Influx in elite WRs bodes well for 2021 NFL season

How did we get here?

Excited draft nerds and dynasty fantasy football enthusiasts told us for years about the exciting possibilities of the 2020 NFL draft wide receivers class. The collective, however, sold the position short.

Whether it was a bearish approach to the position after modest returns from 2017 Round 1 receivers or simple misevaluation, the 2018 and 2019 classes weren’t discussed with much excitement.

Mistakes were made.

You can easily argue we got at least three high-end, starting-caliber players in 2018.

DJ Moore has been the most consistently productive member of that group with an average of 1,052 yards per season. Calvin Ridley is coming off the best season of any of them after proving he can handle the duties of being Atlanta’s top receiver. And while he didn’t participate in much of 2020, Cortland Sutton was dominant in 2019 despite Denver’s miserable quarterback situation. All three of those players could be knocking on the door of stardom.

Right behind them are guys like DJ Chark and Michael Gallup. They didn’t enjoy the same statistical success they had in 2019, but you can give them both a pass due to factors beyond their play. Those guys are still top-30 NFL receivers.

The 2019 wide receiver class managed to outshine its preceding class right away. DK Metcalf, A.J. Brown and Terry McLaurin should already be universally regarded as the superstars of today and tomorrow. No argument against any of them holds up.

Beyond that excellent trio, players like Diontae Johnson, Deebo Samuel, and Marquise Brown are still growing and have flashed high-end starter potential. Don’t be surprised if Johnson and/or Brown takes the next step in 2021. Samuel just needs to stay healthy.

The icing on top of all that cake is that the 2020 rookies are everything they were cracked up to be. CeeDee Lamb, Justin Jefferson, Brandon Aiyuk — you know all the names. Those three guys looked like legitimate No. 1 wideouts in Year 1. They and their classmates are only just beginning to ascend.

Where does the landscape sit now?

The huge and seemingly unexpected influx of talent at wide receiver from 2018-2020 has completely altered the landscape of the position. To put it simply: The space is now crowded.

We’ve already established that there are at least three near star-caliber players who entered the league from each of the past three classes. And with growth and seasoning, the Diontae Johnson, DJ Chark, Tee Higgins type of players could join them at any point in the next couple of seasons.

The fascinating part of this is that the 2018-2020 collection of rookies climbed on their ships and rocketed up the wide receiver ranks without many guys disembarking the ride. Their rise is colliding with many established pros who are hitting or still firmly operating in their apex years.

Wideouts like Stefon Diggs, Tyreek Hill, Davante Adams and Allen Robinson are still a part of our lives. Those are elite, coverage-dictating No. 1 wide receivers in the prime of their careers.

Oh, by the way, steady studs like Mike Evans, Amari Cooper and Keenan Allen are still getting it done. Chris Godwin and Tyler Lockett don’t have many flaws in their game. Man, guys like Odell Beckham Jr., Antonio Brown and Julio Jones might have their best years in the rearview mirror but would you really be stunned if any or all had a renaissance in 2021?

Oh, and I’m 100 percent positive I’ll get called out by a few readers for leaving one of their favorite wide receivers off this list. I didn’t even mention the guy (Michael Thomas) who broke the NFL’s record for most receptions in a season (2019).

So, you see what I’m getting at here? Try to write down a ranking for the 25 best wide receivers in the NFL. If you don’t come away from the exercise feeling like you left off 10-plus names, you’re doing it wrong.

Mind your elbows. It’s crowded here.

How will it be shaken up again this offseason?

If you thought the wide receiver waves were done crashing, think again. Two massive stones are about to get thrown into this lake and send ripple effects across all shores.

First, let’s hope you don’t mind an encore; the 2021 draft class is yet another good one for wide receivers. NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah has seven wide receivers in his initial Top-50 prospect rankings, with three inside the Top 10.

Heisman winner DeVonta Smith will remind talent evaluators of other pro-level route-runners to come out of Alabama. Smith was always open in 2020. Ja’Marr Chase will capture the eyes of tape grinders who love an all-around style of wideout. His brand of pristine operation in traffic will lead to aggressive projections about his ability to win as an outside X-receiver. If Jaylen Waddle gets a clean bill of health, someone is going to fall in love with his speed and vertical ability. He’s probably a superior prospect to fellow Crimson Tide receiver Henry Ruggs, who Las Vegas took at No. 13 last year.

That’s the beginning. If we’ve learned anything from the past two draft classes, there are going to be a handful of guys who will outkick expectations among those taken anywhere between WR5 to WR10 in this draft. There are more Terry McLaurins and Chase Claypools out there.

The more bonkers thought is that the draft class might not even be the biggest source of impact. The free-agent crop of wide receivers this offseason is certifiably stunning.

Let’s go over a few of the names:

Allen Robinson should top any list of available wide receivers. Still just 27 and a proven elite alpha, Robinson finally has a chance to pair himself with a quarterback even approaching average talent. He caught 200 passes over the past two seasons — and it sounds like he’s done with the Bears.

Chris Godwin is coming off an injury-plagued season but no one should be doubting his talent. A hulking power slot who can get off press coverage outside, there isn’t a receiver corps that would not get better the minute Godwin walked in the room.

Kenny Golladay also struggled with injuries in 2020 but was on an upward trajectory. He got progressively better in each of his first three seasons. Someone will pay for his combination of size, vertical ability and ball skills.

Will Fuller finally stayed healthy but still missed the end of 2020 with a PED suspension. He’ll carry that into the 2021 opener but he’ll also carry the momentum of coming off a season when he looked like a true No. 1 receiver. Fuller was pacing for 76 catches for 1,278 yards.

Tier 2 of the free-agent class is rounded out by JuJu Smith-Schuster, Corey Davis, Antonio Brown and Curtis Samuel, while T.Y. Hilton, Marvin Jones, Nelson Agholor and Rashard Higgins make for strong veteran fliers.

There’s more, but you should already be plenty hyped. The balance of power in the wide receiver corps will drastically shift after the free-agent dust settles.

The 2021 Wide Receiver Landscape. (Photo by Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)
The 2021 wide receiver landscape will be as stacked as ever. (Photo by Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)

Which teams could be biggest players for top names?

With this much player quality in the draft and the open free agent market, three-quarters of the league could be in a position to add an impact player. That’s wild, but that’s how flush this crop is with talent.

If we’re looking for the biggest potential power brokers, a few stand out.

All five of the teams with the most projected salary-cap space in 2021 could be in the market for wide receiver help.

  1. Jacksonville Jaguars - $73,014,963

  2. Indianapolis Colts - $64,887,114

  3. New York Jets - $63,099,252

  4. New England Patriots - $57,310,665

  5. Washington Football Team - $35,062,699

At first blush, none of these offenses would be an appealing landing spot for a Robinson, Godwin or Golladay Tier 1 free-agent type. Quarterback movement will shake things up.

We know the Jaguars will be getting Trevor Lawrence in the draft. Spending cash on a free agent wideout to make his life easier makes sense.

The Colts and Washington Football Team are two likely Matthew Stafford landing spots. The veteran passer wants out of Detroit so he can go to a better ecosystem. Juicing your offense with another receiver (perhaps his old running mate Golladay) helps make your case.

The Jets are a mystery but a true No. 1 from free agency would complete a receiver corps with a solid veteran (Jamison Crowder) and an intriguing young player (Denzel Mims). New York could make that type of move and get involved in the Deshaun Watson bidding wars.

Further down the list, we still find some appealing situations. The Ravens have the 11th-most cap space and a glaring hole across from Marquise Brown. Chris Godwin feels like the ideal candidate for them since he's a stud blocker, rocks at the catch point and runs the type of middle-of-the-field routes Lamar Jackson excels on. He probably gets franchise tagged by Tampa Bay, but this is a perfect puzzle-piece fit.

The Bengals are likely to replace A.J. Green and could use another body outside. That receivers room would look lethal with another high-end asset added to Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins. Cincinnati could make Joe Burrow’s life easier via the draft or free agency.

The Dolphins and Cardinals could strike as well. Miami desperately needs to upgrade its receivers room as the cupboard is essentially bare beyond DeVante Parker, who isn’t a true No. 1. The Dolphins could add a veteran and still draft someone. The Cardinals made a big swing for DeAndre Hopkins in 2020 but have nothing to complement him. Arizona isn’t flush with cash so it could look at a rookie.

If you’re here for my favorite wild card ... how about the Los Angeles Chargers?

We’ve seen plenty of teams go all-in to support their thrilling young passer during his rookie contract. Los Angeles could follow suit and have the ninth-most cap space. Maybe this is a long-time Allen Robinson fan’s pipe dream but the Chargers could make that type of aggressive move to build on a skill position room that already features Keenan Allen, Austin Ekeler and Mike Williams.

What does this mean for fantasy?

The demand for wide receivers is greater than ever in fantasy football. With reception-based reward scoring and additional flex spots growing ever more popular, drafters are still eager to nail their receiver selections.

One could argue, however, that the supply at least meets the current demand.

We just ran through a full-view look at the wide receiver position and came away with two clear takes. One, the position is absolutely stacked with quality. The influx of talent from the 2018, 2019, and 2020 NFL draft classes and the lack of stars aging out have combined to create an embarrassment of riches. Two, with yet another strong draft class about to increase the flow of the pipeline and upcoming free agent moves set to boost the stock of several veterans, the room isn’t getting any less crowded.

You could easily see another early run on running back in 2021 drafts; a common strategy last year. With all the quality depth at wide receiver, it makes logical sense to take swings at the much thinner positions like running back and especially tight end (like, four good players thin) in the early rounds. Then you come back in the mid-rounds and just hammer undervalued talented and upcoming breakout receiver picks.

It’s supply and demand. The league is just absolutely bursting at the seams with good wide receivers. Trust me, there has never been a more exciting time to follow and study the position. Strap in.

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