Each year, NFL teams have to evaluate countless amounts of prospects to find out who’s going to fit their team the best. It’s a long and arduous process that takes months, and then immediately they start looking forward to the next year. Certain positions are much safer than others. For instance, teams don’t miss much when it comes to offensive linemen, but then there are very volatile positions.
Perhaps the hardest position outside of quarterback to evaluate is wide receiver. It seems that those that were thought to be sure things ended up becoming busts for the most part, with those receivers that were drafted behind the top spot developing into stars. Perhaps it’s the chip on the shoulder that lower-drafted receivers get, or scouts just missed out on a certain aspect of a receiver’s game. It also raises the question of whether taking a wide receiver in the first round is the best approach.
Whatever the reason, there have been plenty of receivers that deserved to have been drafted much higher than they were. These players have all turned into Pro Bowlers, with some going All-Pro and might even be destined for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. We’ll be looking at receivers that were drafted in the second round or later for this list, showing where they should’ve been drafted. This means that receivers like Odell Beckham, DeAndre Hopkins, Reggie Wayne and Roddy White were big steals in terms of where they were drafted, but these were the true receiver snipes of their respective drafts.
20 Chad Johnson - 8th Overall, Chicago Bears (2001)
Actual Draft Spot: 36th Overall, Cincinnati Bengals
The man that would later go on to become known as Ochocinco, Chad Johnson was a dynamic playmaker at Oregon State. However, he had to wait until the second round until he was drafted by the Bengals in 2001 with the 36th overall selection. He played all but one of his 11 NFL seasons in Cincinnati, finishing with the Patriots in 2011.
Johnson posted 11,059 yards and 67 touchdowns during his prestigious career, and was one of the best receivers from his class. The Chicago Bears could’ve used that type of production from their receiving corps during the 2000s. Instead, they used the eighth overall selection that year on Michigan’s David Terrell.
19 Steve Smith - 9th Overall, Seattle Seahawks (2001)
Actual Draft Spot: 74th Overall, Carolina Panthers
The other big steal of the 2001 NFL’s receiver class came the round after Chad Johnson, with Carolina taking Utah receiver Steve Smith with the 74th overall selection. It appears that Smith has put together a career that is worthy of Hall of Fame consideration, after spending 13 years with the Panthers and three with the Ravens.
Smith eclipsed Johnson in yards, putting up 14,731 with 81 touchdowns. Many teams were hungry for a receiver that year, but struck out. Smith should’ve easily been a top 10 pick in 2001, especially with many busts going before him. Among them was Koren Robinson, who had just one solid season in his career with the 2002 campaign for the Seahawks.
18 Anquan Boldin - 2nd Overall, Detroit Lions (2003)
Actual Draft Spot: 54th Overall, Arizona Cardinals
Skipping ahead to 2003, we find the biggest receiver steal of that year’s draft with Anquan Boldin. The physical route-runner from Florida State had to wait until the 54th overall selection until he was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals. Boldin ended up with almost identical stats to Steve Smith, putting up 13,779 receiving yards and 82 touchdowns over his 14 seasons that included stops in Baltimore, San Francisco and Detroit after his stint in Arizona.
Andre Johnson was the second receiver off the board that year when he went third overall to the Texans, and that worked out just fine. However, the Lions selected Charles Rogers from Michigan State just before him. That would’ve been a good spot for Boldin, getting him to the Motor City long before he actually arrived.
17 Greg Jennings - 21st Overall, New England Patriots (2006)
Actual Draft Spot: 52nd Overall, Green Bay Packers
There was another gap of receivers being drafted exactly where they should’ve been taken, so we jump ahead once more to 2006 where there were two big steals. The first was an overlooked MAC receiver from Western Michigan, Greg Jennings, who was the 52nd overall selection by the Green Bay Packers. Spending seven years in Green Bay, Jennings teamed up with Aaron Rodgers for 6,537 of his 8,291 career yards and 53 of his 64 touchdowns.
It was a pretty shallow draft class for receivers, with only one (Santonio Holmes) being drafted in the first round. It’s likely that Jennings would’ve been a better fit for the Patriots, who took a receiver (Chad Jackson) in the second round, and Laurence Maroney in the first. Either spot would have worked.
16 Brandon Marshall - 7th Overall, Oakland Raiders (2006)
Actual Draft Spot: 119th Overall, Denver Broncos
Not only was Brandon Marshall the biggest receiver steal in the 2006 NFL Draft, but he ended up being the best wideout of the bunch in terms of overall career. He had to wait until the fourth round to be called, going 119th overall to the Broncos. In 2018, Marshall was still playing in the NFL as a member of the Seahawks, showing off his longevity.
Marshall has played for six teams in his NFL career, most notably with Denver and Chicago, posting 12,351 yards and 83 touchdowns. Marshall should have gone to the Raiders, who drafted safety Michael Huff with the seventh overall spot, instead. Huff didn’t work out, and the Raiders ended up finishing 2-14 in 2006.
15 Jordy Nelson - 6th Overall, New York Jets (2008)
Actual Draft Spot: 36th Overall, Green Bay Packers
2007 didn’t have much in terms of receiver steals, but 2008 sure had plenty of them. The first of the steals was Jordy Nelson, a Kansas State receiver that some considered to be more of a return specialist. The Packers decided he was worthy of being a starting receiver, taking him with the 36th overall selection.
Interestingly enough, the first receiver taken off of the board was Donnie Avery, just three spots ahead of Nelson. Instead, the receiver who’s still active in the league deserved to be drafted much higher. The Jets with the sixth selection could’ve brought some opportunities to the team who had the likes of Jerricho Cotchery and an aging Laveranues Coles at that point.
14 DeSean Jackson - 8th Overall, Jacksonville Jaguars (2008)
Actual Draft Spot: 49th Overall, Philadelphia Eagles
Another receiver that was overlooked because teams thought he was one-dimensional, DeSean Jackson out of Cal was drafted toward the end of the second round as the 49th overall selection by the Eagles. Of course, it ended up being a good fit for the Eagles...until Chip Kelly came around. In a perfect world, Jackson’s deep threat ability deserved to have him drafted higher.
The Jaguars had the likes of Dennis Northcutt and Troy Williamson on their roster at that point. With the eighth overall pick, Jackson belonged on their roster. That’s especially when you consider that he’s put up over 10,000 yards and 53 touchdowns during his career with the Eagles, Redskins and Buccaneers.
13 Pierre Garcon - 33rd Overall, St. Louis Rams (2008)
Actual Draft Spot: 205th Overall, Indianapolis Colts
Jackson ended up being teammates in Washington with Pierre Garcon when the two were major free agent signings. Both also ended up being draft steals originally, with Garcon being a massive steal as a sixth round pick, 205th overall by the Indianapolis Colts. Garcon was overlooked coming out of Division III Mount Union, but ended up being an NFL catch machine.
Garcon has 628 receptions in his long career, with 7,854 yards and 38 touchdowns. Those numbers aren’t quite as high as his counterparts, but amazing for a sixth rounder. If the Rams were fishing for a receiver in 2008, they should’ve opted to draft Garcon instead of Donnie Avery.
12 Mike Wallace - 8th Overall, Oakland Raiders (2009)
Actual Draft Spot: 84th Overall, Pittsburgh Steelers
Mike Wallace is much like DeSean Jackson in the fact that he’s best suited as a deep threat, which is often undermined in the NFL when you can’t run all of the routes. Because of that, Ole Miss receiver Wallace had to wait until the 84th pick (late third round) by the Pittsburgh Steelers. In his four years there, he became a Pro Bowler and posted two 1,000 plus yard seasons.
Overall, Wallace has over 8,000 yards and 57 receiving touchdowns, playing briefly in 2018 with the Eagles. Overall, the receiver class that year was lacking, but Wallace could still be regarded as the best in 2009, fighting with Michael Crabtree. The Raiders took the speedy Darrius Heyward-Bey that year with the eighth selection, but if they wanted a fast receiver, Wallace would’ve been better.
11 Golden Tate - 16th Overall, Tennessee Titans (2010)
Actual Draft Spot: 60th Overall, Seattle Seahawks
Golden Tate was an amazing receiver while at Notre Dame. So much so, in fact, that he helped convince Mel Kiper that Jimmy Clausen was a lock to be an NFL star. Instead, Tate became the star himself, despite being drafted 60th overall by the Seahawks. Between his time with the Seahawks, Lions and Eagles, Tate has over 7,200 yards and 38 touchdowns.
This ended up being a good class, so it’s hard to say where the big steals should have gone. The first receivers off the board were Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant, two Pro Bowlers. The best fit for Tate would’ve been at the 16th overall selection. That year, the Titans took Derrick Morgan, who has been a solid player, but not quite the difference maker Tate has been at times. Again, 2010 was a very good class.
10 Emmanuel Sanders - 19th Overall, Atlanta Falcons (2010)
Actual Draft Spot: 82nd Overall, Pittsburgh Steelers
One round after Tate was selected, SMU receiver Emmanuel Sanders was taken with the 82nd selection by the Steelers. It was another solid steal for Pittsburgh, where he played four seasons before playing his most recent five in Denver. Even in 2018, Sanders is still posting solid seasons, having 868 yards to put him over 7,000 in his career.
The Falcons used the 19th overall selection on current free agent Sean Weatherspoon, before the team had a receiver to complement Roddy White, which eventually became Julio Jones. Prior to Jones joining the roster, Sanders could have been an Atlanta Falcon.
9 Antonio Brown - 1st Overall, St. Louis Rams (2010)
Actual Draft Spot: 195th Overall, Pittsburgh Steelers
By far the biggest steal of the 2010 NFL Draft, receiver or not, might very well be the best player that was taken in that year. Yet another Steelers snipe, Brown was a sixth round pick out of Central Michigan, where he showed the playmaking ability long before he started to show signs of lock room conflict.
Since he was arguably the best player in the draft that year, it’s not out of the question to say that Brown should’ve been the first overall pick. The Rams used that pick on Sam Bradford, the oft-injured player that is still looking for a home. The six players drafted after Bradford have all been studs, but Brown really stands out.
8 Randall Cobb - 26th Overall, Kansas City Chiefs (2011)
Original Draft Spot: 64th Overall, Green Bay Packers
There are two teams that are pretty constant with being able to find the diamonds in the rough, particularly at receiver. Outside of Pittsburgh, Green Bay has done quite well for themselves. In 2011, the team used the final selection of the second round on Kentucky receiver Randall Cobb. Cobb has been with the Packers ever since, putting up 5,524 yards and 41 touchdowns.
Cobb isn’t the best receiver in his class, as both A.J. Green and Julio Jones were taken high, as they should've been. The Chiefs that year took Jonathan Baldwin out of Pitt in the first round, which produced no results. What’s now a high powered offense could’ve been better years earlier with Cobb.
7 Alshon Jeffery - 5th Overall, Jacksonville Jaguars (2012)
Actual Draft Spot: 45th Overall, Chicago Bears
There were some good receivers in the 2012 NFL Draft, but teams took their time to find them. It wasn’t until the 45th overall selection that the Bears found one of the two solid receivers when they took Alshon Jeffery out of South Carolina. Jeffery spent five seasons in Chicago, and now his last two in Philadelphia. So far, he’s posted 6,181 yards and 41 touchdowns, helping both of his squads tremendously.
The Jaguars that year used the fifth overall selection on receiver Justin Blackmon out of Oklahoma State. The receiver ended up barely playing due to off-the-field issues, while Jeffery has been consistent every year.
6 T.Y. Hilton - 13th Overall, Arizona Cardinals (2012)
Actual Draft Spot: 92nd Overall, Indianapolis Colts
Guys like Kendall Wright, A.J. Jenkins, Brian Quick and Stephen Hill were all taken before Jeffery in 2012, as well as Florida International standout T.Y. Hilton. The Colts selected him toward the very end of the third round, which has been a blessing with the pairing resulting in 8,097 yards and 40 touchdowns for the Pro Bowler, including no seasons under 966 yards since his rookie year.
Not mentioned in those receivers that were taken before Hilton was Michael Floyd out of Notre Dame, the 13th overall selection by the Cardinals. Hilton in that Cardinals offense with Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald would’ve clicked much faster, and perhaps have gotten the desert their first Super Bowl.
5 Keenan Allen - 8th Overall, St. Louis Rams (2013)
Original Draft Spot: 76th Overall, San Diego Chargers
When healthy, Keenan Allen is considered one of the most dynamic playmakers at wide receiver. In his four full seasons with the Chargers, Allen has posted 4,418 yards and 28 touchdowns, and is averaging nearly 75 yards per game. However, Allen wasn’t selected until the Chargers chose him in the third round, 76th overall.
Save for DeAndre Hopkins and the late-developing Robert Woods, the 2013 receiver class hasn’t been great. Allen should have been a member of the Rams before they made their move to Los Angeles. That year, they selected Tavon Austin out of West Virginia, who has proven to be a mediocre receiver and solid return man.
4 Davante Adams - 4th Overall, Buffalo Bills (2014)
Actual Draft Spot: 53rd Overall, Green Bay Packers
2014 was an above average draft class for wide receivers, which is perhaps why Davante Adams had to wait so long to be selected. Adams is yet another Packers player to join the list, being the 53rd overall selection out of Fresno State. Adams has developed as Green Bay’s top target, having his best season in 2018 with 1,386 yards and 13 touchdowns, bringing his career total to 4,197 and 39.
The Bills ended up with Sammy Watkins with the fourth overall pick, who is no longer on the team, and hasn’t been all that great with the Chiefs. Adams would be a perfect fit into that offense, rounding out a tremendous first round for receivers that would’ve also included Odell Beckham, Mike Evans and Brandin Cooks.
3 Michael Thomas - 15th Overall, Cleveland Browns (2016)
Actual Draft Spot: 47th Overall, New Orleans Saints
The Saints have had a way of finding tremendous offensive talent in the last few drafts, which has helped them become perennial contenders and put them on the verge of reaching the Super Bowl this past season. At least now they have a receiver for years to come, as they selected Ohio State wideout Michael Thomas with the 47th overall pick.
So far, Thomas had his least productive season as a rookie...and he still posted 1,137 yards with nine touchdowns. So far, Thomas is on pace for a Hall of Fame career, which is something that the Browns probably wish they had at receiver. The team passed up on the in-state prospect with the 15th selection to take Corey Coleman out of Baylor.
2 Tyreek Hill - 22nd Overall, Washington Redskins (2016)
Actual Draft Spot: 165th Overall, Kansas City Chiefs
The 2016 NFL Draft also featured one of the most dynamic players that the league has seen in quite some time. That player, of course, is Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill. Everyone knew about his speed, but his off-the-field issues kept the West Alabama product off the board until the 165th overall selection.
On top of being an amazing return man, Hill has had two straight 1,100 plus yard seasons, including 2018’s 1,479 yards and 12 touchdowns through the air. Hill got comfortable with Alex Smith in his first two seasons, and they could’ve teamed up again with the Redskins. Washington took TCU receiver Josh Doctson that year, who has been quite the bust so far.
1 JuJu Smith-Schuster - 5th Overall, Tennessee Titans (2017)
Actual Draft Spot: 62nd Overall, Pittsburgh Steelers
Once again, the Steelers prove that they are able to find and develop receivers at any point in the NFL Draft. To team up with former draft steal Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh selected USC receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster with the 62nd overall selection. Smith-Schuster had a tremendous rookie season with 917 yards in 14 games, and improved to 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns in his second year.
Surprisingly, four receivers were drafted ahead of Smith-Schuster. That includes Corey Davis, the Western Michigan receiver that was taken fifth overall by the Titans. While Davis hasn’t been bad, and in fact shows signs of becoming a very good receiver, Smith-Schuster has already shown that he was worthy of being a top five selection.