Can 2021 NFL Draft prospect Jaylen Waddle be WR1?
Otherwise known for being a defensive prospect factory, the Crimson Tide is also changing with the times to become a program sporting some of the most exciting wideout talents in the country year in and year out.
One of the only recent significant alumni in the position group has been Falcons All-Pro Julio Jones, but recent draftee’s Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs look to signify an essential shift in focus within Saban’s operation. Jaylen Waddle is part of the next generation of great Crimson Tide wide receivers.
Waddle is a 5-foot 10, 183-pound junior who will carry on the playmaking role previously held by Raiders wide receiver Henry Ruggs. Both Jerry Jeudy and Ruggs had the ability to make plays after catching the ball, but each had their own style in doing so.
Ruggs is a pure burner who says “you can’t beat me” as he screams around the corner. Jeudy is a calculated runner who uses smooth movement and planned running lanes to cut defenses in half on his way to the endzone. Waddle seems to have inherited traits from each.
With 4.37 speed that will only improve and a smooth running style that incorporates smooth footwork with fluid hips, Waddle combines the best aspects of previous players to become one of the toughest players to tackle in the country.
As a wide receiver, Waddle’s number one job is obviously making receptions, but with his skill set many of these catches will need to be at full-speed in open space with a trailing defender reaching to get a hand in. Waddle did not demonstrate any issues catching on the move and turning upfield for extra yardage afterward.
These same hands performed up to standard on special teams and won’t be a future hindrance as a return-man. Although he was not used much towards the sidelines, when given the opportunity, Waddle was able to use his footwork to keep a foot in bounds but will need to continue to work to make those same catches with two-feet against tighter coverage in the NFL.
The key portion of any speed receiver’s game that will divide the stars (ex: Tyreek Hill) from the busts (ex: Darrius Heyward-Bey) is their ability to create separation on short to intermediate routes. These quick, small-statured receivers will always be some of the leading options to move the chains on third down because of their ability to find pockets and get open in a phone booth.
Waddle does not yet have the polished technique to compete with NFL corners but has the physical tools (footspeed) to improve substantially before draft day. Already though, Waddle presents himself well to the quarterback during scramble-drills and releases well off of the line of scrimmage.
Finally, there is a single question being asked about every wide receiver now that can make draft stock explode: Are they an ‘X-Factor?’ Does this player have the ability to change a scoreline in a single play? Can this player bring exorbitant value to my special team’s unit?
The answer for Waddle in a resounding yes.
Waddle has not only averaged over 17 yards per reception in both of his collegiate seasons but he also produced 24 yards per punt return and 35 yards per kick return with a touchdown return for each. This kind of production can’t be argued, and will directly translate to the NFL.
The more important piece of information to be extracted from Waddle’s X-Factor isn’t what he does, but how he does it and what those skills can translate to with future development. Besides his mismatch-generating speed, Waddle uses excellent vision and agility to slice his way through defenders.
With the ball in hand, Waddle reads the field similar to a running back and waits for defenders to naturally drift apart in space before attacking gaps. Once he hits one hole though, he continues to search for the next one and then shifts his hips and feet to the new gap. This kind of weapon on screens and returns in deadly enough as is, but if Waddle can translate this to slants, posts, corners, and routes that create downfield separation without blocking, he will be a force to be reckoned with.
Player Comparison: Cordarrelle Patterson
The popular option for a player comparison is always going to go to Chiefs star wideout Tyreek Hill, but to compare a junior wide receiver to a perennial All-Pro is unfair to both sides.
Although they may share a similar skillset and Waddle could develop into a Hill-like player, he is not yet there and should be compared to a player more to his current abilities.
Patterson has made a career as a return-specialist and offensive-utility weapons. New England even had success using Patterson as a running back because of his speed and vision, and whichever teams lands Waddle could look to do something similar.
Waddle has lots of room to grow, but until he shows he has the consistent speed, technical refinement, and return-ability of Tyreek Hill, I will hold off on that comparison.