2021 NFL draft prospects: Alabama WR Jaylen Waddle

Eric Edholm
·5-min read
Eric Edholm's criteria for grading NFL draft prospects. (Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)
Eric Edholm's criteria for grading NFL draft prospects. (Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)

Alabama WR Jaylen Waddle

5-foot-10, 180 pounds

Yahoo Sports draft grade: 6.22 — possible immediate starter

TL;DR scouting report: Perhaps the fastest, most explosive receiver in the draft, although Waddle lacks great size and experience

Games watched: Missouri (2020), Texas A&M (2020), Georgia (2020), Ole Miss (2020)

The skinny: A 5-star Rivals recruit (No. 31 nationally), Waddle committed to Alabama and made an immediate impact as a true freshman. In 2018, he caught 45 passes for 848 yards and seven TDs and returned 16 punts for 233 yards and one TD in 15 games (three starts). Waddle started three of his 13 games in 2019, catching 33 passes for 560 yards and six TDs and was named SEC Special Teams Player of the Year with 20 punt returns for 487 yards and a TD and five kickoff returns for 175 yards and one TD.

In 2020, he saw time in six games (three starts) and caught 28 passes for 591 yards and four TDs, also rushing three times for 12 yards. But Waddle suffered a broken ankle on the opening kickoff vs. Tennessee and missed most of the remainder of the season, returning for a three-catch, 33-yard performance in the national title game victory over Ohio State. He also ran back two punts for 13 yards and four kickoffs for 39 yards last season. Following the season, Waddle declared early for the 2021 NFL draft.

Upside: Fastest and most explosive receiver in this class. Rare jets to eliminate pursuit angles — an absolute blur. Pulls away from even the fastest defenders — second and third gear to turn on the afterburners when he has the space. A true game changer when he has a runway and a threat to tax corners and safeties for 60 minutes.

Was averaging nearly 140 yards and a TD per game when he suffered an ankle injury vs. Tennessee. Had 80 more receiving yards at the time than eventual Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith. Career receiving average of 18.9 yards per catch and 17 TDs on only 106 receptions.

Doesn’t need a ton of targets to impact a game — averaged 6.3 targets in his seven highest yardage games, averaging 132.1 yards in those games. Dangerous, game-breaking returner who scored twice on 38 career punt returns and once on nine career kickoffs.

Lined up in the slot, outside, put in motion often and even in the backfield in special packages. Used in WR screen game and also on deep shots and over the middle. Lethal on crossing routes, able to fly by unsuspecting defenders. Jet-sweep candidate who can turn the corner in a hurry.

MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA - JANUARY 11: Jaylen Waddle #17 of the Alabama Crimson Tide rushes after a reception during the first quarter of the College Football Playoff National Championship game against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Hard Rock Stadium on January 11, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Alabama WR Jaylen Waddle is an absolute blur in the open field. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Also possess great change-of-direction skill. Loose lower half with great start-stop ability. Can accelerate in a blink. Able to shake loose from press coverage with his rare burst, quickness and explosion off the line. Great short-area burst to make would-be tacklers whiff entirely — tons of make-you-miss talent. YAC monster — 1,042 of his 1,999 career receiving yards came after the catch, per PFF.

Tough and competitive despite his smaller frame. Shows some fearlessness attacking the middle of the field, where some speed merchants prefer not to roam. Good hands catcher in traffic who can haul in 50-50 balls better than most small wideouts.

Very well-liked by Bama staff and teammates. Infectious, positive personality — always seems to come to work with a smile on his face but wants to cut his opponents’ throats. Said to love the daily grind — considered a maniacal worker and competitor but also puts the team first.

Downside: Small-framed target — measured a few ticks below 5-foot-10 and weighed less (180) at pro day than hoped. Arm length (30 3/8 inches), hand size (9 1/8 inches) and wingspan (74 5/8 inches) all well below what’s desired.

Some injury concerns over time with a lack of true body armor. Hobbled around during the national-title game, concerning some evaluators — injury must be carefully vetted to make sure no more structural damage was done.

Can get stronger overall, especially in his lower half. Ankle injury prevented him from posting pro-day workouts. Might be bound for the slot primarily, which is what he was asked to play nearly 80 percent of his college snaps.

Played on one of the most talented WR groups ever alongside DeVonta Smith and 2020 first-rounders Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III — and often ran fourth in terms of touches and opportunities. Caught passes from two first-round QBs (Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones), as well as second-rounder Jalen Hurts — all three of whom will be starting games this fall in the NFL. Didn’t face much tricked-up coverages, even with his game-breaking speed.

Hands can be improved — four drops on 40 targets in 2019. Tends to body-catch some easier passes, leading to the occasional flub. Was more efficient and reliable in 2020 but still isn’t the most natural hands catcher in this class. Will mistime jump balls and jump for balls he shouldn’t.

Relatively inexperienced — only nine career starts (34 games) and 971 career snaps. Career production was a bit inconsistent because of injuries, role and surrounding cast. Can diversify his route tree and add more polish to his overall game. Not an impact blocker. Didn’t do much with his rushing attempts. Wasn’t as impactful on returns in 2020.

Best-suited destination: Waddle is a nuclear-grade weapon, although he might be best served being used as a complementary piece and not a volume target early in his career. His game remains a bit raw in some respects, although we believe in time he could be a truly special deep threat and yards-after-catch monster who can transform an offense, especially from the slot.

Did you know: Attending high school just outside the Houston area, chose Alabama over Texas, Texas A&M, Florida State, TCU and Oregon.

Player comp: Tyreek Hill

Expected draft range: Top-15 pick