With only days remaining until the 2023 NFL draft, I am excited to dive into the profile of one of the more interesting wide receivers in this draft. As we have talked about for weeks, this year’s class is very spread. There are some names easily at the top, a middle-ground with a high upside, and then the rest of the prospects.
Josh Downs stands firmly near the top of that second tier, the middle ground with high upside. While the expectation is that Downs will not be one of the top WRs taken, he is right on the fringe and will be a possibility for almost every owner drafting. Will an owner in the lower first take a stab on the former Tar Heel, or will he slip into the early second round?
Personally, I don’t think there is any way I come out of this draft season without a share of Downs somewhere. His profile is so fun, and he has some plus attributes that make him so intriguing at the next level. Haven’t been able to dig into Downs that much yet? Well, come along, and let’s take a look!
- College: North Carolina
- Height: 5′ 9″
- Weight: 171 lbs
- Hand Size: 9 ¼”
- Age: 21
- Year: Junior
- Draft Projection: Second Round
- 40-Yard Dash: 4.48
Downs was a great prospect from North Gwinnett High School in Suwanee, Georgia. After amassing over 3,000 receiving yards and 32 touchdowns in high school, Downs capped it off with an All-American Bowl selection. Downs played in the game alongside other offensive names like Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud, Bijan Robinson, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba.
As a four-star recruit, Downs had offers to play at Arkansas, Michigan, Ohio St., Oregon, Penn St., South Carolina, and Tennessee, among many others. But Downs chose to go to Chapel Hill and join the North Carolina Tar Heels.
Downs was ranked the 17th-best wide receiver in the 2020 class and the 13th-best player out of the state of Georgia.
Downs had a slow start to his college career, as many do, starting in only four games as a freshman. But the early signs of his abilities appeared in the Orange Bowl at the end of his first year at North Carolina. With several starters resting to avoid injury before their draft process, Downs was a top receiving option with Dyami Brown not playing. He leveraged that opportunity and had himself a 92-yard, two-touchdown game in one of the biggest bowl games of the college season.
After that, Downs was the top option for the Tar Heels. Returning in his sophomore year, Downs totaled 101 catches, 1,335 yards, and eight touchdowns. His receptions and yardage totals were both single-season records in North Carolina history.
This past season, Downs had a strong showing again, racking up 94 catches, 1,029 yards, and 11 receiving touchdowns. His reception totals in 2021 and 2022 led all of the ACC, and his 202 career receptions are good enough for 25th all-time in the ACC. That’s quite an accomplishment considering 195 of the receptions came in only two seasons.
Downs also showed some special teams abilities while at North Carolina. He returned punts all three years, averaging 13.3 yards per return his Junior year.
Downs had a 4.48 40-yard dash, a 1.49 10-yard split, a 38.5″ vertical jump, and a 10′ 11″ broad jump at the combine. The 10-yard split was one of the fastest times at the combine, with 1.46 seconds being the fastest time this year.
Watching Downs tape, I am always impressed with his feet. He sets up defenders perfectly on many routes and can get the nearest guy to him off-balance. It is a tool that not everyone has coming out of college and is a major asset when going pro.
Even in tight situations, Downs can create extra room in the window because of his footwork. Take the below highlight as an example. Downs is the receiver that should be freed up on a simple rub route, but the defender does a great job of recognizing and quickly getting around the block. By not giving up on the play, Downs gives a quick juke to the inside to put the defender on skates. Then he blows by on the outside and catches an under-thrown ball for a touchdown.
Plays like these show up all over Downs’ tape, and it will make him a quarterback’s best friend. Especially at the pro level, a wide receiver giving his quarterback an extra six inches of room is getting himself wide open. This will be a huge plus for him at the next level.
Alright, one more highlight just for fun.
Downs also shows that he can adjust his body where it needs to be on routes. Whether a ball is underthrown or an adjustment needs to be made mid-air, Downs can always turn himself and get in the best position for a potential catch.
This shouldn’t be a huge surprise with the numbers he put up at North Carolina. Anyone who can set a school record for receptions typically can have strong route running and the ability to adjust on the fly.
Downs also is excellent in contested catches. He attacks every ball like it is his, and much more often than not, he comes out on the winning end. This coincides with being able to control his body and get himself in a position to win those battles.
While Downs is a bit undersized, getting himself in position to be at the best point possible for the catch will go a long way. Combining this asset with the already mentioned footwork, Downs will be a hard receiver to deny at the NFL level.
One of the aspects of Downs I like the most is that he was successful before his final year in school. Several prospects in this draft only had one full year in college. That isn’t the case with Downs.
Downs was a record-breaking receiver for UNC in his sophomore year. He was their best receiver on the field during his freshman year in their bowl game. He did not have to wait to showcase his talent until the latter half of his college career. His major production came as a sophomore and continued until he finished his college career.
And Downs was so successful those two years that he left nothing to prove at the college level. Due to this dominance, he showcased everything he had and could go pro early. Early declares tend to have a higher hit rate at the pro level, another tick in the Downs pros column.
Size/Playing from the Slot
Downs is undersized. There is no getting around that. I hoped we would see him come in above 5’10” and above 180 lbs. at the combine, but his 5’9″ 171 lbs. measurements were disappointing.
Downs plays bigger than his frame and weight, but being undersized has limitations. While Downs is an impressive route runner, his role seemed to be reduced at North Carolina due to this.
Downs only ran routes on the outside 18% of the time last season. With such a high percentage of routes coming from the slot, it begs the question of Downs usage at the next level. Slot receivers are required to be good blockers in the current NFL. With Downs only 171 lbs., it is difficult for him to take on the average NFL defender.
Additionally, Downs doesn’t show off top-end speed for being an undersized receiver. Without this, his ability to make home run plays happen vertically gets eliminated.
A 4.48 40-time is nothing to scoff at, but receivers that are under 5’10” usually need to use their speed to get a leg-up at the next level. For instance, Georgia’s Nolan Smith, an EDGE/LB prospect, ran a 4.39 40-yard dash at 6’2″ and 238 lbs. Downs wouldn’t be able to outrun some linebackers at the next level in a pure fly route.
This likely accounts for why Downs ran fly routes infrequently during his time at North Carolina. His most run routes came as slants, curls, and flat routes.
Downs is a very intriguing prospect for both the NFL and fantasy football. His precise footwork, smooth route-running, and body control make him a hard receiver to cover. But being as undersized as he is and his skillset coming from the slot, his playing opportunity could be dampened significantly. He also runs the risk of injury at his size. Even on his highlights, we see several plays where he limps from a decent hit.
I fully expect Downs to be a second-round pick in the NFL draft. His talent has him in a tier with Jalin Hyatt, Cedric Tillman, and Marvin Mims, and he is likely at the top of that tier for me. It will simply come down to preference for each NFL team.
Being that Downs will have decent draft capital, I also expect the team drafting him to utilize Downs to what his strengths are. While he may be smaller and unable to contribute effectively as a blocker, an intelligent offensive coordinator will know that Downs is a mismatch for many defenders with his shifty nature and precise routes.
While Downs may not hit on big plays often, he is primed to be a PPR machine if given the opportunity. It depends on his landing spot. If he goes somewhere with an accurate quarterback and an offense that values possession receivers and moving the ball consistently, Downs could be a home run.
But if Downs ends up on a team that wants to make him something he is not, he could struggle. His abilities lie specifically in his route-running and feet. Anyone trying to make him excel in other areas is setting him up to fail. Depending on that landing spot, Downs could be worth a mid/late first. Or his value could drop him well into the second.
As I said, I will be hard-pressed not to take Downs in at least one of my rookie drafts. His profile is so fun, and I think he could be a very strong contributor early and often in his career with the right situation. And the price for Downs being a late-first or early second makes it much more appealing.
Am I way off-base? Or is this an accurate rookie analysis? Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @timbmartens and let me know where you rank this rookie. And stay tuned to Dynasty Nerds for more rookie profiles.
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