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NFL Draft Profile: Laviska Shenault Jr.

Shenault is a projected 1st or 2nd round pick.

Nebraska v Colorado Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

The NFL Draft will begin on Thursday at 6:00 PM (MST). Rounds 2-3 will be on Friday starting at 5:00 PM and rounds 4-7 will begin Saturday at 10:00 AM.

Background

Laviska Shenault Jr. came to Colorado as late-blooming 3-star prospect from DeSoto High School outside of Dallas. The Buffs had been recruiting DeSoto for 4-star receiver K.D. Nixon, Viska’s teammate and best friend, when Darrin Chiaverini saw a tight end with ridiculous size and athleticism. Shenault was already committed to CU when his coach switched him to receiver for his senior season. Big play after big play, Shenault started getting offers from Alabama and LSU, but he stuck with his original choice. He attended Colorado with Nixon and his little brother La’Vontae joined the team in 2019.

Production

Shenault only caught 7 passes his freshman season, but everyone who knew him was simultaneously furious he wasn’t playing over Colorado’s inconsistent seniors and excited for his inevitable breakout in 2018. What limited action he did see resulted in big plays — his first collegiate touch was a fumble recovery on a punt return, which Shenault ran in for a 48-yard score.

His first career start yielded 11 catches for 211 receiving yards against Colorado State. The next game he put up 10 catches for 177 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner over arch-rival Nebraska. Soon enough, Colorado was 5-0 and it was almost entirely because of him. He had legitimate Heisman buzz before he injured his toe against USC and missed three additional games.

He finished the season with 86 catches, 1011 receiving yards, 6 receiving scores and 5 rushing touchdowns, all despite playing only 9 games. His 9.6 catches per game and 10.9 yards from scrimmage per play were both tops in the nation. He was named first-team All-Pac-12 and was projected as a surefire first round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Entering 2019, everyone knew his name. The issue, however, was that opposing defenses were going to do everything they could to limit his impact. Against Colorado State, they opted to interfere with him instead of giving up a catch; moreover, they hit him high and late even if he didn’t get the ball. Nebraska moved their entire secondary towards his side of the field, always shadowing him with a double-team; that opened space for Tony Brown to catch the game-winning score. The only team who played him straight up was Air Force, who Shenault lit up for 149 yards and 2 scores.

Three games into 2019, Shenault was hurt again, this time against Arizona State on his first catch of the game. He missed only one game, but he wasn’t really himself apart from a 189-yard performance against USC. He was laboring some, the coaches didn’t want him injured again, and defenses were still hellbent on stopping him. He did help CU to two more victories, running for a clutch 4th down conversation against Stanford and going for 100 yards against Washington.

Strengths

Shenault may be the most versatile receiver in this draft class. Colorado used him as an X-receiver, a slot receiver and as a wildcat quarterback during his career. He played all over, always being fed the ball. He’s terrific tracking long passes, and even if he doesn’t necessarily high point the ball, he routinely makes acrobatic finishes in traffic. He has very plucky hands and rarely makes catches against his body or pads.

He’s dangerous in space not because of his speed, but because he runs like a power tailback and is rarely brought down by just one defender. He’s quite agile for his size, too, as he has juked a few defenders out of their shoes (0:58). Another component is that he often catches passes while already accelerating, which isn’t advisable for most receivers, but Shenault gets a running start without suffering drops. He’s a big play waiting to happen.

If there’s one game of his to watch, it’s his 2018 performance against UCLA. He showcased every one of his strengths as a receiver: he burned the corner on a deep post, made an acrobatic catch between three defenders, tip-toed the sideline on a heady route, ran through defenders after the catch, and even scored a clutch rushing touchdown.

Weaknesses

The main concern with Shenault is his injury history. He hurt his toe in 2018, had surgery on a torn labrum that offseason (he was apparently playing injured), and he suffered a core injury in 2019 that flared up again in the 2020 pre-draft process. He was definitely overworked in 2018 because CU didn’t have many other options. He was also targeted by opposing defenses who seemed like they were trying to knock him out of games. His physical running style doesn’t do him favors, as he takes huge hits time to time.

There’s also the issue that Shenault isn’t polished at any one role in an offense. That makes sense considering he was used all over the field for three different offensive coordinators and missed time with injury. His route-running does need improvement, particularly against zone coverage, and he doesn’t have a fully developed route tree against man coverage. Those are all fair critiques, but his non-injury weaknesses are coachable. He’s touted for his work ethic so that should improve with time.

Projection

If teams drafted for just talent and skill, Shenault would be an easy first round pick, but those injury concerns will likely push him into the second round. It doesn’t help either that this is a historically loaded receiving class and teams would rather take a sure thing with less upside than roll the dice on Shenault’s health.

The team that selects Shenault should have a defined plan on how to use him creatively while limiting his injury risk. Viska may not be durable enough to be a true No. 1 option, but he can be an invaluable Swiss army knife capable of breaking big gains and having the occasional breakout performance. The 49ers just showed the league how valuable a Deebo Samuel-type receiver can be in a creative offense, even on just 5 or so touches per game. There’s no reason Shenault can’t be a limited-usage, high-impact playmaker who develops into something more.