John McDonnell/The Washington Post/Getty Images; Mike McCarn/AP; Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images; Kathy Willens/AP

From Beckham to Evans to Benjamin, this year's class of first-year receivers has made play after play after play. Has there ever been a better group come into the NFL?

By ggramling
November 27, 2014

Odell Beckham Jr. Kelvin Benjamin. Sammy Watkins. Mike Evans. Jordan Matthews. Brandin Cooks. Jarvis Landry. The list goes on. Thirty-three wide receivers were drafted in 2014, including five in the first round who have made significant impacts already.

Is this the greatest rookie receiving class ever? While we cannot project how these players’ careers will look in a decade, we can evaluate their production to this point and compare it to previous rookie classes.

To evaluate players, we look at their efficiency using our internal metric at numberFire.com, Net Expected Points (NEP). A quick refresher on NEP:

NEP compares every single play over a season to how a league-average team should perform on that play. Every situation on a football field has an expected point value; that is, how many points an average team would be expected to score in that situation (given down, distance-to-go and yard line). For example, the Chiefs may be playing the Steelers, facing a third-and-two on the 50. That’s a ton of variables, but numberFire has data from the past dozen years of every single play, so most situations have come up at least once. According to our data, an average team may be “expected” to score 1.23 (estimated number) points on that drive. However, Jamaal Charles reels off a 32-yard run to bring the Chiefs into the red zone, increasing the “expected” point value of the next play to 4.23 (still an estimated number) points. Jamaal Charles then gets credit for the difference, in this case 2.96 points, as his NEP total. That’s Net Expected Points.

First, let’s look at the current era. What are the best rookie receiving classes since 2000? And how does this year compare?

Year WRs Rec NEP Rec NEP/WR
2014 (Proj) 15 1002.0 66.8
2009 20 841.7 42.1
2011 16 806.8 50.4
2012 21 796.8 37.9
2014 15 678.3 45.2
2010 16 633.2 39.6
2002 17 619.4 36.4
2001 16 583.4 36.5
2013 12 564.8 47.1
2003 15 532.8 35.5
2004 11 517.6 47.1
2005 14 474.8 33.9
2008 11 431.2 39.2
2006 9 429.1 47.7
2000 12 340.6 28.4
2007 8 335.0 41.9

    

For a receiver to be included, they needed to register at least 30 targets in their rookie season.

2009: Percy Harvin (+81.5 receiving NEP), Mike Wallace (+68.0), Hakeem Nicks (+66.6), Austin Collie (+66.5), Jeremy Maclin (+59.3), Kenny Britt (+55.9), Michael Crabtree (+44.7)

One of the deepest years ever for rookie receivers, 2009 featured 20 rookies with at least 30 targets. Overall, these first-year wideouts combined for +841.7 receiving NEP, or 42.1 receiving NEP per wide receiver. Harvin, then in Minnesota, headlined the group with 60 receptions for 790 yards and six touchdowns. In fact, 10 of the 20 receivers are still producing significantly in 2014.

2011: Victor Cruz (+132.9), A.J. Green (+97.9), Julio Jones (+78.6), Doug Baldwin (+77.2), Torrey Smith (+73.1), Randall Cobb (+32.0)

While not nearly as deep as the 2009 class, 2011 featured some of the best wide receivers currently in the NFL. After going undrafted in 2010 and being placed on I.R., Cruz led all first-year players with 82 catches, 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns that season. 2011 also included Cecil Shorts, who did not start producing until his second season. Per receiver, 2011 was the best class since 2000 at +50.4 receiving NEP.

The 2014 Rookie WR Class...

Name Rec NEP
Kelvin Benjamin 76.8
Mike Evans 73.5
Sammy Watkins 63.7
Odell Beckham Jr. 59.1
Jordan Matthews 58.2
John Brown 47.0
Jarvis Landry 45.0
Brandin Cooks 41.6
Allen Hurns 41.4
Allen Robinson 41.2
Taylor Gabriel 38.3
Martavis Bryant 30.2
Davante Adams 27.3
Donte Moncrief 20.8
Marqise Lee 14.3

   

Benjamin and Evans lead a stacked class that currently ranks fourth in total receiving NEP since 2000 at +678.3. Keep in mind, these players still have five games to play (except for Cooks and Robinson, who are out for the season). Beckham, the latest receiving sensation after his ridiculous catch on Sunday Night, has posted +59.1 receiving NEP over just seven games.

Projecting out the remainder of 2014, the current class looks on pace to be the deepest and best class of the millennium by far, with +1002.0 receiving NEP and +66.8 NEP per receiver.

numberfire-rookiewrs-800

But what about the greatest class of all time?

1996: Terry Glenn (+110.7 Estimated Receiving NEP), Eddie Kennison (+97.7), Keyshawn Johnson (+88.8), Marvin Harrison (+88.1), Terrell Owens (+52.8), Bobby Engram (+44.8), Muhsin Muhammad (+37.3), Eric Moulds (+27.8)

1996 also included Joe Horn, Amani Toomer and David Patten, none of whom produced much in their rookie seasons. Thirty-three receivers were taken in the 1996 draft, five in the first round, all of whom had long and successful careers. More than that first season, the ’96 class is known for their longevity and Hall of Fame potential. It is widely considered the greatest receiving class of all time.

In order to determine where they fit among the most efficient receiving classes, we used traditional statistics (receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns) to estimate receiving NEP.

The ’96 class had nine receivers with at least 20 receptions (which equates to approximately 30 targets) for a total receiving NEP of +601.0—adjusted for the year in which they played. That would place them seventh in our table, behind the 2002 class. The true talent of the ’96 class is at the top, so looking at it on a per receiver basis, we get the top performance historically at +66.8 receiving NEP per receiver.

That’s right: The 2014 receiving class is on pace to put up +66.8 receiving NEP per receiver, same as the 1996 class’s estimated total.

Will this year’s class eventually pass the 1996 crop? You’ll have to wait and see. And while you are waiting, please continue watching this on loop.


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