2021 NFL Draft Rookie Profile: Jaylen Waddle (Fantasy Football)

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Profiling players at this point in the pre-season (as we like to call it here at the Fantasy Footballers) can be a bit confusing as quick takes on Twitter and film highlights can easily sway your emotions. Heck, someone can throw out one statistic in less than 140 characters and you can get lost in the discussion of rethinking your assessment.

But we want to take a lot of the noise we hear and simplify the process of player evaluation by asking a couple of clarifying questions:

  • What on film is repeatable in the NFL?
  • What am I not seeing on film?
  • What type of profile and player comparables give me some semblance of a reference point?
  • What is this player’s alpha trait?

In the case of Alabama receiver Jaylen Waddle, he is routinely the 3rd wide receiver in the conversation for the 2021 NFL Draft behind teammate Devonta Smith and LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase, whom I recently profiled. Waddle’s injury in 2020 allowed him to play only six games which might cloud some of our judgment on his outlook. Let’s look at the playmaking wideout’s college production profile, his athletic measurables and spend the majority of the time analyzing what shows up on film. At the end, I’ll give my thoughts on his place in rookie drafts and some comparables in the NFL.

Editors Note: This article is part of our Rookie Profile series going on until the 2021 NFL Draft. For more on each rookie, check out Andy, Mike, and Jason’s exclusive rookie rankings and production profiles found only in the Dynasty Pass, part of the brand-new UDK+ for 2021.

College Production Profile
Class Games Receptions Yards Yards Per Reception TDs
2018 Freshman 15 45 848 18.8 7
2019 Sophomore 13 33 560 17 6
2020 Junior 6 28 591 21.1 4
Career 34 106 1999 18.9 17

Waddle’s college resume looks a bit underwhelming if you compare to some of the other 2021 prospects and Biletnikoff award winners. His freshman year he was a force for a team that lost in the National Championship to Clemson and he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th best wide receiver, tying Purdue’s Rondale Moore.  His final year looks truncated due to injury but he ranked 2nd in the SEC in yards per route run (4.38) narrowly behind teammate Devonta Smith’s 4.39. That puts things in a better light because we obviously look at Smith’s monstrous Heisman campaign dwarfing almost any other college WR… perhaps ever.

Detractors might point to the lack of top-end production from Waddle as his target share looks dangerously low for a player potentially about to be taken in the top-10. His best season (12.8 percent from his freshman year) ranks in the 9th percentile. Yikes. In fact, if we look at wide receivers drafted in the 1st round over the last 15 years, Waddle’s would be by far the lowest. Coming in 2nd is his teammate Henry Ruggs III. The question is: what do we do with that information?

His low market share and lack of a true breakout age are factors that need to be on our radar yet with some contextual understanding I honestly think it doesn’t matter when we think about how Alabama has turned into WR-U. Since 2018, Alabama has had 32 different players drafted in the NFL including three first-round wide receivers. If Waddle went to a Pac-12 school, he would’ve likely put up gaudy numbers and this conversation would be a moot point.

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Measurables
Height Weight 40-yard dash (HS) 247 Sports
5’10 182 4.33* 4-star Recruit

Waddle isn’t a bean-pole the way Smith is built and profiles more as 185 pounds as he enters the pros. I also put an asterisk next to Waddle’s 40-time because we don’t have official times and the internet is packed with speculation from what Waddle could run. For fun, here’s a link to a Twitter video of teammate Henry Ruggs III and Waddle racing in practice. It’s pretty dang close. But let’s safely put Waddle in the neighborhood of sub-4.35. I think 4.3 is in his range of outcomes.

In terms of pro comparisons based on his measurables, there aren’t a ton of wide receivers that fit his skillset. For 1st round picks since 2000, Phillip Dorsett (2015) and Santana Moss (2001) are the most similar. Moss is probably a fair name to bring up with his lethal punt return skills.

What’s On Tape

My method for watching film is simple: get out a pen and pad of paper. Watch each game in its entirety and each target taking note of the down and distance and simply write down what I see. For a WR, I focus on route-running, aDOT, footwork, contested catches, how they fare against press coverage, and what type of separation they create. For Waddle, I took five of his games, three from 2020 and two from 2019.

Games Viewed: Missouri (2020), Georgia (2020), Texas A&M (2020), Auburn (2019), LSU (2019)

1. Just throw him the dang ball downfield.. and anywhere else.

I’m not telling you something you don’t know about Waddle’s downfield ability. But the diversity in which he was used needs to be stated from the get-go. He isn’t former teammate Henry Ruggs III. Here’s a highlight-reel catch against Missouri but if you dive deeper into that game, OC Steve Sarkisian made it a point to maximize Waddle’s ability to win at different levels of the field.

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Beyond just the speed to get downfield, even on shorter routes (10-15 yards) it was clear his acceleration was just better than his competition. I wouldn’t say he’s deceptive off the line in terms of being smooth the way DeVonta Smith is. Rather, it’s more of a “jolt” the way Tyreek Hill can kick it up a gear faster than everyone else. Tyreek still isn’t my favorite comparable considering Hill had experience playing as a hybrid running back at Oklahoma State. Waddle’s Missouri tape is flush with examples of getting him in space to utilize his acceleration including his 2nd quarter TD where they faked a jet sweep and got him the ball in the flat and let him out-run his defender.

After watching every snap of this five game sample size, I’m not worried about Waddle adjusting to being an NFL route runner. If there is an offense with some creativity, his acceleration is a true trump card. His tape versus Auburn in 2019 is a clinic. He won on almost every level and finished 4/98/3 plus a kick return TD. It’s insane to think as talented as that Alabama team was they ended up losing to Bo Nix and Auburn.

2. It didn’t really matter who the QB was.

That sounds a bit simplified and not as nuanced as perhaps a scouting profile should be but the honest truth is he endured change over his three years and it didn’t really matter. It’s also worth noting how incredibly different these three QBs were on the field in terms of playing styles and ball placement. Tua has a quick trigger and Jones throws with excellent anticipation especially in the short-to-intermediate passing game. But what jumps off the page is that Waddle was near perfect with all three of these QBs:

Main QB Games Played QB Rating when Targeted
2018 Jalen Hurts 15 141.7
2019 Tua Tagovailoa 13 158.3
2020 Mac Jones 6 158.3
Career 34 152.0

For reference, 158.3 is perfection people. Now granted, he found himself on some of the best offenses in the nation playing with other future 1st round NFL wide receivers. The point is showing how he responded and was there any variation in his playing style. While watching the Texas A&M game, I noticed there were a couple of times Jones threw to a spot and Waddle was there on time. In that game, Waddle was actually shown up by John Metchie III a couple of times. Just thought I’d throw his name out there as he’ll be an interesting one to watch for 2022 the draft

3. He would disappear for a quarter or two at a time… but Alabama scored anyway.

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Let’s remember what offense we were dealing with. Matthew Betz highlighted in his Mac Jones Rookie Profile  that Alabama averaged 48.5 point per game, the most in college football history. The offense kept humming even when Waddle went out for half the season.

In the LSU game in 2019, his punt return TD (after almost getting his head taken off) came towards the end of the 1st quarter with Alabama desperately needing a boost going down 14-0 early. But for the rest of the game, Waddle totaled just three catches for 22 yards on what I counted four targets. Was he erased? Well, his longest reception was only nine yards but in that game Devonta Smith and Jerry Jeudy were the preferred targets although Jeudy had three costly drops!

There were stretches when I asked where he was on the field but I also admit going into this film evaluation I was staring him down every play. Defenses certainly were scheming in a way to limit the big play. Instead, I’ll take his elite 3.56 yards per route run in college as a better indicator of his skills. That is a 94th percentile mark among wideouts and probably a measurement we should be using more in college wide receiver production evaluation.

What’s NOT on Tape

The goal for finding out what is not on film isn’t to knock Waddle’s game but the ask the question: what did I not see happen? What was missing? What did I want more of? Here are a couple of quick thoughts

1. Defenders took poor angles

What I mean is that routinely you find defenders (and special teamers) looking a fool simply because of how Waddle would set them up. It’s not necessarily always of the “shake-and-bake” variety but he runs with a head of steam most of the time. His measurable would suggest he’s lighter and a bit more fragile but Waddle’s special teams chops help him immensely in the open field. Jon Moore‘s 2015 article from RotoViz entitled Antonio Brown, Wes Welker and the Hidden Value of Special Teams Stats completely shifted my thinking and analysis regarding prospects with special teams abilities in their profile. It’s not an ancillary trait or production we should ignore.

2. Mastering the curl and dig routes would only enhance his superpowers.

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If you’ve checked out any of my previous Rookie Profiles, you’ll notice if there is one bone I like to pick with young receivers is diversifying their route tree. Honestly, sometimes it can be a bit of a cop-out and a chance to gently offer some constructive criticism for elite athletes. The curl and the dig are easily the toughest routes to master and once they are unleashed in a receiver’s arsenal, they become practically unguardable which a player like Stefon Diggs showed in 2020. Waddle’s speed and acceleration can hide the fact that his footwork is superb. He has the tools in place as his breaks are not so much overly choppy or slow but fairly precise and quick.

The stop-and-go route already is lethal even with safety help over the top:

Here the Texas A&M safety clearly bites and one step in the wrong direction and he’s toast. But that won’t be there all the time in the NFL. Luckily, we’ve seen Waddle’s contested catch-ability is also solid. In that, I think the comparison with Hill is fair as both are not huge targets with a tenacity to snatch 50/50 balls from defenders due to their sheer athleticism to make things happen in the air. All in all, with a more diversified route tree on an NFL offense, Waddle could be set up for more than just success. He can break a game in two.

2021 Fantasy Outlook

If you’ve taken the time to read through this, you’ll find that I’ve offered mostly glowing remarks for Waddle. There aren’t many flaws to his game aside from his injury history. As a freshman, he was lightning in a bottle for that Alabama team despite the presence of so many other 1st round receivers. He’s a competitor and  In rookie drafts, Waddle is in the conversation to be a top-5 pick and I wouldn’t blame anyone if they took him above Devonta Smith and Ja’Marr Chase if the landing spot is plush.

His landing spot is obviously up in the air but it’s possible for him to go as high as #3 to the Dolphins or perhaps with a WR-needy team like Philadelphia or Detroit. It’s also possible he slips to the mid-first and a team like New England (#15), Arizona (#16), Las Vegas (#17) or Miami (#18) grabs him. Regardless, Waddle’s game-breaking acceleration and pension for big-plays makes him a future star in the league given a clean bill of health moving forward.

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