The third of these primers is for another wide receiver, undoubtedly the more high-profile of the pair of Tar Heel receivers in Indianapolis. In just two full years of playing, Josh Downs rewrote UNC’s single-season record books for receivers and entered himself into the top 5 of most career stats, singlehandedly allowing the UNC offense to progress nearly without a hitch despite losing 4 players to the NFL Draft in 2021. He enters the draft as one of this year’s top slot receiver options and with a chance to be UNC’s first first-round draft pick since Mitch Trubisky in 2017.
Downs was a big deal from his recruitment as a high schooler, where he was courted by schools like Penn State even after committing to UNC, though the Heels managed to keep him in town — likely thanks in part to his uncle, Dre Bly, being on UNC’s staff at the time. Downs played sparingly as a true freshman, sitting behind future NFL Draft pick Dazz Newsome, but when Newsome decided to opt out of UNC’s bowl game that year, Downs stepped in to replace him and dazzled, catching 4 balls for 91 yards and two scores. That set him up for an absolute monster sophomore year, where he was UNC’s only consistent receiver and thus set single-season program records for receptions (101) and receiving yards (1335), scoring 8 touchdowns as well. With a new quarterback in Drake Maye for 2022, Downs missed a few games due to injury but was no less impressive on his return, catching 94 balls (which would’ve ranked 2nd in UNC history before his 2021 season) for 1029 yards and 11 touchdowns, as he developed into a red zone threat with his route-running and toughness at the catch point. He was first-team All-ACC in 2021 and 2022 and was named a first-team All-American by Pro Football Focus in 2022 and a second-team All-American by most other publications. He enters the draft as one of UNC’s most decorated receivers ever.
What to look for:
We know Downs is on the small side and will probably be relegated to the slot in the NFL — he was mostly relegated to the slot in college. For that reason, his measurements aren’t going to matter that much, unless he comes in bulkier than expected and maintains his speed and otherworldly agility, which would be a positive. Downs is fast, but I don’t think he’ll be in the running for fastest player, or even fastest at his position group, at the Combine, because his outstanding skills are his acceleration and change of direction. To that end, though, he could very well lead receivers or even all players in the 3-cone and short shuttle drills. That said, he still does have to be pretty fast to quell any doubts that he’s the kind of quicker-than-fast guy who tops out at being serviceable rather than a playmaker.
What he’s got to gain:
Downs is kind of straddling the first round-second round line right now in mock drafts and big boards across the internet, where he’s rated somewhere between the 4th- and 7th-best receiver in the draft. It’s a little hard to tell what exactly he could do to raise his stock, because for a player of his stature and positional solidity, he’s pretty maxed out: he’s as good a route runner as you’ll see at all levels of the field, he’s got speed, he plays physically in his routes and at the catch point, and he’s got good hands. Maybe drills will provide him with the opportunity for a highlight, like they did for CeeDee Lamb. But most importantly, the biggest difference for players in that range between getting drafted on Day 1 and Day 2 is whether or not the teams in the back of the first round like you. Whether it’s in interviews or on the field, Downs taking the opportunity to really stand out somehow could be his ticket.