Best Rookie Receiver Class Ever?

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?
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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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