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Stellar 2020 receiver class a perfect example of reward, perils of relying on rookies

The Packers decided against taking a receiver in the 2020 NFL draft (had you heard that?). While we often focus on the players Brian Gutekunst would have been smart to take, we forget how many others have offered little.

Vikings rookie Justin Jefferson has been one of the best receivers in football this season.
| Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

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In case you hadn’t heard, the Green Bay Packers failed to add a top pass-catcher to the offense this offseason despite a historically deep draft class at receiver. If this is new to you, I’ll give you a second to digest. Crazy, right? Surely every other team who grabbed one, 15 drafted in the first 100 picks, snagged an instant-impact starter who has come in and fundamentally changed their offense.

Except that’s not true, not even close. Instead, 2020 is a reminder that, even in an abnormally talented draft, more often than not these gifted players need time to be useful to their teams. A few teams will hit the jackpot, while the rest will be stuck waiting.

First, players aren’t drafted for what they are as rookies, or at least that’s not the prudent view to take by fans or by franchises. The success of a handful of players colors this perception, though. Justin Jefferson playing like one of the best receivers in the NFL this season casts a shadow over the draft of a team like the Packers because they drafted a player who isn’t contributing. The thing about rookies is most don’t contribute positively right away.

Based on the data study done by Timo Riske at Pro Football Focus, first-round receivers have a better than 50/50 chance of being starters if taken in the first two rounds, and still have a 41% chance when taken in the third. Given what we know about rookies though (most of them are bad early, even if they end up being good players), we should expect those numbers to be lower in Year 1.

We can use both quantitative and qualitative metrics to show what’s happening with this class and the data makes a compelling case. Of the 15 receivers taken in the top 100 picks, only 5 have 40 or more targets, which means they wouldn’t qualify for DYAR. This is its own kind of weigh station for impact. On the flip side, 13/15 have at least 19 targets per Pro Football Focus (Pro Football Reference has Devin Duvernay for 20, so we will cheat and include everyone with 19 targets by PFF’s numbers).

Numbers are out of 118 qualifying receivers.

Rookie Receiver Rankings

Player Draft Spot PFF Receiving Grade Rank Yard Per Route Run Rank DYAR Rank
Player Draft Spot PFF Receiving Grade Rank Yard Per Route Run Rank DYAR Rank
Henry Ruggs 11 109 89 N/R
Jerry Jeudy 15 72 49 61
CeeDee Lamb 17 67 32 49
Jalen Reagor 21 99 93 N/R
Justin Jefferson 22 2 1 1
Brandon Aiyuk 25 16 67 41
Tee Higgins 33 32 39 15
Michael Pittman Jr. 34 85 65 N/R
Laviska Shenault 42 39 68 N/R
K.J. Hamler 46 114 100 N/R
Chase Claypool 49 34 17 36
Van Jefferson 57 N/R N/R N/R
Denzel Mims 59 38 25 N/R
Bryan Edwards 81 N/R N/R N/R
Devin Duvernay 92 78 77 N/R

We can bucket these receivers to make the figures here more manageable

Good

  • Justin Jefferson
  • Chase Claypool
  • Brandon Aiyuk
  • Tee Higgins

Good but injured

  • Laviska Shenault
  • Denzel Mims

Not good or injured or both

  • Henry Ruggs
  • Jerry Jeudy
  • CeeDee Lamb
  • Jalen Reagor
  • Michael Pittman Jr.
  • K.J. Hamler
  • Van Jefferson
  • Bryan Edwards
  • Devin Duvernay

In other words, to date, most of the draft class here hasn’t been good or hasn’t been healthy or has been both. These metrics also reflect efficiency, so even if someone like Pittman Jr. or Reagor, who have missed time with injuries, played well in short spurts, that would be reflected here and it’s not. At least by these numbers, those guys have not played like above average receivers to date even if Packers fans would be thrilled to have either.

Long-term, we can expect a shift in how these players perform, at least some of them. Lamb likely gets better when Dak Prescott comes back, Jeudy and Hamler’s quarterback situation hasn’t been much better, and the aforementioned injured players could get healthy, stay that way, and evolve into star players. Nearly every Packers receiver of note in the last decade needed multiple seasons to become valuable starters for this offense.

None of this should be taken as a justification of Green Bay’s draft either. Players aren’t taken just for who they are as rookies. The Packers’ first-round choice (and to an extent their second-round selection) is proof of that. But as fans clamor for the impact receiver with Marquez Valdes-Scantling’s rollercoaster play and Allen Lazard’s injuries, it’s worth pointing out how unlikely it is that a pick actually would have mattered much to this offense.

Of the “good” players, only two were available when the Packers picked in the first round and Higgins didn’t meet their preferred athletic standards. Claypool, who went nearly 30 picks later, would have been viewed as a reach, though he would have flourished in Matt LaFleur’s offense. And it’s worth noting none of the good players, injured or otherwise, could have been the pick at 62 when they were all off the board.

More to the point, the pool of available players at the time contained far more players who haven’t been particularly useful to date, which made the Packers’ chance at taking a valuable player pretty low. Hindsight makes scholars of every fan on social media, but it’s context matters too much to ignore here.

And speaking of context, Lazard doesn’t qualify for the main DYAR stat with fewer than 40 passes, but his DYAR would rank 19th if he did qualify. Remember, DYAR is a counting stat, so creating that much production with so few targets means he’s producing more total value than some No. 1 options even if we include all the missed starts in their comparison. The Alien Lizard also stands 11th in yards per route run this season among players with at least 19 targets. In other words, the only rookie providing more value per play when adjusting for opponent this season is Jefferson, and that’s with Lazard having played just four games.

Jefferson’s success suggests the prudent choice in hindsight would have been to trade up for him, though it would likely have required the second-round pick to get high enough for him. On the other hand, if they’d taken Reagor instead of Jefferson after a trade-up, we’d be sitting here wondering if the Packers wasted their chance at a star player. That’s just the volatility of the draft.

Immediately after the draft, we can’t accurately evaluate the picks without seeing their development because even players who turn out to be useful often play inconsistent football as rookies. But we can evaluate two things: process and self-evaluation. If the Packers thought Lazard, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown, along with their young tight ends, would be enough to eschew non-elite receiver talent, they look right on that account. This has been a top-5 offense all season and they’ve made significant strides in the passing game despite myriad injuries. That’s the self-evaluation piece.

Did they err in maximizing value with their Day 2 picks, selecting a running back and tight end/H-Back? Even without seeing the above list, we can safely say that was sub-optimal process. Still, it doesn’t look like they missed on some long line of high quality pass catchers who went after they picked A.J. Dillon and Josiah Deguara. At least not in terms of Year 1 impact. Whether or not that changes can’t be determined right now, but in the same vein, neither can the impact of Dillon or Deguara, both of whom could be getting starter-level snaps in 2021 and beyond.

If Jordan Love can’t play and some of the players in the bad category become good, then we’ll be able to say they missed a golden opportunity to maximize their talent long-term, but so far the Year 1 impact looks likely to a draw. Of course, the Packers could have taken a non-quarterback who might be playing as well, but if the question is the immediate impact at the receiver position, this class shows how spotty rookies can be. Worrying about which rookies could or couldn’t be helping the Packers pass catching group too often misses the simple truth that the likelihood of one of these players, even in a terrific draft, making an impact right away was slim.

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