It’s only been one season, but the 2019 wide receiver draft class is already shaping up to be one of the best in recent memory. Several players made a significant impact in year one, while many others possess the talent and upside to become long-term starters. For this reason, it’s only natural that expectations are high as these youngsters enter year two.
While for the longest time, a receiver’s third season was identified as the likeliest time for a breakout, sophomore wide receivers have been very productive in recent history. In fact, four second-year wideouts recorded their first 1,000-yard campaign in 2019. D.J. Moore, Courtland Sutton, Michael Gallup, and DJ Chark all accomplished this impressive feat and almost certainly would have been joined by Calvin Ridley, had he not sustained a season-ending abdominal injury in Week 14.
With so many second-year pass catchers making such an enormous impact a year ago, it seems like the right time to start thinking about who might be next to accomplish this feat. But rather than focus on the usual suspects, let’s fly a little more under the radar and identify some true sleepers.
Sophomore Wide Receivers With Bright NFL Futures
For the purposes of clarity, this exercise focuses exclusively on players who have yet to truly scratch the surface of their pro potential, so receivers who produced over 700 receiving yards in 2019 will be excluded from the study. A.J. Brown (who cleared 1,000 yards as a rookie) Terry McLaurin, D.K. Metcalf, Deebo Samuel, and Darius Slayton all look like exciting potential stars and strong breakout candidates, but since they already found significant success a rookies, they won’t be discussed here. With that out of the way, let’s dive right in.
Marquise Brown, Baltimore Ravens
Marquise Brown exploded onto the scene with 18 targets, 12 receptions, 233 receiving yards, and two touchdowns in his first two NFL contests. The first wideout selected in 2019 looked to be on the fast track to an amazing debut, but ultimately, injuries and the run-based Ravens offense held him under 50 receiving yards in all but one of the season’s remaining regular-season games.
Still, he put up 126 receiving yards in the team’s playoff loss and his connection with 2019 NFL MVP Lamar Jackson should continue to blossom in year two. While Brown’s skill set as a deep threat is an asset, he’s a much more complete receiver than he’s given credit for. Furthermore, Jackson has consistently upped his game as a passer in every season, and it seems highly probable that these two will connect for far more big plays in 2020 than last year.
Brown is an elite talent playing for one of the league’s best franchises with an MVP quarterback throwing to him. If he can stay healthy this time around, his numbers should skyrocket.
N’Keal Harry, New England Patriots
Hamstring and ankle issues sidelined N’Keal Harry for the first nine games of the 2019 NFL season, and once he got on the field, he struggled to form a connection with Tom Brady and finished the season with only 12 receptions for 105 yards and two touchdowns. It certainly wasn’t the debut he hoped for, but there’s still plenty of cause for optimism entering the next phase of his career.
For starters, Harry stands as the only first-round receiver Bill Belichick has drafted during his tenure with the Patriots. That alone is all the evidence one needs to see that he will be given every opportunity to contribute. Furthermore, he no longer needs to fret over earning the trust of a Hall of Fame quarterback as Jarrett Stidham will likely serve as the team’s starter in 2020. Stidham and Harry were part of the same draft class and will have the chance to find their footing as professionals together.
Finally, the competition for targets in the Pats offense is less than imposing. James White will likely still have a huge role out of the backfield, and Julian Edelman will remain the team’s top receiver, but there’s more to this story. Edelman will be 34 when the season opens and there’s no guarantee his connection with Brady can be duplicated with Stidham.
While Harry will compete for snaps with Mohamed Sanu, Jakobi Meyers, Marqise Lee, and others, it’s not a stretch to imagine him cementing himself as the team’s number two wideout. If that happens, he most certainly has the talent to be a highly productive pass-catcher right out of the gate.
Diontae Johnson, Pittsburgh Steelers
Diontae Johnson almost didn’t make the cut for this discussion because he was quite productive as a rookie. After all, he led the Steelers with 59 receptions and five touchdown grabs, while his 680 receiving yards were second-best on the team. Perhaps most impressively, he accomplished the majority of this with Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges throwing to him. With Ben Roethlisberger back in the mix, his numbers have nowhere to go but up.
The Steelers have arguably been the best franchise at drafting and developing wide receivers over the last two decades and Johnson looks like their latest middle-round gem. It’s far from a given in a reasonably crowded wideout room, but Johnson has sneaky 1,000-yard potential in his sophomore campaign as long as he has his future Hall of Fame quarterback under center.
Just Missed the Cut
Mecole Hardman has electric speed and plays in arguably the NFL’s best offense with the game’s best quarterback, Patrick Mahomes. The only reason he wasn’t included with the big three is because he’s part of an offense that includes Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins, Demarcus Robinson, Damien Williams, and the newly-drafted Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Hardman will make some big plays in 2020, but it’s hard to forecast much of an uptick in targets in an offense that crowded.
Hunter Renfrow finished the 2019 season strong, with consecutive 100 receiving yard performances and a pair of touchdown catches to go along with them. If this column had been written two months ago, he would have been one of the focal points. Then free agency unfolded and the Raiders signed Nelson Agholor and Jason Witten. In the 2020 NFL Draft, they went on to select Henry Ruggs III, Lynn Bowden Jr., and Bryan Edwards.
Suddenly, a pass-catching group that already included Renfrow, Darren Waller, Tyrell Williams, and Zay Jones looks like an absolute mess to try to sort out. While I certainly wouldn’t rule out a Renfrow breakout, the path to such an occurrence is much less direct than it was recently.