By mid-November, the NFL's precocious rookie wide-receiver cast was already rivaling the vaunted 1996 class as the best in pro football history.
While Odell Beckham, Mike Evans and Kelvin Benjamin churned out highlight reels, less exciting talents such as Jordan Matthews and Jarvis Landry were still making plays on a weekly basis. For all of that record-breaking production, the strength of the 2014 class is in its depth as much as its stars. To this point, we've seen mere flashes of potential from intriguing developmental projects such as Martavis Bryant, Donte Moncrief, Cody Latimer and Davante Adams.
I count more than 10 players in this class with No. 1 receiver potential. Before we redraft the top 15 receivers from this class, let's define a true No. 1 receiver.
NFL receivers are classified as X, Z or slot, each of which demands a different skill set.
Wes Welker is an example of the slot receiver, often under 6-feet with toughness, a high football IQ and quickness in and out of his breaks.
Anquan Boldin is one of the textbook Z receivers of the past decade. In contrast to the X, the Z is usually shorter but more physical as the receiver aligning next to the tight end. The Z often runs end-arounds, slants, crossers and quick outs to take advantage of his ability to run with the ball in his hands.
A true No. 1 receiver commands -- and beats -- double teams, stretches the field vertically and horizontally, moves the chains as a reliable third-down target and makes plays in the short-field area of the red zone. There are fewer than 20 No. 1 receivers in the NFL, which means that not every team has one.
Now that we've gained clarity on the qualifications for each wide-receiver spot, let's rank the 2014 class based on how we would draft them after one season of game film:
No. 1 overall pick
Odell Beckham, New York Giants
Unique is a misunderstood word. It doesn't mean rare or uncommon. As Charles Kuralt once pointed out, it means alone in the universe. After just 12 NFL games, it's safe to say that Beckham is a unique football player. Quite simply we have never seen a young wide receiver with his combination of electric cuts, rare suddenness, fearlessness, suction-cup hands, vertical explosiveness, electrifying on-field charisma and graceful world-class athleticism.
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman raved about the former LSU star's route-running ability after last year's draft. When Beckham finally debuted in October, that was readily apparent. He immediately put All-Pro Richard Sherman on skates, creating easy separation on comeback and go routes. In fact, Beckham gets in and out of his breaks as quickly as any receiver I have ever seen, leaving cornerbacks grasping for air.
It's hard to find a veteran receiver capable of beating the press from the "X" position, excelling on the "Z" receiver's run-after-catch routes, gaining the quarterback's trust out of the slot and winning versus double teams. Despite missing offseason practices and training camp due to a lingering hamstring injury, Beckham still played every wide-receiver position and ran a full route tree as a rookie. Offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo got more creative by December, moving him all over the formation. Beckham even showed explosiveness on plays in which he wasn't targeted, clearing space for other targets.
For all of those nuts and bolts, it's OBJ's spectacular one-handed catch that stood out as the play of the year. Prior to that phenomenon, I wrote that I can't get the image of a 1980s era Michael Jordan out of my head when I watch Beckham play. Dominique Wilkins might have boasted a higher vertical jump, but it was Jordan's hand-eye coordination, mid-air dexterity, unparalleled hang time and improvisational creativity that separated him from other noted leapers. Beckham has similar traits -- including hands bigger than 6-foot-5 Calvin Johnson's -- allowing him to consistently win at the catch point despite his smallish stature.
The similarities to Jordan don't end there. The excitement generated by Beckham has already made him a marquee attraction on the New York sports scene and appointment viewing for NFL fans across the globe. More germane to his quarterback, head coach and general manager, a talent of his stature reverses fortunes and saves jobs.
The Question: Will he avoid a career-altering injury?
Giants' Super Bowl hero David Tyree touted Beckham as the most talented football player he has ever seen. In his first nine games as a full-time NFL starter, Beckham averaged nine receptions, 133 yards and one touchdown per game -- numbers no wide receiver has ever sustained in a full season. The sky is the limit, as long as Beckham isn't cut down in the prime of his extraordinary career. That's no small factor in American sports' most physical game, as evidenced by shooting stars such as Gale Sayers, Bo Jackson and Greg Cook.
Future Pro Bowlers
Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Speaking of basketball traits, Evans is a stretch forward in cleats. A standout hoops player who averaged over 18 points per game in high school, Evans effectively translates his hardwood skills to the gridiron, boxing out smaller cornerbacks and repeatedly coming down with 50-50 balls. Beyond his 6-foot-5 frame, Evans takes full advantage of freakishly long arms, a 37-inch vertical, big hands and uncanny body control for a 230-pound receiver.
There's more to his game, however, than the impressive ability to high-point deep balls and end-zone fades. Evans has the footwork of a cat burglar in tight spaces, coming within inches of several more back-corner touchdowns and spectacular sideline plays. He has deceptive speed for a man of his prodigious size, showing field-stretching verticality and a rare combination of nimbleness and physicality after the catch.
Although Evans boasts the skill set of an "X" alpha dog, he handled plenty of the high-percentage, run-after-catch slants, crossers and bubble screens typically associated with smaller, quicker "Z" receivers.
It bodes well for Evans' chances of superstardom that he finished 18th in receiving yards and fourth in touchdown receptions with a greenhorn play-caller and a pair of mediocre quarterbacks constantly under duress.
*The Question: *How will he fare against top corners?
While Beckham, Sammy Watkins and Kelvin Benjamin were waging weekly battles with elite cornerbacks, Evans feasted on the mismatches and blown coverages provided by inferior defensive backs during his feverish November stretch when he channeled Randy Moss' 1998 season. For all of Evans' talent, there's no reason to believe he won't be successful once he overtakes or succeeds Vincent Jackson as the wide receiver most respected by opposing defenses. The question is whether Evans can sustain the same level of production against more physical coverage, especially if officials begin cracking down on his trademark push-offs.
*Comparison: *Harold Carmichael Lite
Sammy Watkins, Buffalo Bills
The No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft is an especially challenging evaluation for two reasons: He entered the season with a painful rib injury, played through a groin pull at midseason and was hampered by a torn hip labrum throughout December. Along the way, shoddy quarterbacks EJ Manuel and Kyle Orton struggled mightily with ball placement, contributing to Watkins' low catch percentage.
In contrast to Evans, Watkins spent his rookie season taking on No. 1 corners and double teams. Between injuries, he showed the ability to get open with ease on shorter and intermediate routes, as defensive backs were forced to respect his deep speed on potential shot plays. At peak form, he can blow past corners in and out of breaks and create separation early in his routes. If not for errant passing, he would have blown past the 1,000-yard mark as a rookie.
The former Clemson star was as billed after the catch, showing dynamic acceleration and lower-body explosion to shed tackles and run away from defenders in the open field. With a running back's build, Watkins excels at the end-arounds, bubble screens, swing passes, slants, crossers and go routes typical of a "Z" receiver. If he's going to graduate to a bonafide No. 1, go-to threat, he must expand his route tree.
*The Question: *Can he win contested catches with regularity?
New coach Rex Ryan recently hyped Watkins as a "one in every 10-year player that comes down the road." For all of that obvious promise, Watkins encountered the doldrums in the second half of his rookie season, struggling to get open and make plays. He doesn't have the catch radius of Evans, Beckham or Kelvin Benjamin, which makes it harder for him to bail out scattershot quarterbacks. DeAndre Hopkinsplayed that role at Clemson, precluding Watkins from running the sideline and pylon routes that he still needs to master if he's truly going to become "Larry Fitzgerald-like" in the NFL.
Kelvin Benjamin, Carolina Panthers
It's no coincidence that general manager Dave Gettleman targeted a monstrous receiver after unceremoniously dumping undersized franchise iconSteve Smith last offseason. Upon drafting Benjamin in the first round, Gettleman pointed to the Florida State star's "big strike zone," ability to make catches when he's pressured and red-zone impact. "You can't coach 6-5, 240 with a 34-inch arm length and 10-inch hands," Gettleman added.
What the Panthers didn't publicly acknowledge is that those traits take on an even higher priority under Cam Newton, who tends to be wild high when he's off the mark. A massive human being with big paws, an abnormally large catch radius and the physicality to wall off defenders, Benjamin is the ideal target for Newton's high and wide fastballs.
Assuming the No. 1 role from the get-go, Benjamin quickly earned his quarterback's trust -- even on plays when he wasn't open. Defenses showed respect by shadowing him with top cornerbacks, such as Patrick Peterson, Keenan Lewis, Desmond Trufant, Jimmy Smith and Xavier Rhodes. The Seahawks even broke with tradition, allowing Richard Sherman to trail Benjamin around the field in Week 8. The rookie promptly beat the Sherman-Earl Thomas All-Pro tag-team on a pair of plays.
Benjamin is nearly three full years older than Evans. He's never going to match Evans' run-after-catch prowess, but he's a prototypical third-down chain mover and red-zone threat with the proven ability to beat top cornerbacks.
*The Question: *Are the drops curable?
Benjamin has a knack for making easy plays look difficult and difficult plays look easy. He was among the league leaders in dropped passes, many of which were easily catchable. The concern is that it's a problem that dogged him in college as well.
Comparison: Evolutionary Plaxico Burress
John Brown, Arizona Cardinals
Even in the height of the Twitter era, the NFL draft sleeper lives! A hidden gem from small-school Pittsburg State, Brown immediately impressed the Cardinals with his 4.34 speed, uncanny instincts and unexpected understanding of route concepts. Arizona's defensive backs found him uncoverable in offseason and training-camp practices.
As promised, coach Bruce Arians featured Brown on the routes run by T.Y. Hilton, Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace in his old Colts and Steelers offenses, aligning him all over the formation. On the heels of an impressive preseason, his uncommon stop-start quickness was hardly a surprise. What stood out on Game Rewind was Brown's impressive leaping ability, great ball skills and sure hands.
The Question:* *Is he No. 1 receiver material?
Arians compared Brown to potential Hall of Famer Marvin Harrison, who was two inches taller and heavier. Brown torched defenses early in the season, only to disappear after Carson Palmer's season-ending knee injury. Although much of that can be attributed to Ryan Lindley's faceplant, Arians noted that the 179-pound Brown must get stronger to withstand press coverage and the rigors of a long season. If that doesn't happen, he will be relegated to a supporting role behind bigger wideouts.
Brandin Cooks, New Orleans Saints
Cooks can't hang with John Brown outside the numbers or on vertical routes. Held below 9.0 yards per reception primarily on slip screens, swing passes and quick slants early on, he didn't show field-stretching ability until coach Sean Payton expanded his route responsibilities at midseason. On pace for 85 receptions and roughly 1,000 yards from scrimmage, the 2013 Biletnikoff Award winner was just beginning to hit his stride when a broken thumb ended his season in mid-November.
Payton has shown a knack for taking advantage of "satellite" weapons such as Cooks, with rare suddenness and agility in space. Because of the injury, though, we didn't get a chance to see the Oregon State star's full route tree -- or enough of his 4.33 wheels down the field. With Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills out of the picture, Cooks' role is certain to expand in 2015.
The Question:* *Is he strong enough to break tackles?
Much like slightly-built running back-receiver hybrids Dexter McCluster and Tavon Austin, Cooks struggled to break tackles in his early-season Percy Harvin role. If he's going to be limited to those high-percentage, quick-hitting routes in addition to end-arounds and jet sweeps, he needs to add a fraction of Harvin's power.
Jordan Matthews, Philadelphia Eagles
Matthews began his Philadelphia career with a specialized role, working between the numbers as a slot receiver exploiting size mismatches versus nickel corners. Coach Chip Kelly expanded his route tree at midseason, coinciding with Nick Foles' injury and the major upgrade in ball placement from Mark Sanchez.
Matthews blossomed with Sanchez under center, as his skill set dovetailed with a more mobile quarterback utilizing play-fakes and read-option. Sanchez knew exactly where Matthews was on third downs, taking advantage of the rookie's possession-receiver traits and run-after-catch ability. The SEC record-holder also exceeded expectations as a red-zone threat, showcasing long arms, huge hands, no wasted movement and toughness on contested catches in tight spaces.
Although Matthews doesn't flash explosiveness on game film, his measurables (6-foot-3 with 4.46 speed and a 10-foot broad jump) and college production suggest his rookie-season numbers were not simply a byproduct of Kelly's system. A maniacal worker and film junkie like cousin Jerry Rice, Matthews certainly won't fail for lack of commitment.
The Question:* *Can he play outside?
Although Matthews ran a league-high 92.4 percent of his routes from the slot last season, there's reason to believe his role will be expanded this year. The Eagles neglected to sign a replacement for top receiver Jeremy Maclin, leaving Matthews as the obvious fill-in. More to the point, Chip Kelly has explained that he just wanted Matthews to learn one position as a rookie, allowing him to learn more assignments as his career evolves. If Matthews proves capable of succeeding Maclin and DeSean Jackson as the top target in Kelly's offense, his numbers will skyrocket.
High-upside projects with first-round talent
Martavis Bryant, Pittsburgh Steelers
A healthy scratch the first six weeks of the season, Bryant injected life into the Steelers' offense by repeatedly smoking cornerbacks deep and finally fulfilling Ben Roethlisberger's wishes for a red-zone weapon with size and length. A smooth athlete, Bryant offers an easy 39-inch vertical and 4.42 speed not often seen in a 6-foot-4 wideout. He's an obvious field-stretcher with the innate ability to track the ball in the air.
To the surprise of no one, the fourth-round pick was a rudimentary route runner, essentially limited to go routes, bubble screens and end-zone fades. As the No. 3 receiver, he was afforded the luxury of feasting on mismatches against subpackage corners en route to eight touchdowns in 10 games.
The Question:* *Will he remain a one-trick pony?
Lacking polish, Bryant benefited from stacked sets that allowed him to escape the jam at the line of scrimmage. He'll need to bulk up to win more often at the catch point and break tackles on screens and slants. His most important mandate is to master Todd Haley's offense and hone his route running, allowing him to develop into a complete receiver.
Comparison:* *Chris Henry
Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers
Hauling in passes from Derek Carr at Fresno State, Adams led the nation in receptions (131) and touchdown catches (24) as a redshirt sophomore in 2013. He won't threaten defenses deep with his 4.54 speed, but still showed polish as a route runner, particularly with a double move that consistently gained separation. Adams is physical enough to win on slants and crossers and uses a 39.5-inch vertical to high-point in traffic and outside the numbers.
In effect, Adams is a strong-handed possession receiver with impressive ball skills, red-zone potential and the ability to stress a defense after the catch. Aaron Rodgers told the FOX broadcast team late in the season that Adams has shown signs of greatness and the "swagger of a No. 1 receiver."
For all of Rodgers' praise, Adams missed a slew of impromptu back-shoulder opportunities because he lacked chemistry with his quarterback. That potential for big plays off improvisation will obviously improve over time, but it's going to be hard for Adams to surpass the mind-meld that Rodgers has with Nelson and Cobb. In the meantime, the increasingly dynamicPackers offense will benefit with Adams picking on weaker corners.
Cody Latimer, Denver Broncos
After dropping just one pass his senior year at Indiana, Latimer's draft stock soared when he ran a 4.44 forty and turned in a 39-inch vertical just three months after undergoing foot surgery. Already raw as a route runner, Latimer fell further behind when the rehab forced him to miss offseason practices. He ended up playing just 37 snaps as a rookie, conceding that he didn't know the playbook well enough to keep up with Peyton Manning.
"Peyton has so many checks, and he makes so many calls on the field, you have to be ready," Latimer explained. "He wants you to be on cue with him, and if you make a mistake, he doesn't like that."
Latimer possesses an intriguing size-speed combination at nearly 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds with exceptionally strong hands and a penchant for winning jump balls. His preseason film shows separation on go routes, impressive leaping ability and explosive run-after-catch ability. What little regular-season film there is includes Manning venting frustration when Latimer failed to react to a back-shoulder throw in Week 17.
Broncos players, coaches and executives have expressed confidence in Latimer as a special talent ready to make the leap in 2015. To do so, he's going to have to earn the trust of Manning, who relies as much as any quarterback on chemistry with his receivers. Since Gary Kubiak's offense has traditionally featured two-wide receiver sets, Latimer is likely at least a year away from a true breakout season.
Comparison: Braylon Edwards
Donte Moncrief, Indianapolis Colts
Moncrief has the physical tools of a No. 1 receiver, measuring in at 6-foot-2 and 221 pounds with 4.40 speed, a 40-inch vertical and an 11-foot broad jump. There is some Cordarrelle Patterson to his game as a dynamic tackle breaker limited to go routes, slants, crossers, bubble screens and end-arounds while struggling to pick up all of the route concepts.
Because Moncrief was forced to learn all of the wide receiver positions in Pep Hamilton's offense, it took time to earn Andrew Luck's trust. The former Ole Miss star played just 39 percent of the snaps, often deployed as a clear-out runner. His rookie-season production was bolstered by busted coverage in a two-score, 134-yard outburst versus the Redskins' horrendous secondary.
Aided by a hop step at the line of scrimmage, Moncrief was able to beat the bump and create separation down the field. He will likely need to bulk up to win with more consistency at the catch point. If he can put it all together, the sky's the limit in terms of playmaking ability.
The Colts drafted Moncrief to score touchdowns as Reggie Wayne's successor opposite T.Y. Hilton, only to turn around and sign Andre Johnson. With that trio of receivers in addition to a pair of talented tight ends, there are a lot of mouths to feed in Hamilton's offense that mixes and matches formations. Until Moncrief starts reading defenses and developing a chemistry with Luck, he's not going to earn consistent playing time.
Solid second fiddles
Allen Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars
Robinson was just beginning to establish himself as Blake Bortles' No. 1 receiver when a stress fracture in his foot ended his season in November. At nearly 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds with a vertical leap over 40 inches, Robinson fits the "X" receiver profile, with fellow second-round pick Marqise Lee handling "Z" duties.
The former Penn State star's dominant physical trait is fluid body control and back-shoulder prowess thanks to his natural leaping ability. He wins at the catch point more than a player like Sammy Watkins, allowing him to move the sticks over the middle and make plays along the sideline. It's a small sample size, but Robinson wasn't quite as dangerous after the catch as his college film suggested.
The Question:* *Can he get vertical against NFL corners?
Robinson showed a knowledge of multiple route concepts, but he wasn't able to create separation with his double move or go routes. That's not entirely unexpected out of an "X" receiver with 4.60 speed. If Robinson can't get vertical, he won't last long as the No. 1 receiver in Jacksonville.
Marqise Lee, Jacksonville Jaguars
Billed as college football's top receiver after a standout sophomore season at USC, Lee shows the problem with evaluating players on just a few game's worth of film.
After battling a rash of injuries his junior season, Lee was waylaid by a hamstring pull early in his rookie year. He was a massive disappointment through mid-November, dropping passes, missing his assignments and failing to make plays. He came alive in Week 13, though, finally showcasing the explosive run-after-catch ability for which he's known.
Lee played all over the formation late in the season, but is best utilized on shallow, high-percentage routes. Because he lacks size and physicality, Lee will struggle to come down with contested passes in the end zone or the down the field.
*The Question: *Is his skill set best-suited to the slot?
The Jaguars envision Lee as their "Z" receiver, but I wonder if he's physical enough to succeed there in the NFL. His best role might be the slot, where he can take advantage of his YAC (yards after catch) ability on quick-hitters.
Jarvis Landry, Miami Dolphins
Odell Beckham's LSU teammate quietly racked up 84 receptions as a rookie chain-mover, showing strong hands and toughness in traffic. More quick than fast, Landry specialized in shallow routes both inside and outside the numbers. He was strictly limited to the slot, offering no vertical game and only sporadic red-zone activity.
*The Question: *Does he rely too much on manufactured touches?
The first thing that jumps out on Game Rewind is that a majority of Landry's targets are manufactured as package plays or the first read within 7 or 8 yards of the line of scrimmage. In other words, it's essentially the play-caller more than the quarterback who is responsible for putting the ball in his hands. While Landry deserves credit for sticky hands, it's a testament to Bill Lazor's creativity and Ryan Tannehill's ball placement on shallow routes that the rookie racked up so many catches.
Comparison:Destitute man's Hines Ward
Allen Hurns, Jacksonville Jaguars
Undrafted out of Miami, Hurns was an early-season surprise as Jacksonville's most productive receiver. As it turns out, there was an obvious reason for Hurns' facile adjustment to the NFL game. He already knew Jedd Fisch's offense from their days together at the University of Miami, giving him an edge on Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee.
Hurns was a boom or bust player as a rookie. Although he showed a good double move, much of his September separation was provided by the quarterbacks' play action and pump fakes. As the season went along, drops became a problem and he struggled to make plays. I question whether he has an NFL starter's hands, physicality, athleticism and catch radius.
The Question: Are the big plays repeatable?
Hurns' early-season big plays had a fluky nature to them, vanishing in the second half of the season. More than most receivers, he relied upon missed tackles and blown coverage to make plays. He can be an effective fourth or fifth option, but will be bypassed by Robinson, Lee and Julius Thomas in 2015.
Much like the 1996 class, this was an exceptionally deep collection of talent. Beyond the 15 players listed above, Paul Richardson flashed downfield potential in Seattle, Philly Brown injected a speed element to the Panthers' offense and Taylor Gabriel finished second on the Browns in receiving yards.