Third of an 11-part series. Coming Saturday: tight end.
There was a time when “bigger is better’’ was all the rage, mostly because it was true. When in doubt, go for height and weight, long arms, long legs and big hands. Speed is great, but size, even at wide receiver, was usually thought to be even better.
Size does matter. A towering target to throw the ball up to, with an expansive “catch radius,’’ is coveted by every NFL team and certainly by every NFL offensive coordinator and quarterback. What better way to get the ball in a playmaker’s hands than to put it where no one else can get it?
Unless you get it in the hands of the playmaker in a variety of different ways, mitigating the need for greater size.
Enter Jaylen Waddle, whose skill-set is the closest to Tyreek Hill’s in the 2021 NFL Draft.
And what team could not use a Tyreek Hill in its offense?
“He’s small, but he’s dynamic. He’s explosive. Really, really explosive,’’ former Alabama running back Najee Harris told ESPN, referring to Waddle. “The closest thing to Tyreek Hill. You gotta see him in person, how he plays how he gets in and out of cuts, how he stops and goes 60 right away.”
Hill had all sorts of character issues stemming from a domestic abuse scandal, causing him to drop into the fifth round of the 2016 draft. He developed with the Chiefs into a feared weapon, with his lack of size (he was 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds coming out of college) actually working to his advantage, as NFL defenders find it next-to-impossible to deal with Hill’s combination of speed and elusiveness. They can’t catch him and often cannot find him.
Waddle, at 5-foot-10 and 182 pounds, is nearly an exact replica of Hill in size, and he is nearly comparable to Hill in speed. Hill ran the 40-yard dash in 4.29 and Waddle burned up the track in 4.37.
These sort of offensive threats are ramping up in the NFL, produced by all those spread offenses and run-pass option systems rampant in the college game. Waddle averaged 18.9 yards per reception at Alabama — second on the school’s all-time list. He averaged 19.3 yards in his career as a punt returner. With the ball in his hands, he was a terror for opposing defenses, and he gets that ball in his hands on deep passes, short passes, screens and jet sweeps.
“There isn’t a more dangerous player with the ball in his hands in the draft class, thanks to excellent top-end speed, vision and elusiveness,” ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said.
Mel Kiper Jr., ESPN’s draft expert, concurred, saying Waddle is “the top deep threat in this class and is electric with the ball in his hands.”
Ja’Marr Chase of LSU is widely expected to be the first receiver off the board in the first round, and DeVonta Smith, Waddle’s Alabama teammate and reigning Heisman Trophy winner, is likely to be the second receiver selected. Waddle is in demand as well. He was averaging 139 yards on offense in his first four games this past season before he went down with a broken right ankle in a victory over Tennessee.
Determined to get back on the field, Waddle clearly was not at full strength for the College Football Playoff championship game victory over Ohio State. He scooted 15 yards on a jet sweep on his first play in more than two months and came away limping noticeably.
“My competitive spirit is always something that I’m just going to go with,” Waddle said. “Just to help my team out and just to grind out a win. Obviously we came out victorious, so that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day. Just coming out trying to help your team win.”
In high school in Houston, Waddle was a track star, with a personal best of 10.68 in the 100 meters and 22.40 in the 200 meters. His best long jump was 22 feet, 9 inches.
It is no wonder the comparisons to Hill are there, and they are growing louder as the draft nears.
“Me and him are built similar, so it’s just great to see a guy doing good in the NFL that you can just model your game after,” Waddle said. “He’s producing just so good right now, obviously I watch him a lot.’’
Soon enough, Waddle will join Hill in the NFL, hoping to provide for his team what Hill has injected into the Chiefs.