Written By Bo Mitchell (ZoneCoverage.com)
“With the 22nd pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, the Minnesota Vikings select… Justin Jefferson, wide receiver, LSU.”
— Roger Goodell (before slumping back in his La-Z-Boy probably)
With that announcement, there was much rejoicing from Minneapolis to Biwabik, and all purple points in between as spontaneous Skol Chants broke out in living rooms and man caves across Vikings Territory.
The Vikings had their “replacement for Stefon Diggs” they all said.
“Hand me another Mich Golden Light. It’s time to celebrate!” they exclaimed.
“He’s going to be a star, for sure,” they reasoned.
It was at this point that it would have been appropriate for those who pay close attention to the NFL Draft and the relative success of receivers selected in the first round to urge caution.
“Ope! Don’t get too carried away. Remember Laquon Treadwell?”
Ah, Laquon. Even young Vikings fans — those not yet worn down by decades of disappointment — are still stinging a bit from the 2016 first-round pick. Prior to Jefferson, he’s the most recent wide receiver selected by the Vikings in the first round of the draft. His career with the Vikes ended mercifully in March when he signed with the Atlanta Falcons. In four seasons with the Vikings, he managed 16 starts, 65 receptions, 701 yards and a meager two touchdowns.
At this point, it’s fair for Vikings faithful to have significantly higher hopes for Jefferson than they had for Treadwell. He’s simply a more polished prospect. On the other hand, Jefferson is not guaranteed to become a stud, and neither are any of the wide receivers from the first round of this year’s uber-deep draft class. Yes, it appears to be an amazing class of wideouts. A record 13 of them went in the first two rounds. The expectations are particularly high for the six taken in Round 1: Henry Ruggs III, Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb, Jalen Reagor, Brandon Aiyuk and Jefferson.
Before fitting any of them for Hall of Fame Gold Jackets, however, some cold water in the form of a history lesson feels essential.
Prior to Treadwell, the Vikings’ last first-round pick spent on a wide receiver was in 2013 when Rick Spielman traded a boatload of draft capital to get back into the first round and grab Cordarrelle Patterson. He developed quickly into the best kick returner in the NFL. Alas, he’s still trying to figure out how to play wide receiver.
We can all agree that the Vikings nailed it with their selection of Percy Harvin in the first round of the 2009 draft. This pick goes in the win column. Regardless of how abbreviated Harvin’s stint was with the Vikings (54 games over four seasons), he should be considered one of the 10 best wide receivers in team history.
Of course, the only other time this century that the Vikings spent a Round 1 pick on a wide receiver was 2005. Nobody likes to talk about it. It was when they “replaced” Randy Moss with seventh-overall pick Troy Williamson. His only quirk: he couldn’t catch. It turns out that’s kind of a problem for receivers. The Vikings’ front office took a major L on that one.
Essentially, the Vikings have gone 1-for-4 in spending first-round picks on wide receivers this century.
Now let’s broaden things out and check the NFL’s batting average on first-round wide receivers. We don’t need to go back to the year 2000 to get enough of a sample size. Recent results are more important anyway. Below is a player-by-player review of first-round wideouts from the past five drafts. Let’s see if you can pick up on any trends.
The jury is still out on last year’s wide receiver class, so we can kind of gloss over these guys. There were only two selected in the first round.
Marquise Brown – Selected 25th overall by the Baltimore Ravens. Brown appeared in 14 games and finished with 46 receptions, 584 yards and seven touchdowns. There’s definite promise here.
N’Keal Harry – The 32nd overall pick by the New England Patriots. Harry played in seven games and caught 12 passes for 105 yards and two touchdowns. The Patriots’ offense is rebooting without Tom Brady. Best of luck.
The 2018 class featured only two first-round wide receivers as well. Both appear to be high-quality picks. Time will tell.
D.J. Moore – The Carolina Panthers took Moore with the 24th overall pick. He caught 55 passes for 783 yards and two touchdowns as a rookie and then took a leap forward in year two, finishing with 87 catches for 1,175 yards and four touchdowns.
Calvin Ridley – The Atlanta Falcons used the 26th overall pick on Ridley. He’s had an instant impact on the Falcons’ offense, catching 127 passes for 1,687 yards and 17 touchdowns in two seasons.
The 2017 draft featured three wide receivers in the first round – all three went in the top 10. None of the three have provided an adequate return on the high investment.
Corey Davis – The Tennessee Titans made Davis the fifth overall pick in the draft, and huge things were expected. Those huge things never materialized. He has averaged a disappointing 47 receptions, 622 yards and two touchdowns per season, and it was announced last week that the Titans would not be picking up his fifth-year option (2021). This will be his final season in Nashville.
Mike Williams – The Chargers selected Williams two picks after Davis went to the Titans with the seventh pick in the draft. His stats have been all over the place. In year one, he appeared in only 10 games and caught just 11 passes for 95 yards. Then in 2018, Williams had 43 receptions for 664 yards yet found the end zone 10 times. Last season, he caught 49 passes, snuck over 1,000 yards (1,001) and only reached the end zone twice. The Chargers are electing to exercise his 2021 option.
John Ross – The Cincinnati Bengals took the speedy Ross with the ninth overall pick. Injuries sidelined him for much of his rookie season and he finished without a catch. In 2018, Ross flashed some potential by scoring seven touchdowns, but he had only 21 receptions and 210 yards. Last season, he sputtered to 28 catches for 506 yards and three touchdowns. Like Davis, the fifth-year option on Ross is not being picked up. He’s done in Cincy after this season unless they trade him before that.
This brings us to the Treadwell draft. As it turns out, he wasn’t the only flop selected in the first round. Treadwell was the last of four first-round wide receiver selections.
Corey Coleman – The Cleveland Browns spent the 15th overall pick on Coleman. He’s the epitome of a Browns draft pick. Coleman lasted only two seasons in Cleveland, catching 56 total passes for 718 yards and five touchdowns. He demanded a trade during training camp in 2018, and the Browns obliged by sending him to Buffalo for a seventh-round pick. He spent 2019 on and off the New England Patriots’ active roster and practice squad.
Will Fuller – Fuller went to the Houston Texans with the 21st pick. The speedster has displayed home-run ability but has battled injuries every season. Fuller appeared in 14 games as a rookie, and that remains his career high, as he’s played in 28 games in the three seasons since then. His career-high in both receptions (49) and yards (670) came in 2019, while his best touchdown season came in 2017 when he finished with seven.
Josh Doctson – Washington used the very next pick (22nd overall) on Doctson. Remember when the Vikings signed Doctson last September? That’s okay if you don’t. He went on Injured Reserve 10 days after putting pen to paper, wound up appearing in one game (without a reception) and then was waived in November. He’s now on the Jets’ roster if anyone is interested. In three seasons with Washington, Doctson caught 81 passes for a total of 1,100 yards and eight touchdowns.
Laquon Treadwell – The Vikings drafted him 23rd overall. He didn’t do much. You know the rest of the story.
The 2020 draft matched 2015 with six wide receivers in the first round. Only one found stardom.
Amari Cooper – Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got one! The Raiders made Cooper the fourth overall pick in 2015, and he’s been to the Pro Bowl four times in five years. After starting his career with Oakland, Cooper was traded to the Dallas Cowboys for a first-round pick in 2018. In all, he’s topped 1,000 receiving yards four times and is in the conversation with Stefon Diggs and Keenan Allen for the title of best route runner in the game.
Kevin White – The Chicago Bears made White the seventh overall pick. Swing and a miss! After three injury-marred seasons and no touchdowns, White is no longer in the league. This pick was a disaster on the order of the Vikings’ selection of Williamson a decade earlier.
DeVante Parker – Parker went to the Miami Dolphins with the 14th selection in the draft. Following four forgettable seasons in South Beach, Parker finally figured it out in 2019 and was one of the league’s biggest surprises. His 72 receptions, 1,202 yards and nine touchdowns were all career highs by a wide margin. There’s some promise here, but it took five seasons to uncover it.
Nelson Agholor – The Philadelphia Eagles spent the 20th pick on Agholor. Following five seasons of breathtakingly pedestrian play for the Eagles, Agholor signed with the Las Vegas Raiders to fight for a job this summer. His five years in Philly netted him averages of 45 receptions, 503 yards and 3.6 touchdowns per season.
Breshad Perriman – The Baltimore Ravens made him the 26th overall pick. Perriman will go to camp with the New York Jets this summer – his fourth team in six years. A combination of injuries and inconsistency hampered his first four years – three in Baltimore and one in Cleveland – before he provided a glimpse of promise last season in Tampa Bay with 645 yards and six touchdowns.
Phillip Dorsett – Dorsett went 29th overall to the Indianapolis Colts. Over five lackluster NFL seasons, Dorsett has mustered 11 touchdowns – three over two seasons with Indy and eight over the past three seasons with the Patriots. Only once has he had more than 400 receiving yards in a season. He now finds himself in Seattle looking to land a job with the Seahawks’ receiving corps.
At last! If we look back one more year, we finally find our best-case scenario for first-round wide receivers among recent NFL drafts. The 2014 first round included five wideouts and only one was a miss – Kelvin Benjamin 28th overall to Carolina.
We’ll stop our little review here because you hopefully get the point of this exercise by now.
First-round wide receivers are hardly sure things. In fact, for a variety of reasons, the past five first rounds have churned out more busts than stars by a lopsided margin. To wit, of the 17 wide receivers selected in the first round of the draft from 2015-19, only one has made a Pro Bowl (Cooper). The 2018 duo of Moore and Ridley are on their way, but even if we put them in the “win” column for first-round picks and consider the 2019 picks as TBD, we’re still left with more than half of the first-round wideouts as major disappointments: Dorsett, Perriman, Agholor, White, Treadwell, Doctson, Coleman, Ross and Davis. A few of these guys have been abject failures.
In the happy afterglow of this year’s draft, Jefferson brings confidence to the Vikings’ fan base that he could be an exception to the recent trend. He looks like he can’t miss. Debby Downer points to aggregate accomplishments of the past five seasons’ worth of first-round receivers and reminds us he can, though. In fact, he could miss by an awful lot.
<Insert sad trombone sound effect here>
The hope is that Jefferson and the others from this year’s first round live up to the hype and pay dividends like the stellar class of 2014 first-round receivers. So go ahead and be optimistic about Jefferson, Vikings fans. Hope is a good thing.
Just remember, you’re allowed to be both optimistic and realistic at the same time.