Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans are generally regarded as the two best wide receiver prospects in the 2014 NFL Draft class, which is filled to the brim with talent at the wide receiver position. Watkins is rightfully lauded for his explosiveness and playmaking ability, as well as his hands, route-running, and ability to make contested catches. He plays bigger than his height, understands the nuances of the position, has top physical tools, and he thus has the total package at the position. But there’s another wide receiver in this draft class similar to Watkins, because this man also matches this description. LSU Tigers product Odell Beckham Jr. is a threat to be a top ten pick, and his game has similarities to both Watkins and Detroit Lions big free agent signing Golden Tate. Interestingly enough, OBJ could even end up with Tate in Detroit at No. 10, and it’s high time everyone (most people have caught on, though) realizes just how good of a prospect Beckham Jr. is.
First of all, let’s take a look at some numbers from Greg Peshek. If you look at the types of routes Beckham Jr. ran, it’s pretty clear that he can run an NFL route tree and won’t have any issues translating to the NFL in that regard. Out of the top nine prospects that Peshek tested, only Kelvin Benjamin and Jordan Matthews ran more post or corner routes, and Beckham Jr. ran more go routes than Marqise Lee and Brandin Cooks; two receivers who are seen as similar to OBJ. His drop rate was about average, and he hauled in significantly more air yards per catch than Lee, Watkins, Cooks, Matthews, and Allen Robinson.
It’s important to realize that while is only 6’0″ tall (shorter than Watkins by an inch), he is much more than just some short-intermediate target who gets yards after the catch. That is to say, he’s a whole different animal from Cooks or Tavon Austin from last year. If I had to compare Beckham Jr. to any draft prospect in the past two classes, then he actually looks most similar to Watkins. He’s a fast, playmaking wide receiver who can stretch the field, make things happen in the intermediate game, contest for tough catches with his ball skills, and run an NFL route-tree. Is he has good as Watkins? No, but that’s why Watkins is a projected top-five pick, whereas Beckham Jr. is a projected top-15 pick. Is he comparable to Watkins and a very good consolation prize for a team that doesn’t get him? I certainly think so.
Let’s take a quick look at an example of Beckham Jr.’s ball skills and ability to contest for passes thrown in the air downfield. He has uncanny hops for a receiver of his height, and his game is more similar to Steve Smith‘s than Cooks’s is. A big reason for that is Beckham Jr’s ability to succeed in situations where he needs to be physical, as this is a glaring weakness in Cooks’s game.
All of the videos in this piece are courtesy of Draft Breakdown, which is simply the best site known to draftnikkind.
Let’s take a look at a similar play from the same game against Mississippi State.
These are just two examples of a kind of play that Odell Beckham Jr. has performed to perfection over the course of his collegiate career, and it’s almost uncanny for a player of his size to be able to make those kinds of plays. His drop rate isn’t stellar, but it’s pretty decent overall. Expanding on that point, this second clip shows his ability to hold onto passes in tight coverage, which is something other wide receiver prospects- most namely Lee and Matthews- struggled with last season. It’s one thing to avoid concentration drops (the kinds of drops that plague Benjamin), but it’s much more difficult to be cognizant of technique and hold onto back-shoulder throws in tight spaces near the sideline. It’s an art that Lee has yet to learn, whereas Beckham Jr., who is ranked below Lee by some, has down pat. I think Lee is a top-20 receiver with No. 1 upside, but Beckham Jr. can do a lot of what Lee does with more consistency, and that’s what separates him as a prospect.
Now more than ever, teams look for versatility out of their wide receivers, and Beckham Jr. might be the most versatile receiver in the class. Heck, he even won an award for being the most versatile athlete in college football last year, and his reception of the Paul Hornung Award is proof of his ability to do a variety of things for a club. Not only does he showcase his agility and explosiveness as a return specialist, but he also shows great versatility as a wide receiver. It goes beyond just his route tree, as the Tigers used him frequently in the slot and on the outside. This ability to mix-and-match is critical in the league today, as wide receivers like Tate, Smith, and even Emmanuel Sanders receive significant boosts in perceived value due to their ability to play in the slot and on the outside. Beckham Jr.’s tape is littered with examples of solid chain-moving gains in the slot or big plays outside the numbers.
Beckham Jr. is also a very smooth route-runner, and I’d like to pull an example of his ability to get open on comeback routes. He cuts back to the quarterback so smoothly that there isn’t a hitch in his movement, and he sinks his hips a bit like Reggie Wayne when he cuts back in. He’s also great at getting between defenders in zone coverage on drag routes, but his ability to win on comeback routes stands out to me when I watch his tape.
The play below is an excellent throw from Zach Mettenberger to hit OBJ on a post route over the middle of the field, but this play is also a testament to Beckham Jr.’s route-running if you watch closely. He beats the defensive back by quickly cutting around him, thus creating inside leverage and turning a play in which he was well-covered into a big win for the wide receiver and a big gain for the LSU offense. Understanding leverage is critical for quarterbacks and obvious for wide receivers, so the tricky part for wide receivers is getting into a position where you are able to get leverage. I forget which legendary wide receiver said this, so I’ll try and paraphrase this next thought. Everyone will be covered for the duration of the play, so the most important part of route-running is the final cut. Any good cornerback will recover after one cut, so the important thing is being able to make a move towards the end of the play to get critical separation; that’s exactly what Beckham Jr. did here against the Georgia Bulldogs.
If you would like to get a good feel for just how agile Beckham Jr. is, then it’s best to watch him on returns. There are endless clips to choose from, and there are endless examples of announcers referring to him as “dangerous”. Below is one such example of him on a punt return. I’m sure there are better examples, especially on kick-off returns, but I like the awareness he showed on this return to get something out of nothing. I like using the word “wiggle” to describe OBJ’s agility, because it always seems like he’s wiggling to find a little hole here or there to make the most out of his frame and any space in his vicinity.
An additional thing I love about Beckham Jr.’s game is his start-and-stop ability, and it goes back to his cutting and hips. After he catches the ball, especially on a screen pass or another short route, he does a great job of spinning of defenders by feinting in one direction before exploding upfield. It’s quite extraordinary to watch him catch the ball and quickly take his momentum in the other direction. If we were to look at a velocity graph on a comeback route, we would see his velocity in the negatives (direction towards the QB) before the catch, at zero during the catch, and then it would spike without much hesitation as he accelerates for a sizeable chunk of yardage.
There are some weaknesses to Beckham Jr.’s game, and sometimes it’s difficult to tell whether a negative play was his fault or Mettenberger’s, as Mettenberger didn’t always show the best downfield placement on jump balls and was beyond awful at locating safeties. In my film study of Beckham Jr., I counted five plays in which Mettenberger threw an interception to a safety due to his inability to see the safety. Beckham Jr. commanded an awful lot of attention from defensive backs in college due to his elite skill-set, and Mettenbeger sometimes trusted him too much by being negligent of the safety reading his eyes.
I will say that Beckham Jr. doesn’t have perfect hands and doesn’t have the size to beat double coverage downfield, so he might not be able to play as much downfield in the NFL. Still, the first two examples clearly show that he can still excel in that regard, and he did have a number of catches in double-coverage downfield. He’ll have a more savvy quarterback in the NFL, but I think somebody worried about Beckham Jr.’s ability to be a No. 1 receiver has rightful worries. But in this day and age, you don’t need to be a No. 1 receiver to earn a high pick, as many teams are looking for a standout No. 2 receiver to create a formidable pair to advance their quarterback situation. In the case of a team like the Lions, they are looking to add a third wide receiver to build an elite passing attack.
He’s well-worth the top ten pick due to his all-around skill-set, and a team like the Detroit Lions won’t have to reach for Watkins due to Beckham Jr., who brings plenty of playmaking ability and more consistency to his game than the likes of Cooks, Robinson, or Lee (all three of those receivers are very good, but OBJ is on a different level). While Beckham Jr. could be a WR1 in the NFL if all goes well, I think it’s better to bet on him as an excellent WR2, and he’s still very much worth a top 15 pick. If he fell down to the New York Jets hands with the 18th pick, then they shouldn’t pass up on the chance to add him to Eric Decker and give Geno Smith a top-notch WR duo.