Jaylen Waddle and The Race for WR1
The college football world collectively groaned as Alabama star receiver Jaylen Waddle was tackled awkwardly while returning the opening kick against Tennessee this past Saturday. The junior had fully established himself as one of the most electric players in all of college ball, nearly equaling his totals in catches and yardage from 2019 through just four full games, and averaging over 22 yards per reception. Waddle suffered a fractured ankle and underwent surgery immediately, and will likely miss the remainder of the season. While Alabama has an abundance of talent on offense, the impact of his loss for that unit as well as the sport as a whole cannot be understated.
This season, the chemistry between Waddle and quarterback Mac Jones had been developing into something special. Jones was able to hit Waddle in stride more and more as the season progressed. When Waddle got his hands on the ball over the middle, you knew danger was coming for opposing secondaries (especially with the quality of SEC defenses at the moment). They had some extremely pretty connections on deep balls as well, and even on underthrows. Waddle has a remarkable ability to fight back through contact and make some strong, acrobatic catches in the air, even at 5’10. He’s the perfect deep threat and space player for today’s game. Combined with his crazy contested ability, he’s made a legitimate case for WR1 in the 2021 Draft.
But is his case strong enough to overtake Ja’Marr Chase? Chase opted out this year as we all know, but arguably has a more complete toolbox at this stage than Waddle. He’s not the athlete Waddle is, but is competent enough. He’s bigger and has a quality understanding of different releases and nuance in his downfield routes. Chase possesses arguably similar, if not better ball-tracking skills to Waddle and has crazy natural hands. Chase did all he needed to with Joe Burrow and company in 2019. Opting out of this season was never going to hurt his stock.
It’s also unfair to overlook Waddle’s teammate, Devonta Smith. Smith has his size concerns but is as savvy and quick of a route runner as you’ll find anywhere. He has tremendous vision and hands. Waddle also fights his tail off at the catch point to make up for his slight frame. His hat is absolutely in the ring, as he also seems to be clicking with Mac Jones and is having a fine season.
This argument is obviously dependent on whether or not Waddle decides to declare in 2021. If he does, the pre-Draft process will be absolutely critical. Teams will have close eyes on every part of his recovery. It’s unclear yet if he’ll miss out on Combine and Pro Day testing. We hope to see him back on the field sooner rather than later, but his start to 2020 showed he can be a complete receiver. The climb to WR1 will be just as enticing as the year prior.