In today's pass-happy NFL, wide receiver has clearly established itself as a premium position. Not only is this evident in the skyrocketing WR salaries of established veteran stars, but also in the increasing feeding frenzy around top prospects at the position.
The 2022 NFL Draft -- like the 2020 draft -- saw a whopping six receivers come off the board in Round 1. And one of those selections -- Garrett Wilson, the No. 10 overall pick of the New York Jets -- became the second straight wideout to win Offensive Rookie of the Year, following in Ja'Marr Chase's footsteps. Meanwhile, Chris Olave, taken one pick after Wilson by the New Orleans Saints, joined his former Ohio State teammate in eclipsing 1,000 yards in Year 1. And those two certainly weren't the only rookie wideouts who flashed enticing ability last season, leading us to the question driving this piece ...
Which second-year WRs are poised to take the biggest step forward in 2023?
I took a look at the candidate pool through the lens of my context-based models, scouting the probable value increase for each sophomore receiver in relation to last year's production. What you'll find below is the five second-year wideouts set to provide the biggest jump in win share. And yes, I couldn't help but sprinkle in some fantasy analysis, as the position is progressively becoming the lifeblood of the game.
Before we dive in, though, a few quick clarifications:
- As noted above, Wilson and Olave already have established themselves as studs at the position, with both ranking among my top 14 fantasy wideouts. And seeing how both hit the 1,000-yard mark in 2022, their '23 projections aren't massive upticks in production. That's why you won't find them below.
- Jameson Williams' six-game suspension prevents the Detroit Lion from making this list.
- If you're looking for a true under-the-radar candidate, Justyn Ross is your guy. Undrafted out of Clemson in 2022 due to health concerns, Ross signed with the Kansas City Chiefs but missed his entire rookie campaign after undergoing foot surgery. This offseason, though, the 6-foot-4, 210-pounder has received plenty of buzz, with Patrick Mahomes saying "the talent is through the roof."
Alright, enough dilly-dally -- let's get to the featured quintet.
Full disclosure: Yes, I'm openly rooting for Metchie to enjoy a fruitful sophomore campaign. Diagnosed with leukemia shortly after Houston took him in the second round of last year's draft, the Alabama product missed his entire rookie season battling the cancer. But now he's back in action, turning heads at Texans training camp, and I can't help but be inspired. Seeing how Metchie didn't play a snap last season, my models unsurprisingly forecast him to make the biggest statistical leap in 2023.
Reviewing Metchie's college film, he is an exceptional route runner, which is great for rookie QB C.J. Stroud. The 5-11, 187-pounder also boasts alignment versatility, having lined up both wide and in the slot at 'Bama. I like him to make an instant impact in his first NFL action this fall.
This is going to sound weird, but stay with me: London's target share should drop in Year 2, and this is a good thing. Wait, what? Allow me to explain ...
Per NFL Research, London posted the third-highest target share among all NFL receivers last season at 29.2 percent, trailing only Tyreek Hill (30.2) and Davante Adams (32.3). But on an injury-riddled Falcons team that started multiple quarterbacks and finished 7-10, London's targets were generally more quantity than quality. With a clean bill of health for the pass-catching corps, the addition of an electric new running back with pass-catching chops (Bijan Robinson) and a full offseason to work with fellow second-year pro (and now full-time starting quarterback) Desmond Ridder, London should benefit from higher-caliber targets. Especially considering that computer vision shows me that he created separation at the 20th-best rate last season among all wideouts (third among rookies). With an NFL campaign under his belt, London should be even better in this area this fall.
I also anticipate his touchdown total -- just four, with zero after Week 11 -- will increase. For fantasy purposes, London currently ranks as WR25 in my model.
My favorite computer vision note on Watson: His hips were in the right direction to earn extra yards after the catch at the highest rate of any rookie after Week 10. This reflected the North Dakota State's entire debut season, which started slow but ultimately produced some serious fireworks.
According to PFF, Watson's average of 6.4 YAC per reception ranked fourth in the league among receivers with at least 40 catches. The three guys ahead of him: Jaylen Waddle (6.7), Rondale Moore (7.1) and Deebo Samuel (9.6). Watson also ranked second in contested catch rate at 75 percent (behind only Darnell Mooney's 83.3 percent mark). Those two skill sets don't usually go together. Watson is a difference-maker at the catch point and after the catch. Should come in pretty handy for first-time starting QB Jordan Love.
Dotson was another rookie who excelled in contested catches, hauling in 61.1 percent of such targets, according to PFF. Another juicy figure from PFF: Dotson boasted a 102.9 passer rating when targeted.
Rewatching Dotson's rookie tape, the way he consistently earned first downs against the league's top defense in Week 16 at San Francisco -- moving the chains five times and also scoring a touchdown on nine targets -- showcased how impressive he was as a rookie, and previewed the true force he could become in Year 2.
While this might not be what fantasy footballers want to hear, Pittsburgh has a lot of interesting options at wide receiver, with Allen Robinson joining the fray via April trade. Still, I love the thought of Pickens growing alongside fellow 2022 draft pick Kenny Pickett -- and I really love what my colleague Judy Battista reported out of Steelers training camp in regard to Pickett taking a more aggressive downfield approach. This certainly jibes with Pickens' skill set ...
My favorite PFF note on the 6-3 wideout: Last season, he hauled in 19 of 28 contested catches -- a 67.9 percent rate that ranked third among qualified receivers. Only two players had more contested catches than Pickens: Justin Jefferson (22 on 40 contested targets, a 55 percent rate) and DK Metcalf (24 on 47, 51.1 percent).