Front Office Insider: Rookie wide receivers making history this season
A deep rookie wide receiver class has possibly turned historic.
Whether it’s the new points of emphasis in officiating, pass catchers polishing their skills sooner than ever or the game being played more on the perimeter, this year’s rookie class has produced at a rate never seen before.
Twelve first-year wide receivers have at least 20 receptions. And 14 have at least 200 receiving yards. Both of those are records through the first 10 weeks of any season dating back to the AFL/NFL merger in 1970, according to STATS LLC.
The lofty expectations have been validated. Headlined by five first-round picks — Sammy Watkins (No. 4), Mike Evans (7), Odell Beckham (12), Brandin Cooks (20) and Kelvin Benjamin (28) – and bolstered by undrafted free agents, this class has taken the league by storm.
"Typically, players needed a season or two to catch up to the mental jump, but now they are ready because a lot of them are playing as freshmen in college," one former NFL scout told FOXSports.com. "They are able to read soft spots in defenses and able to get in sync with their quarterback on the fly."
Of the 14 players who have exceeded 200 receiving yards, 10 logged significant playing time as freshmen in college. The experience has allowed them to make a quick transition to the pros.
San Diego Chargers’ second-year wide receiver Keenan Allen, who was regarded as one of the most fundamentally sound prospects in a while, became the eighth rookie ever to rack up more than 1,000 yards receiving in 2013. This year, Benjamin, Watkins, Evans and Cooks have realistic chances of hitting that mark. Before Jacksonville’s Allen Robinson was placed on season-ending injured reserve Tuesday with a stress fracture in his foot, he was on pace to meet that mark, too.
"I think the rules play a part of it, and it’s a different game we play today," the former scout said. "More and more wide receivers are versed in offenses from the collegiate level, and they are better at adapting at the line of scrimmage by making adjustments when they recognize a certain defense."
"It’s a trend that’s here to stay," a former general manager told FOXSports.com. "That’s just the way the game is played now even at the high school level. When you look at overall talent, these guys are far superior to the players who came in even 10 years ago."
With offensive trends such as the run-and-shoot, wildcat and read-option having had their time in the spotlight, nothing sustains success and gives teams a better chance to win each Sunday like a good pocket passer with athletic weapons on the outside.
"When you look at it from a physiological standpoint, most receivers are 6 feet tall and up," an AFC personnel director told FOXSports.com. "There aren’t a lot of cornerbacks with that size and speed combination to keep up. It’s a mismatch just based on physics."
Though it’s not likely any one rookie wide receiver will reach the great heights Randy Moss did as a rookie 1998, when he had 69 receptions for 1,313 yards and 17 touchdowns, this class could be remembered as the greatest collection of talent from top to bottom.
And with some more time and seasoning, it’s likely to get even better.
49ers’ rookies arriving just in time
The loss of Patrick Willis for the season is extremely significant for several reasons. But the linebacker’s injury is buoyed by the exceptional play of rookie Chris Borland, who has stepped in for Willis since he sprained his toe. The past two weeks, Borland has logged 35 tackles and two passes defensed. His play has caught the eye of several talent evaluators around the league.
"The play that is very telling of him came in Week 9 when Austin Davis threw an interception to Perrish Cox," an NFC scout explained. "(Davis) tried getting to his feet three times before the whistle was blown, and each time he tried, Borland kept smacking him into the ground. He’s a mean, nasty player who plays with an attitude. Not to mention he has tremendous instincts."
One personnel man noted Borland’s size (5-11, 247) and ability to stack and shed offensive linemen as causes for concern. That hasn’t been quite the case thus far. Coupled with rookie linebacker Aaron Lynch, the 49ers have some young talent blossoming before their eyes.
Cornerbacks set the tone for Colts defense
One reason the Indianapolis defense has performed at such a high level this year is the play of the cornerbacks. Without Vontae Davis, who was sidelined with a knee injury, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger torched the secondary for six touchdowns in Week 8. Aside from that game, the secondary has played well.
As one team source noted, coach Chuck Pagano came up as a defensive backs coach and has been very hands on with this group. Davis, Greg Toler and Darius Butler have benefited from the additional tutoring during an age in which a lot of focus is placed on the installation of schemes rather than zeroing in on fundamentals. Butler, who is playing in the final season of his two-year deal with the Colts, could enjoy the rewards of the open market if he continues to validate himself.