Every year there’s a feel good story in the NFL Draft, a “small school” player that gets drafted in the first few rounds and goes on to find success playing on the game’s biggest stage.
It feels like the receiver position has its fair share of those guys, and it would be completely accurate to say that three of the best players, let alone pass catchers, of all time came through the small school route. Jerry Rice, Randy Moss and Terrell Owens all famously played their college ball at schools that aren’t usually classed as NFL production lines.
It’s already evident that this class is loaded with wideout talent, and there is a good number of FBS prospects available amongst the big names. Cade Johnson, Jaelon Darden and Austin Watkins are all in with a shot of not just being drafted, but making a difference on a pro-roster. However, there’s one guy that stands out above the rest, Western Michigan star, D’Wayne Eskridge.
As a High School player Eskridge set records for Bluffton High School in Indiana, where he played running back and went for more than 1000 yards and 16 touchdowns in his final year. He was also a track phenom, becoming a three-time state champion sprinter, receiving the title of Mr. Indiana Track and Field in his Senior season and showcasing the speed that makes him so alluring as a draft prospect in 2021.
Surprisingly this blend of track speed and football coordination didn’t generate much attention for Eskridge on the recruiting front, 247 had him ranked as the number 1,541 player in the nation in the 2016 cycle, as a three-star prospect. Ball State offered him, but in the end he signed a scholarship with the Western Michigan Broncos and made the switch to receiver.
After working his way into the rotation as a sophomore, Eskridge started to show just how deadly his speed could be when harnessed properly. He put up five 50+ yard games in twelve starts over the year and led the Broncos in receiving yardage. His Junior season saw a better stat line (38r-776yrs-3TD), but that was largely due to a monster game against Syracuse, in which he turned eight catches into 240 yards and two touchdowns.
That’s where it gets interesting for Eskridge, and his football career could have taken a completely different path. His athletic traits led the Western Michigan coaching staff to a decision which should have seen the Indiana native play on both sides of the ball in 2019, as a starting corner and a rotational receiving weapon.
Despite reservations, Eskridge agreed to the move, getting across his determination to succeed in an interview with a local news outlet, saying: ‘I’m going to face the fire, and it’s something I have to do for this team and something I gotta do for myself because it can help me in the long run too.’ Unfortunately, an awkward tackle after making a 43 yard grab in the fourth game of the 2019 season led to season ending collarbone surgery and the end of his time on defense for the Broncos.
In 2020 he bounced back and started to get national acclaim for his skill set.
The 24 year-old is a pure athlete, showcased by his incredibly quick 4.38s 40 yard time at his pro day. However, if his deep speed is impressive, his acceleration off the line is something else completely. Time and again Eskridge’s film shows him firing out the starting blocks with extraordinary speed, and from a stance which doesn’t look like it should generate any momentum whatsoever. Opposition corners often start in off-man coverage to compensate for his quickness but that is to little avail, and he takes the top off defenses effortlessly.
His brief experience as a corner has clearly helped boost his awareness of his game as a pass catcher, and one of the ways he showcases that is with effective hand work against defensive backs. Against press coverage he isn’t afraid to engage with his man, fighting off guys that are around the same stature as him and creating space to accelerate into. However, there are examples of Eskridge being slowed down or driven off route when he’s facing more imposing secondary play.
At the catch point it’s easy to see the Broncos’ star has worked on his body control, and he is clearly aware of his surroundings and the space he has to operate in at all times (as demonstrated by the first touchdown in the aforementioned Syracuse game). He’s a tough player and is certainly not afraid to put his body in where it hurts, making catches in traffic and taking strong hits often during the 2020 season. On the flip side, scouts will have some concerns about the number of drops on tape, these often come as Eskridge makes his next move before the ball is securely in his hands – it’s almost frightening to imagine how different the stat line would be if he maintained control of all of his drops.
Given the simplicity of the Western Michigan spread offense it would be easy to say that Eskridge lacks a diverse route tree, but there should be little concern with this given the excellent footwork and explosiveness he shows on the slant, post and corner routes he has been asked to run over his four years in college. His size might limit him to the slot at the start of his NFL career, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him break the mould and line up outside before long, given his out and out field stretching ability.
With all of the above, and his consistently high level contributions on special teams, it’s not hard to see why there was a lot of buzz about Eskridge earlier in the Spring. A solid outing at the Senior Bowl showed he could hold his own against SEC calibre opposition and he seems to be sticking around the high round three mark on a lot of people’s draft boards.
The Full 10 Yards Draft Guide has him as a projected second round pick, and that could certainly happen if a front office falls in love with the track star speed and the high end work rate that is there for all to see.
By Andy Moore – @ajmoore21