Every franchise in the NFL relies on their quarterback to win games and contend for a championship. Teams like the Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars have struggled over recent years to find that guy to lead them to the promised land. Part of the problem with these teams’ quarterback struggles is the lack of talent surrounding the quarterback once he is under center. Just this past year, we saw rookie quarterback Dak Prescott lead the Dallas Cowboys to the top spot in the NFC thanks to one of the best supporting casts in the league. With the obvious exception of guys like Tom Brady and Aaron Rogers, wide receivers help make their quarterback great.
The need for a receiver depends on what a team may be in need of. Some teams prefer to have the tall, strong possession receivers who can run across the middle of the field, and catch a slant knowing they’re going to get hit. Other teams prefer to have smaller speedy receivers who can catch the long ball and draw the safety with them. Both types of receivers can really help make the quarterbacks job easier, but they are rare to find.
Come this April, some teams will be looking to find the next great receiver to improve their offense. Over recent drafts, we have seen teams who take the first receiver off the board have experienced different results with their selection. Some players have turned out to be Hall of Famers while others are no longer in the league.
Here is a ranking of every receiver drafted first in the last 15 NFL Drafts:
15. Justin Blackmon (2012)
The Jacksonville Jaguars selected Justin Blackmon fifth overall, expecting him to help spark a young receiving core led by quarterback Chad Henne. The former Oklahoma State Cowboy spent three years with the school and caught 122 passes for over 1,500 yards and 18 touchdowns in his junior year. After declaring for the draft, he was projected to be a top five pick.
During his rookie year, he proved he was worth the 5th overall pick, catching 64 passes for 865 yards and five touchdowns. He was quickly emerging as one of the young stars in the league until his run-in with the law. Before his second year started, Blackmon received a four-game suspension for substance abuse. Instead of learning his lesson from it, he was suspended again just four games after being reinstated for the remainder of the season.
Blackmon has not been in the league since the early part of 2014 because of a marijuana arrest that left him suspended indefinitely from the league. It just goes to show how quickly you could lose something you worked hard for.
14. Charles Rogers (2003)
Charles Rogers has quite a similar story to Justin Blackmon. He was a standout receiver at Michigan State and still holds the school record for most career receiving touchdowns with 27. After declaring for the NFL draft following his sophomore season with the Spartans, Rogers was selected second overall by the Detroit Lions. Rogers was drawing early comparisons to the Vikings’ Randy Moss which he would never get close to. The Lions should have shown a bit of concern knowing that Rogers fathered two children before graduating from high school.
Rogers caught 22 passes during the first five games of his rookie campaign before breaking his clavicle which ended his season. Rogers could not escape the injury bug for very long and broke the same collarbone in the first game of the 2004 season. During his final season in the NFL, Rogers was suspended for the third time for failing a drug test and had to pay back the Lions over $10 million in bonuses. In 2009, he admitted to smoking marijuana regularly during his football playing career.
13. Darrius Heyward-Bey (2009)
The Raiders of the 2000’s were known to pass up on future All-Pro Players like Larry Fitzgerald and Aaron Rogers, but this pick even confused the “experts” on draft day. Heyward-Bey was selected seventh overall by the Oakland Raiders and the reasoning for the reach on him was his 4.3 40 yard dash at the NFL Combine. He spent just four seasons in Oakland without ever eclipsing 1,000 receiving yards in a season.
Heyward-Bey has now spent his last three seasons as a third/fourth receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Even though the Steelers love to throw the ball with Ben Roethlisberger, Heyward-Bey has seen limited action in the team’s offense. Looking back, the Raiders would have been much better off taking Michael Crabtree with that pick since he joined the team following the 2014 season anyway.
12. Donnie Avery (2008)
The 2008 draft was not considered to have any top talented receivers with Donnie Avery being taken 33rd overall. This was also the first draft since 1990 to not have a wide receiver taken in the first round. Avery spent just three seasons with the St. Louis Rams totaling eight receiving touchdowns in three seasons. After a knee injury kept him out of the 2010 season, the Rams moved on from him and he signed with the Titans in 2011.
Avery drifted from Tennessee to Indianapolis for two seasons before finishing his final two years in the league with the Kansas City Chiefs. He was never a team’s number one target but was a reliable third receiver for the teams who had him. The one thing his career will be remembered for is catching Andrew Luck’s first career touchdown pass.
11. Donte Stallworth (2002)
Unfortunately for Donte Stallworth, future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees did not arrive in New Orleans until the year after Stallworth was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles. The Saints took Stallworth 13th overall out of the University of Tennessee where he is 9th all-time in the school’s receiving yards list. He played ten seasons in the NFL with seven different teams, including the 2007 undefeated New England Patriots.
Stallworth’s best season came in his last season with the Saints catching 70 passes for 945 yards and seven touchdowns. In 2009, Stallworth was suspended for the entire season after being convicted of DUI manslaughter. He owned up to his mistake and served 24 days in a county prison. Today, Stallworth works as a Strategy Consultant protecting public venues against terrorist attacks.
10. Corey Coleman (2016)
It is difficult to have Corey Coleman any higher on this list because he is only a rookie and has proven very little in the NFL. Coleman was taken 15th overall by the Cleveland Browns out of Baylor University. Coleman finished his junior year at Baylor with 74 receptions for 1,363 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns. With such uncertainty at the quarterback position for the Browns, it was a miracle Coleman had any type of success with the team.
During practice of the third week of the season, Coleman broke his hand in practice that kept him out of six games. He finished his rookie season with 33 catches for 413 yards and three touchdowns. Unless Cleveland can figure out their never-ending quarterback saga, don’t expect a breakout from Corey Coleman any time soon.
9. Tavon Austin (2013)
One of the few bright spots of the Rams’ offense in recent years has been the 8th pick out of West Virginia, Tavon Austin. Austin has been as much of a threat as a runner as well as a receiver during his four years in the league, totaling 968 rushing yards. He caught over 100 passes for over 1,000 receiving yards in each of his final two seasons at West Virginia. In 2016, Austin reached his career-high in receiving yards with 508, which might not seem like much but he also is the team’s special teams’ returner.
Austin has been labeled as the team’s most explosive playmaker with his quick speed and ability to turn up the field quick. Even with four different quarterbacks starting within the past four years, Austin has proven to give the team a spark, whether it be catching a pass or returning a punt.
8. Braylon Edwards (2005)
Most picks for the Cleveland Browns as of late have turned out to be busts and Braylon Edwards was no different. The Browns selected Edwards 3rd overall out of the University of Michigan. Edwards caught 97 passes for over 1,300 yards and 15 touchdowns in his senior year with the Wolverines, leading to him being one of the top ranked receivers heading into the draft. Edwards had a remarkable season with the Browns in 2007 when he caught 80 passes for 1,289 and 16 touchdowns, second only to Randy Moss who broke the NFL record with 23.
After leading the league in drops the following year, the Browns traded Edwards to the New York Jets. Edwards spent just two seasons with the Jets as a second receiver to Santonio Holmes and continued his struggles with drops. He had a few short stints with Seattle and San Francisco but could never grasp the magic he had during the 2007 season.
7. Santonio Holmes (2006)
Santonio Holmes will always be remembered for arguably the best catch in Super Bowl history. With 35 seconds remaining, Holmes caught a game winning touchdown in the back corner of the end zone to give the Steelers a 27-23 victory over Arizona Cardinals. Holmes is also the only player on this list to be a Super Bowl MVP with his 9 catches for 131 yards and a touchdown in Super Bowl XLIII.
Holmes was drafted 25th overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers and helped them create one of the best receiving cores in the league today. Since drafting Holmes, the Steelers have seen pro bowlers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown elevate the Pittsburgh’s passing offense. Holmes spent just four seasons with the Steelers and accumulated one 1,000 yards receiving in his eight-year career. He spent the last year of his career with the Chicago Bears in 2014 playing in just nine games and catching eight passes.
6. Sammy Watkins (2014)
The Bills were in desperate need of a number one receiver in 2014 when they drafted Sammy Watkins fourth overall. On draft night, they traded their 9th overall pick, a 1st and 4th round picks in the 2015 draft to the Cleveland Browns just to move up five picks. When healthy, Watkins has proven that he can make the Bills’ passing game explosive like it was in the early 90s.
Watkins started all 16 games for the Bills in his rookie year and totaled 982 receiving yards and six touchdowns. There was no sophomore slump for Watkins after showing great strides in his second year with the team. He eclipsed the 1,000 yard receiving mark while also grabbing 9 receiving touchdowns. However, his third year saw a massive decline because of injuries keeping him out for half of the season.
5. Amari Cooper (2015)
It seems as though the Oakland Raider franchise has finally turned the corner on losing seasons after taking quarterback Derek Carr and receiver Amari Cooper in consecutive drafts. The Raiders selected Cooper 4th overall and saw an immediate impact on their offense. Cooper has recorded 1,000 yard receiving seasons in both of his first two seasons in the league. He has made Derek Carr’s job look easy at times with his quick speed and pure route running abilities.
Cooper has been successful on all levels of football. Whether it was winning a National title with Alabama or being voted to the Pro Bowl for both of his first two seasons in the league, Cooper has proven to be a top five receiver in the league for years to come. The question in everyone’s mind now is where will Carr and Cooper finish in the best quarterback receiver combo discussion when they decide to call it a career.
4. Demaryius Thomas (2010)
Other NFL franchises must still regret not taking Demaryius Thomas earlier in the draft after looking at his stats seven years later. The Broncos took Thomas 22nd overall hoping to give their mediocre receiving core an immediate upgrade. After an average first two years in the league, Thomas exploded in his third year with the Broncos, recording 94 catches for 1,434 yards and 10 touchdowns. Some would say it had to do with the signing of future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning, but Thomas has proven his dominance even without Manning calling the shots.
Thomas has been a Pro Bowler for five consecutive seasons and won Super Bowl 50, but most people will remember him for his game winning touchdown catch from Tim Tebow in the 2011 playoffs against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Even though people like to forget Tim Tebow as a quarterback, it was still remarkable to see an overtime playoff game end in just ten seconds.
3. A.J. Green (2011)
The Cincinnati Bengals struck gold in the 2011 NFL draft when they selected A.J. Green fourth overall and then quarterback Andy Dalton in the 2nd round of the draft. Not many quarterback-receiver combos have the opportunity to grow together as rookies and learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses from day one. Besides an injury-ridden 2016, A.J. Green has been a 1,000 yard receiver every year in his six-year career.
Green has been able to make the Bengal offense resemble what it looked like when the team had Chad Johnson catching passes on the outside. He has been able to stretch the field as well as run shorts pattern across the middle of the field when called upon. The only issue is the Bengals still have not won a playoff game, even with this dynamic receiver, since 1991.
2. Calvin Johnson (2007)
Calvin Johnson will forever be known as the greatest wide receiver in Detroit Lions’ history. If he had not retired this past year, he may have had a shot as the franchise’s best player that is still held by Barry Sanders. The Lions had a history of selecting the wrong player in the draft causing many losing seasons until they selected Johnson 2nd overall from Georgia Tech. Even during the 2008 season in which the Lions became the first team to go 0-16, Johnson still had 1,331 yards and 12 receiving touchdowns.
It is a shame that Johnson was forced to play for such a snake-bitten franchise for his entire career. After taking the beating he took for so long without much help, it is hard to blame him for wanting to call it quits early. Hopefully he finds his way to being enshrined in Canton someday down the road.
1. Larry Fitzgerald (2004)
Larry Fitzgerald should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer as soon as he decides to hang up the cleats for good. He has played longer than anyone on this list and ranks up there with the all-time greats for many receiving categories. The Arizona Cardinals selected him third overall and did not know at the time that he would still be the face of their franchise thirteen years later. Fitzgerald is currently the longest tenured Arizona Cardinal and owns most of the Cardinals’ receiving records.
He was a part of some bad teams during the early part of his career, but never left for a fresh start. He starred in Super Bowl XLIII and caught the go-ahead touchdown with just over two minutes to go. Had it not been for the heroics of Ben Roethlisberger, Fitzgerald would be a Super Bowl champion.When all is said and done, Larry Fitzgerald will be known as the best Arizona Cardinals player in team history.
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