Second-Year WR Report: Budding Stars and Impending Busts

Photo: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017 NFL Draft wide receiver group was lauded as one with special potential. Any time there are three wide receivers taken within the top-10, expectations are going to be high. While there weren’t many people who expected them to outperform the 2014 class, there were seemingly some similarities between the two groups.

We now have approximately a season and a half of film on most of the wide receivers from the 2017 Draft, and predictably the results have been a mixed bag. However, the variance has been as high as ever, with some receivers having minimal production and others on the cusp of stardom.

The wide receivers taken in the top 10 were Corey Davis, Mike Williams, and John Ross. Interestingly enough, there wouldn’t be another wide receiver drafted in the first round. The second round saw Zay Jones and Curtis Samuel go early, while JuJu Smith-Schuster was taken late. There was a run on wide receivers in third round with Cooper Kupp, Taywan Taylor, ArDarius Stewart, Carlos Henderson, Chris Godwin, Kenny Golladay, Chad Williams and Amara Darboh all selected. Other notable players like Biletnikoff Award winner Dede Westbrook, Ryan Switzer and Trent Taylor would be selected, while Keelan Cole would be a priority undrafted free agent.

The “mixed bag” of results starts at the top, with the three wide receivers all taken top-10 having different career paths to this point. After an injury-plagued rookie season, Mike Williams is showing the athleticism and ball skills that allowed him to be taken so high. Williams has played second-fiddle to Keenan Allen so far, but is making the most of his opportunities and looks in the redzone. Despite only 29 targets this season, Williams is up to 17 receptions for 308 yards and 4 touchdowns. When targeted this season, the passer rating for the quarterback has been a whopping 134.77. Williams size has been tough for defensive backs to handle, and his game is progressing into a high-end possession receiver.

Corey Davis has had a ton of opportunity, but his play is still leaving a bit to be desired. Despite being targeted 56 times, he has just 30 receptions and 1 touchdown. Unfortunately for Davis, his production has failed to increase on a per-target basis since his rookie season. Davis is a fluid mover for his size, but is struggling to complete targets down the field. Davis should continue to get a massive share of looks for Tennessee, but his play has yet to scratch the surface of his potential.

John Ross’ rookie year was an interesting case, as he battled injuries and a coach who didn’t yet trust his ability. Now with a role for the Bengals offense, he continues to struggle to really produce anything noteworthy. Passed up on the depth chart by Tyler Boyd, Ross’ main role is using his speed to stretch the field. For a player taken at 9th overall, only 7 career receptions to this point is a massive disappointment.

JuJu Smith-Schuster has unquestionably been the best wide receiver from the 2017 draft class to this point in time. A budding star, JuJu has an all-around game that fits perfectly into the Steelers attack. His combination of size and play strength, as well as refined breaks and hand usage allow him to operate with consistent separation. The fun part about JuJu is his vision and elusiveness in the open field. A fluid mover, he will pick up yards in all portions of the field. Already up to 42 receptions for 561 receiving yards on the season, it would be a shock for JuJu not to be recognized as an all-pro at some point in his career.

I have recently noted my affection for Cooper Kupp’s ability. Playing for the high-powered Rams offense, the refined game of Kupp is used to shred man coverage looks or find holes and knife through zone. Kupp is reliable yet electric with his shiftiness, and is rapidly rising up the ranking of wide receiver throughout the league because of his stellar play.

Three players have the potential to be noted as “rising stars” among the rest of the crop, and they are Kenny Golladay, Chris Godwin, and Keelan Cole.

Kenny Golladay is a dynamic athlete with size and a ton of strength throughout his body. His play has improved this season, and the Lions have increased his usage as a result. Now apart of a three-headed monster attack at receiver, Golladay is already at 465 yards this season. A nightmare for defenses to cover at all levels of the field, he is on the brink of demanding rolled and bracketed coverages to his side.

Chris Godwin was perpetually underrated upon entering the NFL because he lacked "elite" traits. However, he had a solid combination of athleticism, route running, and high-point ability. Godwin has parlayed this into a starting role for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, taking advantage of defenses as they focus on stud receiver Mike Evans. Godwin's spatial awareness allows him to really eat over the middle, and he has a presence in the intermediate portion of the field. Of Godwin's 26 receptions this season, 20 have gone for first downs and 4 have gone for touchdowns. A reliable chain mover, Godwin's production should continue to increase for years to come.

The Jacksonville Jaguars have a pair of second-year wide receivers in Dede Westbrook and Keelan Cole. They have produced similar numbers to this point in the season, but Cole has higher upside despite being undrafted. From little known Kentucky Wesleyan, Cole was overlooked despite possessing NFL traits. He has good size, but is silky smooth route runner who accelerates with ease. Thrust to the forefront of the Jaguars passing attack this season, Cole has produced despite mediocre (at best) quarterback play.

While some of the second-year wide receiver are on encouraging career trajectories, too many are flirting with the "bust" label. It's is undoubtedly still too early in their career to write these players off, but it is hard to get excited about the returns on players like Corey Davis, John Ross, Zay Jones, and Curtis Samuel considering the investment their teams made into them.

Meanwhile, JuJu Smith-Schuster seems locked into a career near the top of the league at the position, and other players like Mike Williams, Cooper Kupp, and Kenny Golladay have taken obvious steps forward this season. While some players have disappointed, the overall group may reach pre-draft expectations because of the play of guys who were underdrafted.

Written By:

Brad Kelly

NFL Draft Analyst

NFL Draft Analyst for The Draft Network. Wide Receivers Coach at Salve Regina University. Salve Regina Football ‘15.