In the capsules below, you'll note two tables. The first is a statistical snapshot courtesy of my colleague Hayden Winks. The second is the spider web of each prospect's test results from the NFL Combine, courtesy of MockDraftable. SPARQ composite scores are provided by Zach Whitman. All players’ ages are calculated as of September 2019.
1. Hakeem Butler (Iowa State) | 6’5/227
SPARQ percentile: 92.0
Hakeem Butler is a 6’5"/227 92nd-percentile athlete with a seven-foot wingspan (!) who posted a 60-1,318-9 line last year on a team with an abomination of an offensive line and mediocre-at-best quarterback play. He was raw as could be, and he lit it up anyway. In some ways, he’s raw in similar ways to DK Metcalf (plenty more on DK below). In other ways, Butler is more advanced.
Butler lined up all over the place in Iowa State’s conservative scheme. In part to mitigate poor quarterback play in Ames, and in part to scheme quick throws to account for the four seconds the QB had before the OL caved, Iowa State loved to use Allen Lazard and Butler in the slot over the past three years.
Like Lazard, Butler also got plenty of snaps outside. And while Ole Miss’ offense forced defenses wide and incentivized defensive backs to give a little space, Butler saw every coverage look from every spot. It’s not like defensive backs were concerned with getting beat deep by an Iowa State receiver not named Hakeem Butler last year (seriously: check out the Cyclones’ stats). Freed at last from Lazard’s target-vacuuming of limited balls thrown, Butler got all kinds of attention from defenses but thrived anyway.
Hakeem the Dream plays above the rim. He’s a potentially transcendent downfield threat who averaged 22.0 YPC last year. PFF charted Butler No. 1 in both deep ball receptions and deep ball yards. Also No. 7 in average yards per route. Butler does not win in the same way as Calvin Johnson, with whom he has trained during the pre-draft process. Megatron had both bulk and speed on him at the same height. Butler’s got his own thing going on.
Butler runs a 4.49 with an 88th percentile broad jump to confirm lower half explosion. His vertical jump was only a 56th percentile (36”), but -- and I don’t mean to argue here -- that only measures how far your feet get off the ground. Not how long you stay in the air. I don’t have empirical evidence to support this claim but Hakeem Butler has that NBA gene where he stays suspended a beat longer than other humans do. You’re just going to have to believe me on this.
And one way that manifests is that he can, for instance, do what he did to Kansas this fall. Midway through the first quarter, with Butler lined up in the slot, KU foolishly called for a zone coverage that flooded the intermediate sector with bodies and left two safeties deep to fend for themselves. Butler toasted the centerfielder, running by him like a neighbor at the mailbox during a morning jog.
As he was gliding downfield, Butler looked up and saw that his noodle-armed freshman quarterback had under-thrown the ball by 20 yards. He slammed on the breaks, realized the ball was projected to land in the cornerback’s chest, and leapt into the air from behind him. I was watching live in my Minneapolis apartment, a sad-sack KU alum hoping for an upset. The ball was a surefire interception out of the quarterback’s hands — an incompletion at best. Butler hovered up almost 10 feet off the ground for a second as the duck wobbled in.
Butler snatched it from over the defender’s shoulder! And despite the fact that his momentum was now going the wrong way — he had been forced to furiously work back to a ball that landed 18 yards short of the goal line — and despite the fact that a defender had position on him and was now basically stuck underneath him, Butler somehow managed to land firmly planted, on his own soil, ready to burst the other way.
But the poor defensive back, who was now oh so very confused, is now hanging onto Butler’s arm. In slow-motion, it actually appears as though the defender was falling down but remained upright by hanging onto Butler as Butler was landing. So now he’s hanging onto Butler’s arm like a petulant child. Hakeem literally throws the guy off, and, in one fluid motion, accelerates towards the end zone. He outraces the defender from there. It was one of the most breathtaking displays I saw all season.
Butler’s wheels are only good, not great, but my gosh, let’s stop nitpicking the kid. The athleticism/dimensions combination that earned Butler inclusion on Bruce Feldman’s freak list prior to last season is breathtaking, perhaps unparalleled. Butler measured in the 95th percentile of all receivers to enter the NFL in height (6’5/98th), weight (227/95th), wingspan (83.75”/98th), arm length (35.15”/99th) and hand size (10.75”/98th).
I should add that Butler is also a plus-plus blocker, with the length to cover the like wallpaper, the athleticism to stick to you like glue, and the strength and technique to do what he pleases from there. He's got all the gifts in the world, but unlike, say, Equanimeous St. Brown, Butler is no diva.
A two-star recruit who has been discounted all of his life, Butler prepares and plays as though the world is ending tomorrow. He's not fueled by bravado, like some other hard workers on this list (I love N'Keal, but he fits in this category). Hakeem Butler is fueled by humility and perspective.
I understand why many are lower on him than Rotoworld happens to be. (I was pleased to learn that Josh Norris and Evan Silva also rank Butler WR1 — most of the rest of the industry ranks DK Metcalf WR1). Butler needs a few steps to get into gear off the snap, and he offers a ton of surface area to get your hands on, so corners can get touchy-feely with the guy in press. And I get the concern with that.
But if you think Butler is some kind of slo-mo who can’t separate, you’ve got him wrong. Butler is huge, sleek and strong — once he gets moving, he can punch back to create a sliver of separation and get more from there with athleticism, and, frankly, surface area. Covering Hakeem Butler is a very different thing from covering, say, AJ Brown. Butler’s length gives defenders such small margin for error. If you aren’t perfectly positioned against Butler when the ball is in the air — and I mean perfectly positioned — then you’re out of position. Period.
It doesn't look like Butler is moving very quickly at times, but we have empirical evidence that that’s something of an optical illusion owed to his upright, long-stride running style and mountainous dimensions. Butler is a monster after the catch despite his supposed limitations with agility and short-area movement.
The other knock on Butler is more alarming, admittedly. He’s an absolute monster in every area of receiving outside of a biggie — catching the ball. His drop rate of 16.7% last season ranked No. 157. That’s bad, really bad, and there’s no two ways around that.
But I’m here to tell you that Butler’s hands are fine. As appendages I mean. Huge and soft, like catcher’s mitts. Butler makes ridiculous catches look easy, and he can pluck it clean away from his body on the move. The drops aren’t a hands-of-stone thing. They’re a bad habits thing, an inexperience thing. Butler is still so very raw.
He grew up in poverty in a one-bedroom space in Baltimore with his mother and two siblings. Butler’s mother passed away when he was 13. As a sophomore in high school, Butler moved from Baltimore to Texas to live with his cousins Aaron and Andrew Harrison, who would go on to play basketball at Kentucky and then in the NBA. Some mouth-breather in the Texas football administration offices decided to suspend Butler for half his junior season under suspicion that he’d transferred for athletic reasons.
The next year, as a senior, Butler was limited to seven games, and when he was on the field, he was sharing targets with Steve Sims Jr., who would go on to become Kansas’ WR1 for multiple years. Iowa State took a chance on a ball of clay freak of an athlete and used two years of pure development to teach him how to play the position.
In terms of chin-up, shoulders-back running style and a throwaway high school career that didn’t advance his cause much, Hakeem reminds me of Lamar Jackson from the last class. Butler emerged for the first time in 2017, flashing as a secondary option to Lazard. With Lazard off to the NFL in 2018, Butler took another developmental leap forward and torched the Big 12.
Butler is a natural receiver when he’s locked in. He catches the ball clean, his entire catch radius plays, and he shows heart and toughness in sticky situations. But when the play is moving faster than he can process it, he gets sloppy. Don’t count body catching and dropped balls against him in separate categories, that’s counting double — Butler’s drops come when he allows a ball eat him up. It’s one and the same thing. One causes the other.
Not all the time. But roughly 16.7% of the time last year. And hopefully less and less as time goes on as the game slows down for him and he learns the tricks of the receiving trade. Butler doesn’t need to think about his move upfield as he’s trying to come down with the ball. That's something the experienced guys kick early in their college careers. With experience, I think Butler gets there in the NFL.
At the next level, he won’t have to furiously work back to poorly-thrown balls or reach way outside the strike zone for an air-mailed toss very often, something that happened regularly at Iowa State. He will also no longer feel like he has to do everything. Iowa State asked a ton of Butler last season. He did everything he could, even though he wasn’t experientially ready for all of it. That was all physical ability and desire, son.
If Butler doesn’t fix the drop problem, then he’ll still be a freak athlete who’s a menace downfield in the NFL. Remember: Even with his bloated drop rate last year, and even with meh QB play, awful OL play and no other playmaker on the ISU roster outside of RB David Montgomery, Butler was still the nation's best deep-ball man by conventional numbers.
And among the top-20 WRs in the class, only N’Keal Harry posted a higher QB rating on deep ball throws than Butler. Again: Circumstantially, Iowa State did not have the personnel to excel down the field except for being fortunate enough to have Butler on the roster. Hakeem made lemonade, just like his teammate David Montgomery did running behind that leaky line.
This receiving class is very deep, but at the top there are a lot of talented guys with at least one big question mark on their evaluation — no sure things. I happen to think Butler’s major issue is both explainable and fixable. And if it get fixed, watch out.
2. N’Keal Harry (Arizona State) | 6’2/228
SPARQ percentile: 88.0
Harry is another one of those multi-sport prep guys used to excelling in competition. His youth featured dalliances with soccer, swimming, baseball and karate — man would he have been a dangerous light heavyweight in the UFC if he’d stuck with it!
Harry traveled a highly unconventional path to get here. Born in Toronto, Harry briefly moved to the island of Saint Vincent in the Caribbean before finally touching down in the USA full-time.
He blossomed into a prep star at Chandler High in Arizona, making early waves with his remarkable body control and an almost preternatural ability to track passes, make on-the-fly adjustments to create slivers of space, pin defensive backs behind him, and come down with the ball no matter what. And I do mean no matter what.
The national recruiting services fell head over heels, with Rivals ranking him as the No. 18 overall prospect in the 2016 class. After seriously considering Washington and Texas A&M, Harry put pen to paper with Arizona State on National Signing Day, in the process giving now-former ASU HC Todd Graham just his second ever five-star signee.
Harry almost immediately set about stamping his name in the Arizona State record books, finishing his time in the desert as the school’s third all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards. He was named first-team All-Pac-12 in each of his last two years with the program. This past one, with Graham’s regime purged, Harry learned how to PLAY TO WIN THE GAME under Herm Edwards, the PJ Fleck of our parent’s generation.
Along the way, he saved Manny Wilkins’ bacon enough times to open a smokehouse. Harry made a habit of reaching back (or to the side, or way up) for physics-shattering OBJ-style grabs that demand a kind of body calm and control that few people on earth possess. This is another trait that isn’t exactly quantifiable, but watch Harry’s tape: His skill with the ball descending is elite, the best in the last two classes. If Hakeem Butler had Harry’s ball skills, he'd be the best receiver in NFL history.
#DraftTwitter has found plenty of little strings to pull at. Harry has average speed (4.53) and doesn’t create a halo of separation on routes. He allows his cockiness to get in the way of route precision. He can get too cute trying to juke out the universe. He drops too many passes, with PFF grading him as the 94th receiver in the country in drop-rate in 2018 (7.6%).
Harry also could stand to turn down his swagger meter just a tick (Manny Wilkins did not need your eye rolls, N’Keal — he knew he left yards on the field for you each game). But don’t nitpick comportment if you’re not going to mention the infectious raw energy he plays with.
As with Hakeem Butler, the separation thing is being overblown. Tight window throws are talked about all the time with quarterback prospects for a reason. Being wide-open in the NFL isn't a thing -- you just have to manufacture micro opportunities. Harry creates enough space to give his quarterbacks those windows. And if the ball is anywhere in his vicinity, Harry is probably coming down with it.
And not for nothing: N'Keal has no issues breaking press coverage. Harry plays like a drip painter when he begins to stack combos, more artistic inspiration than a paint-by-numbers show of athleticism. But he’s not some plodder. Any insinuation to the contrary is erroneous. Watch Harry in the open field on punt returns (boy is he dangerous) and after the catch. He’s not Reggie Bush twitchy or fast, but he reminded me of Bush at USC on end-arounds by making defenders miss as he swept across the formation looking for daylight.
I also love that Harry approaches blocking with intensity and physicality. I love receivers who get after it as blockers. Nothing annoys me more when watching a football game than when a running back breaks free into the second or third level but gets corralled by a corner because the receiver couldn't be bothered to go to the effort of trying to stay in front of him. Those are yards that ought to be taken off the receiver’s stat ledger. Harry is the kind of guy, like Hakeem Butler, that adds hidden yards by chipping in whole-hog on running plays.
I would have taken N’Keal over D.K. Metcalf each and every day over the past three years. On any college team running any scheme. I’d also wager that Harry continues to be the better football player over the next five years. Metcalf is promise and a dream, a beautiful dream perhaps, but perhaps ultimately a fever dream. We know N'Keal, man. We had dinner with N’Keal so many late nights at a little boutique restaurant I like to call Pac-12 After Dark.
N’Keal caught 58 balls as a true freshman before he knew his way around campus without a map. I saw him rip up so many poor Pac-12 corners. He's going to win in the NFL the same way he won in college — by coming down with balls he has no business catching in heavy traffic. That’s his gift. And he might do even more winning in the NFL now that he’ll get to work with a legitimate throwing quarterback for the first time.
3. Marquise Brown (Oklahoma) | 5’9/166
SPARQ percentile: N/A
Comp: DeSean Jackson
*Did not test at NFL Scouting Combine
More than 20 years before the his patented nickname “Hollywood!” was screamed across nation airwaves for the first time by a famous sportscaster, Marquise Brown was born prematurely, and under scary circumstances. His mom had been suffering from extreme elevated blood pressure. Doctors said she’d succumb to kidney failure if she didn’t give birth and immediately begin an IV protocol. Her baby, Marquise, weighed five-and-a-half pounds. As if by miracle, Marquise was perfectly healthy.
The pint-sized youngster always seemed to be moving in fast-forward. On the field, he elevated the blood pressure of opposing defenders. But he never did grow much. Coming out of high school, Marquise Brown was 5’8/138. In 2016, Kate Moss was listed at 5’7/121.
So as you can imagine, the FBS ignored Brown. So Marquise (not yet Hollywood Brown, his alter ego — just Marquise) spent his first two collegiate years in the JUCO ranks at College of the Canyons. He worked at Six Flags. He described that time like this: “Lot of Ramen noodles and cheap frozen foods.”
Fortunately, Brown ate enough of it to crack the 150-pound barrier. FBS schools started to take notice — the kid was a whirling dervish cheat-code. Wanna take a guess as to the first three words of his ESPN recruiting profile? “Explosive and sudden.” Yeah, that about says it.
The 247Sports composite board ranked Brown as the No. 12 overall JUCO prospect in the 2017 class. After being courted by a host of suitors including USC and West Virginia, Brown signed with Bob Stoops and Sooners. Months later, Stoops stunned the college football world and stepped down. Oklahoma quickly promoted 30-something offensive wunderkind Lincoln Riley, college football’s answer to Sean McVay.
Over the last two years as head coach, Riley accelerated and then cemented the identity of the Sooners as an offensive banshee built on meticulous game plans, precision execution, and stud athletes all over the place. Speed kills, and Riley wants you to overdose on it. Boy did have have fun with the electric Brown, a clone of DeSean Jackson.
In 2017, with Baker Mayfield behind Center, Brown went off for a 57-1095-7 line. During one broadcast, Gus Johnson had a freaking conniption and hollered “HOLLYWOOD!!!” The name stuck. Brown’s game was glitz and glamor, made for TV. But here’s the funny thing: I’m pretty sure Gus Johnson wasn’t referring to Hollywood, California. He was almost assuredly inspired by Hollywood, Florida, Marquise’s hometown. You better believe Gus perked up when he saw that on the bio. When Brown was doing his Maserati act on the field, Gus could no longer contain himself.
Last fall, playing with future Arizona Cardinal 1.1 QB Kyler Murray, Brown dropped a 75-1318-10 line. He unfortunately injured his foot in the Big 12 Championship and missed both the Playoff and the NFL Combine. A Lisfranc foot injury, to be specific, a bit unnerving when talking about a speed merchant.
Brown has reportedly been cleared to run as of the last week of March and it’s possible that he will be ready for post-draft rookie minicamps. While that’s fantastic in the short-term, Hollywood’s lithe frame invites long-term durability questions — he’s actually nine pounds lighter than DeSean Jackson.
As a result of the injury and subsequent surgery, Brown has been a man in the shadows during the evaluating process. While D.K. Metcalf was drawing Batman comps at the combine, Brown was wearing a boot. Had he been free and clear, Hollywood probably would have beaten D.K. in the sprint. Just ask him! Hollywood says he was gunning to beat 4.22 seconds and set a new combine record.
Brown has a kind of rare, sparkling explosion that leaves defenders flat-footed if they are even a fraction late, which you can see in the catch-and-run beauty below against Baylor. Hollywood catches a simple out at the 50-yard line, with a defender racing over desperately with a sinking feeling in his gut. Hollywood is already five yards downfield before the awkward arm tackle attempt. Brown isn't in the end zone yet, but the play is already over. Dial up six.
Cool Papa Bell was said to be so fast that he could turn off the lights and get back in bed before the room went dark. That’s Hollywood. And unlike Paris Campbell, a burner who can’t catch the ball downfield, PFF graded Hollywood No. 4 in yards run per-route, No. 5 in deep pass yards, and No. 1 with 22 receptions of 40-plus yards. Like DeSean Jackson, large corners can knock Brown off course if they can jump and jam him. But that’s a risky game to play: If you whiff, you’re toast. Nobody can stay in Hollywood’s back pocket one-on-one. That’s not a thing.