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Malik Washington — the unheralded gem of the nation’s top receivers

The Virginia wide receiver has been one of the best receivers in the nation but continues to be overlooked in the draft conversation

<p>Washington helped the Cavaliers to their biggest win of the season, defeating then-No. 10 North Carolina on the road.</p>

Washington helped the Cavaliers to their biggest win of the season, defeating then-No. 10 North Carolina on the road.

While the eyes of national football writers may have focused on powerhouses such as Ohio State, LSU or Oregon, Virginia football had a star of its own in graduate student wide receiver Malik Washington. Despite the Cavaliers’ less than stellar record in 2023, the transfer from Northwestern dominated the ACC en route to league-leading production. Even though his name is not as well known across the country, Washington should be considered among the best wide receivers in college football, including from an NFL potential standpoint.

Virginia faced a major question mark at the wide receiver position entering the season. The team lost star Dontayvion Wicks and X-factor Keytaon Thompson to graduation. Wicks would go on to be drafted in the 5th round of the NFL Draft by the Green Bay Packers last April, where he is shaping up to be one of the key components of the Packers’ offense. Thompson and Wicks both led the Cavaliers in receiving yards for both the 2022 and 2021 seasons, the lone bright spots of a stagnant 2022 offense. Virginia also lost veteran Billy Kemp, as the shifty receiver opted to graduate-transfer to Nebraska. 

Coach Tony Elliott’s coaching staff turned to the transfer portal to bring in a veteran. Shortly after the season ended, it was announced that Washington was set to become Charlottesville’s newest resident after accumulating 694 receiving yards and one touchdown in his senior season. 

Washington would go on to more than double his receiving production the next season. The Georgia native ended the 2023 season with 1,426 receiving yards and nine touchdowns, despite only having three receiving touchdowns his entire collegiate career beforehand. Washington ended the regular season second in the nation in receiving yards, behind only LSU’s junior Malik Nabers. Washington also led the nation in both receptions and receptions per game. 

Washington is statistically one of the best receivers the ACC and Virginia have ever seen. The transfer broke the ACC’s record for receptions in a single season, a record previously owned by NFL veteran Jamison Crowder, and became the fastest Virginia receiver to reach 1000 yards in a season, breaking multiple other Virginia records in the process. All of this earned Washington a first team All-American honor by College Football Nation, a second team honor by the Associated Press and a top-10 finish in the Biletnikoff award which recognizes him as a top-9 wide receiver in the nation since one of the nominees was a tight end. 

However, Washington continues to be overlooked when discussing the top receivers in this year’s NFL Draft class. Ohio State’s junior Marvin Harrison Jr. ended up winning the Biletnikoff award, with Nabers and University of Washington’s junior Rome Odunze finishing as the runner-ups. These three receivers are the consensus top receivers in the nation, with Oregon’s junior Troy Franklin also being in the conversation. While Washington may not have the same amount of touchdowns as the other names on the list, he leads in both receptions and 100-yard games, showing consistency across an entire season.

Other highly rated receivers include Florida State’s junior Keon Coleman, Ohio State's junior Emeka Egbuka, and Texas’ Xavier Worthy. Despite blowing all three of these projected first rounders out of the water in terms of production, Washington is still not in the media’s conversation as a top receiver in the draft class. However, looking at the Cavalier’s statistics suggest that he should be well within the dialogue, both as a college player and an NFL prospect.

Out of the seven other top receivers mentioned, four average between 17-18 yards per catch. Washington only averages 13 yards per catch, which is similar to the other three. However, a consideration must be made that other teams had more receiving options than Virginia. The second-best receiving option for Virginia was junior wide receiver Malachi Fields with 811 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns. While that creates a great 1-2 option at receiver for Virginia, that is it for Virginia’s receiving options. The next-best producer in receiving yards only finished with 176 yards, and that player was listed as a running back. 

As a contrast to Virginia’s offensive skill production struggles, the other top receivers in the nation were accompanied by a better supporting cast. Every team except Oregon of the receivers mentioned had their third leading receiver finish with at least 450 yards, and even the Ducks had at least six of their players finish with 380 receiving yards or more. Virginia also had a drastically less effective run game, ending the season ranked 106th out of 130 FBS teams in total rushing yards. 

Washington has overcome a constantly changing offense, whether it be different starting quarterbacks or a deficient run game. While some could argue the lack of alternatives inflated Washington’s statistics, it is also true that he had much more attention paid to him, meaning it was more difficult to get the star the ball. Therefore, the lack of supporting production ultimately was a net negative in terms of Washington’s ability to thrive in Charlottesville.

Another possible knock to Washington’s perception among college critics is his height as he is listed as five-foot-eight while the other seven are all at least listed as six-foot. But Washington has the build of a running back, which can be attractive to NFL scouts as it offers some possible versatility. It is also worth mentioning that Washington is more of a slot receiver, while the other top receivers are viewed as prospects on the outside. Therefore, he should not be measured in the same way, as the position-specific needs are valued very differently. Washington could very well be the best prospect for his specific role in the NFL, despite not being the highest-ranked receiver on the board.

While some may call the amount of catches Washington has as stat padding to his receiving yards count, it is clear to those who watch the Virginia games that it’s actually a testament to his reliability and ability to lose defensive banks and get open. Washington, whose accolades put in as one of the nation’s best receivers, should be in the conversation as one of the better receivers in the draft class.


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