The wide receiver position. Labeled last week as a "must" for the New Orleans Saints in this 2018 off-season by Saints head coach Sean Payton, the organization could be looking at the need to draft not one but TWO wide receivers later this month during the 2018 NFL Draft in Dallas (April 26th-28th).
While the Saints appear "set" at the two starting WR positions with WR's Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn, Jr., they are also in jeopardy of losing both of last year's #3 and #4 wideouts in undrafted young veterans Wille Snead and Brandon Coleman.
Both Snead and Coleman were restricted free agents, meaning that New Orleans could tender a new contract offer to both players if they so chose, and retained the right to match any offer that either player could get offered by another NFL team.
The Saints then did extend a tender offer to Snead, who hasn't signed it; and he's visited and worked out for the Baltimore Ravens recently but hasn't gotten an offer yet. Meanwhile, team brass decided NOT to offer a tender to Coleman, making him an unrestricted free agent and unlikely (at least right now) to return with the team for the upcoming 2018 season. As of this moment, Coleman has yet to visit with any other team.
Which obviously means that the wide receiver position must be addressed, especially by a player(s) capable of manning the "slot" WR position — which essentially has become another starting role for most NFL offenses.
While it's more than possible that the Saints could target a player such as Texas A&M WR Christian Kirk or University of Maryland star D.J. Moore with their first pick at #27 overall, they could wait until their next pick at #91 overall pick in Round 3 or even later, to address the need.
(Remember: the Saints don't have a 2nd Round pick this year, which they used in last year's 2017 NFL Draft to trade up with the San Francisco 49ers to select Tennessee RB (and eventual 2017 NFL Rookie of the Year) Alvin Kamara.
This morning, Saints News Network takes a quick look at just 5 of the more underrated players at the position, all of whom New Orleans could target beginning with their pick in Round 3, and all the way up to the very end of the draft itself.
CEDRICK WILSON JR., BOISE STATE
We begin first with Wilson, who visited and worked out for the Saints 3 weeks ago. The 6-foot-2, 200 pound Wilson was a junior-college transfer and made an immediate impact for the Broncos, averaging nearly 19 yards per catch and hauling in 17 touchdowns over his two seasons at the FBS level.
Wilson's Dad, Cedrick Wilson, Sr., played seven seasons in the NFL, spending time with the San Francisco 49ers (2001-04) and Pittsburgh Steelers (2005-07). The elder Wilson caught 178 passes for 2,365 yards and eight touchdowns during his pro career, and earned a Super Bowl ring with the Steelers in 2005. Suffice it to say: "the apple didn't fall far from the tree" as Wilson, Jr, clearly inherited his Dad's athletic ability.
After transferring to Boise State before his 2016 junior season, Wilson made an immediate impact on the field, racking up 1,129 yards and 11 touchdowns on just 56 catches. As a senior, Wilson caught 83 passes for 1,511 yards and seven touchdowns, including a 13-catch, 209-yard effort against Virginia in September. He saved his best for last, grabbing 10 passes for 221 yards and a touchdown in a Las Vegas Bowl win over Oregon. That huge performance capped a three-game stretch were he managed at least seven catches and 130 yards in each game.
USA TODAY Sports / Draftwire Analyst Luke Easterling says that Wilson is a lean but smooth pass-catcher who knows how to maximize his strengths, Wilson has all the tools to make an instant splash in the right situation at the next level. The depth of this year’s class could make him a huge value pick in the mid-to-late rounds.
RICHIE JAMES, MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE
Talk about endorsements, it was no less than former NFL superstar WR and now NFL.com football analyst Steve Smith Sr. who says that despite his diminutive size, the 5-foot-9, 185 pound James makes unbelievable things happen whenever the football is in his hands. Smith says that James, who never shies away from contact, is very raw, but resembles clay — since he could be molded into whatever the team needs. With the right team and offense, Smith believes that James has the potential to be a Pro Bowl-caliber punt returner and chain mover.
A three-star recruit out of Sarasota, Florida, James was named first-team All-C-USA as a redshirt freshman in 2015 after catching 107 passes for 1,334 and eights TDs, adding 158 yards and another score on 13 carries. He had three games with multiple scores. James didn't slow down as a sophomore in 2016, earning first-team All-C-USA honors for catching 105 passes for 1,625 yards and 12 touchdowns along with 38 rushes for 339 yards and four more scores.
However, last year James's junior season ended after just five games due to a broken collarbone, and he decided to declare early for the draft. USA TODAY Network-Tennessee writer Erik Bacharach says that 27 NFL teams (including the Saints) were in attendance at James' Pro Day over 3 weeks ago, where one anonymous NFL scout (who didn't want to be named) said that James has "very good football smarts, and you can line him up at either an X or a Z position. He can play inside in the slot. He’s got excellent hands, body control and runs his routes at full speed. And he’s a great competitor. Those are things you like to see in a guy like him."
With the Saints needing both a player who can man the slot WR position as well as someone that can return punts, James would certainly seem to be a prospect that Saints Director of College Scouting Jeff Ireland and company will have their eyes on — as they hope to land a "steal" at the WR position on Day 3 (Saturday, April 28th) of the Draft's mid-to-late rounds.
KEY'VANTANIE "KEKE" COUTEE, TEXAS TECH
Much like Richie James who can both play out wide, in the slot, and return kicks, Texas Tech University WR Key'vantanie "KeKe" Coutee is yet another big-time play-maker who is underrated or that is being undervalued, because of his diminutive (5-foot-10, 185 pounds) size. But make no mistake about it: "KeKe" can "straight-up ball" at the next level.
CBS Sports.com Draft Analyst R.J. White says that Coutee is an agility-based slot wideout who's quicker than fast but possesses quality long speed. He notes that Coutee has adequate elusiveness and balance in the open field for a receiver at his smaller size, but also possesses "plus" return kick skills. White believes that Coutee will become a "niche offensive weapon" once he gets to the NFL — and we already know how much Saints head coach Sean Payton likes to have more weapons in his offensive arsenal.
Coutee "broke out" as a sophomore in 2016, earning an honorable mention All-Big 12 selection after catching 55 passes for 890 yards and seven TDs. But then Coutee exploded for 1,429 yards and 10 touchdowns on 93 catches as a junior last season in 2017, and also returned a kick for a TD as he racked up 315 yards on 10 kick returns. He was named second-team All-Big 12 for his work as a receiver, which included four scores in three games to open the year and back-to-back huge games against Arizona State (12 catches, 186 yards, one TD) and Houston (11 catches, 161 yards, one TD). Coutee finished the year on a roll, catching nine passes for 168 yards against Texas then rolling up 187 yards and a TD on 11 catches in the Birmingham Bowl.
Pro Football Focus Draft Analyst Josh Liskiewitz says that "Keke" will become an explosive playmaker for some lucky NFL team at the slot WR position, given that he racked up 1,265 yards from the slot at Texas Tech last year (best in this year's 2018 WR class), and forced 39 combined missed tackles after the catch in 2016 and 2017. He was also one of the top deep threats in college football, putting up 542 receiving yards on targets at least 20 yards downfield on just 18 deep targets. It’s most likely Coutee will be taken by a team that needs a second wide receiver just like the Saints, who might end up needing TWO more WR's if they lose Willie Snead in Free Agency.
DAURICE FOUNTAIN, NORTHERN IOWA
Up next is the young man who many observers consider to be the "biggest sleeper" among this year's 2018 WR Class: University of Northern Iowa WR Daurice Fountain. Regarded as one of the most impressive players back during practice for the East-West Shrine Game in late January, Fountain was named offensive MVP during the event at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. Fountain racked up a game-high 61 receiving yards on three catches for the East squad, also adding 40 punt-return yards on two attempts as the West All-Stars knocked off the East, 14-10, in the final minutes. Unfortunately, he was "snubbed" by the NFL Combine, who did not extend him an invitation to participate.
USA TODAY NinersWire Draft Analyst Jerod Brown says that Fountain has unreal athleticism that begins with a rare blend of size and explosiveness. At nearly 6-foot-2, the 22-year old has body control that is prototypical of a number one receiver. Fountain recorded vertical and broad jumps that were 40 inches and 11-foot-1-inch, respectively, and that’s before pre-Combine specific training.
Brown adds that Fountain's "firehose" 34.5-inch arms have NFL scouts talking, and it’s clear to see why teams will be wanting to get a closer look. The elite physical traits aren’t just in one category — they’re all across the board. And Fountain has used that physicality, paired with solid hands and toughness at the catch point, to stand out thus far in the early 'draft season' process.
Fountain racked up 943 yards and 12 touchdowns on 66 receptions in his final season at Northern Iowa, finishing as just the sixth player in program history to be ranked in the Top-10 for catches (150), yards (2,077) and TDs (23). As of now, Fountain is being projected as high as a 3rd Round pick, and could be just the right fit as a "3rd option" for Sean Payton, Drew Brees, and the Saints offensive attack in 2018.
JAKE WIENEKE, SOUTH DAKOTA STATE
Last but certainly not the least, we come the young man who might not become an NFL "superstar", but who could go on to have a very solid pro career if he ends up with the right team in the right system, that can properly use his diverse talent in an effective way. Ladies and gentlemen: meet South Dakota State University WR Jake Wieneke, who with over 5,000 receiving yards and just shy of 50 touchdown catches in his 4-year college career, dominated his competition in the Football Championship Subdivision (known as the FCS).
Wieneke's college career begin with a bang for the Jackrabbits, as he set a school record with 16 touchdowns as a freshman. He gained 1,404 yards on 73 receptions in that season, then managed to top 20 yards per catch as a sophomore by producing 1,472 yards on 72 receptions with 11 touchdowns. Wieneke delivered a similar season as a junior, with 78 receptions, 1,316 yards and 16 touchdowns, numbers that made him the school record holder in receiving yards and receiving TDs heading into his senior year last season in 2017.
Weineke's senior-season stats weren't nearly impressive, though he still added 65 receptions, 965 yards and another 16 more touchdowns, giving him a whopping 61 total scores for his career (a number that includes a passing TD as a junior and a rushing score as a senior). Wieneke then "saved his best for last"; catching nine passes for 140 yards and two TDs (plus a 48-yard rushing TD) against New Hampshire and seven passes for 105 yards and a TD against James Madison during the FCS playoffs.
The 6-foot-4, 215 pound Weineke isn't necessarily a fast burner or a "speed demon", but he gains speed by using longer strides. In other words: the deeper route that he runs, the faster he actually appears to be. And with an NFL frame and a well-rounded skill set, USA TODAY Sports / Draftwire analyst Luke Easterling says that Wieneke could be the rare Day 3 pick that makes an immediate and significant impact at the next level — and he's just one of the underrated WR's among several prospects at the wide receiver position later this month during the 2018 NFL Draft, for your New Orleans Saints...........