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2020 NFL Draft: Learning curve for young WRs thing of the past?

Do you remember where you were when A.J. Brown collected his 1,000th receiving yard as a rookie?

Unless you're a fan of the Titans (or you actually are A.J. Brown), you probably don't. The moment it happened, on a 24-yard catch early in the second quarter of the Titans' Week 17 win over Houston, is not likely to go down as a chill-inducing highlight replayed in perpetuity. With plenty else to pay attention to on the last Sunday afternoon of 2019, you might not have even noticed. And if you did, you might have brushed off the Tennessee pass-catcher's achievement as yet another bloated passing stat in a time when early-achieving receivers seem to be dropping fully formed into the NFL like raindrops.

But the apparently quotidian nature of the feat both obscures how special it was -- only 22 other players in NFL history have recorded 1,000-plus receiving yards as rookies -- and underscores a major shift taking place at a position that, not too long ago, was supposed to be exceedingly difficult for young people to master.

In 2019 alone, A.J. Brown, Seattle's DK Metcalf, Washington's Terry McLaurin, San Francisco's Deebo Samuel and Baltimore's Marquise Brown made major contributions as rookies, joining a wave of precociously talented receivers to hit the league over the past decade, from A.J. Green and Julio Jones in 2011 to Odell Beckham and Mike Evans in 2014 and Michael Thomas in 2016.

A deeper look at the numbers further illustrates the transformation going on. A.J. Brown, Metcalf, McLaurin and Samuel all cracked 800 receiving yards, bringing the total number of rookie wide receivers to pull that off since 2010 to 24 -- more than twice the number that did it between 2000 and '09 (11). The split is similar when second-year pros are factored in, with 60 players cracking 800 receiving yards between 2010 and '19 and just 33 pulling it off between 2000 and '09.

With the 2020 NFL Draft approaching, the football world is collectively drooling over a class packed with pass-catching studs -- like Alabama's Jerry Jeudy and Oklahoma's CeeDee Lamb -- who appear primed to continue re-setting expectations at the position. As their advent upon the league draws near, it's worth asking: What happened to the learning curve that once daunted wide receivers adjusting to life in the NFL? How have all these green receivers been able to stack up catches and yards like seasoned pros?

They're better prepared for the NFL

Well, to start with, they're not that green.

Texas State offensive coordinator Jacob Peeler is one of the coaches who helped prepare A.J. Brown and Metcalf for the NFL, having served as their position coach at Ole Miss for their last two years there. He's been coaching college players on one level or another since 2008 -- and he said receiving prospects are simply developing at a much faster rate than before.

It's a shift, he said, that can be traced in part to the ubiquity of 7-on-7 football -- an organized, non-contact version of the sport that focuses on the passing game and has become a popular way for youth players to spend extra time honing their skills.

"These kids are out there year-round, not just in high school football, but just year-round now, when they're out there with the quarterbacks, they're throwing the ball around," Peeler said. "And so when you get a kid, sometimes they're further along. ... I just think that's just a huge piece of the puzzle."

And when those players get to college, they're being trained in pass-heavy offenses that lean on RPOs (run-pass options) and spread concepts, which open up more slots on the field for receivers and allow them to gain more practice and experience running different routes -- even when the ball isn't thrown.

"In the past, if you had a run game called, that's all you had, was a run on," Peeler said. "Well, now, you've got pass concepts built onto the run game. So essentially you're getting three plays in one every single time you go out there. And I think that's where receivers were normally blocking every play, now they're running routes, so again, every single time they get out there and run a route, they're getting better. So if you run the ball 50 times in a game and then still have pass concepts built onto that, I mean, that's 50 more routes that a kid is running."

There's more of them

The expanded role for receivers in today's game makes the position more attractive to prospective athletes, Peeler said, noting that "they all want the football in their hand" -- he recalled working at a high school camp at which "roughly 75 percent" of the group he was with wanted to play receiver. Between that and the increase in opportunities at the high school and college level, where the RPO and spread offenses require more potential targets to be involved on any given play, it follows that the NFL prospect pool would be deeper than it was before. As Seahawks general manager John Schneider put it at this year's NFL Scouting Combine, "there's more numbers there."

And while, strictly speaking, the number of receivers drafted in the NFL hasn't really changed over the past 20 years, the number of undrafted receivers making an impact has risen sharply -- from 2010 to '19, 21 undrafted receivers recorded at least one season of 800-plus receiving yards, while just 11 did so from 2000 to '09 -- indicating that there has been an increase in the population of NFL-capable receivers.

Furthermore, the demands of modern offenses allow more prospects to show teams what they're capable of. With "more than two guys out there trying to get open and catch" in spread offenses, Titans GM Jon Robinson said, "you certainly have more exposure to more players."

They're super-sized

Of course, football is still a physical game. As much as extra preparation, opportunities and exposure can ease the transition for rookie receivers to the NFL, it always helps to have big muscles and to be able to run fast.

"I think [rookie receivers are] getting bigger and stronger," Redskins coach Ron Rivera said at the combine. "I mean, there's a lot more guys that are coming up that are coming out that are ready to go. And they're dynamic players. The guys that I think people are really looking for are these bigger receivers that are dynamic with the ball in their hands."

Metcalf and Brown both drew notice before they were even drafted for their chiseled physiques, with Metcalf's muscled public image precipitating a bizarre shirtless interview with Pete Carroll -- the coach who would eventually draft him -- at the 2019 combine, where Metcalf also generated buzz with a 4.33-second 40-yard dash.

Strength, speed and athleticism no doubt played a role in the initial success of Brown and the rest of 2019's rookie receiver class. Brown finished second in the NFL among wideouts in yards after contact last season (291), per Pro Football Focus, and sixth in yards after the catch (510), with the latter figure making up 48.5 percent of his total receiving yards. Metcalf didn't rank as highly, but he still accumulated roughly a third of his yardage after the catch (289, for 32.1 percent) and finished with 145 yards after contact.

Peeler said the beefing-up process now begins far before draft day, a shift from when he began his career. Then, he said, "freshman receivers rarely saw the field," because they "just weren't physically ready." Now, high school programs are becoming more sophisticated with their strength-training efforts. "And so these kids are coming more developed once they get to college, and now you start talking about that and you add high school on top of college, and you're getting kids that are just physically more developed," he said. "And again, I think it's the year-round aspect of film, the year-round aspect of strength and conditioning, and I think kids are just, they're not kids anymore once they get to the NFL. They're legitimately grown men. They're physically at their peak."

That physical advantage can enable young receivers to be a factor even before they've fully acclimated to the more nuanced intricacies of the NFL game. Consider Samuel. Like Brown, the Niners rookie did much of his work last season after the ball arrived, collecting 196 yards after contact (10th-most among receivers, per PFF) and 513 yards after the catch (fifth most), which accounted for a whopping 64 percent of his receiving yards. Samuel also logged 159 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns.

Speaking at the combine, Niners coach Kyle Shanahan seemed to appreciate Samuel's physical abilities, saying he was "as fearless of a rookie as I've ever been around." Samuel, Shanahan said, "can get a lot better developing his routes and things like that, and while he continues to do that, it's nice that you don't have to wait on all of that, you can still use him, because of how tough he is in every other aspect."

The NFL is better prepared for them

The increased usage of college concepts at the NFL level -- featuring more receivers and higher-octane passing games -- has become a well-known phenomenon in recent years. Beyond the trend's impact on how the sport is played, if the pro game is more like the college game and vice-versa, it should be easier for college receivers to slide right into the pros.

"I think that's part of where high school football is nowadays, with throwing the ball, where college football is, so there's no reason to believe a young guy couldn't come in and kind of get with the offense," Chargers GM Tom Telesco said at the combine.

As Peeler pointed out, some of the college concepts, like RPOs, originated at the high school level, which, he said, houses "some of the more creative coaches." This symbiosis between high school, college and the pros should also make it easier for teams to know how to best use young receiver prospects. While praising the Niners coaches for "doing a tremendous job with Deebo," San Francisco GM John Lynch pointed to "the trickle-up that has come from the colleges," which he said "has opened a lot of people's minds up to being creative."

And while it might be a byproduct of strong scouting and solid team-building, it certainly helps when a team identifies a receiver's strengths in college and is able to develop a plan to best put those strengths to use immediately. The Titans' Robinson pointed to Brown's size, strength, power, speed and versatility.

"Intellectually, you knew he was going to be able to handle multiples because of the way they played him," Robinson said, "and I think that's something certainly that our football team looks for is the versatility of the player, that you play more than one spot." Peeler, in turn, praised Tennessee for doing "a tremendous job" of finding ways to creatively utilize Brown's ability to break tackles and run away from defenders.

They're good at football!

While there are a number of forces reshaping the reality for young NFL receivers, at the end of the day, on some level, whether or not one will make the transition smoothly early on still comes down to their individual traits and levels of preparation.

Peeler cited Brown and Metcalf's work ethic and love for the game as likely factors in their pro success, in addition to the extra experience they had in the SEC facing press coverage and the fact that the offensive system at Ole Miss had them better prepared for pro-level routes. Speaking at this year's combine, Carroll said Metcalf's desire to learn and participate as much as possible, combined with his "incredible" athleticism, enabled Metcalf to "make things look right, right from the start." Redskins executive Kyle Smith said McLaurin "hit the ground running" because of "his character" and because "he's extremely smart." Lynch said Samuel has " a spirit about him that I think is kind of infectious. He lifts a team with his youthful exuberance, his enthusiasm, and he's a really good football player. So when you put those two things together, you've got an opportunity to be special."

In other words, you still can't be a good football player without being a good football player. Perhaps the trends impacting the receiver position are simply allowing those talented individuals to have more opportunities to shine. Either way, there's ample reason to believe the class of 2020 has been set up to make good on the hype -- and that the once-rare successful young receiver is here to stay.

Follow Tom Blair on Twitter @TomBlair426.

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