As a barely 5’10” prospect out of Houston in 2018, Jaylen Waddle came to Alabama right on the heels of a 2017 recruiting class that featured Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith, and Henry Ruggs III. While the diminutive speedster was undoubtedly talented (39th overall by 247 Sports), he had a glut of talent only one year ahead of him, and was slated to be buried on the depth chart for much of his career.
Not to be dissuaded, Waddle showed up on campus and immediately won the starting punt return job, averaging 20 yards per return in the season opener against Louisville, and worked his way onto the field early as the #4 WR, blasting past the defense and catching a 50 yard bomb from Tua Tagovailoa in the 2nd quarter.
Waddle was a big play waiting to happen with his speed and skills after the catch, but he also proved time and time again that, despite the short stature, he could pull in tough catches on sideline fades. He took a number of slant passes to the house, including a 90 yarder against Auburn in QB Jalen Hurts’ final home game for Alabama. He also proved instrumental in the SEC Championship nail-biter against Georgia, leading the way with 113 receiving yards and a 50-yard touchdown. He ultimately wound up with 848 yards and 7 touchdowns on the season.
As a sophomore, his role actually diminished a bit as DeVonta Smith got healthy after a gimpy hamstring in 2018, and Waddle was pushed back down to the #4 WR. However, he became even more of a threat as a return man. He average 24 yards per punt return and 35 yards per kick return on the seaon, both of which were absolutely ridiculous numbers. His touchdown in the titanic matchup against LSU saw him spinning around out of a horrificly blantant facemask and outracing the entire Tiger team to the endzone.
But Waddle truly cemented his legacy against Auburn in the regular season finale. With Tua Tagovailoa out with his hip injury, the back-up QB, Mac Jones, was tossed into the fire against the Tide’s rival in a rabid stadium. With everything on the line, Jones repeatedly went to Waddle to make things happen. He scored three receiving touchdowns in an NFL showcase game— he dodged tackles and outran everyone on a pass across the middle, he went up and over a defender for a high-pointed bomb catch, and he scored on a goalline flag route.
On top of it all, he added 135 yards and a touchdown on kick return in a valiant effort to try and outscore an Auburn offense that was scoring on Alabama at will.
In Waddle’s junior season, he was finally at the top of the depth chart with Jeudy and Ruggs moving on to the pros. And through the first 4 games of the season, he was the best wide receiver in the nation and on pace to shatter all kinds of records. 134, 142, 120, 161 were his game yardage totals against an all-SEC schedule, and he was showing off pretty much every skill you could ask of a wide out.
Unfortunately, he broke his ankle on a kick return to open the game against Tennessee, and missed the rest of the season. He did manage to rehab enough to play in the National Championship game, displaying all kinds of grit and toughness as he trotted stiffly out onto the field, and proceeded to pick up two critical third down plays.
For his career, Waddle caught 106 passes for 1999 yards and 17 touchdowns, and added 3 more touchdowns on special teams. And all of that was done with only 4 games as an actual starter.
Most NFL mock drafts have been viewing Waddle as a top-15 draft prospect, though a few see him inching into the top 10. He’s one of the fastest players in the nation and combines that with electric, Percy Harvin-like, ability to avoid tackles and turn short catches into 80-yard catch and runs. On top of that, he’s consistently displayed the ability to make contested catches deep down the field and jump over people much bigger than him. He’s got almost perfect hands on his career, and has run every route on the tree.
The detractors will point to his ankle injury, but also to all the other times he’s limped off the field for a drive here and there throughout his career. He’s also lacking the full-time starter experience, veteran savviness, and production that many NFL teams would look for in a top-15 draft pick. And at 5’10”, 180, he’s a bit on the small side.
(If you want an example of Waddle being a bonafide NFL receiver and not just a gadget speedster, go to 3:02 on this highlight video and tell me how many pro receivers can make that sideline catch)