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Is Danny Gray the next great Rams WR?

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Gray Area of the Draft

In draft simulations, I typically get to about the 6th round and don't like any of the remaining prospects. Why draft players who are likely only going to be PS level? A player who I've frequently drafted late in those sims is a WR named Danny Gray from SMU. He's ranked 262nd in PFF's sim, 271st on PFN's sim and 223rd on the Shoup board in Fanspeak's sim. All of those rankings would translate to 7th to UDFA range.

After looking at different draft boards, I question whether Gray will fall that far in the actual draft. His average composite ranking derived from 7 expert boards is 166th, which would be a 5th round pick.

Why am I profiling Gray? There are 2 main reasons. First, I think Gray has a chance to become a good deep threat WR in the NFL. On TST last year we discussed how the Rams could benefit from having such a WR and mulled multiple candidates to fulfill that need. In the 2022 draft there are a bunch of very fast WRs and they put on a show at the Combine. Gray was one of those prospects, running 4.33 seconds. Yet, for whatever reason Gray isn't ranked as high as some of the other WRs who appear to be similar to him. He is potentially underrated, which could make him a value pick later in the draft. This is how Lance Zierlein's draft grade on Gray compares to his grades on some of the speedsters from the 2021 draft:

D'Wayne Eskridge 6.14 (2nd round, Seahawks, W.Mich. )

Danny Gray 6.00 (2022 draft class)

Anthony Schwartz 6.00 (late 3rd round, Browns, Auburn)

Jacob Harris 6.00 (late 4th round, Rams, UCF)

Tutu Atwell 5.97 (late 2nd round, Rams, Louisville)

Marquez Stevenson 5.92 (6th round, Bills, Houston)

Ihmir Smith-Marsette 5.85 (5th round, Vikings, Iowa)

Now do you see why I target Gray in the late rounds in the simulations? His draft grade is higher than Tutu Atwell's. In the 2021 draft, Gray arguably could have been a 2nd to 3rd round pick.

The second key reason I think it is worthwhile to take a hard look at Gray is because of a recent addition to the Rams coaching staff. The Rams just hired Ra'Shaad Samples from SMU to be their new RB coach. Danny Gray was a JUCO player who chose SMU over other scholarship offers due to a strong connection he developed with a certain SMU coach who personally recruited him. Take a wild guess who that was. If Samples pounds the table for this guy, it could move him up on the Rams draft board.

Background

Name: Danny Gray

Position: WR

School: SMU. Gray went to the same school as Eric Dickerson, a HOFer. And Garrett Gilbert, who isn't a HOFer. The year the Steelers drafted Antonio Brown in the 6th round, the better WR taken by the Steelers was supposed to be Emmanuel Sanders from SMU, who they took in the 3rd round.

Size: 6' tall, 186 pounds, 31 7/8'' arms, 9 5/8'' hands. Was listed by SMU as 6'2'' and 199. Funny how players shrink at the Combine, isn't it?

Combine: 4.33 sec (40 time), 34'' vert jump, 10'6'' broad jump

Was state champion in Texas in 100 meters in high school. From south Dallas, grew up in rough neighborhood. Gray acknowledges that he wasn't a great student or the best behaved in high school. Played JUCO ball at Blinn College for 2 seasons (same school Cam Newton played at after leaving Florida). Struck up a relationship with coach Samples during recruitment to SMU. 448 rec yards in 2020 in 8 games. In 2021, had 49 catches for 803 yards and 9 TDs in 10 games. Missed final 2 games of season with an ankle injury. Skipped bowl game to prepare for draft. Career stats at SMU 82-1,251-13 over 18 games, 15.3 yards per catch.

ESPN 141st overall prospect, 22nd ranked WR. Overall ranking matches the slot where the Rams took Jacob Harris last year late in the 4th round.

PFN (Tony Pauline) 214 (6th round projection); Oliver Hodgkinson 162nd (5th rd); Ian Cummings 150th (5th rd).

DraftCountdown (Shane Hallam) 155th (5th rd), Brian Bosarge 143rd (late 4th to 5th rd)

Drafttek 199th (6th)

Lance Zierlein 6.00 draft grade. Compared to Demarcus Robinson (4th round Chiefs 2016, Florida). Robinson ran 4.59 sec in the 40 at the Combine and 4.58 seconds at his Pro Day. LZ says he has 3 level ability to all areas of the field, but had some focus drops and needs to get stronger.

Has very confident personality, but also comes off as a bit self-centered.

Strengths

Instant acceleration with powerful strides. When he turns on the gas, it feels like in 2 steps he's going full speed. No ramp up time. If he sees a seam, he can pull away from the defenders before they can cut him off. Burns pursuit angles to a crisp. Juice on deep routes to get over the top of CBs. Got by CB with stop and go.

Maintains good concentration on the flight of the ball with his eyes, even if crowded by CB. Quick hand eye reactions to the ball. Tracks ball well over his shoulder and can adjust if it is off target.

Changes tempo within the route and can make sharp cuts. Created separation with nice head fake to the outside.

Not limited to deep routes, shows ability to run intermediate in breaking routes.

Good hand eye coordination to knock away jam in press coverage.

Has some KR and PR experience at SMU and at JUCO.

Decent arm length relative to his height and size. He's about the same size as Donnie Avery, but his arms are over an inch longer than Avery's.

High ceiling player with developmental upside, due to elite speed and ball tracking skills.

Weaknesses

Inconsistent hands. Double catches passes. Body catches passes. Ball sometimes almost slips through his hands as he catches the back of the ball. Nearly dropped pass into his chest. Dropped potential long TD pass that hit him in the hands.

Doesn't fight back to the QB when necessary to prevent the CB from getting hand in to contest the catch. Waits for the ball to come to him instead of attacking the ball.

Lacks deception at the top of the route. Takes too many steps on some of his release moves at the LOS. As slot WR, drifts into break on short routes. Late in 4th quarter, less than 2 minutes left, SMU is driving and down by 3 points, it is a 1st down play, plenty of time and good field position to get a tying FG or the winning TD. Obvious cover 2 zone defense. Gray doesn't run to the open area of the zone, he stops too close to the CB, baiting his own QB into the game sealing INT and doesn't sense the danger enough to fight back towards the QB so that he can break up the INT and make it an incomplete pass. Lack of attention to detail can cost your team the game.

Poor sense of how to react when QB extends the play in a scramble drill, holds the ball too long in the pocket and doesn't throw it on schedule or when the QB is under pressure and is in trouble. Gray just stands in one spot and doesn't move. He doesn't move sideways to try to uncover himself from the defender and make himself available for a pass. QB under heavy pressure in pocket with Gray watching it the entire time, WR just stands still and makes zero effort to come back towards the QB or try to get open. QB extends the play outside of the pocket, rolling out wide and Gray in the middle of the field is just aimlessly jogging.

Played in Sonny Dykes spread offensive system. Almost always lined up to the right of the formation as outside WR. Projects as slot WR in the NFL, but rarely was in the slot in 2021. Ran limited route tree.

Does not craft routes well. Too basic, lacks nuance to set up CB. Invites the CB to crowd and challenge catch point.

Lacks feel for how to read the zone defense and sit down in the open area. 3rd down play near GL, WR from opposite side goes in motion, revealing zone coverage by the defense. It is a 3 WR combination with Gray going inside, the deep WR running to the corner and the underneath WR going out to the flat. Gray needs to put the DBs in conflict and if he does this either they have to jump on his route and the corner/flat will be open or if they take the other 2 WRs Gray will be open for a TD. Instead, Gray drifts too far inside, helping the MLB in the middle of the field cover him up. That's poor awareness and bad route running.

Too small to be outside WR in NFL, but lacks feel, elusiveness and traits to be a good slot WR.

Average as a blocker. He gives some effort, but only minimum level. Doesn't hustle to get to proper angle for blocks. Fails to move his feet to defend blocking angle. Doesn't battle hard to sustain, allows the defender to disengage too easily. Pass to TE inside the 10 yard line, Gray is lazy blocking downfield and seems surprised when the TE breaks a tackle, could have cost his team a TD by not making a simple block. Poor effort blocking next to the front corner pylon as the RB is trying to get to the edge to score. RB runs up the middle and breaks a tackle with Gray blocking out wide against a CB. If Gray sustains his block, it probably springs the RB for a very long TD run. Gray gets lazy and doesn't shuffle his feet to protect the blocking angle, allowing his CB to tackle the RB. Honestly, if I were his coach I'd bench him for a series for doing stuff like that. If the shoe were on the other foot and the WR has a chance for a long TD catch, but it gets messed up by the RB making a lazy block in pass protection, how would the WR like that? We're trying to work together to score a TD as a team. If the RB only tries hard when it is a run call for him and the WR only plays hard when it is a pass thrown his way, we're not going to win. You have to be accountable to the team. Do your job. Doesn't have enough play strength or effort when setting an edge block, gets shed and allowed the CB to make tackle.

Needs to learn to cover up the ball with 2 hands in traffic to secure it when he sees and can anticipate contact coming. In the NFL, defenders will aggressively punch and rip the ball out to cause a fumble. Gray is too nonchalant and runs with the ball in one hand, not tucked tight to his body.

Made some good catches near sideline, but could do even better job with spatial awareness and footwork near sideline and endline.

Low floor prospect. Needs to be able to learn NFL playbook and work on his game or he could never be more than a ST player, be on the PS or bounce out of the league entirely.

Pro Comparison and Grade

Quez Watkins (6th round 2020, Eagles, Southern Miss), 6th round grade

Watkins is a bit more slender (they are the same weight) and has arms that are an inch longer than Gray's. Watkins ran 4.35 sec in the 40. Lance Zierlein gave Gray a higher draft grade, 6.00 almost exactly the same as the 5.95 grade for Watkins. LZ had Watkins with a round 4 to 5 draft projection. Watkins was drafted one slot after Jordan Fuller and one slot before SMU receiver, James Proche.

I'm going to beat the dead SMU pony once again. I think the Rams drafted Tutu Atwell too early. Danny Gray is just one example of a WR who I see as being similar to Atwell who most boards project to be available in the middle of Day 3 of the draft. Maybe a team will like Gray's speed and take him on Day 2, but look at the rookie production of the 2021 WRs I listed above:

Anthony Schwartz 10 catches for 135 yards

Marquez Stevenson 14 catches for 132 yards

Ihmir Smith-Marsette 5 catches for 116

D'Wayne Eskridge 10 catches for 64 yards

It is possible that guys like Schwartz and Eskridge will explode in the future. WR is a difficult position to learn in the NFL. At this point, however, there is a strong argument that Quez Watkins is at least as good if not better than this 2021 group.

In my post about Atwell, I noted how Darnell Mooney as a 5th round pick for the Chicago Bears had a surprisingly good rookie season in 2020. What happened in his 2nd season? He had 1,055 receiving yards. He had a 74.7 PFF grade, ranking as the 32nd best WR in the NFL. In comparison, Van Jefferson ranked as the 97th best WR out of 115 players by PFF, which is very poor.

Obviously, not every 5th round WR will be as productive as Mooney. If Mooney played on a team with better WRs like the Rams, maybe he wouldn't get as many targets and wouldn't have as many yards. Still, why reach for these types of prospects if it isn't necessary? Isn't it just basic supply and demand?

I'm not advocating that the Rams draft Danny Gray in the 3rd round in 2022. What I'm saying is that later in the draft Gray could find his way onto the BPA list. He has big play ability. He's fast and explosive. He could contribute on special teams as a returner. He's rough around the edges and needs coaching, but there is upside potential with this prospect. Gray is bigger than Mooney and by a hair ran faster in the 40.

It takes more than speed to be a good NFL WR. The Bengals have a good WR group despite busting a top 10 pick on John Ross, 60 draft slots before the Rams took Cooper Kupp. Keelan Cole, an UDFA who only ran 4.59 sec in the 40 at his pro day, is one of several WRs who have been more productive in the NFL compared to Ross. Make no mistake, Danny Gray is not Brandin Cooks. Nevertheless, speed is valuable in the NFL and if the value is right later in the draft (or perhaps even as an UDFA), Gray might be worth a roll of the dice.