The first round of the 2015 NFL Draft is in the books, with six wide receivers hearing their name called on Thursday night. Six! That's the most since 2009. In fact, six wide receivers have been selected in Round 1 a total of six times in the last 15 drafts (2001, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2015).
Last season, we saw the rookie wide receiver class post unparalleled success in fantasy, as five rookies (four of them first-round selections) finished in the top 25 at their position. So this begs the question: With six pass-catchers taken in the first round of this draft, will 2015 be Year of the Rookie Wide Receiver II: The Younglings Strike Back? (Apologies for the mixed Star Wars references there).
I decided this was a topic that needed exploring. Here's what I found out.
To start this little draft class comparison, I thought it'd be useful to look at what kind of situation each wide receiver was coming into. For the sake of this piece, I totaled up the number of targets that were leaving the team or coming into the team via free agency, trade, etc. The numbers below aren't exact, as they mostly only comprise name-brand fantasy players, and I compiled them at 4:27 a.m. Outgoing targets where from players who left, while incoming targets were used from each new player's team the year before. Then, using simple math I came up with the Target Differential, which is a rudimentary way of indicating how many opportunities might be afforded the new rookie pass-catcher. The higher the number, the more opportunities. See below for the 2014 wide receiver class.
2014 NFL Draft, *First-Round Wide Receivers
*Matthews was drafted in Round 2, but finished in the Top 25. I included him to keep the draft classes even at six a piece.
As you can see, each of these first-round pass-catchers (with Jordan Matthews thrown in to keep things even) had a fairly generous cushion of opportunity to come into, and the one with the seemingly smallest cushion (Kelvin Benjamin) far out-performed those available targets since both Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery were a) way over-targeted in 2013 and b) very average in 2014. Likewise, Odell Beckham had plenty of targets to pick up, but that number skyrocketed once Victor Cruz went down for the season in Week 6 -- two weeks after OBJ saw his first NFL action.
Again, I feel the need to emphasize that these numbers are not exact and don't tell the whole story, but they do provide a good snap shot as to what kind of work was available in each passing attack. Now, let's turn to the 2015 class:
2015 NFL Draft, First-Round Wide Receivers
On the surface, these numbers aren't horribly off from 2014, but there are a couple factors to consider. For Parker, the numbers skew in his favor because Jordan Cameron missed much of the 2014 season due to injuries, and figures to gobble up a large portion of those targets this season in Miami. Cooper is actually coming into a better situation than it seems because most of the incoming targets for Oakland came attached to ineffective players (Trent Richardson, Michael Crabtree). Lastly, Phillip Dorsett seems to have a decent amount of opportunity, but will likely be buried behind T.Y. Hilton, Andre Johnson, Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen on the target pecking order (and let's not forget about Donte Moncrief). Perriman and White are coming into great situations, however, with both of their teams having lost a target-heavy pass-catcher (Torrey Smith, Brandon Marshall) in free agency without acquiring a replacement. Still, as these charts illustrate, the path to immediate success for several of these rookie wide receivers could be more difficulat than it was for their 2014 counterparts.
One area where the 2015 class beats the 2014 class is in regards to quarterbacks. Arguably the "worst" situation one of the 2015 rookies comes into is Cooper saddling up with Derek Carr in Oakland, who many pundits pegged as one of the best rookie signal-callers from last year. That's a far cry from the Josh McCown/Mike Glennon and EJ Manuel/Kyle Orton debacles that Mike Evans and Sammy Watkins fell into a season ago, respectively. So far the best marriages of opportunity and signal-caller go to Kevin White and Breshad Perriman, who get established fantasy producers under center (Jay Cutler, Joe Flacco) with over 100 targets there for the taking. Dorsett has the best quarterback of the bunch, but will he be left fighting for target scraps in the Colts loaded offense? He might be the definition of boom or bust on a week-to-week basis next year, living off of a deep touchdown whenever he can get one. It's not a surprise that two of the three highest fantasy producing rookies from last season had great quarterbacks under center (OBJ, Kelvin Benjamin). The fact that Evans finished 10th in fantasy scoring at his position with the disaster of quarterbacks throwing him the ball is nothing short of remarkable.
Coaching-wise, the 2014 class came into relatively secure situations, with only Mike Evans landing on a team with a coach in his first year with the organization. This time around, both Kevin White and Amari Cooper are on teams with new head coaches (John Fox and Jack Del Rio), although both coaches have proven track records in the NFL. Once again, White wins out on this front, as Fox and offensive coordinator Adam Gase deftly handled two stud fantasy wide receivers during their time in Denver together, and odds are they'll look to have White and Alshon Jeffery fit the same mold as Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker/Emmanuel Sanders from Denver.
From a pure scheme-fit standpoint, Nelson Agholor landed in the dream scenario, and should be a stud in Chip Kelly's offense. Dorsett once agian serves as a head-scratcher, as he's a very similar player to T.Y. Hilton, who is already the team's No. 1 wideout. It's a mixed bag after that, as DeVante Parker will be battling several talented wide receivers for snaps, while Perriman will need to show he has improved his hands enough to become the trusted target of Joe Flacco and new offensive coordinator Marc Trestman. Last year's class had far less resistance to becoming the top dog in the passing attacks, as only Matthews and Cooks had any doubt as to whether or not they joined the team as at least the No. 2 option in the passing attack. The same cannot be said from this class from top to bottom.
While watching the draft unfold, many of these fanasty situations weren't sitting too well with me, and now after diving in a little deeper I can see why. Fantasy enthusiasts might be quicker to pull the trigger on a rookie wideout in 2015 after the runaway success of the 2014 class, but as of right now I'd advise you to exercise caution. The NFL draft is far from over (and fantasy drafts are FAR, FAR away), so there's a good chance we'll see another fantasy game-changer emerge in the coming rounds. Talented guys like Dorial Green-Beckham, Jaelen Strong and Tyler Lockett were still waiting to hear their names called, after all.
To bring it all home, the 2014 wide receiver class was a special one, and one that could go down as one of the best all-time (especially once you dive past the first round, as my colleague Chris Wesseling did so fantastically here). The 2015 class offers loads of potential, but we'll need to proceed with caution once fantasy drafts roll around, and not simply reach on players because it worked so well last year.
For what it's worth, here's how I'd rank the 2015 draft class in fantasy so far (after Round 1):
1. Kevin White, Chicago Bears
2. Nelson Agholor, Philadelphia Eagles
3. Amari Cooper, Oakland Raiders
4. Breshad Perriman, Baltimore Ravens
5. DeVante Parker, Miami Dolphins
6. Phillip Dorsett, Indianapolis Colts