Since 1992, only 8 rookie wide receivers have compiled a 1,000 yard receiving season in their inaugural campaigns as professional football players. Last season, San Diego Chargers wideout Keenan Allen became the latest to do so, catching 71 balls for 1,046 yards and 8 scores.
Entering 2014, a new crop of talent has entered the league. The NFC South, in particular, has spruced up the young talent in terms of the receiver position. Aside from Atlanta's selection of Jake Matthews, a player whom the Falcons hope will anchor their offensive line for years to come, the M.O. of the division's remaining three teams was to select an available wide receiver in the first round that best fit that franchise's needs.
With divisional posturing and fantasy implications at stake, let's examine the "big three" NFC South wideouts from the class of '14, and their chances of joining the rookie 1,000 yard receiving club:
Mike Evans - Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa met its need, or more specifically, its want for another big-bodied playmaker to pair opposite Vincent Jackson in the form of Mike Evans , as new coach Lovie Smith and offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford look to surround quarterback Josh McCown with two huge weapons on the outside.
McCown had a bit of a renaissance last season in Chicago, where he thrived under the stewardship of quarterback guru Marc Trestman as Jay Cutler nursed injuries. The veteran journeyman, who was out of football for most of 2012, completed 66.5% of his passes to go along with 1,829 yards and 13 touchdowns to just 1 interception, almost exclusively while Cutler was sidelined for a five-game stretch. Mike Evans has all the tools to develop into a matchup nightmare alongside Vincent Jackson.
In addition to Trestman's "quarterback whispering," McCown was the beneficiary of having two towering perimeter playmakers in the mold of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Both wideouts eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark and combined for 19 touchdowns over the course of the season. The Bears seemed to play at or near their best with McCown under center, surrounded by his two giant receivers and an elite running back in Matt Forte, also one of the game's better pass-catchers out of the backfield.
Enter 2014, and McCown, 35, is now in Tampa, with the hopes of picking up where his productive 2013 season left off, after he was supplanted in the Bears' lineup by a healthy Cutler towards the end of the year. It goes without saying that having a good running back, which the Bucs do in Doug Martin, along with two colossal weapons on the outside, puts McCown right in his element.
"I'd be lying if I didn't say there was a comfort zone in that,'' McCown told the Tampa Tribune earlier this offseason. "It's very similar (to Chicago), at least on paper. There's still a lot of work to do. We have to get out there and (Evans) has to learn the offense and we have to start building together, but it was good."
McCown also had a stint in Arizona earlier in his career, where he played with Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. The X-factors will be his protection and Tedford's playcalling. The Bucs' offensive line has been inconsistent up to this point, and Tedford is calling plays and managing a game plan at this level for the first time in his coaching career.
While Jackson is a proven commodity, Evans is the great unknown, but his physical skills and raw talent speak volumes as to why the team selected him 7th overall in May. The 6-5 231 former basketball player has the tools to blossom opposite VJax, and once the mental part of his game catches up, he should have more than a fair chance to put up numbers in this offense. Again, McCown's protection will be key, not only to getting the ball in the hands of his weapons, but also in establishing Martin on the ground. The team also used a pick on athletic tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, giving McCown yet another feasible weapon to play with. They also took Robert Herron out of Wyoming in the 6th round, a player they hope can prosper into a viable slot man down the road.
Evans' size will guarantee him red zone opportunities, but as he showed in college while playing in the tough Southeastern Conference, he is capable of being more than just a jump ball catcher. Look for a big year from Evans, who is available well into the 9th round in most formats. He may be 2nd in line for targets behind Jackson, but Evans is sure to put up numbers as a rookie.
The Bucs have seen a rookie achieve 1,000 yards before. Michael Clayton, another big, skilled and athletic former basketball talent, like Evans, secured 1,193 yards and 7 touchdowns on 80 receptions in 2004.
Kelvin Benjamin - Carolina Panthers
The exodus at the wide receiver position in Carolina over the course of the 2014 offseason has been well-documented. Steve Smith is now in Baltimore, Brandon LaFell is in New England and Ted Ginn is now an Arizona Cardinal. Thus, it was no surprise to see Carolina use its first-round pick on a wideout.
That wideout happened to be Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin. Fresh off a national title with the Seminoles, Benjamin enters his rookie campaign as quarterback Cam Newton's clear-cut number one option in a retooled Panthers passing attack. Whereas Evans may linger in Vincent Jackson's shadow, there is no question whom Newton will look to get the ball to, especially if this preseason's sample size is any indicator.
Benjamin and Newton have clicked both on and off the field, with the pair's relationship described by coach Ron Rivera as "big brother, little brother." The rapport between the two figures to continue to grow throughout the season, and Benjamin should benefit greatly as a high volume of targets seem to be headed in his direction. Kelvin Benjamin has emerged as Cam Newton's new go-to guy in the Panthers' passing game.
In his third preseason game, and Newton's second, Benjamin hauled in 5 of his 6 targets for 47 yards and showed great strength in brushing off Darrelle Revis on a slant pattern. Through these three games, the 6-5 240 Benjamin has tallied 8 grabs for 117 yards and a touchdown. The 23-year-old has translated strong minicamp and training camp performances right into his first taste of live NFL game reps.
Greg Olsen will remain a fixture in the passing attack, especially in the red area, but Benjamin will be a lock for plenty of chances all over the field. Like Evans, he is available into the 9th round in most formats, and should return great value at that position.
The Panthers will continue to rely on veterans Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams on the ground, while Newton's scampers will also help move the sticks. But when it comes time to attack through the air, there is no doubt that Benjamin will have a chance to make a significant impact on his team and in the stats column.
Brandin Cooks - New Orleans Saints
When the New Orleans Saints traded up seven spots at the draft, it was quite clear who they had set their eyes on. Oregon State's Brandin Cooks, the NCAA's top receiver in 2013, was their man, and cuts the figure of the ideal toy for Sean Payton and Drew Brees to play with to the tune of many opposing defensive nightmares.
At 5-10 189, the 20-year-old Cooks is a much more diminutive playmaker than Evans or Benjamin, but the tape tells the tale of what this young man is capable of, especially considering the situation and offense he has landed in. He has stolen the show frequently throughout the summer, and has made impressive play after impressive play in practices, scrimmages and preseason games.
One of those 8 receivers to top the 1,000 yard barrier was none other than Marques Colston, who enters his ninth season in New Orleans. Colston was a 7th round pick who came out of nowhere to blossom into a reliable chain-mover and redzone target for Brees. Cooks, meanwhile, is built to suit more of a dynamic, satellite role. This is necessary, as the Saints will be tasked with replacing the production of Darren Sproles, who was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles in March.
In Payton's explosive offense, Sproles always presented confusion to opposing defenses with his constant pre-snap movement in addition to his adept skills as an edge runner and receiver. Like Reggie Bush before him in the system, Sproles played the scatback role to perfection most of the time, though his production decreased last season.
Cooks is, without a doubt, a natural receiver first and foremost. Nevertheless, the fact that Payton is keen on involving him as a Sproles or Bush-esque weapon in the system gives the rookie added cache as a fantasy weapon. Keep in mind, the Saints must also replace Lance Moore, who was always a safe pair of hands to rely upon in the passing game. Brandin Cooks has dazzled teammates, coaches, and fans, alike, throughout this offseason.
With Moore and Sproles gone, a 1,281 yard, 6 touchdown hole is burnt into last season's total stats. Cooks won't be counted on to replicate all of that on his own, but will have a chance to thrive in an offense that, even in its "down" years, still ranks statistically among the best in the league.
Added to Cooks' skill set is a strong mental grasp of the game and the system. Cooks was unable to take part in minicamps and OTAs due to Oregon State's late-June graduation. That, however, did not deter him from learning the offense via internet crash courses with Saints' coaches. The team did not hesitate to put as much on the rookie's plate as they possibly could, as Cooks showed he was capable of gobbling it all up and digesting it with ease.
There is upside for days here. Cooks may have the biggest longshot of this trio in terms of eclipsing 1,000 receiving yards, mostly due to the Saints' propensity to involve seemingly every option in their attack on gameday. Drew Brees spreads the ball to whomever is open, so Cooks will see his fair share of passing targets, but will also be surrounded by the likes of Colston, Jimmy Graham, Kenny Stills and capable running backs such as Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson.
Cooks could have the best season of the three, when factoring in reverses, bubble screens, and other types of gadget plays that Payton has enjoyed conjuring up for his satellite weapons in years past. The Saints, as a team, seemed poised to have the better season of these three clubs, so Cooks will have no shortage of opportunities to prove his salt.
Cooks' ADP has been on the rise throughout the summer, currently sitting in the mid-7th round. There is no doubting his ability to put up all kinds of numbers in this system, though in terms of pure receiving statistics, he may be chasing down Benjamin and, perhaps , Evans as well.
If we had to rank these three receivers in terms of which are most likely to have 1,000 yard seasons as rookies in 2014, we would put it like this:
Of course, the fun part will be, you know, actually sitting back and watching these three playmakers go to town. Let the chips fall where they may.