NFL Draft 2021: Is there enough reward taking wideouts high in round 1?

NFL Draft 2021: Is there enough reward taking wideouts high in round 1?
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A quick quiz question. In the last four drafts thirteen wide receivers have been taken in the first round. How many have subsequently helped their team into the playoffs?

The answer is three. The only first-rounders of the last four years to make playoff appearances have been Corey Davis (drafted by the Tennessee Titans in 2017), Mike Williams (LA Chargers also 2017) and Marquise Brown (Baltimore Ravens, 2019). None of the others have, to-date, had a sniff of playoff football.

Why is this important? As with any set of statistics there is a pinch of salt to be taken here. There are a number of factors at play: the quality of the receivers taken, the teams they were drafted by, injuries, etc.. However, as we enter the 2021 NFL Draft season where again we have three particularly hot properties at wide receiver (JaMarr Chase, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle) often appearing in the early picks of mock drafts, there should be a note of caution about the value of this position so high in the draft.

The 2017 draft was the last time three wide receivers were taken in the top 10. Corey Davis was taken at 5 but his first season resulted in 34 receptions and 0TDs so he was hardly pivotal in the Titans run to the playoffs that season. Mike Williams (LA Chargers, pick 7) has proved a formidable target but again his rookie season saw only 11 receptions and 0TDs, although his 10TDs in 2018 did help the Chargers to the playoffs. The time of John Ross in the NFL as been plagued by injury and no better fortunes for the Bengals.

From the 2018 draft both DJ Moore (Carolina Panthers, pick 24) and Calvin Ridley (Atlanta Falcons, pick 26) have fared much better in the early part of their careers but still zero playoff appearances between them. Moore has enjoyed two 1000 yard seasons and Ridley has gathered in over 800 yards annually but neither has managed to help their team back to a division title or wildcard spot.

Our other contributor, Marquise Brown, was drafted at 25 by the Baltimore Ravens in 2019 but he has not transformed the Ravens passing game to such an extent that necessarily warrants the first round pick. The other first rounder from this year, N’Keal Harry (Patriots, pick 32) has yet to prove anything from his time in New England albeit he currently finds himself at a franchise looking for a new identity at quarterback. 

Finally in 2020 a glut of receivers were taken in the first round (Ruggs, Jeudy, Lamb, Reagor, Jefferson, Aiyuk). There is only the sample size here of one season but none of these put in a playoff appearance. For some their personal statistics were impressive, and in one case record breaking (Justin Jefferson), but none were able to help their side accrue enough wins to make the playoffs. Looking to 2021 nobody could readily say that many of the teams they play for are certs for next year’s playoffs either.

So, for the likes of JaMarr Chase, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle they may find themselves in the predicament of being seen as the key to propelling a team to the playoffs. There is little doubting their talent, and their respective College production is certainly impressive. However, turning that into NFL production is a different matter, particularly if drafted early by teams who performed relatively poorly in 2020. The one exception here might be the Miami Dolphins at pick number 3 who could reunite DeVonta Smith with Tua Tagovailoa. If they could replicate their Alabama days then the Dolphins, who missed the playoffs by the barest of margins, could easily buck the trend here. Even so, there could be a scenario where the Dolphins trade down a few spots and still take Smith, which would be better value than pick number 3.

Of the teams which did make the leap in to the playoffs in 2020 their first round picks helped in the trenches. Chase Young (pick 2 to Washington) solidified an already impressive Washington defensive front and Jedrick Wills (pick 10 to Cleveland) and Tristan Wirfs (pick 13 to Tampa Bay) anchored their respective offensive lines. These latter picks are particularly relevant as both sides decided on protecting the quarterback rather than the trio of receivers taken in the 10-20 range of picks (Henry Ruggs, Jerry Heudy and CeeDee Lamb). Also think of the value in recent years of receivers taken in later rounds: Cooper Kupp  and Chris Godwin (2017, round 3), Deebo Samuel, DK Metcalf and AJ Brown (2019, round 2). The Pittsburgh Steelers have completely retooled their wide receiver corps from later rounds in the last four years (Juju Smith Schuster, James Washington, Chase Claypool – 2nd round, Diontae Johnson – 3rd round). In 2020, in contrast to their first round counterparts, second round picks Michael Pittman JR, Chase Claypool and Van Jefferson all made the playoffs, and fifth round pick Tyler Johnson will take the field for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Super Bowl next weekend.

With the predicted quarterback scramble in the 2021 NFL Draft it would not be a surprise to see JaMarr Chase, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle slip a few spots from where they are currently predicted. Still expect to see all three off the board before we are at the halfway point in round one but looking at the teams picking early the fans of those teams should not expect any kind of guarantee of instant success based on recent history. Indeed the receivers who may get off to quicker starts in the NFL are the likes of Kadarius Toney, Rashod Bateman or Terrace Marshall JR who could see their names called at the back end of round one to a team already capable of challenging again in 2021.

So, are JaMarr Chase, DeVonta Smith or Jaylen Waddle worth a top 10 pick in this year’s draft? Possibly. However, with a tinge of recency bias, those teams drafting early this year (outside of the quarterback market) may do well to look to other position groups before wide receiver. However, based on the College numbers it may be too tempting for (based on current draft order) the likes of the Dolphins, Eagles, Lions or Giants.

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