It was’t long ago that scores of experts—ESPN guru Mel Kiper, Jr. among them—were vaulting D.K. Metcalf into the top 10 picks of the 2019 NFL Draft. The undisputed breakout star of the NFL Combine last month, the Ole Miss wideout’s chiseled frame and superhero workout numbers made him one of the most alluring physical prospects in recent history.
But after the New England Patriots announced the final pick of the first round Thursday night in front of a raucous crowd of over 100,000 stretched out along Nashville’s Lower Broadway, both Metcalf and his fellow Rebel receiver A.J. Brown are still waiting to hear their names called.
(Ole Miss offensive tackle Greg Little, who appeared in a few first round mocks but was generally considered a Day 2 guy, is still on the board as well).
The seemingly fickle way in which prospects’ stock ebbs and flows in the months leading up to the draft (months in which none of the prospects are playing actual football) is curious; likely the result of too much time spent analyzing too much information. But there were those who pushed back against Metcalf’s meteoric rise up mock drafts in the days after the combine, citing his modest collegiate productivity and struggles in lateral mobility drills (while his 40 time, vertical jump and bench press ranked him top three among all 2019 combine receivers, his three-cone drill and 20-yard shuffle were among the bottom seven). It's possible that NFL teams were never as enamored with his workout numbers as the media and fans.
The lack of hype surrounding Brown, one of the most dominant receivers in college football over the past two seasons, is even more surprising given his freakish physicality and eye-popping production (he put at least 1,200 yards apiece in each of his final two seasons). After Brown ran a ho-hum 4.49 40 at the combine and caught just 10 balls thrown 20-plus yards downfield last season, the concern is presumably his top-end speed.
After another record-setting year of passing offense in the NFL, GMs on Thursday night prioritized pass rushers and the men tasked with stopping them: 20 of the first 32 picks were either offensive linemen, defensive linemen or rush-capable linebackers. Just five of the picks were non-QB offensive skill players and two of those were tight ends. Still, a couple of wide receivers came off the board on Thursday: the Ravens took Oklahoma’s Marquise Brown with the 25th pick and the Patriots closed the night by grabbing Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry at 32. Though ESPN’s Kiper and Todd McShay had both of those guys rated above Metcalf and Brown, Pro Football Focus, whose ratings are driven more by hard numbers, had the Ole Miss fellas at the top of their receiver boards (and both inside the top 20 overall).
About Brown, PFF wrote:
Brown’s athletic testing was good, not great, which is why he isn’t getting a lot of hype, but when you look at his production over the past two seasons, it’s clear that he is a wide receiver with the potential to produce at the next level. A safe pair of hands and a playmaker that is tough to bring down in the open field once he gets going, he is good enough to be drafted among the top 20 on draft night, but he could represent great value if he slips into the second round.
With Metcalf, there were legitimate excuses for why his numbers were so low. The biggest was a neck injury that limited him to only 201 pass routes in 2018. On a per route basis, he was actually more productive (Metcalf averaged 2.83 yards per route) than guys like N’Keal Harry (2.71), Preston Williams (2.64), Antoine Wesley (2.59) and Stanley Morgan Jr. (2.23) – all 1,000+ yard receivers this past season. Before he was lost for the season against Arkansas, Metcalf ranked eighth in the country with 304 deep receiving yards. Metcalf was legitimately producing, but he simply didn’t see the field enough to show it in his raw numbers.
Regardless, there’s near-consensus that Brown and Metcalf will come off the board early in Friday’s second round. Between CBS, ESPN, NBC, Pro Football Focus and SB Nation, neither Metcalf or Brown are rated lower than 16th among the best available prospects entering Day 2.
A couple of teams (or, might Ole Miss fans dream, one team?) are going to bag elite pass catchers at a value price on Friday night.