The transition from college to the NFL used to be a slow process for receivers. From the mastery of an expanded route tree, development of chemistry with a new quarterback, and the grasp of team-specific intricacies like sight adjustments and option routes, the learning curve for the position can be steep. But thanks to a variety of factors―the slow melding of the college and pro game, better player-development structures like 7-on-7 leagues, and more intensive offseason training programs―conventional expectations for receiver development are quickly going out the window.
Over the past few years, teams have become more willing to scheme up ways to get rookie receivers on the field early on, and the talented players coming out of college have rewarded that trust. The incredible 2019 rookie class is a prime example, with guys like A.J. Brown, DK Metcalf, Deebo Samuel, Terry McLaurin, Marquise Brown, and Diontae Johnson all quickly establishing themselves as big-impact playmakers for their new teams. And the 2020 class, hailed by many as one of the best ever, seems to be following suit―perhaps at an even more accelerated pace. Despite missing out on the crucial reps a normal offseason and preseason slate would provide, a handful of first-year pass catchers have already emerged as potential stars. From the Vikings’ Justin Jefferson to the Cowboys’ CeeDee Lamb, the rookie receiver class is immediately living up to the hype. Here’s a look at what we’ve seen from some of the top names in the 2020 receiver class.
Justin Jefferson, Vikings
It took Jefferson all of three weeks to establish himself as a big-time go-to guy in the Vikings’ passing game. After a relatively quiet first two games (in which he notched a combined five catches for 70 yards), the former LSU Tigers star exploded in Minnesota’s 31-30 loss to Tennessee in Week 3, hauling in seven catches for 175 yards and a touchdown in the back-and-forth game. He had a couple of highlight-reel plays in his breakout performance, including this sideline catch early in the second quarter:
And this catch-and-run touchdown in the third quarter:
Jefferson’s big game was not only a massive boost for the Vikings’ passing attack, which had struggled to get going against the Colts the week prior, but it helped to assuage concerns some have had over his ability to win on the outside. The 6-foot-1, 202-pound playmaker posted an absurd 111 catches and 18 touchdowns while lining up primarily in the slot for LSU last year, but came into the league with question marks around how he’d be used in the Vikings’ passing game. Over the first two weeks of the season, he ran 34 of his 41 routes from the slot, but in Week 3 he aligned outside on 20 of 26 routes, replacing Olabisi Johnson as the team’s de facto no. 2 wideout. He played primarily outside again on Sunday. As it turns out, Jefferson’s skill set―which is defined by quickness off the line, an ability to create separation with basketball-like jukes, and incredible concentration and body control at the catch point―translates to the outside, too.
Jefferson notched another four-catch, 103-yard performance in the team’s 31-23 win over the Texans in Week 4, including a nice contested grab over Vernon Hargreaves III and a back-shoulder grab against Phillip Gaines―both big third-down conversions.
The 22nd pick has now racked up 16 catches for 348 yards and one touchdown in his first four games as a pro. As The Athletic’s Arif Hasan notes, only two players in the past 30 years―former Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs and Anquan Boldin―have collected more receiving yards over their first four games in the NFL (419 and 464, respectively). Not too shabby. Jefferson looks like he’s on a path toward stardom.
CeeDee Lamb, Cowboys
Lamb settled in between Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup as the Cowboys’ primary slot receiver basically from day one, a perfect role for the 17th pick. Boasting a combination of size, speed, and rare after-the-catch elusiveness, the former Oklahoma star has looked right at home in that spot, and is already making a big impact in Dallas’s high-flying passing attack.
In his first game as a pro, the Cowboys’ 20-17 loss to the Rams, Lamb reeled in five catches for 59 yards, adding 20 yards on a punt return. In Week 2’s 40-39 win over the Falcons, he became the first rookie in Cowboys history to go over the century mark in the first two weeks of a season, grabbing six passes for a team-high 106 yards. He made this big catch-and-run early in the third quarter, which led to a Dak Prescott touchdown and helped spark the team’s comeback.
Lamb made a few big plays later in the game as well, with Prescott showing a level of trust in the rookie that is typically reserved for veteran players.
That connection carried over in weeks 3 and 4, as well. Per Pro Football Focus, Lamb’s 14 first-down catches this season rank second on the team (behind only Amari Cooper), and he’s tied with Jefferson for most among all rookie receivers. With another two strong games in weeks 3 and 4 (including a two-touchdown performance last Sunday against the Browns), Lamb’s now tallied 21 catches for 309 yards and two touchdowns through his first four games in the NFL, adding three rushes for 13 yards. Lamb, who was my top-ranked pass catcher prior to the draft, has played with the type of cool confidence that portends big things in this Dallas offense.
Jerry Jeudy, Broncos
Like Lamb, Jeudy has quickly made a home for himself in the middle of the field, manning the slot on 80 percent of his snaps through his first four games. My second-ranked receiver coming into the draft, the former Alabama star has already flashed some of the playmaking talent he showed off in college, making defenders miss with lightning-quick jukes while showing a natural ability to find the soft spot in coverages.
In the Broncos’ 37-28 win over the Jets, Jeudy scored his first touchdown as a pro, going up high over Pierre Desir to steal a pass and back-pedal into the end zone.
With Courtland Sutton out for the year with a torn ACL, Jeudy’s been thrust into a role as the team’s de facto no. 1. He’ll have to overcome what seems to be a neverending turnstile at the Denver quarterback position (third-stringer Brett Rypien started this week after taking over for Drew Lock’s backup Jeff Driskel last week), but with another two catches for 61 yards and a score on Thursday Night Football, Jeudy hasn’t really let that problem slow him down. The rookie now has 15 catches for 234 yards and one touchdown on the year. He does have three drops, per PFF, an issue that cropped up at times in college, so he’ll need to get that cleaned up going forward. But it’s been a promising start for the 15th pick.
Brandon Aiyuk, 49ers
Aiyuk’s red-hot start to training camp was derailed by an untimely hamstring injury, forcing him to the sideline for a few weeks (which included the team’s opener against the Cardinals) while exacerbating the 49ers’ growing issues with injuries. Thankfully, the former Sun Devils star is now back in action, and the early returns have been promising. Aiyuk was quiet in his debut, a Week 2 win over the Jets, hauling in two catches for 21 yards, but was a much bigger part of the team’s plan in a Week 3 win over the Giants. Head coach and play-caller Kyle Shanahan got him involved early and often, dialing up plays that gave Aiyuk the ball with room to run. He got a carry on a sweep play in the first quarter, turning it into a first down; and later in the third, he turned an end around into a 19-yard touchdown run.
Aiyuk was effective when lined up on the outside, as well, and caught a pair of passes on RPO slant routes in the third quarter.
Against the Eagles in Week 4, Aiyuk took a screen pass on third-and-7 to the house, leaping over a defender and into the end zone.
The 49ers are still just testing the waters on how they can get their rookie first-rounder involved, but through four games, he’s notched nine catches for 109 yards and another four rushes for 69 yards and two touchdowns. As Shanahan noted shortly after the team drafted Aiyuk with the 25th pick, the 6-foot, 205-pound rookie “has the tools to be great ... the mindset to be great, and I promise you, schematically, we’re going to give him every chance to do that.” Aiyuk has size, speed, and explosiveness in the open field, traits he can lean on when Shanahan gets the talented rookie the ball in space.
Tee Higgins, Bengals
Higgins was slowed during training camp with a minor hamstring injury, which may have contributed to his slow start in the season’s first two weeks. The second-round pick out of Clemson played just 15 snaps in the team’s Week 1 loss to the Chargers and didn’t register a target. He flashed in moments with a three-catch, 35-yard line in the team’s loss to the Browns. Then, in Week 3, Higgins had his real breakthrough, tallying five catches for 40 yards and two touchdowns in the team’s bizarre overtime tie with the Eagles. Boasting size, a huge catch radius, and excellent body control, Higgins looked comfortable as a focal point of the team’s passing attack.
In Cincy’s 33-25 win over the Jaguars on Sunday, Higgins grabbed another four catches for 77 yards. He showed the ability to pick up yards after the catch and catch the ball in traffic.
Higgins’s improvement week to week portends a big role going forward for the smooth receiver, and the way fellow rookie Joe Burrow has looked for him, especially in the red zone, has been promising.
The Best of the Rest
A handful of early-round rookie receivers have struggled with injuries over the first few weeks of the season, so we’ll have to wait to see what guys like Henry Ruggs III, Jalen Reagor, Denzel Mims, and Michael Pittman Jr. can do when they get back onto the field. But even with those guys on the mend, the list of rookie first-year receivers already impacting their respective teams is a long one. So I’ll lump a few together here.
Jaguars second-round receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. is the first who comes to mind. The versatile playmaker has split time between running routes as a receiver and carrying the ball as a running back or wildcat quarterback for Jacksonville, and he makes a strong impression just about every time he touches the ball.
Through four games, the dynamic rookie has caught 16 passes (tied for second among rookies) for 191 yards and a touchdown while adding nine carries for 53 yards on the ground. It feels like a real breakout game is just around the corner.
Bears fifth-rounder Darnell Mooney has also been impressive. The former Tulane star is already playing ahead of Anthony Miller opposite Allen Robinson, and he’s consistently shown why he deserves those early-season snaps. Mooney has grabbed 13 passes for 145 yards and a score in four games, including a handful of impressive contested catches downfield.
In Pittsburgh, rookie second-rounder Chase Claypool has put together an impressive start, too. The 6-foot-4, 238-pound Canadian seems to be good for one spectacular play a game. In fact, his first catch as a pro was a ridiculous, twirling toe-tap grab on the sideline in Week 1.
Claypool, who’s caught six passes for 151 yards and a score in three games, is still working his way into the regular rotation, fourth in the pecking order behind JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, and James Washington, but if he keeps making plays like this 84-yard touchdown against the Broncos, he’ll move up that ladder sooner rather than later.
The Bills, meanwhile, have a big-play breakout candidate of their own in fourth-rounder Gabriel Davis. The former UCF star has been a regular in the team’s receiver rotation this year and has already tallied eight catches for 129 yards and two touchdowns, one of which was this diving grab against the Dolphins.
One more to keep an eye on: Not only have the Broncos seen early returns from Jeudy, but they’re already relying on second-round speedster KJ Hamler. The former Penn State star is currently working to get back from a hamstring pull, but he’s already shown flashes as an outside-aligned pass catcher. That’s a shift for the 5-foot-9, 178-pound receiver, who lined up most of the time in the slot at Penn State, but his combination of speed and suddenness makes him a nice fit as a field-stretching deep threat for Denver. Hamler’s caught six passes for 78 yards for the Broncos thus far, and with Courtland Sutton out for the year with an ACL tear and Noah Fant nursing a sprained ankle, it looks likely that Hamler will step back into a big role when he gets back onto the field. The Broncos are in the midst of an injury-marred rebuilding year, but with Jeudy and Hamler both flashing their talent in the early going, the future looks bright for this team at the receiver spot.