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NFL Draft trends: Rookie Receiver production

Not all Day 2 prospects are equal

NFL: DEC 08 Cowboys at Ravens Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Despite the audible grumblings from many Ravens followers, the front office has failed to acquire a splashy wide receiver during the initial wave of free agency.

As veteran options link on with rival teams, attention has turned towards the upcoming draft as a last resort towards bolstering Baltimore’s inferior receiving corps. Fortunately the collegiate ranks have supplied ample Pro-ready receivers in recent years. Drafting a rookie and expecting valuable production is a viable option to solving their receiver woes if the Ravens are willing to invest the necessary draft capital.

There have been 97 wide receivers drafted in the 2018, 2019 and 2020 drafts combined. Another 40 receivers could be among the 259 players selected in the 2021 NFL draft. For a variety of reasons, including prospects honing their skills at the high school level with 7-on-7 football and an uptick in passing at the college level, the depth of draft worthy receivers seemingly increases every year.

This depth has led some to promote the notion that receiver is becoming a devalued position, similar to running back, where shrewd general managers can find comparable production in the middle and late rounds. However, in terms of immediate returns during their rookie season, general managers have often “gotten what they’ve paid for” since 2018.

There were two receivers selected in the first round in 2018 and 2019 before six came off the board on opening night of the draft last season. Of these 10 first round selections, seven of them cleared the benchmarks of 500 receiving yards, five touchdowns or both. N’Keal Harry, who was the last pick of the round in 2019, Jalen Reagor, who lost five games of his rookie campaign to injury last season and Henry Ruggs, who totaled 452 yards in 13 games last season, were the exceptions. Baltimore’s own Marquise Brown, Calvin Ridley, CeeDee Lamb, Justin Jefferson and Brandon Aiyuk managed to eclipse both the yardage and touchdown benchmarks during their rookie season.

The “hit rate” on first round wide receivers has rivaled many “safe” positions lately.

The Ravens currently hold the 58th pick of the draft, two spots below a trend line of demarcation during the three most recent drafts. There have been a dozen receivers selected between pick number 33 and 56 overall since 2018. 11 of the twelve have posted 500 yard or five touchdowns. Deebo Samuel, A.J. Brown, Mecole Hardman, Tee Higgins, Laviska Shenault and Chase Claypool hurdled both benchmarks.

Baltimore was awarded the 104th overall selection as compensation for David Culley’s departure. There have been 19 receivers selected between pick 57 and pick 104 during the last three draft cycles. Of those 19, five have produced 500 yards or five touchdowns during their rookie season, the 64th pick, 66th and 76th picks of the 2019 draft - D.K. Metcalf, Diontae Johnson and Terry McLaurin, as well as the 81st and 91st selections of the 2018 draft - Michael Gallup and Tre’Quan Smith.

Beyond pick 104, NFL general managers have chosen nine wide receivers in the fourth round, 14 in the 5th round, 21 in the 6th round and 13 in the 7th round. Between these 57 selections, fourth rounders Antonio Callaway and Gabriel Davis along with fifth rounders Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Darius Slayton and Darrell Mooney have posted 500 receiving yards, five touchdowns or both as rookies.

Over the last three draft classes, 70-percent of first round rookies, 92-percent of receivers picked between 33 and 56, 26-percent picked between 57 and 104 and 9-percent of rookies drafted after pick 104 have reached 500 receiving yards or five touchdowns.

These arbitrary benchmarks are certainly not the only way to compare production. Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value may be a better metric to evaluate rookie receiver contributions.

The average rookie season approximate value for wide receivers drafted in the first round since 2018 is 6.7. Over this same time frame, the average approximate value for receivers drafted between 33rd and 56th overall is 5.6. From 57th to 104th, the average approximate value for rookie receivers over the last three draft cycles is 2.8.

Notably, ascending Ravens receiver Devin Duvernay, who was selected with the 92nd pick of the 2020 NFL draft, earned an approximate value of 4 for his 20 receptions, 271 scrimmage yards, 76.9-percent catch rate, 11 combined first downs and 624 return yards last season. The only Day 3 rookie receivers to surpass Duvernay’s approximate value since 2018 are Darius Slayton, Gabriel Davis and Darnell Mooney.

Naturally, clubs do not expect significant first-year contributions from their Day 3 selections at most positions. Teams are incentivized to give their first round and Day 2 rookies playing time and longer leashes. Nonetheless, there has been a considerable difference in production between top-56 and top-104 rookie receivers during this limited three season sample size.

Not all Day 2 receivers are equal. Receivers selected in within the first 24 selections of the second round have exactly doubled the approximate value and reached the aforementioned benchmarks 66-percent more often than those drafted in the final eight picks of the second round and entire third round since 2018.

Obviously there are exceptions, Terry McLaurin recorded 919 yards and seven scores in route to All-Rookie team honors after coming off the board as the 12th pick of the third round. The encouraging depth 2021 draft class could potentially leave a coveted receiver available when Baltimore goes on the clock in the second round. Intriguing prospects, such as Tylan Wallace, Dyami Brown, Amon-Ra St. Brown, may be available at pick 58.

However, waiting until the bottom of the third round is a risky proposition if Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta desires consequential contributions from a rookie wide receiver. Less polished prospects, including Nico Collins, Seth Williams and Josh Imatorbhebhe, are projected to be drafted in range of the 104th pick.

If DeCosta believes that finding an instant impact receiver is a draft priority in 2021, a piece that is required for the Ravens to realize their championship aspirations, he may want to recalibrate the best player available formula. Perhaps pushing up the levers associated with need and positional value on the BPA mixer would be wise. The best ability is availability.