The Year of the Rookie Wide Receiver

Editor’s Note: Article written prior to Cooks’s injury announcement

“Rookie wide receivers just do not produce at the same level as veterans” was the belief many analysts and fans came with entering the season. Last year, Keenan Allen and Cordarelle Patterson caught the eyes of casual fans, while DeAndre Hopkins and Marlon Brown quietly produced solid seasons. Even so, the class, as a whole was underwhelming, and that is what history tells us to expect. While one or two rookies might put up great seasons, usually rookie wide receivers do not produce at a high level. The adjustment from a college secondary and a professional one is usually too great. Rookies only have a few months to learn the routes and develop a relationship with their quarterbacks. While all this may be true this year’s rookie class is debunking all those theories.

Averages for Top 5 Rookie Wide Receivers/Tight Ends by Year

Top 5 WR

The 2014 group, while only projections based on production per game and games remaining, is heads and heels better than any season in this century. The top five, based on number of receptions, contains two possession receivers (Brandin Cooks, Allen Robinson) and three home-run hitters (Kelvin Benjamin, Mike Evans, and Sammy Watkins). While the production for these wideouts are quite incredible, it becomes a discussion of talent plus opportunity. The top five includes four first round picks and one second round pick. For Cooks, the rapid decline of Marques Colston, the inconsistency of Kenny Stills, and the lack of a slot receiver created more chances for the Oregon State Beaver. Robinson benefitted from the suspension of Justin Blackmon and the injury woes of Cecil Shorts III. Benjamin and Watkins were expected to jump in and be the primary wide receiver. Additionally, the Buffalo Bills and the Carolina Panthers have no wide receiver depth after their two rookies. The Buccaneers almost jettisoned pro bowler Vincent Jackson a month ago which probably would boost Evans’s numbers even more as he would become the sole skill player on the team.

Averages for Top 10 Rookie Wide Receivers/Tight Ends by Year
Top 10 WRs

The class only becomes more impressive, when the top 10 wide receivers are compared year by year. The crop at the top also consists of high picks: Jordan Matthews (2nd), Jarvis Landry (2nd), Jace Amaro (2nd), John Brown (3rd), and Odell Beckham Jr. (1st). It is rare to see rookies get so much field time, but for each team on the list, there was no number two target in their offenses. The talent matched the projection and the opportunity was there. What is happening this season is rare in that there were no busts nor injuries that hampered their rookie seasons, and all ten have been able to pick up their offenses quickly. The stars aligned and the 2014 wide receivers and tight ends are combining to put up unbelievable statistics as shown by the chart. Odell Beckham Jr. is barely in the top ten when he would easily be a top 5 (possibly a top 3) receiver in any other season.
The question is what do we make of the phenomenal rookie seasons moving past 2014?

Name Rec Yds Avg Yds/G TD 1st 1st%
Brandin Cooks 84.8 880 10.4 55 4.8 40 47.2
Player B 91 980 10.8 65.3 5 43 47.3

The only other rookie wideout with numbers comparable to Cooks is Eddie Royal in 2008. While Royal is a decent wide receiver, he never matched his rookie numbers again. Let’s do another one:

Player Rec Yds Avg Yds/G TD 1st 1st%
Kelvin Benjamin 75.6 1117.1 14.8 69.8 11.6 50.9 67.3
Player C 71 1046 14.7 69.7 8 54 76.1
Player D 70 1038 14.8 74.1 8 51 72.9
Player E 80 1193 14.9 74.6 7 56 70

Benjamin is projected for more touchdowns than these former rookies, but otherwise the four players have very similar numbers. Player C is Keenan Allen whose numbers this seasons more closely resemble Cooks. Player D is the aforementioned Marques Colston who has had a relatively successful career. Player E? Michael Clayton in 2004. He never had a season with over 40 receptions or 500 yards following his rookie campaign. The point is these wide receivers could become anybody. The volatility of players from their 1st season to their 2nd season is so great, that it is too difficult to project the trajectory of their careers. For the 2014 wide receivers and tight ends, they should enjoy their current success because they are as likely to reach a pro-bowl as they are the practice squad.

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