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Rookie receiver class could rival '96 as NFL's best ever

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NFL Media analyst Mike Mayock spent the 2014 offseason touting this year's draft class as one of the deepest in recent history, specifically at wide receiver.

Ten weeks into the 2014 season, that loaded wide receiver rookie class is already drawing comparisons to the legendary quarterback Class of 1983 that sent John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly to the Hall of Fame.

As a whole, the 2014 class is on pace to finish with 190 more receptions, 2,600 more yards and 40 more touchdowns than any class from this century. Already, seven rookies have five or more touchdown catches, the most for any full season in NFL history.

Perhaps the most apt comparison is to the vaunted 1996 wide receiver class that featured a pair of potential Hall of Famers as well as exceptional depth, with nine players topping 500 receptions and 8,000 receiving yards in their lengthy careers.

1996 Rd. Pick Team Receptions Yards TDs
Terrell Owens 3 89 San Francisco 49ers 1,078 15,934 153
Marvin Harrison 1 19 Indianapolis Colts 1,102 14,580 128
Keyshawn Johnson 1 1 New York Jets 814 10,571 64
Muhsin Muhammad 2 43 Carolina Panthers 860 11,438 62
Eric Moulds 1 24 Buffalo Bills 764 9,995 49
Amani Toomer 2 34 New York Giants 668 9,497 54
Joe Horn 5 135 Kansas City Chiefs 603 8,744 58
Terry Glenn 1 7 New England Patriots 593 8,823 44
Eddie Kennison 1 18 St. Louis Rams 548 8,345 42
Bobby Engram 2 52 Chicago Bears 650 7,751 35
David Patten UD New York Giants 324 4,715 24
Jermaine Lewis 5 153 Baltimore Ravens 143 2,129 17

Breaking down the first-year wideouts, Mayock outlined via NFL NOW this week the three primary reasons why "this incredibly talented rookie class has been shattering all perceptions."

The back-shoulder throw, perfected by Aaron Rodgers and gaining in popularity throughout the league, has allowed big-bodied wide receivers with large wingspans to dominate from Week 1. Kelvin Benjamin and Mike Evans, particularly, have gained the trust of their quarterbacks for the ability to beat defensive backs at the point of the catch, outside the numbers.

The NFL's emphasis on illegal contact and pass interference has led to a golden age of passing, as NFL Media's Judy Battista highlighted this week. It's not just that records constantly fall by the wayside in a pass-happy league. The increased scrutiny on defensive penalties has also allowed play-callers to get more creative, stacking raw deep threats such as Martavis Bryant behind another wideout for a free release, thus avoiding the press coverage that has typically flustered neophyte receivers.

Finally, football's transition to a pass-first sport reaches down to the youngest levels. Kids are playing all year, running routes in 7-on-7 tournaments. Coming from an increasingly pass-intensive college game, quarterbacks and wide receivers are more polished than ever by the time they reach the pro ranks.

While it's premature to project any of this year's rookies to match the careers of Harrison and Owens, it's already evident that the 2014 class goes deeper than its 1996 progenitor.

2014 Rd. Pick Team Receptions Yards TDs
Sammy Watkins 1 4 Buffalo Bills 45 649 5
Kelvin Benjamin 1 28 Carolina Panthers 43 659 7
Mike Evans 1 7 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 39 585 5
Brandin Cooks 1 20 New Orleans Saints 48 500 3
Odell Beckham 1 12 New York Giants 25 585 3
John Brown 3 91 Arizona Cardinals 29 399 5
Martavis Bryant 4 118 Pittsburgh Steelers 14 310 6
Allen Robinson 2 61 Jacksonville Jaguars 48 548 2
Jordan Matthews 2 42 Philadelphia Eagles 39 451 5
Jarvis Landry 2 63 Miami Dolphins 42 400 3
Allen Hurns UD Jacksonville Jaguars 30 475 5
Taylor Gabriel UD Cleveland Browns 24 435 1
Donte Moncrief 3 90 Indianapolis Colts 17 218 1
Davante Adams 2 53 Green Bay Packers 25 273 2
Marqise Lee 2 39 Jacksonville Jaguars 13 141 0
Paul Richardson 2 45 Seattle Seahawks 10 72 0
Cody Latimer 2 56 Denver Broncos 1 9 0

Sammy Watkins, Kelvin Benjamin and a streaking Mike Evans are in a heated three-man competition for Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.

On the Week 10 recap edition of the Around The NFL Podcast, we suggested that Odell Beckham might have a higher ceiling than anyone on the list above. A world-class athlete, Beckham has a chance for genuine greatness.

Beyond that four-pack of first-round picks, Bryant has already tied the NFL record for most receiving touchdowns in the first three games of an NFL career. Brandin Cooks is on pace for 85 receptions, which would rank in the top-five all time for a rookie. John Brown's three game-winning touchdowns are already tied for the most in a single season by any player.

Jacksonville boasts a trio of promising wideouts in Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns and Marqise Lee. One start into Mark Sanchez's Philadelphia career, Jordan Matthews is coming off one of the most productive games by a rookie all season. Miami's Jarvis Landry has racked up more yards after the catch than any rookie this season. Davante Adams ousted Jarrett Boykin as Aaron Rodgers' No. 3 target before the end of September.

Donte Moncrief and Cody Latimer, being brought along slowly by Indianapolis and Denver, are two of the most physically gifted receivers in the 2014 class. Both have the potential to emerge as their quarterback's go-to option down the line.

The last time more than one rookie cleared 1,000 receiving yards was 1986. There are three rookies on pace to accomplish the feat this year, with Cooks not far behind.

Time will tell where this year's class ranks among the greatest the NFL has seen. For now, kick back and enjoy the weekly highlights show.

The latest Around The NFL Podcast previews every Week 11 game and recaps the Dolphins' key victory over the Bills. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL NOW.

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