For as much emphasis that is put on the offensive and defensive lines and the old adage of games being won in the trenches, the importance of having playmakers on the outside has never been more important than right now in the NFL. Teams look to load up on athletes on both sides of the ball where the rule of thumb is having less than three high-level wide receivers on your roster puts you at a disadvantage in roster construction. The same can be said about cornerbacks as well because if the talent is going to be accumulated at receiver, the guys tasked with stopping them is just as, if not more, important to stockpile as well.
Granted, talent can be found anywhere and good scouting departments are able to do just that, but teams across the league have understood the importance of finding playmakers in the early rounds and the importance of hitting on those picks to build around. Knowing this, 21 wide receivers have been taken in the first round of the draft since 2018. Some have been homerun picks, others not so much.
Let’s take a look at them and analyze the hit and misses over the last five years:
2018 - Two first-round wide receivers
The 2018 NFL Draft saw two wide receivers taken in the first round. The first receiver off the board was D.J. Moore who was selected by the Carolina Panthers with the 24th overall pick. Moore has been a consistent contributor in the NFL over the last five years with 1,000 plus receiving yards in three of his first five seasons. Carolina is going in a different direction in their franchise and as a result Moore was traded to the Bears this offseason to be a part of a rejuvenated offense in Chicago.
The second and final wide receiver taken in the 2018 first round was Calvin Ridley. Ridley is a talented player who has been productive and a quality addition to a team on the field, when available. However, due to some off-the-field issues, he missed the entire 2022 season and is looking to start fresh in Jacksonville in 2023 with hopes to put his career back on track. The talent is there and if the off-the-field stuff is a nonissue moving forward this is a great pick up for the Jags.
2019 - Two first-round wide receivers
The 2019 first-round wide receivers are interesting and underwhelming at the same time. The two taken were Marquise Brown and N’Keal Harry. Marquise Brown was selected by the Baltimore Ravens with the 25th overall pick and had a solid rookie season with 46 catches for 584 yards and seven touchdowns followed by a quality second season and continued to progress into his third where he finished with over 1,000 yards. Due to some turmoil between player and franchise, Brown found himself traded to Arizona after a tumultuous three seasons. The talent is evident and you wonder if a change of scenery will continue to do him good.
N’Keal Harry was a true swing and miss in the first round for the Patriots. In his five seasons he has four total touchdowns and has never achieved better than 309 receiving yards in a season. Harry was traded by the Patriots to Chicago last offseason but is currently a free agent at this time.
2020 - Six first-round wide receivers
The 2020 NFL Draft saw six wide receivers selected in the first round and it looks to be a good class. Of the six taken, three were in the top 17 picks. The first receiver off the board was Henry Ruggs III, who was taken 12th overall by the Las Vegas Raiders and by all indications is a career wasted. It tragically never got started due to his own personal transgressions off the field and his play was never truly evaluated and is a sad story all around.
The second receiver taken in the draft was Jerry Jeudy, who was selected by the Denver Broncos with the 15th overall pick. Jeudy had a solid rookie season with 52 receptions for 856 yards and three touchdowns. Juedy has dealt with some injuries and the rampant speculation of if he will be traded by the new regime in place in Denver, but by all accounts looks to be a quality receiver in this league that could easily take the next step as well as earn a big second contract.
The third receiver taken in the draft was CeeDee Lamb, who was selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 17th overall pick. Lamb had a strong rookie season with 74 receptions for 935 yards and five touchdowns. He became a favorite target of quarterback Dak Prescott and has shown at every turn that he is a true go-to number one wide receiver. The Cowboys jumped at the opportunity to take Lamb here and it has worked out wonderfully and Lamb looks to be a cornerstone piece for the Dallas Cowboys going forward.
Three other receivers were taken in the 2020 first round. Jalen Reagor went to the Philadelphia Eagles and you could easily view the selection as a miss based on production, and who they passed on to take him. That player is Justin Jefferson. Jefferson is an absolute star in this league and has been nothing but exceptional since for the Vikings since joining the NFL, and despite other players having productive members, Jefferson looks to be the star of the class and one of the faces of the league.
The final first-round wide receiver in 2020 has been productive and a quality fit for his team. Brandon Aiyuk has been everything the San Francisco 49ers wanted thus far, and has been a quality one-two punch along side Deebo Samuel. Aiyuk has made big plays and has not shied away from the moments in the playoffs. He may have been the last first-round guy in 2020, but he certainly has made his presence felt from day one.
Even with some misses and unfortunate off-the-field issues, 2020 looks to be a high-quality first round for wide receivers across the league that will be a huge part of the league’s makeup for years to come.
2021 - Five first-round wide receivers
The 2021 NFL Draft had five wide receivers taken in the first round, including three in the top ten picks. The first receiver off the board was Ja’Marr Chase, who was taken fifth overall by the Cincinnati Bengals and has been a home run selection in Cincy to go with Joe Burrow. Chase had a dominant college career at LSU and has been every bit of that since entering the league, picking up where he left off with his friend Joe. A true star in this league who has just begun his ascent.
The second receiver taken in the 2021 draft was Jaylen Waddle. Waddle was selected by the Miami Dolphins with the sixth overall pick and had a strong rookie season with 58 receptions for 583 yards and four touchdowns. Waddle has been Tua Tagovailoa’s favorite target from day one and his speed, quickness, and route running has made him a nightmare cover in Miami.
The third receiver taken was DeVonta Smith at 10th overall to the Philadelphia Eagles. Smith, with the addition of A.J Brown this offseason, has formed one of the better one-two punches in the NFL. Fresh off a quality Super Bowl performance, it’s clear that Smith will be a star in this league for quite some time.
Continuing on the list is the Kansas City Chiefs Kadarius Toney, who was originally selected by the New York Giants, and has since found a new home and made an impact for the Chiefs on their way to their latest Super Bowl victory. To this point, Toney has been widely viewed as a miss but the tides may be turning in Kansas City with a system and a team that believes in him and is willing to use him correctly to maximize his potential.
Rounding out the 2021 first-round wide receivers is the Baltimore Ravens Rashod Bateman. The ceiling for Bateman is high and although the production has not been extensive just yet through two seasons, people on the team are still high on the young receiver from the University of Minnesota. Adding Odell Beckham Jr. to the mix may help make things easier on the young receiver and 2023 may be a break out year for him.
Overall this class is a very intriguing and productive group in 2021 that looks to have a deep impact on the league with some true star power.
2022 - Six first-round wide receivers
It is tough to get a true gauge after one season, but as you take a look at 2022 and some of the names associated with it, there seems to be real promise that some of these guys can be cornerstone pieces in this league.
The first off the board was Drake London to the Atlanta Falcons. The quarterback situation in Atlanta is less than ideal right now and you wonder how much of that will affect London’s production going forward. However, people are still bullish on London with the hope that he doesn’t become a victim of his circumstances over these next couple years.
The next three guys taken look to be outstanding selections and surely will keep the 2022 wide receiver class buzzing for years to come. Those names would be Garrett Wilson, who won offensive rookie of the year this season as a member of the New York Jets, Chris Olave, who flashed big play ability as a Saint, and Jameson Williams, who despite missing time rehabbing a knee injury, exploded on the scene in Detroit and found ways to make big plays when given the chance. These three guys look to be the best of the class and all are expected to do big things in 2023.
Rounding out the group is a sneaky good draft pick in Jahan Dotson, who looks to be the perfect complement to Terry McLaurin in Washington and what many will view as an underwhelming year one from wide receiver Treylon Burks in Tennessee. Dotson looks to take another step in year two while Burks looks to find his footing to keep pace with his classmates.
Overall this group has real promise, and although it may be too early to see how far they can go as a group, it’s not too far-fetched to think this could be a special group over the next decade.
21 wide receivers were taken over the last five years in the first round, but what is very interesting and worth watching is the fact that 17 of those 21 were taken in the last three years. The trend of taking early wide receivers obviously depends on the draft quality available to teams, but it also may say a lot about the way the league is heading and how the position is valued going forward.