Safe picks in the NFL Draft do not exist, as much as pre-draft lexicon might lead you to believe it. For a nice stretch over the last decade, however, selecting a wideout in the first round was a pretty profitable enterprise. Lately, those profits appear to have vanished, with first-round wideouts struggling to make an impact for their respective teams.
But is it actually an adjustment issue? Or was the position always difficult to acclimate in the first place? We may have been fooled by an impressive stretch of wide receivers who entered the league.
It began in 2011, an all-time draft class, with A.J. Green (fourth) and Julio Jones (sixth) both going in the top 10. Each player made an immediate impact on their respective team: Green's first year below 1,000 yards receiving with the Bengals came in 2016, while Jones has averaged 1,293 yards per season over his seven-year career. Average it out to a per-16 game basis and Jones tops 1,500 yards in an average season; only injury has held him back.
Things culminated in 2014, when we saw five wideouts go in the first 32 picks -- Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr., Brandin Cooks and Kelvin Benjamin -- who would help to create one of the most successful rookie wide receiver groups in NFL history. We can get to the nitpicks on how much those guys impact the landscape in a second, but the worst performer from that group was Cooks, who caught 53 passes for 550 yards and three touchdowns in his rookie season.
Pick in 2014 NFL Draft (Team)
Receiving yards (2014)
Receiving TDs (2014)
4th overall (BUF)
7th overall (TB)
Odell Beckham Jr.
12th overall (NYG)
20th overall (NOR)
28th overall (CAR)
This was entirely unprecedented. Before the 2011 NFL Draft there were 10 receivers with 1,000 yards receiving in their rookie season. The only three since Randy Moss exploded on the scene in 1998 were Anquan Boldin (2003, a dominant force who surprised everyone), Michael Clayton (2004, a first-round flash in the pan) and Marques Colston (2006, from the sixth round, you're lying if you saw it coming).
Five years passed before Green did it in 2011. Keenan Allen would follow up on the feat in 2013, but there were still just 12 of these seasons before the 2014 NFL Draft. It was highly unlikely you would see three different receivers in the same draft manage to topple the 1,000-yard mark.
But that's exactly what happened; Watkins flirted with 1,000 yards as well.
We probably should have seen a regression coming, though. That year was not some launching pad for incredible early wide receiver production. History tells us that first-round wide receivers, some of them later becoming dominant, did not have huge success out of the gate.
|Rookie receiving yards|
Rookie receiving TDs
Demaryius Thomas (DEN)
Dez Bryant (DAL)
Darrius Heyward-Bey (OAK)
Michael Crabtree (SF)
Jeremy Maclin (PHI)
Percy Harvin (MIN)
Hakeem Nicks (NYG)
Kenny Britt (TEN)
There was not a single first-round wide receiver drafted in 2008, which is an anomaly. The year before was interesting too, because it featured six of them drafted, with Calvin Johnson checking in as the headliner at No. 2 overall. Johnson is, in my opinion, a Hall of Fame player, but even Megatron wasn't immune to the struggles of a first-year wideout; he caught 48 passes for 756 yards and four touchdowns.
Of the other first-round members of that draft class -- Ted Ginn, Dwayne Bowe, Robert Meachem, Craig Davis and Anthony Gonzalez -- only one got remotely close to 1,000 yards. That would be Bowe, who went for 995 in his rookie year with the Chiefs.
A more likely result for these players was a breakout season in either Year 2 or Year 3 -- even Heyward-Bey, long considered one of the most Raiders picks of all time and a pretty large bust for Oakland where he was selected, managed to flirt with the century mark in his third season, posting a 64-catch season for 975 yards.
So, basically, the reality of young wide receivers in the NFL never changed. It was skewed by the 2014 draft class and has been exacerbated by the performance of wideouts in the past three draft classes. Those classes have, admittedly, not looked great out of the gate in terms of performance. Last year, which featured three top-10 wide receivers combining for 470 receiving yards in their first year, really caused us to laser in on questions about the production of young wide receivers.
The busts in the past three years have been REALLY busty. Kevin White didn't record a catch as a rookie. Laquon Treadwell is on a milk carton. Breshard Perriman was actually one of the better performers as a rookie, which says a lot. Comparing the 2015-17 classes against the 2011-13 classes isn't really a comparison.
Number of first-round receivers
Average receiving yards per season
That's basically half the production with more receivers involved. But here's an economic theory to consider: After the boom of 2014, and with the increased emphasis on the passing game, was it possible/likely teams were investing more and more draft capital into wide receivers? You better believe it.
Number of first-round receivers
Average draft position
Consider that not only were more wide receivers drafted in the subsequent three years, but the average draft position moved up more than a full slot. We were getting top-10 picks before 2014. Green/Jones, Justin Blackmon (good rookie season!) and Tavon Austin (sheesh) all went inside the top 10. Teams weren't scared to invest a high draft pick on a wide receiver.
But from 2007 through 2013 there were eight wideouts taken in the top 15 of drafts. In the past three years alone there have been six. That's wild -- Amari Cooper, Kevin White, Corey Coleman, Corey Davis, Mike Williams and John Ross all were drafted inside the top 15 over the past three years. And this is not hindsight, but none of those guys meet the threshold for Jones/Green. Maybe Cooper, but there was a debate about him versus White and who would go first in that draft.
The post-2014 classes have the same number of first-round receivers with 1,000 yards (one, Cooper) as the three years before 2014 (one, Green). And each has the same number from the draft classes as a whole: Michael Thomas was a second-round pick who topped 1,000 yards, while Allen was the lone non-first-round pick from 2011 through 2013 to cross the threshold.
The biggest problem for the position right now is we didn't get the expected third-year breakouts we would have hoped from the 2015 class. Nelson Agholor was the only one to really step up his game in the third year. Cooper regressed into a shell last season, although there is still elite talent there. White has yet to really appear; like, he could be a ghost for all we know. Perriman has created a gulf on the Ravens roster. DeVante Parker looked like a possible breakout this season but the Dolphins quarterback problems didn't help him any. Philip Dorsett has already been traded.
The jury can still be out on the 2016 and '17 classes: Judging these young receivers by their first year based on what happened in 2014 is a foolish endeavor. Josh Doctson proved why during large points of 2017, when he looked like a potentially dominant receiver. Will Fuller had an incredible stretch when Deshaun Watson was healthy.
There's still time for these guys to develop into quality NFL receivers. The key is understanding that 2014 was the exception, not the rule. Smart NFL teams will look to the 2018 NFL Draft, which does not feature a large group of elite wideouts, and hold off on investing if they need an immediate injection of talent.
Teams that did that in 2017 ended up with players like Derek Barnett, Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes and Marshon Lattimore, all taken within five picks of Ross by the Bengals at No. 9. Immediate impact wideouts do not come along that often in the draft. Everyone just got fooled by a rare group in the 2014 draft class.