Taking a wide receiver in the first round of the NFL Draft is a tremendous risk/reward scenario. Sometimes teams find generational talent like Julio Jones or Calvin Johnson. Much more often, they’re forced to hope the athleticism and potential of players like Kevin White, John Ross, or Breshad Perriman can live up to the hype.
From 2012-17, there were 25 wide receivers selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. Only five of those players have been selected to even a single Pro Bowl in their budding careers. Nine have had at least one season with 800 receiving yards or more.
In 2018, two more wide receivers were drafted in the first round: D.J. Moore (No. 24) and Calvin Ridley (No. 26). So what can the Panthers and Falcons, the two teams who spent their first-round picks on the dynamic young wideouts, learn from this?
Not to expect too much — at least in 2018.
Recent first-round receivers have a high miss rate as rookies
In the last five years, we’ve seen several high-profile players rise to the top of draft lists only to falter after a rough introduction to the league. Last year’s crop of top-10 talent returned 45 receptions and 470 yards ... between three players. Injuries decimated 2017’s receivers, led by Ross, Corey Davis, and Mike Williams. They’ve also impacted the development of White, Perriman, Josh Doctson, and others who were drafted in previous years.
There have been a handful of success stories from the first round of wideouts, but the bulk of those performances all come from the same draft class. 2014 gave the league Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr., Brandin Cooks, and Kelvin Benjamin. Without those receivers, your odds of finding an 800-plus yard season from the remaining group of top 30 picks drops to 20 percent.
Even with that group bumping up expectations, rookie first-round picks over the past five years have roughly been as productive as Jeremy Maclin’s disappointing 2017. Those 25 receivers averaged 37 receptions, 495 yards, and three touchdowns in their first seasons as a pro. Those numbers are weighed down by zeroes from players like White, Ross, Perriman, and 2012 30th pick A.J. Jenkins, but removing the outliers from either end of the table — the top performances and the worst of the group — actually makes those averages worse: 37, 459, and two.
If you push the data back to 2007, the list of first-round WRs gets more promising. That group includes 42 first-round wideouts, 13 of whom have earned Pro Bowl invitations. Only two of the players drafted between 2007 and 2011 — Craig Davis and Jonathan Baldwin — have had fewer than 1,300 career receiving yards. Given enough time, talent has trumped short-term injuries, even if recent results suggest major hurdles remain from the potential busts of the last five years.
But expectations for Calvin Ridley and D.J. Moore will be modest — especially as additions to already-solid teams
The numbers for wideouts taken between the 21st and 32nd picks as rookies are unfortunate. While that group produced Will Fuller, Kelvin Benjamin, and DeAndre Hopkins, those first-year receivers from 2012-17 averaged just 26 catches and 358 receiving yards after making the leap to the pro ranks. Fortunately for Ridley and Moore, anything they produce this fall with be a welcome bonus for already-solid teams.
Moore will be counted on to boost a Carolina receiving corps that’s light on playmakers, but includes the presence of emerging talents Devin Funchess and Curtis Samuel alongside veteran addition Torrey Smith. Things will be even easier for Ridley, who will be given the chance to thrive when defenses turn their attention to All-Pro Julio Jones — assuming Jones’ most recent contract impasse ends the way most do.
For Ridley, that means a soft landing zone like Fuller had with the Texans in 2016, soaking up targets when teams ganged up on Hopkins in coverage. The Notre Dame product wasn’t as well-rounded as Ridley coming out of college and in his first year had to work with quarterbacks who are a significant downgrade from Matt Ryan: Brock Osweiler, and Tom Savage. That clears a path for Ridley to put together a better season than Fuller’s 47-catch, 635-yard rookie campaign.
Moore’s runway isn’t as clear, as he’ll have to rely on a quarterback coming off the two least efficient passing years of his career. Is Cam Newton’s downturn the result of an inconsistent approach that has led to up-and-down passing performances throughout his career? Or were those disappointing aerial returns tied to a limited array of receiving talent in Charlotte? By investing in the Maryland wideout with their first-round pick, the Panthers are betting its the latter.
The Panthers will provide a similar backdrop to the one Cooks fell into in 2014. His Saints were anchored by Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham, who led the team in targets, and Cooks was flanked by a versatile one-two combo at wideout between Kenny Stills and Marques Colston. In Moore’s case, he’ll settle in behind top target Greg Olsen, a veteran in Smith, and a high-potential youngster in Funchess. He’ll even have a former MVP throwing him passes — though there’s a significant downgrade from 2014 Drew Brees to 2018 Newton.
Recent history indicates spending a first-round pick on a wide receiver is unlikely to pay dividends in the following year, if at all. But Ridley and Moore, relatively underrated prospects who landed in accommodating situations with winning teams, are built to break through that curve. Trends suggest they’ll struggle, but the Falcons and Panthers will give these first-year wideouts the chance to outshine those expectations in 2018 and beyond.