Was 2014’s Rookie Wide Receiver Class the Best Ever?
Whenever anyone utters the phrase “the greatest of all time,” I have two reactions. First, I instantly judge them for using such an overplayed hyperbole , and second, I imagine that person as Kanye West, hijacking Taylor Swift’s microphone at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards and yelling, “I’m sorry, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time. Of all time!” Generally, I find the idea of “the best ever” to be a simplistic, silly, and honestly trivial one.
In this case, however, even I’m screaming to the mountaintops along with everyone else: this may legitimately be the best rookie wide receiver class of all time. Of all time.
I’m certainly a skeptic when it comes to those broadly overenthusiastic claims, and I try to debunk them whenever I can; today is no different. Using the rational and critical lens of our signature Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, I will test out this claim in a number of ways. Analysts and scouts everywhere have proclaimed it determined since Odell Beckham Jr.’s amazing one-handed catch, but I’m not so sure: will the Class of 2014’s wide receivers go down as the best in history?
Let’s start with the basics. We know that the Giants’ Beckham made that highlight reel catch over Dallas, but did you know that if he hadn’t missed four games at the beginning of the year, he would’ve been on pace for 121 receptions, 1,740 receiving yards, and 16 receiving touchdowns? He was also only the fourth rookie receiver in NFL history (third since the AFL-NFL merger) to breach 1,300 yards receiving and the eighth (third post-merger) to catch at least 12 touchdowns; impressive company indeed.
But it’s not just Beckham’s stardom that puts this class into contention for the top spot in history. His peers also lit up the league in an impressive fashion. Beckham, Carolina's Kelvin Benjamin, and Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans became the 13th through 15th rookie receivers since the merger to cross the 1,000-yard mark (Sammy Watkins of Buffalo was just 18 yards shy of becoming the 16th). Even more impressive, there have only been 24 wideouts to reach 900 yards receiving in their rookie seasons in the last 44 years, until these four came along (Philadelphia’s Jordan Matthews was just 28 yards short of this threshold).
No matter which way you slice the raw statistics, the top end of this class was astoundingly impressive. But the best of all time? Comparing the 2014 class to its peers in what are known as the other two “greatest wide receiver classes ever” -- 1996 and 1985 -- does make for an interesting discussion. The table below shows the box score stats for the top three receivers in each of these years. How does 2014’s crop match up?
|Year||Player||Team||Rec||Rec Yards||Rec TD|
|2014||Odell Beckham, Jr.||NYG||91||1,305||12|
If this isn’t proof that the league has become insanely pass-heavy, I don’t know what is.
That aside, it’s clear to see that the 2014 class’s top end production vastly outweighs its other legendary peers in specifically box score production. Some of that is clearly due to a shift in league game planning focus to the passing game. Still, even when you consider where these players ranked in their rookie season in receiving production, this year’s group easily outpaces the rest. 2014’s rookies had three top-25 berths in receiving yardage. 1996 had just one, and 1985 had two. In touchdown receptions, 2014 had two receivers in the top-five, and neither 1996 nor 1985 had a single one.
But we’re not just concerned with surface-level stats here; we want to dig deeper. How does 2014’s rookie receiver group match up in NEP?
NEP is a measure of not just the result of a player’s production in a game, but really a fuller picture of what they did to contribute to their team’s chances of scoring. It uses the foundational unit of expected points, which takes into account down and distance and the historical chance of scoring from that point on the field. The player’s production is then recorded based on how much they advance the team probability of scoring on that drive. How, then, did this year’s rookie wideouts contribute to their teams?
The tables below show the Reception NEP data for the six most recent receiver classes -- our NEP data doesn’t yet go back before 2000, so those legendary classes are off-limits for this portion of the study. Most importantly, this data is presented in terms of Reception NEP (all NEP gained or lost on successful receptions) and Target NEP (all NEP gained or lost on any target). The first table we’ll look at is the sum total of each class in NEP terms.
|Year||Rec||Rec NEP||Target||Target NEP|
Clearly, the 2014 class is head-and-shoulders above the rest when it comes to total value. The volume of opportunities foisted onto these rookies was so much more than in previous years, and it was a fairly large class of rookie contributors as well. Due to that, we see a massive boost in value for rookie receivers in the 2014 class over everyone else. Surely part of this is due to the league becoming increasingly more pass-heavy, but there’s definitely more to it than that.
So, it’s easy to see that this group was one of the deepest in recent times. Perhaps we can nail down if it was the most valuable as well. The next table shows the same data, but represented as an average for each year. How did the average receiver in each rookie class perform?
|Year||Rec||Rec NEP||Target||Target NEP||Rec NEP/Target|
The 2014 class again tops the charts in opportunities, both as far as targets and receptions, and it, by far, was the most reliable due to a high Target NEP. However, on average, the 2009 class outstripped 2014 in Reception NEP, and both 2010 and 2011 beat this year’s group on per target Reception NEP. The 2014 class still looks very good, but perhaps across-the-board it was not as impervious as we thought.
The last parameter we’ll look at is the average value of a top-five receiver in these classes. The table below shows the same data, but only taking the top-five receivers by NEP in each class and averaging their numbers out.
|Year||Rec||Rec NEP||Target||Target NEP||Rec NEP/Target|
Here again we see the impressive nature of the 2014 class, due to the top-end of their receivers. Beckham, Evans, and Watkins carry this class to top billing in the ranking of the “cream of the crop” for each year, but it is worth noting that the also-heralded 2009 class features a comparable Target NEP to the 2014 class, and actually outperforms the most recent rooks on a per-target basis in Reception NEP.
It’s a fun discussion to have, but every year is greatly different in the NFL. The rookies these days are being asked to do much more immediately than ever before, and it shows in their production. The 2014 class may be the best statistically in history, and there’s an argument to be made that they’re the best ever by metric analysis too, but we can certainly confirm that the rookie receivers of 2014 have cemented their place in the pantheon of great receiver classes. We were spoiled with a once-in-a-decade showing this year, and the next few years watching these players develop will be even more fun than 2014 was.