With Marvin Jones in Detroit and Mohamed Sanu in Atlanta, the Bengals are in definite need of a playmaking wide receiver. On Wednesday, Brandon LaFell seemed close to coming to terms on a contract with Cincinnati, but the two parties have yet to close out the deal. Whether LaFell signs or not, the Bengals will still need to take a wide receiver in one of the first three rounds of the 2016 NFL Draft in order to ensure Andy Dalton can continue to progress as one of football's top quarterbacks.
Advanced analytics is the new black in football, and Football Outsiders has quietly become one of the most successful analytics groups. Every season, Football Outsiders takes a look at some of the top receiving prospects in the draft, using a statistic it calls "Playmaker Score." The statistic is far from perfect, but it can be very useful on occasion. Last year, Football Outsiders' numbers on Amari Cooper had him as the draft's top wide receiver by a longshot and Stefon Diggs as one of the top sleepers in the draft class.
Teaming up with ESPN, Football Outsiders released their rankings of this year's draft class, based on each wideout's Playmaker Score. Here's what they found.
1. Corey Coleman, Baylor: 709 yards/season
Scouts Inc.: No. 43 overall
Similar historical prospects: DeAndre Hopkins, Steve Smith
Coleman has a monster projection. As a junior, Coleman gained 1,363 receiving yards and caught an eye-popping 20 receiving touchdowns. Because Baylor passed the ball only 389 times in 2016, Coleman scored a touchdown on 5.1 percent of Baylor's passes. That's an incredible ratio, which has been topped by only four elite players: Randy Moss, Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant, and Larry Fitzgerald. Coleman also tested out well physically, posting a position-best 40.5-inch vertical jump at the NFL combine.
Notwithstanding these numbers, there are certainly legitimate concerns regarding Coleman's ability to transition to the NFL level. Baylor coach Art Briles' innovative offense may have inflated the WR's stats, and Coleman did not run a full route tree at Baylor. Nevertheless, Coleman's upside and potential are well worth the price of a first-round selection.
Coleman's lack of size and the simplicity of Baylor's passing attack were the only two knocks scouts seemed to have on the 2015 Biletnikoff Award winner and unanimous All-American. But as time has gone by, analysts have come to realize that undersized receivers have been taking the league by storm over the past two seasons. Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham and John Brown are three guys who have defied the knock on slight receivers and proven that the little guys can get it done on the big stage. The Bengals would knock it out of the park if they were to select Coleman in the first round of this year's draft.
2. Will Fuller, Notre Dame: 561 yards/season
Scouts Inc.: No. 26 overall
Similar historical prospects: Santonio Holmes, Torry Holt
Fuller may have made headlines for his blazing 4.32-second 40-yard dash, but Playmaker Score is more interested in his strong receiving numbers in the relatively low-volume Notre Dame passing offense. Fuller scored 29 receiving touchdowns in his last two seasons at Notre Dame and recorded an impressive 17.4 yards per catch. Scouts may be concerned that Fuller has a relatively slight build (6-feet, 186 pounds), but size is highly overrated at the wide receiver position. Great wide receivers have come in all shapes and sizes; what matters is production.
A somewhat undersized prospect, Fuller faced similar criticism as Coleman heading into the combine, but his jaw-dropping performance in Indianapolis has changed plenty of people's minds about the pass-catcher. There are plenty of questions about Fuller's hands, but the receiver affirmed many by catching every single pass thrown his way in the combine's wide receiving gauntlet drill. Fuller is a speed demon, and the Bengals should absolutely call his name if he's still on the board at 24th overall.
3. Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss: 479 yards/season
Scouts Inc.: No. 14 overall
Similar historical prospects: Michael Floyd, Yatil Green
Despite being much more highly regarded by Scouts Inc. than either Coleman or Fuller, Treadwell finished in a distant third in this year's Playmaker projections. Why isn't Treadwell No. 1?
First, Treadwell's rate statistics are not particularly impressive. His best season was his junior year, when he recorded 1,153 yards and 11 touchdowns. Those are certainly fine numbers for a college wide receiver, but fall short of the numbers most highly drafted NFL wide receivers produce. For example, Amari Cooper produced 1,727 yards and 16 touchdowns in his final season, even though his team (Alabama) passed less than Treadwell's team did. As another example, Nelson Agholor, who was considered only a fringe first-round prospect, put up 1,313 yards and 12 touchdowns in his final season on a team (USC) that also passed less than Treadwell's.
Treadwell's career yards per reception is also a below-average 11.8 yards per catch, although his yards per reception numbers did improve as his college career progressed. Possession receivers in college rarely pan out in the NFL, and Treadwell did not have the rushing attempts that would mark him as the kind of "jack of all trades" receiver who sometimes succeeds in the NFL despite low yards per reception numbers.
Playmaker Score likes that Treadwell is coming out as a junior, but he is poised to have one of the worst projections ever for a first-round underclassman, joining Jonathan Baldwin, Cordarrelle Patterson, Anthony Gonzalez and Yatil Green.
Laquon Treadwell seems like a solid prospect, but Football Outsiders doesn't seem to like the wideout. I still think that he's a decent first round prospect despite this grade, though the comparisons to Jonathan Baldwin and Cordarrelle Patterson are scary. The Bengals are reportedly meeting with Treadwell before the draft and it's likely they'll attend his Pro Day on March 28.
4. Josh Doctson, TCU: 474 yards/season
Scouts Inc.: No. 20 overall
Similar historical prospects: Mark Clayton, Michael Jenkins
Doctson's numbers are similar to Fuller's, but there is one important difference: Fuller posted his numbers as a junior and enters the draft as an underclassman, while Doctson enters the draft as a senior. Senior wide receivers fail at a much greater rate than their junior counterparts. The four least productive wide receivers drafted in the first round from 1996 to 2013 were all seniors (A.J. Jenkins, Rashaun Woods, R. Jay Soward and Marcus Nash), even though most of the first-round picks in this time period were underclassmen.
Football Outsiders clearly has a vendetta against senior wide receivers, though the doubts seem pretty warranted. Doctson, though praised by many, is still coming off an injury and is two years older than Corey Coleman and Will Fuller. Teams will certainly take this into consideration on draft day.
5. Michael Thomas, Ohio State: 463 yards/season
Scouts Inc.: No. 39 overall
Similar historical prospects: Marty Booker, Brian Hartline
Playmaker Score probably underrates Thomas because Ohio State divided its relatively small passing game (only 325 attempts in 2015) among many talented pass-catchers. Indeed, nearly all of Ohio State's receiving corps -- Thomas, Braxton Miller and Jalin Marshall -- received invitations to the NFL combine. Despite the wealth of receiving talent on the team, Thomas managed to score a touchdown on 2.7 percent of the Buckeyes' pass attempts. Indeed, Playmaker would consider Thomas a better prospect than Treadwell or Doctson, if not for those players' higher projected draft position.
Plenty of Bengals fans are enthusiastic about the former Ohio State wideout Michael Thomas, who is the nephew of Keyshawn Johnson. At 6-foot-3, Thomas has the size to be a difference-making wide receiver. The pass-catcher will need to work on footwork and route-running if he wants to take his game to the next level and become an Pro Bowl-caliber receiver. He'd definitely be a scary first round selection for the Bengals, given the team's need to find an immediate impact pass-catcher, but Thomas has a high ceiling that can't be ignored.
Rounding out the top 10:
6. Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina (457 yards/season)
7. Tyler Boyd, Pittsburgh (421 yards/sesaon)
8. Rashard Higgins, Colorado State (365 yards/season)
9. Leonte Carroo, Rutgers (362 yards/season)
10. Sterling Shepard, Oklahoma (328 yards/season)