4. A.J. Brown (Mississippi) | 6’0/226
SPARQ percentile: 76.6
For all the fascinating evals we have in this receiving class, A.J. Brown is a straightforward read. He tested very similarly to Quincy Enunwa (and, interestingly, Delanie Walker). He likewise profiles as a high-percentage power slot in the NFL first and foremost. If I had to bet, I’d say that Brown’s career will be closer to Jarvis Landry’s than Enunwa’s
Not only is he an ultra-compact bull, but Brown has far more short-area quickness than you’d figure for a guy that looks like he does. He manufactures space, makes the catch, and becomes a Leonard Fournette-sized runner from there.
Tyler Boyd was a college slot I loved coming out of Pitt. Boyd finally broke through in Year 3. Brown is likely to emerge sooner than that. He's been ready for this role in the NFL for over a year. Throughout his time in college, Ole Miss fed Brown heavy targets over fellow NFL hopefuls DK Metcalf, DaMarkus Lodge and Dawson Knox. Brown left school as Ole Miss’ all-time leading receiver.
Brown has been nitpicked to death, despite his productivity, sturdy frame and plus athleticism. There has been talk of having him split time outside. Brown absolutely has the athleticism and downfield ball skills to play out there. But I’d let him be a slot beast first. We know he can start there Year 1.
The slot position has increased in value in recent years. The NFL has found it can leverage big athletes in the slot — previously only a college thing — to manufacture freebie yards. Brown isn’t going to be a game-breaker, but he’s pretty close to automatic up-close, and he’s a far better athlete than people gave him credit for last summer. I see more of the Smith-Schuster and Keenan Allen comps than I do the Enunwa one (despite profile similarities). Brown can simply do more things.
5. D.K. Metcalf (Mississippi) | 6’3/228
SPARQ percentile: 98.3
Comp: Door No. 1: Terrell Owens, Door No. 2: Josh Gordon, Door No. 3: Dez Bryant without the ball skills, Door No. 4: Cordarrelle Patterson without the special teams ability, Door No. 5: David Boston, Door No. 6: Kevin White (Lance Zierlein, Ryan Wilson, Josh Norris, Reddit)
Do you feel lucky? I know this ranking will raise eyebrows. So I really want to explain to you why I see DK the way I see DK. And to do that, I need to take you back to John Strauss’ 13th birthday party at Cragun’s Resort in Brainerd, Minnesota.
The date was Saturday April 18, 1998. And the only reason I remember that is because I’ve always been a draftnik. I don’t know when that started. But it was early — third grade, maybe fourth. That morning, I was at Alex Hondl’s, where I’d slept over the previous night. Waiting to be dropped off at John’s for our shuttle to Cragun’s, we watched the first eight picks of the 1998 NFL Draft. The Cowboys owned 1.8. I turned to Alex. “They’re going to take Randy Moss.” He sort of nodded.
Alex’s mom was saying we had to leave in a minute. “Five minutes?” Alex said. She nodded. Dallas had 11 minutes left on the clock. “Maybe closer to 10,” I said, eyes glued to the screen. I’m realizing now that it was a presumptuous thing to say, probably even rude. But my mind was on fire, man — I wasn’t in that room, I was in a different place, running scenarios.
I’d read enough to know that Dallas was the most-likely Moss destination. But if the Cowboys passed, there weren’t a lot of teams in the 10-20 window that made sense — Moss was almost assuredly going to tumble a minimum of 5-6 more slots. Maybe the Titans at 1.16, I mused, they needed a receiver. I hadn't read much about them liking Moss, though. There wasn't much of that out there. Most people were vociferously and publicly anti-Moss.
“He’s on our (draft) board in the ratings now,” Rams HC Dick Vermeil said at the NFL owners meetings less than a month before the 1998 draft. “He won’t be on our board on draft day.” Why? “It’s just because of the problems he’s already had,” Vermeil said. “I don’t need any more problems. No reflection on Lawrence Phillips . . . I just don’t believe in taking Georgia Frontiere’s and Stan Kroenke’s money and making that kind of investment.”
Alex’s mom was approaching the television with the car keys in her hand. There was nothing I could do to stop her from turning it off. In moments like that, I hated being a child. My preference was to blow off the party and go somewhere where I could watch this situation play out in. But I couldn't drive. And I had no justification. I was to go with the flow and be a good kid. I really hated being a kid.
But just then, Chris Berman confirmed the pick was in and the camera flashed to Paul Tagliabue ambling toward the mic. “Just one sec,” I said. And to Mrs. Hondl’s eternal credit, she waited. "With the eighth pick in the 1998 NFL Draft,” Tagliabue intoned, “the Dallas Cowboys select… Greg Ellis from the University of North Carolina.” I pumped my fist. Boos rained down, presumably from Dallas fans in attendance, as Mrs. Hondl turned the TV off.
Next came the drive to John’s. When we got there, everyone was in the living room playing Mario Cart. It was a festive atmosphere. Balloons, presents, that kinda thing. I found John and gave him a high five and said happy birthday. And then I asked if there was another TV in the house. We left with the Panthers on the clock at 1.13. Moss was still on the board.
On the drive to Cragun’s, I kept talking about how it was now entirely possible that Randy Moss could fall to the Vikings, my beloved Vikings, at 1.21. There wasn’t a big appetite for that conversation in the car. I called my dad when we got there, from a payphone. The Titans were on the clock. I made small talk until they picked. They took Kevin Dyson!
I knew the Bengals weren't taking Moss at 17, I knew the Patriots weren't taking him at 18 (two weeks before the draft, on April 14, New England director of player personnel Bobby Grier explicitly told the Boston Herald that Moss was off the Patriots’ board, “I’ve learned my lesson,” he said, referring back to the botched Christian Peters pick. “We don’t move them down on the board, we move them off the board now.”), and I was pretty sure the Packers and Lions weren't either.
But I knew, deep down in my bones, that Vikings HC Dennis Green would. To this day I love him for it (RIP). The Bengals took North Carolina LB Anthony Simmons, the Patriots took Georgia RB Robert Edwards, the Pack took UNC DT Vonnie Holliday — yes, you’re reading this correctly… three Tar Heel defenders were picked ahead of Randy Moss in the 1998 Draft! — and the Vikings, sitting at 1.21, were handed one of the greatest gifts in NFL Draft history.
You didn’t even have to be a high schooler to know that Randy Moss was going to be awesome in the NFL. You just had to have watched the Marshall Thundering Herd play that fall. And not overthink the other stuff. I’m still a true-blue draftnik. I would be even if I wasn’t paid to write. But it’s a little different, being on the other side. You get a peek behind the curtain. And you see strange things. Shocking things. Some of which I can’t write about.*
*(Until I retire lmaooo).
But one that I can: The idea of the “riser” and the idea of the “faller.” Randy Moss was a textbook case of a Draft Day faller. But I think there’s a misconception out there about the idea of “risers” and “fallers” during the pre-Draft process.
When I teased earlier this week on Twitter that Hakeem Butler would be my WR1, I got a few questions about why I was hopping on board with the wide receiver flavor of the week. Why was I crapping on WR1 DK Metcalf? Was it because I’m more concerned with being contrarian than being right? Why had I talked myself out of WR1 DKM? Who the hell did I think I was?!?!
I’m a college football guy, like I said. I watch an obscene amount of it, read an obscene amount about it, write an obscene amount of it. That’s what I am from June through mid-January. After the National Title game, I put on my NFL Draft hat for four months.
One thing I don’t do, before I write my goodbye letters in these dossiers to the guys I've followed for the last 3-5 years, is pour over other writer’s rankings or read their reports. I don’t read mock drafts until April, when I become invested in publishing an accurate one of my own. And the reason for that is you clicked this link with a subconscious hope that the author would think for himself.
This is a long way of saying that Hakeem Butler is not a riser, not in the traditional sense -- many (not all, but many) of the year-round NFL Draft guys whiffed on him during the fall. Any change in perception since then is a justified course correction. Butler had Round 1 tape. He just needed to answer a few questions about his athletic profile to for me to pull the trigger on that grade. If DK Metcalf ultimately isn't the first receiver taken, he will not be a faller (regardless of public perception). DK Metcalf does not have first-round tape. He had isolated Round 1 plays, and he has Round 1 athletic testing.
Hakeem Butler is a 6’5/227 92nd-percentile athlete who posted a 60-1318-9 line last year raw as can be on a team with an abomination of an offensive line and poor quarterback play. DK Metcalf is a 6’3/228 98th-percentile athlete who posted a 67-1228-14 line over three years in an Air Raid system on a trio of pass-happy top-42 offenses that were led by three different quarterbacks who could get drafted in the NFL, Chad Kelly (who already was), 2019 hopeful Jordan Ta’amu and current Michigan QB Shea Patterson, the No. 1 QB in his recruiting class.
DK played exclusively on the left side of his spread Air Raid. Butler lined up everywhere in Iowa State’s conservative scheme. Butler also doesn’t have durability concerns. Metcalf has big durability concerns.
A four-star recruit in 2016, Metcalf’s freshman season was wrecked by a broken foot. The next year, after flashing in seven starts, a neck injury shelved Metcalf for the remainder of the campaign. The flashes were so scintillating, and reports of the freak athlete’s testing were so mythical, that a considerable amount of hype built up around him heading into 2018. He looked like a future star until a neck injury ended his season in late October.
This is not insignificant stuff. You guys old enough to remember Ahmmon Richards? He was the speed-demon Miami receiver who in an alternate reality is joining Metcalf in the first round in April. But Richards will not be drafted. He will never play football again. He was forced to medically retire last fall because of a neck injury.
Or how about Clemson WR Mike Williams, who suffered a serious neck injury in college and was picked 1.7 by the Chargers two years later? Williams showed flashes last year, but he’s been limited to six starts and 759 receiving yards over his first two seasons. Availability is the best ability. Williams is under team control for a mere three more years. You don't get to keep these guys forever.
And I know I’m supposed to be impressed by that picture of DK looking like Hulk in the weight room. But I’m not. I look at his body and I see something that wasn’t intended for this world -- he literally doesn’t look real. And I don’t mean that in the frothing, superlative way. I see DK's body -- built for the gym more than the football field -- and see chronic injuries waiting to happen. You don’t need to lift boulders over your head on Sundays. You just need to be active.
DK’s family is full of athletes. His dad is Terrance Metcalf, the former NFL guard. His grandfather is former RB Terry Metcalf, and his uncle is former return ace Eric Metcalf. It probably isn’t a surprise that DK started power lifting by five.
Metcalf reportedly has 1.6% body fat.* Anyone else concerned he’s coming off a season-ending injury to a foundational piece of his anatomical structure? Freak neck injury? Maybe. It also may be a harbinger to come of what happens when a mansion is built right off the shoreline, on foundation that isn’t built to support the weight.
(*Doctors and researchers say anything below 3.0% is extremely unhealthy — 10-22% is considered ideal for healthy males, athletes are generally in the low-teens, and extreme weight cutters like body builders cut as low as 4.0%. The machine the NFL uses to test body fat is considered reliable, but one college trainer quoted by SB Nation said he estimates a 2.5-percent margin of error. So let's say the thing gave a bad reading on DK. That’d leave him at 4.0% — that number isn’t impressive for an NFL receiver, it’s impressive for a cut-weight-at-all-costs professional body-builder who isn’t concerned about athletic performance or longevity).
Like Hakeem, DK is very raw. He played meaningful snaps in less than 20 collegiate games. He knows only starting out wide left in an spread Air Raid alignment. He’s a straight-line burner who can’t change direction without losing speed. Lack of agility was confirmed at the combine. So was the world-class speed.
Metcalf is a terrifying deep ball proposition. Think Josh Gordon. Just send him deep and watch him run. Metcalf didn’t develop much route nuance at Ole Miss — he didn’t run many variations, and he rushed through those he did as quickly as possible — but he did show a knack of gaining separation against college corners off the snap via athleticism and quicks. He isn’t crafty, but he’s gotten by.
It'll be interesting to see if Metcalf can evolve into a receiver who can consistently win in the intermediate sector without top-shelf agility. If he can’t, he won’t be able to keep defensive backs honest. They’ll be ready to swivel and run with him each go. DK had all kinds of trouble with Greedy Williams and the rest of the LSU secondary, which went right after him.
And while Metcalf gave us several SportsCenter top-10 catches in school, he also dropped too many balls at Ole Miss. As with Butler (who has a bigger issue with it, to be clear), I think this is a fixable issue that’s in part due to inexperience/concentration.
The Randy Moss draft story from 1998 represents how the hubris of groupthink — in that case, the perception that Randy was irredeemable — can lead to enormous misfires. Groupthink isn’t just some derogatory term for #DraftTwitter — it infects even the sharpest thought leaders within the NFL.
In 1998, the Dolphins took an ECU WR named Larry Shannon two rounds after the Vikings took Randy Moss. Miami HC Jimmy Johnson told the Palm-Beach Sentinel that he would have picked Shannon over Randy Moss if it had come down to that. If you think #DraftTwitter can be smug with opinions, get a load of Johnson’s post-Draft quotes:
“Larry Shannon … is probably a step faster than Randy Moss,” Johnson said. “So he’s bigger, he’s taller, he’s faster. Sometimes everybody gets all carried away, for instance, with Moss … Some of these people get so carried away. I’d like to pull them aside and say, how many films did you grade in coming to your evaluation? I say, `Well, did you ever even see him play? . . . Oh, you’ve seen three or four highlights . . . You actually watched SportsCenter and that’s how you made your evaluation of this player.’ And so we have a lot of scouts, a lot of coaches do a tremendous amount of research. We’re paid to do it. We’ve been doing it our entire lives and I don’t know that somebody in the media can watch SportsCenter and make the evaluation for us as far as who we should have picked.”
Well okay then!!! In April 1998, I was a socially awkward 13-year-old ADD kid in northern Minnesota. But I had more insight into Randy Moss with far less exposure than Johnson, one of the brightest minds to ever coach in the NFL. Was it because I was brilliant? Hell no — it’s because I was outside the groupthink bubble. Even then — I was a stubborn kid — I wasn’t interested in outsourcing my thinking to Jimmy Johnson or Dick Vermeil.
In the case of DK Metcalf, I think we’ve got a reverse case of the Moss situation. DK Metcalf became the consensus WR1 not because he’d made an airtight case on the field, but because thought-leaders within the NFL and NFL Draft media extrapolated out brief flashes on the field and an A+ size/speed combo into a projection that relied on unimpeded forward development, that required him to become a different receiver than he'd been at Mississippi -- a fully formed one.
That required him to stay healthy going forward. Even the lack of a developmental leap before the season-ending neck injury last season -- his second season-ending injury in three years at Ole Miss -- couldn't dissuade the group off that take. Because the take was a projection of reality, not reality itself -- a dream, not an anecdote. When you modify reality to conform to a pre-made projection, you've re-engineered it. And now you've got blinders on, ala the NFL with Moss in 1998. Turns out Randy wasn't such a bad dude. Turns out we ended up loving his personality so much that we still invite him into our living rooms every week during the NFL season as a broadcaster.
To me, DK Metcalf is an uber-raw prospect in both technique and know-how with big medical red flags who was never the WR1 on his college team and couldn’t manage 70 career receptions in a pass-happy Air Raid offense with solid quarterback play. His physical gifts are elite-elite, absolutely, and those alone justify rolling the dice with a top-40 slot. But this isn’t the kind of guy you take in the top-15, not when your career depends on it. That's brazen. To me, DK has a lower floor AND a lower ceiling than Hakeem Butler. DK’s floor is either an early medical retirement or the Kevin White trajectory. Hakeem as a bust is still a highly-usable piece as a deep-ball-only guy.
6. Deebo Samuel (South Carolina) | 5’11/214
SPARQ percentile: 92.6
Comp: Christian Kirk
A first-team All-SEC performer this past season with a do-everything 1,478 yards total yards, Deebo is Matt Damon from GOOD WILL HUNTING. He mixes a bulldog exterior -- he attacks every play with a contained ferocity -- with a tactician’s brain. Only for Samuel, it’s not mathematics wizardry and beating up smarmy Harvard kids. It’s routes. He is adept at using subtle movements to completely fake out defenders after the snap, and he’s especially good at it in the red zone.
Some players, the David Sills of the world, use their size to manipulate space in the end zone. At 5-foot-11, Deebo can’t box out like that (though he’s not light, weighing 215 pounds). What he can do, though, is break in on a slant like nobody’s business. What he can do is make the defense think he’s going somewhere else altogether.
Samuel’s maturity as a route-runner was on full display during the Senior Bowl practice week, when defensive backs simply could not stick with him. Chris Tripodi of Draft Analyst noted at the time that there was an “obvious” gap between Deebo and the other receivers in Mobile.
For as enticing as Deebo might be for his smarts, his return versatility and his step-to-it quickness -- he tested in the 92nd percentile of NFL wide receivers at the combine -- he does carry physical baggage which gives a slight pause. In his redshirt freshman year at South Carolina, a balky hamstring helped to limit Samuel to just five games played.
And then, in the third game of the 2017 campaign, Samuel broke his leg against Kentucky. SC actually reinserted him into the game for one play after the break before it became clear that something was amiss. He would go on to miss the remainder of the season.
It’s encouraging that Deebo was able to come through with something of a proof of concept season coming off the serious leg injury -- he appeared in every game in 2018. Just a matter of whether he can stay on the field. I’m bullish.