If you’ve been paying attention to the 2021 NFL Draft process, you’ve likely seen just a few players mocked to the New York Giants, and Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle has been one of the most popular picks.
Given the state of of the Giants’ passing offense in 2020, it isn’t hard to see why an explosive receiving weapon is such an easy pick at the top of the first round. After all, when a team is 31st in yards and points per game, an anemic passing attack is usually among the causes.
But in a vacuum, Waddle’s rise to a likely top-15 pick could be counted as a surprise. After all, he spent his first two seasons buried on an Alabama depth chart behind the likes of Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, and fellow 2021 prospect DeVonta Smith. For the most part, Waddle was a gadget player and blocker in the first two years of his college career — roles in which he excelled.
But with speed equal to Ruggs (the two raced at Alabama and the videos released on social media showed a tie), and the departure of the two older receivers for the NFL, there was the expectation that 2021 would be Waddle’s coming out party. And for the first four games of the season, it looked like that would be the case. Waddle averaged 139 yards per game and topped 20 yards per catch in three of the four games (with 28.4 and 26.8 per catch in two of those games). But then Waddle suffered both an ankle fracture and sprain returning the opening kickoff against Tennessee, and his season was all but over.
But still, evidence of his explosiveness was enough to keep him in draft experts’ minds and he has risen high on big boards despite limited tape and no formal workouts.
Prospect: Jaylen Waddle
Games Played: 33
(note: not counting week 5 vs. Tennessee)
Yards (YPC): 1,999 (18.9)
Total Touchdowns: 17
Games Played: 5
(note: not counting week 5 vs. Tennessee)
Yards (YPC): 591 (21.1)
Total Touchdowns: 4
Best: Speed, agility, explosiveness, ball skills, run after catch
Worst: Size, injury, experience facing press man coverage
Projection: A starting receiver with scheme and positional versatility.
Alabama receiver Jaylen Waddle is an explosively athletic receiving option with the ability to threaten defense from a variety of positions and at all levels of the field.
Waddle aligned at multiple positions across the Alabama offense, playing as an X and Flanker, out of the slot, and out of the backfield. He runs a diverse route tree and was used to attack defenses deep, across the middle in the intermediate area, and on screen or swing passes. Waddle shows a variety of release strategies, mixing stutter steps and explosive acceleration to disrupt defenders’ timing. He also flashes the ability to use his hands to clear tight man coverage at the line of scrimmage.
Waddle has truly explosive athleticism, with the ability to reach top speed within a couple streps off the line of scrimmage. He also shows an awareness of the impact his speed has on opposing defenses, using it as a weapon in his route running. He does a good job of pressing his route stems vertically, forcing defenders to open their hips early and commit to defending vertical routes, creating opportunities and additional separation on come-back, curl, or crossing routes. He also shows an understated savvy in his route running, navigating defenses well to find voids in zone coverage, as well as varying the tempo of his routes to further disrupt defenders.
He shows great ball skills and competitive toughness at the catch point. He does a good job of consistently locating, tracking, and adjusting to the ball at all areas of the field. He shows the ability to both adjust his route to go get the ball, as well as the body control to adjust to
Waddle is an explosive, albeit uncreative, ball carrier. He shows good initial quickness with the ball in his hands, able to make defenders miss in a phone booth before using his speed to pick up yardage after the catch. His explosive acceleration allows him to split bracket coverage, break defenders’ angles, and out-run entire defenses in the open field.
Waddle plays equally hard without the ball as he does with it. He gives great effort in selling routes to confuse defenders and draw them away from run defense or plays to the other side of the field. Waddle is also a very willing, and surprisingly stout, blocker. He plays with great leverage and technique, sinking his hips to get under defenders’ pads and fitting his hands well to gain inside leverage. Waddle was frequently used by Alabama as a blocker on the play side, and had several key blocks to create extra yardage in the tape viewed.
The biggest concern with Waddle will be his 2020 injury and his general durability. He did not work out over the course of the 2021 Draft Season, and teams will likely have questions as to any lasting impact from the fractured and sprained ankle he suffered. This is, of course, in addition to any concerns teams would have about a 5-foot-9, 180-pound receiver’s durability at the NFL level.
There could also be some concern from coaches as to how well Waddle can deal with press-man coverage on a consistent basis. While Waddle flashed the ability to clear press coverage with technique, he didn’t face it often. Alabama used a variety of alignments and passing concepts to create free releases and separation for all of their receiving options. Likewise, defenses frequently played off and zone coverage against Alabama’s offense.
Overall Grade: 9.0 - This prospect should become a starter early in his career and be a significant contributor in a variety of offenses.
Jaylen Waddle projects as a starting receiver with position and scheme versatility at the NFL level.
Waddle might not be able to consistently line up as an “X” receiver at the NFL level, but he should be an explosive threat from anywhere on the field. That versatility should be an asset in the hands of the right offensive coordinator. Rather than simply being left at the “X” position on the line of scrimmage like top receivers were in the past, Waddle should be moved to create and exploit match-ups.
He is able to execute routes to all areas of the field, using his speed to threaten defenses deep while also being a reliable option in the short to intermediate areas of the field, as well as being a significant run-after-catch threat. Waddle plays bigger than he measures, doing a great job of adjusting to the ball in the air, extending to pluck the ball out of the air, and using the full extent of his athleticism to expand his catch radius. He has a habit of winning contested catch situations, both with the ability to high-point the ball, as well as positioning his body to shield the ball from defenders.
Waddle should also appeal to teams who want to lean on their running game. He is a surprisingly good blocker for a smaller receiver, using his explosive lower body to block bigger defensive backs when playing with good technique. His speed also makes him a viable threat in misdirection, as defenses must respect sweeps when he goes into jet motion before the snap. Likewise, his ability to stretch defenses down the field helps to create favorable match-ups near the line of scrimmage. Waddle is not a player who throttles down when he isn’t getting the ball, and works to sell dummy routes and draw defenders away from the play.
Teams will likely be concerned about his health and long-term durability. His ankle injury was significant, and there might be concern regarding lasting damage. Likewise, teams will likely have concerns whether a player of his stature will be able to consistently play a full schedule. Apart from any health concerns, coaches will want to continue to work with Waddle to refine the technical aspect of his game. He could become even more dangerous with the ability to consistently defeat press coverage and be more precise in his route running.
That being said, assuming Waddle is (and stays) healthy, he should be a dangerous offensive weapon as a rookie, with the upside to get better with coaching.