2021 NFL Draft: Best team fits for top wide receivers? Five analytics-based pairings

With the 2021 NFL Draft just around the corner, I’m putting my context-based data models to work in search of identifying the best team fit for some of the top players in this year’s class.

Leading up to Round 1, I’m looking to find ideal NFL homes for my top five wide receivers, running backs and quarterbacks. The goal for each pairing: maximizing the draftee’s 2021 win share, factoring in what we know about each team’s personnel, coaches and strategy right now. And of course, I’m aiming to present realistic matches, ones that could actually come to fruition on draft day.

Without further ado, let’s dig in on my wide receiver fits …

Projected 2021 win share: 0.77

Over the past two college football seasons, Pro Football Focus has Chase with the most touchdown receptions of 20-plus yards (14). Pretty crazy, considering the guy opted out of the 2020 season. In 2019, no college receiver was more open on passes intended to travel 10-plus air yards (as measured by percentage of targets with at least 3 yards to work with). Chase’s speed on yards earned after catching his targets featured the least erosion (a proxy for fatigue) between the start and end of games in the SEC — quite an impressive feat in that conference, particularly in that year. He led the FBS in tight-window receptions (20) and receiving yards on such catches (423), per PFF, while racking up a robust 684 yards after the catch.

The Fins added Will Fuller in free agency, boosting the potential of their receiving corps to nearly the top half of the league: No. 18, according to my model. Chase would push Miami into the top 12.

Projected 2021 win share: 0.69

Alignment versatility. That’s what makes Waddle so enticing here, even with Kenny Golladay already added via free agency. Need him in the slot? Cool. Outside? Also cool. My model says his speed when open (i.e. no defenders are closer than 3 yards) is the fastest among all receivers in this draft class. An ankle injury limited Waddle’s field time in 2020, but he was a nightmare to defend when active. According to Pro Football Focus, he only dropped one target on 29 catchable passes last season, while averaging 10.1 yards after the catch per reception, third-most in the FBS. This helped drive his 4.4 average when it came to receiving yards per route run (also the third-best FBS mark).

Projected 2021 win share: 0.72

Smith’s consistent route running and ability to earn separation give him the highest projected floor and ceiling in this class of wideouts. The Heisman Trophy winner had the highest percentage of receptions in which he had more than 3 feet of separation at the time of the catch despite a defender being within 3 feet of him on the path of the route. This advantage carries over into yards after the catch; Smith’s ability to increase his speed once he had the ball in his hands was the third-best in the FBS this season. Pro Football Focus measured him as the most effective receiver against press coverage across the board in 2020, with Smith leading the FBS in receptions (65), receiving yards (1,144) and TDs (13) against press.

Any receiver who ends up in Detroit will likely be asked to help raise the Leos’ deep-passing potential, given the free agency departure of Kenny Golladay. PFF shows that Smith led the FBS in receptions (15), receiving yards (589) and receiving TDs (8) on targets of 20-plus yards in 2020. Should Smith end up in Detroit, don’t be surprised if he leads all rookie receivers in yards. (Hint, hint: You’d be wise to snag him to beat your friends in fantasy.)

Projected 2021 win share: 0.61

Versatility plus physicality drive this pairing. PFF shows that Marshall posted 20 contested catches in 2019 and 2020 (tied for second-most in the SEC during that span), with the 6-foot-3, 205-pounder hauling in a whopping 81.8 percent of such targets (nine of 11) this past season. My models show that his hips are square to the ball (which is a predictor of catching the ball/winning the contested catch) at a top-five percent over the past eight seasons. And his total of seven receiving TDs on targets of 20-plus yards since 2019 is tied for third-most in the SEC, per PFF.

Projected 2021 win share: 0.59

Should Larry Fitzgerald decide to start the clock on his five-year wait until Canton, Toney could be a raw but promising addition to Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid. Toney played from the slot a lot (86.4 percent of his snaps last season), so this fit would be very interesting. Especially in conjunction with DeAndre Hopkins and A.J. Green. Those two outside studs would allow Toney the space to realize the benefits of his speed. When untouched last season, Toney was the third-fastest player in the SEC with the ball in his hands. Florida also used Toney creatively in the run game, which would be a really nice plus in this offense, given the QB and the architect. Toney forced 20 missed tackles on receptions in 2020 (fifth-most in FBS, per PFF), and his 30.3 percent missed-tackle rate was the highest figure in the SEC. He gained 477 yards after the catch in 2020 (fourth-most in the SEC).

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