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Illinois Football 2019 NFL Draft Profile: Sam Mays

The underutilized WR has the measurables to be a late-round steal.

Michigan State v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

If we’re being honest, Sam Mays production while in Champaign left a lot to be desired and leaves a lot of NFL scouts asking the question: Was the issue Mays or the terrible situation he was put in as part of Tim Beckman’s final recruiting class. Based on Mays’ improvement during his senior year — after Rod Smith took over the offense — the answer is likely the turmoil he faced.

Mays’ time at Illinois

Illinois v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Mays came to Illinois as three-star WR from the Kinkaid School in Houston, Texas. (For those Wes Anderson fans out there, Kinkaid is the prep school where the Movie Rushmore was filmed). He originally committed to Tim Beckman on July 6, 2014 prior to his senior year of high school.

Mays then enrolled at Illinois in August 2015, but a few weeks after his arrival, the Illini fired Beckman. From there, Mays endured numerous tumultuous changes that completely destabilized the Illini football program. As expected, the change from Beckman to Cubit to Lovie in a seven-month span made it difficult to develop the talent on campus, but these changes also included numerous changes to the offensive coordinator position.

Finally, with the addition of current offensive coordinator Rod Smith in 2018, we saw some of what Mays could do. Unfortunately for Mays, he only got one year in Smith’s system before his eligibility expired.


In his four years on campus, Mays caught 49 passes for 567 yards and two touchdowns. But 29 of those receptions and 331 of those receiving yards came in Mays’ senior season of 2018 under the guidance and playcalling of Rod Smith.

When it comes to the NFL, scouts look for potential and fit as much — if not more — than they look for production in college. For a receiver of Mays’ prototypical size and frame (6’3” and 200 LBS) the potential and fit could certainly be there to entice several NFL teams.

Career Highlight

His career highlight came in the fourth quarter of the 2016 win over Michigan State when Mays caught the game-winning touchdown pass on a perfectly run corner route.

Draft Projection

NFL: NFL Draft Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

If Mays gets drafted, the 6th or 7th round is the likely spot. More realistically, however, Mays will likely sign a rookie free agent contract and cut his chops on an NFL practice squad.

The type of teams looking for a WR like Mays are ones with stability at QB who recently lost their star WRs — to injury or free agency — and are looking to bring in a large group of WRs. Also, teams with stable QB situations are in better position to utilize late round or practice squad WRs.

NFL Teams That Could Show Interest

Denver Broncos

NFL: San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Broncos’ acquisition of Joe Flacco seems to have solidified the Broncos the quarterback position for the time being. Flacco, however, needs receivers to throw to and the usually reliable Emmanuel Sanders is coming off a torn Achilles. So, the Broncos are certainly look to nab a WR in the draft and might in fact be looking to get two from the NFL Draft.

New Orleans Saints

NFL: NFC Championship Game-Los Angeles Rams at New Orleans Saints Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Drew Brees has provided stability to the Saints quarterback position for nearly 15 years. With Brees and head coach Sean Payton, the Saints have done a tremendous job identifying young unheralded WRs — like Marques Colston, Brandon Coleman, and Brandin Cooks — and turning them into highly productive contributors.

New Orleans is looking to add someone that can help take off the pressure of their best WR, Michael Thomas. So, the need is there and the Saints have proven that they have the system to identify the hidden gems that will eventually end up in the Pro Bowl.

Carolina Panthers

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Panthers are in the market for some WRs after Devin Funchess left for the Indianapolis Colts. Now, Panthers coach Ron Rivera and the Panthers front need to find a new target or two for QB Cam Newton.

Although the Panthers could go looking for a first-round WR, they will also be looking for depth in the later rounds or in rookie free agency. This is where Mays can come in and try to make in impact.

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