Grading Jaylen Waddle’s Dynasty Fantasy Fit with Dolphins

Grading Jaylen Waddle’s Dynasty Fantasy Fit with Dolphins article feature image
Credit:

UA Athletics/Collegiate Images/Getty Images. Pictured: Jaylen Waddle.

Jaylen Waddle Fantasy Profile

Position
WR
School
Alabama
Height
5’10”
Weight
182
40-Yard Dash
N/A
2021 Age
23
Class
JR
Recruit. Stars
4
Projected Round
1

Jaylen Waddle Fantasy Fit with Dolphins

If you ask the average person who follows me on Twitter — but let’s be honest, my average Twitter follower is anything but average — but I digress …

If you ask the average person who follow me on Twitter, that football fan will likely say that Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase will outperform Tua Tagovailoa and Jaylen Waddle in 2021.

I’m not so sure about that.

It’s hard to know what we should expect out of the Dolphins offense this year: It will be the third season in a row that the Dolphins have a new play-caller under head coach Brian Flores — and this year he chose to split the baby by naming two co-coordinators: Eric Studesville and George Godsey.

This situation could be bad.

Plus, Waddle will be sharing targets with veteran wide receivers DeVante Parker and Will Fuller and tight end Mike Gesicki.

But Fuller has difficulty staying healthy. Parker underwhelmed last year. And Gesicki can disappear for games at a time.

Waddle might find his way into volume pretty quickly, and he has the game-breaking speed to maximize his opportunities if things break right.

Even in 2021, he is someone worth taking speculative shots on in best-ball and redraft leagues.


Dynasty Fantasy Analysis

Note: The following was written before the NFL Draft.

Waddle fascinates me. He might be the best all-around receiver in the class. In the 2021 Sports Info Solutions Football Rookie Handbook (SIS), he’s graded as the No. 1 receiver, ahead of Chase and Smith.

  1. Jaylen Waddle: 7.1
  2. Ja’Marr Chase: 7.0
  3. DeVonta Smith: 6.9

He is not without his issues. Like Smith, Waddle is 23 years old, which makes him a rather aged prospect.

But unlike Smith, Waddle is entering the NFL as an early declarant after just three years in college, and that makes a massive difference to his NFL projection.

Age and college experience are clearly correlated, and years ago when numbers-based evaluators started looking at prospects through a more analytical lens, they did so with an eye on age.

That makes sense: Age is often relatively easy to find, whereas you have to dig more if you want to know whether a guy took a redshirt season — and the possibility of a redshirt can cause extra considerations that might mess up the analysis. Put simply, age is a less bothersome starting point.

The early age-focused work on prospects, especially wide receivers, was revolutionary. Example: Jon Moore’s Phenom Index.

But even in those early days I suggested that experience is just as important as (and maybe more important than) age in evaluating prospects. And in the time since then, evidence has come along to indicate that experience indeed is the more important factor.

In particular, Anthony Amico has done great work in analyzing the experience vs. age dichotomy.

And what this means for Waddle is that, even though he is as old as Smith — and even though Waddle was old as a true junior in 2020 — he has a massive edge over Smith as a prospect, at least in the age/experience category.

If we continue to evaluate Waddle next to Smith, it’s tempting to dismiss the former because of the latter’s unbelievable production, especially in their two final years at Alabama.

  • Smith (2019-20, 26 games): 185-3,112-37 receiving
  • Waddle (2019-20, 19 games): 61-1,151-10 receiving

But these numbers perhaps mislead.

Smith easily outproduced Waddle in 2019, when he was the No. 4 receiver in the Alabama offense behind Smith, Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, but Waddle in 2020 actually outproduced Smith before a fractured ankle sidelined him for the rest of the regular season.

  • Waddle (Weeks 1-4): 25-557-4 receiving | 3-12-0 rushing
  • Smith (Weeks 1-4): 38-483-4 receiving | 2-2-1 rushing

And in 2018, as a true freshman, Waddle markedly outproduced Smith.

  • Waddle (20-year-old freshman): 45-848-7 receiving
  • Smith (20-year-old sophomore): 42-693-6 receiving

So Waddle outproduced Smith in their first season together, and when healthy, Waddle outplayed Smith in their final year.

On top of that, Waddle has the career special teams production that distinguishes him as a true get-the-ball-in-his-hands-however-we-can playmaker.

  • Punt Returns: 38-733-2 | 19.3 yards per return
  • Kick Returns: 9-214-1 | 23.8 yards per return
Devonta-Smith-Jaylen-Waddle
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images. Pictured: DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle

Waddle never had a true breakout season …

  • 2018 (15 games): 45-848-7 receiving
  • 2019 (13 games): 33-560-6 receiving | 1-5-0 rushing
  • 2020 (6 games): 28-591-4 receiving | 3-12-0 rushing

… but when placed in context, his production isn’t a massive red flag.

When we dive more into the SIS data to compare Waddle to Smith and even Chase, at no point does Waddle seem insufficient.

Granted, he had nowhere near their career target share.

  • Waddle: 11%
  • Smith: 20%
  • Chase: 18%

But over the past three years, Waddle has led the trio in yards per route run.

  • Waddle: 3.3
  • Smith: 2.8
  • Chase: 3.0

And for their entire college careers, Waddle was the leader in yards per target (YPT), yards after catch per reception (YAC), expected points added per target (EPA) and positive play rate vs. both man and zone coverage.

  • Waddle: 15.2 YPT | 9.9 YAC | 0.96 EPA | 70% Man | 79% Zone
  • Smith: 12.8 YPT | 7.1 YAC | 0.58 EPA | 58% Man | 65% Zone
  • Chase: 12.6 YPT | 9.0 YAC | 0.75 EPA | 59% Man | 73% Zone

One potential flaw in Waddle’s game is that he has been a slot-reliant receiver for most of his career, especially relative to Smith and Chase (since 2018).

  • Waddle: 68% slot rate
  • Smith: 30% slot rate
  • Chase: 30% slot rate

It feels potentially problematic that such a high percentage of his 2020 receiving yards were produced out of the slot.

But concerns about where Waddle lines up might be overblown. In his final season, he lined up on the outside more than the slot.

  • 2018: 72% slot rate
  • 2019: 80% slot rate
  • 2020: 48% slot rate

And in today’s NFL, plenty of slot receivers have success.

As a receiver, Waddle is definitely on the smaller end of the spectrum. He didn’t weigh in at either of the Alabama pro days, but his listed size of 5-foot-10 and 182 pounds is generally thought to be accurate. And with those numbers, he seems unlikely ever to be a true No. 1 receiver, although we have seen small playmakers emerge (Tyreek Hill, Antonio Brown and T.Y. Hilton, for example).

I, for one, am not worried about his size — especially because of his athleticism. Usually I never assume that a player is athletic if we don’t have any pre-draft testing numbers, and Waddle is yet to work out at a pro day because of the ankle injury he suffered in October.

But in Waddle’s case, it’s fair to make an exception.

When Ruggs was still at Alabama, he and Waddle once raced each other. Ruggs won, but just barely.

And then Ruggs ran a 4.27-second 40-yard dash at the combine. Any guy who can challenge Ruggs in a race has legitimate speed.

And if you watch him play, his ability to pull away from defenders once he has the ball is undeniable.

And Waddle is not just a speedster. He’s an above-average route runner with a developed route tree, and he has the body control and aggressiveness to make contested catches downfield.

You know what? I realize that I could’ve just posted this video from Danny Kelly at the top of the article and then said, “I agree with everything Danny said.”

Based on the limited sample we have of Waddle, he looks like a well-rounded player. He can win in the screen game because he has the return man-like ability to let blocks set up in front of him. He can win in the intermediate part of the field with his route running and after-the-catch acceleration. And he can win deep with his speed and willingness to fight for the ball.

To former NFL receiver and current NFL Network analyst James Jones, Waddle is the top wide receiver in the draft.

Like Smith, Waddle feels like a divisive prospect. Waddle is older and was never the real No. 1 receiver on his team. But he is also an athletic former four-star recruit who was on his way to a highly productive season before entering the NFL early as a first-round pick.

It’s not hard to see how he could turn into a bust or a superstar. I lean toward something more in the middle. He’s not someone I’m chasing and also not someone I’m fading.

NFL Prospect Comp: Henry Ruggs with more route-running skills and per-game final-season production but also less speed


Matthew Freedman is 1,018-828-37 (55.1%) overall betting on the NFL. You can follow him in our free app.

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