– Article courtesy of Lee Wakefield (who can be found on Twitter @Wakefield90) –
So the 2018 draft is in the books and almost feels like a distant memory now. One of the most polarising picks at the top of the draft seemed to be Saquon Barkley going to the New York Giants with the second overall pick. Not because of Saquon as a player but because of the position he plays. We hear experts talking about the recent devaluation that the Running Back position has gone through in recent times but to me there’s another position that’s not thought of as highly in the first round anymore… What about Wide Receivers? Are the worth taking in the first round nowadays? Are they as polished coming into the league, as they once were?
I’ve been having a little think on this one and I think there are a few teams recently with more than a little bit of buyers remorse when it comes to Wide Receivers…
I’m an L.A. Chargers fan, so I know this first hand because in the 2017 draft my ballclub drafted a wide receiver at 7th overall, Mike Williams. At the time I didn’t agree with the pick, I thought we should have drafted Malik Hooker, this was because I didn’t think The Chargers had a huge need at Wide Receiver but we did need a safety who possesses good range and can play the Earl Thomas role in the middle of the defensive backfield for Gus Bradley’s defence. Obviously this played out well as Tre Boston had a good year and now we have Derwin James… But no one had a crystal ball.
Back to receivers; I didn’t dislike the pick because of Mike Williams as a player or because he was a Wide Receiver specifically. However, as the season has unfolded and I’d been rooting for Williams to get healthy and then to score his first touchdown but ended up being frustrated by his health and the fact that when we got into the red zone, there was usually a ball tossed his way to try to get him a score. In the game against the Redskins, backup QB, Kellen Clemens threw a pick 6 trying to get the ball to Williams on a back shoulder throw into the end zone. It was a dreadfully thrown ball and it didn’t cost L.A. the game as it was already won barring a miracle. However, it did get me thinking about Williams and then subsequently about other pass catchers from the 2017 draft and then in past drafts. That’s then when asked myself, is it a good idea to use a first round pick on a wide receiver these days?
In the 2018 draft we only saw two wide receivers taken in the the first round and they were both taken in the twenties. This wasn’t considered a great class of receivers, lots of number 2 and 3 guys and no real standouts from their time in college. This reminded me of what I was thinking just after watching the Washington game so I did some digging…
So, let’s work our way through the first round receivers from last year’s draft. First up, Corey Davis was selected by the Tennessee Titans 5th overall. It’s fair to say Davis hasn’t really lived up to the expectations of his draft position, he’s recorded 34 catches on 65 targets, for 375 yards and zero touchdowns in his rookie year and it can’t be said that the team struggled, Tennessee finished 9-7 and made the playoffs albeit they’re not the most explosive of offenses. It has to be said, the level of Marcus Mariota’s play did drop this year so the blame may not only lay at Davis’ door. However I’m sure Mariota was pretty stoked when the Titans front office used such a high pick on a shiny new pass catcher. Davis has only been thrown to around 4-5 times a game, which isn’t a lot but he’s only catching around 52% of the balls thrown his way…For comparison, Tyrell Williams had a similar amount of targets (69) for 43 catches for 728 yards and he’s the 4th or 5th option on offence for a 9-7 Chargers team. Williams was not drafted 5th overall or drafted at, all for that matter.
Next, the other Williams on The Chargers roster, national college football champion, no less. In fact, let’s go back to his college career briefly. Mike Williams suffered a horrible injury, fracturing a bone in his neck in the opening game of 2015 and missed the rest of the season. However he was the go-to guy for, now Houston Texans QB, DeShaun Watson for the rest of his time at Clemson and they had a lot of success together, leading them to both be taken in the top 12 of the 2017 draft.
Back to the NFL, Williams has struggled to stay healthy for any length of time, he missed a lot of pre season work and therefore valuable time to build chemistry with Philip Rivers. Williams recorded a stat line of; 11 catches for 95 yards and zero touchdowns, only playing 10 games because of various back, knee and foot injuries. He also did not run a full route tree or see the field an awful lot either. I mentioned that Tyrell Williams is the 4th or 5th option on offence after; Keenan Allen, Hunter Henry, Melvin Gordon and maybe Travis Benjamin, well Mike Williams was probably also behind running back, Austin Ekeler, who played college football for Western State University in Colorado, a division II school, who went undrafted. Not a good value pick at this point.
Lastly but still in the top 10, Cincinnati selected John Ross out of the University of Washington, 9th overall. A small price to pay for the fastest guy the combine has ever seen, right? He’ll be toasting corners on a weekly basis, right? Wrong. There were concerns about Ross’s frame and ability to stay healthy in the NFL before the draft and he actually pulled a calf muscle whilst setting his record 4.22, 40 yard dash in Indianapolis last year. Of the three rookie wideouts selected in the first round of the 2017 draft, Ross registered the worst stat line for the season – zero catches, zero yards and unsurprisingly, zero touchdowns. Ross has touched the ball one time, in week 2 (he missed week 1 with injury), a 12 yard run which ended in a fumble and his benching. The rest of the season, Ross was either injured or a healthy scratch. What a waste and really, what a shame.
So was it a problem with the 2017 class as a whole? Well the reception leader was a running back! Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara brought in 81 catches and just one grab behind was Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey with 80. The top rookie wide receiver was actually 4th on the list, Cooper Kupp of the Rams with 62, with Tight End, Evan Engram just ahead on 64. So that’s a third round pick leading the 2017 Wideout class in receptions and second rounder JuJu Smith-Schuster actually lead the class in scores with 8. Both players providing their teams with nice value for their draft positions. There are some other good receivers in this class and I’m sure the first rounders will develop further in future, I’m not calling anyone a bust after one season.
So let’s look further back, I’m going to go over the past 5 years which is what I consider a fair amount of time.
So 2016, Corey Coleman, Will Fuller IV, Josh Doctson and Laquan Treadwell were all selected in round one. They’ve all been pretty regularly injured and the low point is Treadwell who in his rookie year only recorded a solitary catch for 10 yards and didn’t have a great sophomore year either; posting 20 catches for 200 yards in a Minnesota team that almost went to the Superbowl.
2015 saw a handful of catchers drafted on day one; Amari Cooper, Kevin White, DeVante Parker, Nelson Agholor, Breshad Perriman and Phillip Dorsett. So Cooper is undeniably a number one guy but it must be said he’s been up and down for the Raiders. White and Perriman have barely ever been healthy, Parker has been ok, although with Jarvis Landry out of town, he may come into his own next season. Agholor was in danger of being cut by the Eagles before this past season, can he build a solid career from here? Dorsett no longer plays for the team who drafted him, he’s now in New England and is probably going to go some to make their roster next year since it’s a very crowded Wide Receiver room up in Foxborough. Overall, not exactly a group who are setting the league on fire…
2014 and finally some positive news. If I said the names, Watkins, Evans, Beckham, Cooks and Benjamin, even a casual NFL fan will recognise those names. 2014 was a talented class but have they lived up to their billing and repaid their teams with yards and scores? Well, that’s questionable since only Mike Evans and Odell Beckham Jr. still play for their original team (however there’s certainly some level of tension between OBJ and The Giants) – the rest were deemed expendable in some way or another by the teams that drafted them… Watkins and Cooks are both now actually on their third teams of their careers. Strange since all 5 are undoubtedly very talented and with that talent in mind, plus the production that all 5 have had, I’m considering all 5 successful picks, for the purpose of this exercise.
Going back another year to 2013 and it’s my least favourite first round haul. It brought us Tavon Austin going 8th overall (!) and then DeAndre Hopkins and Cordarrelle Patterson going in the late 20’s. Nobody can hide the fact that Hopkins is a top end Wideout, he’s just had the misfortune of never really having a quarterback. Although that changed this season with DeShaun Watson but then he tears an ACL… some guys get no luck. The other two are gadget players at best, let’s be honest. It’s not good business to spend a first round pick on a player who might return a kickoff or punt once in a while or get 20 yards on a jet sweep.
Last and almost least is the 2012 class, Justin Blackmon, the highest player taken out of Oklahoma State since Barry Sanders, 5th overall, Michael Floyd, Kendall Wright and A.J Jenkins. Man… So we have a guy with substance abuse problems out of the league since 2013, a player with alcohol problems, an above average but not great receiver and a guy who lasted 2 seasons in the league. Ok, Michael Floyd has a Superbowl ring thanks to a short stint in New England but I’d be pushed to call him a big success in the NFL.
So through 6 years from 2017 to 2012, how many of these guys have been hits? At first I was going to go for 7 but due to Floyd winning a ring I’m going to put it up to 8. Kendall Wright could make a case but he’s been out performed by a lot of receivers taken much later than me was over the last 6 seasons. There is still time for the 2017 class but it’s not gotten off to a good start for any of the first round guys. So I’m going for Amari Cooper, the whole of the 2015 first round class (although they’re not without their red flags), Hopkins and Floyd. That’s 8 of 25, 32%. Not. Good.
I’ll reel off some names that were taken later than the guys who I have deemed bad picks; Alshon Jeffrey, T.Y Hilton, Keenan Allen, Jarvis Landry, Allen Robinson, Michael Thomas, Sterling Shepherd, Tyreek Hill, Cooper Kupp, JuJu Smith-Schuster. That is a great group of superb value picks ranging from the 2nd to the 5th round. Obviously, hindsight is a wonderful thing and all of those players had red flags coming out of college, to some degree but some scouts and GM’s missed some talent there.
Every year the draft is littered with early round busts and late round steals, for instance, as everyone knows, Tom Brady was drafted 199th overall, Antonio Brown was a 6th rounder, Richard Sherman waited until day 3 of the draft to have his name called too. Sometimes it’s luck, sometimes it’s that you saw things that others didn’t see in a guy.
Best of luck to D.J Moore and Calvin Ridley, as this year’s first round pass catchers but there is certainly a pattern here and the odds are not in their favour. I’m not hoping that anyone flames out of the league but there are going to be a few later round wide receivers who I feel have the chance to be great receivers and great value pick too and carry on this trend. As anyone who read my mock drafts on this very website will know, I am a huge Anthony Miller fan. Michael Gallup, Dante Pettis, James Washington and Equanimeous St. Brown, all landed in pretty nice situations as well and I have them down as my ones to watch as late round wide receivers.
I’ll sum it up like this, if I’m a General Manager I’d be doing serious homework on any wide receiver who has a first round grade because, if I’m blowing a first round pick on a wide receiver who doesn’t make the field too often or can’t give me serious yards, I might be out of a job soon. Or at least have Draft Twitter on my back.