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Why rookie wideouts thrive instantly in today's NFL

Julian Catalfo / theScore

The 20th wide receiver drafted in 2023 made the biggest splash. Puka Nacua became Matthew Stafford's top target when Cooper Kupp was injured to start the season. The Rams fifth-rounder set NFL rookie records for catches (105) and yards gained (1,486). Nacua's acrobatic grabs inside the teeth of the defense lengthened the runtime of his year-end highlight montage to almost 15 minutes.

Tank Dell clicked with C.J. Stroud, the breakout quarterback who trumped Nacua in the Offensive Rookie of the Year voting. The evasiveness of Dell, the Texans' third-round pick, helped him beat coverages as one of the league's lightest wideouts. Dell put up 145-yard and 149-yard performances and scored in four straight games before a fibula fracture ended his season in December.

Green Bay's receiving nucleus - four wideouts drafted in Rounds 2-5 over the past couple of years - joined Jordan Love in Southern California last offseason to run routes and bond. The group gelled on the fly during Love's first season as the Packers' starter. A rookie, Jayden Reed, was the leading playmaker for a team on the rise. Love didn't need a veteran supporting cast to upset the Cowboys in the playoffs.

In Minnesota, Jordan Addison sprinted to the end zone to snare 10 touchdown passes. In Baltimore, Zay Flowers' impressive output strengthened Lamar Jackson's MVP candidacy. Another new pro, Rashee Rice, reliably got open for Patrick Mahomes to find during the Chiefs' march to Super Bowl LVIII. Gems unearthed at all stages of the draft shone in focal roles.

Their collective readiness to thrive was unique. Last year, receivers authored 10 of the 33 strongest rookie seasons as measured by approximate value, Pro Football Reference's catchall performance stat. Seven rookie offensive linemen recorded AV scores in this range, along with no more than four players from any other position.

In today's NFL, competence, even stardom, is promptly attainable at wideout. Seven receivers over the past five years - Nacua, A.J. Brown, Ja'Marr Chase, Justin Jefferson, Chris Olave, Jaylen Waddle, and Garrett Wilson - cleared 1,000 yards as rookies. Budding stars who narrowly fell short of 1,000, from Tee Higgins to CeeDee Lamb to DeVonta Smith to Amon-Ra St. Brown, still helped rookie production accelerate in the period.

Even in this context, the 2024 draft class looks special. The headliners are Ohio State's Marvin Harrison Jr., son and namesake of the Colts legend; LSU star Malik Nabers; and Rome Odunze of Washington. An early run on those wideouts, as well as the top quarterbacks, is expected when the first round proceeds Thursday in Detroit.

Observers think the class is deep, too.

"You might draft a guy in the third or fourth round, or maybe even fifth, who has first- or second-round talent," said David Robinson, a private wide receivers coach in Dallas who trains NFL clientele and prospects. "It means teams are getting a bargain."

Ahead of the draft, theScore asked authorities on the subject - draft analysts, trainers like Robinson, and a college position coach - to explain why receivers get good so fast. A range of controllable and external factors drive the trend. Developments at all levels of the sport enhanced skill and pro preparedness in recent years.

Puka Nacua. Harry How / Getty Images
Marvin Harrison Jr. Rich Schultz / Getty Images

The spread of seven-on-seven passing drills, camps, leagues, and tournaments increased a young wideout's opportunities to sharpen his craft. The noncontact variation of the game declutters the field and spotlights the receiver-cornerback battle. Route-runners learn tricks of the trade, like jab steps, shoulder feints, and triple moves, that help them create separation and win reps.

"They get a chance to develop a lot quicker when they're doing these things before they get to college," Robinson said. "It's just like AAU basketball. When they can do something pretty much year-round, it enhances their confidence, timing, and routes."

Routes grew more effective as offseason specialized training became prevalent over the past decade, said Brandon White, who trains the likes of Stefon Diggs and Tyreek Hill in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Blending science with art, trainers refine a receiver's mechanics so he can make the most of his athleticism. They break down subtleties like chest and knee alignment, or how to properly stick a foot in the ground to spur a sudden, explosive cut.

More receivers are equipped to attack, wrong-foot, and escape defenders without betraying where they plan to go. They have more answers to solve press and off coverages.

"They're better route-runners and have a better understanding of route running. They're prepared. These reps are doing something. They're not in vain," White said. "(A receiver these days) can be real deceptive. He can be real precise. He can stop (on a dime). He can do this at different tempos. And he's really, really fast regardless."

At the NCAA level, more schemes task wideouts with running a full route tree. Concepts and terminologies that coaches introduce are echoed in the pros. College standouts like Dell, the national yardage and touchdowns leader in his final season at Houston, also benefit from shouldering a high workload. Draft prospects hauled in up to 110 receptions (Virginia's Malik Washington) and 17 TD passes (LSU's Brian Thomas Jr.) in 2023.

College receivers gain experience in different roles. The versatile Josh Downs lined up on the outside and in the slot and backfield to maximize his touches over three years at North Carolina. Coveting his shiftiness, the Colts drafted Downs in the middle of the third round, and he ranked fifth in the NFL last season in yards gained on slot routes, per PFF.

"It boils down to finding the right team. The Colts were the right fit for Josh. They needed what he offered," said Lonnie Galloway, North Carolina's passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach. "The later you go, you're hoping you go to a team with a great quarterback or system that can utilize your skill set."

Josh Downs. Michael Hickey / Getty Images
Jordan Addison. Patrick McDermott / Getty Images

The talent around a wideout shapes his NFL career. Prolific rookies tend to play with superb passers. By simplifying the playbook for inexperienced QBs, rebuilding squads reduce the learning curve for their receivers. On top of that, rules that constrict defensive contact and physicality help ease the adjustment to the NFL, said Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy, a former longtime scout.

No matter who throws them the ball, rookies drafted in lower rounds have to believe they belong.

"What they need to focus on is controlling what they can control. Playing loose. Being free," Robinson said. "When they're too uptight and they're afraid to mess up, that's when you see guys second-guess their ability."

Franchises win when cost-controlled wideouts pop off. Six rookies - Dell, Downs, Flowers, Nacua, Reed, and Rice - led or ranked second on their team in receiving yards while accounting for no more than 1.1% of the club's 2023 cap outlay, per Over The Cap. Five of their teams reached the postseason. The outlier, Indianapolis, rose from 30th to 10th in scoring and wasn't eliminated from playoff contention until the final weekend.

The Packers nabbed a wild-card spot, then drubbed Dallas in the opening round despite ranking 31st in dollars spent on wide receivers and offensive players, per Spotrac. After Hill and JuJu Smith-Schuster left the Chiefs to get paid elsewhere, weakening Mahomes' playmaking corps, Rice's emergence as a capable replacement helped the superstar quarterback clinch another championship.

Jayden Reed. Ryan Kang / Getty Images

In this pass-happy era, teams like to field an array of threats. Last season, 26 offenses lined up in three-receiver sets on the majority of snaps, led by the Rams at 93%, according to SumerSports' personnel tendency tracker. Love spread the ball in Green Bay by targeting his favorite wideouts - Reed, fellow rookie Dontayvion Wicks, and second-year pros Romeo Doubs and Christian Watson - more than 50 times apiece.

"Maybe 15 or 20 years ago, it really was all about smashmouth football. We saw the running-back era take over football. Now, the game is gravitating toward the passing side," ESPN draft analyst Jordan Reid said. "You see more empty formations where there are four or five wide receivers on the field at a time. The development is being expedited because of that early in-game exposure - and also having more of those guys on the field."


Next Thursday in Detroit, wideouts could fly off the board at a historic pace. theScore's latest mock draft projects that seven will be first-round selections. That would tie the Round 1 record that Larry Fitzgerald's cohort set in 2004.

The Cardinals, who landed Fitzgerald at third overall, might race to snap up Harrison next week with the fourth pick. Quarterbacks will be taken higher, but there's a case to be made that Harrison, Nabers, and Odunze are the top three talents available, NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah told reporters on a recent conference call.

Close to faultless, Harrison is agile, smart, and in full control of his 6-foot-3 frame. His output for Ohio State rose from the 2022 season (97.2 yards per game), when Stroud was his quarterback, to Kyle McCord's year at the reins in 2023 (100.9 yards). He's an expert ball-tracker who makes tough plays look effortless.

"It's hard for big-body receivers like him to push vertical, 18-to-20 yards (downfield), and stop, redirect, and come back down," said Robinson, who's trained Harrison for a couple of offseasons. "He has feet like a smaller person - really quick feet like he's 5-foot-9 - and he's very explosive out of all of his breaks."

Attempting to cover or bring down the springy, elusive Nabers is nightmarish. He gained more first downs last season than every college receiver but Odunze, per PFF. Nabers forced 30 missed tackles to rank fourth nationwide. Jeremiah called the LSU product "a stick of dynamite."

"I just wrote this in my scouting report: He plays like he has a fully charged battery in his back the entire game. He doesn't lose any notches," said Reid, the ESPN analyst. "He looks faster than everybody that he's on the field with."

Odunze's 1,639 receiving yards for Washington paced the nation. He was dominant in aerial combat. The 6-foot-3, sure-handed Odunze outleaped defenders and withstood bumps to become the runaway national leader in contested catches, coming up with 21 on 28 targets. That math bodes well for his jump to the next level.

"NFL coverage is so good. It's so tight," Reid said. "The ability to make those competitive catches with bodies draped over you is a prerequisite to enter the NFL and have success, especially early on."

Breakneck speed abounds in the next receiver tiers. Xavier Worthy's 4.21-second 40-yard dash established an NFL combine record. Thomas, Adonai Mitchell, Devontez Walker, Xavier Legette, Ladd McConkey, and Roman Wilson all ran in the sub-4.4 range. Keon Coleman's peak speed of 20.36 mph in the gauntlet receiving drill led all participants.

Their peers are known for other achievements. Western Kentucky slot weapon Malachi Corley averaged 829 yards after the catch - a sterling 63.8 per game - over the past two college seasons. Ricky Pearsall's nicest, gutsiest grab at Florida was an all-time highlight.

James Gilbert / Getty Images

"You get sandwiched between two defenders and you're making an extended, one-handed catch. It was pretty ridiculous," Nagy said. "That one catch shows a ton: competitiveness, toughness, willingness to expose his body. A lot of guys don't want to play in traffic like that. And then the actual catching part of it: crazy body control, leaping ability, strong hands to secure the ball on contact."

Prospects who hustle to improve during the hectic pre-draft audition process, when demands for their time peak, impress White. This year, certain wideouts flew to Fort Lauderdale to squeeze in training sessions between their visits to NFL team facilities.

"They're trying to go get it, man. These guys are hungry. Look at the effort you're doing just to get to a workout," White said. "What I saw from the inside is the sacrifices they make to get to the work is something that's different."

Nick Faris is a features writer at theScore.

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