NFL Analysis


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Ranking NFL's Best Rookie Wide Receiver Seasons Since 2000

New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (13) gestures after a first down catch against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the fourth quarter at MetLife Stadium. Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

It's a golden age of rookie wide receiver play. More than ever, rookies are coming in at high volume and producing immediately. We just had a 2024 rookie class that could easily continue that trend.

Like we did with quarterbacks, let's look at the best rookie wide receiver seasons since 2000. As we can see below, a great rookie season does not guarantee a great career, and not having a top-10 rookie season does not take away from the careers of other great receivers.

All data is provided by TruMedia unless noted otherwise.

Best Rookie WR Seasons Since 2000

10. Michael Clayton, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2004)

He accounted for 24.3 percent of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ targets that season, and it’s arguable Tampa Bay didn’t go to Clayton enough. The next leading receiver was Joey Galloway, with 451 yards.

Clayton was the 15th overall pick in the 2004 draft and was the fifth receiver taken after Larry Fitzgerald, Roy Williams, Reggie Williams, and Lee Evans. Clayton’s rookie season was impressive as he finished 13th in receiving yards (1,193) and tied for ninth with 19 receptions of 20 or more yards.

After Clayton’s rookie season, he had knee surgery and was never the same player. He did not top 500 yards after his first season while he battled injuries and inconsistency throughout his career. 

Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen (13) warms up before a game against the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium. Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports.

9. Keenan Allen, San Diego Chargers (2013)

As a third-round pick, Keenan Allen was the seventh receiver taken in his 2013 draft class. He did not play his first game and only entered the Week 2 game against the Philadelphia Eagles when Malcolm Floyd was injured and lost for the season in the second half after putting up 102 yards in the first half.

Allen’s first catch was for 18 yards on a third-and-8, though he only finished with 34 yards on the day. He had -4 in his next game.

But Allen had 80 yards in the game after that and then had a stretch of five 100-yard games in eight weeks. He didn’t immediately become the go-to receiver and saw under 20 percent of the team targets. Still, he was the most efficient option and the leading receiver (1,046 yards) on a team with Antonio Gates, Eddie Royal, and Danny Woodhead.

8. A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals (2011)

It might be easy to forget how good peak A.J. Green was, given that we’re not too far removed from his lackluster final seasons with the Arizona Cardinals. But the former fourth-overall pick’s peak started in his rookie season. Green was the fourth pick in a draft that saw Julio Jones taken two picks later.

Green’s first reception was a 41-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter of the Week 1 game from Bruce Gradkowski after fellow rookie Andy Dalton left due to injury.

In Green’s rookie season, he had four 100-yard games and tied for ninth with 19 receptions of 20 or more yards. His size and speed made him a difficult cover right from the start. His rookie year (1,057 yards) was his first of five straight 1,000-yard seasons, and he was just 36 yards short of making it seven straight in 2016.

New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas (13) catches a pass over Atlanta Falcons cornerback A.J. Terrell (24) in the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sport.

7. Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints (2016)

Michael Thomas had a specific role as a leading receiver that did not look like the typical No. 1 receiver.

He excelled at working in the middle of the field in the short area, especially on slants. While “Slant Boy” was framed in a derogatory way to comment on how he earned his targets, he was great at what he did.

During Thomas’s rookie season, he had 1,137 receiving yards and picked up 62 first downs on receptions, which was sixth among all receivers in 2016. He only had a 7.94-yard aDOT, but 64.5 percent of his targets earned successful EPA, the second-most among rookie receivers since 2000 with at least 50 targets. Tyler Lockett is the leader at 66.7 percent on 69 targets.

In the following years, Thomas evolved into the fully-formed high-volume, low-aDOT target that led him to lead the league in receptions twice and yards once. 

6. Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2014)

The 2014 season was in the middle of the NFL's passing boom, at least for individual receivers. That season, 21 wide receivers had at least 1,000 receiving yards. It was the second year of four in a row with at least 20 receivers hitting that mark. The 2013-2016 stretch is the only time since 2000 with four years in a row (we’re on three now since 2021).

That 2014 rookie class was part of the reason (more on that in a bit). Mike Evans was the second receiver taken (seventh overall) behind only Sammy Watkins (fourth). In his first season, Evans had 1,051 receiving yards, and his 12 touchdowns tied for fourth among receivers. That came while catching passes from Josh McCown and Mike Glennon on a 2-14 Buccaneers team.

Evans had Vincent Jackson as a teammate, who out-targeted the rookie and had a 1,000-yard season, but Evans was better at converting big plays and getting into the end zone.

This is also a rookie season that ages quite well, as Evans has never recorded less than 1,000 receiving yards in a season.

Ja'Marr Chase vs. Jaguars
Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase (1) runs the ball against Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Darious Williams (31) in extra time at EverBank Stadium. Jeremy Reper-USA TODAY Sports.

5. Ja’Marr Chase, Cincinnati Bengals (2021)

There was a Ja’Marr Chase or Penei Sewell debate for the Cincinnati Bengals with the fifth overall pick in 2021. Cincinnati took Chase, but it’s a pick that worked out for the Bengals and the Lions, who took Sewell with the next pick.

Chase was electric as the lead piece in a receiving corps that already had Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. He had 1,455 receiving yards, which ranked fourth among receivers. His 13 touchdowns were third, and his 22 receptions of 20 or more yards were tied for fourth.

Chase could create a big play out of anything with the ball in his hands. His 8.0 yards after the catch per reception were second only to Deebo Samuel that season, but Samuel’s aDOT was more than three yards shorter than Chase’s. 

4. Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants (2014)

Odell Beckham's season got off to a rough start. A hamstring injury limited his time in preseason, and he missed the first four games of the regular season, to the ire of coach Tom Coughlin.

But once Beckham got on the field… whew. Beckham finished the year with 1,305 receiving yards and a 21.7 percent target share, despite seeing no targets for the first four games. If we go from Week 5 on, he was second in receiving yards with a 28.5 percent target share.

Beckham had seven games with at least 100 yards, tied for the most among rookies, including four in a row to end the season. His 2.75 yards per route run is also a rookie record since TruMedia started keeping track of routes. 

His rookie season also included the famous one-handed catch on Sunday Night Football against the Dallas Cowboys.

Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Puka Nacua
Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Puka Nacua (17) had nine receptions for 181 yards and a touchdown against the Detroit Lions. (David Reginek-USA TODAY Sports)

3. Puka Nacua, Los Angeles Rams (2023)

Puka Nacua was a fifth-round pick out of BYU who had three 100-yard receiving games in his final college season. In his first NFL game, he had 10 catches on 15 targets for 119 yards. In his second game, he recorded 147 yards on 15 catches and 20 targets. His third 100-yard game happened in Week 4.

The Los Angeles Rams found the perfect role for Nacua, who was seventh in the league in target share (28.8 percent) and finished the season with a rookie-record 105 catches and 1,486 receiving yards. Nacua was explosive with 25 receptions of 20 or more yards, which ranked fourth. He was the perfect fill-in while Cooper Kupp was out to start the season, but the two coexisted seamlessly upon Kupp’s return.

Nacua, with his ability to play inside and outside and his versatility with motion, was a key piece to helping the Rams reinvent their offense.

2. Justin Jefferson, Minnesota Vikings (2020)

Justin Jefferson was the fifth receiver selected in the 2020 draft. It was clear from the beginning he was the best of the bunch, and he’s now cemented himself as the league's best receiver.

Jefferson did not start the first two games of his rookie season, but when he got the start in Week 3, he went off for 175 yards on seven catches. He finished the year with seven 100-yard games, which tied Beckham for the rookie record.

His full season numbers were 1,400 yards (third among receivers) with seven touchdowns. His 2.66 yards per route run was second to Davante Adams, and he tied for the league lead with 23 receptions of 20 or more yards.  

>> READ: Jefferson Could Be All-Time Great

Arizona Cardinals wide receiver (81) Anquan Boldin against the Minnesota Vikings at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Vikings 30-17. Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports.

1. Anquan Boldin, Arizona Cardinals (2003)

In 2003, just 14 wide receivers had at least 1,000 receiving yards. Anquan Boldin, the 54th overall pick and sixth receiver taken in the draft, was one of them.

Boldin’s 1,377 receiving yards were third among receivers that year behind Tory Holt and Randy Moss. He had a 31.6 percent target share, second only to Moss, which has not been topped by a rookie since. Boldin’s quarterbacks that season were 33-year-old Jeff Blake and 24-year-old Josh McCown.

His 150 targets are second only to Nacua’s 160 (with an extra game), and his 101 receptions are third behind Nacua (105) and Jaylen Waddle (104).

If you want to see a player completely take over a game, look at some highlights from Boldin’s first NFL game — a 10-catch, 217-yard performance with two touchdowns.