When a team drafts a wide receiver in the first round of the NFL draft, many fans expect to get the equivalent of a Calvin Johnson, a Julio Jones, or an Odell Beckham without the mouth and attitude. Guys who (barring injury) have consistently produced 1,000+ yard seasons.
Nobody expects their team to draft a player like Charles Rogers, whom the Lions drafted with the second overall pick in 2004 but was out of the league after just three years due to injuries and off-field issues. In those three years, Rogers totaled 440 yards in 15 games.
The reality is that there is no guarantee that you’ll land a franchise player in the first round of the draft, not at wide receiver, and not at any other position in the draft.
And you may have to wait a while before that first-round wide receiver produces the way you were hoping for. 73 wide receivers were drafted in the first round between 2000 and 2017. Only five of them (7%) totaled more than 1,000 receiving yards in their rookie seasons. So expecting a 1,000+ yard season from a first-round rookie is simply unrealistic. If we lower that threshold to 800+ receiving yards we get 16 first-round wide receivers (22%) who’ve met that threshold in their rookie seasons.
And while the first round is the most likely place to find these 800+ yard rookies, it is not the only place: an additional 15 wide receivers drafted since 2000 put up 800+ yard rookie seasons. Here’s an overview of all 31 players:
|Wide receivers since 2000 with 800+ receiving yards in their rookie seasons|
|1st-round picks||Later-round picks & UDFAs|
|1||4||2015||Amari Cooper||OAK||1,070||2||62||2017||JuJu Smith-Schuster||PIT||917|
|1||12||2014||Odell Beckham||NYG||1,305||2||47||2016||Michael Thomas||NOR||1,137|
|1||7||2014||Mike Evans||TAM||1,051||2||42||2014||Jordan Matthews||PHI||872|
|1||28||2014||Kelvin Benjamin||CAR||1,008||2||1||2012||Josh Gordon||CLE||805|
|1||4||2014||Sammy Watkins||BUF||982||2||58||2011||Torrey Smith||BAL||841|
|1||27||2013||DeAndre Hopkins||HOU||802||2||49||2008||DeSean Jackson||PHI||912|
|1||5||2012||Justin Blackmon||JAX||865||2||42||2008||Eddie Royal||DEN||980|
|1||4||2011||A.J. Green||CIN||1,057||2||54||2003||Anquan Boldin||ARI||1,377|
|1||6||2011||Julio Jones||ATL||959||2||52||2001||Chris Chambers||MIA||883|
|1||23||2007||Dwayne Bowe||KAN||995||3||69||2017||Cooper Kupp||LAR||869|
|1||25||2006||Santonio Holmes||PIT||824||3||76||2013||Keenan Allen||SDG||1,046|
|1||15||2004||Michael Clayton||TAM||1,193||3||92||2012||T.Y. Hilton||IND||861|
|1||13||2004||Lee Evans||BUF||843||4||101||2010||Mike Williams||TAM||964|
|1||7||2004||Roy Williams||DET||817||7||252||2006||Marques Colston||NOR||1,038|
|1||3||2003||Andre Johnson||HOU||976||UDFA||2010||Anthony Armstrong||WAS||871|
The Cowboys haven’t invested a lot of high draft picks into the wide receiver position this decade. Dez Bryant was their last first-round WR in 2010, Terrance Williams and Michael Gallup were added with third-round picks in 2013 and 2018 respectively, and the Cowboys have supplemented their picks with UDFAs like Miles Austin and Cole Beasley. And now they’ve spent a 1st-rounder on Amari Cooper. Here’s a look at how long it took for each of those players to reach the 800+ yard threshold:
|Dez Bryant||Terrance Williams||Miles Austin||Cole Beasley||Amari Cooper|
If Dez Bryant hadn’t fractured his ankle in his rookie season, he’d have probably exceeded 800 yards in each of his first five seasons in the league, a feat that’s only been achieved by six wide receivers since 1990 (A.J. Green, T.Y. Hilton, DeAndre Hopkins, Keyshawn Johnson, Randy Moss, Frank Sanders).
Williams cracked 800 in his third season, Austin in his fourth season, and Beasley in his fifth season. With 190 yards in six games, Michael Gallup is currently on track for a little over 500 receiving yards. His production over the last few games has improved, so his arrow is pointing up, but he’ll have to average 60 yards per game for the rest of the season to hit 800 receiving yards, and that may be difficult given the Cowboys’ run-oriented offense and Amari Cooper’s arrival, but it’s not impossible.
With the trade for Cooper, a lot of chatter over the last couple of days has centered around whether investing a first-round pick in next year’s draft or investing that pick in Cooper will be the magic bullet that fixes what’s ailing the Cowboys’ offense.
There is no clear-cut answer to that question, as you’d have to factor in cap implications, assumptions about the quality of QB play, assumptions about a potential rookie’s performance, and much more into the equation and would still end up with no clear answer.
But what we can do is look at how easy or hard it is for first-round wide receivers to have an immediate impact in their first year in the NFL. The table below shows the percentage of draft picks, by round, that totaled 800+ receiving yards, split by the first five seasons of their career.
For the rookie season, I looked at all wide receivers drafted between 2000 and 2017, for the second season, I looked at all wide receivers drafted between 2000 and 2016, the third year is limited to 2000-2015 and so on. I chose the fifth year as the cut off for this analysis, as that’s typically the length of the first contract the first-round wide receivers sign.
Observation # 1: You’ve got to be really lucky to draft a first-round wide receiver who’ll become a significant contributor immediately.
Only 22% of all first-round picks (or a little less than a quarter) hit the 800-yard threshold in their rookie season. Things look better in the second and third years, where about two out of five first-rounders hit the 800-yard mark, but frankly, two out five isn’t particularly impressive.
The Cowboys have been pretty impressed by their own track record in the first round (Stephen Jones: “We’ve had an extended amount of success with our number one draft picks”), but you can only defy the odds for so long.
A couple of thoughts about WRs and draft picks:— rabblerousr (@rabblerousr) October 22, 2018
1. WR is one of the hardest positions to get right in the first round. LOTS of busts, especially with guys who won in college by being superior athletically.
2. It typically takes 3 years for a drafted WR to come into his own
Rabblerousr goes on to add that the Patriots are one team aware of this difficulty, and as a result have tended to trade draft picks for WRs instead of using their picks to draft WRs. That way they get guys who have proven they can win in the NFL.
Observation # 2: Almost half of all receivers drafted in the first round never achieve 800+ yards receiving in their career.
Russel Clay of fantasyguru.com put together the following chart (which provided the inspiration for this post) showing the number of 800+ yards receiving seasons by draft round.
Odds of 800+ Receiving Yard Seasons for NFL Wide Receivers by Draft Round (Since 2000) pic.twitter.com/VtasbDPA9z— Russell Clay (@RussellJClay) July 11, 2018
Clay’s chart is a little different than mine in that he looks at how many 800+ yard seasons a player has over his career, whereas I focused more on when players have their 800+ yard seasons - if it all.
Per Clay’s chart, only 56% of all wide receivers drafted in the first round have at least one 800+ yard over their entire career. Which means almost half of all first-rounders never reach that 800-yard threshold. Talk about draft busts!
Both approaches agree that the odds of hitting on a wide receiver who will become a significant contributor quickly and consistently are not good.
Observation # 3: Amari Cooper will likely outperform a 2019 first-round rookie in his (first) two years in Dallas.
Cooper will likely already produce this season, something a 2019 pick won’t be able to. Also, Cooper’s track record (two Pro-Bowl seasons with 1,000+ receiving yards, and one season of 680) suggests he’ll be the No. 1 receiver in Dallas in 2019 and should hit 800+ yards. The odds are stacked against a first-round pick hitting that mark in his rookie season.
Of course, part of the allure of a first-round pick is that you get him for relatively cheap on his five-year rookie contract, and that’s something that Cooper won’t offer, especially if the Cowboys sign him beyond 2019.
The Cowboys paid a steep price for Cooper, but as rabblerousr argues in the Twitter thread above, they are getting a proven WR rather than taking a gamble on a dude who *might* emerge in 2021. Dane Brugler offers a similar argument:
Cooper gives Dallas better production next season than any 1st round rookie would. And that's what this trade is about, giving Dak the best chance to succeed in 2018-19. That doesn't mean it wasn't an overpay though. https://t.co/NLsyZIqJmY— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) October 22, 2018
Observation # 4: 2019 looks to be a weak wide receiver class
This has nothing to do with stats, but the consensus seems to be building that next year will be a weak first-round class for wide receivers.
- Bucky Brooks of NFL.com writes that there’s not a Top 10-worthy WR in the 2019 draft class, and that snagging Cooper (Top 5 pick/2x Pro Bowler) is a better option than picking a WR next year despite Cooper’s flaws.
- Gil Brandt, formerly of the Cowboys and now also at NFL.com, looked at the top 50 players for the 2019 draft (including underclassmen he thinks are coming out) and didn’t see a wide receiver in the Top 25. He goes on to say that the Cowboys would be reaching for a wide receiver less capable than Cooper, regardless of where they’ll end up drafting.
- Dane Brugler of The Athletic doesn’t have a wide receiver in his Top 25.
What this all means for the Cowboys
WR depth can be found everywhere in the draft. If you are looking for a No. 2 or No. 3 guy, you can get a guy like that on the second or third day of the draft, or you can get a cheap, proven veteran in free agency to do just that job. This what the Cowboys did this year, and as Todd Archer of ESPN points out, by acquiring Cooper the Cowboys are effectively admitting that the WR committee was a mistake.
If you’re looking for that elusive No. 1 receiver, you’ll probably need to invest a first-round pick and you’d better make sure the guy you get for that investment is going to be a difference maker. And the data of the last 17 years shows that those guys are hard to come by in the NFL draft.