by Scott Kacsmar
As far as wide receiver draft classes go, the class of 2014 made an incredible first impression. If we just looked solely at rookie performance, then it's hard to argue there has ever been a better wide receiver class than last year's. Thirteen wide receivers had at least 400 receiving yards, including a record three 1,000-yard seasons. Receivers in secondary roles such as Jordan Matthews, Jarvis Landry, Donte Moncrief, Davante Adams, Allen Robinson, Martavis Bryant, John Brown, and Brandin Cooks enter 2015 with a lot of buzz and higher expectations. Some look poised to become future stars in the NFL, and most are paired with a very good delivery system at quarterback. If this was the full plate of receivers from 2014, then we would already have a damn good meal, but we haven't even brought out the steaks yet. That's Odell Beckham Jr., Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, and Kelvin Benjamin.
Before we get too ahead of ourselves, there have been a few standout wide receiver draft classes in NFL history. My personal favorite is the 1996 class, with 10 receivers above 7,500 career receiving yards, but there is a lot to like here.
- 1985 class: Jerry Rice, Andre Reed, Al Toon, Eddie Brown, Eric Martin, Vance Johnson, Jessie Hester and Reggie Langhorne.
- 1988 class: Michael Irvin, Sterling Sharpe, Tim Brown, Anthony Miller, Brian Blades, Brett Perriman, Michael Haynes, Quinn Early and Flipper Anderson.
- 1996 class: Terrell Owens, Marvin Harrison, Muhsin Muhammad, Keyshawn Johnson, Eric Moulds, Amani Toomer, Terry Glenn, Joe Horn, Eddie Kennison and Bobby Engram.
- 2001 class: Reggie Wayne, Steve Smith, Chad Johnson, Santana Moss, Chris Chambers and T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
- 2010 class: Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, Antonio Brown, Golden Tate, Emmanuel Sanders, Eric Decker and Brandon LaFell.
For the 2014 class to earn its way here, the top four guys will have to keep getting better. Watkins, the first receiver off the board in 2014, finished just 18 yards short of making it four 1,000-yard seasons from this group. However, while they had some good numbers, there were also some ugly ones. It's no coincidence there was also some lousy quarterback play involved, which is always a factor.
Beckham obviously had the most efficient season, perhaps the most impressive season, and certainly the catch of the season. But it's that catch that drives me to look at things like catch radius. Was Beckham's signature catch one of many highlights, or more of a one-time thing a la David Tyree? Either way, it's funny how Eli Manning is on the other end of these plays so often, but we'll get into that aspect too.
Catch Radius Comparison
We start by comparing the four rookies to each other.
|2014 Wide Receiver Catch Radii: Top Rookies|
|Type of Catch||O.Beckham||Pct.||K.Benjamin||Pct.||M.Evans||Pct.||S.Watkins||Pct.|
|Above the head||20||22.0%||19||26.0%||15||22.1%||14||21.5%|
|Below the waist||1||1.1%||0||0.0%||0||0.0%||2||3.1%|
|Diving to ground||3||3.3%||2||2.7%||3||4.4%||2||3.1%|
|Over the shoulder||3||3.3%||2||2.7%||9||13.2%||3||4.6%|
|Pass thrown wide||7||7.7%||6||8.2%||5||7.4%||9||13.8%|
Granted, I have only been able to study 42 player seasons so far (3,148 catches), but these four rookies are truly in a class of their own. If we group chest-level and eye-level catches together (since those are generally the easiest and most common catches made), we find that these four receivers have the four lowest rates of easy catches.
|Summary of Wide Receiver Catch Radii Study|
|Odell Beckham Jr.||2014||NYG||71||91||41.8%||20.9%||22.0%||3.3%||3.3%||7.7%||62.6%|
What really stood out to me was the way these rookies used their height, which was a necessity with the quality of throws they were seeing from their quarterbacks -- they had the four highest rates of above-the-head catches that I have measured.
Note: all images are captured from NFL Game Pass at the moment of first contact with the ball.
Odell Beckham Jr.: Bend It Like ODB
We know what you're thinking. How do you classify that amazing catch against Dallas with only one of these designations? Despite being interfered with by Brandon Carr, Beckham used one hand to reach for the ball and landed on his back for a 43-yard touchdown. It had a diving finish, but this is not a "diving to ground" catch. What I'm looking at is the position of the receiver when he first makes contact with the ball. It's hard to say if Eli Manning threw a good ball, or if he overthrew or underthrew the ball, because the jersey pull by Carr threw off the play's timing. With the ball going over his head, Beckham reached back as far as he could to snag it with one hand. This is an above-the-head catch.
The ball was just so far beyond him that Beckham basically threw himself backwards to complete the catch. It's an amazing play that will likely be shown for years to come. For me, what really added to the instant lore of this play was the package NBC showed shortly before it happened. Beckham likes to make one-handed catches as part of his pre-game routine, and you saw this if you watched the game live. Seeing him do that in warm-ups and then make a spectacular catch in the game just made it a star-making night for Beckham. Unfortunately, like tears in rain, those moments will be lost in time and we'll just have the in-game highlight left. But this play was no fluke for Beckham, because he clearly works on one-handed grabs.
Beckham is only 5-foot-11, but Eli Manning sometimes thinks all of his receivers are 6-foot-5. Fortunately, Beckham plays like a much bigger receiver. In fact, his 20 above-the-head catches are the most in the 42 seasons I have studied. The previous high I've seen from a player under 72 inches was nine such catches by Antonio Brown (5-foot-10) last year. Beckham has no problem jumping off the ground with full extension for impressive catches.
Beckham's whole game is very impressive, as he's a fluid route runner and has good skills after the catch too. It's hard to imagine any receiver besides Randy Moss having a more highly anticipated sophomore season than Beckham. This is not the second coming of Michael Clayton. Beckham is the real deal.
Kelvin Benjamin: Goodnight, Sweet Prince
My Benjamin review was actually completed just days before he tore his ACL in practice. That season-ending injury is a crushing blow on so many levels for the Panthers, who will have to hope rookie Devin Funchess can recreate some of Benjamin's magic from last year.
Yes, I said "magic" for a receiver who caught half his targets and ranked 67th in DVOA. Benjamin's seven dropped passes came an average of 17.9 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, the deepest for any player in 2014 who dropped at least five passes. Benjamin was also an epic garbage-time hero in 2014. Including the playoffs, he caught five touchdowns while trailing by 21-plus points in the fourth quarter, the most in a season in NFL history. The only other player with four such scores was Gary Garrison with the 1972 Chargers. Benjamin ranked 54th in plus-minus (-7.8) and 48th in YAC+ (-1.7) among 2014 wide receivers.
Damn, given that statistical profile, it's like the kid kind of sucked.
But that wouldn't be fair to say given the offense in which Benjamin played. His average target was 14.4 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, sixth-deepest in 2014. Benjamin only caught three screen/smoke passes all season, because that's not his style. Cam Newton led all passers with 17 percent of his passes overthrown, and that number would have been higher without Benjamin's tough catches. Based on our breakdown of incomplete passes in game charting, 27.0 percent of Benjamin's targets were deemed uncatchable (27th-most). For comparison, only 16.2 percent of Beckham's targets were uncatchable (81st). Benjamin had 15 above-the-head grabs among his first 40 catches of the season, an absurd rate. He finished with 19, second only to Beckham's 20. His season percentage of catches caught above the head (26.0 percent) is nearly three times higher than the average studied (9.2 percent).
The garbage-time stuff is what it is, but it's not like we can blame receivers for being in those positions. Carolina just wasn't very good last season. Benjamin was still making a lot of contested catches in those moments. The drops are a bit of a concern, but half of them were still balls that weren't thrown very well or where a defender was right there to make contact. The drops were deep because Benjamin dropped two big ones down the left sideline against New Orleans (46 yards) and Atlanta (35 yards). Carolina still won both games comfortably, so they weren't costly in that sense, but Benjamin didn't make the over-the-shoulder catches, something he only had two of all year. So maybe that's something he's not comfortable at doing yet, but we are talking a really small sample. I see no reason to expect drops to plague his career, and he'll always make more tough plays than he will screw up easy ones.
It's a real shame Benjamin's sophomore season is already over. His size would have been a major asset to Newton and this offense. For as fluid as Beckham is, Benjamin looks stiff and awkward by comparison, but he's the type of receiver needed to pull down Newton's overthrows. One of the best plays in 2014 was when Benjamin came down with a 51-yard gain between Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas on a third-and-11 in the fourth quarter. Inefficient or not, bad receivers don't make that catch with any regularity, but Benjamin was making those plays last year. He'll have to wait until 2016 to make more.
Sammy Watkins: Like Watching Clooney in Batman & Robin
Lest we forget, Watkins was widely considered the top wide receiver in this draft class. Buffalo still may have misjudged the depth of this draft, because trading a 2015 first-round pick to move up to No. 4 to take Watkins was a bold move. The early returns aren't favorable given what the other receivers taken later have been able to do. Buffalo still ranked 26th in offensive DVOA and 23rd in points scored per drive in 2014.
Ex-coach Doug Marrone, who arguably just quit after the season, was reportedly not happy with the Watkins trade. Is that why he ran an offense where Watkins was miscast?
I wrote a piece on Watkins for ESPN Insider after the 2014 draft, condemning the Bills for trading up for a wide receiver with unusual usage patterns. At Clemson, Watkins gained 71.3 percent of his receiving yards after the catch (YAC). That's an absolutely ridiculous number that would never work for an NFL wideout. In Buffalo, his YAC rate was roughly half of that at 35.0 percent, or about what Andre Johnson has done in his career. According to STATS LLC, Watkins caught 57.4 percent of his passes in 2013 at Clemson behind the line of scrimmage. So nearly 60 percent of his catches were screens. In Buffalo, Watkins wasn't even the target of a screen until Week 10, when Kyle Orton quickly threw the ball away because Watkins was covered tightly. Watkins ended up catching three screens all year for 13 yards. Two of them weren't even thrown well, as you can see in the collage below (bottom left). This isn't to say screen/smoke passes are key to production, but we saw a guy like Alshon Jeffery catch 24 of them last year. In today's NFL, many No. 1 wide receivers get these plays every week as it's an easy way to get the ball in their hands.
But getting Watkins in space didn't happen much in Buffalo last year. Watkins caught just 6.2 percent of his passes behind the line of scrimmage in 2014. It's like Buffalo saw Watkins play like Percy Harvin in college and tried to make him play like Lee Evans in the NFL. Watkins can certainly get deep -- though he did get tracked down from behind by the Jets on what should have been an 89-yard touchdown -- but he's not a classic deep threat. Mike Evans would have been a better choice for the way Buffalo used Watkins, and that was my point a year ago. Draft Evans to help the quarterback since he has the bigger size and catch radius.
However, Watkins still impressed on tape. Remember, 34.4 percent of his targets were uncatchable, the second-highest rate for anyone with 100-plus targets in 2014. Watkins didn't reach 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns like his peers, but he had some signature plays. His juggling effort on a poorly thrown ball high and behind him set up a game-winning field goal in Detroit. Watkins might make a good juggler given a few of the one-handed stabs he brought in to himself last year. Watkins also had that game-winning touchdown to beat Minnesota in the final seconds. He didn't miss a game, but he did play through some nagging injuries last year. Hopefully he can stay healthier this year.
What's a good outlook for Watkins in 2015? He will have to rely on the likes of Rex Ryan, Greg Roman, and quarterbacks who may be worse than what he had last year, so expectations can't be high in this offense. That's not good for a pick on whom Buffalo placed the highest expectations right away.
Mike Evans: Makes It Look Easy?
The review of Evans was the most difficult based on comparing his numbers to the eye test. Only 52.9 percent of his catches were at chest- or eye-level, the lowest of the 42 seasons studied. Yet Evans impressed me the least out of these four rookies. His YAC game is nothing special, but I guess I just wanted to see more at the catch point from him. He's a huge receiver, but he wasn't very physical last year. Then again, maybe he just makes it look so easy and effortless that I'm having a hard time being impressed by him.
Tampa Bay's quarterback play from Josh McCown and Mike Glennon was surprisingly better than I expected, but again, that opinion is based solely on the 68 completions to Evans. The quarterback play in general, especially from McCown, was not a real positive for Evans in 2014.
Of course usage patterns can explain why Evans ranks so low. He had nine over-the-shoulder catches, which are usually deep balls or fades. Evans had 13.2 percent of his catches come over the shoulder, the highest rate studied yet. That's his strength we knew from his college days, and that's where I thought the quarterback play did better than expected by hitting that many bucket and touch throws.
Evans got off to a slow start, but he finally started showing some playmaking skills in Week 4 at Pittsburgh where he scored his first touchdown. Midway through the season Tampa Bay quarterbacks just started lobbing deep balls for him, and some suspect defenses like Atlanta, Washington, and Chicago obliged with some poor coverage to help Evans make big plays. Evans racked up 458 yards and five touchdowns in a three-game span in Weeks 9-11. He tailed off after that though. In the final six games of the season Evans only had 257 receiving yards, maxing out at 54 yards in Week 17 against the Saints. The production was just not consistent last year.
This season should be an interesting experiment. No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston played with Kelvin Benjamin at Florida State, producing 15 touchdowns in the 2013 season. Winston has a little reputation of giving guys a chance to make a great catch, and Evans would seem to fit that well with his size and hands. That's why I think Evans has the best shot of repeating his catch radius numbers in 2015, because he's probably going to have to make some wild plays for his rookie quarterback.