With four wide receivers widely considered to be first-round locks for the 2015 NFL Draft — and a few more garnering some first-round buzz — it certainly appears to be a great time to be a wideout-needy team like the Chiefs.
Of course, even with that said, this year’s crop might not be able to match the star power or production of last year’s crop at the position. Five receivers went in the first round in 2014, including blossoming stars like Buffalo’s Sammy Watkins, Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans and New York’s Odell Beckham, Jr., who were all long gone well before the Chiefs picked 23rd overall.
Carolina’s Kelvin Benjamin also had a strong season; he was taken five spots after the Chiefs took outside linebacker Dee Ford with the 23rd overall pick.
However, NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said the caliber of players that went at the top of the draft actually was not the most impressive aspect of last year’s receiver crop. Instead, he said, it’s the fact that 15 receivers went in the first three rounds, with several making significant contributions to their teams.
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“Last year’s wideout group was historically tremendous,” Mayock said. “All five first-round picks were highly productive. In the second round, you had (Philadelphia’s) Jordan Matthews, (Green Bay’s) Davante Adams, (Jacksonville’s) Allen Robinson, (Miami’s Jarvis) Landry. In third round you had (Arizona’s) John Brown. Fourth round, you had (Pittsburgh’s) Martavis Bryant. So it wasn’t just the guys up top, it was the depth.”
It was a unique year in that respect, Mayock said. Receiver traditionally is not an easy position to come in and make an immediate impact. There are intricacies there, and learning how to get open and adjust to certain coverages is a process.
Yet, the five first-round receivers combined to catch 350 passes for 4,896 yards and 42 touchdowns — an average of 70 catches, 979 yards and eight touchdowns per guy (a better stat line than any receiver the Chiefs had last season).
So what gives? Several draft analysts, general managers and coaches pondered the same question at the NFL Combine late last week, with most agreeing that the growth of the passing game at the college and high school levels is at least one reason for the improved readiness of draft-eligible receivers.
“You’re seeing kids in high school now, colleges, the 7-on-7s in the offseason … the passing game has become dominant,” said ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay. “Now we’re seeing receivers who are used to catching 60, 70, 80 balls (in college) vs. when they used to catch 30, 40, 50 balls.”
And it’s not just that college and high school teams are throwing it more, either. McShay says the attacks have become far more advanced thanks to the proliferation of the spread principles that have infiltrated professional football.
“Some of the language has become similar, more so than it used to be,” McShay said.
McShay, Mayock and several coaches also agree that recent NFL rule changes have only helped young receivers.
“With the rules of getting your hands off the guys at 5 (yards), (it) has allowed young receivers to come in and play quicker because the physicality part of it is the part that’s always been holding them back as rookies,” Arizona coach Bruce Arians said. “The volume of stuff they have to learn (has too), but now with the new rules where they can come in in the spring and be there eight, nine hours a day, so there’s no excuse why they can’t learn it.”
But while the smaller receivers have been helped by the crackdown on illegal contact, as Arians cited, Mayock said big receivers have also benefited from the evolution of today’s passing game.
“The big-bodied wideouts — Kevin Benjamin, Mike Evans — they don’t have to really be route runners,” Mayock said. “They’re 6-5, 230, and with the advent of the back-shoulder throw, they can really be productive from day one. The league is set up to be productive, more so than ever, for rookie receivers and tight ends.”
And yes, Mayock said, his opinion on that topic still extends to the Chiefs, despite the fact that Chiefs coach Andy Reid has a notoriously voluminous playbook with the extensive verbiage often associated with the West Coast offense.
“I’ve had a lot of luck with rookie receivers over time,” Reid said, in response to the same topic. “(Jeremy) Maclin, DeSean (Jackson) … in our system, they stand a chance to play.”
NFL Network draft analyst Bucky Brooks, a former cornerback who spent time in Green Bay during Reid’s tenure there as an assistant, agrees, and thinks some of the top receivers from this year’s class could indeed make an impact early in his offense, though it depends on how Reid chooses to use them
“Andy Reid was in Green Bay when I was there, and the wide receivers would typically come in and learn one spot and eventually move on to learn multiple spots,” Brooks said. “That’s a lot on a young guy, but in today’s game, guys are exposed to running routes more, they’ve been exposed to more things, they’ve been doing 7-on-7s since high school, so the repetitions allow them to get on the field quicker.”
So yes, there appears to be little to keep Chiefs general manager John Dorsey from upgrading a wide-receiving corps that somehow failed to record a touchdown all season. In addition to having a second-round pick for the first time in his tenure, he could also have up to four additional compensatory picks to work with, due to the free-agent losses they suffered last year.
The Chiefs will find out how many additional picks they will receive — and the nature of those picks (they can range anywhere from rounds three to seven) — in late March.
And should the Chiefs choose to use one or more of them on receivers, just know that the chances of them making an impact early are better than ever before, though McShay (correctly) cautions against hoping for an impact on par with last year’s excellent group.
“Don’t overlook the quality of (last year’s) players,” McShay said. “We’re always looking for a trend, and I think that’s part of why we’re seeing it … but, I mean, last year’s group, there was a reason why we saw 15 guys get drafted first three rounds.”
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