One bit of conventional wisdom in the NFL is that wide receivers typically struggle as rookies. It's hard to say for sure, because players like DeSean Jackson and Eddie Royal were excellent last year, while many others didn't contribute at all. By those overall standards, Kenny Britt had an excellent debut season for the Tennessee Titans, totalling 701 yards and three touchdowns on 42 catches, for a scintillating 16.7 yards per catch average. He's the ultimate deep threat - just as he was in college. An interesting column at ESPN just noted that Britt ranked sixth in the NFL (at 59.1%) on catch percentage of passes thrown 15 yards or longer downfield.
Kenny easily led the Titans in receiving, and was by far more productive than Nate Washington and Justin Gage, despite being third on the depth chart at times. Tennessee hasn't had a rookie WR on that level since Kevin Dyson over a decade ago. Other factors contributed too; Tennessee's offense is naturally centered on Chris Johnson at RB, and Kerry Collins struggled mightily early in the season. The Titans didn't pass that much, as opposed to other teams, which consequently results in more opportunities to compile stats.
By all accounts it was a very successful season (without a peep about him off the field), but it did get lost in the shuffle somewhat this year. It doesn't help that Nashville is a smaller market, and the Titans got off to a bad start, but the greater factor was that so many rookie receivers contributed this season. Here's the list, ranked by total yardage.
1. Percy Harvin (MIN) - 60 catches, 790 yards, 13.2 YPC, 6 TD
2. Hakeem Nicks (NYG) - 47 catches, 790 yards, 16.8 YPC, 6 TD
3. Jeremy Maclin (PHI) - 55 catches, 762 yards, 13.9 YPC, 3 TD
4. Mike Wallace (PIT) - 39 catches, 756 yards, 19.4 YPC, 6 TD
5. Kenny Britt (TEN) - 42 catches, 701 yards, 16.7 YPC, 3 TD
6. Austin Collie (IND) - 60 catches, 676 yards, 11.3 YPC, 7 TD
7. Michael Crabtree (SF) - 48 catches, 625 yards, 13 YPC, 2 TD (Crabtree only played in 11 games)
8. Mohamed Massaquoi (CLE) - 34 catches, 624 yards, 18.4 YPC, 3 TD
Add in the likes of Johnny Knox, Brian Hartline, and Louis Murphy, and you can almost overlook how the receiver who went the highest last year, Darrius Heyward-Bey, did absolutely nothing with Oakland. Initially, it appears to have clearly been a good class otherwise at the top, but there were a few surprises like Knox and Collie. Who could have seen Massaquoi coming, especially when Brian Robiskie was the Cleveland receiver supposed to contribute immediately?
Most of these players were third receivers, although many did start at times. Those raw numbers also don't include special teams contributions. For instance, Britt returned kicks. Maclin had some looks there too, and as expected, Harvin was an instant lethal weapon on special teams. I wasn't surprised at that, but definitely was at how much of a contribution players like Harvin and Maclin made coming out of spread offenses.
When comparing all of these rookies, context definitely matters. There's playing time, strength of schedule, situational adjustments (garbage time, etc...), direct personnel matchups, play specific (i.e., first downs and touchdowns) context and such. It's good to cite a site like Football Outsiders to at least give some sort of idea of context-neutral comparison, as much as that's possible. It's still hard to precisely differentiate the contributions of a quarterback and receiver on each specific pass, and these numbers are certainly dependent on sample size and should accordingly be considered with all of the normal qualifiers. Nor do they necessarily quantify other contributions like blocking or drawing away coverage as a decoy.
FO ranks receivers by Estimated Yards, which is a counting statistic dependent on opportunity, much like looking at a player's raw yardage total. For a look at each player's per-play effectiveness, the metric of choice is called DVOA. Britt is the 38th ranked receiver by EYards, behind the likes of Wallace, Collie, Nicks, and Harvin in both stats. That's a pretty good performance, especially from one of the youngest players in the NFL, but it's again overshadowed by several peers. He'd probably be higher with a better catch rate.
Statistics are only one part of the equation, as the context behind them is important too. As a deep threat, Britt does have to run a lot of low percentage routes (and didn't exactly have a ton of help under center). FO's metrics in general are a bit skewed towards the ball-control, get a first down at all costs mantra. That's what has been proven to be most effective by their functional-oriented methodology, but the value of deep routes is in keeping defenses honest enough to dink and dunk to death. The danger of course is getting too in love with the deep ball, as Rutgers did early in 2008, or the Giants in 2006, and that's what the numbers probably reflect.
I think this bears out in the case of Nicks, who is the natural comparison point for Britt, as their careers will be forever linked. Nicks had a very good debut season for the Giants. He had a surprisingly number of drops, but he's very smooth looking coming out of his breaks - it's very reminiscent of Mohamed Sanu. It's striking when you compare it to how jerky Britt looks, hands and limbs flailing around everywhere, like teenagers awkwardly groping each other in the back seat of a subcompact.
Britt's a long strider, and more than makes up for that with his deep speed, although it's masked a bit by the optical illusion from his lanky frame. I honestly never did love using him on hitches and screens though. That's where Nicks and his cutting ability is so effective. He certainly is a big play receiver, as his YPC attests to that. Where he'd usually do his damage on the year is that Eli Manning would just throw a simple curl pattern or the like. Nicks would cut, turn upfield, and before you know it, defender after defender are missing tackles as he slips past their grasp. It's very useful.
I still prefer Britt in terms of near-term usefulness with respect to the Giants' scheme and personnel, and believe that he has a higher upside. That's all over and done with though, and I don't really plan on revisiting that topic in the future barring unforseen events. Britt's a Titan. It was the kind of up and down rookie season where he followed mishaps against the Steelers and Cardinals with great plays.
"I had, I'd say, an OK season," he said this week, his voice low. "It was a learning process. I just want to get better."
Usually receivers improve in their second NFL season, and really make the leap in year three. If Kenny keeps at it as he's promised, the sky is the limit. I still consider him to be the best combination of talent and production in recent Rutgers history. Yes, above Ray Rice, who showed in 2009 that his collegiate performance was no fluke. It would be very surprising if he's not a Pro Bowl-caliber receiver within two or three years. That's my prediction, and I'm sticking to it.