Game Theory

Which NFL rookie receivers will be most productive in 2021? My analytics-based top-seven rankings

Continuing an ongoing series that uses contextualized data and my computer-vision models to project which rookies will be the most productive in 2021, I'm taking a look at the wide receivers. And given how much recent draft classes have been defined by immediate returns at this particular position, I'm expanding the format to take a look at the top seven:

Rank
1
Cincinnati Bengals
Draft pick: Round 1, No. 5 overall

Next Gen Stats shows that the Bengals used 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) on the greatest percentage of snaps in the NFL last season (75.4), setting up nicely for Chase to immediately be on the field with both Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. As for Chase's impact potential from a reunion with his LSU quarterback, Joe Burrow, one area that flags for success is deep passes (20-plus air yards). Last season, Cincinnati receivers averaged just 6.9 yards per target, the second-lowest mark in the NFL (NGS). According to Pro Football Focus, Chase leads FBS receivers with 14 deep TD receptions since 2019 -- pretty remarkable, considering the LSU product opted out of last season. His 860 yards on deep passes in 2019 led the country. And in that national title campaign, Chase was computer vision's most open receiver (judged by percentage of targets where he had at least 3 yards to work with) on passes intended to travel more than 10 air yards. Furthermore, his speed on yards after the catch in that Biletnikoff Award-winning season featured the least erosion (which is a measurement of fatigue) between game start and game end in the SEC -- and that conference boasted spectacular receiving talent in 2019.

Rank
2
DeVonta Smith
Alabama
Philadelphia Eagles
Draft pick: Round 1, No. 10 overall

Passes intended to travel 10-plus air yards were not a source of success for the 2020 Eagles. Per Next Gen Stats, Philadelphia carried a 9:12 touchdown-to-interception ratio on such targets to wide receivers last year, along with a 40.3 reception percentage on those passes (30th in the NFL). Smith's consistent route running and ability to earn separation forecast to help change that this season. His 4.0 receiving yards per route run over the past two seasons topped the FBS charts. Computer vision shows that, last year, the Heisman Trophy winner had the highest percentage of receptions in which he had more than 3 feet of separation at the time of the catch despite a defender being within 3 feet of him on the path of the route. This carries over into yards after the catch; Smith increased his speed once he had the ball in his hands at the third-highest rate in the FBS in 2020.

Rank
3
Jaylen Waddle
Alabama
Miami Dolphins
Draft pick: Round 1, No. 6 overall

Not only will Waddle help Tua Tagovailoa when the second-year signal-caller targets his former college teammate, but the speedy playmaker will also generally command a lot of attention, which will help the whole offense have more space to work with and inherently drive up the unit's potential to be extremely efficient. Last season, 29.4 percent of Miami's targets to wide receivers were thrown into tight windows -- the highest rate in the NFL, per Next Gen Stats. Over the past two college campaigns, Pro Football Focus ranks Waddle in the top five in yards per route run (3.6, including a robust 4.4 in 2020 alone) and yards after the catch per reception (11.5). My model says his speed when open -- i.e., when no defenders are closer than 3 yards -- is the fastest in this draft class. And according to PFF, Waddle also had just one drop on 29 catchable passes during his injury-abbreviated 2020 campaign.

Carolina Panthers
Draft pick: Round 2, No. 59 overall

On targets of 10-plus air yards last season, Carolina receivers logged just four touchdown catches against 10 interceptions (tied for third-most picks), according to Next Gen Stats. Now, Marshall isn't the only player who figures to improve this aspect of the offense in 2021, as the Panthers have a new quarterback (Sam Darnold) and a presumably healthy RB1 (Christian McCaffrey). As a Jet last season, Darnold had just five touchdowns of 10-plus air yards, per NGS, but he logged eleven in both 2018 and '19. As a big-bodied pass catcher at LSU, Marshall had seven touchdowns on deep targets over the past two seasons (tied for third-most in the SEC) and 20 catches in traffic over that same time period (PFF). Matt Rhule and Joe Brady -- the latter of whom knows Marshall well from their time together at LSU -- can create space and scheme up some deep opportunities for their second-round pick. Marshall will at least fill a volume void left by the departure of Curtis Samuel. With D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson and McCaffrey as established NFL playmakers, Carolina figures to stretch opposing defenses horizontally and vertically, providing Darnold with a highly favorable environment in which to operate. This spells upside for Marshall's fantasy value.

Rank
5
Elijah Moore
Mississippi
New York Jets
Draft pick: Round 2, No. 34 overall

NGS shows that the Jets had just two receivers with 10-plus receptions of 10-plus air yards last season: Breshad Perriman with 14 and Jamison Crowder with 13 -- and Perriman is in Detroit now. Pro Football Focus credited Moore with 490 receiving yards on deep targets last season, ranking seventh in the FBS. He also recorded just two drops on 88 catchable passes. There is some uncertainty in the Ole Miss product's fantasy forecast, as Crowder took a pay cut to remain on the team, whileZach Wilson faces a challenging learning curve as a rookie starter at the game's most important position. But Moore's upside is quite high, especially considering this Jets secondary has a lot of question marks, meaning Gang Green could be relying heavily on their own passing game to keep pace in shootout game flows.

Rank
6
Rashod Bateman
Minnesota
Baltimore Ravens
Draft pick: Round 1, No. 27 overall

Ravens wideouts only logged 41 receptions of 10-plus air yards last season, as well as just 78 catches for 952 receiving yards when aligned out wide -- all NFL lows, per Next Gen Stats. (Baltimore was the only team to earn fewer than 1,200 yards from wide alignments.) Route-running precision is a metric my model values more than most, and Bateman thrives in this area, especially when aligned on the outside. I've found that route-running precision leading to separation in college typically plays well in the NFL. Over the past two seasons in the FBS, Bateman ranked No. 3 among wide receivers in terms of route-running efficiency (as measured by reliable timing and the ability to create separation) on routes run from outside alignment. Pro Football Focus adds additional context here: Over the past two seasons when it came to intermediate targets (10-19 air yards), Bateman ranked second in the FBS with 44 catches and third with 697 yards. The only reason he ranks sixth on this list is the volume of rushing plays the Ravens are still likely to run.

Rank
7
Rondale Moore
Purdue
Arizona Cardinals
Draft pick: Round 2, No. 49 overall

Next Gen Stats credited the Cardinals with utilizing 10 personnel (1 RB, 0 TE, 4 WR) on 20.3 percent of snaps last season, the highest figure in the NFL by a wide margin. In fact, only one other team eclipsed six percent usage (Buffalo at 14.4). While Larry Fitzgerald's status for 2021 remains unknown, the Cardinals seem to have turned the page. Consequently, Moore's opportunity in the slot appears exceptional and immediate. My computer vision shows that over the past three seasons, Moore maintained his speed after contact on inside routes at the highest rate of any receiver in the FBS. The only thing limiting his fantasy value is the fact that DeAndre Hopkins is elite, and the addition of A.J. Green introduces some volume uncertainty.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter.

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