Prior to the 2014 NFL Draft, everyone who dabbled even a little bit in scouting was making predictions that the wide receiver class was the deepest it's ever been and had the highest upside. SB Nation's own Dan Kadar echoed those sentiments in his final rankings pre-draft, but like everything you hear prior to rookies actually hitting the field in NFL games, it was all just speculation.
Turns out, they may have been underselling the class just a bit. Last year's group of receivers played at and above the ceiling afforded them in the pre-draft process and made differences all over the football field. In late November, before the season had even ended, we were talking about how this class was historically dominant, even compared to great classes in 1985 -- featuring none other than Jerry Rice -- and 1996, which included Terrell Owens and Marvin Harrison.
Each and every one of the receivers drafted last season have a long way to go before reaching the career heights Owens, Harrison or Rice managed, but they sure started things off on the right foot. Odell Beckham Jr. played in just 12 games as a rookie, yet he managed to sneak into the top 10 when it comes to wide receiver receiving yardage. Mike Evans and Kelvin Benjamin both put up 1,000-plus yards, and there were plenty touchdowns for all.
Here's a basic chart with the stats from notable rookie receivers last season:
2014 Rookie Receiver Stats
|Odell Beckham Jr.||New York Giants||91||1305||14.3||12|
|Mike Evans||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||68||1051||15.5||12|
|Kelvin Benjamin||Carolina Panthers||73||1008||13.8||9|
|Sammy Watkins||Buffalo Bills||65||982||15.1||6|
|Jordan Matthews||Philadelphia Eagles||67||876||13.1||8|
|Jarvis Landry||Miami Dolphins||84||755||9.0||5|
|John Brown||Arizona Cardinals||48||696||14.5||5|
|Allen Hurns||Jacksonville Jaguars||51||677||13.3||6|
|Taylor Gabriel||Cleveland Browns||38||633||16.7||1|
|Brandin Cooks||New Orleans Saints||53||550||10.4||3|
|Martavis Bryant||Pittsburgh Steelers||26||549||21.1||8|
|Allen Robinson||Jacksonville Jaguars||48||548||11.4||2|
|Davante Adams||Green Bay Packers||38||446||11.7||3|
|Donte Moncrief||Indianapolis Colts||32||444||13.9||3|
|Marqise Lee||Jacksonville Jaguars||37||442||11.4||1|
|Philly Brown||Carolina Panthers||21||296||14.1||2|
|Paul Richardson||Seattle Seahawks||29||271||9.3||1|
|Albert Wilson||Kansas City Chiefs||16||260||16.3||0|
|De'Anthony Thomas||Kansas City Chiefs||15||106||7.1||0
From 2009 through 2013, only 19 rookie receivers or tight ends caught at least 50 passes. Of those, 12 were taken in the first or second round, which seems like a high number until you compare it to the fact that 35 receivers and tight ends were taken over that span. Last season, eight rookie receivers had 50 or more receptions, with another two receivers catching 48 passes. So if about four receivers or tight ends caught 50-plus passes on average over the previous five years, that number was doubled in 2014.
Rookie receivers in 2014 played nearly twice as many snaps as rookie receivers did all the way back in 2007. Twelve of the 34 receivers selected in last year's draft played more than 500 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. All of the 12 players that did so were taken in the first three rounds of the draft.
The 2013 draft class was massively out-shined by by this year's rookie class, with only five players catching 50-plus passes and only one of them eclipsing 1,000 yards receiving (DeAndre Hopkins of the Houston Texans).
Below, we've got a chart showing draft classes from 2007 through 2014, how many rookies caught 50-plus passes or 1,000 yards and how many players from those classes accomplished those feats in 2014 on top of that. For for the 2012 class, we're showing how many rookies in 2012 caught 50-plus passes and had 1,000-plus yards receiving, and also how the top players from that class performed in 2014.
|Class||50+ Catch Rookies||50+ Catches in 2014||1,000-yard Rookies||1,000 Yards in 2014|
As you can see, the 2010 draft class is the only one that even competes with the 2014 class, and that's not until 2014. Meaning those receivers were in their fifth seasons in the league. In other words, 2014's rookie class put up comparable numbers in key stats to fifth-year players Antonio Brown, Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and Dez Bryant.
And they're only going to get better. Taking a look at trends since 2007, wide receiver classes show universal improvement from year one to year two, and it's a fairly consistent increase across the board. Taking the top 10 performers in receptions, yardage and touchdowns in each of their rookie and second years, only one group saw a decrease, and even then only in one stat (2013's class, touchdowns).
That season saw the least productive group of rookies in our data pool, barely increasing productivity as far as receptions and yards are concerned, showing single digit increases in receptions and yards, and the aforementioned decrease in touchdowns. Every other class improved significantly, from 2007 through 2013.
The 2012 receiver class saw average receptions among its top players increase from 43.1 to 66.4, yards from 600 to 973.1 and touchdowns from 4 to 5.6. That's a 54 percent increase for receptions, 62.1 percent increase in yards and a 40 percent increase in touchdowns.
In 2014, the top rookie receivers averaged 64.8 receptions, 853.3 yards and 7.4 touchdowns. From 2007 through 2013, the top receivers averaged 56.8 receptions, 780.3 yards and 5.3 touchdowns in their second years. There was universal improvement across the board from Year 1 to the second year, but 2014's receivers were already far beyond those numbers as rookies.
So, there's already plenty of evidence that shows the second-year growth at this point. In the latest Football Outsiders almanac, they made projections for the top rookie receivers from 2014, with their numbers suggesting the top 10 would average more than 70 receptions and just barely under 1,000 yards. Those are incredibly loft expectations, but they line up with the increase we can see below, in both receptions and yards:
The projected number for receptions for 2014's receivers is 72.7, which would represent an increase of just over 12 percent. That's actually quite a bit lower than the percentage increase from other seasons, but there does have to be a ceiling on it at some point, right? The projected numbers in both receptions and yards (visibly demonstrated below) are actually quite a bit low given the recent trends.
The projected number of touchdowns for the top receivers from 2014 is 7.7 touchdowns. If we did away with those projections though, and instead applied the same percentage increase from 2007-2013 to last year's class, we'd get an average of 88.6 receptions, 1,172 yards and 10.6 touchdowns for the class of 2014's top 10 receivers in their second years.
It's worth noting that some of these numbers would be closer if we also factored in tight ends and running backs. In past years, a couple of players from those positions -- including the likes of Jimmy Graham and Le'Veon Bell -- were scattered around the top 10 in both receptions and yards. That said, in 2014, there were no rookie tight ends or running backs in the top 10 -- they were all wide receivers.
The future is incredibly bright for guys like Beckham, Evans and Benjamin, who all represent the offensive firepower of their respective franchises. Beckham is the top guy in New York, Evans will quickly become a favorite target of rookie quarterback Jameis Winston, Benjamin is already the guy Cam Newton is looking for on every play and whoever winds up throwing footballs for the Buffalo Bills will be looking for Watkins early and often. These guys should only get better.