2021 NFL Draft: Finding Under-the-Radar WRs By Reviewing the College Football Season
Michael Hickey/Getty Images. Pictured: Rondale Moore.
There is a common misconception that spread offenses have only recently created opportunities for undersized receivers to take on leading roles across the league.
Ten years ago, four of the top-10 leaders in receptions checked in at six-foot or shorter, with pint-sized players like Wes Welker and Santana Moss nabbing 80+ receptions each.
Fast forward to last season, and there remains ample opportunity for players of lesser stature to rack up gaudy stats. Seven receivers who are listed at six-feet or shorter hauled in 80+ receptions last year, including a pair of first-team All-Pros (Stefon Diggs and Tyreek Hill).
That’s why my list of underrated receivers in this year’s NFL Draft is laser-focused on sub-six-foot receivers. The NFL has long been set up for success for these diminutive playmakers, yet there remains a bias against undersized pass-catchers.
Let’s see who is being undervalued by mock drafts ahead of the NFL Draft this week.
Rondale Moore, Purdue
NFL.com Projection: 2nd Round, 49th Overall
A useful resource this time of year is the Relative Athletic Score metric, better known as RAS.
It separates physical attributes and measurables into four buckets: below average/poor, average, good, great/elite. It takes 12 data points ranging from bench press to 40-yard dash and spits out a composite score out of 10.
Rondale Moore grades out at a 9.33 (elite), despite poor marks for height (5-foot-7) and weight (181). According to RAS, he is elite in everything else, which includes composite explosion grade, composite speed grade and composite agility grade.
Watch out for Rondale Moore 👀
— Big Ten Football (@B1Gfootball) April 20, 2021
Then, there’s Moore’s tape.
He takes these immense physical skills and absolutely embarrasses defenders after the catch. Since Tavon Austin’s selection in the top 10 in 2013, no receiver under 5-foot-9 has gone in the top 20 of the NFL Draft.
Austin being labeled as a flop has plenty to do with that, in my opinion. But aside from the big three in this year’s WR class, I believe Moore is deserving of top-20 consideration and would be a steal after the first round, where he is currently projected.
Elijah Moore, Ole Miss
NFL.com Projection: 2nd Round, 37th Overall
Sudden as a hiccup, Moore has the speed and burst to reach a Pro Bowl-level out of the slot.
I agree with NBC Sports’ Thor Nystrom that his game is very similar to Antonio Brown’s for a few reasons. It’s not just Moore’s straight line speed that will threaten opposing teams, but his improvisational skills both to get open and to make defenders miss is otherworldly and reminiscent of the former All-Pro receiver.
And like Brown, he does not shy away from contact, allowing him to go over the middle and drive defenders backwards before going down.
— Brandon Lejeune (@DevyDeepDive) March 3, 2021
As an All-SEC performer, he certainly won’t enter this draft as a true “under-the-radar” talent, but I believe, like Rondale, that Elijah is deserving of a first-round selection.
But in a class as deep as the receiving class is this year, it’s likely that teams will refrain from a run on pass-catchers after the top three receivers come off the board early, opting for other positional needs that have fewer highly-rated players.
For what it’s worth, I have both Moores rated higher than Kadarius Toney and Terrace Marshall Jr. in this year’s class.
Jaelon Darden, North Texas
NFL.com Projection: 7th Round, 233rd Overall
Now onto some of the deeper cuts in this year’s class.
Darden is an absolute terror after the catch and has the route-running ability and speed to regularly create separation out of the slot.
I love the idea of adding a late-round wide receiver who dominated the college ranks, and the second-team All-American did just that in C-USA last year. He finished second to DeVonta Smith in receiving touchdowns (19), while compiling an absurd 1,190 receiving yards in nine games.
ANOTHER ONE for Jaelon Darden! That's his 4th touchdown of the night for @MeanGreenFB!
— Conference USA (@ConferenceUSA) December 12, 2020
The former high school quarterback understood how to find holes in zone coverage and executed a diverse route tree in Denton. His 4.46 40-yard dash matches how quick he looks on film, which is why I have him graded as a borderline fourth-round pick.
In his last two years in college, he nabbed 31 touchdowns and didn’t miss a single game due to injury. That’s the kind of math I can get behind for an undersized playmaker (5-foot-9, 172 pounds).
Jonathan Adams Jr., Arkansas State
NFL.com Projection: 6th Round, 221st Overall
It may be unfair to put added pressure on Group of Five and FCS players to perform when they do draw Power Five opponents, but it’s really the only time that we can see an accurate preview of what life could be like for them at the next level, at least for draft purposes.
In Adams’ case, he squared off against a pair of P5 opponents in the last two years (Kansas State, Georgia) and tallied 15 receptions for 183 yards and three scores. In a lot of ways, that helped validate his impressive production that saw him close out his college career with a 79/1,111/12 line in just 10 games.
DEEP sleeper in the rookie WR class: Arkansas State's Jonathan Adams Jr.
6'2, 210 pounds with an 87th percentile vertical and 95th percentile broad.
Went 8-98-3 vs. Kansas State last year. pic.twitter.com/bINjca8Fh4
— Jared Smola (@SmolaDS) April 20, 2021
Unlike the first three receivers I mentioned, Adams checks in at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, nearly identical measurables to former Buffalo Bill standout Stevie Johnson.
He’s big, he’s springy (39-inch vertical) and has a highlight package of contested receptions that can turn tight windows into completions for his quarterback at the next level.
In a normal year, I’d see him closer to a fourth-round selection, but the size of this WR class and his average 40-yard dash performance will have him slide a bit. Falling past the fifth round will only amplify his value to whichever team pulls the trigger on this SBC legend.