Historically it takes wide receivers several years until you can determine if they are going to develop into a quality NFL player. Whether it is the speed of the pro game, the strength it takes to succeed, or the ability to grasp complex playbooks, it is not an easy transition from the college to the professional level. There have only been two receivers in the past 5 years to eclipse the 1,000 yard plateau as rookies. That would be A.J. Green in 2011 and Keenan Allen just a season ago.
Despite the slow development of the position, it is extremely important for fantasy owners to become knowledgeable of the incoming rookie class. For those who play in keeper and dynasty leagues it is fairly obvious as you not only are looking for immediate success but also are looking to build your roster for future seasons. Being able to pinpoint that breakout third-year player two years in advance can give you a huge advantage over the other fantasy owners in your league. Getting to know these first year receivers can also be important in redraft leagues. For example, those who put faith in third round pick Keenan Allen a year ago were greatly rewarded, as discussed above. Who could be that late round gem this season?
Let's take a look at some of the best wide receiver prospects in the 2014 NFL Draft and what they can bring to the table not only as a player for their respective teams but also the value they could bring from a fantasy perspective. With the draft still a few days away these are subject to change just a bit. I will update my fantasy rookie receiver rankings in a future article, taking the team that drafted them into consideration.
*All fantasy value described below assumes standard 12 team leagues (QB, 2 RB, 3 WR, TE)
1. Sammy Watkins, Clemson: 6'1'' 210lbs- Watkins is one of the true elite receiver prospects to enter the draft over the past couple years. He may not have the 6'5'' frame that NFL scouts covet these days but he is still an extremely dangerous weapon on the outside. Watkins has the speed (4.43 40 at the combine) and ability in the open field that will scare opposing defensive coordinators. In the Orange Bowl this past year when Clemson took on Ohio State Watkins put on a show, catching 16 passes for 227 yards and two scores.
Fantasy Outlook- As the most talented receiver in this class and a likely top 5 pick, Watkins will be a day one starter. He should be a top 30 WR for standard leagues and the top pick in dynasty rookie drafts.
2. Mike Evans, Texas A&M: 6'5'' 230lbs- Similar to teammate Johnny Manziel, Evans enters the draft as a redshirt sophomore after just two years of college ball. He may be no Calvin Johnson, but at 6'5'' with adequate speed (4.53), Evans fits the mold that NFL scouts are looking for at the receiver position. He should be an absolute monster in the red zone as a rookie with his ability to use his body extremely well to box out defenders on jump ball opportunities. Evans was able to bully smaller, weaker corners at the college level but he will have to rely on more than just his size and physicality to succeed at the next level.
Fantasy Outlook- Like Watkins, I expect Evans to step into a starting role immediately. His size should make him a favorite to lead all receivers in TDs as a rookie. A top bench player for me to start the season who will improve and be an every week starter as the season wears on.
3. Odell Beckham Jr., LSU: 5'11'' 198 lbs- A fluid athlete who is extremely dangerous with the ball in his hands, there is a lot to like about Beckham's game. The fact that he was the winner of the 2013 Paul Hornung Award as the FBS' most versatile player is a testament to that. He racked up 2,222 all-purpose yards a season ago as a junior, a school record. Beckham is not only an effective receiver but also an excellent return man as he returned two punts for scores at LSU. As a bit of an undersized receiver who is an explosive return man with great moves in the open field, Beckham reminds me of a young Golden Tate or Antonio Brown.
Fantasy Outlook- Similar to Cordarralle Patterson a year ago, I expect Beckham to get his shot immediately as a returner and his playing time to increase as a receiver as he becomes more accustomed to the offense. Loads of upside.
4. Marqise Lee, USC: 6'0'' 192lbs- The most intriguing wide receiver prospect in this draft has to be Marqise Lee. He was arguably the most dominant player in all of college football in 2012 but had a disappointing 2013 season as he was hampered by injuries and erratic quarterback play. Lee is the type of prospect who plays much faster than he timed at the combine (4.52) and is excellent at keeping defenders off balance with his savvy route running. If he can prove to stay healthy I think he has a chance to be the best receiver in this class when looking back ten years down the road.
Fantasy Outlook- I love Lee's game but am extremely worried about his durability issues. Assuming he can stay healthy I think he can hold similar value to Mike Evans.
5. Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt: 6'3'' 212 lbs- One of my personal favorite prospects this year at the receiver position, I believe Matthews has a lot to offer as an NFL prospect. He may not be the flashiest player, but he has the size (6'3''), speed (4.46), production (112 catches and 1,477 yards in 2013), bloodlines (cousin of Jerry Rice), and the drive to succeed you look for in a draft prospect. Before the Senior Bowl in January, Matthews requested tape of all the cornerbacks that he would be facing. I find that to be very impressive as it shows his commitment to preparation and excellence. He was also a first team all conference selection two times in the best conference in college football in the SEC.
Fantasy Outlook- The talented receiver from Vanderbilt has what it takes to contribute as a rookie. I see him as a quality bench player and potential bye-week fill in. Potential for even more depending on landing spot.
6. Brandin Cooks, Oregon State: 5'10'' 189 lbs- After blowing up at the combine, Cooks' draft stock went through the roof. He is a special athlete (4.33 speed) who was highly productive last year with 1,670 receiving yards, good for the best mark in the FBS. Similar to first round rookies from a year ago Tavon Austin and Cordarralle Patterson, the team that drafts him will try to find creative ways to get him the ball in space. Cooks' size may limit him a bit as a wide receiver at the next level, but at the very least I expect him to make an immediate impact on special teams as a return man.
Fantasy Outlook- I think Cooks will be tough to predict from week to week because of his reliance on big plays. I view him as a late round target in redraft leagues who is a great player to stash because of his big-play ability.
7. Allen Robinson, Penn State: 6'3'' 220 lbs- This draft is loaded with many receivers who possess impressive size and speed. Add Robinson to that list. He is coming off an impressive junior campaign in which he caught 97 passes for 1,432 yards, earning him third-team All-American honors. A solid route runner with reliable hands, I think Robinson should be able to make a difference as a rookie. His big frame and leaping ability gives him a skill set that any quarterback would love to have at their disposal.
Fantasy Outlook- Similar to Matthews, Robinson has the tools to be effective as a rookie with an impressive blend of size and speed to develop into a quality starter. Definitely a player I will be targeting.
8. Donte Moncrief, Mississippi: 6'2'' 221 lbs- Although he is likely only a second round pick at best, I think he has the kind of ability to develop into one of the better receivers in this class. Moncrief has a big frame and is a smooth route runner who also showed off impressive speed with a time of 4.40 at the combine. He has also showed the ability to make the highlight reel catch last year during his junior season. Watching him reminds me of a young Hakeem Nicks without the durability concerns.
Fantasy Outlook- Moncrief is my favorite dynasty target that you can get in the later rounds because of the raw talent and athleticism he brings. He slightly edges out Latimer because of greater upside.
9. Cody Latimer, Indiana: 6'3'' 215 lbs- There may not be a bigger riser at any position in the 2014 NFL Draft than Latimer. Early in the process, he was mentioned as a likely mid round pick. But the timed speed (4.44), impressive size, and reliable hands should be more than enough to make him a top 60 pick. I think he has the skill set to be a solid #2 receiver at the next level with the potential for more. One player that comes to mind when watching Latimer is Saints receiver Marques Colston.
Fantasy Outlook- Latimer should not only be on the keeper and dynasty radar, but with the tools to develop into a starting receiver he should be a late round consideration in redraft leagues as well.
10. Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State: 6'5'' 240 lbs- In a ridiculously deep wide receiver class, many have questioned why Benjamin, a redshirt sophomore, decided to enter the 2014 NFL Draft. With only one year of solid production, lack of elite speed, and too many dropped passes in his college days, there are certainly some red flags. Despite the shortcomings, size is one thing you can't teach. NFL coaches will love to work with a player like Benjamin, as he has the potential to be a matchup problem on the outside if he can refine his technique.
Fantasy Outlook- Benjamin has the size to be an immediate contributor in the red zone but doubt he gets an every down role as a rookie. A late round option in redraft formats and an intriguing keeper/dynasty prospect.
11. Davante Adams, Fresno State: 6'1'' 212 lbs- In most years, a guy like Adams would be a near lock to be at least a second round selection. He has caught 233 passes for over 3,000 yards over the past two seasons, including 131 a season ago, tops in the nation. But Adams had top quarterback prospect Derek Carr throwing him the ball and played in a spread offense that inflated those numbers. He also did not see the type of competition that many other top prospects faced on a weekly basis.
Fantasy Outlook- Despite tremendous production at Fresno State, I believe it could take Adams a few years to adjust to the pro game due to his lack of natural athleticism. Similar to several other players, he will need an ideal situation to be a fantasy contributor as a rookie.
12. Jarvis Landry, LSU: 6'0'' 205 lbs- One of the highest ranked prospects coming out of high school, Landry is unlike most of the other prospects in this wide receiver class. He lacks the size and athleticism of the higher rated prospects but brings the grit and toughness to be a difference maker working out of the slot in the NFL. Landry possesses arguably the best hands in the draft and shows the willingness to make catches across the middle. Teams will also love his effectiveness in the running game as a blocker.
Fantasy Outlook- As a marginal athlete, Landry should be no more than a third or fourth receiver in the pros. But with reliable hands and a skill set that projects him to work out of the slot, he could possibly hold some value in PPR formats.
13. Martavis Bryant Clemson: 6'4'' 211 lbs- Teammate of Sammy Watkins at Clemson, Bryant enters the draft a little bit under the radar. He only had one year of starting experience, grabbing 42 balls for 828 yards a year ago and 7 touchdowns. As a big guy with above average speed, Bryant flashes the big play potential that teams covet. He is the definition of a field stretcher because of his ability to blow the top off the defense and go up and catch the ball in traffic. If he can develop his strength and route running at the next level he could develop into a special player.
Fantasy Outlook- Like Kelvin Benjamin, I expect Bryant to more of a situational player as a rookie. He wasn't asked to do a lot at Clemson and will have to expand his route tree. A player to target in dynasty but only a potential stash player in redraft leagues.
14. Paul Richardson, Colorado: 6'1'' 175 lbs- With decent size but an extremely thin frame, Richardson's stature reminds me of former Eagles receiver Todd Pinkston. But the lanky receiver from Colorado has the explosiveness that any team would love to have in their offense. With 4.40 speed, he has the athleticism that will make him very dangerous on vertical routes. His lack of NFL strength as well as his injury history make me question his ability to be a difference maker at the next level.
Fantasy Outlook- Richardson will likely be used similar to how the Saints used Robert Meachem a year ago. A situational deep threat that will be tough to count on during any given Sunday for fantasy purposes.
15. Bruce Ellington, South Carolina: 5'9'' 197lbs- Not only did Ellington succeed on the football field, but he was also a point guard on the South Carolina basketball team. His production was mediocre at best, but Ellington shows the athleticism and versatility you look for when trying to develop players at the receiver position. With the proper coaching, he is a prospect that could be a contributor two to three years down the road.
Fantasy Outlook- Ellington is not a player I would recommend in redraft leagues but definitely a player to monitor in dynasty and keeper leagues.
This wide receiver class may be as good as any in the past decade. There are many other players who didn't quite make my top 15 but should still be on the fantasy radar, especially if you are an active dynasty owner. Robert Herron from Wyoming only stands 5'9'' but possesses the blazing speed to beat the defense over the top. Jared Abbrederis (Wisconsin) and Josh Huff (Oregon) don't possess the impressive physical traits, but I can see both becoming productive slot receivers over time as they both possess impressive hands and quickness. Brandon Coleman (Rutgers) has impressive size at 6'5'' but needs to become tougher and more physical to succeed in the NFL.
There is so much to be excited about when it comes to the NFL Draft. Not only is it exciting to see which players will land on your favorite team but as a fantasy football owner I love to try and identify that prospect who could be a steal in the later rounds. It is absolutely imperative to properly prepare yourself in the off-season so you can dominate your fantasy draft once August rolls around.