The emergence of former LSU teammates Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase casts doubt on the conventional wisdom that NFL teams can’t count on rookie wide receivers.
This year’s draft class is eager to continue the trend.
“Those guys put on a show their rookie year coming from the SEC and LSU,” Ohio State’s Chris Olave said. “That was huge to see. That was must-watch TV, especially with Ja’Marr Chase this past year, probably one of the best rookie performances ever. That definitely put motivation to me.”
Receivers taken in the first round this year should have a chance to make an immediate impact on the playoff race, since a few of the league’s top teams need to upgrade at that position.
The Green Bay Packers have posted the NFC’s best regular-season record each of the past two seasons, but traded two-time All-Pro Davante Adams to the Las Vegas Raiders. The Kansas City Chiefs, who have reached the Super Bowl two of the past three seasons, sent three-time All-Pro Tyreek Hill to the Miami Dolphins.
Kansas City has since added former Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and ex-Packers wideout Marquez Valdes-Scantling, while the Packers brought in 2014 first-round pick Sammy Watkins. But both teams still may need to add more receivers, and they each have two first-round picks in this year’s draft.
The Packers have the 22nd and 28th overall picks and have two more selections in the second round. The Chiefs are drafting 29th and 30th overall. The Tennessee Titans, who pick 26th overall, also could use a receiver.
How soon any rookie receivers taken in the lower portion of the first round will develop remains uncertain.
Wide receiver traditionally has been a developmental position in the NFL. Even wideouts taken in the first round generally didn’t do much as rookies and instead needed time to develop.
Not anymore. The emergence of 7-on-7 camps and spread offenses has made wide receivers more equipped to contribute as rookies.
“They’ve been coached probably better than back in the day maybe 10-12 years ago,” Packers wide receivers coach Jason Vrable said. “The reason why, people were passing since they’ve been in fifth grade now, right? And the growth of them as far as the pass game and route knowledge and all that stuff, typically guys are pretty clean in that aspect coming out. The biggest thing is you’ve got to feel good about the playbook, knows the ins and outs, know the audible system and know why we’re doing things. And that just takes some time.”
For some young receivers, it hasn’t taken much time at all.
Jefferson, drafted 22nd overall, caught 88 passes for 1,400 yards receiving for the Minnesota Vikings in 2020. Chase, the fifth overall pick in last year’s draft, surpassed Jefferson’s rookie total by accumulating 1,455 yards receiving while helping the Cincinnati Bengals earn their first Super Bowl berth since the 1988 season.
Jefferson’s 1,400 yards receiving were the most by a rookie in the Super Bowl era, until Chase surpassed it last season.
This year’s class of receivers also looks promising, though it lacks the star power of last year’s group.
“None of these guys have the same grade as a DeVonta Smith, a Ja’Marr Chase or a Jaylen Waddle,” ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. said. “Those three last year all had elite grades.”
Kiper and NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah both predicted six or seven receivers could get taken in the first round. Jeremiah has Ohio State’s Garrett Wilson and Southern California’s Drake London ranked among his top 10 overall prospects.
“I really like this group, and I think it’s, again, got those six or seven guys that you really like there at the top,” Jeremiah said. “I don’t think the depth into like the fourth round and beyond is as good as some of the others we’ve seen, but I think up until that point it’s pretty good.”
Other receivers projected as potential first-round picks include Olave, Arkansas’ Treylon Burks, Penn State’s Jahan Dotson, Western Michigan’s Skyy Moore, North Dakota State’s Christian Watson and Alabama’s Jameson Williams.
The trick is figuring out which of these guys can contribute right away. Vrable says some receivers need time to develop the confidence necessary to face elite cornerbacks such as Green Bay’s Jaire Alexander.
“That’s the hardest part — getting a guy to truly walk out there and look across from him and see Jaire and truly believe in yourself, like ‘I can beat this guy one-on-one, not only do I know my route, I know the details of it, but then I’ve got to beat a guy who’s a dominating force on the opposing side of the ball,’” Vrable said. “And typically every team has an elite corner, so you’re going up against guys that you’ve just got to have that confidence. I think that, for some guys, takes a little bit more time than others.”
There aren’t many rookie receivers who possess that attitude plus the physical skills to back it up, but they’re a lot more plentiful than before.
“For what it used to be, kind of a coin flip on first-round receivers with the hit rate, it has gone way up over the last few years,” Jeremiah said. “It’s been pretty consistent with these guys being solid, solid players — if not more than that — right away.”