Is he Demaryius Thomas and Antonio Brown?
Or is he Jonathan Baldwin and Corey Coleman?
Or is he something in between? Say, Corey Davis. Or Nelson Agholor.
What we know right now is that Jalen Reagor is coming off of one of the more disappointing rookie seasons a first-round wide receiver can have. And we know that his performance in training camp has raised hopes that the No. 21 pick in last year’s draft is in line for a breakout sophomore season.
But what does history say we should expect from a guy like Reagor, who finished his rookie season with 31 catches for 396 yards and one touchdown? Of the 40 receivers drafted in the first round since 2011, only 12 finished their rookie season with fewer yards. Reagor’s 12.77 yard-per-catch average ranked 21st among that group. His 36.0 yards per game ranked 23rd. His 54 targets 27th. What, exactly, does that production foretell?
The answer is that a rookie year like Reagor’s often tells you something about the career he has in store. But it doesn’t tell you nearly enough to rule out the possibility that big things lay ahead.
Below, you’ll find a scatter plot of the Year 1 (x axis) vs. Year 2 (y axis) yardage totals for NFL wide receivers since 2010. As you would probably expect, the general trend is that yards in Year 1 beget yards in Year 2, with a modest increase that is mostly attributable to higher participation. First-round wide receivers saw their yardage totals increase by an average of nearly 30% in Year 2, but that was largely a function of an increase in games played. Their per-game totals improved by about 10%. So there’s no reason to assume that an extra year of seasoning will lead to anything more than a modest improvement in Reagor’s numbers, all other things being equal.
On the flip side, there’s no reason to assume that Reagor won’t make a significant jump in Year 2. Of the 17 first-round picks who finished their rookie seasons with at least 1 yard but fewer than 500 yards, 10 saw a Year 2 improvement of at least 130 yards, eight improved by at least 200 yards, and four by at least 300 yards.
Granted, yardage totals don’t tell us everything about a rookie’s success. Included among the biggest jumpers among all draft picks between Year 1 and Year 2 are guys who nevertheless made names for themselves in their first seasons.
Chris Godwin finished his rookie campaign with 26 catches and 442 yards over his last eight games. That’s a 16-game pace of 52 catches and 884 yards to go with a 17.0 yard-per-catch average. Brandin Cooks was on pace for 85 catches, 880 yards, and five touchdowns before missing his last six games due to injury. Kenny Golladay averaged nearly 18 yards per catch on 21 receptions over his last eight games as a rookie. Reagor’s 16-game pace post-injury was 46 catches, 533 yards, and an 11.54 yard-per-catch average.
That being said, there are plenty of examples of receivers who made the jump that Reagor is looking to make this season. Among them:
Demaryius Thomas: Thomas’ breakout didn’t come until Year 3, when he caught 94 balls for 1,434 yards and 10 touchdowns, his first of five straight 1,000-plus-yards seasons for the Broncos. As a rookie, he caught 22 passes for 283 yards. In Year 2, he caught 32 passes for 551 yards.
Corey Davis: Davis has been a disappointment, given his pedigree. But the No. 5 overall pick in 2017 caught 65 passes for 891 yards and four touchdowns as a sophomore after a rookie year in which he caught just 34 passes for 375 yards with no touchdowns.
Antonio Brown: The standard bearer of the group, Brown went from a sixth-round draft pick to potential Hall of Famer, busting out in Year 2 for 69 catches and 1,108 yards. As a rookie, he appeared in just nine games, with 16 catches for 167 yards.
D.J. Chark: After the Jaguars drafted him at No. 61 overall in 2018, Chark caught 14 passes for 174 yards in 10 games before missing the next five. Over the next two years, he averaged 63 catches, 857 yards, and six touchdowns per season, and made the Pro Bowl in Year 2.
Randall Cobb: The No. 64 pick in the 2011 draft never saw more than four targets in a game as a rookie, when he caught 25 passes for 375 yards. The following year, Cobb emerged as one of Aaron Rodgers’ favorite targets, finishing the season with 80 catches, 954 yards, and eight touchdowns.
Then again, these guys are the exceptions. Look at the first-rounders who finished their rookie seasons with under 500 yards and you’ll struggle to find many who made good beyond Thomas, Davis, Agholor, Mike Williams, and DeVante Parker. The names include Baldwin, Coleman, Laquon Treadwell, Josh Doctson, Kevin White, Phillip Dorsett, Tavon Austin, Cordarrelle Patterson, A.J. Jenkins, N’Keal Harry, John Ross, and Breshad Perriman. At best, that’s five out of 17.