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Odell Beckham Jr.'s success spotlights stunning receiver class

Two Sundays ago, New York Giants rookie Odell Beckham Jr. delivered his one-handed, see-it-to-believe-it touchdown reception, a 43-yard miracle that sent the sports world spinning.

"He is ... insane," broadcaster Al Michaels said immediately on NBC. "How do you make that catch?"

Offered partner and former Bengals receiver Cris Collinsworth, who should know: "That is absolutely impossible, what he just did."

LeBron James tweeted that he might have witnessed the greatest catch ever. Tom Brady later said he laughed out loud while watching at home. In the wake of the play, Beckham's name or handle -- @OBJ3 -- was mentioned a million times on Twitter.

Beckham's initial reaction: "I hope it's not the greatest catch of all time. I hope I can make more."

Beckham ended November as the first rookie in NFL history to have five games with at least 90 receiving yards in a calendar month. And his catch shined a spotlight on a group of wide receivers that by season's end will rank firmly as the best rookie class in the history of the league.

"Expectations were high," said one of those rookies, Jordan Matthews, the Philadelphia Eagles' second-round pick. "From whom much is expected, much has to be done."

This crop of rookie wideouts -- including 12 who were drafted in the first two rounds in May -- already has the most receiving touchdowns (76) by any rookie class in a season and is 15 receptions from surpassing the 2009 record of 782. Through 13 weeks, the class has equaled the all-time standard of 100-yard receiving games by rookies in a season -- 20, a mark set in 1960.

Since 1970, 12 players -- including Collinsworth in 1981 -- have amassed 1,000 receiving yards in their rookie seasons. This year, three rookies are on pace to do so: Tampa Bay's Mike Evans, Carolina's Kelvin Benjamin and Beckham.

This rookie class has adjusted with stunning efficiency to the NFL game. It is a class of considerable production and incredible promise. And know this: It was not composed by accident.

Everything came together in the first days of January, when 98 underclassmen declared for the NFL draft. All five eventual first-rounders were underclassmen -- Sammy Watkins, Evans, Beckham, Brandin Cooks and Benjamin -- as were 11 of the first 12 receivers drafted. (Matthews was the exception.)

"I definitely knew they were talking about (this becoming) one of the best rookie classes at receiver, and that was extra incentive," Beckham said. "It got to the point where I had to declare, to prove that I could compete with those big-name guys."

Said Evans: "I wanted to be competitive, so I declared as well. I wasn't going to chicken out."

Evans likely sets the rookie standard when it comes to physical prowess, which is particularly clear if you've seen his block of Terence Newman last Sunday. Checking in at 6-foot-5 and 231 pounds, Evans is a monster matchup for defenders. He ranks first among rookies in receiving yards (890) and has caught eight of the 17 touchdown passes thrown by Buccaneers quarterbacks Josh McCown and Mike Glennon this season.

Coming out of Texas A&M, Evans says, the pro playbook presented an initial "challenge" during the spring. The mismatches on the field have been easier to diagnose. On one of his touchdowns, a 56-yarder against the Redskins in Week 11, Evans was covered by a linebacker. No contest.

"We saw that (coverage) earlier, and I told (McCown) I had a linebacker on me," Evans said. "The next time we called the same the formation, they were in the same coverage, and we found it on the mismatch. It was perfect."

All six of the rookie receivers interviewed by NFL Media described the relationship with their quarterbacks as being critical to their adjustment to the pro game.

In Jacksonville, receiver Allen Robinson characterized his relationship with fellow rookie Blake Bortles this way: "In a lot of instances, we're learning and growing together." Robinson, a second-round pick who broke his foot in Week 10 and will miss the rest of the season, remains the Jaguars' leader in receptions (48) and receiving yards (548).

In Indianapolis, where Andrew Luck leads the league's most prolific passing offense, rookie Donte Moncrief, drafted in the third round, has had to find ways to set himself apart among a crowded group of skill players.

"Andrew helps me a lot," Moncrief said. "And you've got to be quick. You've got to be precise, and you've got to know how to use your hands and be able to get off a jam and show (defenders) that just because I'm a rookie doesn't mean you can disrespect me."

In Sunday's win over Washington, Moncrief led the Colts with 134 receiving yards on three catches, including two touchdowns. "You can do a lot of things with speed," said Moncrief, who ran the third-fastest official 40-yard dash (4.40 seconds) of his position group at the NFL Scouting Combine.

In Miami, Jarvis Landry has 57 receptions to pace a receiving corps that includes veterans Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill, meanwhile, is completing a career-high 66.5 percent of his passes. Landry said their one-on-one time after practice and in the meeting room has been critical.

"I think confidence is what some people lack," Landry said. "For me, it's always been (that) confidence comes in my preparation."

Some preparation comes in the briefest of moments. Before playing the Green Bay Packersin Week 6, Landry said the Dolphins talked about the possibility of seeing a zero blitz but didn't practice against it.

"What do you know? We got a zero blitz, the quarterback threw it up, and I kind of took it away from the defender," said Landry, who caught his first career touchdown on the play.

All of this, Landry believes, is rooted in the mental part of the game. "No matter who it is, where it is, knowing you have to make a play," he said. "The quarterback, the team is trusting you to make that play."

Which leads us back to Beckham, Landry's former LSU teammate.

Because of a hamstring injury, he didn't make his NFL debut until Week 5. He caught his first career touchdown that day against the Falcons on a play he and Eli Manning had never practiced, on a route he had never run. But preparation and the playbook weren't an issue.

"I think," Beckham said, "I was just determined not to mess up."

In his past two games, Beckham has 19 targets and 17 receptions. He wanted to earn Manning's trust, and he has.

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On the now-famous catch, Beckham lined up wide right and saw Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr adjust to off coverage. Beckham ran an out and up and was almost forced out of bounds by the veteran Carr, who was flagged for pass interference on the play. "You know that he grabbed you," Beckham said, "but it doesn't exactly register in your mind. It's more about, 'Complete this play, make the catch.' "

With one hand. In fact, Beckham's left hand still hasn't touched that ball.

Landry and Matthews -- who, like Beckham, have hands that measure at least 10 inches -- understand.

"Having big hands is definitely an advantage," Landry said. "They allow you to get your fingertips on the ball and fight off that defensive back."

Said Matthews: "It's genetics. You can't coach it, you can't teach it, you've just got it. It's definitely a blessing."

Matthews and Beckham trained together before the combine. One-handed catches were part of their routine -- as they were with Landry at LSU -- and Beckham provided daily highlights.

These days, Beckham and Landry remain as close as brothers. They talk or text daily, sometimes engaging in both. On Monday night, with his Dolphins in town to play the Jets, Landry left Beckham tickets at MetLife Stadium, the venue that Beckham and the Giants also call home.

With Beckham looking on, Landry caught eight passes on 11 targets for 68 yards in a Miami victory.

"It gave me a little more confidence with him there," Landry said. "It says a lot about him supporting me."

With a smile, Landry added, "He wanted to see the show."

Well, that would figure. With the way rookie receivers are playing this season, who doesn't?

Follow Kimberly Jones on Twitter @KimJonesSports.

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