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The 2014 rookie receivers are the NFL's best ever by every measure

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The 2014 rookie receiver class is making a strong case as being one of the all-time greats. Let's break it down for you.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps the best piece of evidence that the 2014 rookie class of wide receivers may be the greatest ever is that it has thoroughly debunked a well-worn bit of fantasy football wisdom. Rookie wideouts are supposed to be fantasy poison. Empirically, many receivers, even some of the best ever, don't bust out until their second or third seasons in the NFL.

In 44 seasons since the AFL-NFL merger, just 12 players have broken 1,000 yards receiving as rookies, and 24 have had 900 yards or more. If this year's crops maintains its current pace, five more players will join the 900-plus club, with four topping 1,000 yards. That's five rookies in one season whose projected combined yardage would make up 21.7 percent of the combined 24 best rookie seasons since 1970. That projected 5,384 combined yards is greater than the sum production of the sixth through 10th most productive rookie seasons of all time.

Yes, we're heaping all-time great expectations on 21/22/23-year-olds who have yet to complete one full season. Maybe we're still drunk off that catch, but the numbers drive the hyperbole, especially when stacked perhaps the consensus greatest rookie receiver classes ever: 1996 and 1985. Those draft classes included Hall of Famers in Jerry Rice and Andre Reed, and potential Hall of Famers in Marvin Harrison and Terrell Owens. And yet, the hot start 2014 class somehow makes those guys look dull.

RAW NUMBERS

Through Week 12, the receiver class of 2014 has nine of the 75 most productive rookies since 1960, and 10 of the top 102. No other season places more than five pass catchers in the top 100, and that's with running backs and tight end spliced in. Stacked against 1996 and 1985, the comparison is sort of silly:

Receiving yards by rookie WRs through Week 12
2014 1996 1985
Rank since 1970 Player Yards Rank since 1970 Player Yards Rank since 1970 Player Yards
5. Mike Evans 841 19. Terry Glenn 714 28. Eddie Brown 651
8. Kelvin Benjamin 768 51. Keyshawn Johnson 572 t30. Gary Clark 648
29. Sammy Watkins 649 83. Eddie Kennison 515 87. Al Toon 509
33. Jordan Matthews 635 t150. Marvin Harrison 427 t98. Jerry Rice 493
t39. Odell Beckham Jr. 609 155. Charlie Jones 421 t117. Vance Johnson 476
t61. Brandin Cooks 550 t170. Muhsin Muhammad 407 t122. Jessie Hester 469
t63. Allen Robinson 548 t369. Terrell Owens 267 144. Eric Martin 435
t68. Taylor Gabriel 540 t416. Bobby Engram 245 187. Andre Reed 387
t75. John Brown 529 t512. Karl Williams 205 t198 Anthony Carter 376
t103. Allen Hurns 488 t875. Eric Moulds 119 t505. Anthony Allen 207

The class of 2014 features 14 players who are currently having more productive seasons than Terrell Owens was at this point in his rookie season. There are 16 wide receivers (and 24 players total) from the class of 2014 who are more productive than Eric Moulds was through Week 12 in his first year. That level of depth is rather astounding.

Of course, a lot has changed since 1985 and 1996. Passing games have become much more productive. In 1985 and 1996, teams averaged 226.6 and 222.2 receiving yards per game, respectively. In 2014, that number has risen to 255.1 yards per game. Let's normalize the great rookie classes of yesteryear to reflect what they might have looked like today.

RAW NUMBERS (adj.)

The best (normalized) rookie seasons through Week 12 -- 2014 vs. 1996 vs. 1985
Rank Draft class Player Receptions Yards Touchdowns
1. 2014 Mike Evans 49 841 8
2. 1996 Terry Glenn 63 820 3
3. 2014 Kelvin Benjamin 52 768 8
4. 1985 Eddie Brown 42 768 8
5. 1985 Gary Clark 54 729 8
6. 1996 Keyshawn Johnson 52 657 6
7. 2014 Sammy Watkins 45 649 5
8. 2014 Jordan Matthews 50 635 6
9. 2014 Odell Beckham Jr. 41 609 5
10. 1996 Eddie Kennison 40 591 5
11. 1985 Al Toon 35 573 5
12. 1985 Jerry Rice 31 555 5
13. 2014 Brandin Cooks 53. 550 3
14. 2014 Allen Robinson 48 548 2
15. 2014 Taylor Gabriel 30 540 1
16. 1985 Vance Johnson 37 536 1
17. 2014 John Brown 37 529 5
18. 1985 Jessie Hester 29 528 1
t19. 1996 Marvin Harrison 42 490 3
t19. 1985 Eric Martin 34 490 3
21. 2014 Allen Hurns 31 488 5
22. 1996 Charlie Jones 34 483 3

Even after a generous recalibration, 2014 owns 10 of the 21 best rookie seasons among the three classes. Terry Glenn, Eddie Brown, Gary Clark and Keyshawn Johnson look much better in this context, but the top end and overall depth still favors 2014. The adjusted numbers give 2014 the top overall spot in Mike Evans, and five of the top 10 overall.

But here comes another "but." Quarterbacks and passing games are much more effective in 2014. The average quarterback rating in 1985 was 70.7, and in 1996 it was 75.0. That figure jumps to 88.3 in 2014. Among our top 10 rookies, the difference is only slightly less stark -- 83.8 average quarterback for rating 2014 against 73.4 in 1985 and 74.5 for 1996. In that case, a better measure of the "best" rookie receivers class may how important it was to the league as a whole.

PERCENTAGE OF RECEIVER PRODUCTION

Grantland's Bill Barnwell pointed out that the 2014 crop of rookies (including backs and tight ends) have been more important to their respective passing games than just about any other rookie crop since the merger:

barnwell

The only class that tops 2014 in terms of percentage of league receiving yards by rookies is 1987, and that comes with a significant caveat:

There were 98 rookie receivers accruing yards as part of that group, while the average season from 1970 to 2014 (without including 1987) had an average of only 26.7 rookies. If we throw out the strike year, 2014 has narrowly edged the Jerry Rice-led class of 1985 as the most productive rookie class of wideouts in league history.

The class of 1996 doesn't even make Barnwell's list, so this is really a fight between 2014 and 1985 for the best set of rookie wide receivers.

Rookie receivers by % of team receiving yards through Week 12
2014 1996 1985
Player % of team yards Player % of team yards Player % of team yards
Mike Evans 30.4 Eddie Kennison 25.6 Gary Clark 28.5
Kelvin Benjamin 27.3 Terry Glenn 24.7 Jerry Rice 23.2
Sammy Watkins 26.8 Keyshawn Johnson 20.3 Eddie Brown 23.1
Allen Robinson 21.4 Marvin Harrison 17.9 Anthony Carter 20.8
Odell Beckham Jr. 21.0 Muhsin Muhammad 17.5 Andre Reed 19.1
Allen Hurns 19.1 Charlie Jones 16.0 Jessie Hester 19.1
John Brown 19.0 Bobby Engram 11.2 Vance Johnson 18.2
Jordan Matthews 18.9 Terrell Owens 10.7 Al Toon 16.6
Taylor Gabriel 18.8 Karl Williams 9.6 Eric Martin 16.0
Brandin Cooks 17.9 Eric Moulds 5.4 Anthony Allen 6.8
All 2014 rookie WRs (through Week 12) 9.76
All 1996 rookie WRs (full season) 6.92
All 1985 rookie WRs (full season) 9.38

2014 still wins, and in fact pulls even further ahead from Barnwell's numbers. Through Week 12, the rookie receivers of 2014 are well on pace to be a bigger part of the league's total receiving production than the rookie receivers of 1985. And that full season receiving percentage includes late season surges from Rice and Carter.

The idea that rookie receivers perform better late in the season makes sense. If we anticipate surges from the 2014 crew -- Evans and Beckham have been going bananas the last few weeks, for example -- the percentage of NFL receiving yards by rookie receivers this season could creep even closer to 10 percent. (Or maybe not, season-ending injuries to Robinson and Cooks hurt in this regard.)

How this year's rookies finish remains to be seen, but what they've done so far give every indication they're special. What their explosion says about the league at large and the nature of the NFL is difficult to say. Maybe this is the death of the "third year rule." Or maybe we should prepare ourselves to witness some of the league's best-ever pass catchers grow up and dominate.