In today’s MMQB, there is a story about “The NFL’s Wide Receiver Crisis,” on the basis that the first rounders from the last three years have struggled, and there are few first round prospects at the position this year. The piece relies heavily on current position coach and former NFL receiver Ricky Proehl to say that the problem is what the kids are being taught in college these days.
"Proehl is definitely buying into the theory that the wide receiver position is in a bit of a crisis at the college level. It’s hard to believe, just four years removed from the Sammy Watkins/Mike Evans/Odell Beckham Jr./Brandin Cooks/Kelvin Benjamin class, we are entering a draft that may only contain one or two first-round picks at the position."
Now, that 2014 wide receiver class, just four years prior to this current crisis, may have been one of the best and deepest ever. It’s pretty uncommon that you have several receivers all pan out (at least as good as Kelvin Benjamin). And that doesn’t include that you also have Allen Robinson, Davante Adams, and Allen Hurns from the same year. But 2014 can skew our viewpoint of what is normal.
The last few years have been closer to normal.
In order to accept the “we are now in crisis and young receivers are struggling” view, you also have to suspend your knowledge and assume only first round receivers matter. In the last four years, we’ve had three of the six most successful young receivers (in terms of receiving yards through two seasons) drafted in the 5th round or later (or undrafted) since the merger–Tyreek Hill, Stefon Diggs, and Allen Hurns. You would have to pretend that Michael Thomas, with over 2,300 yards in his first two years, didn’t happen because he was taken in the second round. And you would have to think that it was lack of knowledge and technique that harmed guys like Corey Davis, Mike Williams, Kevin White, and Will Fuller, and not, you know, serious injuries that set them back.
Using the Pro-Football-Reference season finders, I pulled the rookie receiving yards for the last 20 years, and calculated the percentages of league-wide yards. Over the last three years, rookie receivers have accounted for 6.8% of all receiving yards. In 2014, it was a whopping 11.7%. But from 1998-2013, the average was 6.9%.
There was an even worse stretch of rookie production from 2005 to 2007, with rookies accounting for a smaller percentage in each season compared to any of the last three. From 2005 to 2007, there were 13 first round picks at receiver, just like now, and only one of them had made a Pro Bowl prior to the 2008 season, if you did the same comparison this article did. Only 4 of those 13 would ever make a Pro Bowl, a hit rate below 30%.
Then in 2008, there were no wide receivers taken in a first round (Donnie Avery at #33 was the highest drafted receiver). We somehow survived that crisis, because it was no crisis at all. Things ebb and flow from year to year at positions, injuries happen, and it’s all cyclical.