Last season's rookie wide receiver class was widely hailed as the best in NFL history. What can history tell us about how they'll follow that up?
NFL fans are often cautioned to lower their expectations for rookie wide receivers, even if they come into the league fresh off dominant college careers. The little nuances of running precise routes, absorbing the complexities of an NFL playbook and creating a rapport with a starting quarterback take time, after all. Superstars like Terrell Owens, Michael Irvin and Tim Brown all had learning curves to endure before they became all-time greats.
Last season, however, we were spoiled by one of the most impressive collective showings by a rookie wide receiver class, one that was widely hailed as the best in NFL history. Of the 15 rookies to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards since the AFL-NFL merger in 1966, a record high of three accomplished the feat last year: Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans and Kelvin Benjamin.
Note: You can identify each player by hovering over each point, and see more details from that season by clicking on the corresponding dot.
Beckham amazed with his intoxicating acrobatics and shattered the league's records for receptions per game (7.6) and yards per game (108.8) since the merger. Evans shook off the burden of two subpar quarterbacks in Josh McCown and Mike Glennon to showcase his potential on an awful Buccaneers team. Benjamin quickly became Cam Newton’s favorite target after the Panthers moved on from Steve Smith, though the Florida State product had his fair share of frustrations to go along with some unbelievable highlights.
And Sammy Watkins came 18 yards short of becoming the fourth receiver to reach the milestone, making the Bills' decision to trade up to select him with the No. 4 pick look downright reasonable despite the risky historical context of aggressive round 1 moves.
Those wideouts will be counted on to replicate their production as second-year players in 2015 if their respective teams are to contend for playoff berths. But is another world-beating year a realistic expectation?
Sports research engine PointAfter plotted the follow-up seasons of the 12 other receivers to debut with 1,000-yard campaigns on the graphic below.
But the group did average 61.5 receptions and 883.8 receiving yards—not quite the players' mean production during their rookie years (71.8 receptions, 1,116.5 yards), but certainly not bad enough to be classified as a collective sophomore slump.
What's more, the first 12 rookie receivers to top 1,000 yards missed a total of 33 games during their second years as pros, more than two full seasons split between eight wideouts. The players accounting for the most lost time were Terry Glenn (seven games), Cris Collinsworth (seven) and Anquan Boldin (six), who still holds the rookie receiver records with his 101 receptions and 1,377 yards.
If we extrapolate those second-year averages to calculate what they would be without any missed time for injury, they would rise to 71.8 receptions and 1,031 yards—virtually the same number of catches and slightly fewer receiving yards that they posted in their first seasons.
Though wide receivers aren’t assigned the same injury risks as other positions that absorb contact on every play, it’s entirely possible that second-year wideouts are still adjusting to the physicality of NFL cornerbacks over a 16-week grind. Or they just got unlucky.
Either way, instead of worrying whether these young studs have the talent to duplicate the success they achieved last year, the more pressing concern may be whether their bodies can hold up through a second full season.
If a rookie joins the 1,000-yard club, history says there’s just as good of a chance he'll carve out a career worthy of the Hall of Fame (Moss, Boldin) as there is he'll become a bust (Michael Clayton, Jefferson). Everyone in between went on to have long, productive NFL careers, and although the jury is still out on Keenan Allen and A.J. Green, both are off to more than promising starts.
Most rookies would take those odds any day of the week.
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PointAfter is part of the FindTheBest network, a research website that’s collected all the information about Odell Beckham Jr. and Randy Moss and put it all in one place so you don’t have to go searching for it.