The wide receiver class in the 2023 NFL Draft is regarded as a weak one. However, it might be more appropriate to say that it’s an unconventional receiver draft. Most of the top receivers in this draft class would be classified as “outliers” in pretty much any other draft class.
This class is full of undersized receivers who would likely be classified as “slot only” by many teams.
North Carolina’s Josh Downs is one of those undersized receivers who wins thanks to his route running, explosiveness, and body control. But despite his size, he was also remarkably effective in contested catch situations, hauling in 13 of 18 contested catches (per PFF), which was the most in the class.
The New York Giants need more help in the receiver room and have said that they’re more interested in a receivers’ ability to get open than their size.
Could they have noticed Downs while scouting the North Carolina offensive line last year?
Games Played: 28
Yards (YPC): 2,483 (12.3 per catch)
Games Played: 11
Yards (YPC): 1,029 (10.9 per catch)
Best: Quickness, agility, route running, contested catch, run after catch
Worst: Size, play strength
Projection: A starting receiver in a Spread or West Coast offense.
North Carolina Josh Downs is an undersized but athletic and explosive receiver prospect.
Downs primarily played out of the slot in North Carolina’s offense but was fairly frequently moved around the offensive formation. In addition to the slot, he also saw time as an X and Flanker, as well as in jet motion.
He features a diverse and effective release package from every alignment. Downs wastes little time or energy getting into his route with a free release afforded from the slot or flanker position. Downs uses his quickness and hands to smoothly release against man (and press) coverage at the line of scrimmage. He’s able to deflect most jams with his hands, while using a quick stutter-step to throw off corners’ timing in man coverage.
Downs is a technician as a route runner and uses every part of his routes as a weapon against the defense. He freely changes his speed, tempo, and stride length throughout the route to disrupt defenders’ timing. At times he’ll explode into his routes and press the stem vertically as though running a pure “Go” route, only to suddenly break back to the ball. Other times he will almost stop, as if dogging a route when the ball is going elsewhere, before using his burst to accelerate away from defenders. Downs is a very savvy receiver who plays chess with defenders over the course of the game.
Downs is a surprisingly effective player in contested catch situations despite his size. He does a very good job using his route running to create space at the catch point. Not only does he use fakes and double-moves to force bad guesses from defenders, but he will manipulate and bend his routes to maximize the available room on the field. He has great body control and does a great job of locating, tracking, and tracking the ball down the field. Downs is a “hands” catcher but flashes his hands very late in the rep to maximize his speed while providing as few clues as possible to defenders.
The North Carolina offense also schemed touches for Downs off of jet motion. He was often put in motion before the snap and used as a ball carrier or a receiver off of play-action.
Downs was also occasionally used as a punt returner as well, and was effective thanks to the same quickness, agility, burst, and vision that makes him a dangerous ball carrier. He averaged 11.1 yards per return over his sophomore and junior seasons, and 13.3 yards per return in 2022.
While Downs is competitive and very skilled at creating space for himself, he is undeniably undersized for the position, which impacts his game in several ways. He has a small catch radius despite his leaping ability and body control, demanding relatively precise ball placement. He also lacks mass and play strength, making him vulnerable to big, physical defenders. Downs can be knocked off of his route by a good jam at the line of scrimmage, or by stiff incidental contact down the field. Likewise, he can be disrupted by physical defenders at the catch point.
Downs should not be asked to block at the NFL level. He has a willingness to block for his teammates, but he isn’t very good at it and lacks the size or strength to even be a speed bump for defenders.
Overall Grade: 7.0
Josh Downs projects as an important role player or starting receiver in a spread or West Coast offense.
Downs won’t be for every team, and his ranking on big boards could vary wildly based on the team evaluating him. He will come in under many teams’ size thresholds, and he’ll likely struggle in an offense that asks receivers to frequently run iso routes against defenders. Likewise, he isn’t a fit for a run-first offense that frequently asks its receivers to block on the perimeter.
However, his quickness, burst, and route running will be valued by West Coast or Spread teams. Downs is the kind of precision route runner who excels in West Coast Offenses, and he could quickly become a quarterback’s best friend in 11-personnel packages. He is legitimately dangerous within route concepts designed to create separation and run-after-catch opportunities. Likewise, he’s a dangerous ball carrier on screen plays and has the ability to turn a sliver of daylight into an explosive play. Downs might not have elite long speed, but his lower-body explosiveness, quickness, and route running more than make up for that and give him big-play upside.
That could get him drafted earlier than those who judge him solely on his size would expect.