The NFL Combine will be a short event for Wake Forest fans to watch. The NFL hopes for Wake fans rest on two players’ shoulders the first week in March.
Receiver A.T. Perry and tight end Blake Whiteheart will be the Demon Deacons’ representatives, barring any late additions or maneuvering by agents, getting other players invited. While both played significant roles in the prolific Wake Forest offense in 2022, they have very different paths to the next level.
The first player keeping NFL hopes for Wake Fans alive is Whiteheart. For him, it is about showing he can produce at the same level as any other tight end that week. He has the physical skills but was not asked to do as much in the Wake offense as other tight ends were with their teams.
It is a crowded but not spectacular class of tight ends going to the Combine. Michael Mayer from Notre Dame is far and away considered the head of the class. Dalton Kincaid from Utah, Brayden Willis of Oklahoma, and Luke Musgrave of Oregon State are also high on the lists of NFL scouts. But Mayer, the runner-up for the Mackey Award as the best tight end in college football, is head and shoulders out-ranking the others.
That should leave plenty of room for Whiteheart to make an impression. His body of work during the season is only going to go so far for him. At 6-4, 240 pounds, he has the size for the position at the next level. But he was not a focal point of Dave Clawson’s offense in Winston-Salem. For his three years at Wake Forest, he had 44 catches for 541 yards and six touchdowns. For comparison’s sake, Mayer had at least 67 catches and 800+ yards in each of the last two seasons.
The Word on Whiteheart
We heard back from two scouts with regard to Whiteheart’s skill set and NFL potential. They spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized by their teams to publicly discuss individual players.
Among the comments we got back on Whiteheart were that he was a reliable pass catcher over the middle and that he did a good job of using his hands to go get the ball instead of waiting for it to come into his body. “He does a good job of making the catch in traffic,” said one scout. “He knows how to use his body.” The other scout who responded to our requests for comment said Whiteheart was going to be challenged because the trend in the NFL is for the hybrid tight end, “Who also has receiver speed to extend the field.” He said Whiteheart would need to show some of that at the Combine because it has not shown up on the game tapes.
Both scouts said Whitheart would need to convince teams he could play special teams. If he could do that he could go in the seventh round or as an Undrafted Free Agent and be a second-string tight end somewhere.
Whiteheart was selected for the East-West Shrine Bowl in Las Vegas earlier this month. He had no targets and no catches during the game.
The second player keeping NFL hopes alive for Wake fans is Perry. The same two scouts gave us feedback on him. However, it was a little more complex. To begin with, it is a crowded field of high-end receivers going to the Combine. Both scouts agreed that Quentin Johnston of TCU is the top receiver in this year’s class. After that, their preferences for the next few receivers differed with Xavier Hutchinson of Iowa State, Jalin Hyatt of Tennessee, Jaxon Smith-Njigba from Ohio State, Rashee Rice of SMU, and Jordan Addison from USC. One of two scouts pointed out that it just matters what kind of offense a team runs as to, “Which of the college players will be the best fit.”
Once you add names like Zay Flowers, (Boston College), Josh Downs, (UNC), Charlie Jones, (Purdue), and Michael Wilson, (Stanford), the field gets very crowded. Wilson in particular had one of the best weeks of the entire receivers’ group at the Senior Bowl. By any measure, he moved himself up at least one full round in the draft.
Here is where the Combine becomes big for Perry. Consistency. Obviously, all of the drills are done with the individual players being the focal point. Perry needs to go with the same effort on every one of them. One of the two scouts told us this about Perry; “Teams are going to be seeing if they get the A.T. Perry who is an elite athlete who uses his physicality to his advantage. Or they are going to be stuck on game films where he does not go all out on routes where he is not the intended receiver and does not serve as a good decoy.”
Perry finished 2022 with 81 catches for 1,096 yards and 11 touchdowns in 13 games. The numbers were down from 2021 when he had 1,293 yards and 15 touchdowns in 14 games, (Wake played in the ACC championship game). The biggest drop-off was the average yards per catch. They went from 18.2 in 2021 to 13.5 in 2022.
Physical Ability Is Undeniable
At 6-5, 206 pounds, both scouts said there is room for Perry to add about five pounds of upper body strength without compromising his speed and agility. They were both also complimentary of the quickness in his stride. “He has a great burst in the open field,” said one of the scouts. Read any scouting report on Perry, and they will all go to his athletic pass-catching ability. He will win the large majority of battles for 50-50 balls. He has an impressive wingspan and vertical leaping ability. Perry also has pass-catching instincts when it comes to tracking the ball. There is little doubt with his size, speed, and athletic ability, he would play on the outside at the next level.
Like Whiteheart, Perry was chosen for the Shrine Bowl. He was targeted four times during the game but had no receptions. Three of the four passes were uncatchable, and one was knocked out of his hands by the defensive back.
Where Will Perry Go?
One of the two scouts had Perry going in the late third round, (but not to the team he works for). The other scout suggested it would be the mid-fifth round before Perry’s name was called, (also not by the team he works for).
Going through Wake Forest game films from 2022, though, there is no erasing the comment about his effort when he is not the intended target. There were games where it was not a given that he was even Wake’s best receiver on the field. That is not something that comes into play at the Combine with the drills. But perhaps it creates the need for a better showing at the Combine. There is the chance to erase some of the questions, particularly with such a high-end group of receivers competing for the eyes of the scouts.
Photo courtesy: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports