ASHBURN — When the Washington Commanders traded the 11th overall pick last April to move down five spots, there was some debate about whether they’d regret it.
After all, the New Orleans Saints moved up to select Ohio State’s Chris Olave — a wide receiver the Commanders were fond of and had been linked to during the draft process.
And through two weeks of his NFL career, Olave looks as advertised: The 22-year-old has caught eight passes for 121 yards.
That said, the Commanders are more than thrilled with the selection. How could they not be? So far, Jahan Dotson, Washington’s pick at No. 16, leads all rookies with three touchdowns and has emerged as a valuable weapon for quarterback Carson Wentz.
Dotson and Olave, it turns out, make up what has been an electric rookie class at wide receiver. The group — which set an NFL record with six wideouts taken in the first round — is already delivering after months of hype that touted this year’s class as one of the deepest positions in the draft. Atlanta’s Drake London (13 catches, 160 yards) and the Jets’ Garrett Wilson (12 catches, 154 yards) were picked even earlier than Dotson and Olave, and each appear to be on their way to stardom.
This year’s class also marks the latest group of rookie wideouts to come into the league and find immediate success. Over the past few seasons, the draft has produced star receivers in their first year — from Cincinnati’s Ja’Marr Chase (2021) to Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson (2020), among a handful of others.
That has bucked conventional wisdom. Previously, wide receiver was seen as one of the hardest positions in the NFL to learn, requiring patience across multiple seasons to develop.
Dotson and others are again proving otherwise.
“These guys are coming in and they’re much better prepared,” Commanders coach Ron Rivera said. “They really are. Because they throw the ball so much in the college ranks that these guys have learned to do specific things because of those (adjustments). … They learn to run all types of routes. They learn that they’ve got to work on all sorts of releases, those types of things.”
From 2016 to 2018, just 19 wideouts reached at least 500 receiving yards as a rookie — with only one topping 1,000 (New Orleans’ Michael Thomas in 2016). But since 2019, 25 rookie receivers have recorded at least 500 yards, with four eclipsing the 1,000 mark and six others coming close with at least 900 yards.
Commanders wideout Terry McLaurin can relate to being able to produce right away. In 2019, the third-rounder led Washington with 919 yards in 14 games. Asked for his perspective, McLaurin said he thinks the rise of the 7-on-7 circuit — in which the passing game reigns supreme in a nontackle environment — has contributed to the boon.
“There was a little bit of that when I was in college, but now, Jahan’s class and those guys that have come in the league, they’ve been playing 7-on-7 since they been in middle school,” McLaurin said. “They’re used to route running. They’re used to having to make plays down the field.
“Now you see receivers being more of a premium position in this league. Everybody wants to have one.”
McLaurin is right. In a pass-happy league, getting production out of receivers is paramount. The position has also skyrocketed in value, as McLaurin was one of 12 wideouts this offseason to sign a new contract worth at least $20 million annually.
The rising costs have caused some teams to choose between paying their star receiver or finding his replacement in the draft. Just this past April, for instance, the Tennessee Titans traded star wideout A.J. Brown to Philadelphia rather than give him a hefty contract extension. Instead, the Titans drafted Arkansas’ Treylon Burks at No. 18, the pick the franchise acquired from the Eagles in exchange for Brown.
So far, the trade has worked out for both sides: Brown was rewarded with a four-year, $100 million extension from the Eagles, and Burks has been productive for Tennessee with seven catches for 102 yards in two games.
The Commanders opted to do both. They gave McLaurin a three-year, $71 million extension in July, months after they drafted Dotson.
Since then, Dotson, who has seven catches for 99 yards, has become a key red-zone target. Rivera praised the 22-year-old’s “very precise” route running, adding he feels it’s among the best of the rookie class.
But he’s not the only one delivering. London’s 6-foot-5 size and impressive control have made him a challenge for opposing defenses to stop. For the Jets, Wilson helped complete an improbable comeback by catching the game-winning touchdown against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.
“We all support each other, it’s pretty cool to see those guys competing,” Dotson said. “It makes you go even harder. You want to be at the top of the list when it’s all said and done.”