2023 NFL Draft Rookie Profile: Josh Downs (Fantasy Football)

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The wide receiver class in the NFL Draft is considered one of the smaller classes from a height and weight perspective. Quentin Johnston is considered a monster in this 2023 class at 6’3″ while almost every other fantasy prospect is below six feet tall.

One of those guys is North Carolina’s Josh Downs. Is the size a concern? Can he be productive for our fantasy lineups, and if so, what’s his ceiling? This article will look at Downs’ college production profile, measurables and film in order to get a sense of his fantasy outlook.

Editors Note: This article is part of our Rookie Profile series, which will continue until the 2023 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 UDK+ for 2023.

College Production Profile

Coming out of high school as a four-star recruit, Downs was the No. 17 wide receiver in the 2020 recruiting class and the No. 13 recruit in the state of Georgia. He was recruited by several top schools including Michigan, Penn State, and Tennessee, but he chose to attend the University of North Carolina, following his uncle (and former NFL CB) Dre Bly, who was hired as the UNC cornerbacks coach.

After being used as a role player as a true freshman in 2020, Downs broke out in 2021 to the tune of 101 catches and 1,335 receiving yards. As a sophomore, Downs was a first team All-ACC player, and his 101 receptions ranked fifth in the FBS. He followed up a strong sophomore year with another productive junior season in 2022 when he tacked on another 94 catches for 1,029 yards and 11 TDs. In that junior year, Downs did miss two games due to injury, and he opted out of the team’s bowl game. Even so, over the last two years, Downs’ 195 receptions were the most in the NCAA.

From an analytics standpoint, Downs doesn’t necessarily have the best breakout age in the class, but his production profile is strong. Downs posted back-to-back Dominator Ratings of 35% and 34%, and during his breakout campaign in 2021, he accounted for 3.5 receiving yards per team pass attempt, an elite number.

It is worth mentioning that Downs was fortunate to have NFL caliber QB play while in college. Sam Howell was on campus when Downs began his career and Drake Maye, who is projected to be a top pick in the 2024 class next year, took over as the starter last season. I don’t point this out as a positive or a negative – it’s just something to consider in his overall profile when you compare him to the other WR prospects in this class.

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Measurables

Height Weight Age 40-Yard Dash 10-Yard Split Vertical Jump 3-Cone (Pro Day)
5’9″ 171 lbs. 21.7 4.48 sec 1.49 sec 38.5″ 6.75

The first thing that sticks out when you look at Josh Downs’ measurables is his size, or lack thereof. At 5’9″ and just 171 pounds, Downs is the second-smallest WR in our College Production Profiles in the Dynasty Pass, ahead of only Nathaniel “Tank” Dell. In our database, the average NFL WR1 size in college is 6’0.6″ and 202 pounds.

As Jason pointed out on the most recent Fantasy Footballers Dynasty Podcast, Downs’ lack of size is very likely to cap his fantasy ceiling, at least when you consider historical data and trends. We’ll talk more about his fit in the NFL, but that’s certainly a notable point when you look at Downs’ profile.

From an athletic testing standpoint, Downs performed well at the NFL Combine, earning a Relative Athletic Score (RAS) of 8.99 out of a possible 10. For a smaller WR, Downs doesn’t have elite speed when you adjust for his height and weight, but his 3-cone time and his 10-yard split were excellent. Worth noting, his 1.49 10-yard split ranks in the 93rd percentile. When you watch his film, those aspects of his game (short area quickness and explosiveness) certainly show up on tape.

What’s on Tape

Games viewed: Virginia Tech (2021), Miami (2021), Pitt (2022), Notre Dame (2022), Duke (2022)

1. Downs has the ability to change direction quickly and create separation.

As a slot WR, being quick in and out of your breaks is a must in order to create separation. There’s plenty of this on Downs’ tape. This whip route against Notre Dame is an excellent example. He sticks his foot in the ground, accelerates back towards the sideline, and makes the easy grab for the score.

2. He knows how to change speed during his routes to disrupt the defensive back’s timing.

Downs is crafty and smart. What he lacks in size, he makes up for with fluidity and nuanced routes, showing an understanding of timing to create separation. We’ve already touched on his quickness, and that applies here a little bit too, but what’s fun about watching him play is that you can tell he knows how to setup the defensive back by slightly throttling down and then immediately picking his speed back up to create that separation for his QB.

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3. Despite being undersized, Downs is strong at the catch point and isn’t afraid of contact.

Of course with any smaller WR, you won’t see a ton of jump balls on film. However, there’s plenty of instances where Downs shows an ability to fight through contact to make a play. In fact, a lot of NFL scouts have said Downs plays bigger than his size. Here is a great example against Duke.

What’s Not on Tape

1. Routes run on the perimeter

Josh Downs is a slot WR through and through. According to PFF, he lined up in the slot on almost 90% of his routes while at UNC. Simply put, he doesn’t have a ton of experience playing on the perimeter, and when you look at his build, that’s unlikely to change when he gets to the NFL. For fantasy purposes, we’ve seen plenty of slot WRs be productive, but this is largely scheme dependent. If Downs isn’t able to work his way onto the field in 2WR sets for his NFL franchise (and his size suggests that’s probably unlikely), his playing time may be capped.

2. Targets down the field

Sure, there’s a couple of big plays on tape, but the vast majority of Downs’ targets and receptions came on short and intermediate routes. His 8.8 average depth of target lsat season ranked 476th in college football according to PFF. Again, this fits with the overall profile for Downs – as a slot WR, we should expect plenty of short area targets at the next level.

2023 Fantasy and Dynasty Outlook

All in all, UNC’s Josh Downs has a mixed college profile. From a production standpoint, the numbers are certainly there, but fantasy players and dynasty managers will need to be realistic with what to expect from Downs in the NFL. We’ve already established that Downs is very likely to be a slot only WR at the next level, so his ceiling is certainly capped.

That said, I can absolutely see a path for Downs to be a reliable slot WR for fantasy football who is preferred in full PPR formats. After all, the guy did catch almost 200 passes in his two years as a full-time player for the Tar Heels. Downs’ role in the NFL will largely depend on landing spot and scheme fit. Should he go to an NFL offense that runs 3WR sets at one of the highest rates in football, his playing time in the slot will be easier to project. However, if he goes to a scheme that runs a lot of 2TE sets, it’ll be tough for Downs to make a splash for fantasy.

Looking at NFL Mock Draft data and consensus big boards around the industry, it looks like Josh Downs is likely to hear his name called in Round 2 of the NFL Draft based on his expected draft position of 44.9 (Grinding The Mocks). Based off historical data over the last several years, Round 1 NFL Draft picks do tend to have a higher hit rate for fantasy, but if Downs does get top 50 draft capital in the early second round, he’ll have a chance to turn into a productive NFL WR.

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