2014 rookie review: Gosh, the Class of '15 doesn't have much to live up to, right? Last year only produced probably the greatest rookie class of wide receivers in NFL history. Odell Beckham Jr. was the third WR off the board in the '14 NFL draft, 12th overall, and posted a top-five fantasy season among all WRs, despite missing four games. Mike Evans went seventh overall, and finished 11th in WR fantasy points. Kelvin Benjamin went 28th and tied for 16th in fantasy points at the position. Jordan Matthews (42nd overall, seventh WR off the '14 draft board) and Sammy Watkins (fourth overall, first WR taken) also finished inside the top-30 WRs. That's crazy! You have to go back to '04 to find a season in which even four rookie wideouts finished inside fantasy's top 30 (Michael Clayton, Lee Evans, Larry Fitzgerald and Roy Williams), and Beckham and Evans were better in '14 than any of those guys were in '04. It's been a long-held truism that betting big on rookie WRs is a losing game: They're overhyped and rarely make the NFL transition smoothly. I tend to believe one aberrant season shouldn't change that philosophy. Then again, it looks like another really good class!
The 2015 prospects
Amari Cooper (Alabama): We've heard so much about how great Cooper is, folks are looking to pick nits. Is he a physical freak? No, at 6-foot-1 and 211 pounds, running the 40 in 4.43 seconds, we're not talking about the most impressive physical specimen in this class, but he's still the WR I'd draft first if I were an NFL team. Did we learn nothing from Beckham last year? (I, for one, wasn't as high as I should've been on Beckham at this time in '14.) Players who are this sudden out of breaks don't need to beat you with size or pure jets. Cooper's tape doesn't show him bashing defensive backs' brains in, it simply shows him open. All the time. In the SEC. Listen, I like Sammy Watkins too. I think Cooper is a better prospect.
Comparison: It's probably premature to go Marvin Harrison, as I've seen some folks do, but how about Antonio Brown? Cooper is a couple of inches taller and several pounds heavier than Brown, and as such may not quite possess Brown's ungodly quicks, but I think they can be successful in similar ways. If Cooper proves quick enough to get off the line without being redirected because defenses fear him, he can have a Brown-level impact early in his career.
Kevin White (West Virginia): For all the great things White did in '14, for all the high-wire ability he displayed at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, the best thing about him on tape was his hands. He has Velcro on those things. And for a player who figures to make his NFL bones by scaring defenses with his speed and high-pointing the ball, that's a great quality to have. There's concern that West Virginia's wide-open, pedal-down system can inflate stats by allowing WRs not to play against much press coverage. But when a guy this tall has great hands and runs a 4.35 at the combine (and ties for the lead among all WRs in the bench press), boy, the sky is the limit.
Comparison: As the draft industry revs up again, maybe White should just change his name to The Next Larry Fitzgerald. Again, we probably shouldn't be putting rookies in the class of guaranteed Hall of Famers. Julio Jones is an interesting upside comparison, and perhaps someone like Robert Meachem is a fair cautionary floor (for a player who was a one-year collegiate wonder). There's a really good chance that White solidified himself as a top-10 pick with his performance in Indy.
DeVante Parker (Louisville): It would be cool to see Parker reunited with my guy Teddy Bridgewater, which is possible because the Minnesota Vikings pick 11th this year. Bridgewater-to-Parker sure was fun in '13, but Parker missed more than half his senior year with a foot injury, perhaps allowing him to slide under the radar a bit. He's almost identical in size to Kevin White, but Parker may not quite have White's hands or straight-ahead speed (Parker ran a 4.45 at the combine, which is still really fast). He has the look of a future No. 1 NFL receiver.
Comparison: If we allow that White's comp is Julio Jones, maybe Parker can be A.J. Green: a little lighter, a tiny bit slower, but with all the same incredible playmaking ability. I like the fact that Parker was a star across three college seasons; I think it puts him among the safer WRs this year. Maybe his downside is a speed/size threat like Louis Murphy?
Dorial Green-Beckham (Oklahoma): DGB is the Jameis Winston of the WR position. He might be the most physically imposing wideout the combine has seen in the better part of a decade, but his off-field history is more than merely troubling. At 6-foot-5 and 237 pounds with tape -- albeit from '13 at Missouri, where he was dismissed from the team before landing at Oklahoma but never played a game -- that shows what an impossible matchup he was in college because of his size and 4.49 wheels, he's scary to defend. But given how many WRs have flamed out because of character issues, NFL teams may be wary to trust him.
Comparison: If DGB is a good citizen, at the very least he becomes an elite red-zone threat early in his career, as Plaxico Burress was. I also think Mike Evans is an interesting case study as a big guy who can really move. But I think the Calvin Johnson comparisons are overblown. Yes, Green-Beckham's size/speed combo is crazy, but he didn't grade out as well in the "explosiveness" metrics, managing a 33.5-inch vertical and a 119-inch broad jump, which put him well outside the elites in this draft class. Add that to character questions (and the fact that he had a year off from football), and putting DGB in Megatron's class seems fruitless.
Devin Smith (Ohio State): Before the combine, some folks believed Smith would run a sub-4.3 40-yard dash, so when he ran "only" 4.42, maybe there was some consternation. But I'm not buying it. At 6 feet and 196 pounds, Smith shows all kinds of speed on tape, and most college kids just couldn't stay with him. For all his team's success in '14, and for all the mileage he got out of three different QBs, there were still a number of plays I saw where Smith should've scored on a bomb but had to slow down to make the catch. He probably won't be anyone's go-to No. 1 guy right away, and volume may wind up being a fantasy concern, but for boom plays? Smith is your guy.
Comparison: My initial temptation is to say DeSean Jackson, because that's the kind of instant speed this kid shows on tape. But he's bigger than Jackson and probably not quite as straight-ahead fast. So let's go with Torrey Smith. They're about the same size and show the same smoothness once they're at top speed. Torrey's lack of true stardom despite having big-armed Joe Flacco throwing it to him is curious, but he has a more-than-respectable 30 receiving TDs in four pro seasons.
Jaelen Strong (Arizona State): Strong is a fascinating specimen who may fall out of the first round of the NFL draft simply because of the wealth of WR talent, but he could deliver early in his career. He is big (not huge) at 6-foot-2 and 217 pounds but runs a 4.44 40 and submitted a ridiculous 42-inch vertical, which simply piggybacks on his tape from college, where he was a great leaper. He also has terrific hands. If I have a criticism from his college tape, it's that he tended to round off routes on occasion, knowing that he could "post up" smaller corners. And I'm also not sure I saw him separating with speed all that often.
Comparison: Before Strong ran faster than expected at the combine, his routine NFL comp was Marques Colston. That may still be a fair assessment; we shouldn't let a couple of sprints out of uniform completely change what we think about a player. But I'll give Strong the benefit of the doubt that perhaps he's a bit faster than I gave him credit for, so he could be more like early-career Miles Austin, before all those hamstring injuries.
Sammie Coates (Auburn): Coates is an awesome specimen, but one thing combine measurables can't give you is a sense of a player's hands. Anyone who watched Auburn play a lot this year saw drop after drop from Coates, and that's going to be his bugaboo this spring. But man, he's an athlete. At 6-foot-1 and 212 pounds, Coates ran a nice 4.43 40, he tied all WRs in the bench press and he was top five in the broad and vertical jumps. He's one of those draft prospects some team will reach for because it'll fall in love with his measurables and make allowances for his game tape, thinking it can fix his inconsistencies.
Comparison: I'm skeptical. I just don't love how up-and-down he was in college; if he's such a superior athlete, it seems to me he should've been able to impose his will more frequently, especially this season when Auburn's running game wasn't quite as elite and Nick Marshall was more productive as a passer. I worry we're looking at a Greg Little situation. You can't debate Coates' qualifications as a pure athlete, though, and if he gets his stuff together, he has as much upside as most WRs in this class.
Other names to know: Breshad Perriman (Central Florida) didn't work out at the combine because of an injured hamstring. He also belongs to the group of WR physical freaks, though much of his game tape comes against lesser FBS opponents, so it's tougher to extrapolate. I didn't love his collegiate consistency given his level -- it should be easier to run routes and get open for a kid his size -- but I sure did like his TD-making ability in contested situations. ... That's the end of the top tier of unbelievable size/weight/speed prospects, but it's definitely not the end of the WRs you need to know for '15. Phillip Dorsett (Miami) got combine headlines for running a 4.33 40, but he's smaller than Devin Smith, so there will be questions about whether he can play out wide. DeSean Jackson does it, so it's possible Dorsett can too. ... Is Nelson Agholor another USC product who produces big in college but doesn't possess any single stellar trait and winds up "merely" being a Robert Woods type? He's definitely a versatile player but may be viewed as a slot guy. Plus it may not be fair, but I admit to feeling a bit burned by Marqise Lee, who last year seemed a lot easier to knock off his routes in the NFL than he did at USC. ... You won't find a surer-handed WR than Rashad Greene (Florida State), and that's going to earn him a long career of solid playing time in the NFL. He probably won't be a fantasy star, because it's doubtful he'll ever be his team's No. 1 WR; in fact, he's probably a slot guy. But some quarterback is going to love that dude. ... Tyler Lockett (Kansas State) is another player who'll have to prove he can get off the line if his NFL team tries to use him outside, but he ran a 4.40 at the combine, so even out of the slot he has a chance to make plays. ... Jamison Crowder (Duke) was a productive collegiate player and came to Indy hoping to prove that at 5-foot-8 and 185 pounds, he could be the kind of ultra-quick prospect Brandin Cooks was last year. It didn't happen. On film, Crowder has legit quickness out of the slot, but he ran 4.56 (Cooks was 4.33) and didn't approach Cooks in the shuttle drills. I think he's probably more of an Eddie Royal type. ... Chris Conley (Georgia) was burdened with poor QB play as a senior and never really popped, but the 6-foot-2, 213 pounder blew up in Indy with a 4.35 40, to go along with vertical and broad jumps that not only led all receivers but were among the best ever at the combine. He's another name to remember for your dynasty league.