Adams holds his own in strong rookie WR class
Each year, the stakes get higher for rookie receivers in the NFL.
The league's win-now mentality, stricter guidelines for defenders and the proliferation of pass-first offenses have resulted in more wideouts playing from Day One. Gone are the days when receivers would sit in the shadows for a season or two before breaking out.
Today, everyone wants the next Julio Jones or A.J. Green.
As offenses have swelled to three-, four- and sometimes five-receiver packages, expectations have ballooned for high-round draft choices, while general managers throughout the NFL look far and wide for late-round fliers and undrafted gems.
It's only fitting that this year's rookie class of receivers was heralded as one of the deepest in recent draft history, with five players taken in the first round and a total of 15 coming off the board during the first two days of the draft.
Ted Thompson even got in on the action. With James Jones' departure in free agency, the Green Bay Packers' general manager shelled out a second-round pick to swipe Fresno State's Davante Adams at No. 53.
The 2014 class has lived up to its billing at the midway point of the season. The 15 receivers taken in the first three rounds have combined for 368 catches, 4,462 yards and 34 touchdowns in 89 games.
That averages out to 4.1 catches for 50.1 yards and .39 touchdowns per game. Over the last five years, Randall Cobb's 2011 rookie class is the closest to those numbers (2.7 catches, 39.6 yards and .24 touchdowns), but still nowhere near that pace.
"I just think wide receivers have a lot more opportunities in college," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "Just because of the way college football has been being played the last five, 10 years. It's reflected each and every year in the draft room. When you go in there and you look at the numbers of potential prospects by position, the wide receiver position is always the one that takes the longest to get through."
As many predicted, fifth overall pick Sammy Watkins (Buffalo) has been the headliner with his 38 catches for 590 yards and five touchdowns in eight games. The Packers have seen two first-rounders in New Orleans' Brandin Cooks and Carolina's Kelvin Benjamin, who combined for nine catches for 155 yards and three touchdowns against their defense.
The production hasn't just come from the first-rounders, however. Even Day 2 selections like Arizona's John Brown (24-326-4), Jacksonville's Allen Robinson (43-488-2) and Philadelphia's Jordan Matthews (32-313-3) have made immediate impacts.
Adams is near the middle of the rookie pack with 24 catches for 263 yards and three touchdowns in eight appearances, but he's still on pace for the most receiving yards by a Packers rookie receiver since Jones caught 47 passes for 676 yards and two touchdowns in 2007.
Opportunity and athleticism has put Adams in some elite company early. Outside of Jones (29-432-2) and 2006 second-round pick Greg Jennings (29-485-2), you'd have to go back to Sterling Sharpe's rookie season in 1988 (21-312-0) to find a Packers receiver with more production through his first eight games.
The Packers knew Adams had talent, but his career wasn't earmarked for an immediate contribution. It wasn't until No. 3 receiver Jarrett Boykin sustained a groin injury in September that the 21-year-old Adams received consistent playing time.
The rookie season hasn't been perfect — Adams stopped on a route against New Orleans that led to an interception — but trust with quarterback Aaron Rodgers is building. He has 17 targets in his last three games, including a career-high nine in the 44-23 loss to the Saints.
"We're bringing him in to help us win games. We don't necessarily have the mindset that it's a redshirt year," Packers receivers coach Edgar Bennett said. "That's certainly not our mindset. Our mindset is to bring guys in and get them ready to play and when they get their opportunity to make the most of it."
Thompson has unearthed an interesting array of perimeter options for Rodgers with his last three second-round selections. Nelson and Cobb developed into bona fide starters, but their backgrounds are vastly different.
Nelson started his career at Kansas State as a walk-on safety before developing into All-American receiver. Even when he reached the pros, it took Nelson three seasons to develop into a starting receiver, something he attributes to his late start at the position.
Cobb fell into the Packers' lap at the end of the second round after playing nearly every skill position at Kentucky. His presence was felt immediately on special teams, but a deep arsenal of perimeter weapons limited him to 290 offensive snaps as a rookie, according to Pro Football Focus.
Adams had a record-setting run with the Bulldogs. He caught 233 passes for 3,031 yards and 38 touchdowns in two seasons and came to Green Bay in a perfect spot to learn from two veteran receivers, the same way Nelson and Cobb developed in the shadows of Donald Driver, Jennings and Jones.
While being a No. 3 receiver wasn't glamorous work when Adams was born on Christmas Eve 1992, the metamorphosis of offenses has changed that notion, especially in Green Bay with McCarthy's penchant for operating his offense in a zebra package (three receivers, one tight end, one running back).
Adams has seen 333 offensive snaps and played on 66.9 percent of the team's offensive possessions.
"He's been very consistent," Nelson said. "I think he picked up the offense extremely well. He's someone who can make plays and win a one-on-one battle. He's very smart out there. That goes to show in the Miami game the play him and Aaron had across the board what he's able to do in our offense week in and week out."
The Packers likely will see a slew of those rookies the rest of the way. Next week, they'll test Philadelphia and Matthews. Watkins and the Bills await in December with Mike Evans (32-460-4) and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers soon after that.
There's a lot of football left to be played in Green Bay and the rest of the NFL, but early indications are this year's class of rookie receivers could be one to remember.
The Packers just feel fortunate they got a piece of it with Adams.
"They've said this is one of the top-rated draft classes, but I feel like my draft class is pretty good, too," joked Cobb, who was drafted with the likes of Green, Julio Jones and Baltimore's Torrey Smith.
"No, those guys are coming in and playing well for their teams. Davante has been playing well for us, and we expect him to continue."
Average production per game for rookie receivers drafted in first three rounds:
2014: 4.1 catches, 50.1 yards, .39 TDs
2013: 2.5 catches, 35.3 yards, .24 TDs
2012: 2.3 catches, 30.0 yards, .22 TDs
2011: 2.7 catches, 39.6 yards, .24 TDs
2010: 2.0 catches, 25.8 yards, .14 TDs
2009: 2.3 catches, 34.6 yards, .19 TDs
Production of rookie receivers drafted in first three rounds:
2014: 368 catches, 4,462 yards and 34 TDs*
2013: 387 catches, 5,504 yards and 37 TDs
2012: 373 catches, 4,860 yards and 36 TDs
2011: 383 catches, 5,550 yards and 34 TDs
2010: 280 catches, 3,583 yards and 19 TDs
2009: 364 catches, 5,532 yards and 31 TDs
* Through Week 9
Most yards for a Packers rookie receiver in first eight games since 1988:
1. Greg Jennings, 2006 (29 catches, 485 yards, two TDs)
2. James Jones, 2007 (29 catches, 432 yards, one TD)
3. Sterling Sharpe, 1988 (21 catches, 312 yards)
4.Davante Adams, 2014 (24 catches, 263 yards, three TDs)
5. Jeff Query, 1989 (15 catches, 233 yards, 1 TD)