From now until the 2021 NFL Draft takes place, we hope to showcase as many prospects as possible and examine both their strengths and weaknesses. Most of these profiles will feature individuals that the Pittsburgh Steelers are likely to have an interest in, while a few others will be top-ranked players. If there is a player you would like us to analyze, let us know in the comments below.
#17 Jaylen Waddle/WR/Alabama – 5094, 180 lbs.
– Undersized in terms of height and mass, but carries the mass he has on his frame well
– Lined up a lot in the slot as well as on the outside of the formation, being used occasionally on jet motions
– Has tremendous straight-line speed and explosiveness for the position
– Bursts off the line in an instant, immediately putting pressure of the defensive back by attacking their cushion by getting on their toes
-Accelerates extremely well after the catch and through his route, hitting that second gear rather quickly after he gets open space
– Will pull away from defenders in pursuit of him with relative ease
– Has great vision as a runner, being able to weave in and out of defenders and find his way to the sideline to try and take away angles of pursuit
– Dangerous over the middle against zone coverages when running against linebackers and safeties that have no chance
– Can be a great vertical threat up the seam or fool defenders on sluggo concepts, outside fades, and out-and-up routes where his speed and burst get easy separation against coverage
-Can stab the ground with his foot on in-breaking routes to get a fairly quick release back to the football
– Attacks the inside release of his route well, losing minimal speed when making his cut and making it extremely difficult for defenders to stay in-phase
-Dangerous on rub route concepts with another receiver either on the deep over or the post corner to create a natural pick to free him up with room to run
– A true threat on receiver screens and bubble concepts to get him out in space to run on the perimeter
– Able to slide off of tackles that attempt to shoulder or arm tackle him rather effectively both as a receiver and returner
– Able to elevate up in the air with his explosive leaping ability to make high-ball contested catches
– Plays stronger than his frame would suggest, coming up with some tough grabs with defenders on top of him
– Able to work back to the QB on backyard ball situations and give the signal caller a opportunity to fix a potentially broken play
– Speed and burst make him the ideal return man on kick and punt situations
– More than willing as a blocker, playing with a good base and push in the run game against defensive backs given his size
– His lateral quickness is acceptable, yet not spectacular given the rest of his athletic profile
– Will try to outrun you to the corner rather than make you miss after the catch or on a return
– Occasionally will have focus drops where the ball will go through his hands as he looks to see if he has room to run
– Likes to body catch more than you’d prefer instead of catching outside of his frame
– Smaller frame and serious ankle injury are cause for concern in terms of durability at the next level, especially if he returns kicks and punts
– Dealt with several small, nagging injury issues during his time with the Tide but managed to play through it
– Junior prospect from Houston, TX
– Known as a consensus top-10 WR prospect out of high school
– Caught 45 passes for 848 yards with seven touchdown receptions in his first season on campus as a rotational player, also tallied 16 punt returns for 233 yards and one score
– Saw his special teams impact expand as a sophomore, leading the nation in punt return average at 24.4 yards per return, with 20 for 487 yards and a TD along with 5 kickoffs for 175 and a TD
– Had his receiving production drop a bit, recording only 33 receptions for 560 yards and 6 TDs in 13 games played
– Was off on a tear his junior season, recording 591 yards receiving on 28 catches and 4 TDs before suffering a severe ankle injury that derailed his season
– Managed to come back to play in the 2021 CFP National Championship Game, serving mainly as a decoy at less than 100 percent, yet making some key 3rd down conversions
-Second team All-American in 2019 (returner), second team All-SEC in 2019, Freshman All-American in 2018
Jaylen Waddle had a lot of hype coming out as a prep athlete of high school. I can remember back in the summer of 2018 at the University of Florida when all the coaches were pissed off the entire day he decided to commit to the Crimson Tide. In his first season on campus, he showed the entire country why.
Waddle is the definition of a dynamic athlete. He has the speed, burst, and acceleration to take it to the house nearly any time he touches the ball. He hits top speed in his route within his first few steps due to his burst, and his incredible acceleration after the catch and on returns showed his ability to leave defenders in the dust. Here in possibly his best performance in college, against Auburn in 2019, Waddle explodes off of the line with the defender giving a ton of room to work underneath. He catches the ball on the curl over the middle and turns upfield, splitting the defense up the middle while working to the sideline, accelerating away from everyone in pursuit for the long TD.
He is a true angle-buster for the position, meaning getting him in space to work is imperative for any offensive coordinator. Here against Georgia, Waddle catches the slant over the middle, but then shows off the juice, accelerating to the sideline and running away from everyone in pursuit, getting away from the outstretched arms of #2 Richard LeCounte III for six.
He can be dangerous on WR screens, bubbles, and short crossing routes that get him in space immediately, but he also has the ability to take the top off the defense vertically on deep overs, fades, sluggo concepts, and straight seams up the middle. He will dictate coverage and make safeties play back or force teams to pay because of it. Here against Missouri, Waddle is running the vertical route from the slot, taking the nickel defender with him vertically up the field. You see the deep safety rolling over to him as he gets downfield, knowing that he is their seam stretcher, and comes over to aid the corner in coverage. However, Waddle is able to track the ball over his shoulder, leaping into the air in between two defenders for the big chunk play on the acrobatic grab.
For as explosive Waddle is, he is a fairly skilled route runner. He understands how to attack a defender’s cushion with his speed and doesn’t waste a ton of time in his breaks. Here in his freshman season against Georgia, we see Waddle eat at the cushion of the defender in coverage, getting on top of his toes in a hurry and break off to the outside for ample separation on the route. The defender thinks that Waddle is going straight vertical based on his speed, but Waddle is able to break it off quickly to the sideline.
He also is fairly physical given his stature, fighting through contact once wrapped up and even bouncing off of contract with good balance as a returner or runner after the catch. Waddle also has impressive contested catch ability given his leaping ability and innate sense to come back to the football and play through contested coverage. Take for example this play against Auburn where Waddle lines up in the slot and gets an inside release on the defender in coverage, running right past him to create easy separation. However, #10 Mac Jones slightly underthrows the ball, leading to Waddle having to elevate into the air and come down with the jump ball in the end zone for the score.
He is the ideal return man you want to put the fear of God in special teams units, forcing them to kick away from him. If they don’t, he has the speed and burst to make teams pay. Here in a primetime matchup against LSU in 2019, Waddle fields a punt on the right side of the field, immediately getting hit up high by a gunner in pursuit. However, Waddle manages to shake the arm tackle and stay upright, taking off for the left side of the field, running past several men in pursuit while turning up the sideline, meeting up with a convoy of blockers as he works back to the middle of the field for the long punt return score.
Oh, and he is just as dangerous returning kicks as he is returning punts, as seen here on this long return TD against Auburn.
However, there are some downfalls to Waddle’s game. He was often overshadowed by the other Alabama receivers and didn’t really have the option to operate as the team’s #1 target. Waddle also may have the best athletic profile in the class, but his lateral quickness and ability to make defenders miss isn’t all that impressive. He can try to get the corner of the defense and possibly get caught in the backfield rather than shaking a defender with his change of direction ability. Here against Georgia, Waddle is sent in motion into the backfield, then leaks out on the snap for the quick pass to get him in space behind the LOS. However, as the defender closes in, he is unable to put a move on him laterally, slowing down and stopping, ending up getting tackled for a loss on the play.
He also may make some impressive catches in coverage, but he tends to have focus drops from time to time and will often catch the ball into his chest rather than naturally snagging it with his hands away from his frame. Waddle also displayed impressive toughness coming back from the devastating ankle injury to play in the title game for the championship. But the injury, along with his frame and history of nagging issues he dealt with during his time with the Tide, give way to possible durability concerns at the next level.
Overall, Waddle is a weapon that all teams are looking for in today’s passing league. He can easily come in right away as an explosive slot option and dynamic return man, but smart offensive minds will scheme ways to use him all over the field to get him mismatches to take advantage of. The size and injury concerns are there, but players of his athletic caliber don’t come around too often. Should he continue to develop as a well-rounded receiver and put durability concerns to rest, there is no telling what Waddle’s upside could be going forward.
For a pro comp, I went off the script of the oft-used Tyreek Hill comparison for another dynamic player that came out of the SEC: Percy Harvin. Both Harvin and Waddle possess impressive speed and burst, are dangerous as deep threats and near the LOS as run-after-catch guys, can be used on jet sweeps and in gadget roles as runners, and also impact the game at a high level in the return game. Harvin also dealt with his fair share of durability issues in the league, leading to his career not lasting too long. I’m not suggesting the same is going to happen to Waddle, but merely want to point out that they have the similar measurables, frame, and play style where this could be a similar concern for Waddle in his transition to the league.
DISCLAIMER: I am not suggesting that Jaylen Waddle is in play for the Pittsburgh Steelers at #24. He should be long off of the board by that time, and the need doesn’t match up at the time given the receivers on the roster. I merely want to point out his strengths as a football player and acknowledge that he is set up to be a great pro in the league. He would be a great addition taking advantage of mismatches in the slot as well as stretching the defense vertically on the perimeter.
Danny Smith would also likely never have to worry about the ever-changing return man carousel that happens every year with Waddle in the fold, most likely being one of the most dynamic return men the second he steps onto the field at the next level. Again, I don’t see this scenario likely happening for the Steelers, but want all of yinz to know what a team is getting in Waddle should they match up with said team in the near future.
Projection: Early First Round
Games Watched: at Missouri (2020), vs Georgia (2020), vs LSU (2019), at Auburn (2019), vs Georgia (2018)