The past two years, we’ve been spoiled by riches at wide receiver position. Two of the best receiver classes in the past 20 years have given us a false expectation of what a team can come away with in the draft. Odell Beckham, Sammy Watkins, and Amari Cooper already look to have the makings of superstar talents. Mike Evans, Kevin White, and Kelvin Benjamin should be dynamic players for the next 10 years. Even guys like Tyler Lockett, Martavis Bryant, and John Brown, who have been mid-round steals, have already found ways to make an impact at the next level. It could be five years before that many quality receivers come into the league again.
Of course, the position is more important than ever. With the ways the rules are set up right now, teams can dominate by building a high-powered passing attack more easily than they ever could before. This places elite receivers at a premium. In the past few years, we’ve seen the absence of top flight receivers like Julio Jones and A.J. Green have just as much of an impact on their respective offenses as it would if their starting quarterback were injured. Outside of a few upper echelon talents, quarterbacks are made and broken by the quality of their surrounding talent, particularly at the receiver position. Last year, Andy Dalton enjoyed a career year bolstered by one of the best receiving corps in the league. On the other side of the spectrum, we saw how much the absence of Jordy Nelson impacted the league's best quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, last season.
Game changing talents at the position don’t hit the open market, period. The only way to obtain a dominant presence at receiver is through investing in them in the draft. In this edition, we’ll take a look at the real-world value of receivers in the draft, particularly at what qualities translate to success and what can be expected at each point in the draft by looking at some examples from recent history.
First Round (2009-2013)
Tavon Austin, DeAndre Hopkins, Cordarrelle Patterson, Justin Blackmon, Michael Floyd, Kendall Wright, A.J. Jenkins, A.J. Green, Julio Jones, Jonathan Baldwin, Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Michael Crabtree, Jeremy Maclin, Percy Harvin, Hakeem Nicks, Kenny Britt.
The first round is not a place to take a chance on physically gifted but raw players. Of the players that were drafted this high but haven’t worked out, a high majority of them were players that seduced teams with supposedly game changing speed. Although Tavon Austin, Cordarrelle Patterson, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and Percy Harvin have been productive in spurts, they haven’t done enough to justify a first round selection. Outside of that, this group looks relatively strong compared to the first round at the other glamour positions.
Besides a few depressing busts and Justin Blackmon, there is a roughly 50-50 split between true number one receivers and strong starting options. In this five-year span, about half of the ten best wideouts in the league were selected in this group. Others, like Michael Crabtree, Kendall Wright, and Michael Floyd, have been above average starters for years. As long as teams avoid being tempted by players with obvious red flags, they can expect to land a better than average player here.
Justin Hunter, Robert Woods, Aaron Dobson, Brian Quick, Stephen Hill, Alshon Jeffery, Ryan Broyles, Rueben Randle, Titus Young, Torrey Smith, Greg Little, Randall Cobb, Arrelious Benn, Golden Tate, Brian Robiskie, Mohamed Massaquoi.
Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and now Davante Adams. The Green Bay Packers have built one of the league's better receiving tandems swearing by drafting them almost exclusively in the second round. With the amount of them being taken here, perhaps other teams have decided to follow suit. If the past five years are any indications, that might not be such a good idea. Hunter, Woods, Jeffrey, Smith, Cobb, and Tate are the only players of this depressing group that have lived up to their draft position.
The thing that these players have in common, outside of perhaps Smith, is that they landed here because of a lack of either ideal size or speed. This suggests that players that are flawed in a traditional sense but otherwise strong players may be ideal selections here. Outside of Jeffery, however, none of these players present viable options as number one receivers. Other players in this group, however, have busted in horrible fashion; Robiskie, Broyles, Young, and Massaquoi are already out of the league.
Middle Rounds (3rd and 4th)
Terrance Williams, Keenan Allen, Marquise Goodwin, Markus Wheaton, Stedman Bailey, Ace Sanders, Josh Boyce, Chris Harper, Quinton Patton, Devier Posey, T.J. Graham, Mohamed Sanu, T.Y. Hilton, Chris Givens, Travis Benjamin, Joe Adams, Devon Wylie, Jarius Wright, James Michael-Johnson, Nick Toon, Greg Childs, Austin Pettis, Leonard Hankerson, Vincent Brown, Jerrel Jennigan, Kris Durham, Edmond Gates, Greg Salas, Cecil Shorts, Tandon Doss, Damian Williams, Brandon LaFell, Emmanuel Sanders, Andre Roberts, Armante Edwards, Marty Gilliard, Mike Williams, Marcus Easley, Jacoby Ford, Derrick Williams, Brandon Tate, Ramses Barden, Patrick Turner, Deon Butler, Mike Thomas, Brian Hartline, Louis Murphy, Austin Collie.
Receivers drop off the board like flies at this point in the draft. Teams are far more willing to take risks in the middle rounds because the consequence of missing on a pick here isn’t nearly as high as in the first two rounds. This isn’t the place to find number one receivers; Emmanuel Sanders and T.Y. Hilton look like outliers in this largely anonymous group of players. Although many picks here go on to do very little in the league, this is an ideal place to take a swing at a complementary piece at receiver.
Terrance Williams, Brandon LaFell, and Mohamed Sanu are good examples of what teams should be looking for in this area of the draft; solid, but unspectacular players that can make moderate contributions on game day. This is also a better place to take a swing at a potential deep threat than in the earlier rounds, although drafting a player that is just fast like Jacoby Ford or Marquis Goodwin rarely works out for anyone.
Obviously, the potential for a bust is high here, with many players not going on to do anything in the league. Ace Sanders sounds like a sidekick out of a children's superhero novel. Quinton Patton would be a more fitting name for someone born before the Baby Boom. I believe Tandon Doss was the name of my middle school gym teacher. Ramses Barden may or may not have been the name of a Aztec War General.
Forget Antonio Brown. Landing him in the sixth round of the 2010 Draft lies in the same vein as with Brady and the Patriots; a once in a generation outlier that isn’t happening again any time soon. The pickings are extremely thin at this point in the draft. Most of the players selected in this range won’t be on an NFL roster within three years. The hope here is to find players that can excel as role players or provide depth.
Landing a player like Kenny Stills or Riley Cooper in this range can be seen as a huge success. Smart teams sometimes invest late round picks on receivers to primarily work in the return game, like Mark Mariani.
TakeawaysDrafting receivers is far more predictable than the two other positions we’ve looked at so far. A good rule of thumb for the position is that whatever round the player is selected in is what place on the depth chart you can expect them to fill; if a player is taken in the second round, a team can expect them to be an ideal option as a number two receiver. The most important rule to not busting on picks at the position is to avoid players with question marks. Drafting players at this position with character concerns rarely ends well for either party. Players gifted with impressive height-weight-speed combinations don’t succeed unless they come into the league with strong route running skills as well. Teams can’t expect to find anything in the back three rounds other than camp bodies.