With the NFL Combine about to get underway and the Vikings feeling optimistic about the wide receiver talent pool, we’re delivering a quick snapshot of four pass-catching prospects who will be under the spotlight this week in Indianapolis. With some additional thoughts provided by Shawn Zobel of DraftHeadquarters.com, here’s a quartet worth keeping an eye on as the hyper-analysis of the combine begins ...
Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State
What’s to love: Got four minutes? Do yourself a favor and watch this montage of Blackmon’s 2011 highlights. As a junior last season at OSU, he had 122 catches for 1,522 yards and 18 touchdowns, capping his college career with a nine-grab, 186-yard, three-TD effort in a Fiesta Bowl win over Stanford. Blackmon was a two-time winner of the Biletnikoff Award because, quite simply, he makes plays. Over and over and over again. He attacks the ball when it’s in the air. He uses his impressive frame (6-feet-1, 215 pounds) well to get open and relies on his almost preternatural body control to provide his quarterback with a high reward vs. risk ratio when the ball is thrown his way.
But … : Does Blackmon have enough speed to flourish at a Pro Bowl level in the NFL? That’s a looming question that might not get answered in Indy. There are reports Blackmon may not run the 40-yard dash at the combine. That will leave NFL teams to wait until Oklahoma State’s pro day on March 7 to truly gauge Blackmon’s speed.
Worth talking about: If the Colts select Andrew Luck at No. 1 and the Rams trade the No. 2 pick to a team intent on landing Robert Griffin III, how much would Blackmon have to show to convince the Vikings to take him at No. 3? Conventional wisdom says general manager Rick Spielman would be foolish to pass on Southern Cal offensive tackle Matt Kalil if he’s available. After all, the Vikings need to bolster their pass protection in a bad way and Kalil would be an immediate starter with Pro Bowl promise. But Spielman himself wondered aloud last week whether an influx of offensive playmakers would have a ripple effect in speeding up the offense and subsequently lessening the responsibility of the offensive tackles.
So don’t be too quick to shoot down the idea of Blackmon wearing purple in 2012, even if he doesn’t post a wildly impressive 40 time at his pro day.
Said Zobel: “Blackmon does everything. He catches the ball over the middle. He catches it in traffic. He extends out and makes acrobatic catches. He’s capable of being a deep threat. He’s capable of doing everything. So say he runs a 4.55 in the 40, that shouldn’t diminish the fact that he can still do everything you look for in an elite No. 1 receiver. So if he does run a little slower, yeah the media will put a ton of emphasis on it. But teams won’t overanalyze that. They’ll understand this is a guy who can be an elite downfield threat who can also work the middle. They’ll know he projects to nearly every offense in the NFL. They’ll look at his athleticism, his great hands and long arms. If he runs half-of-a-tenth of a second slower than expected, I don’t think a flood of NFL people will be overly worried by it.”
Alshon Jeffery, South Carolina
What’s to love: Jeffery is a phenomenal athlete, another big-bodied target who has long arms and great hands and the knack for making the circus catch. A year ago, coming off a sophomore season at South Carolina during which he had 88 catches for 1,517 yards and nine touchdowns, he was being talked about as a potential top-10 talent.
But …: Jeffery was all too ordinary through stretches of 2011, finishing with 49 catches for 762 yards and eight scores. Quarterback instability certainly played a role. But Jeffery also didn’t prove he has enough quickness to consistently separate from defensive backs. That’s a huge concern for NFL teams, who will be hesitant to invest a high pick in a guy with questionable speed who had a disappointing 2011 campaign. There’s also some curiosity as to whether Jeffery is truly dedicated to staying in shape and taking care of his body.
Worth talking about: Jeffery may have more at stake than any other player at the combine, holding a golden opportunity to remove a handful of the question marks that hover above him. NFL teams can’t wait to get a stopwatch on him and Jeffery can ill afford to run the 40-yard dash in a time of 4.55 seconds or worse. His trip to the scale will also be watched closely. There have been rumors spreading that he may have ballooned up towards 250 pounds in recent months. Other reports say Jeffery may be under 220 when he arrives in Indianapolis.
“People want to know why his speed seems to have declined," Zobel said. "So now he gets his chance. There’s a stigma attached to guys who seem to be big, tall receivers who can catch but can’t run that well. The thought is you can find those guys anywhere throughout the draft. Jeffery can’t allow himself to get that same label. He has to run fast and show that he has unique athleticism and a unique skill set.” Odds are good the Vikings will have a shot to take Jeffery at the top of Round 2. But he has to show he’s worth it.
Dwight Jones, North Carolina
What’s to love: Jones has good size (6-3, 226) and superb athleticism. He’s the kind of receiver who should be available in Round 3 and perhaps even later. And he has more than enough talent to be worth gambling on during those stages of the draft. Jones led the ACC in receptions (85) and touchdowns (12) in 2011.
But …: Jones’ initial path to UNC took a detour when academic issues re-routed him first to Hargrave Military Academy for the 2007-08 school year, then to Valdosta State very briefly in 2008 before he got full clearance to head to Chapel Hill. That’s not a huge stain on Jones’ resume but it’s still an asterisk. Said Zobel: “People will see that inability to qualify out of high school and ask, is it a lack of work ethic? Is there a lack of intelligence?”
Plus, there’s another minor transgression from two months back that Jones has to explain away. He was initially declared ineligible for the Independence Bowl after allowing his name and image to be used to promote a for-profit birthday party in his honor in hometown in North Carolina. Again, not a major indiscretion but still something. Zobel also isn’t sure whether Jones’ instincts are good enough for him to excel at the NFL level.
Worth talking about: Jones’ ability to make big plays after the catch should be considered. He has good strength to shed defenders and has proven reliable at going over the middle and catching the ball in traffic. “Truthfully, he has the ability as a receiver to be a first-round kind of guy,” Zobel said. “But in terms of instincts or speed, he’s not that. So those things knock him down a few rounds.” How far will Jones drop? And if he made it all the way down to the fourth round, might the Vikings use one of their picks there to nab him.
Brian Quick, Appalachian State
What’s to love: Quick had admirable production this past season playing in the Football Bowl Subdivision, nabbing 71 catches for 1096 yards with 11 touchdowns. His athleticism is easy to see. And he’s a big target, measuring somewhere near 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds. Plus, he’s relatively new to the game, having started playing organized football in 2006 when he was a high school senior. So that gives him intriguing upside if he’s able to develop quickly and learn the nuances of the position.
But …: Quick is raw. Very, very raw. And at the Senior Bowl last month in Mobile, Ala., he suffered through a flurry of drops in practices attended by NFL scouts and front office personnel. “You really wanted to see him show up and prove that he deserved to be there,” Zobel said. “And in my opinion, he was one of a few guys who did the exact opposite. He appeared a little bit outclassed.”
Worth talking about: The Vikings aren’t opposed to taking raw receivers from smaller schools late in the draft. Last April, in Round 7, they selected Stephen Burton out of West Texas A&M, seeing enough potential to take on the project. Quick? Zobel believes he’s a better prospect with more upside than Burton. And while he almost certainly would not be ready to be a contributor in 2012, the Vikings are almost certainly not ready to be a playoff contender next season. So taking on a bit of a developmental chore wouldn’t be a major risk.
The draft is often about promise and potential and Quick has plenty – so long as he lands with a team that has patience and believes in his ability to sharpen his football savvy. Zobel believes, at best, Quick is a low end No. 2 receiver and “more likely a No. 3 or a No. 4 guy for a decent team.” In Rounds 5, 6 or 7, he might be worth a flier.
“What I like is with his basketball background, he’s shown he’s capable of going up and making difficult catches,” Zobel said. “He’s a great red zone target. He had 31 touchdowns in his college career. Right now, he’s more an athlete who plays receiver than a true receiver with great athleticism.”