With high schools and colleges running more three and four wide receiver sets than ever before, the pool of talent at the receiver position at every level has grown drastically for NFL teams. An increasing number of receivers have made an immediate impact in the NFL over the past five years, and that trend doesn’t look to be dying anytime soon.
However, the key to any receiver unit is finding that true, number one option. Finding a consistently dominant receiver is what separates deep receiving corps from productive ones.
An “elite” prospect in the NFL Draft is a player who is almost a guaranteed superstar and destined to be at the pinnacle of the position for a long time. Over the past six years, there have been just three receivers that graded out met such criteria: Calvin Johnson (2007), AJ Green (2011) and Julio Jones (2011).
And after a two draft hiatus, we’re likely to have a new addition to that “elite” group: USC’s Marqise Lee.
To be an elite NFL receiver, it takes more than just natural talent. It’s certainly a key factor in having long-term NFL success and being a consistently controlling outside pass catcher. It takes attention to detail, realization on how the little things allow for success, and a toughness and willingness that goes beyond just catching the ball.
Marqise Lee’s background has helped shape him into the complete receiver, and person, he is. Both of his parents are deaf, and he grew up communicating with them through sign language. Both of his brothers joined gangs at a young age. One was murdered as a result of gang violence; the other is in prison for gang -relatedactivities. He was constantly moved as a child between his parents, grandparents, group homes, and foster parents until high school. Despite a disorganized and ever-changing childhood, Lee managed to remain focused as an athlete, and developed into one of the nation’s best and most complete receiver recruits in the country.
Since his time began at USC, he’s shown the mental toughness and focus that’s as impressive as his natural talent. On the field, Lee is a focused, aggressive, and powerful blocker, a skill set few college receivers choose to develop. His willingness to drive block on the edge and in-line is consistently shown throughout his first two years at the school. For such an immensely talented player at a stat-driven position, the fact that Lee both enjoys and has success blocking is a testament to his focus and character on the field.
On the field, he’s certainly been in a class of his own for the past two seasons. The Pac-12’s Freshman Offensive Player of the Year in 2011, Lee followed up that freshman success by winning the Biletnikoff Award just last year, given to the best receiver in the country, and being named a unanimous All-American despite playing with now NFL receiver Robert Woods for both seasons.
Lee possesses adequate size for the position, above the 6’0 marker, and will likely finish his college career in the 200+ pound range. Well-built throughout his body (with room to get stronger), Lee picks up speed in both his routes and after the catch, able to separate both vertically and in shorter, in-breaking routes at a very high level.
As a pass catcher, Lee gathers the ball cleanly in quick throws and secures it consistently after the catch. He times his catches and tracks the ball well, utilizes his length and burst down the field at an elite level, and has strong and developed subtle hand usage to gain quick separation. While his deep breaking routes need more development (though he wasn’t asked to run many of those in 2012), he certainly has the willingness to be physical, body positioning, and body control to finish catches in traffic and vertically.
Since 2004, when our grading scale at Optimum Scouting was finalized, we’ve had just five receivers grade out as an “elite” prospect, a category that generally is reserved for 2-3 prospects per draft. Lee still has the 2013 season (and 2014 season if he’d like) to develop and prove that he belongs in that elite category.
As of now, Lee is firmly in the Top 5 mix for the 2014 NFL Draft, and outside of an injury or a glaring off the field concern, it’d be a surprise to see him slip on draft day. Though we’re 11 months away from hearing the first pick in the 2014 draft called, Lee’s elite talent won’t be fading anytime soon.
Without Matt Barkley as his quarterback and Robert Woods helping to limit his double teams, it could be difficult for Lee to show off his elite talent and upside in 2013. But Lee has dealt with poor circumstances most of his life up to this point. Lee’s mental toughness is what should allow him to have success in 2013, and it’s what will cause teams to fall in love with the future All-Pro Receiver in the 2014 NFL Draft.