How good are the wide receivers in the 2021 NFL draft? A year after the 2020 class saw a record 13 wideouts picked in the first two rounds, this class could top that number. ESPN NFL draft analyst Todd McShay's updated two-round mock draft featured seven receivers in the top 33 picks, including three in the top 10.
There are elite, game-changing wideouts at the top of the 2021 class, but teams will also be able to find solid players on Day 2 -- from dynamic slot guys to vertical threats with speed to burn -- and Day 3. This class is loaded.
Let's pick ideal receiver/team fits for the best prospects -- prime landing spots for these rookies based on scheme and team needs. I picked 15 pass-catchers here, and all of them have the tools and upside to be picked before Round 3 is over. I'm also going to include Kyle Pitts, the top tight end in this class, because he's a unique weapon who could be used as a wide receiver at times. And I just wanted to write about him.
I'll start at the top and run through the first three rounds of the draft. These are the spots in which each player should want to play:
Kyle Pitts, Cincinnati Bengals
Height: 6-foot-6 | Weight: 245 pounds | School: Florida
Where the Bengals could get him: Round 1 (No. 5)
Why he fits: I'm cheating a little bit here because Pitts is not a traditional tight end. He is the best pass-catcher in this class, though, and if he is still available at No. 5 overall, I love his fit with quarterback Joe Burrow, who throws with stellar anticipation and location.
Pitts is a dynamic playmaker, an offensive weapon with the high-end physical tools to threaten defenses from multiple alignments. At Florida last season, Pitts lined up with his hand in the dirt next to a tackle on 48% of his routes, while 30% of his routes were out of the slot and 22% came when he lined up out wide. When he does flex outside of the formation -- in the slot or as the backside X receiver in 3x1 sets (see video below) -- he reminds me of Plaxico Burress. Pitts has matchup ability at all three levels of the field, as he can separate vertically or use his frame to outmuscle defensive backs at the catch point.
Yes, offensive tackle is a position of need in Cincinnati, but this team also needs playmakers. The Bengals can add a prospect who can be used as a versatile game-plan piece -- to pair with the ascending talent of second-year wide receiver Tee Higgins -- to give Burrow two volume targets.
Ja'Marr Chase, Miami Dolphins
Height: 6-0 | Weight: 201 | School: LSU
Where the Dolphins could get him: Round 1 (No. 6)
Why he fits: The Dolphins added field-stretcher Will Fuller on a one-year deal last month, but with Chase they could continue to help second-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who needs better talent around him to succeed. Throw Chase the shallow routes, scheme windows to get him open on in-breakers and script vertical shots for touchdowns.
Watching Chase's tape reminds me of playing against former Panthers wideout Steve Smith, who was a tough cover. There's a physical element to Chase's game, a sense of urgency that jumps off the screen. And, with Tagovailoa -- a timing and rhythm thrower -- the Dolphins can cater to Chase's upper-tier run-after-the-catch traits, along with his ability to separate on third-level concepts (check out this clip to see him in action).
This is a good fit for a prospect who can develop more nuance as a route runner with pro coaching to match his competitive playing style. He's a difference-maker with the ball in his hands.
DeVonta Smith, Detroit Lions
Height: 6-0 | Weight: 170 | School: Alabama
Where the Lions could get him: Round 1 (No. 7)
Why he fits: Could the Lions target a quarterback with the No. 7 overall pick? Maybe, but this is a team that has needs all over its roster. It won't be a quick fix for new coach Dan Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes. Smith makes a lot of sense -- he would immediately upgrade a barren wide receiver room in Detroit. He has No. 1 upside, given his playing speed and strength. That's the easy juice he brings to the route tree, the instant acceleration within the stem to create separation.
With the offensive structure I anticipate under new coordinator Anthony Lynn -- which could lean on more play-action throws for quarterback Jared Goff -- the Lions can scheme for Smith. Use motion and reduced formations to get him off the ball clean, while catering to his toughness on deep overs, in-breakers and vertical shot plays. The tape tells us that Smith has the chance to develop quickly in the pro game as a three-level target (see below), and the Lions need receivers with dynamic traits to build this offense under a new coaching staff. They'll get that with Smith.
Jaylen Waddle, Philadelphia Eagles
Height: 5-10 | Weight: 180 | School: Alabama
Where the Eagles could get him: Round 1 (No. 12)
Why he fits: If the Eagles don't go after a corner in Round 1, Waddle should be the guy they set their sights on because of his explosive traits as a motion and movement target for second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts.
With new coach Nick Sirianni and offensive coordinator Shane Steichen in Philly, Waddle can play the T.Y. Hilton role in this system. Run the crossers in the mesh concept, the dig routes, the slot fades. Plus, given Waddle's sudden quickness, he can also be schemed on screens and fly sweeps.
In this situation, the Eagles add another target with field-stretching speed after drafting Jalen Reagor in the first round last year. Waddle is more refined as a route runner than Reagor, which would give Hurts a target who can create both second- and third-level separation.
Rashod Bateman, Washington Football Team
Height: 6-0 | Weight: 190 | School: Minnesota
Where Washington could get him: Round 1 (No. 19)
Why he fits: I'm a big fan of Bateman's tape. I see a wideout who can be used like New Orleans' Michael Thomas or Chicago's Allen Robinson given his frame and nuance as a route runner. That caliber of player would be a steal for Washington at No. 19 overall -- if he reaches his ceiling.
In Scott Turner's offense -- a system built on timing in the passing game -- Bateman can be deployed as the backside X receiver or in the slot, with the ability to run the skinny posts, option/slant routes and slot fades. Drafting Bateman here would be another boost to a Washington offense that lacked juice last season but now features Terry McLaurin and free-agent signing Curtis Samuel -- with the aggressive throwing style of veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Kadarius Toney, Chicago Bears
Height: 5-11 | Weight: 199 | School: Florida
Where the Bears could get him: Round 1 (No. 20)
Why he fits: The Bears could go cornerback or offensive tackle in the first round, but there is also a need to add another playmaker in Matt Nagy's offense around new starting quarterback Andy Dalton. The have their No. 1 target in Allen Robinson, and Darnell Mooney had a solid rookie year and should improve next season.
Now insert Toney as Chicago's slot player who can impact the game plan on pass targets and manufactured touches (see video below) from anywhere on the field. Nagy could deploy Toney on crossers and verticals from trips sets while using pre-snap movement and backfield alignments to get the ball in his hands. I see a prospect here with dynamic and explosive traits on tape. And that gives Nagy options when he's creating game plans and calling plays.
Terrace Marshall Jr., Baltimore Ravens
Height: 6-3 | Weight: 200 | School: LSU
Where the Ravens could get him: Round 1 (No. 27)
Why he fits: The Ravens signed veteran wide receiver Sammy Watkins to a one-year deal, but Marshall is an easy fit here given the route structure in Baltimore. The LSU product has the frame to play as the boundary X receiver, and just like Bateman, he can be used inside as a slot target. He's a smooth route runner, with enough straight-line speed to separate over the top and the fluid hips to change directions underneath.
Adding Marshall to a lineup that includes Watkins and Marquise Brown would upgrade the options for quarterback Lamar Jackson in a system that leans on more vertical concepts and in-breakers off the run action.
Elijah Moore, New Orleans Saints
Height: 5-10 | Weight: 178 | School: Ole Miss
Where the Saints could get him: Round 1 (No. 28)
Why he fits: With quarterback Drew Brees retiring, I anticipate that Saints coach Sean Payton will run a heavily schemed passing game this season with both Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill taking snaps. But that's also why I like Moore here. Yes, he fills a need with Emmanuel Sanders leaving via free agency, but we also have to look at his traits and toughness as a slot target with the ability to produce on screens or backfield touches.
Moore has the short-area burst to separate on middle-of-the-field concepts in Payton's system, and his vertical speed shows on his Ole Miss tape. With Moore -- whom I see as an upgrade over Sanders -- the Saints add a playmaker who complements the skills sets of both Michael Thomas and running back Alvin Kamara. And remember that the New Orleans front office is cap-strapped this offseason, so adding a Round 1 receiver could be its best chance to add help for Winston and Hill.
Anthony Schwartz, Los Angeles Chargers
Height: 6-0 | Weight: 186 | School: Auburn
Where the Chargers could get him: Round 2 (No. 47)
Why he fits: With elite speed to press the top of the secondary, Schwartz might go higher than some think. And with that vertical ability to be schemed on shot-play throws, I'm looking at the Chargers in the second round. That would allow them to pair the high-end arm talent of quarterback Justin Herbert with Schwartz on play-action concepts. Think max-protection shots with Schwartz on the deep post, corner or over route.
His game is a fit opposite the route-running excellence of Keenan Allen as a volume target, along with the contested catch tools and the deep in-breakers we see from Mike Williams. Plus, with Schwartz's yards-after-catch prowess, he can also be schemed open on crossers, shallows and screens as his continues to develop his detail as a route runner in a pro offense.
Tutu Atwell, Arizona Cardinals
Height: 5-9 | Weight: 165 | School: Louisville
Where the Cardinals could get him: Round 2 (No. 49)
Why he fits: With veteran wide receiver A.J. Green in Arizona only on a one-year deal and Christian Kirk entering the final year of his rookie contract, I can see the Cardinals trying to add a receiver with high-end traits early in the draft. Atwell could be a great weapon.
The former Louisville wideout has a small frame, but he can roll down the field (see video below). And in Kliff Kingsbury's offense, he can be schemed on the deep crossers, posts and seam balls. Think of Atwell as a vertical/big-play option for quarterback Kyler Murray as a rookie, with the ability to develop into a more defined role to complement the playing style of DeAndre Hopkins in 2022.
Rondale Moore, Green Bay Packers
Height: 5-7 | Weight: 181 | School: Purdue
Where the Packers could get him: Round 2 (No. 62)
Why he fits: I see Moore as a top-50 talent, and he could go higher than late in the second round. In Matt LaFleur's offensive system, though, Moore could be a highly productive slot target for quarterback Aaron Rodgers, with the ability to see the ball on jets, screens and reverses. Moore is an easy mover with the lateral quicks and the start/stop speed to separate underneath. And we see the high-level ball carrier vision when he gets loose in space.
Plus, given the amount of pre-snap movement and misdirection we see in LaFleur's offense, Moore is a fit schematically as a versatile piece in the game plan who could make an impact as a rookie in an offense that also features Davante Adams and Aaron Jones, who are going to get their share of targets.
Amari Rodgers, Carolina Panthers
Height: 5-10 | Weight: 212 | School: Clemson
Where the Panthers could get him: Round 3 (No. 73)
Why he fits: I see Rodgers as another motion/movement receiver with the traits to align in the slot or in the backfield given his frame, lower-body strength and physical playing style. And with Curtis Samuel leaving Carolina via free agency, Rodgers could be used in a similar role under coordinator Joe Brady next to wide receivers Robby Anderson and DJ Moore. Scheme the second-level windows for Rodgers on middle-of-the-field targets for new quarterback Sam Darnold or create touches for him on smokes, screens and zone run carries.
Rodgers, who also has enough long speed to threaten over the top, could slot into a pass game that will likely be more vertical this season because of Darnold's arm talent.
Dyami Brown, Minnesota Vikings
Height: 6-0 | Weight: 190 | School: North Carolina
Where the Vikings could get him: Round 3 (No. 78)
Why he fits: I see a wide range for Brown, from early in the second round to late in the third round. But I have Brown landing with the Vikings because of his explosive-play skills and deep-ball speed on go routes outside of the numbers (see video below). The way I see it, he can provide immediate competition for the No. 3 spot when the Vikings have Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen on the field in 11 personnel.
And the scheme fit works too, given the amount of play-action shots we see with quarterback Kirk Cousins in the Minnesota offense. Move the pocket on boot or max it up to throw the verticals, which caters to Brown's long speed and ability to track the ball over the top.
Nico Collins, Tennessee Titans
Height: 6-4 | Weight: 215 | School: Michigan
Where the Titans could get him: Round 3 (No. 85)
Why he fits: With the expectation that the Titans hit on other needs in the first two rounds of the draft -- they have to make improvements at pass-rusher and cornerback -- I have Tennessee targeting Collins later on Day 2. He has the physical traits to win on deep in-breakers or finish plays down the field on contested throws given his speed and long frame. Plus, in Tennessee's heavy play-action passing game, Collins can be schemed as a target for quarterback Ryan Tannehill on the crossers/dig routes to open windows.
The Titans added wide receiver Josh Reynolds in free agency, but Collins would create more depth and competition opposite of No. 1 target A.J. Brown.
D'Wayne Eskridge, Kansas City Chiefs
Height: 5-9 | Weight: 190 | School: Western Michigan
Where the Chiefs could get him: Round 3 (No. 94)
Why he fits: With Sammy Watkins leaving via free agency, I like Kansas City taking a chance on Eskridge, who has some straight-line juice. And while Eskridge shows some functional hip tightness on tape, his skill set would fit Andy Reid's route tree. Run the glance routes off run-pass options, crossers, overs and inside verticals. That's where you see his explosive traits after the catch.
With quarterback Patrick Mahomes throwing with velocity and location, Eskridge could be schemed up as another weapon with breakaway speed. He could be a steal for the Chiefs.