At first glance, the wide receiver position appears to be the easiest at which to transition from college to the NFL. To a large degree, receivers rely on sheer physical ability and do not have to work in conjunction with a lot of other players. Compare them to offensive linemen, defensive linemen and linebackers, who must interact with one another, or even defensive backs, who must communicate with safeties over a wide field. Obviously, having a quarterback who can deliver the ball effectively is a major consideration, but getting open is often up to the receiver himself. Plus, it is quite possibly the easiest position to learn.
Yet, statistically, rookie wide receivers tend to have the toughest -- or, at least, lengthiest -- transition periods. Consider Tavon Austin, DeAndre Hopkins and Cordarrelle Patterson, the three wide receivers selected in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Austin had just 40 receptions as a rookie with the St. Louis Rams and is on track for even less this season. Hopkins, the most impressive of the bunch, gained a very respectable 802 yards as a rookie with the Houston Texans and surpassed that total in his second year this past Sunday. Patterson has 75 career receptions for the Minnesota Vikings, but he has nearly as many rushing touchdowns (four) as he does receiving (five). In the prior draft, the San Francisco 49ers made A.J. Jenkins one of four wide receivers taken in the first round -- and wound up swapping him for the Kansas City Chiefs' 2011 first-round bust, receiver Jon Baldwin. Baldwin is currently without a team, while Jenkins has just nine catches for a squad that is desperate for talent at the position.
This year's crop appears to be different. Of the 15 receivers drafted in the first three rounds, all but two have recorded double-digit receptions as rookies. Additionally, there are a handful of pass catchers making early contributions who were taken in the fourth round or later, including two who weren't drafted at all. In fact, this group might challenge, in terms of both quality and quantity, the receiver class long thought to be the best: the class of 1996, which included Keyshawn Johnson, Terry Glenn, Eddie Kennison, Marvin Harrison and Eric Moulds in the first round, Amani Toomer, Muhsin Muhammad and Bobby Engram in the second, Terrell Owens in the third and Joe Horn in the fifth.
How do the current rookie receivers stack up? Here are my top 10, listed in reverse order:
Draft position: Round 2, No. 61 overall
Robinson is out for the year with a stress fracture in his foot, but the 48 receptions, 548 yards and two touchdowns he recorded in 10 games undoubtedly helped Jaguars fans forget about suspended former first-round pick Justin Blackmon. Between Robinson and fellow rookies Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns, the Jaguars might have one of the best young receiving corps around for years to come.
Draft position: Round 4, No. 118
Just the presence of Bryant's 6-foot-4 frame has lifted the Steelers' entire offense to a whole new level. Moving forward, he'll only get better as he further comprehends the complexities of the playbook. Not only is Bryant three inches taller than fourth-overall pick -- and former Clemson teammate -- Sammy Watkins, but he also ran faster and jumped higher at the NFL Scouting Combine. The sky is the limit for this young man.
Draft position: Round 2, No. 42
Matthews was one of two receivers drafted by the Eagles in the first three rounds (Josh Huff is the other), and he surely hasn't disappointed. Matthews reminds me of a faster and more dynamic Marques Colston, though he's not quite as consistent at hauling in contested passes. Coach Chip Kelly's system inflates Matthews' statistical value to a certain degree, but his skill set is what landed him on this list.
Draft position: Round 3, No. 91
Speed kills, and Brown (4.34 40) clearly has plenty of it, but he's more than just a burner. In his first 11 games as a pro, Brown has shown the ability to run the full route tree with quick, crisp cuts; he also catches the ball with his hands. Brown's size (5-10, 179 pounds) prevents him from being higher on this list, though he plays much bigger than that.
Draft position: Round 1, No. 20
Like Robinson, Cooks will finish the year on injured reserve, but the fact that he led the Saints in targets through the first 10 games of the season says a lot about him. He has an explosive first step and blinding straight-line speed, though he still needs to improve as a route technician. When he broke his thumb in Week 11 against Cincinnati, Cooks was leading all rookies in catches with 53.
Draft position: Round 2, No. 63
Landry, who has big, strong hands, is easily the most physical receiver of the bunch. He blocks like a tight end in the open field and can run you over with the ball in his hands -- but he can also be a human joystick at the same time. Think Anquan Boldin with even more upside.
Draft position: Round 1, No. 28
Benjamin burst onto the scene with three touchdown catches in his first four games, but he's since been as frustrating as he's been impressive. There is no doubt that Benjamin has the physical tools to be great, but he is far too inconsistent to rank any higher on this list. Of course, even with all the mental errors and drops, he still has a scary 52 catches, 768 yards and eight touchdowns.
Draft position: Round 1, No. 4
The purest route runner of this group is as technically sound as any rookie wide receiver I can remember. Watkins has a clear understanding of field spacing and a solid grasp of the nuances of the position. He seems to have disappeared after posting back-to-back 100-yard games in Week 7 and Week 8, and drops have recently been an issue. Still, looking at the big picture, Watkins will prove he was worth the high draft pick.
Draft position: Round 1, No. 12
I've been around football, man and boy, for more than 40 years. I had the pleasure of coaching Cris Carter and Randy Moss, and I saw them do special things on the field, but Beckham's stunning Sunday night snare was easily the most spectacular catch I've ever seen. That's not why he climbed to No. 2 on this list, however. Beckham's remarkable ball skills and superior movement skills are reminiscent of a young Steve Smith. As a fan of the game, I'm going to enjoy watching him for the next decade.
Draft position: Round 1, No. 7
Speaking of Randy Moss, Evans isn't nearly the athlete Moss was, but he has very similar play-making ability. Most big, young receivers are vulnerable to press coverage at the line of scrimmage, but that is when Evans is at his best. He's just too big and strong for most defensive backs, and his game speed and route running have continued to improve from week to week. He has the prototypical size and speed you drool over when scouting talent, and he's done nothing but back it up with his play this season.