San Francisco was on the doorstep of the Super Bowl last season — the Niners held a lead in the NFC championship game with less than seven minutes to play. The unique skills of wide receiver Deebo Samuel was a big reason why — eight touchdowns running the ball, six receiving it and even one throwing it.
So it’s understandable that general manager John Lynch absorbed Samuel’s recent trade request with a stern shake of his head.
“I can’t ever imagine wanting to move on from Deebo,” Lynch said. “... He’s too good of a player … you just don’t let guys like that walk. So, I can’t envision a scenario where we would [trade him].”
Again, it makes sense. You don’t just find guys like Samuel, especially at 25 years old and still on a rookie contract (just a $4.9 million salary-cap hit in 2022, per Spotrac.com). And when you are that close to winning it all, you don’t want to lose a difference-maker.
It’s just that maybe it makes more sense this season — or even in modern football — than it would have even half a decade ago. It may be hard to envision a scenario where honoring such a trade request makes sense, but when did anyone envision an NFL draft that should see as many as seven wide receivers go off the board in Thursday’s first round?
The NFL is experiencing a mini philosophical debate when it comes to wide receivers. There may not be a clear winner or loser (ever, let alone soon), but different teams are embracing different approaches as both the position, and the availability of young elite talent at the position, changes.
It’s the crossroad that San Francisco is now at.
Do you take the approach of Miami and Las Vegas and unload vast resources to get proven wide receivers, Tyreek Hill and Davante Adams, respectively, even as they approach 30 years old? Do you follow the Los Angeles Chargers approach of locking up your veteran studs?
Or do you follow the path of Kansas City, who traded Hill to the Dolphins for five draft picks, including a first- and second-rounder this year? Or Green Bay who sent Adams, who will hit 30 during the 2022 season, to Vegas for a first and a second?
The Chiefs and Packers are believed to be believers in this draft class in particular and the trend of instant impact wideouts in general.
K.C. has 12 total selections, including eight in the top 135. Green Bay has 11 total and seven among the top 140. Both can easily move up to get whichever receiver they want.
Will that player be another Hill or Adams? Maybe, maybe not. And probably not for Week 1, but then again, who knows? How much better were those guys than Ja’Marr Chase (1,455 yards and 13 touchdowns) who went fifth overall last year and promptly helped Cincinnati reach the Super Bowl?
For decades, conventional wisdom in the NFL was that rookie wide receivers were unreliable. It took time to learn the position and truly impact. Not everyone, of course — Randy Moss caught 17 touchdowns in his first year in Minnesota. That was the exception though.
Now? Youth isn’t a problem.
It’s not just Chase, either. DK Metcalf, just 24 years old, had 12 TDs for Seattle last season. Justin Jefferson, 22, hit the end zone 10 times for Minnesota. In terms of receiving yards per game, a dozen of the top 22 were 25 or under in 2021.
Specifically to rookies, you had Chase (fifth overall pick) and then Jaylen Waddle (sixth to Miami), who went for 1,015 yards and six TDs, and DeVonta Smith (10th to Philadelphia) who racked up 916 yards and five scores.
Four other wideouts were taken among the top 50 selections. Kadarius Toney (20th to the New York Giants), Rashod Bateman (27th to Baltimore), Elijah Moore (34th to the New York Jets) and Rondale Moore (49th to Arizona) all had solid seasons, each recording at least 420 receiving yards.
Then there were later-round gems such as third-rounder Josh Palmer to the Los Angeles Chargers and Amon-Ra St. Brown, a fourth-round pick who had 912 yards and five touchdowns for Detroit.
There are receivers everywhere now, ready to play. That, scouts believe, is particularly true of this group.
None of them may go at the very top — Yahoo Sports’ Eric Edholm has USC’s Drake London slotted for No. 10 to the Jets. There will be a run on these guys, though.
Some of this is the proliferation of 7-on-7 youth football. Some of it is the pass-happy high school and college ranks, where ball control and running games used to be everything. Some of it is advanced individual training and coaching.
Whatever it is, today’s young talent has exponentially more experience at running routes and catching passes than even a decade ago.
Which means there is a trend toward young, ready to go (or nearly ready to go) wideout talent that may — may — change how teams are built. Yes, a reliable star is still a reliable star, but a sterling young talent on the cheap might be the better alternative.
A tipping point hasn’t been reached. Teams are building in different manners. The young wide receiver trend, however, has a chance to alter how rosters are constructed going forward. How the 2022 draft class pans out could be the seminal moment for that.