Now that the 2017 NFL Draft has concluded, the analysis continues in projecting these prospects to the next level, especially during their rookie years. I’m building a series looking at the five biggest early impact contributors at each position group, including today’s focus on a top-heavy group of wide receivers who won’t have many high-level rookie contributors in my estimation.
The players are listed in order from the most to least impactful rookies among each position group. It’s splitting hairs in some cases, but I figured it will give us another fun element to look back on when the season ends.
1. Corey Davis, WR, Tennessee Titans
As I often said before the draft, Davis was a lock to be a heavy early contributor regardless of his landing spot because of his advanced skill set and route running nuance. Those strengths will be accentuated in Tennessee’s offense, which will ask him to dominate the short-intermediate areas of the field and make things happen after the catch.
Mike Mularkey runs a system with a lot of Erhardt-Perkins principles, and Davis’ ability to run the full route tree and line up inside or outside will make him very difficult to stop in that scheme. With Tajae Sharpe’s recent assault accusation, the path appears clear for Davis to step into the starting lineup by Week 1.
Tennessee’s approach is run-heavy, but 60-70 catches isn’t out of the question for Davis, even as a rookie.
2. Zay Jones, WR, Buffalo Bills
The only thing standing between Jones and a productive rookie season is a potential injury. Fellow wide receiver Sammy Watkins has not made it through a full season each of the past two years, and even when the receiver has been on the field, he’s often playing through pain.
Jones is more of a possession, move-the-chains threat than he is capable of matching Watkins big play ability, but the East Carolina product will be terrific in the red zone, and can play from the slot or outside. He’s a high volume target, but Jones has some vertical ability and exciting ball skills to hit the occasional big play.
If Watkins goes down, he’ll be the top target in the Bills passing attack, regardless of who the quarterback is.
3. John Ross, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
I’m a little uneasy listing Ross this high, but nobody else jumps out at me, and although Ross may not be a high-volume receiver early in his career, his big play ability makes him an instant impact player as long as his quarterback is capable of using him.
Nobody will ever mix up Andy Dalton with Aaron Rodgers or Carson Palmer, but the Bengals quarterback has shown the ability to put the ball down the field accurately and make plays in a vertical attack before, and Ross’ elite speed should give him nice windows down the field.
Ross will immediately be the #2 receiver on the team, but he’ll need to contend with wide receiver A.J. Green and tight end Tyler Eifert for targets, as well as Joe Mixon and others out of the backfield.
4. Mike Williams, WR, Los Angeles Chargers
Similar to Ross, I don’t expect Williams to be a high-volume target in his first season, but his ability to make big plays down the field in contested catch situations and dominate the red area put him on this list.
Phillip Rivers has always thrived with a big, outside receiver that can win in the air, but the days of Vincent Jackson and Malcolm Floyd have long been over. Williams will step in and fill that role admirably, although there might be a deep rotation at wide receiver after the way Tyrell Williams and Dontrelle Inman asserted themselves last season in the wake of injuries to other players.
Eventually Mike Williams will earn substantial playing time, but in 2017 he may have to make the most of his opportunities.
5. Ryan Switzer, WR, Dallas Cowboys
Many want to know how Switzer and Cole Beasley can co-exist in the same offense, but I’m confident Scott Linehan will find a way.
Remember, Dak Prescott was more comfortable with Beasley last season than he was with Dez Bryant, and Switzer is a more polished version of Beasley when the wide receiver first entered the NFL. Switzer has the quickness and play strength to work free from press coverage on the outside as a Z-type receiver, while also getting reps in the slot to spell Beasley or in case of injury.
Terrance Williams will still be a part of the rotation, but he’s the least talented of the top four receivers, and Switzer could easily top him for playing time between the 20s.