2021 could be a huge year for Alabama’s DeVonta Smith. He became the first wide receiver to win the Heisman since Desmond Howard in 1991, and now he’s expected to be an early pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. We wouldn’t be surprised to see Smith go in the top five, and he will likely be the first receiver taken. Of course, that is no guarantee of success. With Smith expected to be a high pick, we decided to look back at the last 25 NFL Drafts, going back to 1996, to find out who the first wide receiver selected. Some of them were hits. Some were misses. Here are the last 25 receivers to have the honor of being the first one taken in their class.
The question heading into the 2020 NFL Draft was whether Jerry Jeudy or CeeDee Lamb would be taken first. Then, Ruggs, also a Crimson Tide player, went 12th overall to the Las Vegas Raiders. Ruggs was the speedy option in the first round, and even though Al Davis is dead the Raiders still worship speed. It’s only one season, but Ruggs is off to a rough start, as he only had 26 catches in 13 games.
It took a little while before Brown opened the seal on taking receivers in this draft, as he went 25th to the Ravens. The man known as “Hollywood” in college has struggled with injuries to start his career. Meanwhile, two second-round receivers have exploded onto the scene from this class: Offensive Rookie of the Year A.J. Brown and his college teammate DK Metcalf.
Maryland has not exactly had a lot of football success recently, but it can boast that the first receiver taken in 2018 was a Terp. Moore went 24th to the Panthers, two picks before the Falcons took Calvin Ridley, yet another Alabama receiver. While Ridley has been really good, Moore has been no slouch. The athletic receiver has gone over 1,000 yards in each of his last two seasons, though he hasn’t had more than four touchdowns in a year yet.
Davis probably never expected to go fifth overall in the NFL Draft after electing to go to Western Michigan for college. He’s the highest-drafted Bronco of all time. Davis has had his ups and downs but had he stayed healthy 2020 could have been his breakout season. He had 60 catches for 945 yards and five touchdowns even though he only played in 12 games.
Coleman lives in infamy for dropping a pass in Cleveland’s last game of the 2017 season. That would be the year the Browns went winless, and a catch from Coleman could have prevented that. The Browns kicked Coleman to the curb after that year, and though he spent 2018 primarily serving as a return for the Giants, the Baylor alum has not appeared in an NFL game since.
Cooper went fourth overall to the Raiders, another Crimson Tide receiver with a prestigious college career. He’s also the first receiver on this list that has made a Pro Bowl. In fact, Cooper has already made four Pro Bowls, two with the Raiders and two with the Cowboys. Yes, much like Randy Moss before him, Cooper has seen his career stabilize after leaving the Raiders organization, though he had more success in silver-and-black than Moss ever did.
Some may scoff at the Bills for drafting Watkins fourth, if only because Mike Evans and Odell Beckham Jr. went soon after him in the first round. However, Watkins had been impressive in college at Clemson, and he hasn’t exactly had a bad NFL career. While he’s never made a Pro Bowl, and likely never will, he has one 1,000-yard season to his name and is a solid role receiver for the Chiefs, which earned him a Super Bowl ring.
The Rams swung big when they drafted Austin eighth out of West Virginia. The theory was that he would be a Swiss army knife-style weapon, able to run the ball and return kicks in addition to being a receiver. Austin does have 2,000 yards receiving and 1,000 yards rushing in his career with 28 total touchdowns, but he’s also been on five rosters already in his career and seems to be heading toward the end of it soon.
Blackmon put up some massive numbers at Oklahoma State, which led to him being drafted fifth by the Jacksonville Jaguars. In his rookie season, he had 64 catches for 865 yards and five touchdowns. Then, in 2013 he was suspended for four games for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. He violated it again later that year and was suspended for the rest of the season. Blackmon has not played in the NFL since, and soon thereafter had an arrest for marijuana possession and then an arrest for a DUI.
Injuries limited Green in 2018 and did not play at all in 2019. In 2020, he returned with 47 catches for 523 yards. However, back in the day, the fourth-overall pick out of Georgia was one of the best receivers in the NFL for the Bengals. He went over 1,000 yards in his first five seasons, including two campaigns with double-digit touchdowns. Green has made seven Pro Bowls, and the Bengals are surely happy with their decision.
The Broncos were betting on Thomas’ physical talent when they drafted him 22nd. He played at Georgia Tech, after all, which ran the triple-option offense in his final two seasons. It proved to be a smart bet. Thomas had one season with 1,619 yards and another with 14 touchdowns. He made five Pro Bowls and won one Super Bowl with the Broncos. He did not play in 2020, and it seems like he may be retired.
This is the last quintessential Al Davis pick. Everybody thought Michael Crabtree was the best receiver in the 2009 class. However, the Raiders may Heyward-Bey the first receiver drafted when they took him seventh. Yes, he ran a 4.30 40-yard dash. DHB had a few solid seasons, but never went over 1,000 yards and was released by the Raiders after the 2012 campaign. He spent as much time as a depth receiver for the Steelers as he did as a Raider.
This was a bleak year for receiving prospects. Avery was taken with the second pick of the second round. Not that there wasn’t talent in this class. Both Jordy Nelson and DeSean Jackson went in the second round as well. Avery, who was taken by the Rams, only spent two seasons with the team, but he did have a season with 60 catches for 781 yards with the Colts in 2012. He was out of the league by 2014.
There were some elite talents taken early in the 2007 class. Joe Thomas went third. Adrian Peterson went seventh. JaMarcus Russell went first. Wait, that one didn’t work out. Johnson, though? He was one of the highest-drafted receivers ever, going second to the Lions. It definitely worked out. Megatron will likely be a Hall of Famer, even though he retired after playing in only nine seasons. In one of those seasons, he had 1,964 yards, which is an NFL record. Few players have been as impressive athletically as Johnson.
Holmes, taken 25th by the Steelers, caught a huge touchdown pass in Super Bowl XLIII, which helped him earn Super Bowl MVP. This alone makes him worth his selection. Holmes had a few good years with the Steelers, including one 1,000-yard campaign. He then moved onto the Jets, but he quickly fell off as a player. Still, he’ll always have that Super Bowl MVP trophy.
While Edwards was great at Michigan, it was still a surprise when the Browns took him third overall. His first season was ended with an injury, but he did have one Pro Bowl campaign when he stunned with 80 catches for 1,289 yards and 16 touchdowns. In his career, he finished with 40 receiving scores, making that one campaign a real outlier.
We’ve talked about a lot of guys who are retired now. Fitzgerald, though, is still going. The third-overall pick has never left the Cardinals in his lengthy career. He’s made 11 Pro Bowls and was named to the NFL’s All-2010s team. Fitzgerald is second all-time in career receptions and receiving yards and sixth in touchdowns. He’s a true legend and provided the Cards with a ton of bang for their buck.
We’re a little surprised that the Lions took a chance on drafting Johnson second overall, given what a failure it was when they did it with Rogers. He was born in Saginaw and went to Michigan State, so he was a local product. He was also a bust, struggling with injuries and off-the-field issues. Rogers tested positive for marijuana twice in college and at the NFL Combine. Those issues continued after his career ended after only playing in 15 games. He was charged with assault and battery and multiple DUIs. He also unfortunately developed an opioid addiction, and Rogers passed away at 38 from liver failure.
Stallworth was taken 13th overall by the Saints, and as a rookie, he caught eight touchdowns. That would remain a career-high, though. Stallworth was in the NFL through the 2012 season, though he never had a 1,000-yard campaign. It was not a bad career, but it was also not a particularly good one.
Terrell became the first Michigan receiver to have two seasons with over 1,000 yards before declaring for the NFL Draft after his junior season. He then went eighth to the Bears. In 2004, he had 42 catches for 699 yards for Chicago. This was his best season, though, and also his last NFL season. He only lasted four years in the league.
Warrick was a dynamic weapon for the Seminoles, putting up big plays as a receiver and also as a punt returner. His skill and game-breaking potential led the Bengals to take Warrick fourth. While Warrick did a lot of damage in college, the pros proved tougher for him. He had a couple of good years in Cincinnati, but he only lasted five seasons with the Bengals and was out of the league after 2005.
The last receiver to earn the honor of being the first receiver taken in the last millennium was definitely a smart choice by the Rams when they grabbed him at six. Holt was a vital member of the “Greatest Show on Turf” offense. He made seven Pro Bowls and led the NFL in receiving yards twice. Holt is in the College Football Hall of Fame, and he wouldn’t be a terrible choice for the Pro Football Hall of Fame either.
You remember Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf, but do you remember Dyson? He was taken 16th by the Tennessee Oilers (yes, you read that right). He had one very-famous reception when he was tackled at the one-yard line by Mike Jones in the Super Bowl, giving the Rams the win. In the end, Dyson had 178 catches in a six-year NFL career.
Hilliard, taken seventh out of Florida, had a respectable career. He played 12 seasons, eight for the Giants and four for the Buccaneers, and finished with 546 catches for 6,397 yards. Since retiring, though, Hilliard has found success as a coach. He’s been a receivers coach in the NFL since 2012 and is currently with the Steelers.
We end at the top. Johnson famously went first overall in the 1996 NFL Draft. A wide receiver going first? It’s only happened three times, and Keyshawn was the last time that it occurred. Did Johnson live up to that? Not quite, but he was by no means a bust. Keyshawn made three Pro Bowls and had four seasons with over 1,000 yards. Plus, he’s done just fine for himself since retiring. He’s been an ESPN analyst since 2007. The first thing he did? Worked on the NFL Draft, of course.