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2022 NFL Draft: Underrated wide receivers based on WROPS, RAS, and WRAPS

If the Packers don’t get their guys early, there will still be value up and down the board. These are the players to keep an eye on later in the draft.

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For more detail on WROPS, RAS, and WRAPS, please see the previous post, 2022 NFL Draft – Overrated Receivers based on WROPS, RAS, and WRAPS. You can also view the WROPS and WRAPS tables at these links.

In my last post I used WROPS, RAS, and WRAPS to try to pick out some of the receiving prospects in the upcoming draft that may be overrated on draft boards. When you write something like this, you are implicitly criticizing the scouting world, but I want to take a moment to give Pro Football Focus and scouting analysts generally a lot of credit. With very limited exceptions, I can at least understand their reasoning, and that goes doubly for trying to find underrated players in this class. It wasn’t easy, and the vast majority of rankings make perfect sense. For every statistical standout like Deven Thompkins of Utah State, who is 290th on the PFF big board despite a brilliant .929 WROPS and a good 7.25 RAS, you will find a major flaw which perfectly explains things. In this case, it is the fact that Thompson is 5-6, and weighs 167 pounds.

Still there are a few players who haven’t gotten the attention or hype that they should in my opinion, and warts aside, should be projected higher than they currently are. Let’s start with another player who has almost certainly dinged for body type.

1. Tyquan Thornton – Baylor

PFF Rank – 181st overall. WRAPS – 17.03

Thornton isn’t exactly a low profile player, as he ripped off an insane 4.28 40-yard-dash at the combine, but I almost feel as if his blazing speed as been working against him in terms of public perception. Sometimes an incredible feat in the sprint can overshadow a players’ other skills, and brand them as a one-trick pony. Complicating matters, the fast 40 has made fools out of many GMs of the past. Thornton didn’t help to dispel his status as a straight-line burner with his poor agility drills either, and so we have a player who, on the surface, looks like so many failed workout heroes of the past.

Thornton is much more than that. He actually managed enough catches to qualify for a WROPS in 2019, his sophomore season. He averaged 17.4 yards per reception which, with a good-for-a-deep-threat catch percentage gave him a .365/.573/.938 slash line. It was impressive season as he made the most of the coverage he was afforded with Denzel Mims on the other side and ranked 34th out of 329 qualifiers. In 2021 as the primary receiver for Baylor his WROPS took a hit, down to .344/.505/.849, but he was also asked to do more work over the middle and on short throws in addition to the occasional home run ball.

Thornton’s other big issue is his size. At just 181 pounds, he was one of the thinnest receivers at the combine, and that lack of size does show up on tape. Thornton is perfectly willing to take a hit on a comeback route or venture over the middle, but it did impact his catch percentage and, because he’s not a natural tackle-breaker, his yards per catch.

All of that said, having a receiver play out-of-role in college isn’t always a bad thing. One of the major problems with Marquez Valdes-Scantling, especially early in his career, was a lack of versatility in the route tree. You basically always knew where MVS was going, which limited his efficiency deep and his role on the Packers. Thornton brings similar speed to MVS, but also a much more sophisticated underneath game as a complement. Thornton is like a fastball pitcher who needed to develop a decent breaking ball to keep hitters off-balance, and his ascension to the number one receiver position at Baylor allowed him just such an opportunity. As a go-route specialist with some real chops on outs and digs, Thornton can be a valuable complementary piece at the next level. As a final note, he also seemed to draw his fair share of DPI penalties this season, which don’t show up in his statistics, but are still positive plays.

2. Kevin Austin – Notre Dame

PFF Rank – 157th overall. WRAPS – 19.51

Now we’re talking. One of the more controversial prospects in this year’s draft is North Dakota State’s Christian Watson, who put up an all-time great performance at the combine with a 9.96 RAS and was undeniably productive in his final season, though the question of the competition he faced remains a big question mark. Various pundits have Watson as high as the first round while others see him in the 3rd or later as he’ll almost certainly need some development time. He is currently 74th on the PFF Big Board.

Everyone who is in on Watson should be at least as excited about Austin as a player. Austin has plenty of rawness to his game as well, but his 9.93 RAS comes with elite agility scores above and beyond what Watson posted. That’s in a still big but more compact frame that allowed Austin to bully opposing defenders while also doing damage as a deep ball threat.

Austin was used, and I would argue overused, primarily as a deep threat at Notre Dame. This limited his touches somewhat, but despite having just 48 catches, he still managed to lead the team in receiving yards with 888, besting tight end Michael Mayer’s 71-catch, 840 yard performance.

Austin’s gaudy RAS is supported by an outstanding .957 WROPS (.347/.611/.957), and his catch percentage was more than good enough to support his production as a big play threat. While it’s always good to see a player put up elite production against elite competition within a good program, the most exciting thing about Austin is that there’s still projection left in his game. Christian Watson, as previously mentioned, is likely to be a project, but he also turns 23 in May, and assuming he even develops into anything, he’ll likely be closer to 26-27 by the time he does. Austin, on the other hand, just turned 22, and has the physique and the chops to work in the slot immediately while continuing to develop his outside game.

There are some obvious flaws in Austin’s game that will need to be corrected. While he’s great at bodying up a defensive back for a contested catch, he doesn’t use his physicality to create separation like he should. He was actually shockingly good on deep balls considering his technical limitations: body catching, turning his head too soon, and some less-than-sophisticated hand-fighting. But despite those limitations, the physical advantage he enjoyed was too much for college DBs and he was still effective. The mistake I suspect people make on Austin is focusing on those deep ball limitations and not his work over the middle, which was sublime. Honestly, Notre Dame should be ashamed for how they chose to use Austin most of the time. I almost can’t believe they didn’t make him the focus of a short screen game or on mesh/crossing routes or really anything to get him the ball in space. The Irish basically played him in such a way as to highlight every limitation he has, while also limiting his sample size.

I’d urge any tape-grinder to watch all 48 of his receptions and just focus on his YAC on the few shorter targets he had. Project him on those plays as his floor, with some potential technique and hand-work improvement outside. Without any improvement, he can step in and be a gimmick player/jet sweep threat with the ability to punish DBs deep. With just a little improvement he can be so much more. He’s a willing blocker, a physical force, and the second best athlete in his class. PFF thinks he’s available in the 5th. If he is, you take him immediately.

3. Samori Toure – Nebraska

PFF Rank – Off the Board. WRAPS – 16.98

First, let me confess to playing slightly fast and loose with Samori’s RAS. In truth, it’s 6.11, but his 1.22 score in the bench press drags him down an entire point, and I don’t really think I care about the bench press for wide receivers.

It hardly matters, as Toure is a prospect based on his considerable production, not his athletic profile. A transfer from the tiny University of Montana where he racked up numerous FCS awards, Toure had no trouble with the transition to the Big Ten leading the Cornhuskers in receptions with 46, yards with 898, and yards per catch with 19.5. Indeed, the biggest problem with Toure is sample size, as Nebraska had 7 players with 30 carries or more on the ground this season and as a team, they just didn’t throw a ton of passes.

(Note: Toure also had 8 carries for 63 yards. His 7.9 yards per carry led Nebraska among players with at least 5 carries.)

Nebraska’s other major issue was their truly insane record, as they went 3-9 overall and just 1-8 in the Big Ten despite a positive point differential overall and a break-even point differential (239-239) in conference. Nebraska destroyed Northwestern 56-7 while suffering a one-score loss in every other Big Ten game. 3-9 teams that struggle to win multiple conference games don’t get that much attention, but under the surface Nebraska quietly had several great performances, and I suspect that most Nebraska prospects will outperform their draft prospect status as a result. While it looks to many that Toure led a bad Big Ten team with a paltry number of catches, there was actually a good offense buried under a heap of poor coaching and bad luck, and Toure was a major reason for that strange success.

Toure does have one other issue in that he’s an older prospect, having just turned 24, but he’s also a more polished prospect who should have a shorter development curve. In the limited sample we have of him, he tends to generate a clean release and shows advanced technique as an outside receiver. While his overall athletic profile is merely good, he did post an elite 3-cone, and you can see that agility both in his release off the line and with the ball in his hands. He was primarily a deep threat in an offense that sorely needed one, but in reality, that is only a small part of his overall game and he has the hands and YAC ability to move inside in a pinch, though he will provide the most value outside.

Finally, Toure also improved as the season went on, and had two of his best games against Wisconsin’s amazing defense, and Ohio State. I always like to see improvement, especially post-transfer, and Toure delivered. While his RAS isn’t at the level of Austin’s, it’s more than sufficient for an NFL receiver, especially where it counts, and his elite level of college production in a major conference against quality opposition is a good indicator of his ability to step in and contribute in the NFL, at least as a complementary player, immediately.

More than anything, finding out won’t cost you more than a 6th round pick, if that.

Honorable Mention – Alec Pierce

PFF rank 75th overall. WRAPS – 19.09

Pierce is a polarizing prospect, and while I’m not sure I’d call him overrated at 75, I’ve seen him occasionally fall into the 4th round in mock drafts. For a player with his upside, that would be an absolute bargain. Certainly, he should be ahead of Christian Watson.

Pierce was great with his hands for a home run hitter, posting a .367/.561/.928 slash line, well above what a typical big play threat is able to accomplish. He has also shown amazing consistency while at Cincinnati with a .347/.582/.928 slash line in 2019 on 37 receptions. He’s a big, powerful prototypical outside receiver, adept at using his considerable speed and frame to create separation with even the most physical corners.

Several scouts have noted a consistent flaw in his technique, exposing too much of himself on his release and allowing corners to get their hands into him early. I agree with this criticism, though I believe it’s less of a true flaw and more of a lack of caring about that issue. In college, Pierce was generally able to quickly disengage and still win his battles. That will not be true at the next level of course, but it’s also a relatively simple flaw to correct, and if Pierce has any issues with coachability, it doesn’t show up in any reports. Pierce was a multi-sport athlete, having also played basketball and volleyball while running track. Multi-sport excellence often requires athletes to be efficient students in many different techniques. (There are a lot of multi-sport athletes in this receiver class, which is a good thing.)

Aside from a few small technique issues, Pierce also didn’t fare well in his agility drills, but given his other talents, and some weirdness around the agility drills at the combine, along with his status as a true outside receiver, it’s not a big concern.

PFF has Pierce in the 3rd, which is probably about right, but I think you’re getting first round upside here, and he’s a better prospect than your typical third rounder.

Going Deep

Tanner Conner

PFF Rank - Off the board. RAS - 8.83

Tanner Conner went to the very small Idaho State where he enjoyed a solid career as a deep threat, using his considerable athletic gifts (and 226 pound frame) to overwhelm the competition. Conner was a three sport athlete in high school, especially gifted in track where he won the Washington State Championship in the 300 meter hurdles.

Conner originally went to Idaho State intending to run track, but wound up as a key contributor as a receiver for the Bengals instead, and his success hauling in the deep ball has him on a few radars. That track background and his considerable size make him an intriguing prospect as a special teamer with some upside. Northern Iowa’s Isaiah Weston has gotten lot of (well deserved) “development prospect” love because of an elite RAS, but Conner is right there with him. I unfortunately cannot run WROPS scores for small schools, but his production looks to have been quite good as a home run hitter, though he obviously would need significant time to develop at the next level. He almost certainly won’t be drafted, but given that the Packers are almost always looking for special teams upgrades and like their receivers big and fast, don’t be surprised if he winds up on the practice squad next year.

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