DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle celebrate a touchdown

Greatest Receiver Classes: Can 2021 Join Them?

  • 2021 NFL Draft
  • DeVonta Smith
  • Draft
  • draft prospects
  • Ja'Marr Chase
  • Jaylen Waddle
  • prospects
  • Wide Receiver
  • wide receiver prospects
  • Wide Receivers
By Daniel Kitchen December 23, 2020 0 Comment
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It (correctly) seems hyperbolic to ever consider a prospect class at any position one of the best before they have even had a chance to finish out their college season, go through the pre-draft process, and suit up for Week 1 at the NFL level.

But sometimes, a class is just so good that the discussion is warranted. Not that they ARE one of the best classes ever. But that they have THE POTENTIAL TO BE one of the best groups to ever come through the draft.

The 2021 receiver class is one such group that deserves that kind of consideration.

What does the 2021 class have to do?

To become one of the greatest receiver classes of all time, the 2021 crop needs to do multiple things.

First: Have one player (or players) develop into not just one of the league’s best, but a signature player become who can be remembered as both the face of the class and as one of the best at his position while he played, potentially even entering the Hall of Fame.

Second: Have some degree of depth behind that top name (or names). Every receiver drafted doesn’t have to become WR1 and accumulate 1,000-yard seasons. But a great class has more than just a couple of big names. For example, look at 1998. Randy Moss went 21st and Hines Ward went 92nd, but the rest of their classmates failed to become strong receivers.

Examine some of the years widely considered to be among the greatest receiver classes of all time.

2014

The players: Sammy Watkins (4th: Buffalo), Mike Evans (7th: Tampa Bay), Odell Beckham Jr. (12th: New York Giants), Brandin Cooks (20th: New Orleans), Davante Adams (53rd: Green Bay), Allen Robinson (61st: Jacksonville), Jarvis Landry (63rd: Miami), John Brown (91st: Arizona)

That’s three players—Evans, OBJ, and Adams—considered among the best in the NFL and have been for multiple seasons. Robinson would be with them with better quarterbacks to play with during his career. Watkins, Cooks, Landry, and Brown have all been solid pros with 1,000-yard potential during their careers.

2010

The players: Demaryius Thomas (22nd: Denver), Dez Bryant (24th: Dallas), Golden Tate (60th: Seattle), Emmanuel Sanders (82nd: Pittsburgh), Antonio Brown (195th: Pittsburgh)

The depth doesn’t match 2014, but Brown was the best receiver in football for the prime of his career. Without off-field antics and legal issues, he would be a sure-fire HOF’er. Thomas and Bryant spent plenty of time as WR1s, and Sanders and Tate are still chugging along as veteran WR2/3s.

1996

The players: Keyshawn Johnson (1st: New York Jets), Terry Glenn (7th: New England), Eddie Kennison (18th: St. Louis), Marvin Harrison (19th: Indianapolis), Eric Moulds (24th: Buffalo), Amani Toomer (34th: New York Giants), Muhsin Muhammad (43rd: Carolina), Bobby Engram (52nd: Chicago), Terrell Owens (89th: San Francisco), Joe Horn (135th: Kansas City)

Forever the gold standard for a class to try to emulate. Owens and Harrison are among the greatest to ever do it, and Johnson is still the only WR to go No. 1 overall in the draft and had a stellar career.

Muhammad, Moulds, and Toomer all exceeded or were one season shy of reaching 10,000 career yards. Glenn, Horn, and Kennison all started over lengthy careers with multiple teams.

1988

The players: Tim Brown (6th: Los Angeles Raiders), Sterling Sharpe (7th: Green Bay), Michael Irvin (11th: Dallas), Anthony Miller (15th: San Diego), Brian Blades (49th: Seattle)

Another class with a couple of memorable names leading the way, Brown, and Irvin are still the greatest receivers to ever play for two of the league’s most historic franchises. Miller and Sharpe started their entire time in the league, and Blades was a frequent starter in his time in the NFL.

1985

The players: Al Toon (10th: New York Jets), Jerry Rice (16th: San Francisco), Andre Reed (86th: Buffalo), Eric Martin (179th: New Orleans)

You do not get a better representative for a class than Jerry Rice, who is the greatest receiver to ever play (and has been named as such before). However, this class ascends to a new level with the addition of Reed. He was a Hall of Famer and the greatest receiver to play for Buffalo. Add in Toon and Martin, and a class with modest depth becomes one of the greatest.

Every one of those classes has the “big” names to lead the way, with multiple Hall of Famers present among those years that have seen their careers conclude. But there’s more than just that—each class has at least a couple more names who didn’t reach those levels while playing but were viewed as very productive players during their career and earned no shortage of support from their fan bases.

2020: A case study

The 2020 and 2021 draft classes are very similar and may be the greatest two-year influx of WR talent the NFL has ever seen. Injuries and a COVID-affected season have kept some of its members from getting a complete chance to play. However, there are still 14 players with between 302-1,078 yards this season as rookies.

It’s an exercise in futility to project whether a rookie can keep growing and become a Hall of Fame-caliber receiver. Among the 2020 names, Justin Jefferson looks like an absolute star already. CeeDee Lamb, Tee Higgins, Chase Claypool, Brandon Aiyuk, Jerry Jeudy, and Henry Ruggs III can keep developing and match him. No fewer than eight others from the class have shown, at worst, the ability to be starters or WR3s.

It’s been an incredibly impactful rookie group that’s sufficiently lived up to considerable expectations before the draft being held. A draft class can’t show in one year they’re among the best, but can absolutely show they’re on their way. And 2020 did, paving the way for 2021 to do the same.

So can 2021 do it?

The biggest asset to 2021 joining 1996 and others as one of the greatest receiver classes is its depth. There are at least 16 receivers with more than starting upside, and that is before more can elevate their stock during the pre-draft process.

Having enough from this class become long-term contributors doesn’t seem like a question of if, but just how numerous the total number ends up being. The bigger questions are whether enough players can rise above the “average pro” level, to become at least above-average contributors for more than the odd season, and if any can rise even higher, to become the talent that the class is ultimately remembered for.

It certainly seems likely. At the top of the group, LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase and Alabama’s DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle are elite prospects with immediate Pro Bowl upside. None should be drafted with the intent to be less than a WR1 within three seasons.

That ends the upper-most tier of the class, but the upside doesn’t stop. Rashod Bateman (Minnesota), Terrace Marshall Jr. (LSU), Sage Surratt (Wake Forest), and Seth Williams (Auburn) all have the size. Rondale Moore (Purdue) and Kadarius Toney (Florida) are two that are highlight reels in open space, and Chris Olave (Ohio State) has the speed to use.

Whatever the type of player a WR-needy team is searching for, this draft has it. It is a truly special group, one that can live up to the 2020 class before it.

Is it time to call them one of the greatest receiver classes to come through? Not even close. But it is time to recognize that the 2021 class has the potential to be there, and show early signs of it as soon as their rookie season?

Absolutely.

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Here to discuss and examine all things NFL Draft. Occasionally sarcastic. Life is better with more scrambling QBs.

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