The Top Ten Rookie Wide Receiver Seasons of the Modern NFL
Updated: Jul 18, 2022
Photo Credit: Mike Morbeck, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
We’re still a few weeks away from training camp, but it’s never too early to dig into football. This is one of the sports world’s “in-between-times”- NBA Finals are over, Stanley Cup is over, US Open is over, Wimbledon will get hot and heavy next week, and the MLB All-Star game will follow Wimbledon - it’s the perfect time for everyone’s favorite: lists. Even better - this list is a ranking.
Today, I’m going to rank the top ten performances by rookie wide receivers in the NFL since 1994, the year the NFL tightened up illegal contact penalties to open up passing games. In many ways, 1994 was the beginning of the modern NFL, where throwing the ball has become the staple of every offense, as opposed to the decades before when running the ball for three yards and a cloud of dust was the starting point. Starting from 1994, we can more easily compare the seasons of each of these receivers.
Let me get one thing out of the way: there were a lot of deserving players who didn’t make the cut. This list was a lot harder to come up with than I thought initially. Before we begin, I’d like to mention a few names who played before 1994 and were therefore disqualified.
To start, I have to mention Bill Groman - the pride of Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio. Groman began his career with the pre-merger AFL Houston Oilers in 1960 with arguably the greatest season ever seen by a rookie wide receiver (and that’s saying a lot). In just 14 regular season games (as the NFL wouldn’t move to the 16-game schedule until 1978), Groman caught 73 passes for an NFL-leading 1,473 yards and 12 touchdowns.
He wasn’t just a one-year wonder, either. In his sophomore season, Groman caught 50 passes for 1,175 yards for an absurd, league-leading 23.5 yards per reception and a league-leading 17 touchdowns, tying the then all-time record for touchdown receptions in a single-season. Although his career was cut short by injury, Groman was a dominating presence in the AFL his first two seasons, and he’d have been a contender for the top overall spot had I extended this list to include the entire history of the sport.
Besides Groman, I also have to mention John Jefferson and Billy Howton. Jefferson entered the league in 1978 with the San Diego Chargers and, under head coach Don “Air” Coryell, burst onto the scene with a league-leading 13 touchdown receptions to go with 56 catches for 1,001 yards and a 2nd Team All-Pro nomination. Howton entered the league all the way back in 1952 with the Green Bay Packers, fifteen years before the first Super Bowl would be played. In his rookie season, Howton caught 53 passes for a league-leading 1,231 yards and 13 touchdowns. He would also be recognized as a 2nd Team All-Pro for his efforts that season.
Beyond those three, there are many, many more greats that I could have mentioned, but, because I know you want to get to the good stuff, I’ll keep this short: former Bengals Eddie Brown and Cris Collinsworth, former Steeler Louis Lipps, and former Viking Sammy White all deserve mention as Rookies of the Year at the wide receiver position. So, without further ado, I give you - the Top Ten Rookie Wide Receiver Seasons of the Modern NFL!
#10. Michael Thomas
Michael Thomas begins our list. The former Ohio State Buckeye was not a highly coveted player coming out of college, even though he’d been a solid performer at the college level during his sophomore and junior seasons. As such, he fell to the New Orleans Saints in the second round and was the sixth wide receiver drafted in his class. Of those receivers drafted before Thomas (and keep in mind, this was only six years ago), two are already out of the NFL in Corey Coleman (drafted 15th overall by the Cleveland Browns) and Josh Doctson (drafted 22nd overall by the Washington Commanders).
Thomas formed an immediate connection with his quarterback Drew Brees, finishing the year with a team-leading 92 receptions for 1,137 yards. His nine touchdown receptions also led the Saints. While the Saints would finish the season with a disappointing 7 - 9 record, their offense cruised to an outstanding 29.3 points per game average, second-best in the NFL in 2016. Thomas and Brees would go on to become one of the premier QB-WR duos in the NFL over the next few seasons, culminating in Thomas being named 2019 Offensive Player of the Year.
#9. A.J. Brown
Like Thomas, Brown made quite the splash during his rookie season, although few would have predicted it. Brown was selected with the 55th pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, taken after three other receivers and two tight ends. But the rest of the NFL’s mistakes were the Tennessee Titans’ gain, as Brown made his front office look like geniuses.
In his rookie season, Brown caught 52 balls for 1,051 yards and 8 touchdown receptions, also adding a rushing touchdown as well. He also averaged a mind-boggling 20.2 yards per reception, one of the highest marks in the league. Beyond his success on the field, Brown also helped the Titans reach the playoffs in 2019 after missing it the previous year. Despite being a wild card team, the Titans managed to defeat the New England Patriots in round one and followed that up by defeating the top-seeded Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round, before falling to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game.
#8. Mike Evans
Our first first-rounder on this list, Evans was drafted 7th overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers out of Texas A&M where Evans teamed with Johnny Manziel to be one of the most entertaining college football tandems ever. Once he reached the NFL, Evans picked up right where he left off, using his massive 6-5, 231lbs frame and sneaky athleticism to win contested catches downfield.
In 15 games during his rookie year, Evans hauled in 68 receptions for 1,051 yards and 12 touchdowns at an impressive 15.5 yards per reception. Although Evans put up monster numbers as a rookie, the Buccaneers disappointed to the tune of a 2 - 14 record, worst in the NFL. This makes Evans’ rookie performance all the more impressive, though, as he was catching passes from a 35-year-old Josh McCown and Mike “The Neck” Glennon.
#7. Michael Clayton
If you forgot all about Michael Clayton, I don’t blame you - I did too. Our second Buccaneer on this list, Clayton was drafted 15th overall in the 2004 NFL Draft and immediately stepped into the #1 WR-role for the Buccaneers.
During his rookie year, Clayton paced the Bucs and all rookies with 80 receptions for 1,193 yards and seven touchdown receptions. The next closest Buc in total receptions was running back Michael Pittman, who caught 41 passes. Clayton more than doubled his next closest wide receiver teammate, Joey Galloway, in receptions. Unfortunately, Clayton would be a one-year-wonder, as he would never approach his numbers from his rookie year for the rest of his career.
#6. Terry Glenn
After back-to-back Buccaneers, we have our second Buckeye on this list! After walking-on at Ohio State, Terry Glenn would go on to win the Biletnikoff Award during his junior year as the best wide receiver in college football - quite the leap for a player who couldn’t get a scholarship out of high school. Glenn would declare for the NFL Draft after that season and would be selected by the New England Patriots with the 7th overall pick.
Glenn would hit the ground running, literally and figuratively, once he reached the NFL. As a rookie, Glenn caught 90 passes for 1,132 yards and six touchdown receptions, becoming breakout quarterback Drew Bledsoe’s favorite target. The Patriots, behind Bledsoe and Glenn, would reverse their fortunes from the previous year, going from a 6 - 10, fourth place finish in the AFC East to 11 - 5 and winning the division.
#5. Anquan Boldin
Boldin fell to the second round in the 2003 NFL Draft due to concerns about his speed. To be fair, when you run a 4.71 in the 40-yard-dash, alarm bells start ringing for any scout. With all of that said, Boldin silenced those concerns right away.
The Arizona Cardinals would be the team to take a chance on Boldin with the 54th pick, and he would reward their faith in him many times over. As a rookie, Boldin caught a then-rookie record 101 passes for 1,377 yards and eight touchdown receptions. Boldin would be named AP Offensive Rookie of the Year, and although the Cardinals would finish 4 - 12 that season, Boldin would be a central figure in the team’s run to Super Bowl XL just two years later.
#4. Justin Jefferson
Here’s where we start to get to some truly wild numbers. As the NFL has moved further into the 21st century, passing has become more and more of the emphasis of NFL offenses, and the results of that emphasis has trickled down to rookie wide receivers, who are being asked to take on more responsibility, earlier in their careers, than ever before. Jefferson, who would be selected 22nd overall by the Minnesota Vikings, was up to the task.
Despite being the fifth wide receiver taken, Jefferson showed immediately why that was a mistake. In just his third NFL game, Jefferson caught seven passes for 175 yards and a touchdown. He would follow that up with a four catch, 103-yard game the following week. In total, Jefferson would finish the year with 88 receptions for 1,400 yards and seven touchdown receptions.
#3. Odell Beckham Jr.
I’ll be honest here, I forgot just how special OBJ was as a rookie. Of course, we all remember his one-handed, end-zone catch versus the Dallas Cowboys on November 23, but Beckham was balling all year.
Although he missed the first four games of the 2014 season, Beckham would finish the year with an absurd 91 receptions for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdown receptions. He did all of that in just 12 games. Twelve. My goodness. Beckham would go on to be named AP Offensive Rookie of the Year and earn his first Pro Bowl nomination.
#2. Randy Moss
This man needs no introduction. One of the greatest wide receivers in the history of the NFL, and probably the most dangerous downfield target ever. Moss made defensive backs look silly so often, the term “Mossed” has come to mean any time a wide receiver makes a defensive back look, well, silly.
After being drafted with the 21st pick in the 1998 NFL Draft by the Minnesota Vikings, Moss would team up with star quarterback Randall Cunningham to lead the Vikings to a 15 - 1 record, the best record in the NFL and a first-round bye in the playoffs. In 16 games, Moss caught 69 passes for 1,313 yards, good for 19.0 yards per reception. Even better - Moss would catch a rookie-record 17 touchdown passes, which also led the entire NFL that year.
In the playoffs, Moss continued to make his presence felt, catching four passes for 73 yards and a touchdown in the Vikings divisional round win against the Arizona Cardinals. The Vikings would fall to the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game, but Moss still delivered, catching six passes for 75 yards and another touchdown. In all, Moss dominated the NFL in 1998, earning AP Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, a Pro Bowl nod, a 1st Team All-Pro nomination, and would finish 3rd in the MVP voting.
#1. Ja’Marr Chase
Could it be anyone else? Seriously though, I tried very hard not to be a homer when I made this list. But at the end of the day, there just wasn’t another receiver, besides Moss, who so thoroughly dominated on the field while also making the team significantly better.
Drafted with the 5th overall pick by the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2021 NFL Draft, Chase was reunited with his college quarterback at LSU, Joe Burrow. Together, Burrow and Chase would rewrite the record books, and Bengals’ history while they were at it. In 17 games during his rookie year, Chase caught 81 passes for a rookie (and Bengals’) record 1,455 yards and 13 touchdown receptions.
From his twirling, pirouetting touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens or his one-cut-and-gone touchdown against the Kansas City Chiefs, Chase was a highlight waiting to happen in 2021. But it wasn’t all just for entertainment value - Chase changed the Bengals' fortunes overnight. They would more than double their win total from the previous year, winning the AFC North. Once the Bengals reached the playoffs, Chase would help the team overcome 30-year playoffs-win drought to defeat the Las Vegas Raiders in the Wild Card Round. The Bengals would continue their playoff run all the way to the Super Bowl, where they would narrowly lose to the Los Angeles Rams.
If you made it this far, I have some honorable mentions for you! I have to start with Jaylen Waddle, who set the rookie-record for receptions in 2021 with 104, breaking Boldin’s previous mark. At the same time, Waddle turned that volume into just 1,015 yards and six receiving touchdowns. He was far more quantity than quality. Joey Galloway, another Buckeye, was one of the first breakout rookies of the modern NFL with 67 receptions for 1,039 yards and seven touchdowns back in 1995. Eddie Kennison, just one year later, followed-up Galloway’s season with a phenomenal season of his own - 54 receptions for 924 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging 17.1 yards per reception. Mike Williams, the one who went to Syracuse and played for Tampa Bay - not the one who played for USC and for the Detroit Lions (and not the one playing for the Chargers right now, either!) - also began his career with a bang, catching 65 passes for 964 yards and 11 touchdowns, helping the Bucs and QB Josh Freeman to a 10 - 6 record in 2010.
I’m sure many of you will have gripes about this list, but I’m more than prepared to defend it - so give me your best shot in the comments section or on Twitter!