still let’s dig in.
First and foremost, I’d urge everyone to watch my colleague Tyler Brooke’s breakdown of Reed here. To be clear, I agree with all of this and I don’t even think Reed is “bad,” just that he was a reach. Reed was one of Tyler’s favorite receivers in the draft (his “pound the table” guy); Tyler makes a great case as to why that is, and he’s hardly alone. Reed is a vertical burner, outstanding in his use of hesitation and gearing down, and offers a silky smooth release off the line. Despite his size, he’s a vicious blocker. Scouts love his route-running, and that is, fundamentally, why he went as high as he did. Meanwhile, I catalogued my case against Reed in more detail here.
I tend not to like receivers who struggle to produce in college, as Reed did in his final season at Michigan State, and even more so when the receiver is of questionable all-around athleticism. Reed is a straight-line burner, but he’s small and didn’t impress on the agility and explosion combine drills, posting a pedestrian RAS. My question to scouts with players like Reed is, “If he’s such a good route runner, why didn’t he produce on the field?” People are quick to point to quarterback Payton Thorne, but that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Reed DID produce under Thorne two years ago, only falling off when forced into a larger offensive role due to the departure of several other offensive weapons.
All of that said, I think there are solid answers to every question about Reed, from both a scouting and a statistical perspective. You can check out Tyler’s work for the scout’s perspective, but I thought I would tackle the three biggest pro-Reed statistical arguments.
1. Strength of Defense Faced
If you follow my writing at all, you’re familiar with WROPS and QBOPS, my college quarterback and receiver metrics. One of the metrics I use to adjust QB performance is Strength of Defense (SOD), which tracks the quality of defenses faced by quarterbacks every year, relying primarily on the advanced metric SP+. For more on SOD and all of my stats, please see the glossary here.
To this point, I only use SOD to adjust for quarterback performance, but it can be used for the receivers as well, and in this case it absolutely should be. Back in 2021 when Reed had his best season, Payton Thorne and Michigan State faced the 16th-hardest defensive schedule by SOD with a .468. For context, Bryce Young faced the hardest schedule with a .777, and Coastal Carolina’s Grayson McCall faced the easiest schedule with a -1.208. Generally speaking, close to 1.0 means you played a brutal schedule, and -1.0 means you walked over a bunch of cupcakes.
Reed did well against a very good defensive slate, but in 2022, that degree of difficulty rose dramatically as Payton Thorne and Michigan State led all of college football in SOD at .714. The Big Ten put some extremely tough defenses on the field, and compounding the increased degree of difficulty for Reed was Michigan State’s loss of key offensive personnel, meaning Reed drew more attention. Some ill-timed nagging injuries (and load management) robbed him of snaps against some early season cupcakes as well, which would have bolstered his ultimate stat line. Reed put up plenty of good numbers against “normal defenses” like Wisconsin, and even performed well against Ohio State. If you’re scouting a player’s ceiling, there was plenty to like, even last year. Reed faced a gauntlet.
2. Second Round Selection Bias
Many months ago, I read an article on Pro Football Focus (or perhaps by a former PFF writer) alleging that in the second round of the NFL Draft, the RAS score of a wide receiver is actually inversely correlated with their success. I have searched far and wide and cannot track it down, but the argument goes something like this.
If you’re awesome at route running, have great hands, excel at all of the soft skills of a receiver, and blow everyone out of the water at the Scouting Combine, you’re going to go in the first round. That means that once we get to the second round, we’re left with an imperfect group made up of highly-skilled players with middling athleticism, and those with mediocre skills but elite athleticism. I think the prototypical example of the latter is Chase Claypool, who posted a 10 RAS and went 49th overall in the 2020 draft. Claypool may yet amount to something, but his career to this point has been underwhelming.
The thing about high-RAS receivers is that they’re easy to identify. Everyone knew exactly how athletic Claypool was, and so everyone is dealing with the same information. The athletes with potential get plucked early. The soft skills though, are tougher, and if you think about how the Packers and Ted Thompson in particular operated, and just how good they were at picking the great players from the pool of lesser athletes in the second round, you’ll remember some exceptional finds.
This theory starts to make a lot of sense
And you start to see a pretty clear
My WRAPS projection holds that RAS number against Reed, but there’s a good case to be made that in the second round, I may be making a mistake. This is especially true given that Reed isn’t a bad athlete, he’s just a specialized one. And so, perhaps they have another great 2nd rounder on their hands, because they’ve certainly done this before.
3. The Slot
Last season and the season before, Reed played roughly 85% of his snaps as an outside receiver in Michigan State’s offense, and he was quite good at it. Reed’s speed and unusually strong contested catch ability made him a true force on the outside, and from Michigan State’s perspective, it was the smart move. Reed was their best receiver, and any competent offense must have their outside receivers serve as a threat in order to force defenses to cover the entire field. The fewer defenders that are dedicated to stopping outside threats, the easier it becomes to focus on everything else. The “easy stuff” becomes hard.
Reed struggled last season in part because he drew the opponents’ best corner, and often had additional safety help sent his way. In 2021, some of that attention went to Jalen Nailor, while support DBs also had to concern themselves with tight end Connor Heyward and outstanding running back Kenneth Walker. That help was gone in 2022, and so the diminutive Reed was faced with the best defenses (on average) in college football, and the best corners, and additional help on top of that.
The slot is, in many ways the NFL’s cheat code. Without the boundary on one side, receivers are free to break in every direction, making life especially difficult for slot corners. While outside receivers are a necessary component of offense and demand elite talent, almost any receiver, and more importantly, any kind of receiver, can excel in the slot. The position is similar to the relationship between shortstops and second basemen in baseball. You need an outstanding athlete at shortstop, but all shortstops can play second base, while few second basemen can play shortstop.
Moreover, size matters less in the slot. While outside receivers need to win vertically, where height is a huge factor, slot receivers tend to win horizontally, where speed and agility are a much bigger factor. The best slot receivers, like Cooper Kupp of the Rams, tend to post outstanding agility numbers as a part of their athletic profile, but that is hardly the only way to succeed. More than anything, working out of the slot helps to accentuate the positive qualities of a receiver while de-emphasizing the negative.
One of Reed’s biggest issues last year was his catch percentage. While some of that is due to poor play by Thorne and outstanding defenses, a good portion is also due to Reed’s habit of attempting to outmuscle corners at 5-11 and 187 pounds. His small stature and shortish arms also reduce his catch radius on deep balls. If Reed moves to the slot in the NFL, essentially all of these problems disappear. His quick first step and solid route running, along with the LaFleur scheme, should have him open much more often, and the difficultly of his targets should be drastically reduced. The big questions will likely be on Reed’s ability to create YAC, but there his speed will always serve as an X-factor. Reed should be a threat to score any time he has the ball, and defenses will be forced to respect that.
In short, part of Reed’s issue at Michigan State was his alpha dog status in 2022, but projecting him to suffer those same problems when he will not be the primary outside receiver in Green Bay is silly. In fact, with Christian Watson and a group of new, extremely athletic tight ends, the personnel flanking Reed will look far more as it did in his outstanding 2021 season.
I still think Reed was a reach due to his physical limitations and the fact that he will probably be limited to the slot. That said, Reed is on my favorite team, and I would love to be wrong about him. There are a lot of positives to having a slot receiver with Reed’s pure speed, and many of the tangible skills he put on tape should be accentuated by playing in the slot at the next level. The Packers may very well put Reed in the perfect position to draw the best out of him.