From 2019 to 2021, 13 wide receivers were taken in the first round of the NFL draft. Some of these receivers—namely Justin Jefferson, Ja’Marr Chase, and Jaylen Waddle—debuted with historic, record-breaking campaigns and ascended to the top tier of the position by the end of their first years. Others, such as CeeDee Lamb, Jerry Jeudy, and DeVonta Smith, had slightly above-average rookie seasons but have since blossomed into high-end starters. Sure, there have been some notable misses among the group, but for the most part, first-round rookie receivers are producing earlier than at any other point in NFL history.
It’s early, but the 2022 first-round rookie receiver class looks like another special one. Through two weeks, the quintet (excluding no. 12 pick Jameson Williams, who is perhaps this year’s most talented rookie receiver but will be on IR through at least Week 4 as he recovers from an ACL tear) is averaging just under eight targets, five receptions, and 64 receiving yards per game, while showcasing the preternatural talent that led Ringer staff writer Ben Solak to conclude in April that there’d “never be a weak draft class at the receiver position again.”
Heading into Week 3, let’s take a closer look at these five rookies’ performances and project what their stats may look like by season’s end.
No. 8 Pick Drake London, Atlanta Falcons
Stats through two weeks: 19 targets, 13 receptions, 160 yards, 1 touchdown
Full-season pace: 162 targets, 111 receptions, 1,360 yards, 9 touchdowns
The USC product was the first receiver drafted in April, and for good reason. At 6-foot-4 and 213 pounds, London has been compared to Mike Evans, another big-bodied former basketball player with a nearly unparalleled catch radius. Atlanta’s new X receiver currently leads all rookie wideouts in Pro Football Focus’s receiving grade, receptions, and receiving yards, and according to TruMedia he’s also commanding 33 percent of his team’s total targets, the highest rate through two weeks by any rookie wide receiver since Larry Fitzgerald in 2004.
London’s FBS-leading 19 contested catches last season were viewed by some draft pundits as a red flag, with his lack of straight-line speed often being cited as the reason he had to fight for so many jump balls in college. Thus far in the NFL, though, he’s achieved an above-average 3.8 yards of separation per route run and has constantly generated extra yards after the catch despite not possessing the wheels of some of his draft-mates.
Check out the below clip from Week 1 against the Saints, when the rookie found the soft spot in the defense’s zone and with one cut was 12 yards up the field:
London finished the play with a truck stick, but notice that he also had the presence of mind to immediately run back toward the line of scrimmage to give Atlanta a chance at another play before halftime. That’s top-shelf awareness for a receiver playing in his first career game.
His precociousness doesn’t stop there, though. The rookie showcased similar smarts during this scramble drill with Marcus Mariota against the Rams in Week 2:
Sure, Mariota’s mobility may have kept that play alive, but it’d be nothing without London’s crafty freelance zig route and the toe-tapping sideline grab. It’s this type of savvy, subtle playmaking—against a strong defense—that makes London look like a future star.
Through two games with the Falcons, it’s clear London is more than a jump-ball threat with limited speed. Right now, he’s looking like the better half of Atlanta’s “Twin Towers” and every bit as talented as the other receivers in this class. Falcons fans just have to hope Kyle Pitts joins the fun soon.
No. 10 Pick Garrett Wilson, New York Jets
Stats through two weeks: 22 targets, 12 receptions, 154 yards, 2 touchdowns
Full-season pace: 187 targets, 102 receptions, 1,309 yards, 17 touchdowns
The former Ohio State star broke out in a big way in Cleveland last weekend, showcasing the field-tilting speed and route-running chops that made him Danny Kelly’s top receiver heading into the 2022 draft.
For starters, let’s just take a second to appreciate his ultra-squiggly route chart from the Jets’ matchup with the Browns:
Wilson finished the contest with 102 yards and two touchdowns, including this goal-line fade after he juked fellow rookie Martin Emerson Jr. out of his shoes at the line of scrimmage:
What stands out about Wilson’s performance in Week 2 is how successful he was despite Joe Flacco’s accuracy issues throughout the game. Wilson consistently won quick-hitting routes against the Browns, but Flacco’s passes were often a beat behind the rookie or over his head. According to PFF, three of Wilson’s 14 targets were incomplete because of inaccurate passes, including one that would’ve given him a third touchdown on the day:
But worry not, Jets fans. Flacco is a stand-in for
rising superstar Zach Wilson … who led the league in bad-throw rate last season. OK, so maybe there is a quarterback issue in New York that will affect Wilson’s short- and long-term prospects. And hell, maybe he’ll be subjected to consistent poor quarterback play throughout his career, à la Allen Robinson II. Even in that scenario, though, it’s hard to envision the polished Wilson—who currently leads the NFL with eight red-zone targets, including seven within the 10-yard line—failing.
For now, we should celebrate the Jets’ drafting of a really good receiver who’s merely scratching the surface of his potential. We can save the quarterback questions for another day.
No. 11 Pick Chris Olave, New Orleans Saints
Stats through two weeks: 16 targets, 8 receptions, 121 yards, 0 touchdowns
Full-season pace: 136 targets, 68 receptions, 1,029 yards, zero touchdowns
It’s clear the Saints want to throw it deep to the 6-foot speedster, whom the Saints wanted to draft so badly that they essentially traded five picks for the opportunity to select him in April’s draft.
Through two weeks, Olave leads all receivers in targets of 20-plus yards and has averaged an astounding 38.7 air yards on such plays. He also ranks fourth among receivers in go-route percentage (perhaps a blessing and a curse), and ninth in team air yard share.
Since TruMedia began tracking the stat, Olave’s 334 air yards in Week 2 were the third most by a receiver, and the most since DeAndre Hopkins’s 22-target game in 2015. They were also the most by a rookie during that span, passing Odell Beckham Jr.’s mark of 322 yards—even though Olave secured eight fewer targets last week than OBJ did in that game.
Simply put, Jameis Winston is chucking it downfield to this dude. That’s the good news.
The problem is, well, Winston. On Sunday, Winston missed Olave five times, which tied for the second-most inaccurate passes to a specific receiver in a game in the past two seasons.
New Orleans may want to force-feed Olave, but no matter how many looks the rookie gets, he’s not doing anything with passes like these, which came on back-to-back plays:
Olave will go only as far as his quarterback leads him—which on deep passes is often too far!—and the early returns aren’t promising. Some of the accuracy issues may be because Winston’s playing with multiple fractures in his spine (how? Why?), but he also didn’t look much better in 2021 than he did during his last full season as a starter, when he threw 30 interceptions and led the league in inaccurate passes.
Receivers with Olave’s athletic profile—his vertical jump and height ranked in the 12th and 35th percentiles, respectively, in MockDraftable’s database—can’t be expected to regularly win jump-ball opportunities, especially with a quarterback who can’t deliver the ball on-point.
Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. could scheme up more quick-developing routes to get the rookie the ball in space, but that may be better for Olave’s counting stats than it is for the offense. After all, despite his speed, Olave wasn’t the most electric player after the catch in college, and he’s probably best served stretching the defense to draw safety help away from Michael Thomas and Jarvis Landry.
With Sean Payton no longer spearheading the offense and Winston playing hurt, the rookie out of Ohio State may not have the instant impact Mickey Loomis and Co. were hoping for when they moved heaven and earth to acquire him. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if Olave continued to rack up air yards at an exciting rate.
No. 16 Pick Jahan Dotson, Washington Commanders
Stats through two weeks: 10 targets, 7 receptions, 99 yards, 3 touchdowns
Full-season pace: 85 targets, 60 receptions, 842 yards, 26 touchdowns (LOL!)
Very few pundits saw it coming, but Dotson’s early-season usage is off the charts in Washington, where the former Nittany Lion is part of a three-pronged receiver corps with Terry McLaurin and Curtis Samuel that looks like one of the best in football. Dotson’s 93 routes over the first two weeks are the most by a rookie through their first two games dating back to 2013, and his 141 snaps ranks third among all NFL receivers this season.
Dotson was arguably the most impressive rookie receiver in Week 1, as two of his five targets went for touchdowns. He caught another touchdown in Week 2 against the Lions, making him the first rookie pass catcher in the past decade to score three times in the first two weeks of the season.
Much like the other receivers on this list, there are significant questions about the quarterback steering the ship. Carson Wentz was so bad at the end of last season that Indianopolis shipped him to the Commanders for a package of picks just a year after trading a conditional second-rounder (which converted to a first) for him.
Thus far, though, Wentz has been more than serviceable, ranking among the league’s top 10 passers in expected points added per play, passing yards, and passing touchdowns.
Despite his consistent route participation, Dotson hasn’t been much of a target hound like the three receivers drafted ahead of him. It’s possibly because Washington’s receiving corps is superior to the other teams’ and there have been more plays designed for veteran wideouts. Still, it’s a bit curious that Dotson’s been on the field as much as he has and he’s secured only seven catches. His rapport with Wentz will be something to monitor moving forward.
No. 18 Pick Treylon Burks, Tennessee Titans
Stats through two weeks: 11 targets, 7 receptions, 102 yards, 0 touchdowns
Full-season pace: 94 targets, 60 receptions, 867 yards, zero touchdowns
Burks’s first day in rookie minicamp was one to remember. The new Titans receiver, whose draft rights were acquired in a trade with the Eagles for Pro Bowler A.J. Brown, had to leave the field early and was spotted using an inhaler after struggling with conditioning throughout practice.
A couple of weeks later, it was revealed that Burks has asthma, which although not a debilitating condition for the 22-year-old probably came as an unpleasant surprise to a Tennessee fan base hoping the Arkansas receiver would fill the massive void left by Brown. Twitter and the media cycle, predictably, went wild.
Through two weeks in the regular season, it’s clear that much of the offseason fodder was unfounded. The kid can play.
Among qualified rookie receivers, Burks ranks first in PFF offensive grading and yards per route run, and he’s been about as effective as Robert Woods as a run blocker, which is saying something considering Woods is one of the best run-blocking receivers in football.
Burks doesn’t have the counting stats of the other four guys on this list, but there’s a strong argument that he’s fitting into his offense as well as any of them. His involvement is also progressing, as his target share improved from 16 percent in Week 1 to 27 percent in Week 2.
In the summer, Titans general manager Jon Robinson was asked whether Burks needed to “replace” Brown. His answer? “Treylon needs to get open, pass, and block.”
So far, so good.