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February 23, 2017

NFL Combine preview: Wide receiver prospects who could interest the Eagles

Eagles NFL

The NFL Combine will kick off in Indianapolis next week, so we'll begin taking a look at some participants at each positional group every day. On Tuesday we started with the quarterbacks. Yesterday we tackled the running backs. Today we'll cover the wide receivers.

Is wide receiver a need?

Uh, yes. It's only the neediest of the needs. The entire city of Philadelphia has been burying the Eagles' receivers since 2015, so we won't pile on here. Let's just all agree that the Eagles desperately need help at receiver, and figure out what they'll be looking for.

On Tuesday we made the argument that the Eagles' wide receiver focus in free agency and the draft will be on speed

Opposing defensive coordinators knew they could play their safeties close to the line of scrimmage the last two seasons, making it tougher on the run game as well as the short-to-intermediate passing game. They didn't have to respect any deep threats who could get behind their defense, and as a result, the Eagles were handicapped in regard to what they could accomplish offensively.

It is my belief that the Eagles have to find a deep threat, and that they know it. Here are 10 wide receivers that we think make sense for the Eagles in the draft:

Mike Williams, WR, Clemson (6'3, 225)

Williams had a strong sophomore season in 2014, catching 57 passes for 1030 yards (18.1 YPC) and 6 TDs. He was poised for a huge season in 2015 when he broke his neck against Wofford in the season opener after being pushed into the goal post on what was a touchdown reception.

He missed the remainder of the season, and there was a question as to whether he'd ever play again. After healing (or so we'll find out after Combine medical checks), Williams was ready for the start of the 2016 season, and he caught 98 passes for 1361 yards and 11 TDs.

At 6'3, 225 pounds, although he's not a speed demon, Williams has the prototypical size for an NFL receiver, with good hands, body control and the ability to win contested catches.

He'll be in the mix as a player the Eagles will consider with the 14th/15th overall pick.

Corey Davis, WR, Western Michigan (6'3, 213)

In his career at Western Michigan, Davis put up kinda decent numbers:

 Corey DavisRecYards YPC TD 
 201367 941 14.0 
 201478 1408 18.1 15 
 201590 1436 16.0 12 
 201697 1500 15.5 19 
TOTAL 332 5285 15.9 52 

Davis beat the all-time MAC conference receiving record by more than 1000 yards. Is that good? That seems good. Still, Davis will face many of the same questions that Carson Wentz faced last year, coming from a smaller school. 

To note, the MAC has produced receivers such as Antonio Brown (Central Michigan), Julian Edelman (Kent State), Randy Moss (Marshall, then in the MAC), Greg Jennings (Western Michigan), Brandon Marshall (Central Florida, then in the MAC), Andrew Hawkins (Toledo), and Lance Moore (Toledo).

Davis has size, speed, and he runs great routes. If there's one knock, it's that he'll have occasional drops, however, those become forgivable because he makes so many improbable acrobatic catches.

Like Williams, Davis is in the mix as a possibility at 14th/15th overall.

John Ross, Washington (5'11, 190)

On the season, Ross had 81 catches for 1150 yards (14.2 yards per catch) and 17 TDs. Like Williams above, Ross missed the 2015 season. In 2013 and 2014 combined, he had 33 catches for 579 yards and 5 TDs. In other words, he was a bit of a one-year wonder. Ross also has a significant injury history, outlined here by Josh Norris of NBC:

Still, despite his injury setbacks, at the Husky Combine back in March, Ross ran a 4.25 40, according to Washington football's Twitter account:

Ross is as explosive a player as there was in college football last season. If he didn't have such an overwhelming number of injuries, he too would be in the conversation as the pick at 14/15. As is, he's probably a little too risky to take that high. If he's sitting there in the second round though, you can bet the Eagles will be interested.

Carlos Henderson, Louisiana Tech (5'11, 191)

Henderson is a less-heralded receiver in this class, but he put up great numbers in 2016. A look at his career numbers:

 Carlos HendersonRec Yards YPC TD 
201429 569 19.6 
 2015 36 774 21.5 
 2016 82 1535 18.7 19 

Louisiana Tech runs a spread offense conducive to big numbers, however, note Henderson's yards per catch each season. For his career, he averaged 19.6 yards per catch. It will be very interesting to see what Henderson runs at the Combine. With a fast time, you may see the hype begin to build.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, USC (6'2, 220)

Smith-Schuster probably shouldn't be punished for previous busts who have played at USC, but it's kind of hard to overlook. I mean...

Prior to the season, Smith-Schuster was thought of as a pretty safe bet to be a first-round pick, but after just an OK season, it's more likely he'll go in rounds two or three. His numbers at USC:

 Juju Smith-SchusterRec Yards YPC TD 
201454 724 13.4 
 2015 89 1454 16.3 10 
 2016 70 914 13.1 10 

Smith-Schuster has good size at 6'2, 220, and he seems to enjoy contact once he has the ball in his hands. He has good YAC ability, breaking tackles with his thick build. He can also beat defenses over the top (although he's not a burner by any stretch), and make difficult catches in traffic.

Cooper Kupp, WR, Eastern Washington (6'2, 215)

Kupp's numbers at Eastern Washington were OK, I guess: 

Cooper Kupp Rec Yards YPC TD 
 201393 1691 18.2 21 
 2014104 1431 13.8 16 
 2015114 1642 14.4 19 
 2016117 1700 14.5 17 
 TOTAL428 6464 15.1 73 

By comparison, former FCS player Jerry Rice had 301 catches for 4,693 yards and 50 TDs during his four-year career at Mississippi Valley State.

Kupp isn't a burner, but he makes catches that should otherwise be incompletions, and he's difficult to tackle once he has the ball in his hands. Like Carson Wentz did last year, Kupp had a good showing at the Senior Bowl as a small school prospect.

Chad Hansen, California (6'1, 195)

When NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah published his first Top 50 prospect list, Hansen appeared on it at No. 48, with the following breakdown of his game:

Hansen started one season at wide receiver after transferring from Idaho State. He has a tall, lean build and outstanding play speed. This is a pure vertical receiver. He is sudden in his release, stacks on top of cornerbacks and tracks the ball naturally. He can find a second gear when the ball is in the air. He does have some trouble getting off press coverage at times and he wasn't asked to run the entire route tree at Cal. He will need some time to develop, but I love his size, speed and ball skills.

I'll admit I had no idea he even existed. Here are Hansen's numbers:

Chad Hansen Rec Yards YPC TD 
 2013 (Idaho State)45 501 11.1 
 2015 (Cal)19 249 13.1 
 2016 (Cal)92 1249 13.6 11 
 TOTAL156 1999 12.8 15 

Like Ross above, Hansen too was a bit of a one-year wonder, although Ross was a far more well-known player with higher expectations.

When you watch Hansen's games, you see his obvious play speed (as Jeremiah noted), leaping ability, body control, and YAC. While the skill set is certainly there, I'd be very wary of taking a 22-year old developmental one-year wonder in the second round. In the third? Sure.

If the Eagles adequately address the wide receiver position in free agency, then perhaps Hansen would make sense as a player they can be patient with, especially if the Eagles were to sign a comparatively older free agent deep threat like DeSean Jackson, who can take the top off a defense for at least another two years while Hansen continues to develop.

Taywan Taylor, Western Kentucky (5'11, 198)

Taylor has blazing speed, as FOX's Bruce Feldman named him the No. 5 freak athlete in the country, citing Taylor's 11'5 broad jump, a 39.5" vertical and a 4.33 40.

Taylor has also been highly productive the last two years. In 2015, he was third in the nation with 1467 receiving yards and second in the nation with 17 receiving TDs. Those numbers dwarfed those of 2015 teammate TE Tyler Higbee (38-563-8), who was a fourth-round selection of the Rams in the 2015 NFL Draft.

In 2016, Taylor was once again third in the nation with 1,730 receiving yards and tied for third in the nation with 17 TDs.

Ryan Switzer, North Carolina (5'10, 185)

Over his college career Switzer has seven punt return touchdowns. A list of the NCAA career leaders for punt return touchdowns:

Player Years School Punt return TDs 
 Wes Welker2000-2003 Texas Tech 
 Antonio Perkins2001-2004 Oklahoma 
Ryan Switzer 2013-2016 North Carolina 7 
 David Allen1997-2000 Kansas State 
 Javier Arenas2006-2009 Alabama 
 Leodis McKelvin2004-2007 Troy 
 Ryne Robinson2003-2006 Miami Ohio 
 Derek Abney2000-2003 Kentucky 
 Ted Ginn2004-2006 Ohio State 
 James Henry1986-1988 Southern Mississippi 
 DeSean Jackson2005-2007 California 
 Santana Moss1997-2000 Miami 
 Steve Suter2001-2004 Maryland 

Switzer also had two punt return touchdowns called back over his career. 

As a receiver, Switzer has always been a contributor in the regular offense, but has not put up big numbers by any stretch until this season:

 Ryan SwitzerRec Yards YPC TD 
 201332 341 10.7 
 201461 757 12.4 
 201555 697 12.7 
 201696 1112 11.6 6 

Darren Sproles said this offseason that he believes 2017 will be his last year in the NFL. Switzer could be a guy who takes over for Sproles as the team's primary punt returner, while also providing more depth at receiver.

Shelton Gibson, West Virginia (5'11, 195)

Above we showed Carlos Henderson's impressive yards per catch average. Welp, look at Gibson's the last two seasons:

 Shelton GibsonRec Yards YPC TD 
 201537 887 24.0 
 201643 951 22.1 8 

Good God, that's ridiculous. Gibson is a one-trick pony, but that's a pretty neat trick.

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