Statistical Analysis: Which Rookie Wide Receivers are Most Likely to Excel?

Statistical Analysis: Which Rookie Wide Receivers are Most Likely to Excel?

The 2022 NFL Draft saw several records broken, but the overwhelming story was the movement and investment at the wide receiver position. A record six WRs were selected in the first 20 selections, not to mention the A.J. Brown and Marquise Brown trades, and that trend continued throughout all three days. Eleven more receivers landed on Day 2 before another eleven on Day 3, altogether amounting to 28 players hoping to make the early impact of last year’s Ja’Marr Chase or Amon-Ra St. Brown. 

Is that realistic? In the past five seasons, 209 rookie receivers have played at least a single receiving snap, from Chase and Jaylen Waddle’s 579 last year to the single rookie snaps of Allen Lazard, Dezmon Patmon, Nsimba Webster, Landen Akers, and Krishawn Hogan. Even if we restrict ourselves to the 164 WRs drafted over that span (counting drafted receivers who didn’t play a snap), we find an average line of 19.8 catches for 260.2 yards and 1.6 TDs on 181.8 receiving snaps. For context, this is right around 2020 Jaguars fifth-rounder Collin Johnson, who was cut after the season. 

We’ve found the average, now let’s look at the best of the best. Using only the “basic” stats of receptions, yards, and touchdowns, we can find the drafted rookie receivers who produced in the top 10% of their peers. Ja’Marr Chase, Justin Jefferson, and Jaylen Waddle are unsurprisingly at the top, but this superb group includes 16 WRs who have put together strong starting campaigns. Calvin Ridley (4th) and Amon-Ra (6th) to D.K. Metcalf (12th) and Darius Slayton (14th) set the blueprint that the 2022 class will attempt to follow. Let’s look at three attributes that make this group stand out, as well as some of the upcoming rookies who fit the same bill. 

The Best Recruits, The Best Schools, and Cooper Kupp

Of this set of 16, thirteen receivers were 4- or 5-star recruits and fourteen went to a school that would be considered top-ten of the decade. There’s your Alabama (Waddle, Ridley, DeVonta Smith), LSU (Chase, Jefferson), USC (St. Brown, Smith-Schuster), and even Ole Miss (A.J. Brown, Metcalf). Ohio State is represented (McLaurin), as is Oklahoma (Lamb), Clemson (Higgins), Notre Dame (Claypool), and Auburn (Slayton). The only outliers here are Cooper Kupp and Brandon Aiyuk, but the trend is clear. 

2022 Top Rookie Candidates: Garrett Wilson (NYJ), George Pickens (PIT), John Metchie III (HOU), Jameson Williams (DET), Drake London (ATL)

Under-the-Radar Name to Watch: Erik Ezukanma (MIA)

Highly Drafted WRs to Worry About: Christian Watson (GB), Skyy Moore (KC)

Repeated Production

At these (mostly) great schools, every single one of these receivers had multiple years of significant receiving contribution. Although nobody matched Kupp’s four years of annihilation, even Ja’Marr Chase had a solid true freshman season (23/313/3) before his ludicrous 2019 campaign and opt-out 2020. So far, it’s clear that the pathway to early excellence is a high-level recruit who can repeatedly produce against strong competition. 

2022 Top Rookie Candidates: Drake London (ATL), Garrett Wilson (NYJ), Christian Watson (GB), Wan’Dale Robinson (NYG), John Metchie III (HOU)

Under-the-Radar Names to Watch: Jalen Tolbert (DAL), David Bell (CLE), Romeo Doubs (GB)

Highly Drafted WRs to Worry About: Jameson Williams (DET)

What Didn’t Matter: Size, Agility, or NFL QB

Before getting into the final category, let’s go over three things that didn’t differentiate this group from every other rookie to cut their teeth in the past five years. The first is size. Whether you’re talking about height, weight, arm length, or hand size, the standout rookies were right in line with averages at the position. Despite some physically impressive specimens like Chase Claypool or Tee Higgins, they were balanced out by the Jaylen Waddles and DeVonta Smiths of the world. 

Second, agility metrics were actually a little bit worse than NFL averages. Undoubtedly influenced by some of the slower testers like D.K. Metcalf and JuJu Smith-Schuster, six of these receivers skipped the agility drills entirely. 

Finally, the easiest back-of-the-napkin math to do is to assume that a top-tier NFL passer will elevate his rookie receivers. Maybe he does so in later seasons, but this is clearly not a factor in recent standout campaigns. Jared Goff, late-career Ben Roethlisberger, and 1.5 seasons of Joe Burrow are the only passers to have thrown to multiple receivers on this list. Behind them is a typical motley crew of capable if unspectacular QBs from Kirk Cousins and Ryan Tannehill to Matt Ryan and Jimmy Garoppolo. A few superstars unsurprisingly sneak in with Dak Prescott and Russell Wilson, but lower-tier starters Case Keenum and Daniel Jones balance them out. (The only unnamed passers are Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts). 

Speed and Explosiveness Actually Matter

Right behind the time-honored tradition of gawking at the NFL Combine’s 40-yard dash is the repetition of “forty times don’t matter”. Well, at least for rookie WRs, they have an impact. With our superstar group averaging a 4.46, they’re only slightly better than average but they do so at 203.9 average pounds – much more impressive. With other averages of a 10’4″ broad, 36.6 vert, and 1.57 ten-yard-split, these receivers have no issue getting anywhere on the field. 

2022 Top Rookie Candidates: Christian Watson (GB), Alec Pierce (IND), Calvin Austin III (PIT), Chris Olave (NO), Jalen Tolbert (NO), Tyquan Thornton (NE)

Under-the-Radar Names to Watch: Dareke Young (SEA), Jalen Nailor (MIN), Khalil Shakir (BUF)

Highly Drafted WRs to Worry About: Drake London (ATL), Treylon Burks (TEN)


From this analysis, it’s clear why the receivers who found themselves at the top of the 2022 NFL Draft found themselves there. Players like Drake London, Garrett Wilson, John Metchie III, and Christian Watson all check off multiple boxes and could be in line to produce right away. Although they have their warts, so does every prospect. As always, we’ll have to wait and see, but keep these names in mind when we get to September 8th.

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