History says don’t expect much for rookie wide receivers

Despite the talent of this year’s wide receiver crop, no one should expect any of them to cross the 1,000-yard mark.

Players aren’t the only ones encouraged to dream big. Fans are guilty of the same.

This season, another exciting batch of wide receiver prospects enter the NFL hoping to turn heads and generate headlines. The key figure in everyone’s mind: 1,000 yards. That’s the benchmark, whether it makes sense or not, by which most skill position players are judged. The moment a tight end, a running back, or a wide receiver is able to generate 1,000 yards on the stat sheet in a given season, it’s viewed as a major achievement.

Every player hopes to place such an accolades on his resume. Every fan hopes to watch such productivity play out. Unfortunately for both, it’s unlikely to happen for, well, anyone this year.

On paper, it looks like a simple task. Picture a player who puts up 50 yards rushing or receiving in a single game. It’s a forgettable total. SportsCenter highlights never include the 52 rushing yards by Le’Veon Bell. It’s when he goes for 152 that the stat line is mentioned. If Odell Beckham, Jr. puts up 51 receiving yards in his debut for the Cleveland Browns, it’s unlikely to be mentioned at all (and if so, it’s likely in a negative light).

Yet if that same player, even Bell or Beckham, averages 50 yards per game, he has already done 80 percent of the work to get to 1,000 yards. In short, a player can hit the 800 yard mark in a season if he can just stay healthy and generate 50 total yards.

The real total to get to 1,000 yards in a season is 62.5 yards/game. Again, that’s not a head-turning performance. Yet stacked atop another, the combined games provide bragging rights, a Pro Bowl credential, a negotiation point for the next contract. Sixty-two yards. Sixteen games. The math looks easy.

So why will so few players actually get there? It seems silly to think that 1,000 yards is actually any real mark of significance at all when broken down into 16 parts. But therein lies the problem: the 16 games. The NFL is tougher than you think.

Going back to 1950, only 20 wide receivers in NFL history have crossed the 1,000-yard mark during their rookie campaigns. Twenty. Historically speaking, that means there’s a 71 percent chance in a given year that not a single rookie wide receiver will be able to average 62.5 yards for 16 games. Fortunately the NFL has changed and the percentages are a little bit kinder to modern prospects.

The first 10 players in NFL history to do it spanned the years 1952 to 1998. The first to ever cross the mark was Green Bay Packers wide receiver Billy Howton in ’52 with 1,231 yards (in only 12 games, by the way). Randy Moss closed out the millennium as the last rookie to do it with the Minnesota Vikings in ’98. That’s 10 in the NFL’s first 50 years.

Since that moment, another 10 have crossed the 1,000 yard mark, which equals a significantly higher percentage for rookie success as the NFL has turned into a pass-happy league. Anquan Boldin was the first player to do so after Y2K for the Arizona Cardinals in 2003 and Michael Clayton followed suit for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in ’04. With 10 in the last 19 years, the percentages are not only up but they look like they are way up: 52.6 percent, to be exact. That stat on its own says that we should expect a rookie receiver the majority of the time (albeit a slim majority). However, that’s not the case.

Since the year 2000, a rookie wide receiver has crossed the 1,000 yard mark in only eight out of the last 19 seasons. The stats overall are helped by a miraculous season in 2014 in which three rookie wideouts were able to cross the 1,000 yard mark together: Kelvin Benjamin of the Carolina Panthers, Mike Evans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Beckham who played for the New York Giants. The only other year in which multiple wide receivers generated 1,000 yards was back in 1986 when Ernest Givins of the Houston Oilers and Bill Brooks of the Indianapolis Colts both accomplished the feat. That means the real post-2000 mark is 42 percent.

Basically, even in a pass-happy NFL, we’re still without a 1,000 yard rookie most years. This is true for a couple reasons:

1. The rigors of the NFL make it tough for any player to put up numbers on a consistent basis. The average career in the NFL is only 3.3 seasons, and staying healthy is the biggest accomplishment in itself if you’re a starter. Sixty two yards doesn’t seem like much, but it’s the 16 games that makes that formula such an achievement.

2. Being a rookie is tough. Every player, even those who’ve played at the highest levels of college football, must adjust to the speed and strength of the pro level. For every rookie who earns a job, there’s a veteran being forced out of one. It takes a very special player to not only earn the right to produce immediately in the NFL but to do so consistently.

3. Wide receiver is a particularly tough position to learn. The bust rate is extremely high in the NFL, and only those who are mentally prepared are able to succeed consistently. At a position where some guys coasted even through college on their natural talents, it’s a tough lesson to learn at the professional level.

As excited as Seattle fans are to see D.K. Metcalf prove his doubters wrong, as much as Colts fans want to project big things for Parris Campbell with Andrew Luck under center, as much as Ravens fans hope Marquise Brown will heal their woes at the position, the reality is that each fan base is hoping against the odds at this point.

As good as N’keal Harry might look in the preseason with the Pats or as much chemistry as Kyler Murray might generate with Andy Isabella and Hakeem Butler in the desert, the safest bet is to put money on the fact that none of these guys are going to turn in a 1,000 yard season.

If they do, it will be a historic moment—only the 21st such player to ever achieve the feat.

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