When Rashod Bateman’s name is called, as expected, during the first round of the NFL Draft on Thursday night, it will come with these words attached: receiver from Minnesota.
That have never been uttered before in the first round.
If he ends up being in that top 32-player tier, Bateman would become the first Minnesota receiver taken there since the draft started in 1936. He would be the 18th Gophers player taken in the first round and the first since running back Laurence Maroney in 2006.
The Gophers plucked Bateman out of rural southern Georgia in the 2018 recruiting class, and the four-star prospect withstood a late sales pitch from Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart to stick with the Gophers, where he was named Big Ten receiver of the year in 2019.
“Choosing Minnesota was not a hard decision for me and holding my commitment here was not a hard decision for me,” Bateman explained before his Pro Day on April 1. “Minnesota was the first Power Five school to give me the opportunity to fulfill my dreams. … I committed right on the spot. I never looked back.
“This is just how recruiting works,” Bateman continued. “The other teams came in to offer just because Minnesota did, and I didn’t fall for the trick that they wanted to pull. I’ve built a strong relationship with this coaching staff and this community. Minnesota is the place that I will always come back home to and a place that I will love forever. I’m just grateful to be here — and I’m a Minnesota boy.”
The only other Gopher to be taken in the first round who became a primary pass catcher was end Bud Grant. Before his hall of fame career as Vikings head coach, Grant was taken with the 14th pick by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1950. The Superior, Wis., native put off his NFL debut to play for the NBA’s Minneapolis Lakers for two years, and after playing defense as a rookie in 1951, he was the No. 2 receiver in the NFL with 56 receptions in 1952.
But no true receiver from Minnesota can claim what Bateman is expected to do on Thursday. But Bateman’s position in the top tier has been called into question.
Over the winter, doubts percolated about Bateman’s speed, something he dispelled with a laser-timed 40-yard dash of 4.39 seconds in February. He then matched that number at the Gophers Pro Day earlier this month.
Before he ran, Bateman was measured at 6 feet and 190 pounds after being listed as 6-2, 210 while he played at Minnesota. He said he lost some weight when he dealt with COVID-19 last June, but added he never played at more than 200 pounds at Minnesota.
“It’s been that way all my life,” Bateman said of doubters. “Since I played at Tift County High School and now I played at ‘Minnesota.’ ” Bateman used air quotes to signify how some view the Gophers as a lesser program. “ There’s always going to be question marks about me, but I’m used to that.”
In conversations with NFL front-office personnel, Gophers defensive coordinator Joe Rossi said he has compared Bateman with Antoine Winfield Jr., the Minnesota safety taken in the second round by Tampa Bay last year.
“Antoine has no weakness,” Rossi said Tuesday. “I’m not saying he has all top level in all categories, but he doesn’t have anything that stands out, where he’s really not good at this. I feel the same way about Bateman. He can go up and get (passes). He can run by you. He runs really good routes. He’s got change of direction. He’s got acceleration. And he’s a mentally tough player.”
There’s also more history Bateman and Minnesota will make this week. Ten Minnesota receivers have been drafted at all since 1967 when the AFL and NFL merged, while none have come off the board in consecutive years. Bateman and Tyler Johnson, a fifth-round pick to the Buccaneers in 2020, will be the first in that category.
Bateman said he will watch the draft from Tifton with his family. Earlier this month, he said it has been at times difficult to believe that his boyhood dream is actually happening.
“Every day I wake up, I’m going though this process, I’m just like ‘wow,’ ” Bateman said. “It’s getting closer. It feels real, but it doesn’t feel real. It’s full of excitement, really.”