2021 NFL Draft: Boom or Bust Wide Receivers

Fantasy football players know the feeling, you’re in the latter rounds of your redraft league and you step up to the plate to take a flier on a late round boom or bust guy. If it comes off you could have a league winning piece on your hands, if not then there’s no real fallout, it’s a late round guy and he can act as a roster filler or be placed on waivers.

Well, that’s not all too different to the approach that NFL teams take when it gets to the later rounds. Teams will zero in on individuals that they see potential in, they might have had a productive interview with them as part of the draft process or their scouting network may just be particularly high on a certain player to fill a positional need. 

But research done over the last few years has consistently proven that beyond the second round there’s a significant chance that rookies won’t get themselves another contract on the team that drafted them. Respected Broncos fansite, Mile High Report showed that just 16% of fourth round picks are still with the team that drafted them after five years. The main point here being that, even with all the scouting resources and a rigorous draft process, it’s rare that those late round guys stick around as real game changers on a roster.

There’s another deep wide receiver class this year, 43 made it into the F10Y Scouting Guide (and it could have been a lot more). Nearly every single one of them had something to offer, but there are several players that look ready to make a real run at being impact players despite their low draft stock. 

Frank Darby, Arizona State Sun Devils

Class: RS Senior

2020 Stats: 2 games – 6 receptions – 46 yards – 1 TD

When you listen to Frank Darby being interviewed you can’t help but notice the infectiousness of his personality. The Arizona State product still carries the New Jersey swagger from his high school days, and you get the sense that he’s never far from the centre of attention in the locker room. 

The pandemic did him no favours when it came to his draft stock, in a year in which he was prepared to lead the Sun Devils’ receiving core, a mixture of delays, positive COVID-19 team tests and a slight injury meant he only really saw the field in one solitary game. Thankfully, there still seems to be a good amount of attention coming his way due to the fact that ASU has had a first round receiver in the draft in both of the last two years.

Darby had a chance to rocket himself up draft boards with a big week at the Senior Bowl earlier this year, where he worked with the Dolphins’ coaching staff. In the end he turned in a fairly average week, getting shut down on the majority of his one on one reps, and only coming up with one catch in the game itself, albeit a nice contested catch to convert a fourth down. 

What we did see in Mobile however, is the attributes that Darby has got that give him a shot to be that ‘boom’ candidate in the later rounds of this year’s draft. 

After five years with Arizona, it’s clear the former three-star recruit is confident in his ability as leader, and he channels that into an aggressive play style that any coach, on any team, will want to harness. He beats corners up on every play, using an aggressive hand fighting technique to line himself up to consistently make contested catches, and his tape is littered with ridiculous highlight reel-worthy plays.

As a stockier receiver, you’d be forgiven for looking at Darby and thinking he’s purely there as a possession / move the chains type of player. But he’s not, he can stretch the field, utilising excellent footwork of the line of scrimmage to create separation and holding his own when it comes to speed. That footwork translates to his route running, where he can change direction at the flick of a switch and shake opposition defensive backs off consistently with a nice comeback move.

The aspects that are really holding Darby’s stock back are a mix of college production and experience. He only played in 28 college games across four seasons, and until this year he was never the featured receiver. Teams would be more willing to look past that if it hadn’t clearly impacted on his ability to run some of the more advanced routes, and if there was just a little more long distance speed and separation to his game. 

Still, the ingredients are there for Darby to be developed into a good late round impact player. He’s proven that his coachable, and his presence in the locker room may win him allies from day one – combine this with a raw skill set that is crying out for refinement and there’s every chance he could be one of the rare later round guys that impacts heartily on a roster.

ASU Football: Frank Darby named to Biletnikoff Award Preseason Watch List -  House of Sparky
Kevin Abele – Icon Sportswire 

Josh Palmer, Tennessee Volunteers

Class: Senior

2020 Stats: 10 games – 33 receptions – 475 yards – 4 TDs

Josh Palmer says he’s used to adapting and making the most out of the situations that he’s found himself in during his college career. A handy trait for a WR that served as Tennessee’s main weapon in a disappointing season for the Volunteers. 

Coming into the season Palmer had to make the step up after being the third option for the Vols behind NFL receivers Juan Jennings and Marquez Callaway in 2019. Due to the onset of the pandemic, he put in several months of workouts back in his native Ontario, Canada, and credits that with getting him ready to hit the ground running with three back to back 70+ yard games and three touchdowns to start the campaign.

The work ethic is clearly there, and that’s not the only thing there is to like. Palmer plays up to his 6’2”, 210lb frame well, he’s got a huge catch radius, strong hands and dominates defensive backs at the catch point. On top of this he demonstrates excellent body control, adjusting to back shoulder throws effortlessly and helping his quarterback move the chains.

But there’s a lot more to Palmer’s game than just that. He’s deceptively quick over long distances, powering past defensive backs with long strides and creating separation for the deep completions. There’s no better example of that than his touchdown grab against Alabama in 2020, as he showcased all of his deep speed and ball tracking ability to beat Pat Surtain II and haul in the catch in the corner of the end zone.

Like Darby, Palmer was invited to this year’s Senior Bowl, but the Canadian was slightly more productive as he pulled in a touchdown for the American team on one of two catches for 27 yards. But it was after the Senior Bowl that his buzz started to grow, with Jim Nagy pushing a narrative that Palmer would be a bargain for any team that gets him in the third round or later.

Nagy’s assessment might be a little rich for some, there’s still a lot of work that Palmer needs to do. His footwork off the line could be developed to make him even more explosive and his route tree needs to become more advanced if he’s going to slot into an NFL offense. The good thing is that we know Palmer can adapt, he backs himself to do so and the advances in his game in 2020 show that he backs his words with action.  

Simi Fehoko – Stanford Cardinals

Class: Junior

2020 Stats: 6 games – 37 receptions – 574 yards – 3 TDs

If you only watched one game all season, and that game happened to be Stanford vs UCLA, you’d think that Simi Fehoko was a sure fire first round draft pick based on production alone. In the last game of the 2020 season, Fehoko caught 16 passes for 230 yards and three touchdowns. Whenever Davis Mills looked up his 6’4” junior receiver was wide open or in a position to make an impact play.

In reality Fehoko should have gone back to Stanford for his senior year, letting an incredibly promising skill set mature a bit more and cementing him as a day two or early day three receiver in 2022. Instead, a team could be getting a bargain in the middle of day three, unless his stock rockets after a productive pro day – keep in mind that some have compared him physically to Chase Claypool and DK Metcalf.

Aside from his build, Fehoko’s main selling point is his speed, which is at a track athlete level and is arguably unique in this draft class when combined with his frame. He utilises his quickness at all levels of the field, whether that is breaking out of the slot to create a big bodied target over the middle or simply beating his man over the top on the outside. 

Scouts are often intrigued by players that excel in multiple sports and Fehoko can tick that box as well, he’s a formidable basketball player by all accounts, and you can see those skills translate onto the football pitch. He high points the ball well, using his large catch radius to get above smaller corners and reel in the football. He’s also physical, getting involved in the blocking game and using his upper body strength to man handle defensive backs in run support.

Whilst all that sounds great, it should be emphasised that the former mormon missionary is still a work in progress. Over the course of three seasons in California Fehoko only just surpassed 50 catches, with nearly half of those coming in his last two games. He needs to improve his concentration as his film is littered with drops and his inexperience shows up when playing on the outside, with feet landing out of bounds and corners forcing him out of play during contested catches.

It feels like the best chance that Fehoko has of being a ‘boom’ player is landing somewhere with established veterans already in place, that way he can learn on special teams as a Gunner and gradually work his way onto the field at the receiver position. The team that jumps off that board there is the Cardinals, keeping him fairly close to home and giving him the chance to learn from AJ Green and Larry Fitzgerald. If he can have a career that is even a fraction as dominant as those two, he’ll be a big success in the NFL.

Former Brighton Star WR Simi Fehoko Declares For 2021 NFL Draft - KSL Sports
Jevone Moore – Icon Sportswire

Agree, disagree? Let me know at @ajmoore21 and check out the rest of my WR rankings in our draft guide.

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