The stock of the receiver position in the NFL has been on the rise for years now, and of late the college game has sent an epic class to the league seemingly every draft season. A new standard has been set for how long it takes for a receiver to produce. Rookie year explosions aren't out of the ordinary.
So let's rank the top five receivers strictly based on who'll be most productive in 2021.
Waddle was my No. 1 receiver in the 2021 class. He's the closest prospect we've seen to Tyreek Hill. Incendiary speed, insane twitch to get off the line with ease and be a nightmare after the catch, and NBA-like leaping skills to snatch the football at its highest point on downfield tosses.
Why isn't he higher on this list then? Two reasons. The talent in front of him and Tua Tagovailoa. Miami boasts a strong and deep pass-catching group highlighted by DeVante Parker, Jakeem Grant, Will Fuller, Mike Gesicki, and Preston Williams. As the No. 6 overall selection in the draft, Waddle will of course be a sizable portion of the offensive game plan basically every week. And when he gets the ball, Waddle is going to be electric. Believe me.
But will Tagovailoa be aggressive and accurate enough to support a hyper-productive rookie receiver on an offense with a plethora of other options? Nope.
4. Devonta Smith, Eagles
While the only clear knock on Smith was his strange, ultra-lanky body type, I didn't see someone with super-twitchy movements after the catch. But that's it on the negative side. Everything else he was capable of on the football field was spectacular. Releases off the line, effortless separation, a giant catch radius, awesome flexibility to turn the corner like Gumby, and deceptive downfield speed.
Look out for him and 2020 first-round pick Jalen Reagor as a young, wildly underrated tandem with dangerous juice to generate big plays frequently.
As someone with reasonable probability to be a top target from Week 1, you're probably wondering why Smith isn't higher on this list. I'm not completely sold on his quarterback, Jalen Hurts, as a passer. He still has a long way to go with accuracy, pocket presence, decision-making etc. Smith will be open, frequently. Will he get the ball thrown between the numbers on a consistent basis? Ehhh. That's why there'll be other rookie wideouts with better production in 2021.
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The Lions are replacing 360 targets from last year's team. Insane. And Detroit acquired Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman as veterans to stand in for the massive amount of receiving talent it lost in the offseason.
There were plenty of receivers in the 2021 class more explosive than St. Brown. Not many ran more routes -- and ran them better -- than the USC product. And while he had moments of clear discomfort with his hands, St. Brown also hauled in a variety of wayward tosses from 2022 draft prospect Kedon Slovis on his way to nearly 500 yards and seven touchdowns in six games during the Trojans shortened season. He went over 1,000 yards in 2019.
2. Elijah Moore, Jets
Moore was a first-round talent picked at the early stages of the second round, and he just tore up Jets minicamp. Ok, it was minicamp. But for Moore that impressive performance is foreshadowing a breakout rookie campaign.
Technically "ahead" of him on the Jets receiver depth chart is marquee free-agent acquisition Corey Davis and Jamison Crowder. Then again, whenever a rookie quarterback is taking over, there's no telling who'll be his most popular target.
Moore hit the production improvement trifecta during his Ole Miss career by increasing his catches, receiving yards, and touchdowns in all three seasons walking the campus in Oxford, Mississippi. He wins with lightning quick releases/routes, very reliable hands, and breakaway long speed. He ran 4.35 and had a superb three-cone time of 6.67 at his pro day. Dude can scoot.
Moore may not start the season as the primary read in Zach Wilson's progressions. By November, he will be that guy.
1. Ja'Marr Chase, Bengals
Chase and Joe Burrow back together again. How glorious. The cerebral connection between the two record-breaking LSU alums will allow Chase to hit the ground running in Cincinnati.
And he's as complete as they come as a receiver prospect. He had 16 contested-catch wins and forced 22 missed tackles in his legendary 2019 campaign. Those are insane figures.
Yes, there's Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd on the roster. And they'll produce. But they won't be as high volume as Chase in a much-improved Bengals offense in 2021. I'm only concerned about his over-reliance on physicality to win off the line against press coverage. Chase's YAC skills are A.J. Brown-esque. He wins at the catch point like Anquan Boldin used to. He's going to be a legitimate WR1 starting in Week 1 of his rookie season with the Bengals.