Wide receiver fight night

Competition level, production, postseason workouts and character concerns all seem to play a major role every year when evaluating prospects for the NFL Draft. Today, the National Football Post takes a look at two of the nation’s top wide receivers – Oklahoma State’s Dez Bryant and Illinois’ Arrelious Benn -- and breaks them down to determine their potential at the next level.

The matchup

Oklahoma State WR Dez Bryant vs. Illinois WR Arrelious Benn.

Tale of the tape

Bryant: 6-2, 224; 87 receptions, 1,480 yards, 19 touchdowns, 4.52 40 time, 1.52 10-yard split, 38-inch vertical, 11-foot-1-inch broad jump, 4.48 short shuttle, 7.21 three-cone drill.

Benn: 6-1, 219; 67 receptions, 1,055 yards, 5 touchdowns, 4.42 40 time, 1.52 10-yard split, 37.5-inch vertical, 10-foot-1-inch broad jump, 4.32 short shuttle, 6.79 three-cone drill.

Note: Receiving statistics are from the 2008 season.

Preview

Coming into the 2009 season, it was nearly a lock in just about every scouting circle that Bryant was the consensus No. 1 prospect in the country at his position. However, after missing nearly all of last season following a suspension and repeated concerns about his work ethic, maturity and posse, does Bryant still rank as the NFP’s top wide receiver prospect following a disappointing pro day? With Illinois wideout Arrelious Benn making a charge for the top, let’s break down both players and tell you who we think is the better overall NFL prospect.

Breakdown

Even with all the character concerns and maturity issues surrounding Bryant, as soon as you pop in tape of the guy – which I did yesterday vs. Oregon -- he’s simply too dynamic to be overlooked on draft day. The initial attribute that jumps out to me is the controlled power he’s able to play with when asked to fight off defensive backs, generate separation and adjust to the football. He isn’t the most gifted of vertical threats – although he does have the ability to find enough of a second gear to track the football -- but his savvy and ability to set up defenders and quickly accelerate out of his breaks for a guy his size are what make him so difficult to defend.

It’s rare to find someone his size who possesses the balance and footwork to consistently keep his feet under him and be so sudden in the pass game. Plus, he does a great job locating the football at its highest point and uses his vice grips for hands to pluck throws consistently out of the air.

As natural and coordinated an athlete as Bryant is, he’s still developing as a route runner and has a tendency to gear down in the short passing game when asked to sharply change directions on the “dig” or “speed out,” allowing defenders to read his breaks and jump his routes.

Also, I have my doubts about his overall willingness to work the middle of the field, extend his arms for the ball and take a hit on contact. I got a sense of a prima donna watching limited tape of Bryant during the 2009 season (vs. Georgia) and just didn’t see the same type of passion to his play that he displayed in ’08.

As for Benn, he’s a guy who showcases impressive overall power to his game, which allows him to consistently break tackles on contact and create underneath. Benn doesn’t possess the same type of “explosive coordination” that Bryant exhibits in the pass game when asked to set up defenders and generate a burst out of his breaks, but his combination of power, fluidity and body control allows him to consistently fight his way through contact, shrug off opposing defensive backs and cleanly adjust to the ball.

Benn is also a very balanced athlete who does a nice job locating the football quickly out of his breaks and contorting his body in order to come down with the tough catch.

However, where Benn has the clear advantage is his overall ability to create after the catch. He’s so sudden and powerful with the ball in his hands that he consistently showcases the ability to make a man miss and explode into daylight. And unlike most taller wideouts who stride in the open field, Benn runs with shorter, more compact steps -- more like a running back -- which allows him to change directions with relative ease and be more effective in tight quarters.

Now, the one improvement Benn still needs to make is to pluck the football away from his frame; he has a tendency to let throws consistently get into his body, which causes him to drop some very catchable balls. And although he does a better job than Bryant securing catches over the middle and holding on to the ball through contact, you would still like to see him become more natural with his hands.

The wild card

Bryant’s maturity level could end up being one of the most debated topics about any prospect on draft day. “It’s always something with him,” one NFL official I spoke to said recently. “And every time he’s had a chance to prove someone wrong, something always seems to come up. Pro day was no different.”

My take on the situation: Immature players struggle to handle the responsibilities of being a pro athlete and typically can’t handle pain or tough situations because they lack the concentration to fight through problems. And that’s the biggest concern I have with Bryant and his ability to become the player his physical skills should help him become.

The verdict

Honestly, from a pure talent standpoint, it’s not even a close battle. Bryant is far and away the better overall wide receiver prospect. That’s not a slap at Benn by any stretch; it’s just a reinforcement of how talented I think Bryant is. So if I’m asked to choose between the two with both still on the board, even with all his character concerns, Bryant is still my guy -- in a heartbeat.

Where this gets interesting, however, is the possibility of getting a guy like Benn in the second round. Benn is a tough, no-nonsense type of wideout who’s going to make a great living for himself working the middle of the field and creating after the catch. So if you gave me the option of taking the ultra-talented, yet vastly immature Bryant in the first round or the tough, NFL-ready Benn in the second, I would likely side with Benn.

Is there a difference in the talent? Yes. However, Benn seems like the much safer and grounded overall prospect. He might not have the upside of a guy like Bryant, but you know what you’re getting and won’t have to deal with the day-to-day distractions Bryant could bring to your team.

NFL player comparison

Arrelious Benn = Anquan Boldin, Baltimore Ravens

Dez Bryant = Eric Moulds, Buffalo Bills

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