Rookie Wide receivers

                                              Rookie Wide Receivers

                                                                  Matthew Phillips – May 22, 2018

While the quarterbacks and running backs stole many of the headlines of the 2018 NFL Draft, many people overlook the fact that we saw 10 wide receivers taken among the top 100 picks of the draft. And in today’s pass-happy NFL, we’re seeing an increasing trend of rookie wide receivers making an instant impact for the team that drafts them.

So who are those guys from this year’s class that could make such a contribution? Here’s my list of the top five potential candidates:

5. Antonio Callaway, Cleveland Browns — Don’t overlook Antonio Callaway just because he wasn’t taken until the 4th round of the draft, or because he was selected by the Cleveland Browns. The truth is, If it wasn’t for the (admittedly long) list of off-the-field issues that seemed to have dogged Callaway when he was at the University of Florida, he could have very well been the first receiver taken in this draft. The former Freshman All-American is an explosive athlete who’s a nightmare in the open field, can blow defensive backs on vertical routes, and make huge plays in the return game. Considering many teams will focus on Josh Gordon when playing the Browns, if Cleveland’s staff can keep Callaway on the straight and narrow, he could be a bigtime sleeper this year.

4. D.J. Moore, Carolina Panthers — D.J. Moore was one of the hottest names in the 2018 NFL Draft in the days leading up to draft day, on the heels of being named the 2017 Big Ten Receiver of the Year, and setting a school record for most receptions in a season (80) despite catching passes from four different quarterbacks at Maryland. Moore is an exceptional athlete who can do a tremendous amount of damage out of the catch. The biggest question for him will be how he’ll fare in new offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s scheme, which is highly predicated on precise routes ran by his receivers (something Moore admittedly needs to work on).

3. Christian Kirk, Arizona Cardinals — The great thing for Christian Kirk is the fact that he’s going to be relied upon to contribute right from the get go in Arizona. It wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprising if Kirk starts as the Cardinals’ slot receiver from day one, opposite of Larry Fitzgerald, and whoever starts opposite of Fitzgerald on the other side (either J.J. Nelson or Chad Williams). Kirk has excellent short-area quickness, a natural feel for finding the soft spots underneath, and the ability to do a lot of damage once the ball is in his hands. The staff at Texas A&M loved Kirk, and his combination of athleticism and competitiveness should get him on the field very quickly.

2. James Washington, Pittsburgh Steelers — Why bet against the ability of the Pittsburgh Steelers to develop young wide receivers into instant contributors? One year after drafting JuJu Smith-Schuster and seeing him become the youngest player in NFL history to have over 1,000 all-purpose yards, they take James Washington in the 2nd round of the draft, presumably to fill the hole caused by trading away Martavis Bryant. Washington could easily step right in and pick up where Bryant left off as the “big play” wide receiver; he averaged almost 21 yards per catch over his 74 catches last year, giving him the highest such average among receivers with more than 50 catches. As defenses key on Smith-Schuster and Antonio Brown, Washington could see a ton of favorable matchups this year.

1. Calvin Ridley, Atlanta Falcons — One of the biggest issues rookie wide receivers face when entering the NFL is getting acclimated to a new offense. But Calvin Ridley will have the “easiest” version of said learning curve, because he’ll be playing in the scheme of offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who coached Ridley back at the University of Alabama (during the 2016 season). Ridley will be given every opportunity to come right in and play opposite of two crafty veterans in Julio Jones (a fellow Alabama alum) and Mohamed Sanu, giving the Falcons a trio of wide receivers that will be a major headache to stop.