A class unlike any other, the 2021 pool of wideouts eligible this past spring provided an embarrassment of riches. It formed one of the deepest, most elite groups of pass-catching talent the draft circuit has arguably ever seen. Through one week, the first three wideouts off the board have already announced their arrival to the NFL game.
Despite initial skepticism toward each of their projections as pros, Cincinnati’s Ja’Marr Chase, Miami’s Jaylen Waddle, and Philadelphia's DeVonta Smith were everything, and more, in their professional debuts.
An offseason of doubt and mockery toward Chase’s game left massive room for improvement for the No. 5 overall selection. Chase’s inability to catch the football became a primary issue during camp, and while his hands were never an issue during his illustrious career at LSU where he spent much of the 2019 season working in tandem with the Bengals’ current signal-caller Joe Burrow, at least for this week, he’s rid of prior demons as the Bengals’ WR1.
Week 1 was a nice flashback to their time together in Baton Rouge, as Burrow and Chase hooked up for a huge 50-yard score to put the Bengals up seven late in the first half. All in all, any preseason doubts were put to bed, as Chase led all Bengals wideouts in targets, receptions, and receiving yards.
Chase was electric throughout the afternoon, as the substandard Minnesota secondary had no answer for the dynamic size-speed combo that Chase presents. Bashaud Breeland was picked on all afternoon from Burrow, as Chase became just the 11th wideout in NFL history to record five or more catches with 100-plus receiving yards in their NFL debut.
A season-ending ankle injury suffered on the opening kickoff against Tennessee last fall saw Waddle’s draft stock put into question. With obvious concerns surrounding his future availability as a pro, the Dolphins selected Waddle No. 6 overall to provide Tua Tagovailoa with the elite outside threat the Dolphins have longed for.
His first touchdown was the ideal display of how his lightning-quick feet and speed in open space will be utilized by Brian Flores. Coming in motion toward Tagovailoa, Waddle drags the corner with him, denouncing man coverage. From the snap, it causes mayhem within the Patriots’ defense as a handful of bodies attempt to maneuver their way through the army of bodies to wrangle down Waddle who makes his way toward the flat. Tight end Durham Smythe (No. 81) gets a slight bump on Kyle Duggar (No. 23), which creates just a tick of extra time for Waddle to find room toward the sideline for six. While Waddle failed to eclipse the century mark in receiving yards totaling 61 on the afternoon, his four catches tied DeVante Parker for the second-most among Dolphins skill players.
Smith’s stature took over pre-draft headlines. It wasn’t his play during his time in Tuscaloosa or his sparkling new Heisman Trophy, rather, the discussion on Smith’s play weight and future longevity in the league brought doubt upon his skill set as one of the purest pass-catchers to enter the NFL in some time. It was a joke, and Smith has already begun to prove his doubters wrong.
If Week 1 against the Atlanta Falcons was any indication, Smith has arrived.
Smith was everywhere for the Eagles in his debut. In the pass game, as a blocker, even calling out corner blitzes, Smith proved to be beyond his years in his first NFL snaps. Garnering eight targets from his former quarterback at Alabama, Smith amassed a team-high six catches for 71 yards and a score. His six receptions, in fact, tied the most by an Eagles first-year wideout in franchise history.
It was a special day for the trio of rookie pass-catchers. Each with their own electric skill set on the outside, it won’t be the last Sunday three of the SEC’s most dominant receivers in history share the spotlight highlighting their NFL success.