In recent years, the NFL has continuously become more pass-happy on the offensive side of the ball. Whether because of rule changes or the evolution of running backs and tight ends as pass-catchers, this isn't a trend that appears to be slowing down anytime soon.
Another possible factor into the evolution of the passing game is the fact that receivers are coming into the league more ready to contribute than ever. A decade or so ago, a popular way to determine breakout candidates at the receiver position was to look at players entering their third year. With variables such as more familiarity with NFL offenses and defensive coverage schemes, the third season is when many felt things started to click for receivers.
Recently however, it seems a lot of wide receivers are contributing in big ways as early as their rookie or second seasons. To evaluate this trend, we looked at our historical grades to see how many wideouts in their first or second year graded among the top third of eligible players at the position and who sustained their above-average play past their first or second seasons. While there may be some years that serve as outliers, a first- or second-year receiver grading in the top third of the league has become more common, but does it ultimately lead to a successful career?
Here is a year-by-year look of those wide receivers who have qualified for this criteria in the PFF era:
With this being the first year of the PFF grading system, there are no grades for receivers who entered the league in 2005, but their second-season grades are accounted for. Two rookies and two players in their second season were among the top third of highest-graded receivers in 2006. The highest grade of this group belonged to Marques Colston, who finished eighth in both passer rating when targeted (111.1) and yards per route run (2.30).
Other receivers who graded in the top third during their first or second year: D.J. Hackett, Santonio Holmes, Chris Henry
This season had five first- or second-year receivers grade among the top third at the position including Colston and Holmes, who maintained their production into their second years. The most notable performance was turned in by then-Broncos receiver Brandon Marshall. After not playing enough snaps to qualify in 2006, Marshall's grade of 89.6 was third-best among all wide receivers in 2007 and still stands as the second-best of his career to date.
Other receivers who graded in the top third during their first or second year: Colston, Holmes, Dwayne Bowe, Greg Jennings
There were only four receivers who qualified among the top third of the position in their first or second year in 2008 — one of them being Calvin Johnson, who in his second season was one of the few bright spots for a Lions team that went 0-16. Despite a rotating cast of quarterbacks, Johnson's 2.46 yards per route run was fourth among all receivers in 2008.
Other receivers who graded in the top third during their first or second year: Eddie Royal, Davone Bess, Donnie Avery
In '09, only Bess carried over from the year prior, and a Vikings rookie WR was the highlight of the first- or second-year WRs to finish in the top third. Percy Harvin was an immediate contributor for an explosive Vikings offense in the slot. From there, Harvin accumulated 735 yards which was fourth among all wide receivers from the slot in 2009.
Other receivers who graded in the top third during their first or second year: Bess, Mario Manningham, Hakeem Nicks, Austin Collie, Jeremy Maclin
In 2010, a new high of eight receivers to grade in the top third was set, thanks in part to the strong 2009 class. Seven of the eight wideouts were selected in 2009, with the lone rookie appearing on the list being Tampa Bay's Mike Williams, who formed a good rapport with then-QB Josh Freeman. Williams had nine receptions off deep passes for 239 yards and four touchdowns in his rookie season.
Other receivers who graded in the top third during their first or second year: Harvin, Collie, Nicks, Kenny Britt, Mike Wallace, Danny Amendola, Mike Thomas
Although eight first- or second-year wide receivers graded in the top third at the position this season, none of them carried over from the year prior. While Williams did not qualify, the 2011 group features big name wide receivers, most notably Antonio Brown who's 2.61 yards per route run was good enough for fourth in the entire league.
Other receivers who graded in the top third during their first or second year: Dez Bryant, Victor Cruz, A.J. Green, Doug Baldwin, Golden Tate, Demaryius Thomas, Denarius Moore
2012 may be the outlier that bucked the trend a bit, with only three first- or second-year wideouts grading in the top third and only Green carrying over from his rookie season. Julio Jones emergence set the standard however for early emerging, league-ready wide receivers posting the seventh most yards after the catch (491), 412 yards off deep targets (ninth) and fielding a 109.6 passer rating when targeted, good enough for 17th in the league that season.
Other receivers who graded in the top third during their first or second year: Green, Randall Cobb
Back to more of what we saw in earlier seasons, eight rookie or sophomore receivers graded out in the top third at the position — with the highest grade belonging to WR Keenan Allen. Maybe most noticeable from the 2013 group was then-Bears WR Alshon Jeffery. He led the league in yards off of deep passes at 570 yards on 14 receptions.
Other receivers who graded in the top third during their first or second year: Marvin Jones, T.Y. Hilton, Josh Gordon, Kendall Wright, Michael Floyd, Rod Streater
Despite a dip in total number of first- or second-year players to grade in the top third, the rookie class of wide receivers has really emerged as something else. Case in point — Odell Beckham Jr., who became the first ever rookie to finish the regular season with the highest overall PFF grade at wide receiver. Beckham finished in the top 10 in yards after the catch (481), missed tackles forced (15), passer rating when targeted (127.6) and yards per route run (2.75).
Other receivers who graded in the top third during their first or second year: Mike Evans, DeAndre Hopkins, Jarvis Landry, Kenny Stills
The 2014 class of receivers really shone bright during their second year, as seen by the highest number of first- or second-year receivers to grade out in the top third at 12, nine of whom were second-year wide receivers from the 2014 NFL Draft. Beckham, Evans, and Landry carried their play over into Year 2, while second-year WR Sammy Watkins finished with the highest grade of the bunch. Watkins caught 16 deep passes for 606 yards (second in the league) to go along with a league-leading eight TDs on deep balls.
Other receivers who graded in the top third during their first or second year: Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns, Stefon Diggs, Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead, John Brown, Tyler Lockett, Corey Brown
Last season, seven receivers graded in the top third of the position during their first or second years in the league. Diggs and Snead carried over their play from the year prior while Snead's teammate, Michael Thomas, saw the highest grade of the group. Thomas was the sixth-highest-graded wide receiver in the class and fielded a 117.5 passer rating when targeted by QB Drew Brees — the 10th-highest mark in the league.
Other receivers who graded in the top third during their first or second year: Amari Cooper, DeVante Parker, Tyrell Williams, Tyreek Hill
In all, the trends point upward for first- or second-year wide receivers to continue to grade out in the top third at the position. Despite some flash-in-the-pan players, the success at an early rate for wideouts seems to lead to successful NFL careers.
Of the 39 wide receivers who met the aforementioned criteria and have played past their second year, only 10 of them have not fielded a grade in the top third among all wide receivers again. However, 22 of them, have fielded multiple seasons past their second year at an above average level, and in the top third among all wide receivers for a given season.
The odds seem likely that those trends will continue for the likes of players like Diggs and Snead who are entering their third year and have finished each of the past two seasons in the top third of all wide receivers. Even further back, in all likelihood, players entering their fourth season this coming fall like Evans, Beckham and Landry will continue into their fourth consecutive season of grading out in the top third of all wideouts.