Jaylen Waddle NFL Draft

Is Alabama WR Jaylen Waddle a first-round prospect?

July 6, 2020

Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle will be a hot name in the NFL Draft community for the next several months and is already considered one of the top prospects at his position for the 2021 draft. Whether that means he’s worthy of first-round consideration requires a deeper dive into his preseason assessment.

Waddle is unofficially listed at 5’10 and 180 pounds. That’s hardly an alpha’s height-weight combination. Waddle’s former teammate and 2020 Raiders first-round pick, Henry Ruggs III, measured 5’11 and 188 pounds at the NFL combine and Waddle’s frame looks pretty similar on tape. There shouldn’t be any surprises with an underwhelming weigh-in next February.

But even if Waddle is a 185-pounder, his frame looks maxed out and he doesn’t profile as a wide receiver who will out-muscle defenders on the next level. While that’s a bit concerning for a player who’s garnering first-round attention, it isn’t a fatal flaw for Waddle considering he projects more as an inside receiver who will win in space with his speed and quickness.

Speaking of speed and quickness, Waddle possesses an abundance of both traits. His performance against Auburn in 2019 was jaw-dropping at times. He played that game at a different speed than the Tigers’ defenders when he caught four passes for 98 yards and three touchdowns. And it’s that game that has so many draft analysts excited about his potential now that he should see an uptick in targets this season with the departure of Ruggs and Jerry Jeudy.

But we can’t ignore Waddle’s disappearing act at times. Granted, it’s difficult to get looks when there are so many mouths to feed in Alabama’s passing game, but his production dipped from 848 yards and seven touchdowns as a freshman to just 560 yards and six scores last year. He registered 12 fewer receptions and his yards per catch shrunk by nearly two yards (which is pretty remarkable considering he still averaged 17 yards per catch in 2019).

Waddle, at times, is lightning quick off the line of scrimmage and gets on top of opposing defensive backs in a hurry. When he’s able to force that early hip-flip in coverage, he wins. It’s almost laughable, actually. But I didn’t think his tape was consistent enough in that department. He appeared, at times, like he knew the ball wasn’t coming to him; his effort at the snap and into his route wasn’t always at the same speed, and that’s a concern for me. He can get away with that at Alabama. Chances are the quarterback’s first or second read is going to be open. If Waddle wasn’t in that top two (or even three), then the odds of him getting exposed for loafing were low. But in the NFL? It just doesn’t work that way, and if Waddle can’t be depended on to go full speed, on every rep, coaches will lose patience in a hurry.

I want to be clear on this point: I don’t think a red flag needs to be raised about Waddle’s effort at this point. But I’ve circled it as something I’d like to see him improve in 2020. I expect he will.

Waddle is a coordinated and balanced route-runner who has no trouble changing directions or snapping off hard breaks. He can separate after just a few steps and even though he doesn’t have the largest catch radius, he presents as an easy and open throw for his quarterback. His ability to pluck passes away from his frame is a plus, too.

Waddle’s contested-catch ability is promising at this point in his development. While he didn’t have a ton of contested situations in 2019, he certainly flashed the ability to secure the pass and hold on through contact and to the ground. He has a physical element to his game that shows up in those moments and when he’s tasked with being a run blocker. He’s scrappy, and I like that.

It’s worth noting Waddle’s ability as a kick returner, too. He’ll be a dynamic weapon on special teams early in his NFL career.

Overall, Waddle is entering the 2020 season as a player with an unstable draft valuation. He could easily vault himself into the top-15 picks after a season dominated by highlight-reel moments. At the same time, he could plummet to Round 3 or lower if he doesn’t take the kind of significant step forward in life after Ruggs and Jeudy.

I’d bet on Waddle’s speed and dynamic playmaking to keep him in the first-round conversation this season.

Preseason grade: Late-1st, Early-2nd

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