Rookie Pass Catchers: How Good Can We Expect Them to Be?

by Sam Bruchhaus|May 22, 2024


Unless otherwise linked, all data comes from the nflreadr package created by Tan Ho, Sebastian Carl, John Edwards, Ben Baldwin, Thomas Mock, Lee Sharpe, and Pranav Rajaram. 

On the first night of the 2024 NFL Draft, eight pass catchers were drafted in the first round. Since the league went to a seven-round structure, only once have more wide receivers and tight ends been drafted in the first round. 

The teams who spent their coveted first round selections surely expect their young new pass catchers to reach great heights. The 2024 draft class of wide receivers was highly touted and deep, with the consensus being that any number of receiving prospects could fit needs across teams. The expectation now is that many will be superstars, but is that plausible? 

To start, let’s look back at the draft class that had the most pass catchers selected in the first round: 2004. Headlined by likely first ballot Hall-of-Famer Larry Fitzgerald, who was drafted third, this class had seven wide receivers and two tight ends selected in the draft’s opening round. All those players combined for exactly 1 first-team All-Pro selection, and only two of the players not named Larry Fitzgerald made a Pro Bowl (Roy Williams and Kellen Winslow II).  

Judging by Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value metric, which is a metric designed to rank groups of players, only 2 of the 9 players had over a 45 AV for their career. For reference, two wideouts whose careers were at that 45 level are Nate Burleson and Eric Decker. In terms of traditional statistics, only three players in the group averaged over 525 receiving yards per season played. If you can believe it, this class is actually in the top third of all first-round pass catching classes since 1994. 

But that is only one year, a paltry sample size, so let’s look in the aggregate. There are 17 draft classes going back to 1994 in which all first-round pass catchers retired prior to the 2023 season (1994-2005, 2007-2010, 2012). This gives us a sample size of about 89 players — not massive, but it certainly is an indication of what we can expect. Of those classes, the average career weighted Approximate Value for all pass catchers drafted in the first round during this period is about 40, which is comparable to the career of Hakeem Nicks. When looking at the median, which is less susceptible to outliers, the expected value drops down to 35, equivalent to the career of Kenny Britt. Neither Nicks nor Britt topped 1,000 yards in a season more than twice, and indeed, the average yards receiving per season for players in this sample is about 530 yards. 

Football teams typically have around 20 first-round grades on players, and we know that typically the first few picks are more valuable than the rest of the picks in the first round, so let’s take a look at the expectation by selection. Because teams may have different needs, it is hard to derive how the league thinks about players by selection number alone. As a result, let’s create three buckets: “highly touted prospects” who are selected from pick 1 to pick 10, “certified first rounders” who are selected between picks 11 and 20, and “borderline second rounders” who are selected between picks 21 and 32. 

Bucket  Pick Range  Mean  Comparable 
Highly Touted   1-10  44  Brandon Stokley 
Certified 1st Rounders  11-20  41  Braylon Edwards 
Borderline 2nd Rounders  21-32  36  Kenny Britt 

Despite the averages for a career, even rookie year hopes are sky high. Many expect rookie wide receivers to be instant impacts both on the field and in fantasy. However, since 2018, only 6 of the 30 (20%) wide receivers and tight ends drafted in the first round have topped 1,000 yards receiving and only 12 (40%) have topped 100 targets. The mean figure among these recent draftees for these metrics are about 710 yards and about 90 targets, similar to Cole Kmet’s output for last year.


So, in short, temper expectations about your new wide receiver prospect. If Rome Odunze, Marvin Harrison Jr, or Xavier Worthy, give you two to three seasons of WR1 level play, consider yourself lucky, they have actually outperformed the expectations set forth by prior years. 


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