It can only take one year for a wide receiver to vault into national stardom. Entering last season, Deebo Samuel amassed just 1,193 yards in his previous two NFL seasons because he couldn’t stay on the field. After getting more than 800 yards in 2019, he missed nine games the next year due to a Jones fracture in his left foot and two separate hamstring strains.
2021 was his breakout year. He entered the spotlight by collecting 1,405 yards–the fifth most in the NFL. His playmaking ability as a receiver and a running back made him too valuable of an asset for San Francisco 49ers General Manager John Lynch to risk losing when Samuel demanded a new contract this offseason. After just one All-Pro campaign, he is now the eighth highest-paid receiver in terms of average salary.
There will be another wide receiver who follows Samuel’s arc. Four wide receivers, in particular, had slower starts to their NFL careers, but have a good chance of etching themselves into the football elite this year.
Rashod Bateman (Baltimore Ravens)
It was a fairly quiet rookie year for the 2021 27th overall draft selection. A groin injury in training camp limited him to only 12 games. Bateman finished with 515 yards on 46 receptions, despite having a limited role and playing with a backup quarterback for the final four games of the season.
“I like his size and how he competes for the ball,” said T.J. McCreight, The 33rd Team’s Head of Scouting. “I was a bit surprised by his combine and didn’t think he was a super fast player.”
With the departures of Marquise Brown and Sammy Watkins, he is now the expected No. 1 wide receiver on the Ravens’ roster. His impressive traits and recent training camp performance show he’s ready to take full advantage of the opportunity.
At the University of Minnesota, Bateman displayed an exceptional ability to make tough, contested catches. His strong route running allows him to play all over the field, but the Ravens primarily utilized him in the short passing game during his first season. After initially having limited playing time, he slowly earned more snaps as the season progressed. He played at least 80% of the snaps in his final four games after averaging 59% during Weeks 6-14. His role should continue to grow heading into 2022.
With Brown no longer in Baltimore, Bateman should get a lot more targets in the deep passing game. He can use his frame and catching abilities to be the go-to guy for longer throws if he can develop a strong linkage with starting quarterback Lamar Jackson. The duo has only played in seven full games together after Jackson went down with a season-ending ankle injury during Week 14. Bateman will finally have a full training camp to get comfortable with the offense and be in sync with his quarterback, so expect the 22-year-old to be heavily featured in the Ravens’ passing attack.
Elijah Moore (New York Jets)
Injuries plagued Moore’s rookie season. The former Mississippi star sporadically missed games due to a quadriceps strain in August, a concussion in September, another quad strain and a COVID-19 diagnosis in December. When he was available, he dealt with a struggling Jets offense. They couldn’t move the ball down the field mostly due to the uninspiring play of rookie quarterback Zach Wilson.
Despite all those obstacles, he still finished as the Jets’ leading receiver. After only getting 79 yards in his first five games, Moore’s production increased during the second half of the season. He earned 459 yards and all five of his touchdowns came during Weeks 8-13. Moore has shown the ability to dominate. All he has to do is stay healthy.
“[He] dropped to the second round due to his size, but this is a good player,” McCreight said. “Very quick feet and can separate. Tough to cover.”
Moore will likely benefit from an improved Jets offense. They drafted former Ohio State standout Garrett Wilson, who will take some defensive attention away from Moore. The Jets should also have better quarterback play.
Zach Wilson should take a big leap forward in his sophomore year after finishing 30th in NFL passer rating. From Weeks 8-13, Moore played at least one game with Mike White, Josh Johnson and Joe Flacco under center. He still put up strong numbers during that stretch. Give Moore a more consistent signal caller, and his numbers should soar.
Jerry Jeudy (Denver Broncos)
The 2020 receiver draft class has already produced serval high-quality starters. In their first two years in the league, Justin Jefferson, Ceedee Lamb and Tee Higgins have established themselves as elite pass-catchers. Jeudy, who was drafted ahead of all three, hasn’t reached the same level.
A lot of his struggles can be attributed to below-average quarterback play from the Broncos. While he showed flashes in 2020, recording more than 100 yards twice, Jeudy failed to get into a consistent rhythm catching passes from Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater.
Entering his third season, Jeudy finally gets to play with a top-tier signal-caller in Russell Wilson. Throughout his career, Wilson has had a lot of success throwing to his slot receivers. He had a great connection with Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett, helping both of them reach the Pro Bowl at least once during their respective careers. From 2014-2020 either Lockett or Baldwin led the Seattle Seahawks in receptions. Wilson will now look to establish the same type of rapport with Jeudy, who is expected to reprise his role as a slot receiver in 2022.
“This is a player that runs well and has hands and ball skills,” McCreight said. “Could be a break-out player with Russell Wilson.”
The Broncos recently lost Tim Patrick, a projected starter at receiver, for the season due to an ACL tear. Jeudy could potentially have an increased target share this year, especially if no one else on the roster steps up. Courtland Sutton and KJ Hamler could also see an uptick in production, but neither has stayed consistently healthy. While Sutton has a 1,000-yard season under his belt, Jeudy has the greater upside and will benefit the most from a Wilson-led offense.
|On-Target||Drop||Rec.Rating||Broken Tkl + Missed Tkl||Receiving Total Points||EPA||PAR||Boom||Bust|
Amon-Ra St. Brown (Detroit Lions)
St. Brown came into the NFL under the radar. In his first three games, he compiled only 43 total yards. He had a decent stretch in his next seven games, but he failed to record a single touchdown and never got more than eight targets. Towards the end of the season, Lions quarterback Jared Goff looked his way more and positive results soon followed.
” [He] plays bigger than his size with his ability to track and catch the ball,” McCreight said. “Does not have big speed but has savvy to compensate.”
From then on, St. Brown had more than 70 yards and double-digit targets in each game. He also had seven touchdowns during that six-week span and reached the 100+ yard mark in his final two outings of the season. He finally found his rhythm in a Detroit offense full of flaws and there’s little reason to believe he won’t elevate his game more in 2022.
Despite Goff’s shortcomings, he appears to have a complimentary relationship with St. Brown on the field. St. Brown has a knack for getting separation thanks to his footwork and route running ability. His skill set has been helpful in the short passing game, which is Goff’s specialty.
In 2021, Goff ranked 33rd in the NFL in intended air yards per pass attempt and had only three passes more than 40 yards. St. Brown should see a high volume of targets earlier in the season compared to last year, which could earn him a Pro Bowl bid.
Ryan Heller contributed to this report.