Game Theory

Projecting the 10 most productive rookie receivers in 2020

I know draft season might seem like a distant memory at this point, but don't forget that the 2020 rookie receiver class will be entering the NFL as one of the most hyped groups of pass-catchers in recent history. But April buzz is one thing; actually producing in game-action on an NFL field is quite another. So, just what can we expect from this hotly anticipated crew in Year 1?

As I did last week with rookie running backs, I've used contextualized data and my computer-vision models to project which rookie receivers will be the most productive in 2020.

1) CeeDee Lamb, Dallas Cowboys

Drafted: Round 1, No. 17 overall

College: Oklahoma

Lamb's Oklahoma resume shows exceptional production from the slot and an elite ability to earn yards after the catch. Lamb forced the second-most missed tackles on receptions (26, per Pro Football Focus) among FBS receivers and recorded the third-most yards after contact (376, per PFF) last season overall, but we need more context to spin all that forward to see the difference he'll make for the Cowboys. Looking at his slot production (24.2 yards per reception from the slot, the second-most in FBS, per PFF) and his ability to operate in the middle of the field, and factoring in how defenses facing Dallas will also be forced to account for Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup, Lamb has the highest rookie wideout ranking in my model, checking in at No. 38 among all NFL receivers.

2) Henry Ruggs III, Las Vegas Raiders

Drafted: Round 1, No. 12 overall

College: Alabama

Ruggs could have more fantasy upside with the Raiders than Lamb does with the Cowboys, but there could also be a lot more potential downside with Ruggs than with many of the receivers ranked lower on this list. Ruggs lined up wide in 80 percent of his Alabama snaps and last season earned 10.5 yards after the catch per reception (third-most in the SEC among those with 30-plus targets, per PFF). Ruggs is a riskier pick, because while his physical attributes (he's fast, if you haven't heard) project for a lot of opportunity and have driven success in past offenses run by Raiders coach Jon Gruden, other key high-value metrics, like route-running aptitude (computer vision shows he hasn't run the full route tree as often or as precisely as other receivers in this class), are unknown and therefore introduce fantasy risk. Preseason performance will likely help refine Ruggs' projection more than it will for any other rookie wideout. Ruggs is currently my No. 42 WR overall.

3) Michael Pittman Jr., Indianapolis Colts

Drafted: Round 2, No. 34 overall

College: USC

At No. 43, Pittman Jr. projects as a much "safer" fantasy value than Ruggs, who is ranked just one slot ahead of him. His USC resume shows that he logged the most deep receptions (20-plus air yards) and receiving yards in the Pac-12 last season (12 and 493, per PFF) and the fourth-most yards after the catch in the Pac-12 since 2018 (716, per PFF). Pittman's potential fit could start in the deep passing game, with Colts receivers recording the fewest deep receptions in the NFL last season (6 on 34 targets, per Next Gen Stats). Factoring in quarterback Philip Rivers' play-execution history along with veteran receiver T.Y. Hilton's ability to draw away top defensive players, Pittman has a safe floor with a lot of upside.

4) Justin Jefferson, Minnesota Vikings

Drafted: Round 1, No. 22 overall

College: LSU

Another player with a safer floor and a lot of upside is wide receiver No. 45 in my rankings. At LSU, Jefferson's slot production was a huge driver of his success -- along with the team's. In 2019, his numbers in the slot ranked among the best in FBS on PFF's tracking charts going back to 2014: He had 109 receptions (second-most in a single season in that span), 18 touchdowns (the most) and 1,518 yards (second-most). One of the things slot receptions help illustrate well is what a receiver can do when they don't have the benefit of space. Jefferson caught 12 of 13 contested targets last season, or 92.3 percent, the highest rate among WRs in FBS, per PFF. But don't be mistaken -- Jefferson's computer vision route-running tracking shows he's more than just a slot guy. (I have written a lot about Jefferson, if you want to see more.) Once we get a better sense of how the Vikings' offense shifts without the traded-away Stefon Diggs, Jefferson's projection could go up ... a lot.

5) Jerry Jeudy, Denver Broncos

Drafted: Round 1, No. 15 overall

College: Alabama

Projecting a rookie wide receiver who will be working with a second-year pro at quarterback (Drew Lock) on a team that has invested heavily at the running back position presents some challenges. Jeudy's Alabama resume showed alignment versatility. Computer vision route-running tracking shows his route-running and precision to be high. PFF shows Jeudy gained the fifth-most receiving yards on deep targets in the SEC last season (320). It seems that Jeudy's ability to line up and be used anywhere is what will help him earn in fantasy, as the Broncos' top receiver, Courtland Sutton, accounted for the highest percentage of the team's air yards in 2019 (42.9%, per NGS). Jeudy's ranking is currently No. 48 in my model.

6) Denzel Mims, New York Jets

Drafted: Round 2, No. 59 overall

College: Baylor

Last season at Baylor, Mims earned 12 touchdowns on targets of 10-plus air yards (tied for third-most in FBS, per PFF). The Jets' receivers struggled in that area last season, earning just 10 receptions of 20-plus air yards, tied for second-fewest, per NGS. Part of those struggles were due to quarterback Sam Darnold missing time. Between receiver Robby Anderson's departure via free agency opening up a role for Mims (Anderson earned eight of those deep catches), Darnold's health and improvement on the O-line, there will be one strong key fantasy driver working in Mims' favor: opportunity. Mims' 20 contested catches last season (tied for second-most in FBS, per PFF) help project for success at the next level, but drops (18 since 2018, tied for the most in that span in FBS, per PFF) create risk. Overall, this nets out in Mims being ranked No. 54 in my models.

7) Brandon Aiyuk, San Francisco 49ers

Drafted: Round 1, No. 25 overall

College: Arizona State

At ASU, Aiyuk earned the second-most receiving yards after contact last season (378) among FBS receivers, per PFF, which helped him earn the fifth-most overall yards after the catch (710). With the departure from San Francisco of veteran receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who led the team with 29.3 percent of the Niners' air yards after arriving via trade in Week 8 last season (per NGS), the opportunity exists for Aiyuk to be an immediate contributor. However, his upside is tempered by the presence of other young receivers (like Kendrick Bourne and Deebo Samuel), who also will realize increased opportunities. For now, this nets out at Aiyuk ranking No. 57 among WRs.

8) Laviska Shenault Jr., Jacksonville Jaguars

Drafted: Round 2, No. 42 overall

College: Colorado

Per PFF, Shenault's Colorado receiving snaps last season broke down as follows: He aligned wide on 107 snaps, was in the slot on 75 snaps and in the backfield on 27 snaps. Since 2018, Shenault had the most yards after the catch among Pac-12 receivers (1,060), per PFF. Injuries add context to his 2019 season for sure, but the takeaway is that he's versatile and physical with a lot of upside. Shenault projects as WR No. 59 due to questions about the Jags' offense overall and whether or not he's fully healthy.

9) Tee Higgins, Cincinnati Bengals

Drafted: Round 2, No. 33 overall

College: Clemson

Two things that pop out when reviewing Higgins' Clemson resume as it relates to future success with the Bengals: deep receptions and contested catches. With the third-most receiving yards on deep targets among Power 5 receivers last season (565, per PFF) and the third-most contested receptions in the ACC since 2018 (23, per PFF; it should be noted that these came against a high percentage of opposing teams' best defenders), Higgins projects to be a key part of Zac Taylor's plan. He's my 61st-ranked wide receiver due to the fact that he'll be working with a rookie quarterback (No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow), and because of the uncertainty around the other receivers on the team. We haven't seen veteran A.J. Green in over a year, and the other Bengals receivers dealt with many injuries last season, meaning exactly what kind of opportunity Higgins will see is unclear for now.

10) Jalen Reagor, Philadelphia Eagles

Drafted: Round 1, No. 21 overall

College: TCU

A recent report by NJ.com's Mike Kaye indicates Reagor is likely to "take a back seat" to veteran DeSean Jackson, so it seems slot production is a smart place to forecast Reagor's contribution to the Eagles' offense. However, Reagor's TCU resume has a greater degree of forecasting fit for the role Jackson plays, as he's one of only two FBS players with at least four deep receiving touchdowns in each of the last three seasons. PFF counts just 240 snaps from the slot for Reagor over the past two seasons, a low number that drives increased uncertainty -- and, thus, his ranking of WR No. 65 in my model.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter @cfrelund.

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