“Expectations were high, [but…] from whom much is expected, much has to be done.” Jordan Matthews just about perfectly summed up the lofty expectations for what will undoubtedly go down as the greatest rookie class of wide receivers in the history of the NFL. We strive for balance on these lists and, defensive players in the NFL deserve a ton of respect due to rules being tilted against them. Mentally and physically, they just have to be stronger and they get far less credit on the score sheet than the offense. With this defensive bias in mind, this list still ended up stacked with wide receivers and offensive players because they all ought to be there. It’s akin to the race for MVP; J.J. Watt probably deserves the title, but Aaron Rodgers’ stats are impossible to ignore.
From Watkins to Evans, this class of wide receivers demonstrated poise, agility and skill throughout their college careers. Many of them were instrumental in their teams’ heroic Bowl wins and have continued their impressive performances in their rookie NFL seasons. It’s not all about the wide receivers this year as Derek Carr has put up excellent numbers on an inept Raiders team. Having said that, Teddy Bridgewater’s performance in Minnesota must not be ignored and will certainly provide a glimmer of hope to Vikings fans during an otherwise dismal season. Don’t be surprised tif Matt Cassel doesn't regain his starting job from Bridgewater in 2015. Especially after this past Sunday, when coach Mike Zimmer stated outright, “The franchise is Teddy’s.”
The sheer talent of this year’s rookie class can perhaps be epitomized by one single play; the mind-blowing snag by Odell Beckham Jr. The rookie has been praised by NFL writers for his "vice-grip hands, easy leaping ability, graceful athleticism, mid-air dexterity and improvisational creativity.” Will his unbelievable catch be enough for number one?
10 John Brown, Arizona Cardinals
Our list fittingly begins with a wide receiver; the Cardinals' John Brown, who scored an 84-yard punt return in college the very first time he touched the ball for Pittsburgh State. As of Week 13, the rookie had started just four games, but had five touchdowns, 39 receptions and 569 receiving yards. Brown had an epic 75-yard touchdown in a win against the Eagles in Week 8 and had two touchdowns back in Week 3 in a divisional win against San Francisco. Though his production has slowed down as of late, (largely due to Drew Stanton replacing an injured Carson Palmer) expect him to be an integral part of any Cardinals deep playoff run with questions surrounding the health of Larry Fitzgerald.
9 Sammy Watkins, Buffalo Bills
Sammy Watkins started the year off red-hot, though like his team, he has come crashing back down to earth. Nonetheless, Watkins has been dealing with rib and groin injuries all season and has still posted an impressive rookie season with 58 receptions for 822 yards and five touchdowns over a 13-game stretch. After garnering the MVP honours at the 2013 Orange Bowl, Watkins was drafted fourth overall after the Bills traded up to snag him. His most impressive moment of the season came in week seven when Watkins snagged his second touchdown of a thrilling Bills victory over the Vikings with just one second remaining on the clock. You have to wonder what Watkins's numbers would look like if the Bills had an upgrade over Kyle Orton at quarterback.
8 Martavis Bryant, Pittsburgh Steelers
Martavis Bryant has played in just seven games this season, but he demonstrated his speed and skill this past week with a 94-yard TD reception in the Steelers’ thrashing of divisional rival Cincinnati. Bryant is averaging one touchdown per game; 21.6 yards per catch (obviously inflated from this past week, but nonetheless noteworthy) and almost 65 yards per game. Anticipate Bryant’s speed to be a dangerous threat to any team that may encounter the Steelers in the playoffs. Bryant has recorded personal bests of 10.62 seconds in the 100 meters and 21.46 seconds in the 200. Catch him if you can.
7 Khalil Mack, Oakland Raiders
Though he is not a wide receiver, the fifth overall pick Khalil Mack is one impressive OLB, especially considering he plays for the woeful Raiders. You could see why some had Mack rated as the better prospect than Jadeveon Clowney prior to the 2014 draft. Mack has started all 13 games he’s played in this season and has put up a remarkable 62 combined tackles, three sacks, two passes defended and one forced fumble. More is surely to come for Mack, who holds the NCAA record for the most forced fumbles at a whopping 16 and is tied for the record for most tackles for a loss. If Oakland can shore up its offense, Mack could be a premiere player on one of the league’s best defenses.
6 Teddy Bridgewater Minnesota Vikings
Midway through the season, Teddy Bridgewater was given the unenviable task of guiding the Minnesota Vikings through uncertain waters. He has done so with poise and grace and without a strong supporting cast on offense, though Bridgewater did get knocked down on this list for the help he’s received from the Vikings’ smothering defense. Most importantly, Bridgewater is consistent, accurate and is not easily flustered inside the pocket. In nine games, Bridgewater has a respectable 10 touchdowns versus eight interceptions and a 61.1% completion rate. He also has a rushing touchdown to his name. The rookie QB has been sacked 25 times, destroying the offensive rhythm and the flow many successful QBs profit from and there is no doubt he needs to gain strength to become a legitimate deep-ball threat.
5 Kelvin Benjamin, Carolina Panthers
This rookie wide receiver out of Florida State has been a bright spot during an otherwise dismal season for the Panthers. In 13 games this year, Benjamin has put up an impressive 59 receptions for 848 yards and scored nine touchdowns. Benjamin’s most noteworthy touchdown, in college, came in the BCS Title Game against Auburn when he hauled in the game winner with just 13 seconds remaining.
One has to wonder how well Benjamin would've fared had Carolina kept Steve Smith to line up on the the other side of Cam Newton. The Panthers' season might've been very different.
4 Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Mike Evans has been a consistent producer for the lowly Buccaneers. Over 12 starts, Evans has put up 10 touchdowns and 57 receptions for 935 yards. Evans is the first receiver since Randy Moss to rack up over 100 yards and at least one touchdown in three consecutive games. Playing alongside another behemoth Vincent Jackson, Evans (6'5") joining the Bucs led some to dub the team the “Dunkaneers”. That nickname is almost as terrible as Tampa’s record, though, to be fair, both Jackson and Evans do have basketball pedigrees. One can only guess what Evans's numbers would look like if he could have someone other than Josh McCown or Mike Glennon throwing him the ball.
3 Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders
NFL experts have high praise for the Raiders’ Derek Carr, commending the rookie for his “extremely quick release” and demonstrating “the courage to hang in the pocket under duress [behind] a shaky offensive line.” The experts do fault him for being “too conservative” and though “he is constantly forced to play from behind, due to the team's overall ineptitude, Carr must find a way to remain disciplined with his reads and progressions.” Carr has put up noteworthy numbers on an incompetent team, throwing for 2,676 yards, 17 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Raiders nation may finally have found the right man to sit at the helm and guide them out of the seemingly, never-ending black hole of the past decade.
2 Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants
“I hope it’s not the greatest catch of all time. I hope I can make more.” Odell Beckham leaps into the runner-up position for completing quite possibly the greatest catch in NFL regular season history (this writer will give the all-time honour to another Giant- David Tyree). Beckham entered December with five consecutive games of 90 or more receiving yards in one month, a first for NFL rookies. Despite missing all of training camp and the first four games of the season with a hamstring injury, Beckham has still amassed 59 catches for 829 yards and six touchdowns.
His first NFL touchdown catch may have foreshadowed his unpredictable, yet incredible future; it was a route he had never practiced. “I was determined not to mess up.” While there is no doubt that Beckham has lived up to expectations, his team is another story entirely. It will be great to see what the Giants' receiving corps will look like next year, when Victor Cruz is back from his torn patellar tendon.
1 C.J. Mosley, Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens’ linebacker C.J. Mosley cracks the top spot on our list for his all-around ability and genuine composure throughout the game. Mosley’s stats speak for themselves: 113 combined tackles, two sacks, one forced fumble, eight passes defended and two interceptions. ESPN considered Mosley to be the frontrunner for Defensive Rookie of the Year over the summer and he has more than exceeded those expectations.
Don’t be surprised if he takes home some hardware. Mosley is certainly living up to his number 57, which was ‘unofficially’ retired by the Ravens in honour of O.J. Brigance, a local legend who has been battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis since 2007. Brigance gave coach John Harbaugh permission to use his number after the coach “explained the character and tenacity of the man that he would like to wear it… I was honoured.”