NFL fans are always cautioned to lower their expectations for rookie wide receivers, even if they come into the league equipped with impressive physiques and are fresh off dominant college stints. The little nuances required to run precise routes, absorb the complexities of an NFL playbook and create a rapport with a starting quarterback takes time, after all. Superstars like Terrell Owens, Michael Irvin, and Tim Brown all had learning curves to adjust to before they became all-time greats.
Last season, however, we were spoiled by one of the most impressive collective showings by a rookie wide receiver class, one that was widely hailed as the best in NFL history. Of the 15 rookies to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards since the AFL-NFL merger in 1966, three of them, a record high, completed the feat last year.
Note: You can identify each player by hovering over each point, and see more details from that season by clicking on the corresponding dot.
Odell Beckham Jr. amazed with his intoxicating acrobatics, and shattered the per-game records for receptions (7.6) and yards (108.8) since the merger.
Mike Evans shook off the burden of playing with two decidedly subpar QBs in Josh McCown and Mike Glennon to showcase his fantastic potential for an awful Buccaneers team.
Kelvin Benjamin quickly became Cam Newton’s favorite target following the departure of Steve Smith, even if the Florida State product had his fair share of busts to go along with some otherworldly booms.
And Sammy Watkins (982 yards) narrowly missed becoming the fourth flanker to reach the milestone, making Buffalo’s decision to trade up look downright reasonable despite the negative historical implications.
Each of those wideouts will be counted on to replicate their production in 2015 if their respective teams are to qualify for the postseason. But are those realistic expectations?
We plotted the follow-up seasons of the dozen other receivers to debut with 1,000-yard campaigns on the graphic below.
On the surface, those outputs might be a little disappointing. Only four receivers (John Jefferson, Marques Colston, A.J. Green, and Randy Moss) gained more yards during their second seasons.
But the 12 players did average 61.5 receptions and 883.8 receiving yards – not quite the group’s mean production during their rookie years (71.8 receptions, 1,116.5 yards), but certainly not bad enough to be classified as a collective sophomore slump.
That’s especially true since eight of the wideouts combined to miss 33 games, more than two full seasons of potential production, during their second year. The most unfortunate instances were Terry Glenn (seven games), Cris Collinsworth (seven), and Anquan Boldin (six), who still holds the rookie records for receptions (101) and yards (1,377).
If we extrapolate those second-year averages to calculate what they would be without any missed time for injury, they would be bumped up to 71.8 receptions and 1,031 yards – virtually the exact same amount of catches and just a bit fewer receiving yards that they posted in their first seasons.
Though wide receivers aren’t typically regarded as injury risks relative to other players who absorb contact on every play, it’s entirely possible that second-year wideouts still aren’t accustomed to lining up against the most physical cornerbacks they’ll ever play for 16 weeks. That, or they just got unlucky.
Either way, maybe instead of worrying if these young studs have the talent to duplicate the success they achieved last year, we should be concerned whether their bodies can hold up through another grueling 16-game slog.
Because if you’re joining the 1,000 yard club as a rookie, history says there’s a better chance you’ll carve out a career worthy of the Hall of Fame (Moss, Boldin) than you never approaching those heights again (Michael Clayton). And everyone in between went on to have long, productive NFL careers (though the jury is still out on Keenan Allen and A.J. Green, things are looking good).
Most rookies would probably take those odds any day of the week.