A.J. Brown, Courtland Sutton and Other Young Receivers Who Will Reshape the NFL

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJuly 9, 2020

Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Chris Godwin (12) makes a catch during an NFL football training camp practice Sunday, July 28, 2019, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

Chris Godwin is one of the NFL's best receivers. He's coming off an 86-catch, 1,333-yard, nine-touchdown season for the Buccaneers in 2019, has already caught 179 passes for 2,700 yards in a three-year career, and he is about to share the huddle with the greatest quarterback in league history.

Godwin is also only 24 years and precisely (as of Thursday) 133 days old. He was five when Tom Brady made his first NFL start. That says a lot more about how old Brady is than how young Godwin is, but you get the idea: Godwin has done a whole lot in the NFL before his 25th birthday. And he's just the leader of a vanguard that is poised to lead the next wide receiver revolution.

Wide receivers accomplish much more at ages 22-24 than they did in the past because so many of them leave college before their senior seasons, while very few are forced to spend years on the bench learning the West Coast offense the way they did in olden times. Today's spread-heavy offenses are designed to get playmakers on the field right away. And with a 17-game season on the horizon and offenses becoming more pass-happy every year, this generation of young receivers will rise quickly up the all-time leaderboards, changing benchmarks and expectations for their position as they go.

Here's a breakdown of the best receivers in the NFL under 25, loosely ranked according to how likely they are to make a Godwin-like leap to superstardom this season. Grab as many of these rising stars for your fantasy roster as you can, and keep your eye on the rest as they start to reshape the NFL. 


A.J. Brown, Titans (Age: 23 years, 9 days)

Brown averaged 20.2 yards per reception as a rookie, the second-highest figure in the NFL. (Mike Williams of the Chargers averaged 20.4 yards per catch). Brown also finished fourth in the NFL in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, which measures efficiency as well as big-play capability. And he did it all despite playing half the season with peashooter-armed Marcus Mariota as his quarterback.

Brown caught 25 passes for 605 yards and five touchdowns with Ryan Tannehill under center in his final six regular-season games. That projects to 67-1,613-13 over a full season. Derrick Henry will get most of the attention in Tennessee, and Tannehill will get most of the money. But if the Titans remain in the Super Bowl chase, it will probably be because Brown built on his rookie success.


Courtland Sutton, Broncos: (Age: 24 years, 273 days)

Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

Sutton has caught passes from Case Keenum, Joe Flacco, Brandon Allen, Drew Lock and (on one memorable trick play) Emmanuel Sanders during his two NFL seasons, which is not exactly a Hall of Fame short list. Through it all, he has proven to be a bad quarterback's best friend, whether he was chasing down Flacco moonballs, leaping in front of two defenders to turn Allen underthrows into big plays, or serving as a security blanket for Lock as a rookie.

Sutton went 72-1,112-6 last season, but he has the potential to do even more as the Broncos offense slowly works its way back toward the 21st century. If Lock can take the big step forward that is expected of him this season, Sutton will be both a big reason why and a beneficiary.


The Steelers Trio

JuJu Smith-Schuster already has 211 career receptions for 2,895 yards and 17 touchdowns, plus an Instagram presence that puts some movie stars to shame, and he doesn't even turn 24 until November. Smith-Schuster is coming off an injury-marred year in which Diontae Johnson (who recorded a 59-680-5 stat line and turned 24 on Sunday) and James Washington (44-735-3, turned 24 in April) had to pick up the slack while Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges did most of the passing.

Johnson and Washington both have speed to burn, and Smith-Schuster has already proved what he can do when healthy. The only thing keeping any one member of this trio from breaking out is the likelihood that all three of them will get a healthy share of the targets.


DJ Moore, Panthers (Age: 23 years, 86 days)

Did you know that Moore caught 87 passes for 1,175 yards and four touchdownns in 2019? I appeared weekly on Charlotte radio last season to talk about the Panthers yet completely lost track of the huge numbers Moore was putting up. Yes, he caught a few passes against prevent defenses in lopsided losses, but catching 87 passes with the scatter-armed Kyle Allen running the offense for most of the year was a remarkable accomplishment. 

Moore is a possession receiver who gobbled up lots of quick slants and comebacks while speedy-shifty Curtis Samuel (another gifted receiver under 25) and Christian McCaffrey did all of the flashy stuff. Teddy Bridgewater loves possession receivers who can get open on shorter routes, so look for Moore to make a lot more noise this year.


Marquise 'Hollywood' Brown, Ravens (Age: 23 years, 35 days)

Don Wright/Associated Press

Brown missed most of last offseason with a foot injury and played part of his rookie year with an ankle injury, yet he still managed to catch 46 passes for 584 yards and seven touchdowns. He was mostly limited to screens, shallow crosses and short catches in the flat last season, and he was rarely healthy enough to show off his speed and elusiveness. He's now healthier, more experienced and part of a faster, more dangerous receiving corps which added rookies Devin Duvernay and James Proche in the draft. Oh, and Lamar Jackson is his quarterback. Brown may not get as many targets as some of the receivers above him on this list, but he'll turn a few five-yard tosses into 40-yard gains.


Mecole Hardman, Chiefs (Age: 22 years, 119 days)

Hardman helped the Chiefs win a Super Bowl before his 22nd birthday. The only thing standing between him and superstardom is the fact he's stuck behind Tyreek Hill as the designated deep threat in a loaded offense. But if you don't think Andy Reid will find new ways of getting Hardman and Hill on the field at the same time and putting the ball in Hardman's hands, you haven't been paying attention for the past two years.


Christian Kirk, Cardinals (Age: 23 years, 234 days)

Kirk caught 68 passes for 709 yards and three touchdowns last year, but he runs the risk of being overshadowed by Larry Fitzgerald and newcomer DeAndre Hopkins this season. Then again, the Cardinals used four- or five-receiver personnel groups a league-high 33 percent of offensive snaps last season (per Sharp Football), so there will be plenty of opportunities to go around. Kirk is the best choice among the Cardinals receivers when head coach Kliff Kingsbury gets the urge to call some over-engineered screen or shovel pass, which is often.

Once Kingsbury reigns in his enthusiasm for double-reverse screen passes, his offense could be as effective and revolutionary as the Chiefs and Ravens offenses have become. If that happens, the speedy, versatile Kirk will be in the thick of things.


DK Metcalf, Seahawks (Age: 22 years, 208 days)

Michael Zarrilli/Associated Press

Metcalf was the yoked-up hill upon which hundreds of would-be draft experts died last season. Yes, Metcalf is one-dimensional: His signature move is to run straight up the left sideline and turn around for the ball. But when you are built like Superman, run like The Flash and have Russell Wilson throwing you the ball, the fact that you maneuver through traffic like a school bus doesn't matter much.

Metcalf is poised to be this generation's Plaxico Burress. That means there are going to be some 70-catch, 10-12 touchdown seasons in his future.


DJ Chark Jr., Jaguars (Age: 23 years, 290 days)

Chark is a 6'4" long strider with a knack for tracking and hauling in deep passes and enough speed to force defenders to give him a cushion to work underneath. Like Courtland Sutton, he could climb from an impressive sophomore season (73-1,008-8) into the stratosphere if Gardner Minshew II can take the next step at quarterback. 


Michael Gallup, Cowboys (Age: 24 years, 96 days)

Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

Like Christian Kirk, Gallup runs the risk of being overshadowed this year, as Amari Cooper and first-round pick CeeDee Lamb will likely be the focal points of Mike McCarthy's offense. Gallup must also overcome the dropsies, since he was second in the league (behind only Julian Edelman) with 11 drops last season, per Pro Football Reference. But if Gallup spent the offseason social distancing with a JUGS machine, he could find himself busy in a highly productive offense this year.

McCarthy found enough footballs to go around for Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson, Jermichael Finley and James Jones during his best years in Green Bay. He should have no problem drawing up some ways to keep Gallup, Cooper and Lamb busy.


Terry McLaurin, Washington (Age: 24 years, 298 days)

The oldest receiver on our list, McLaurin led Washington's barely functional offense with 58 receptions for 919 yards and seven touchdowns last season. He's fast, he's a technician, and he's already a clubhouse leader. McLaurin may lack the upside of A.J. Brown, the measurables of Metcalf or the sizzle of Hardman or Hollywood Brown, but he'll spend the next decade catching an awful lot of passes, whether from Dwayne Haskins or someone else, for whatever the Washington franchise calls itself.


Deebo Samuel, 49ers (Age: 24 years, 176 days)

Samuel suffered a foot injury in mid-June, so while the 49ers are hopeful that he'll be ready for the regular season, he doesn't quite have the short-term breakout potential of some of the other receivers here. And he generated so much buzz last year that you may be surprised to learn that his statistics (57-802-3, 159 rushing yards) weren't all that spectacular. But Samuel is the prototype for the next-gen all-purpose offensive weapon, capable of lining up anywhere and running through defenders as well as around them. 

The future belongs to versatile Deebo-types, Hardman/Hollywood types and king-sized Metcalf-Sutton types. For now, the revolution has just begun.


Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.


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