The Minnesota Vikings got arguably the steal of the first round when they picked wide receiver Justin Jefferson at number 22. Jefferson, who had four wide receivers drafted before him, went on to have an historic rookie season. He not only broke the Vikings’ franchise rookie receiving record (held by the great Randy Moss), but his 1400 yards set a new NFL rookie record as well.
While teams do not always get this lucky, we may actually get to see another player fall in the draft that outperforms those taken above him. Jaylen Waddle has spent the last three seasons as a wide receiver at the University of Alabama and has become a bonafide first round receiver. That said, there is still debate as to when his name will be called on April 29th. In fact, a lot of the same reasons that Jefferson fell last year are now being discussed about Waddle.
There is an incorrect assumption surrounding Waddle that was also put on Jefferson. This assumption is that Waddle is solely a slot receiver, and it is simply not true. While Waddle was used in the slot very often in his early career, there were plenty of instances in which he showed his versatility during 2020.
One game that comes to mind was against Ole Miss. While he did take snaps in the slot, he was used quite often on the outside as well. He even took a few snaps out of the backfield. Waddle finished that game with six receptions and 120 yards. While he didn’t score, he did have a crucial 45-yard reception at the goal line with under four and a half minutes left in the game. Alabama went on to score and win the game 56-48.
Not only can he line up from anywhere, but his blistering speed makes him a threat wherever he is. Georgia found that out the hard way on this touchdown catch. Waddle had six catches for 161 yards and a touchdown in their win against the then #3 Bulldogs.
Waddle’s speed is also a very valuable asset in the special teams. He was used throughout his career in the kick and punt return units. Again, we turn to the Georgia game. This isn’t a play you will find on many highlight reels or even in the box score because of a block in the back by a teammate.
If you want to find it, rewatch the game and the play happens with about seven minutes left in the first quarter. Waddle takes a punt from the 12-yard-line, makes two players miss, and uses his burst of speed to return the ball about 35 yards. That is the type of explosive returner NFL teams crave.
Of course, there is going to be risk involved with any draft prospect. Obviously, a big one with Waddle is that he only played six games in 2020 because of an injury that took him out from late October up until the National Championship. Even in his return, he didn’t look 100%. That said, he was still able to create space with his speed to make plays like this.
There is also the fact that he has played with great receivers throughout his collegiate career, including current NFL players Henry Ruggs and Jerry Jeudy. Even his teammate this season, Devonta Smith, is projected by many to go higher than Waddle in the draft. The fact that he has never truly had WR1 reps could cause some teams to hesitate. Again, though, I harkon back to the fact that Waddle has shown the versatility to play all over the field. This combination of speed and versatility should allow him to find a place on any team.
The clear number one choice at this point is Trevor Lawrence. He has been destined for Jacksonville since the NFL regular season ended. That said, I truly believe Waddle is the best receiver in his draft for all the things mentioned above. He is the player that Las Vegas thought Henry Ruggs was when they picked him. He can outrun anybody and will provide immediate impact for an offense. Waddle should be the first receiver off the board, and if he isn’t, we could be having a “steal of the draft” discussion like we had with Justin Jefferson.