NFL Deep Dive – Rookie WRs

2020 rookie receivers representing

By Lawrence Vos (@F10YRetro)  

There is a theory that it takes rookie wide receivers some time to develop, meaning their inaugural season in the NFL is a tad underwhelming. Opportunities may be sparse, and if that chemistry is not built up early between the starting QB and the new guy then it could be a rather frustrating entry into the big league. 

With Covid-19 wiping out pre-season games, and various practice sessions across the NFL being cancelled due to individual cases, or the need to self-isolate because of a connected person or people being struck by Coronavirus, rookie wideouts have a legitimate reason to say why that bond has not had the ideal opportunity to be formed. 

All that being said, the 2020 season is witnessing the very early blossoming of arguably one of the best rookie WR crops in recent memory. 

Picture credit: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

As we stand, going into Week 7, we have one rookie WR who is on pace to break the NFL rookie receiving yardage record. That record is currently held by former Cardinals WR Anquan Boldin (above), who lit up the league with 1,377 yards. 

A small side note here to those of you who are AFL fans. In 1960 Houston Oilers rookie WR Bill Groman recorded 1,473 yards in just 14 games, the greatest ‘professional’ rookie season. It will come as no surprise that the Oilers won the AFL Championship in 1960. Groman had 3 catches for 37 yards, including a 7 yard TD catch from George Blanda to give his team a 16-7 lead. 

So back to 2020, and let’s first take a quick look back at April’s draft, focusing on the first and second round, where 13 WRs were selected. 

Round 1 – WR drafted

  • Pick 12 – Las Vegas Raiders select Henry Ruggs (Alabama)
  • Pick 15 – Denver Broncos select Jerry Jeudy (Alabama)
  • Pick 17 – Dallas Cowboys select CeeDee Lamb (Oklahoma)
  • Pick 21 – Philadelphia Eagles select Jalen Reagor (TCU)
  • Pick 22 – Minnesota Vikings select Justin Jefferson (LSU)
  • Pick 25 – San Francisco 49ers select Brandon Aiyuk (Arizona State)  

Round 2 – WR drafted

  • Pick 33 – Cincinnati Bengals select Tee Higgins (Clemson)
  • Pick 34 – Indianapolis Colts select Michael Pittman Jr. (USC)  
  • Pick 42 – Jacksonville Jaguars select Laviska Shenault (Colorado)
  • Pick 46 – Denver Broncos select K.J. Hamler (Penn State) 
  • Pick 49 – Pittsburgh Steelers select Chase Claypool (Notre Dame)
  • Pick 57 – Los Angeles Rams select Van Jefferson (Florida)
  • Pick 59 – New York Jets select Denzel Mims (Baylor) 

That, ladies and gentlemen, is quite a haul, about as magnificent as going for a socially distanced paddle at Littlehampton Beach and finding the Heart of the Ocean caught up in your sandy toes. 

Incomplete reports

Going into Week 7 eight of these early picks are making a big impression, a mark that sometimes takes a lot longer than a couple of months, to root around under the sink for a bottle of Vanish, and vigorously remove.

Picture credit: Robert Sabo

The ones who have not got the grass stains of war on their uniform in any meaningful fashion include the Jets Denzel Mims (hopefully back Week 7 from a period on injured reserve), the Rams Van Jefferson (6 catches in 5 games), the Colts Michael Pittman Jr (who averaged 3 catches a game Week 1-3 before going on I/R), the Broncos K.J. Hamler (6 grabs but has missed significant playing time already), and the Eagles Jalen Reagor (his first NFC catch went for 55-yards before going on I/R after getting a thumb UCL in Week 2). 

Potential shown in flashes 

The first WR selected in the draft, Henry Ruggs, has already been blighted by injury, missing two weeks with a hamstring injury. Seen as another speedster pick by the Raiders Ruggs introduced himself to the world in Week 5 with a 118 yard performance in an upset win over reigning Super Bowl champions the Chiefs. A week 6 bye has taken some of the air out of his momentum, but Ruggs has shown potential to be a gamebreaker, providing he stays on the field. 

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Brandon Aiyuk has had more of a typical rookie start to a career, missing Week 1 with a hamstring injury before managing a minimum of two catches from Weeks 2-6. Week 3 against the Giants saw Aiyuk accruing over 100 all-purpose yards, snagging 5 balls, and scoring his first NFL touchdown – on the ground. He went back to back scoring rushing TDs against NFC (L)East opponents after racing 38 yards for a score against the Eagles. The production has slowed down in the past two weeks, but this is someone who is already showing that he needs to have the pigskin in his hands. 

Solid production already 

Laviska Shenault Jr may not be on a lot of ESPN Plays of the Day highlight reels, but he is doing the hard work, grinding out first downs and making the drive sustaining catches. Having already been targeted 35 times he has 26 catches for near to 300 yards, a productive 46.7 yards a game. In six games he has managed 3 or more grabs in six straight contests. 70 catches and 700 yards is a realistic target.

A much bigger name, coming into the 2020 season, Jerry Jeudy is managing a respectable 15.6 yards a catch, problem is he has only had 17 catches and 1 TD in the season so far. One of a pair of Crimson Tide first round studs, Jeudy is on a Broncos team that is lacking any real sparkle. He was supposed to be a game wrecker, but so far Drew Lock has hindered his progress. Jeudy needs to take the next step after only catching just over 50% of his 33 targets.  

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It helps when the gut throwing you passes is the most productive College QB ever, but Tee Higgins is developing into a starter in front of our eyes thanks to his own talent. 339 yards puts him 32nd in the NFL, and he has two TD catches to go with the yards. Higgins broke the 100 yard barrier in Week 6, and with the wind whistling over the Ohio River in the right way he could break 1,000 yards in a pass-happy Bengals offense. 

Superstars in the making

Having seen some flashes from ten of this bumper crop, it leaves three guys who are becoming fantasy stars already, enough of a box-office draw to make you grab a king size bag of Revels and a scattering of cheesy lava covered nachos in a flimsy plastic tray. 

In reverse order at #3 is Chase Claypool. Not exactly a household name entering a Week 5 matchup against the Eagles, Claypool exploded onto the scene with a 4 TD performance (3 receiving and one rushing), achieving the highest rookie fantasy output by a WR since Eddie Kennison had 43.6 points in 1996 (Week 16). Claypool also leads the entire NFL in yards after catch (YAC) at 8.9 a reception, and margin of actual YAC over expected YAC – at 4.1 over expected. 

(Note: The single best rookie WR performance ever was delivered by Jerry Butler of the Buffalo Bills in a 46-31 win over the Jets. Butler had 10 catches for 255 yards and four touchdown grabs from Joe Ferguson, plus a 12 yard run). 

At #2 is CeeDee Lamb, who is currently 7th in the league in receiving yardage (497) and joint 9th in catches (36). Lamb already has two 100+ yard games and has not had less than 5 catches in all 6 games he has played in. Losing Dak Prescott has been a huge blow, and it has already had a detrimental effect on Lamb’s production. Week 6 was the first time his YPC went under 10 yards a catch. Interestingly Lamb’s two 100+ receiving days have equated to the Cowboys two wins this season. 

Picture credit: Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Topping the rookie crop is former LSU standout Justin Jefferson, who is on pace to break the NFL rookie receiving yards record by 55 yards. On track to reach 1,432 yards by season’s end, Jefferson has already registered two games of over 165 yards, including 175 against the undefeated Titans in Week 3. Entering Week 7 Jefferson is the number one ranked WR according to the metrics used by Pro Football Focus. 

The last time a purple clad WR made such an impact was back in 1998. Marshall’s prodigious pass catcher, Mr Randy Moss, had 1,313 yards and a mind-boggling 17 touchdowns as a rookie. Moss went on to become the best receiving threat since Jerry Rice, and now likely has a post-golf game beverage at the 19th hole, wearing his lovely golden Hall of Fame jacket.

Jefferson has an incredibly long way to go to emulate the achievements of Randy Moss, who had six consecutive 1,200 yard seasons (from 1998-2003). In Moss’s rookie season the Vikings went 15-1 and lost in heart breaking fashion in the NFC Championship. At present the Vikings, with Jefferson, have just one win. 

Sometimes adversity brings with it surprises, and Justin Jefferson leading the 2020 rookie crop in yardage after six weeks. It will be a battle between him and CeeDee Lamb to determine who the top rookie receiver will be, providing both avoid the fate that seems to have afflicted a large proportion of this year’s top class of wideouts. 

One final Juicy Fruit of a stat for you to chew over for all of you who prefer to admire those who not only catch but also can hold their own against pass rushers and marauding LB’s. The top four NFL athletes in terms of catch percentage per pass aimed at them (after six weeks) are ALL tight ends – Robert Tonyan (Packers), Tyler Higbee (Rams), Anthony Firkser (Titans) and Richard Rogers (Eagles).

Find out more opinions at @F10YRetro  

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