We’ll tackle the position most likely to make in impact right away in this NFL draft review.
I’ve already written about quarterbacks and running backs, and now my attention turns to the pass catchers. If the way the draft unfolded for running backs wasn’t a huge indicator of the league being pass happy, the number of pass catchers selected hammers that point home. According to NFL.com’s draft recap by position (meaning I’m not discussing players that I believe could be changing positions, just those that were explicitly drafted as wide receivers or tight ends), there were 33 wide receivers selected and 10 tight ends picked. Because there were so many pass catchers selected, I’m breaking things down into two parts to give the wide receiver and tight end positions the full coverage they deserve. Part One’s focus will be on the five wide receivers drafted on day one while the forthcoming Part Two will turn its attention to the rest of the wide receivers picked as well as the tight ends.
The first wide receiver selected in the draft came with little surprise. Sammy Watkins was considered the top wide receiver in the class by every reputable outlet, but the fact that the Bills were willing to deal their first round pick this season (ninth overall), as well as their first rounder and fourth rounder next year to the Browns to move up to pick fourth turned some heads. The steep price they paid to move up speaks volumes about what the Bills’ front office and scouting personnel thought about the player general manager Doug Whaley stated was atop their draft board. Watkins has good size, 6-foot-1 and 211 pounds, good speed, and was a very productive player at Clemson. He’ll step onto the Bills and be the most talented wideout, but he won’t necessarily be the top fantasy wide receiver.
The learning curve of moving up from the amateur ranks to the professional ranks is steep for wide receivers, and making a splash in year one is difficult. Take a look at this article written last August that looked at the top 20 rookie seasons for wide receivers and tight ends since 1992 (does not include the 2013 rookie class since the season had yet to be played). Only seven players on the table eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving, and only two reached double digits in touchdown receptions. Keenan Allen was the top rookie wide receiver last year and he ranked tied for 35th in receptions with 71, 22nd in receiving yards with 1,046, and tied for 16th in receiving touchdowns with eight. That’s a hell of a season, no doubt, but Allen was in an offense that passed more than the Bills, and he was paired with a much better quarterback, as Phillip Rivers was airing the ball out to him. The Bills also spent a high pick on a wide receiver last year, using a second round selection on Robert Woods. Woods finished last season with 40 receptions for 587 yards receiving and three touchdown receptions in 14 games played. I believe Watkins will exceed Woods’ rookie season totals, but I also think he will be the second most productive wide receiver on the Bills this year behind Woods. I’d caution against spending too high a pick in a re-draft yearly league on Watkins, or any rookie wide receiver for that matter. As he gets acclimated to the NFL later in the season he could be a very valuable player in daily games down the stretch.
The second receiver selected is the man I expect to be the best rookie fantasy wide receiver this year, and that’s Mike Evans. The Buccaneers landed the Texas A&M product with the seventh pick in the first round. He’s huge, standing 6-foot-5 and weighing 231 pounds. That size will make him a matchup nightmare in the red zone. Playing opposite another huge wide receiver, Vincent Jackson, will prevent teams from turning too much attention to the rookie wideout. Evans is a much less polished route runner than Watkins, and he’ll have to learn more about the nuances of the position after coming out of a free wheeling offense. His touchdown potential is undeniable though.
Speaking of big wide receivers, the Panthers spent a late first round pick on 6-foot-5 and 240 Florida State product Kelvin Benjamin. He had a breakout season for the 2013 National Championship squad, catching 54 passes and 15 for touchdowns for 1,011 yards. Benjamin is a raw route runner and not freakishly fast. The best thing he has going for him is that he joins a Panthers wide receiver’s corps that is barren. He’ll be awarded every opportunity to emerge as the top wide receiver on the club, but being the top target last year on the Panthers only resulted in 73 receptions for 813 yards and six touchdown receptions. The team’s top receiver, tight end Greg Olsen, is still on the squad as well. I expect Benjamin to be very hit or miss week-to-week, and extremely dependent on big plays and touchdowns for weekly value. He’s a good speculative late round pick in re-draft leagues, an excellent selection in keeper and dynasty leagues, and a guy who could emerge as a reasonably priced daily game option in favorable matchups.
The other receivers selected in the first round were a pair of sub-six footers, Odell Beckham Jr and Brandin Cooks. Beckham Jr was picked by the Giants with the 12th pick, and Cooks was nabbed by the Saints at pick 20. Of the two, I prefer Cooks by a wide margin. Beckham Jr joins a Giants team that is looking to replace departed free agent wideout Hakeem Nicks, so there are looks and touches to be had. Eli Manning is coming off a dreadful season though, and the team has revamped their backfield to re-establish balance with the running game. Add to that the fact that Victor Cruz is still the clear cut top dog in the passing attack. They also have another LSU product who emerged as a useful receiver in 2013, Reuben Randle. Manning should bounce back, but in a balanced offense where he has some established options to throw to, Beckham Jr will have a difficult time getting a big enough piece of the pie to make noise in fantasy leagues. Unlike the other options already highlighted he’s nothing special in the red zone, having caught only 12 touchdown passes in his college career.
Cooks joins a juggernaut passing attack with Drew Brees at the reigns. Brees has ranked in the top five in the league in passing attempts each of the last four years, and he now has a new weapon for head coach Sean Payton to create wrinkles in the passing game for. The Oregon State wide receiver won the 2013 Biletnikoff Award as the most outstanding college wide receiver, and his skills translate to the NFL. He ran a blistering 4.33 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, and he’s a receiver that can turn a short throw into a home run with dizzying speed. There are a plethora of mouths to feed in the passing game including the best tight end in football, Jimmy Graham, wide receivers Marques Colston, Kenny Stills, and Robert Meachem, as well as running back Pierre Thomas. Notably absent from that group are wide receiver Lance Moore and running back Darren Sproles. Those two totaled 108 receptions for 1,061 yards and four receiving touchdowns, and each served as a safety blanket and check down option for Brees. It’s not hard to envision Cooks filling that void to a degree. Brees’ willingness to spread the ball around as well as the dominance of Graham will lead to Cooks having some duds this year. The team’s ability to put up points in bunches though, and Cooks’ clear path to a substantial role in the offense pave the way for him to challenge for top rookie pass catcher honors in a deep class of talented rookies.