The NFL has treated running backs like dirt for the last few years, but teams will spare no expense in the pursuit of a prolific passing game. DeSean Jackson is a perfect example of how the NFL goes bananas over an elite receiver even if he might have a few warts.
The 2014 NFL draft is packed with good wide receivers. The class is so deep that fans of just about every team believe they can get a good one in the second or third round. That may or may not be the case, but it’s hard to dismiss because it’s just as hard to believe that so many wide receivers will go off the board in the first few rounds.
What makes this class of wide receivers so special is really a culmination of factors we may not see again for quite some time. The class is not just talented—they are talented underclassmen. It also has a bit of something for everyone from speedy slot receivers to red-zone nightmares and everything in between.
A Talented Group
One of the unique things about this group of wide receivers is the depth of elite talent. It’s hard to predict just how many receivers will be drafted in the first round, but CBSSports.com projects seven with as many as six more in the second round.
Bleacher Report’s NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller has seven receivers ranked 37th overall or better. When teams are drafting wide receivers in the first round, they are typically expecting to get a No. 1-quality option in the passing game.
If we go back at least three seasons, it’s easy to see what kind of talent a first-round wide receiver should be. In 2011, A.J. Green, Julio Jones and Jonathan Baldwin went in the first round. Baldwin was a bust, but Green and Jones are among the best in the league. In 2010, Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant were chosen in the first round.
The last time there was a deep class like this was 2009, and that included first-round picks Darrius Heyward-Bey, Michael Crabtree, Jeremy Maclin, Percy Harvin, Hakeem Nicks and Kenny Britt. Nine more receivers, including Mike Wallace, went in the second or third rounds in 2009 for a total of 15. Overall, the class has been a bit disappointing mostly due to injuries.
It’s easy to say that the 2014 class is more talented than the 2009 class, but the truth, is we don’t know for sure. Like the 2014, the 2009 class had something for everyone. However, this year's group is significantly more athletic.
If you believe in measurables for wide receivers, the 2014 class has an advantage over the 2009 class. The 2014 class had significantly more NFL.com top performers in the vertical jump, three-cone drill and short shuttle than the 2009 class.
The 2014 class performed just as well in the 40-yard dash, broad jump and bench press with just one fewer top performer, but that’s before you look at the actual numbers. The top 15 in each class had an identical 4.42-second average 40-yard-dash time, but the 2014 class had a significant advantage in explosiveness as measured by the broad jump. The top 15 in 2014 had an average broad jump that was 1.8 inches longer than the average broad jump of the top 15 in 2009.
|Draft Class Comparison (Top 15 Performers)|
|Class||40-yard Dash||Broad Jump||Bench Press||Vertical Jump||3-Cone||Short Shuttle|
|# of Top Performers vs. 2009||7||7||8||9||10||12|
|# of Top Performers vs. 2014||8||8||7||6||5||3|
The 2014 class has a better average vertical jump and better average number of reps on the bench press. Where the 2014 class really separated itself was in the three-cone and short shuttle with an average time advantage of 0.6 seconds and 0.17 seconds, respectively.
NFL.com draft analyst Mike Mayock is a believer in the talent of this class. He is a respected analyst because he watches tape and doesn’t just look at combine numbers.
"There’s more quality at the top of this draft that I’ve seen in a long time," Mayock said in February via 49ers.com. "It’s the best wide receiver class that I’ve seen in years."
At the time, Mayock listed Kelvin Benjamin and Jarvis Landry in his top five at the position with Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans and Marqise Lee. He’s since added Brandin Cooks and Odell Beckham Jr. Other names like Jordan Matthews could pop into the list at some point before the draft.
This draft is particularly good because there are many different types of receivers. There are tall red-zone weapons like Mike Evans and Kelvin Benjamin, and fast and agile playmakers like Cooks and Beckham Jr.
There is also Watkins, who may not fit into any one category. At 6’1” and 211 pounds, he doesn’t have elite size or speed, and he's not the most agile player out there. He only does everything at a near-elite level.
"I have some freakish talents and ability to make plays," Watkins said when talking to ESPN Radio affiliate 95.7 The Game, via ESPN.com. "I can jump, run catch, make somebody miss. That's my game."
NFL Films producer Greg Cosell sees those talents too, and views Watkins as the best in the draft and perhaps one of the best to come out since A.J. Green and Julio Jones.
|WR Types in the 2014 NFL Draft|
|Mike Evans||Red-Zone Target||6'5"||231||4.53|
|Allen Robinson||Possesion WR||6'2"||220||4.60|
"I think Sammy Watkins, based on what I've seen, is the best receiver in this draft," Cosell told a Nashville radio station in February via NFL.com. “I mean, he's got size, speed, hands, shiftiness, explosion. I think Sammy Watkins is hands down the best receiver in this draft."
Watkins sits unanimously at or near the top of the class, but he’s a little unique. He’s part of what makes this class so special.
If a team wants to take a risk on a mid-round pick to get a freak talent, it might want to draft Martavis Bryant. He comes with some concerns off the field but could turn into quite a player if he matures. That’s not exactly unique, but this draft has that type of player to go along with all the others.
There is also a player like Jeff Janis, who played his college ball at Saginaw Valley State, a Division II school. He has good size at 6’3” and 219 pounds and was a standout at the combine. He might need a lot of development, but he can probably stick on special teams while he refines his game.
Although there is diversity, there is also depth for each type of player. A team that misses Cooks in the first round may target Robert Herron in the third round. Cody Latimer will be a nice consolation prize in the later rounds for a team that doesn’t get the opportunity to draft Allen Robinson, Matthews or Moncrief.
One of the reasons this draft is so loaded at wide receiver is because of the plethora of underclassmen that declared. Only three of the 16 receivers Miller has ranked in the top 101 are seniors. Just about all the top prospects played for three or fewer years in college.
Evans, Benjamin and Davante Adams were redshirt sophomores, meaning they played just two seasons of college football before declaring for the NFL draft. More and more young players seem to be declaring early for the NFL draft because of the rookie wage scale.
|Mike Evans Career Contract Breakdown Example|
|Type||Rookie Contract||Team option||Free Agent||Free Agent|
When the NFLPA and NFL agreed to a rookie wage scale to limit the pay of incoming rookies and lock them into four-year contracts without the ability to renegotiate, they forced college athletes to consider declaring for the draft early. Players are trying to start the clock on their careers so they have a chance to get a big contract in their mid-20s.
Prospects have determined the risk of entering the draft early and underdeveloped is less than the risk of hitting free agency a year later. Getting a second contract at age 24 would give them a crack at a third NFL deal before 30.
The new structure could cause problems with the talent pipeline the NFL enjoys. Colleges will have to develop younger players, who will then continue to declare early for the NFL draft.
Many factors have come together to make this one of the most special classes at wide receiver in recent memory. It was a very talented group to start with, but the flood of underclassmen and diversity of different receiver types gave this group something extra.
It's a fair bet that teams looking for a wide receiver have a handful of targets they want to land in the first three rounds. After that, there is still plenty of quality at the position and maybe even a few eventual starters.