In the last 10 years or so, the best rookie seasons by NFL wide receivers were performed by Ja’Marr Chase (2021, Cincinnati Bengals), Justin Jefferson (2019, Minnesota Vikings) and Odell Beckham (2014, New York Giants).
What is the common thread for these three players? All were first-round picks and all are extremely talented athletes. And all three have outstanding ball skills.
I’m not talking about hands, but ball skills. I’m talking about an ability to control their body and catch in awkward positions. They have the strength to battle corners with the ball in the air, too. Drops happen; all wideouts drop the ball.
Chase had the most drops in the league as a rookie last year, but that does not really take away from his ability and production. They all have confidence in their ability to catch the ball—even though they might have some drops.
When you watch these three players, one way you can tell they have confidence in their hands is when they catch the ball on the run. Most wideouts have to gear down and gather themselves to catch it. These three wideouts can do it on the run, at top speed and without gearing down.
Watch a crossing route or a dig. The best wideouts snatch the ball at full speed, which allows them to continue running at maximum velocity. This turns a player that runs 4.6-second 40-yard dash into a faster player, and when they gear down and gather, it turns a player that runs 4.4 into a slower player.
All three are explosive players. I am not focused as much on 40 times but on the explosiveness you see with your eyes when you watch them play. They get in and out of their cuts quickly without wasted movement. They can plant and drive and come back to the ball. You see a second gear and an ability to pull away from defenders.
They have the strength to fight through an arm tackle and very good balance to stay on their feet. Not to be dismissed, either: All three in their rookie seasons had really good quarterbacks who could accurately deliver the ball.
What does that say for the receivers from the 2022 draft? Which of the top ones are similar to those big three? Which ones can you project to have big rookie seasons like Chase, Jefferson and Beckham based on attributes already discussed?
Jameson Williams, Detroit Lions (12th Overall Pick)
Preseason stats: None, still recovering from a torn ACL
Williams is only seven months removed from tearing his ACL in his final college game at Alabama.
Players recover much quicker from ACL surgery than they did even 10 years ago. A team doctor once told me that there are several reasons for this. Surgical and rehab techniques have improved, there’s an increased knowledge of the mechanics of the knee, and players understand and take care of their bodies better now.
Williams has a reputation as a hard worker, so I would suspect he should be healthy soon. Because of his injury, he never ran a 40 or did any drills at the scouting combine or his pro day, but watching his Alabama film, you can see he is a talented player
Tall and long but very lean, Williams runs fast, and his speed will jump out at you when you study him. He does need to get physically stronger, especially in his upper body
Williams made his mark on deep balls and earning yards after the catch. More than a third (35 percent) of all his routes were deep patterns and he averaged 9.5 yards after the catch, according to Sports Info Solutions.
Coming off an ACL, Williams will take some time to get back to top form, and I would look at 2022 as a redshirt year for him. Whatever he gives you this season would be a bonus. But look out in 2023.
Treylon Burks, Tennessee Titans (18th Overall)
Preseason stats: 4 targets, 1 reception, 4 yards
Burks is a big, strong man. When you see him at practice, you notice his big hands, long arms and broad shoulders. He really just stands out from the crowd.
Burks plays faster than what he times on a watch – he has game speed. I like him after the catch, and you see him break tackles and flash some one-step quickness.
I look forward to watching him out-muscle smaller, leaner corners this season.
Burks made his mark with his physical dominance and earning yards after the catch. He earned a staggering 9.6 YAC at Arkansas in 2021, and was as good as he was with poor quarterback play (only 84 percent catchable ball rate, according to SIS).
Burks is a player that could have a big rookie year with the Titans, in my opinion. He has a lot of the qualities of the three former standout rookies mentioned above. He will get the ball thrown his way, and with defenses focused on Derrick Henry, he could have some open lanes to get free in the secondary.
Garrett Wilson, New York Jets (10th Overall)
Preseason stats: 3 targets, 2 receptions, 25 yards
Wilson has a lot of upside. What stood out to me when I studied him at Ohio State was his outstanding body control. He’s capable of making acrobatic catches at all three levels of the field.
He is a good athlete and an explosive player who can make sharp cuts getting into and out of his routes. This allows him to create separation from defensive backs easily.
However, he needs to get physically stronger and be a bit more consistent catching the ball. He’s got a lean frame and had some drops in college.
Wilson specializes in creating yards after the catch and going deep. He led the 2021 receiver class with 4.1 total points added and 6.4 YAC, according to SIS.
Wilson is a talented player, but the Jets have concerns at quarterback. Other wideouts with similar qualities are New Orleans’ Chris Olave, Washington’s Jahan Dotson, Atlanta’s Drake London and Pittsburgh’s George Pickens. My concern with all of them this season is the quarterback throwing them the ball.
Chris Olave, New Orleans Saints (11th Overall)
Preseason stats: 4 targets, 3 receptions, 32 yards, 1 touchdown
I really like Olave as a route-runner. He has very good feet, balance and body control. He understands how to set up his routes, how to weave and stem defenders. You must be ready for his speed, as he has the burst to pull away from defenders.
Olave ran 42 percent of his routes in the deep part of the field last year at Ohio State, which ranked first among wide receivers drafted in the first round this season, according to SIS.
Like many other young players, he needs to improve his upper-body strength to get off press coverage
Olave decided to stay an extra year in Columbus when he was primed to be a first-round pick. Staying the extra year likely made him a lot of money.
Jahan Dotson, Washington Commanders (16th Overall)
Preseason Stats: 2 targets, 2 receptions, 23 yards
Dotson lacks ideal size for the position, but he is an explosive athlete, and it shows up when he’s running his routes. He can hit top speed quickly, and he does a nice job coming out of his cuts.
Like Wilson, Dotson also showed an ability to make difficult catches down the field last season. His hands are easy and natural, which makes him capable of making big plays.
The former Penn State Nittany Lion finished second last year in Points Added Per Game and deep route percentage among receivers drafted in the first round, according to SIS.
Drake London, Atlanta Falcons (8th Overall)
Preseason stats: 1 target, 1 reception, 24 yards
London has outstanding size and length, and he uses it well. What popped out to me when I watched him in college was his basketball background. He will box out defenders and will use his size to gobble up the football. He has very good ball skills, body control and hands.
I love how he wins 50-50 balls. He does not have great burst or explosiveness that you would ideally want from a top-10 pick, but other aspects of his game are exceptional.
Across eight games, the USC product was second in the nation last year in both catches and yards. Due to a broken foot, he could not test at the combine, but it didn’t stop the Falcons from investing heavily in him.
Skyy Moore, Kansas City Chiefs (54th Overall)
Preseason stats: 4 targets, 3 receptions, 23 yards
Moore had some eye-popping numbers last season at Western Michigan. Defenders in the Mid-American Conference struggled to keep up with him.
He ran a 4.41 40 at the combine, further proving what I saw on film to be true.
He lacks ideal size, but he does have good length and he understands how to use it at the catch point to convert difficult receptions.
After sending D’Wayne Eskridge to the NFL in the second round in 2021, Moore duplicated his teammates’ success in going just a few spots higher. Playing in Kansas City, the young receiver has an opportunity to capitalize on the opportunities available after the team traded Tyreek Hill.
Moore is also in a good situation to produce. He obviously has an excellent quarterback and with the loss of Hill, he should get the ball thrown his way. He has very good ball skills and plays bigger than his size.
Alec Pierce, Indianapolis Colts (53rd Overall)
Preseason stats: 4 targets, 3 receptions, 36 yards
Pierce had a big year for the Cincinnati Bearcats in 2021 with an average of 17 yards per catch. He is an explosive, straight-line athlete who can make big plays.
When I watched him in college, it was impressive to see Pierce in contested catch situations.
He has the ability to go up and snatch the ball over smaller corners down the field. I really like how he tracks the ball and how he can change speed in his routes. Pierce also had his success without much help from his quarterback. He had just a 74 percent catchable ball rate and had to win a lot above the rim.
Pierce could also have a breakout season. He has an accurate passer in Matt Ryan, and he is an explosive athlete, which should allow him to win down the field.
George Pickens, Pittsburgh Steelers (52nd Overall)
Preseason stats: 7 targets, 5 receptions, 49 yards, 1 touchdown
I always take note when the Steelers draft a wide receiver because they usually hit at that position. Some recent examples include Dionate Johnson and JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Pickens has very good size and length. He is a long strider who covers a lot of ground. He has the ability to make big plays by high pointing the ball.
However, he’s dealt with some injury concerns throughout the years. Last year was especially rough as he was coming back from a torn ACL, so the Steelers are banking on his upside.
In his last full season at Georgia in 2020, Pickens had a staggeringly high deep ball percentage of 47 percent, according to SIS.
A lot of moving parts need to come together for a rookie wide receiver to have a big year:
— The quarterback needs to be able to get him the ball.
— The offensive line must protect the quarterback.
— The wide receiver needs to be able to get open and catch the ball.
— All of the components above need to stay healthy.
When adding up all of those factors, as well as looking at the ability of each receiver, I see Burks, Moore and Pierce having the best opportunities to have top rookie years in 2022.