Eight in the Box: Ranking the best rookie wideouts in an all-time class
In the predraft process, one narrative was heard over and over -- that this class of receivers was among the best ever, and if the players involved lived up to their potential, it could go down in history as the top all-time. With talent from top to bottom, NFL teams had an embarrassment of riches when it came to improving their passing games.
The results so far have been definitive. In 2013, 11 rookie receivers caught more than 30 passes. This season, through 12 weeks, we already have that same number. But who's doing the most for their teams, and with the systems and quarterbacks they're given?
What makes Evans the top man on this list? The deep ball. In a Tampa Bay passing game that has been limited this season, to say the least, he leads all rookies with 16 catches in which the ball has traveled 20 or more yards in the air. No other rookie receiver has more than his six touchdowns on such plays. As he was at Texas A&M, Evans is a matchup nightmare and a friend to whoever is throwing him the ball -- he's great with contested catches, he gets open well in short spaces and his catch radius is fairly ridiculous. Some might ding him because opposing defenses have to focus on Vincent Jackson as well, giving Evans more space. But when you consider Evans' overall productivity in an offense in transition, not to mention the fact that he's missed time with a groin injury, his stats so far (49 catches, 841 yards, eight touchdowns) become even more impressive. Evans has the potential to be a top-five NFL receiver over time.
2. Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants
Yes, the catch has attracted all the attention and justifiably so -- but let's not overlook the fact that after missing the first four weeks of the season with a hamstring injury, Beckham has been doing some other pretty amazing things. He trumped Richard Sherman in coverage when the Giants came to Seattle, toasted the Colts' estimable pass defense, flummoxed the 49ers with his route-running ability, and finished that famous Cowboys game with 10 catches, 146 yards and two touchdowns. I thought that Beckham was the best receiver at the scouting combine and in this draft class, and he certainly isn't disappointing. Beckham can line up anywhere along the formation, and his route-running ability is truly special. His 41-catch, 609-yard, five-touchdown season to date is merely a warm-up for what's to come.
Watkins may be the most physically gifted receiver in this amazing class, but he's been stifled in a Buffalo passing attack that was completely shut down by EJ Manuel's awful throws early in the season, and mitigated by Kyle Orton's limitations since then. Yes, the best receivers can transcend their quartebacks to a certain degree, but it doesn't help when Manuel is throwing Watkins into injury situations, and when Orton can't find him deep. Watkins' five drops on 86 targets this season? Well, he's made at least that many catches on minus-throws. More impressive is that Buffalo's quarterbacks have thrown only one pick when targeting Watkins. Occasionally, Watkins will explode with production as he did against the Dolphins, Vikings and Jets this season, but it's clear that opposing defenses are focusing on him as the Bills' primary passing game threat -- he's caught just 10 passes total for no touchdowns in the last three weeks. As a result, it may take a while before his true potential is seen on a week-to-week basis.
With the Panthers losing their three most prolific receivers in free agency (including Steve Smith, a move that seems to be a major blunder in retrospect), they put a lot on the shoulders of Benjamin, the huge target from Florida State who Carolina took in the first round. To be sure, Benjamin's college tape was limited -- he ran a restrictive route tree, and most of his major catches were the result of winning physical battles as opposed to trumping coverage with advanced concepts. In the NFL, Benjamin isn't asked to do what other receivers are asked to do from a schematic perspective -- primarily, he's been making plays with his speed and physical stature. Benjamin has been the league's second-best deep receiver behind Mike Evans, with nine catches and five touchdowns on 24 passes of 20 yards or more. When Benjamin gets the little things under control (like ball security -- he's tied with Jacksonville's Allen Hurns for the most drops among rookies with seven) -- he'll start to vault up the list a bit.
What a difference a regular season makes. When I went over Matthews' tape in the preseason, I was not impressed -- he went down too easily on half-tackles, and contested catches seemed to be a real problem. Where Chip Kelly has made a difference for the Vanderbilt alum is in putting him in the slot, allowing the 6-foot-3, 212-pound Matthews to win matchup advantages he might not as a pure outside receiver. Matthews has also improved his toughness and catch radius, becoming a much more reliable receiver in traffic, and bringing in impressive downfield catches from both Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez. Among all rookie receivers, Matthews has the best chance to achieve his full potential, because he's in an offense that works for him, and his offensive play designer will put him in optimal positions to succeed.
Brown was an underrated prospect out of Pittsburg State, which is why he lasted until the 91st overall pick in the draft. But it didn't take long for Brown to become a major part of Bruce Arians' passing offense -- he's got great field speed, and he's tougher over the middle than his 5-10, 179-pound stature might lead you to believe. Brown is the only Cardinals receiver to grab a touchdown in the slot this season, but he can also get things done outside in Arians' frequent trips and bunch concepts. No matter who Arizona's quarterback is down the road -- Carson Palmer, Drew Stanton or someone else -- Brown will prove to be an estimable and reliable target.
It's too bad that Cooks has been lost for the season with a thumb injury, because the Oregon State alum was really starting to come on as a deep slot target, an outside guy and an occasional end-around threat as the Saints tried different ways to replace Darren Sproles. When he returns next season, the Saints will continue to benefit from Cooks' speed, consistency and route understanding.
Bryant didn't run what you'd call a full route tree at Clemson, and that seemed to be one of the main reasons he lasted until the fourth round of the draft. But he's proven to be a great fit for Pittsburgh's passing game when he's in the rotation, grabbing six touchdowns on just 16 catches. Before he can be a full-time starting receiver for Ben Roethlisberger, however, Bryant will have to grasp the offense in a more comprehensive fashion. Once he does that -- and kudos to the Steelers for putting him out there until then in ways that work -- Bryant has the size and speed to be a special weapon, especially downfield.