Let’s get this out of the way first; if Terry Fontenot were to draft Jaylen Waddle, it wouldn’t be with the fourth pick. But selecting Waddle would require the same philosophy and reasoning as taking DeVonta Smith, Kyle Pitts, or Ja’Marr Chase.
Everybody knows the Falcons don’t NEED a wide receiver. It’s the furthest thing from a necessity, but we’ve seen this organization overlook that in the past when they drafted Calvin Ridley. Of course, that was under Thomas Dimitroff, who was canned during the 2020 season and replaced by Terry Fontenot this offseason. They will not act similarly.
However, taking Ridley was Thomas Dimitroff drafting by the “best player available” method in its purest form, and its turned out to be one of his best first-round draft selections. One thing Terry Fontenot has made clear — the Falcons will be drafting the best players available, not for need.
Beyond that reasoning, I think that Waddle is better than DeVonta Smith. Through four games this season, he was outpacing Smith in yards per route run. At the time of his injury, he was nearly doubling the mark set by his former teammate Henry Ruggs in that metric and was a full yard better than Jerry Jeudy. He’s closer to Tyreek Hill than a traditional receiver like Deandre Hopkins or Davante Adams, but ask any defensive coordinator who they’re scared of more, and the answer will be The Cheetah.
Waddle is unique in that he has played in the slot, on the boundary, and in the backfield as a gadget piece. His incredible athleticism makes him a nightmare for defenses to account for. The former Alabama wideout is similar to Tyreek Hill in that he can make fast people look slow. It isn’t just straight-ahead speed, either; it is his agility in and out of breaks with the spectacular capacity to gear down effortlessly.
Waddle’s route tree isn’t what it could be but is still more refined than Henry Ruggs when he was coming out as a gadget prospect. He’s capable of running various routes at all levels providing equal impact as an explosive play generator regardless of where he catches the ball.
Hard not to love Jaylen Waddle’s tape but this play stands out especially. Perfectly shows off his downfield explosiveness, ball tracking ability, and fearlessness. pic.twitter.com/YKwSpIjSsy
— Bobby Football (@Rob__Paul) February 6, 2021
— Nate Christian (@NateNFL) February 3, 2021
Waddle’s release off the line, coupled with elite speed and wisdom of running routes in a controlled manner, makes separating from defenders easy. But he isn’t just a threat on offense; Waddle was as dangerous returning punts and kickoffs as he was running post routes.
The two substantial questions surrounding Waddle are his route running abilities and his recent ankle injury. Although his routes are drastically more refined than Ruggs’ are right now, they aren’t where Smith’s are. This can be developed, though, and Tyreek Hill exemplified just how a gadget player can learn to run the entire route tree.
Waddle also suffered a nasty ankle injury during the opening kickoff against Tennessee — a risk that every star takes on special teams — that sidelined him for the season. He played sparingly in the National Championship — a decision I disagreed with wholeheartedly — so coming to training camp healthy shouldn’t be an issue. Waddle explained his reasoning for wanting to play in his final collegiate game.
“My competitive spirit is always something that I’m just going to go with,” he said. “Just to help my team out and just to grind out a win. Obviously we came out victorious, so that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day. Just coming out trying to help your team win.”
It makes sense to grab Waddle or someone of his caliber before Julio Jones’ contract is up. Calvin Ridley is a shaky WR1 option, and when Jones eventually leaves, Waddle is as capable as anyone to replace Jones’ massive presence on the field. He models his game after Tyreek Hill, and fans can expect Arthur Smith to use him similarly if he came to Atlanta.
Waddle would garner attention wherever he’s aligned, but it would be most beneficial to use him in motion and different alignments, just as Andy Reid does with Hill. He would give the Falcons offense someone who can take the top off of defenses, letting Julio and Calvin attack the underneath as Travis Kelce does in Kansas City.
Photo: Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire