The UNC Tar Heels’s offense in 2020 was possibly the best in program history, headlined by the first pair of 1,000-yard receivers ever in Chapel Hill to go with two of the most talented running backs to ever wear Tar Heel Blue. All four of those players were drafted into the NFL the following offseason, leaving observers to ask the obvious question: how could the Heels replace all that production leaving at once? Enter Josh Downs. While the Tar Heel running game has been up and down the past two seasons, Downs has been the focal point of a UNC passing attack that has remained among the nation’s best, and after putting his name in the school’s record books, he’s headed for the 2023 NFL Draft. Here’s a look at what his future NFL team is getting.
Measurables and Production:
I will get into the numbers as needed below, but the short explanation of this chart is that it displays Downs’ measurements and athletic testing as it stacks up to the history of prospects at his position. Scores are out of 10. Red backgrounds indicate significantly below average, yellow backgrounds indicate average-moderately above average, and green backgrounds indicate well above average-elite scores.
As far as productivity, Downs is up there with UNC’s all-time best. As just a two-year starter, Downs ranks 3rd all-time in receptions, 4th in receiving yards, and 2nd in touchdowns, and set the school’s single-season yardage and receptions records in his sophomore year with 1335 yards on 101 catches. That year, he accounted for about 50% of UNC’s receptions and about 43% of their yardage through the air. He missed a couple of games in 2022 and the UNC aerial attack got more varied, but he still crossed 1000 yards receiving again and actually improved on his touchdown numbers from 8 to 11, showcasing his ability as a red-zone threat on short-yardage pivot/whip option routes.
- Route Running: By any standard you want to set, Downs is an elite route runner, among the best in this class. He ran just about every route on the tree in UNC’s offense, and a healthy diet of options to boot, allowing him to show off his understanding of leverage and his opponent’s tendencies week-to-week. His change of direction is sudden when it needs to be and fluid when it needs to be, making him able to easily separate from man coverage whether he’s short, intermediate, or deep down the field. He also has advanced understanding of where the holes are in zone coverages and how to manipulate them to make his quarterback’s job as easy as it can be. Downs takes one-on-one matchups personally and takes pride in embarrassing the guy in front of him, either by outrunning him deep after a subtle change of direction or breaking his ankles on a sharp cut, and found himself open over and over again throughout his two years of action in Chapel Hill because of this attribute. Downs will need to be reined in a tad at the professional level, because at times he’ll get more interested in breaking down his defender than in getting open in time, stringing a couple too many moves together for his route to develop in tandem with the rest of the play — and that doesn’t really fly in the NFL. But that shouldn’t be a hard tendency to fix.
- Hands: Downs dropped just three passes all 2022 compared to his 94 receptions. Unfortunately, one of them was particularly ill-timed, but that doesn’t change the fact that Downs’ hands are about as safe as they get. He’s helped by having pretty big hands for his size; he’s at the 8th percentile for height and 12th for arm length among the database of wide receiver prospects but at the 39th for hand size, according to Mockdraftable. If a ball is thrown behind him or at his feet, it doesn’t matter, because he’s a hands catcher who can contort his body and pluck the ball out of the air without having his body behind the catch. Even better than having safe hands, though, is having strong ones, and that’s where Downs really shines to me. For a small receiver — scratch that, for any receiver — he’s exceptional at winning at the catch point, recording a 70% contested catch rate this season. He was as much of a ball-winner as anybody in college football last year, and the tape confirms it, as he frequently positions his body and hands to just rip balls away from defensive backs and turn tight coverage into safe catches, never allowing the ball to get punched away from him.
- Athleticism: This is kind of covered in the route running section, but Downs’ stop-start agility and short-area quickness are absolutely lethal, both before and after the catch. His short-shuttle and 3-cone drill times confirm this — his short-shuttle time of 6.75 seconds would have ranked 2nd in this year’s combine and his 3-cone time of 4.15 seconds would have ranked 3rd. This helps him with his route-running, but also when he gets in space on manufactured touches and/or on punt returns, where he averaged 11.1 yards per return for his career. He consistently manufactured extra yardage with his array of moves in open space, and while he isn’t quite a gamebreaker (more on that later), he’ll still make defenders look pretty silly pretty regularly. He’s also quite the jumper and isn’t afraid to show it on the field, as jump balls were a pretty big part of those contested catches he won. Even better is that his biomechanics don’t break down as he’s in the air, as you can see from how smooth he makes this gauntlet look at the Combine.
- Polish: As the son of a high school coach and the nephew of an NFL coach, and as the result of his own hard work in the film room and on the practice field, Downs just looks like a ballplayer. His release package is advanced, there isn’t a route he doesn’t run, his hands are always in the right spot, he’s a willing run blocker, and there’s very little wasted movement to his game. Watching him, you just can’t help but think he’s doing things the way they’re meant to be done, and doing them at a high level.
- Size: Downs measured in at the Combine at 5’9, 171 pounds, which is pretty small even for a slot-only receiver in the NFL. It’s started to become possible for smaller receivers to line up outside, like Devonta Smith (6’0, 170) and Tyler Lockett (5’10, 182), but those guys had extensive experience on the outside in college and came to the NFL knowing how to deal with press coverage given their limitations. Downs was exclusively a slot receiver in 2021 and played about 90% of his snaps in 2022 from the slot, and the ones where he did line up outside didn’t go phenomenally for him. Downs plays bigger than his size down the field, where he’s not afraid to get physical while on the move and at the catch point, but at the line of scrimmage, he’s very much limited by his size, and that in turn is going to limit what an NFL team can do with him.
- Play Strength: This kind of goes with the previous point, but Downs, while tough, doesn’t really take contact well. It’s not hard to knock him off balance near the line of scrimmage and blow up his route before it gets started, and while he’s pretty good at avoiding tackles, he’s not very good at breaking them, even when they’re on the weaker side. This is part of what makes him fall short of being a game-breaker; he’s not going to be one to make a crowd look silly by running through a bunch of arm tackles, and against a disciplined defense rallying to the ball, a crowd is what you’ll get most of the time. I worry about him facing press coverage or just having to navigate condensed-field traffic in the NFL without getting his route and timing massively thrown off. This also, predictably, shows up for him as a run blocker, where he’s willing but can be overwhelmed. That he chose not to bench press at the Combine really only deepens this concern, but also indicates that he believes he can play around it.
Downs’s 4.48-second 40-yard dash is pretty fast, but seemed slower than his play speed at UNC. I expected something closer to 4.4-flat, which is the range where you start to see the guys in the NFL who are really running away from defenses. If I’m right and his play speed is indeed faster than 4.48, that gives him a bit of a higher upside as far as being a big play maker. If it’s not and he only looked that fast because of bad opposition or TV cameras, he’s probably more of a flashy chain-mover in the mold of what Curtis Samuel has become. It’s also worth noting that Downs plays with quite a bit of an edge, frequently trash-talking his opponents on the back of great plays, and it’s gotten him penalized a few times over the course of his career. That’s a positive to some and a negative to others, so take it for what you will.
Downs is a little unlucky in that he’s in a wide receiver class where about 5 of the top 7 guys (Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Jordan Addison, Jalin Hyatt, Zay Flowers, and himself) are slot prospects, and among them, he’s hurt by being the smallest and thus among the least projectable to playing a few snaps per game on the outside. With his advanced route running and ability to catch contested balls, though, I firmly believe that even just from the slot, he’d make most NFL teams better from Day 1. That productivity doesn’t happen on accident, and his ability to find and take advantage of space seems pretty much guaranteed to translate. I don’t know that he’s a first-round pick, where you’re looking for guys to build a franchise around; he’s a little too limited for that. Although, I don’t think he’d be a bad pick for a team late in the first that’s already got a lot of pieces and is looking for somebody to complement their offense (hello, Cowboys, Bills, and Chiefs). And starting on the first pick of Day 2, I think teams would be doing themselves a favor picking Josh Downs.