Josh Downs - WR - North Carolina
Josh Downs has been an extremely productive wide receiver for the past two seasons at the University of North Carolina. He has had the benefit of being tied to NFL and future NFL quarterbacks Sam Howell and Drake Maye, and he’s fully taken advantage of that. The question is whether or not he should be considered in the top tier of this deep wide receiver class, or in just a tier below.
Height: 5′ 9″
Weight: 171 lbs
40-yard dash: 4.48s
3-cone drill: DNP
20-yard shuttle: DNP
Vertical Jump: 38.5″
Broad Jump: 10-11
Bench Press: DNP
*age is at the start of player’s rookie year
Downs was a fairly highly touted wide receiver prospect as a 4 star per 247Sports Composite ranking. As a true freshman, Downs wasn’t overly involved in the offense as the team was flooded with NFL talents such as Javonte Williams, Michael Carter, Dyami Brown, and Dazz Newsome. As all four departed for the NFL going into Downs’ sophomore year, Downs completely took over the receiving core as Howell’s main target. He had over 100 receptions with 1,335 receiving yards and 8 touchdowns, netting him first-team All-ACC honors.
With Sam Howell gone following Downs’ sophomore season, there were questions about whether he would continue to produce with new quarterback Drake Maye. Drake Maye was a bright spot in this offense alongside Downs with a respectable 9-5 record as the two were a dynamic duo. Downs recorded his second 100+ target season with 94 receptions, 1,029 yards, and 11 touchdowns in two fewer games than the previous season. Once again he earned first-team All-ACC honors and declared for the NFL Draft following the season.
Downs is another very well-rounded wide receiver prospect in this year’s NFL Draft class. He’s a natural separator with sudden movements at the stem of his routes. Overall as a route runner, he is above average showing nuanced movement skills and the ability to flash crisp breaks, and the utilization of inside/outside leverage throughout his routes. Additionally, he possesses decent open-field speed and great acceleration that helps him both as a route runner and to break away with chunk plays when he gets into space. His hands are reliable and he shows the ability to play bigger than his listed size of 5’10” and 180 lbs with a surprising contested catch ability and impressive body control.
Speaking of getting into space, his yards after the catch ability is impressive for this draft class. He is elusive in the open field, making defenders suddenly find themselves taking bad angles and only getting an arm tackle on him or missing entirely. But what is again surprising and goes to his ability to play bigger than his size is his strength after the catch. He has solid contact balance and strength to pick up plus yardage after contact. Despite less production in the 2022 season compared to his 2021 season, there were marked improvements in his tape all around.
While Downs shows reliable hands on the easy catches, there were some tougher catches on tape that would have been nice to see him come down with. Something, combined with his occasional body catches, that would have gone a long way to separate himself from the pack and solidify him as a top-tier wide receiver in this class. While he got away with the body catches in college, there needs to be an improvement in this category. He could see a tougher time coming down with catches in the NFL as the DBs are much more physical and will play a lot tighter coverage.
Overall, he does need more development as a route runner. He showed flashes of intricate route-running skills like stacking and utilizing his leverage to create space. But he needs to consistently put that together and cut down on wasted movements instead of relying solely on his natural twitch to gain separation. Additionally, due to his size at 5’10” and 180 lbs, he’s really limited to a slot receiver role at the next level. This is where he played 78% of his snaps last year and excelled, especially over the middle of the field. But his heavy slot usage also meant that he didn’t face press very often and is an area where the jury is still out on. Finally, he is lacking as a lead blocker and can tend to be a liability in this department.
Pre Draft Analysis
Expected Draft Capital- Late Round 1/Early Round 2
The production profile of Downs is hard to miss when looking at the stat sheet and will get the attention of a lot of NFL front offices. Pair that with his natural separation ability and being a dynamic slot option throughout the last two years with the Tarheels; he makes a good case to be one of the top receivers taken in this draft class. The limitations to his game are hard to get past and have a good chance to push him into the second round of the NFL Draft.
If he goes late in the first round, the Kansas City Chiefs are an obvious option as a team that is in desperate need of a playmaker at the wide receiver position. Additionally, pairing Patrick Mahomes with a top end target in this offense that just led them to a Super Bowl victory feels like cheating. While the Houston Texans have plenty of needs on their team, a wide receiver is definitely one of them. Brandin Cooks is a veteran presence on the team, but there were rumors that he requested a trade this past season and that makes sense as he is a veteran player on a clearly rebuilding team. But past him, there is nothing but question marks in Nico Collins and John Metchie. Assuming they take a quarterback with their first first-round pick, they need to give whoever it is weapons to work with if they expect any sort of success.
Pre Draft Analysis
Indianapolis Colts- Round 3, Pick 16
Most draft media and other analysts thought Downs would be a round 2 selection with his incredible collegiate production profile. He slid further than most anticipated but landed in an under-the-radar, very appealing spot. The Alec Pierce selection last year doesn’t look to be panning out great, but they have their stereotypical alpha wide receiver in Michael Pittman. Josh Downs provides a great complement to Pittman’s skillset as Pittman is a physical wide receiver that can provide a big body possession receiver with the ability to stretch the defense if needed. Downs is another guy that relies on separation and possession but also brings a yards after the catch ability that Pittman isn’t necessarily known for. He can be the immediate starter out of the slot as this wide receiver core is very slim. New quarterback, Anthony Richardson is going to have a lot of weapons to develop with.
Downs should come in and be the immediate slot starter for the Colts alongside both Alec Pierce and Michael Pittman. It may take some time for Downs to overtake Pierce as the secondary target, but it seems very likely based on talent, production, and prospect profiles. That being said, the passing volume will be an area to track as Indianapolis took Anthony Richardson, a heavily dual-threat quarterback at number 4 overall in the NFL Draft. Richardson is paired with Shane Steichen, who was the OC for the Eagles and had a hand in developing Jalen Hurts into the quarterback he is today while simultaneously producing two top-end wide receivers in DeVonta Smith and AJ Brown.
It’s generally a good idea to avoid rookie wide receivers in redraft leagues and just keep an eye on them on waivers. While Downs has an immediate opportunity to get on the field, it’s going to take some time for Richardson and Downs both to develop into a reliable duo. For dynasty, Downs is a massive value in the middle of the second round. Richardson is a top 3 pick in Superflex rookie drafts, and Indianapolis is the perfect landing spot for him to develop as a passer. While Pittman will most likely be the long-term WR1 in this offense, Downs can be an excellent WR2 with the future ceiling of DeVonta Smith’s WR2 season behind AJ Brown in Philly last year. Downs isn’t the talent Smith is, but that is to say that there is a path for a productive WR2 in this offensive scheme.