We begin this year's group with Oregon State receiver Markus Wheaton.
In Mike Reilly's high-falutin' offense (and without a top-tier quarterback throwing him passes), Wheaton made his name as one of the most productive college receivers at any level in the last two seasons. After a 2011 campaign in which he caught 73 balls for 986 yards and only one touchdown (shades of Keyshawn Johnson!), Wheaton blew it up in 2012, getting a little closer to the goal line and grabbing 91 balls for 1,244 yards and 11 scores.
After a very impressive week at the Senior Bowl (ask Desmond Trufant about that), Wheaton started to establish himself as the kind of player who could possibly find his way to "1A" status on an NFL team. The question is, in what systems can a route-savvy, 5-foot-11, 190-pound player with a good sense of the game take it over the top?
Pros: Slightly-built receiver who gets off press coverage more with adept foot-fakes and jukes than hand-fighting, but does so very well. Extremely savvy in traffic; Wheaton knows how to get open in small spaces. Natural and trained yards-after-catch receiver -- once Wheaton gets himself righted, he immediately faces his defender and looks to break free. Doesn't need a straight line to gain extra yards. Very good route-runner, especially in the short-to-intermediate game. Conversant with slants, drags, slants, crosses, and quick outs, but isn't as dependent on Oregon State's quick passing game as some would have you believe — he'll get open downfield off coverage. Beats trail corners down the sideline with good hand movements, and isn't afraid to sell his body out by jumping for a catch. Very quick at breaking into cuts, making single coverage harder when he's your assignment.
Not an overtly physical receiver, but will play that way when necessary. Tracks the ball into his hands on deeper passes. Fast player off the line who has an extra gear downfield. Familiar with route combinations and has a great sense of timing when creating openings with other receivers. Gets downfield very quickly from screens and quick passes behind the line of scrimmage. Good runner on sweeps. Can play outside, in the middle in trips packages, and in slot, though his skill set seems best attuned for an outside role. Would seem a natural to run option routes because of route awareness and quickness in short areas. Skinny legs, but could probably put on 10 pounds of muscle without losing too much functional speed.
Cons: Most of Wheaton's yards after catch come before contact; he's simply not big enough to break tackles on a regular basis. That issue will most likely become more prominent in the NFL.
For all his downfield speed, doesn't separate at the finish line as much as you'd like, though this could be partially a function of scheme and quarterback. Tends to gain deep separation with push-offs as opposed to burner speed. Will absolutely struggle against "2-man" coverage schemes at the NFL level against bigger cornerbacks who are quick in press coverage and recovery speed.
Despite his stats, didn't face double coverage (especially deep safeties) on a regular basis because defenses were dealing with frequent spread formations and backfield action. Gets re-directed too easily in space by aggressive defenders. Not a blocker at all. Has had issues with drops in the past.
Conclusion: The Brandon Lloyd comp is a tough one if you look at Lloyd's wildly inconsistent career, but I think Wheaton could have a similar impact as Lloyd at his best has had in the NFL. He's not quite as fast as the Mike Wallaces and DeSean Jacksons of the world, but with his understanding of the route tree, he doesn't have to be. In the right kind of system, especially one in which West Coast offense principles lead the way and are backed up by vertical concepts, Wheaton could be a multi-year asset -- if not an outright star.
He may not pass the ultimate size/speed/strength tests, but game tape quickly tells you that Markus Wheaton's productivity over the last two seasons is no fluke. The NFL transition is scheme-dependent to a degree, and that keeps him out of the first round. In the end, Wheaton is most likely a better second receiver, but as much of a passing league as the NFL is these days, that's far from a pejorative designation.
NFL comparison: Brandon Lloyd, New England Patriots (2012), Denver Broncos (2010).
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