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Are top “contested catch” numbers in college a red flag?

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NCAA Football: Arizona State at Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

We’re only a week from the draft, so speculation about which teams will take what players at what spot in the draft is consuming an inordinate amount of time on the part of football fans and sports writers alike. College highlight reels are being viewed on continuous loops with the imagined fates of future NFL franchises hanging in the balance.

Few of these clips are more entertaining than the wide receiver footage, with dramatic images of WRs ripping balls from the hands of grabby defenders attracting some of the most acclaim. These sorts of plays are so popular, they’ve even gotten their own nickname, “Mossing” - in honor of Hall of Fame WR Randy Moss.

In more technical terms, these sorts of receptions are classified as “contested catches.” Per PFF:

“these are plays where the defender is in range and contests the pass at the catch point.”

And in the pros, the top contested catch specialists are among the most highly respected WRs in the game: Tyreek Hill, Stefon Diggs, Mike Evans, and Allen Robinson, to name a few.

But what about in college, where the talent disparities between stars and the future accountants and lawyers covering them can be far greater, and where a “contested catch” may be more an indication of inadequate separation (or a poor quarterback) than it is of high end WR performance?

I thought I’d take a look back over the past several years of WRs entering the NFL - with a focus on those with the most impressive “contested catch” numbers - to see how that has tended to translate at a much higher level of competition.

2017

In 2017, Oklahoma’s Marquise Brown led college football in the percentage of his receptions coming on contested catches. He posted nearly 1,100 yards receiving and 7 TDs on 57 catches. A little over one year later, he would be taken in the first round of the NFL draft by the Ravens, at pick 25, the first WR taken that year, over standouts like Deebo Samuel, AJ Brown, Dk Metcalf, and Terry McLaurin.

Brown finally came into his own in his third season, 2021, eventually going over 1,000 yards for the first time in his career, but his first two seasons were fairly underwhelming, particularly for the guy drafted as WR1. We’ll see this season if his career trajectory continues upward.

2018

The 2018 college “contested catch” leader was Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry. He made his pre-draft reputation based on highlight reel catches like the one below.

In my mind, Harry will live on eternally as the only first round wide receiver Bill Belichick had ever drafted in nearly 20 years with the Patriots. He was taken 32nd overall in the 2019 draft. Harry’s pro performance has been so lackluster - he’s accumulated less than 600 yards in three seasons - that there was serious discussion the Patriots might cut him before the 2021 season began. They’ve continued to try to shop him, but there appears to be very little league interest.

Other 2018 college notables include two serious Philadelphia Eagles’ busts, JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Jalen Reagor. Arcega-Whiteside, drafted in the second round (#57) in 2019 has collected 290 yards in three seasons, and Reagor taken in the first round (#21) of the 2020 draft has averaged about 350 yards per season over the past two years.

2019

The 2019 college leader in “contested catches” was Baylor’s Denzel Mims, and he received the corresponding level of pre-draft hype.

Taken by the Jets in the second round (#59) of the 2020 draft, he’s thus far failed to live up to it. His pro stats are below:

Another high profile contested catch specialist taken in the 2020 draft was one familiar to all Commanders’ fans, Antonio Gandy-Golden. The less said about that, probably the better.

Tyler Johnson, out of Minnesota, was just behind AGG in contested catches in 2019, and was taken in the 5th round of the 2020 draft by the Buccaneers. In his two seasons as a pro, Johnson has averaged 265 yards per year.

2020

Recall that the 2020 college football season was severely COVID-impacted, but looking back over the preceding several seasons, including 2020, certain WRs rose to the top. I’ll discuss a few of those below.

In the lead up to the 2021 draft, Oklahoma’s Tylan Wallace received a considerable amount of attention for his contested catch ability.

Drafted by the Ravens in the fourth round, Wallace ended his rookie season with two receptions for 23 yards.

From the group above, Wilson was a senior in 2021 and had 19 receptions for 185 yards. I’d be surprised if he’s drafted next week. Marshall was taken in the second round of the 2021 draft (#59) by the Panthers. He had 17 receptions for 138 yards during his rookie year.

Moore was taken by the Jets in the second round of the 2021 draft (#34) and had a respectable - though unspectacular - rookie season collecting 538 yards on 43 receptions with 5 TDs.

2021

This offseason, there’s one clear winner in the “contested catch” sweepstakes, a WR who is being discussed as a likely early first round pick: USC’s Drake London.

Will London meet the same fate as the other wide receivers described above, who were “contested catch” phenoms in college, or will he blaze his own path? Should the Commanders take a risk to find out the answer to that question?

I look forward to your thoughts in the comments below.

Poll

Are you interested in seeing the Commanders use a high draft pick on a "contested catch" specialist in the 2022 draft?

This poll is closed

  • 9%
    Yes.
    (39 votes)
  • 12%
    Yes, but with caveats (provided in the comments).
    (49 votes)
  • 78%
    No.
    (318 votes)
406 votes total Vote Now