CATCHING FIRE

September 07, 2015

ODELL BECKHAM JR.'S STAR-MAKING MOMENT—THAT INTERNET-IMPLODING GRAB ON SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL—WAS JUST A SMALL SCENE IN A LARGER ENSEMBLE STORY. AS LAST YEAR'S ELECTRIC ROOKIE RECEIVERS RETURN FOR AN ENCORE, HERE'S A WORKING TITLE: BEST. RECEIVING. CLASS. EVER.

TRACKING HIS TARGET as it fell from the sky, Odell Beckham Jr. performed a hasty calculation: To make this catch he would need to leap and twist to his left, then snag the ball with his right hand while plunging backward into ... the pole-vault pit at Tulane's Westfeldt practice facility.

This was around 2002 or '03. Beckham was eight or nine, and his mother, Heather Van Norman, a former All-America sprinter at LSU, was the Green Wave's track and field coach. To keep boredom at bay, the boy would circle the track throwing passes to himself. For especially acrobatic efforts, he would toss the ball over the pole-vault mat.

"I would jump exactly like this," Beckham recalled after a recent Giants practice, arching his back like a Fosbury-flopping high jumper, "and catch it on the mat. One-handed, two-handed—all kinds of different ways."

Those solitary heroics prefigured what was, probably, the most sensational grab in NFL history, executed last Nov. 23 in a losing cause against the Cowboys: The airborne rookie levitated like a magic carpet, his right arm suddenly elastic, it seemed, as he snagged the spheroid, which somehow lodged in the crescent formed by thumb and forefinger. Dude made the play with three digits, max, all the while being mugged by Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr, who was flagged for interference, and who quickly wearied of discussing the Catch, later griping to reporters, "I'm not going to keep talking about one play," sensing, correctly, that he and this young Giant were now linked and would remain so, through the decades, as Ralph Branca is to Bobby Thomson. That grab served as a kind of capstone for a brilliant (if compressed) season: His 91 receptions for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns, for which Beckham was named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, came in just 12 games, a dodgy right hamstring having sidelined him throughout September.

In the end, though, OBJ's redonkulous grab turned out to be but one highlight in a reel of big plays turned in by a class of rookie receivers that is likely to go down as the best in NFL history. Beckham is merely the most renowned member of this band of sticky-fingered trailblazers who upended expectations about how much, and how soon, first-year wideouts could produce.

Only one of them, however, made a play so seismic that it shook his world "like a snow globe," as Beckham says. "It all just came on so fast"—the dinner invite from LeBron James; the text exchanges with Michael Jordan; the chance to hang out with both his fútbol namesake, David Beckham, and his fellow Big Apple fashion plate, Anna Wintour.

So sublime was the Catch that it launched a thousand memes. Our favorite: an in-flight OBJ superimposed onto the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, touched by a white-bearded Old Testament God. But the play was neither divine intervention nor dumb luck. Beckham, 22, had been preparing for his close-up, that moment, for more than half his life.

In 2010 he became only the second receiver in the history of New Orleans's Isidore Newman School to go over 1,000 yards receiving. (The other guy's 1,000-yard season might be more impressive, considering that Cooper Manning was probably playing out of position.) In the process of refining his craft at LSU, Beckham would face off against fellow Tigers wideout Jarvis Landry, now a Dolphin, in one-handed catching contests. The worse the pass, OBJ explains, the better the catch. Now, as a Giant, his pregame routine includes a series of (intentionally) off-target balls flung by assistant equipment manager Ed Skiba.

It is a jaw-dropping warmup act, but one that lodges in the craw of a few football purists. "Two hands, please," clucked New York coach/assistant principal Tom Coughlin after a training camp practice last month. Friend and mentor to Beckham though he is, former Cowboys great Michael Irvin discerned, in OBJ's pregame show, an element of Look at me! And besides, Irvin recalled telling the rookie, "you'll never make a catch like that in the game."

"And then," marvels the Hall of Famer, "he went out and made that play." While there are many gleaming facets to Beckham's game—his precise routes, his Neo-like hang time, his uncanny knack for gaining separation from even Pro Bowl corners such as Richard Sherman—they are usually overshadowed by a single topic, and we aren't talking about the tips of his hair, a shade best described as nuclear caramel.

"I don't catch the ball with one hand to show off," Beckham insists. "It's not about showboating. It's more like I'm showing you that this is something I've practiced, something I've worked on. For me this is not out of the ordinary."

There is a grander ambition in play. Beckham in person exudes a kind of old-soul serenity and humility, coexisting alongside profound confidence in his ability and an abiding thirst to leave his mark on the game. He seeks nothing less than "to expand the boundaries" of the wide receiver position, "to change the parameters, the level of expectations, for pass catchers."

THE THING IS, Beckham is not alone. Pushing him in this quest last season was a Hands Team for the ages. While OBJ spent Weeks 1 through 4 smoldering on the sideline, willing his hamstring to heal, the Panthers' 6'5", 245-pound Kelvin Benjamin—who tore his left ACL on Aug. 19 and will miss this season—was earning the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Month award, walling off and posting up on more diminutive defenders, just as he had the previous season at Florida State.

Hitting his stride a bit later in the year was another 6'5" rookie with a helipad-sized catch radius: the Buccaneers' Mike Evans, who plays 10 to 15 pounds lighter than Benjamin and, as a result, is more crisp and nimble in and out of his cuts. He's also more potent as a deep threat. Evans's success—he finished with 1,051 receiving yards and a dozen touchdowns, tied with Beckham last season for the most by a first-year wideout—seems more remarkable considering how little football he has played. After one season at Ball High in Galveston, Texas, he played just two years at Texas A&M, then entered the 2014 draft. Around that time, Irvin recalls, "people were giving so much love to [A&M quarterback] Johnny Manziel, it was like Johnny was making Mike. Well, maybe Mike was the one making Johnny."

And, lest we forget, the Saints' Brandin Cooks was leading the rookies in catches, with 53, when a broken right thumb ended his year in Week 11. No less encouraging, according to Pro Football Focus: The quicksilver Cooks led all NFL receivers in "wins per target."

Each a first-rounder, Evans (at No. 7), Beckham (12), Cooks (20) and Benjamin (28) were drafted after the Bills nabbed Sammy Watkins (4), whose reward for being so highly regarded could also be construed as his punishment. Despite a raft of nagging injuries and the fact that for much of the season, he says, "I felt worn down, physically and mentally," Watkins put up respectable numbers: 65 catches for 982 yards and six TDs. Those stats might've been fatter if his quarterbacks—EJ Manuel and, following Manuel's benching with a 58.0 completion percentage, Kyle Orton—had not sprayed the ball all over the field. Watkins admits, "I got caught last year kinda feeling sorry for myself," on account of the Bills' QB situation. This season he intends to "trust the coaches and control what I can control."

Time will tell if the 2014 crop of wideouts emerges as the best in NFL history. (Its only real competition for that distinction: the class of 1996, featuring Marvin Harrison, Terrell Owens, Keyshawn Johnson and Amani Toomer.) But it sure looks like the deepest. Despite leaving Vanderbilt as the SEC's all-time leader in receiving yards and catches, Jordan Matthews lasted until the second round, when the Eagles traded up for him. Having earned the trust of coach Chip Kelly with his football intellect and a work ethic rivaling that of his cousin, Jerry Rice, Matthews finished with 67 catches for 872 yards and eight TDs; now he's primed to be Philly's No. 1 wideout in 2015. Matthews's sometimes--workout partner and fellow second-rounder, Landry, pulled in 84 receptions for Miami, second only to his old LSU teammate. John (Smokey) Brown, who might as well have been nicknamed for all the singed cornerbacks in his wake, lasted until the third round before Arizona pounced; scouts were put off by his size (5'11", 179) and transcript. While Pittsburg State was Brown's third college, the number that caught Arizona's eye was 4.34—his combine time in the 40. After snapping him up with the 91st pick, Cards coach Bruce Arians deployed Brown as he'd used Antonio Brown in Pittsburgh and T.Y. Hilton in Indianapolis. John Brown proved a quick study, and clutch: His four game-winning TDs set an NFL rookie record.

Not far behind that early-blooming crew were Martavis Bryant (Steelers) and Davante Adams (Packers), whose paths have since diverged. On Aug. 27, Bryant was slapped with a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy—four days after Adams was thrust into Green Bay's starting lineup by the season-ending ACL tear suffered by Jordy Nelson. Bring it on, says Adams, last seen feasting on the Cowboys' secondary (seven catches, 117 yards, one TD) in the divisional playoff round. Indeed, his stock was spiking before Nelson went down, with coach Mike McCarthy referring to him as the "MVP of the off-season" and Aaron Rodgers raving about his "humongous upside."

What's going on here? How to explain this widespread precocity at wide receiver? Consider this admission, buried in a 2012 Competition Committee report: "If someone wants to accuse the National Football League of promoting offense to make the game more exciting, [the committee] believes the league should plead guilty."

IT IS AUG. 5 in Spartanburg, S.C., on the exquisitely manicured campus of Wofford College, site of the Panthers' training camp. A layer of clouds, mercifully, holds the temperature below 90°. Halfway through the morning practice Cam Newton uncorks a 50-yard pass in the direction of Benjamin, marked by cornerback Josh Norman as they streak up the left sideline.

Using his right arm à la Dennis Rodman, Benjamin clears out the 6-foot corner, elevates over him to make the catch, then falls on top of him. In the process he knocks the wind out of Norman, who stays down for a minute. Flags fly, but—Insult, have you met Injury?—it's Norman whom the camp zebras call for interference. Small wonder he ended up in a shoving match with Newton a few days later.

"If they're both pushing, more often than not the tie's gonna go to the offensive guy," concedes Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. A defensive back, he says, has "got to know not to look for that call. That's just something we've got to contend with."

In its dual desires to decrease concussions and increase offensive pyrotechnics, the NFL has created a class of winners: QBs and receivers. Last season's edict for game officials to crack down on pass interference and defensive holding came three years after the league's decision to outlaw "forcibly hitting the neck or head area" of any player. That ruling also forbade the initiation of "unnecessary contact against a player who is in a defenseless posture."

"That in itself gave us a little bit of an advantage," says Giants slot receiver Victor Cruz. "Now, instead of it being just, 'See ball, hit ball,' these guys have to think for a split second. We can use that to make a guy miss."

"I'm still trying to wrap my head around exactly what a defenseless receiver is," says Hall of Fame wide receiver James Lofton, who may or may not envy the slightly less hazardous passage across the middle afforded to today's wideouts. "If a guy goes up high for the ball, you almost have to allow him to make the catch—or it's a flag."

"It's the antithesis of the environment in which we had to operate," agrees Irvin, whose 12-year NFL career ended in 1999 with a helmet-to-helmet shot from Eagles safety Tim Hauck. While that hit would be flagged today, it was, in its time, business as usual. Back then, Irvin points out, on almost every reception some headhunting defender sought to separate the receiver from the ball "as it got there, or before it got there."

"Now? I know that when the ball's in the air"—here he affects a prim, slightly effete tone—"you cannot hit me until after I catch it, and you can only hit me in a certain area."

Passing yards may be up, Irvin allows, but at what cost? Playing receiver today "doesn't require as much courage as before."

Which is not to say it requires less talent. Irvin has no problem admitting that players coming into the league today "are much better than us, physically. When I played, we had a big guy at one receiver, and that was me. And we had a fast guy at the other. Now, the big guy is the fast guy."

And the skilled guy.

IN MAY 1995, Texas Senate Bill 1, part of an education reform act, gave students the green light to play on nonschool teams all year long. An unintended consequence of that legislation: the hundreds of football seven-on-seven tournaments that have since sprung up around the state. By conservative estimates, some 900 Texas high schools—plus an unknown number of middle and elementary schools—now participate in them. In this way, the land of the bluebonnets has served as a bellwether: Where they did not already exist, such competitions have sprung up from coast to coast, providing catnip for recruiters and extra off-season reps for quarterbacks and receivers.

"This is a game of repetition," says Lofton. "Lynn Swann and Paul Warfield probably had skill sets similar to, say, [Steelers All-Pro wideout] Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr. And yes, back then they had spring practice in college. But they didn't have guys running routes the entire off-season." And as players have become more skilled, passing attacks have grown exponentially more sophisticated. Lofton played 16 NFL seasons, finishing in 1993 with the Eagles, whose route tree, at that time, featured nine pass patterns. By 2007, his final year as receivers coach of the Chargers, he says, "we had 54 routes."

Texas's seven-on-seven state championship has morphed, since its 1998 inception, into a three-day, 128-team colossus. It takes place, incidentally, in College Station, home of Texas A&M, whose 2014 Pro Day gave us one of the more surreal vignettes in the history of Aggie football. Before a convocation of 75 NFL officials and one former U.S. president—George H.W. Bush and his two dogs arrived by golf cart—Manziel completed 61 of 64 passes, all the while bopping to a soundtrack of songs by his close personal friend Drake.

Yet the Buccaneers coaches in attendance only had eyes for Johnny Football's rangy go-to receiver. Coming from the Bears, where his starting wideouts had been Brandon Marshall (6'4") and Alshon Jeffery (6'3"), first-year Bucs coach Lovie Smith envisioned the 6'5" Evans as a big-bodied bookend to incumbent WR1 Vincent Jackson, also 6'5". The Bucs snapped him up with the seventh pick.

Evans has since stayed in texting touch with many of his fellow class of 2014 wideouts, whom he describes as "a great group of guys," both talented and lucky: "I think we all got put in really good positions."

That's a rose-colored view of his own situation. Last September, Tampa's offensive coordinator, Jeff Tedford, took a health-related leave of absence. The Bucs then went the entire year with a pair of struggling passers—Josh McCown and Mike Glennon—floundering behind a shoddy line while running plays called by a QB coach, Marcus Arroyo, who was in over his head.

Evans thrived despite those headwinds, and despite his thin football résumé. As it turns out, he's a quick study. "He sees the game in slow motion," says his position coach, Andrew Hayes-Stoker. "He's got an exceptional feel for where he needs to be and how he can get there."

To get where he hopes to be, Evans spent a week last March working with Randy Moss, who originally reached out to him—followed him on Twitter, actually—after noticing that the rookie emulated his TD celebration. (We're talking about the one where Moss pantomimes pulling open elevator doors, not the one where he faux moons the crowd.) "What I liked was the swag he played with," says Evans, who idolized Moss as a boy. "He even had a verb named after him: You got Mossed. That's tight."

Between Tampa's hiring this off-season of well-regarded OC Dirk Koetter and the selection of Florida State QB Jameis Winston with the No. 1 pick in last spring's draft, Evans hopes to be Mossing opposing corners early and often. "I love Mike Evans," declares Irvin. "I think he and Winston could build a relationship over there that will ... Blow. People. Away."

Or maybe it will be Cooks who eclipses his fellow class members in 2015. His thumb is healed; he has looked terrific in camp. Having spent time in San Diego during the off-season working with Drew Brees, honing their communication and timing, he's happy to report that the Saints' system is now second nature to him. "When you think, you slow down," he says. "Last season I was thinking." Around the time those two were fine-tuning their chemistry, Smokey Brown was a houseguest of Carson Palmer's in Southern California. Aside from their workouts, the Cardinals' QB conducted daily tutorials focusing on hot reads, helping his pupil see why and when he calls audibles. The result: "I'm adjusting more quickly and playing faster," says Brown.

A common denominator among the class of 2014: These guys are ravenous for even small morsels pertaining to their craft. There was Beckham, not long ago, drawing Irvin out on how better to win a release from the line of scrimmage against an aggressive, quick-jamming cornerback. What followed was a lecture on the speed of sound, the Playmaker explaining to OBJ that when a quarterback is calling the cadence, "the sound goes from his mouth to the ears of the center, and then it reverberates out to the wide receiver." Beckham could win that minibattle, his elder counseled, by exploding from his stance a few milliseconds early. "Don't wait," Irvin urged. "Cut out the time it takes the sound to travel!"

While number 88's theories on acoustics may not hold water, Beckham will hold on to all balls thrown in his vicinity. If the NFL really is looking to promote offense and entertainment, the future of the game is in very good hands.

"IT ALL CAME ON SO FAST," SAYS BECKHAM: THE DINNER INVITE FROM LEBRON, THE TEXTS WITH MJ....

For an exclusive video feature on Davante Adams, or to watch any of the Rising Stars series presented by Symetra, go to SI.com/risingstars

PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONPhotograph by Coty Tarr For Sports IllustratedPhoto Illustration by SI Premedia FIVE PHOTOSCARLOS M. SAAVEDRA FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDCLASS ACTS Beckham's catch (above) may have been Aladdin-like, but fellow rookies such as Evans (right) put up cartoony numbers in 2014 too: His 12 TDs tied OBJ. PHOTOSTREETER LECKA/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above] PHOTOTOM SZCZERBOWSKI/GETTY IMAGES (WATKINS)THE GIFT OF GRAB Watkins (above) battled bad QB play; Benjamin must come back from a torn ACL. But both will thrive. PHOTOGRANT HALVERSON/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above] PHOTODAVID GRUNFELD/NOLA.COM/THE TIMES-PICAYUNE/LANDOV (COOKS)YOU'RE A SAINT! Cooks (above) and Adams can be pass-catching saviors: New Orleans lost Jimmy Graham; Green Bay is without Nelson. PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED[See caption above] PHOTOMARK REIS/COLORADO SPRINGS GAZETTE/TNS/LANDOV (LANDRY)GO! CUBS! GO! For maturing QBs—say, Miami's Ryan Tannehill or Philly's Sam Bradford—young'uns like Landry (above) and Matthews make life easier. PHOTOAL TIELEMANS FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED[See caption above]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)