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Sammy Watkins, Kelvin Benjamin leading NFL’s productive group of rookie wide receivers

Buffalo Bills wide receiver Sammy Watkins leads all rookie receivers with 590 yards. (Jeff Haynes/AP Images)

Each Wednesday, national NFL writer Mark Maske will assess the league through the lens of the front office and team construction, breaking down rookies, draft targets, trades, recent signings, upcoming free agents, coaching evaluations and more.

Front Office Focus: Rookies/NFL Draft | Coaches

NFL quarterbacks received all the attention for the dizzying passing numbers they posted last weekend, and rightfully so. The league had four 400-yard passers on a single day for the first time ever, led by Ben Roethlisberger’s historically memorable 522-yard, six-touchdown performance for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

But someone had to be catching all of those passes, and rookie wide receivers were doing more than their share of that. According to the NFL, nine rookie wideouts had at least 75 receiving yards in the Week 8 games, the most such performances in a single week in league history. One of Roethlisberger’s receivers, Steelers rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant, was on that list.

This group of rookie wide receivers was well regarded entering the NFL draft in May, and the praise for it is growing now.

“It’s just the new trend in the NFL,” former Green Bay Packers wide receiver Antonio Freeman said. “Rookies are expected to come in and contribute. Rookies are going to come in and play, especially if you’re taken in the first three or four rounds. When teams take these young wide receivers early in the draft, they come in and play immediately. There’s no waiting. … There’s a good mixture of talent. There’s size and there’s speed.”

Said former Washington Redskins and San Francisco 49ers front office executive Vinny Cerrato: “I think the expectation going into the draft was that this was a good group. I thought Sammy Watkins was the best and then there was everyone else. I thought he was head and shoulders above the rest of the group. But there’s a lot of guys, and it’s different types of receivers — bigger receivers, smaller guys with speed. It allows you to draft for what you do. John Brown fits in perfectly in Arizona because he fits perfectly with what [Cardinals Coach] Bruce Arians does.”

Five wideouts were selected in the opening round in May, beginning with Watkins — the fourth overall choice by the Buffalo Bills out of Clemson. Other first-rounders included Texas A&M’s Mike Evans by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr. by the New York Giants, Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks by the New Orleans Saints and Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin by the Carolina Panthers.

Watkins leads NFL rookies with 590 receiving yards, 19 more than Benjamin.

“He’s ready,” Freeman said of Watkins, who’s had consecutive 100-yard receiving games for the Bills. “He’s big. He’s tall. He can run. And he seems to understand the game. You’re seeing the talent level of these Clemson wide receivers. They’re pro-ready. They’re ready to go. … [But] there are about six or seven guys. There’s some real talent. You can talk about Sammy Watkins. Kelvin Benjamin is in a great role in Carolina. This is definitely a nice group. They’re pro-ready. That’s the big thing.”

It’s not only the first-round receivers who are performing well. Allen Robinson, a second-round pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars out of Penn State, is third among rookies with 453 receiving yards. Brown, a third-rounder by the Cardinals out of Pittsburg State University in Kansas, is eighth on that list, and had a 75-yard touchdown catch with a little more than a minute left in the game to beat the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday.

Robinson and Brown joined Watkins, Evans, Cooks, Benjamin and Bryant among the rookies with at least 75 receiving yards last weekend. The others were Green Bay’s Davante Adams and Donte Moncrief of Indianapolis.

Drafting wide receivers perhaps has become less perilous than it once was, given the NFL’s current enforcement of illegal contact rules and emphasis on eliminating hits on defenseless players, including receivers in the act of making a catch.

“It’s different,” Cerrato said. “It’s less risky now because the defensive backs can’t put their hands on the receivers. The fast receivers can come in and play without as much of an adjustment. You can get away with smaller receivers. There’s not as much to learn. The receivers have been elevated in the draft, and the running backs have been lowered. It’s just a passing league.”

Freeman expressed similar sentiments, saying that rookie wideouts face a less pronounced learning curve in today’s NFL.

“It’s a passing league,” Freeman said. “You’re talking about guys being ready to play. The defensive backs aren’t able to touch you after five yards. You don’t worry about having to take a big hit when you go over the middle. Guys can use their speed and talent and run by people. In a lot of ways, what you practice in seven-on-seven [passing drills] is what you get in a game. You don’t have to worry about as much as you did 10 or 20 years ago.”

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