Higher expectations: What is a good rookie WR season these days? - The Buffalo News

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Higher expectations: What is a good rookie WR season these days?

The 2014 wide receiver draft class is one of the best in NFL history.

Bills receiver Jordan Matthews was part of that class – led by Giants star Odell Beckham Jr. – and thinks its success has raised the bar for all rookie receivers these days.

"Before my receiver class – Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Odell, Jarvis Landry, Brandin Cooks, Kelvin Benjamin, Allen Robinson – the general consensus was it took receivers usually until their third year," Matthews said in the Bills' locker room on Wednesday.

"So nobody tripped when the receiver went for 300 yards and three touchdowns in their first season, nobody batted an eye," Matthews said. "Now after that year, everybody expects it to be like in Week 4, I need two touchdowns. I drafted you on my fantasy team. Fantasy has killed the game."

Whether fantasy football is to blame or not, expectations are high for rookie receivers drafted in the early rounds.

It's especially true for Bills rookie Zay Jones, the team's second-round pick, because he has stepped into the starting lineup from Day One of the 2017 season.

Jones has three catches for 39 yards through three games. Let's give him at least until midseason before drawing conclusions about his NFL readiness.

But his status as a starter begs the questions: What are reasonable expectations for a rookie NFL receiver these days? And what constitutes a quality rookie receiver season?

Beckham caught 91 passes for 1,305 yards as a Giants rookie in 2014. The catch total was second best ever for a rookie receiver since 1970.

He's an aberration. In the past 10 seasons, 107 rookie receivers drafted in the top three rounds played the bulk of their first season (at least 10 games). Only seven went for 1,000 yards. Six of those were first-round picks.

First-round receiver picks tend to produce. The 35 first-rounders who have played a mostly full season the past 10 years have averaged 42 catches for 624 yards, according to The News' analysis. Two-thirds of them have caught at least 40 passes.

How about second-rounders, like Jones, who was taken 37th overall?

There have been 38 second-rounders play a full season the past 10 years, and they have averaged 36 catches for 457 yards. But the top producers pull up the average. Only 13 of 38 (34 percent) have caught at least 40 passes. If you measure by the 500-yard plateau, 42 percent have hit the mark.

Jones is ahead of the curve from the standpoint of being an immediate starter. Only 25 percent of all rookie receivers drafted in the top three rounds the past decade have started at least 10 games.

Bills coach Sean McDermott says Jones is doing the right things.

"You look at a rookie and their transition to the NFL, there's not a lot of rookies who are playing early like Zay has," McDermott said Thursday. "He's done a lot of good things. It just hasn't at times shown up on the stat sheet."

"When you study the film, you say he's where he needs to be to create space and separation ... or he's finishing a block downfield," McDermott said. "Those are foundational aspects that are important as we get started early in his career that he's doing well. The rest will come. It's important he doesn't press that he stays true to himself and lets the game come to him."

Since the latest collective bargaining agreement was signed in 2011, NFL teams are keeping more cost-effective young players and spending more on players deemed good enough to earn a second contract.

"Because of the salary cap in the modern day NFL," acknowledges McDermott, "young guys play more earlier now than they used to, with that comes expectations."

"Instead of having two vets, three vets in the room and one rookie, a la when Jordy Nelson came in and had Greg Jennings and Donald Driver," says Matthews, referring to the Green Bay Packers, "now you can get that cheap labor from rookies. ... You have a few vets that get paid a lot of money or it’s a whole bunch of young guys. Now there's that pressure on those young players to come in and have an immediate impact."

The bromide that receivers often take three years to develop has been repeated by NFL scouts for decades. Eric Moulds, a 1996 first-rounder, is a prime Bills example. His game exploded in Year Three.

Numerous recent examples of Year Three (or Four) WR breakouts can be found, including Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Steve Smith, Jordy Nelson, Eric Decker, Golden Tate and Michael Crabtree, among others.

McDermott thinks a three-year evaluation window remains relevant, regardless of position.

"It used to be there was an unwritten two-year rule," he said. "If after the second training camp this player hasn't shown us X, Y and Z, it's time to move on. Now with the limitations in terms of time in the offseason and everything is cut down, the growth spurt sometimes doesn't happen."

The first-year wideout producers are plentiful. In 2014 alone, besides Beckham, the big rookie catch totals were: Landry 84, Benjamin 73, Evans 68, Matthews 67 and Watkins 65.

The only second-round rookie in the past 10 years who has hit 1,000 yards is New Orleans' Michael Thomas last season. He's catching passes from one of the most prolific quarterbacks in NFL history, Drew Brees.

Jones stepped into a pass offense that ranked 30th in the NFL last season.

"I think it's one of those things where you have to be patient," Matthews said. "The kid works hard. I'm confident in him. I want him to continue to be confident in himself. He's going to get going. He's going to help us out a lot."

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