From 2005-2013, 31 receivers went in the 1st round. They averaged 41 catches for 558 yards and 3 touchdowns per season as rookie. The most productive 1st round rookie wide receiver over that stretch was AJ Green, who caught 65 passes for 1057 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2011, after going 4th overall in that year’s draft. Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson were top-3 picks who went on to have fantastic careers and they only had 58/780/8 and 48/756/4 respectively as rookies. Green joined just two other players from that time period to have over 1000 yards in his rookie season, Marques Colston (70/1038/8 in 2006) and Keenan Allen (71/1046/8 in 2013). The college to NFL adjustment for wide receivers is about as tough as it gets, or at least it has been until this year.
This year, three wide receivers, all drafted in the first round, went over 1000 yards (Odell Beckham Jr., Kelvin Benjamin, and Mike Evans), while Sammy Watkins came a few yards shy. That pushed the number of guys who have had 1000 yard rookie seasons in the last 20 years from 8 to 11 in just one season (Joey Galloway, Terry Glenn, Randy Moss, Anquan Boldin, and Michael Clayton all did it from 1995-2004). None of those rookies was as good as Odell Beckham though, who was on a level all by himself in one of the greatest wide receiver rookie classes in NFL history.
Beckham didn’t just dominate in his first season in the NFL, he did so despite missing the first 4 games of the season and a lot of the off-season with hamstring problems. He essentially came into the NFL cold week 5, having missed valuable off-season work, and had 4 fewer games to put up numbers than his rookie counterparts and he still led all rookie receivers in receiving yards by 254 yards. Rookie receivers aren’t supposed to put up 1000 yards as a rookie, let alone 1305 YARDS IN 12 GAMES! I know the NFL has become more of a passing league and the adjustment from college to the NFL is smaller now that NFL offenses have adapted more things from the college game, but still. That’s insane.
Beckham’s 108.8 yards per game led the NFL. And it wasn’t like Eli was just forcing him the ball as he was targeted just 129 times (14th most in the NFL), catching 70.5% of them for 91 catches, that as opposed to just 2 drops. Beckham also caught 12 touchdowns and only 2 balls intended for him were intercepted. Eli had a 127.6 QB rating throwing to Beckham this season, 4th best among eligible wide receivers. The top-3 all played on either Green Bay or Dallas, whose teams have quarterbacks that will be MVP finalists and who finished 1-2 in QB rating for the season.
Eli finished 15th at 92.1, meaning Eli’s quarterback rating was 35.5 points better when throwing to Beckham than it was overall, the best margin by an eligible wide receiver this season. Beckham’s 2.74 yards per route run were also 4th in the NFL. For his efforts, he was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked wide receiver as a rookie, including 2nd in pure pass catching grade, meaning he basically played at an All-Pro level, despite missing 4 games with injury. This guy wasn’t just the best rookie in the game, but one of the game’s best players at any position this season.
The scary thing is that Beckham should only get better. He doesn’t have an extensive injury history so we should be able to expect him to play 15 or 16 games next season and be present for the entire off-season, which is only going to help his production going forward. Also, unlike guys like Anquan Boldin and Marques Colston who had great rookie years, but never really went from being top-20 wide receivers into that top-5 range (Keenan Allen could be in that same boat), Beckham has the kind of athleticism that allows a guy to get drafted in the first round, giving him a borderline limitless ceiling.
I don’t like to get too excited about guys after one year and I’ve never put a guy going into his 2nd year in the league in my pre-season top-50 (Sheldon Richardson was the highest ranked one last year at #60 and Bobby Wagner was the highest the year before at #64), but Beckham is the exception. His rookie receiver counterparts Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, and Kelvin Benjamin all had great rookie seasons, as did guys like quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, running back Jeremy Hill, guard Zack Martin, guard Joel Bitonio, and center Corey Linsley at other positions on the offensive side of the ball, but this is OBJ’s award.