NFL teams are back in training camps. But they aren’t the only teams getting ready for an upcoming season. The 2021 college football season kicks off even earlier, with the first games starting August 28. That will begin the movement up and down boards for all draft-eligible prospects, which will continue up until April 28.
So before the season begins, I’m going position-by-position through the 2022 class, and previewing some names to know and be watching for throughout the college football season from a draft perspective. This is not an exhaustive rundown of every draft-eligible player, but a look at some of the more prominent and interesting names to watch this upcoming season, and where they are currently projecting for the upcoming draft. This preview continues on offense, with the wide receivers.
Steelers’ Need: Upcoming
The Steelers are set at wide receiver this season. In fact, the team’s returning five-man pool of JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, James Washington, and Ray-Ray McCloud is one of the deepest and most talented in the NFL, as well as one of the youngest.
But that group is hard-pressed to stay together beyond this season, when openings will quickly arise. In a normal year, Smith-Schuster would have been gone this offseason on a large free agent contract. But the effects of COVID-19 lowered the market at the position and opened it up for Pittsburgh to bring Smith-Schuster back on a cheaper one-year deal. A strong season will put him right back to seeking a big deal next offseason. Pittsburgh has (for now) one of the largest amounts of cap available in the league and could work out something long-term, but there is a solid chance he leaves the Steelers and creates an opening for a starter.
James Washington is also a free agent next season and has underwhelmed considerably. Given the team’s strength at drafting receivers, upgrading the depth at that position would be no surprise. Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool give the team a capable starting pair with star upside, but Pittsburgh is likely looking at needing at least a fourth receiver with future starting or No. 3 upside next draft. If Smith-Schuster leaves, that need jumps up to an immediate contributor. Depending on Johnson and Claypool’s 2021 seasons, potentially even one who can supplant the roster and become a dominant No. 1.
Garrett Wilson, Ohio State: In a lot of ways, Wilson is similar to his teammate that is next on this list. But among all the possible players in the Class of 2022, Wilson’s ceiling is highest. Wilson is an NFL star in the right environment, evidenced by his fighting his way onto the field as a freshman and then boosting his numbers in a shortened sophomore season with 723 yards and six touchdowns in eight games. Not limited by his 6’0″ size and possessing no major weaknesses, Wilson is an artist in the air and poised for a massive breakout.
Chris Olave, Ohio State: If Olave had declared this offseason, he is a potential first-round pick and an easy top 64 selection. Instead, he returns to Columbus as one of the top receivers in college football, and one of the top few players in the upcoming class. Olave is an all-around receiver with polish as a route runner and sure hands to go with deceptive speed. Of players in the 2022 class, Olave is the one most ready right not to step onto an NFL field.
John Metchie III, Alabama: Alabama has had a wide receiver drafted in the first round three of the last five drafts, and multiple taken in the first each of the last two. Starting at receiver for the Crimson Tide the last decade is a potential ticket to Day 1, and Metchie is the next man up in the first-round factory. Playing behind DeVonta Smith all 2020 and Jaylen Waddle part of it, Metchie nearly had a 1,000-yard season for the undefeated Tide, and showed up with a big game in the Championship vs. Ohio State. He brings high-end speed to the field with the skills to be more than just a deep threat.
Treylon Burks, Arkansas: There are collegiate blue blood players at the top of this class, and then there is Burks. The biggest receiver among the top tier currently at 6’3″ and over 220 pounds, Burks offers the size to win matchups and out-muscle press corners, with enough speed to stretch the field (averaged over 16 yards a catch both his college seasons). For a team in need of a big-bodied target, Burks is a name to watch, with room for a 2020 breakout that dwarves his first two seasons.
George Pickens, Georgia: Pickens’ name belongs in the section for preseason first-rounders. But that possibility went out the window when he tore his ACL in late March at spring practice. Pickens will miss the majority of the 2021 season, though a return just before a potential playoff appearance is not out of the question with an on-time recovery. Pickens was a rising star with over 700 yards and eight touchdowns as a true freshman in 2019, but needed a big season to prove he was worth a first-rounder. A big couple games to end 2021 will help him and his talent is that of a first-rounder. But a team taking him in the first or early second will be taking a gamble on the 6’3″ target.
Drake London, USC: Pickens and Burks are two of several names who bring big frames to the 2022 class. None match the 6’5″ stature of London, a junior who also briefly suited up for the Trojans’ mens’ basketball program. London nearly matched his freshman stats with 33 catches for 502 yards in less than half (six) as many games last season. He can bully defensive backs and has incredibly strong hands to rip catches away from coverage. London is a tremendously strong runner who will carry opposing players and fight for extra yardage. A true breakout season could send his stock skyrocketing.
Justyn Ross, Clemson: During the lead-up to the 2020 season, Ross was a name expected to go in the first in the upcoming 2021 Draft. But a spinal injury wiped away his entire season, and delayed his eventual jump to the NFL until the 2022 Draft. Ross had over 1,800 yards and 17 touchdowns his first two years at Clemson and played like a franchise WR. His missed season drops his stock slightly and might keep him out of the first, but a return to form should get him back into the discussion and solidify at least a second round pick.
Other Names To Know
Jahan Dotson, Penn State: In a dismal Penn State season, Dotson was a major bright spot in 2020, more than doubling his career production with 52 catches, 884 yards, and eight touchdowns in only nine games. An undersized player like the previous No. 1 for the Nittany Lions, K.J. Halmer, Dotson is pursuing a draft slot as high as Hamler’s at 46th overall. Lacks Hamler’s athleticism and speed, but brings a lot to route running and getting open.
David Bell, Purdue: Scouting Rondale Moore ahead of the 2021 Draft, Bell stole a lot of the attention as the Boilermakers’ dependable target who averaged over 100 yards and a touchdown per game in 2020. A safety net for the offense, Bell could win on contested balls, but often got open on a variety of routes to prevent the need from arising. He has a 1,000-yard season and 15 touchdowns to his credit, and will be the absolute No. 1 option on offense in 2021.
Jalen Tolbert, South Alabama: Coming off a 1,000-yard season for South Alabama, Tolbert averaged almost 17 yards per catch with eight touchdowns while taking the lid off of secondaries. He will finish this season as the program’s career leader in receiving yardage and touchdowns. His speed might keep him from being as prolific a deep threat in the NFL as he is in the Sun Belt, but there’s enough there for him to get work on the outside.
Romeo Doubs, Nevada: Of all the names in this final section, Doubs is one who has the highest ceiling, and could absolutely rise to the first round or prove a steal if taken any later. He eats up defensive backs at all levels of the field, creating space on short and intermediate receptions and is very tough to bring down with the ball in open field. He has 4.4 speed and plays faster with the ball, and can use it to excel from the slot or outside, evidenced by 1 17.3 average during a 1,002-yard, nine-touchdown season last year.
Zay Flowers, Boston College: For fans of the Rondale Moore and Jaylen Waddle type, who embarrass defenders with speed and change of direction along route trees and in open field with the ball, Zay Flowers is your man to watch. The BC receiver doesn’t bring the type of ceiling of Waddle or Moore yet, but he is just as much a joystick in the open field and has some of the best speed in the 2022 class. Breaking out with 892 yards and nine touchdowns last year, those should only increase with another year catching passes from Phil Jurkovec. Tremendous slot option to consider in the NFL.
Frank Ladson Jr. and Joe Ngata, Clemson: Two receivers with promise but an incredibly limited sample size are Ladson and Ngata of Clemson. Both 6’3″ juniors this season have spent their careers to date buried on the Tigers’ depth chart behind the likes of Tee Higgins, Amari Rodgers, Cornell Powell, and Ross. Ladson has 27 career receptions and Ngata has 24. Either would need to earn a better spot on the depth chart and a major breakout to rise in the draft, but both are on the radar as high-ranked four-star prospects who have made plays in blowout games for Clemson. Each has the frame and has shown the ability to win through contact, and each has serviceable speed in the 4.4 range.
Emeka Emezie, North Carolina State: The fifth-year senior has been nothing but productive for the Wolfpack during this career, catching at least 47 passes for between 576-738 yards the last three seasons, with 13 career touchdowns. His game is all about size as another 6’3″ physical body in this class, and his ceiling isn’t quite as high, but there’s spot for him as the physical component of a receiving room.
Reggie Roberson Jr., SMU: Not only does Roberson own the filthiest fake of the class from last season (the play starts at 1:13 in this video), but he has a lot more on his highlight reel after averaging over 21 yards per catch with 474 yards and five touchdowns last season in only four games. Each of his prior years topped 800 yards with six scores. Roberson is one of the biggest home-run hitters in the 2020 class, and adds to it return ability and the ability to play bigger than his 6’1″ size when he has to. Another electric sleeper pick who can elevate his stock.
Dominick Blaylock, Georgia: Just like Pickens, Blaylock is a Georgia receiver who has to overcome injury to get drafted high. Pickens is fighting through an injury in 2021, but Blaylock will be on the field to start the season if his recovery from a torn ACL stays on schedule. It was the second tear of that ACL for Blaylock, who had over 300 yards and five touchdowns as a freshman in 2019. A huge season could convince him to turn pro, but he has two more years of eligibility if he wants to rehab his draft status further.
Who I’m Watching
Any team in need of a No. 1 WR has to have the Ohio State duo circled on their boards. Specifically Wilson, who is one of my favorite players in the class and someone I feel has easy Pro Bowl potential. It would not surprise me to see him break into the top 10 picks. Olave is the same type of all-around talent, just with a smaller ceiling. He is still a first-rounder with a good season, but those two, Metchie, and most of the next group led by Pickens are likely out of the Steelers’ range in an offseason when a new franchise quarterback needs found, as well as likely needing a franchise tackle to block for him.
Outside of the first round, Doubs and Roberson are two players every team would get a shot at if the draft were held tomorrow, and offer excellent upside. Doubs I feel can be a first-round player, and it would not surprise me to see as a team’s No. 1 with his all-around ability. Roberson is living electricity and a touchdown waiting to happen on any touch. Either is an option for the Steelers.
London and Ross, like Pickens, both have something to prove to solidify their draft stock. If either falls to Pittsburgh in Round 2, a la Smith-Schuster in 2017, they are squarely on the board. Bell is a high-upside pick who could push for the first round. And Flowers, like Roberson, is the type of dynamic weapon any team can use any offseason.