The leader in yards-per-touch for the 2020 college football season is bringing the fireworks to Miami.
With the sixth pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Dolphins selected college football's most-efficient, and potentially most-dangerous deep threat, in Alabama's Jaylen Waddle. Dating back to his breakout true freshman campaign in 2018, Waddle has reeled in 21-of-26 passes that traveled 20-or-more yards through the air. He caught six-of-seven deep targets last season and scored touchdowns on half of those receptions.
Prior to an ankle injury that cost Waddle eight games (and all but the opening kickoff of a ninth), he was matching teammate and eventual Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith in the ridiculous statistics category. Waddle's 557 receiving yards were 74 yards more than Smith's four-game total through the first quarter of the Crimson Tide schedule; and he did it with 18 fewer targets. Waddle was averaging 22.3 yards per reception (compared to Smith's 12.7) and a ludicrous 19.2 yards per target (compared to Smith's 10.8).
A true four-down player, Waddle's dynamic threat extends to special teams. He averaged 19.3 yards per punt return with two career touchdowns on 38 opportunities. He also scored a kickoff return touchdown and averaged 23.8 yards on nine kick returns.
“He’s one of the most talented kickoff and punt returners to enter the NFL over the last decade.” Daniel Jeremiah, NFL Network
Waddle's wiggle is evident any time he touches the football. Like his Alabama teammate, Waddle didn't participate in any pre-draft testing, but he did clock a 4.37 40-yard dash as a prep.
In the absence of traditional testing times and metrics, the NFL is incorporating GPS tracking to measure player's in-game speed and movement.
"In talking to some teams around the league, Waddle had the fastest GPS of any receiver in the country," said NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah during a conference call last month. "Your eyes aren't deceiving you when you watch him. He's freaky fast."
Jeremiah backed up his statement in his top 50 big board, where he has Waddle as his No. 5 overall player in this year's class.
"Extraordinary speed and playmaking ability. He has the ability to line up inside or outside. His acceleration in his release is elite. He destroys the cushions he receives from defenders in a hiccup and can find a second and third gear once the ball is in the air. He's at his best on runaway routes, but he flashes the ability to efficiently gear down and work back downhill. I thought his hands were improved this fall. He's one of the most talented kickoff and punt returners (just watch the tape of his 2019 performance against Auburn) to enter the NFL over the last decade."
Matt Harmon – the creator of Reception Perception – scored Waddle with an 80 percent success rate on post routes, 73.7 on takeoff routes and 87.5 percent on digs. Waddle feasted on in-breaking routes, including an 80 percent success rate on slants.
His 80.3 success rate against man coverage ranked in the 98th percentile in all of college football.
"It's difficult to remember a recent prospect who can so easily flip the field, control their speed and devastate with a stop/start-move all while doing the little things like Waddle does so effortlessly. Overall, Waddle is an excellent separator. His 80.3 percent success rate vs. man coverage is not just the best in this 2021 class, it's one of the top scores among all prospects charted in Reception Perception history."
The separation and complete destruction of any man coverage that lines up across from Waddle demonstrates why he's so deadly on in-breaking and vertical routes. His speed, start-stop quickness, and instant accelerator allows him to create distance between he and the coverage.
Waddle can stretch the field both vertically and horizontally, giving Miami, along with Will Fuller V, potentially two of the league's most dangerous outside presences in that regard.
On the topic of playing on the perimeter, Waddle split his time between wide splits and inside at the slot. He played 242 snaps in 2020 with 147 of those coming from an inside alignment. That jives with Waddle's skillset. He scored a 62.5 percent success rate vs. press coverage. That mark, per Harmon, falls at the 33rd percentile among all prospects in the Reception Perception's history. Pressing receivers in the slot – especially receivers with a sub 4.4 timed speed and perhaps even quicker game-speed – is an "enter at your own risk" proposition for opposing corners.
Waddle gained 495 yards from the slot, which ranked 24th in college football. His slot yards per game (123.8) was far and away tops in the nation.
Even for a receiver that excels in getting to top speed quickly and showcases a unique burst off the line, Waddle can haul in a contested ball downfield; he made four contested catches in his four games this past season.
Waddle finished tied for sixth in the country with an average of 10.1 yards after the catch. He also generated the 26th-most deep yards (passes throw 20-or-more yards downfield) with 329 yards on just seven passes of that criteria. He also turned seven reception on screen passes into 65 yards (9.29 yards per screen reception).
The conflict Waddle's infusion into the offense places on opposing defense is enough to making opposing defensive coordinators sweat, especially paired with fellow speedster Fuller. Fuller is one of the game's most polished deep threats. His 20.93 yards per route run on balls thrown 20-plus yards downfield ranked second among qualifying receivers (one target per game played).
As Fuller stretches the field vertically, Waddle can do the same, but also adds the element of a horizontal threat. Those two weapons, working in unison, could create matchups and open spaces in the middle of the field for Mike Gesicki, DeVante Parker and the rest of the Miami pass catchers.
Creating opportunities for teammates is one way to be liked in the locker room, something with which Waddle had no issue in college.
"This is two years in a row we lost a player who was probably the most popular player on the team in terms of being a good teammate and being liked by his teammates," Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban said. "Tua (Tagovailoa) was that way last year, and Jaylen's that way this year. And you just hate it for him because they're just such great competitors and they mean so much to their team and their teammates."
Waddle's presence impacted more than just the stat sheet, scoreboard and locker room, he changed how opposing defenses operated.
"…Heading into that game, Missouri Head Coach Eli Drinkwitz and his staff thought they had a pretty good plan to slow down the Tide offense. That plan centered on keeping the ball out of the hands of Jaylen Waddle, who was coming off a 2019 season where he averaged 17 yards per catch and totaled 6 touchdowns while the focal point of opposing defenses.
I was like, 'Hey look guys, Jalen Waddle is what makes them go, alright? So we got to double Jalen and make DeVonta Smith beat us. Okay? He's kind of a nice piece out there, but man, we got to take Jaylen Waddle away.' "