Some of the hottest topics of debate leading up to this year’s draft have revolved around wide receivers with the potential to be drafted in the first round. Is Justin Blackmon worthy of a top five pick? Will Kendall Wright go down as the best receiver in the class? Will Alshon Jeffery be able to stay (or get into) shape? Where does Malcom Floyd fit into the picture?
Before you address these individual questions, however, you need to look at the bigger picture. In a draft that has solid, mid-round talent at wide receiver, should teams look to draft a wide out in round one at all?
How Often are First Round WRs Successful?
As the NFL continues to trend towards becoming a passing league, teams continue to look for playmakers early in the draft. But are they finding them?
Since 2001, there have been 43 receivers taken in the first round of the draft. And while there have certainly been some great players in the group, as a whole it’s a very lackluster group. Of all the seasons these 43 receivers have played, just over 21% of those years have gone over 1000 yards receiving. That’s hardly the contribution teams were hoping for when they drafted them.
And the problem isn’t just that these receivers have underwhelming careers. Players from all positions can struggle to live up to expectations, and it happens in every draft. But first round receivers tend to completely fall out of the league much faster than other first round picks. Of those 43 receivers taken in the first round since 2001, eleven (25%) of them were out of the league by 2009. Most of those players left the league within 4-5 years of being drafted. A one in four shot of not even having your top draft pick a few years later is a daunting risk to take. But, if first round wide receivers can really turn a team around, it could make that easier to swallow.
Do First Round Receivers Produce Wins?
Making the correct pick in the first round of the draft is crucial. More often than not, teams will be looking for an immediate impact from their first round picks. How often does drafting a wide receiver in the first round change a team’s fortunes? Not very often at all. For evidence of that, you need to look no further than the Detroit Lions.
In 2003-2007, Detroit spent four first round picks on wide receivers. All of those picks were made in the top ten, but only one (Calvin Johnson) is still with the Lions today. The other three players were huge disappointments that only held the Lions’ rebuilding efforts back. Charles Rogers (drafted in 2003) was out of the league by 2006. Roy Williams was a perpetual disappointment that was eventually sent to Dallas. And even with the enormous talents of Johnson, Detroit still hasn’t been competitive until recently.
Perhaps it’s too much to ask for a receiver to entirely turn around the fortunes of a bad team. But, at least intuitively, it would seem reasonable to say that adding a first round wide receiver could elevate a team from a first round playoff exit, to a team that can go deep into the playoffs. And while it’s certainly possible, it’s far from guaranteed.
In the 2011 draft, the Atlanta Falcons were coming off a brutal 48-21 playoff loss to Green Bay. While many outside of the team felt that the Falcons’ defense was what needed to be addressed, Atlanta’s front office felt that it was the offense that needed a boost. They executed a massive draft day trade, giving up a number of picks for the opportunity to draft receiver Julio Jones.
Jones’ rookie year certainly wasn’t a failure. He finished the year with over 900 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. Jones’ presence added 40 yards per game to the Falcons passing game (222 ypg in 2010, 262 in 2011). In spite of that however, the Falcons lost in the first round of the playoffs again, this time with the offense failing to score a single point in the loss.
Can Talent Be Found Later in the Draft?
So, it’s clearly risky to take a wide receiver in the first round. But can talent be found later on, or is it a risk teams must take?
In 2011, eleven of the top twenty leaders in receiving yards were drafted after the first round in their draft. Two of the top five (Wes Welker and Victor Cruz) were undrafted free agents, and a third (Steve Smith) wasn’t drafted until the 74th overall pick of the 2001 draft.
Finding greatness at receiver later in the draft isn’t a new phenomenon. Of the ten all time leading receivers in NFL history, five of them were drafted in the second round or later. Clearly, with good scouting, solid wide receivers can be found throughout the draft.
So, when should a team pull the trigger and draft a receiver in the first round? Talents like Calvin Johnson and AJ Green are players that don’t come around very often, and are easily worth the high selection. In those cases, you’d be hard pressed to find too many teams willing to pass them up.
But the large majority of drafts aren’t going to have that type of “can’t miss” talent, where the upside is vast, and there’s hardly any downside. A team that is rebuilding can’t afford using a pick on a player that will be out of the league in 4-5 years. If the talent isn’t truly top tier, a team should look elsewhere for its rebuilding project.
For teams picking later in the first round, the likelihood of the gamble paying off is much better. There is likely to be a better quarterbacking situation, and the young receiver can take his time adjusting to the NFL game. While it’s certainly nowhere near a safe bet, teams can feel much more comfortable drafting receivers later in the first round.