Brandon Lawrence - Associate Editor Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Much was made this time last year about the talent level at the wide receiver position in the 2014 NFL Draft. It was thought to be the deepest on the board, with some of the biggest names and potential stars.
And those players didn't disappoint in their first year at the professional level.
Clemson's Sammy Watkins was the fourth overall selection to the Buffalo Bills, who moved up the board to nab the consensus top receiver by switching picks with the Cleveland Browns. And with no real quarterback throwing the ball in Buffalo, Watkins still hauled in 65 receptions for 982 yards and six touchdowns in his debut season.
Tampa Bay made Texas A&M standout Mike Evans one at the pro level as well, and Carolina Panthers giant Kelvin Benjamin proved he was more than capable of being the top receiving threat for Cam Newton in the NFC South.
After dealing with some early season injuries, Giants wideout Odell Beckham Jr. became an overnight sensation, and Eli Manning's favorite target despite commanding some intense coverage. Beckham proved he only needs three fingers and his other-worldly vertical leap to bring down the football.
There were names littered throughout the later rounds that made impacts in their first seasons, like Pittsburgh's Martavis Bryant, Miami's Jarvis Landry, Indianapolis' Donte Moncrief and Green Bay's Davante Adams. All contributed to the billing of deepest position in the 2014 draft class.
As we get set for the 2015 version of the draft next week, it appears wide receiver is once again one of the most talent-riddled positions. Top players like Amari Cooper and Kevin White could rival the pro-readiness of Watkins and Evans, and when all is said and done after Thursday night's first round, there could be as many or possibly more receiver selections than last year's five on opening night.
Cooper and White could be interchangeable; both are locks to be immediate impact players at the next level. It's just a matter of whether a team prefers height (White at 6-foot-3) and superior athletic ability, or route-running perfection and sure hands (Cooper). Both have enough talent to be off the board by the 10th pick.
The drop-off to Louisville's DeVante Parker and UCF's Breshad Perriman isn't a great one, as both are projected first-round picks by CBS Sports' draft rankings.
Parker could have opted to enter the NFL after his junior season, which would have boosted the 2014 class even more. Instead, the 6-3 receiver chose not to follow his quarterback (Teddy Bridgewater) to the NFL, opting for a senior season. He only played in six games in 2014-15, but still managed 855 yards and five touchdowns in that span. His raw ability has him as a surefire first- round pick.
The same goes for Perriman, who has shot up draft boards thanks to strong NFL Combine and pro day results. The redshirt junior is slated as a mid-first- round selection, according to multiple online mock drafts.
If those four players are selected on Thursday, that's one shy of last year's first-round WR contingency.
But don't count out Dorial Green-Beckham, Nelson Agholor and Jaelen Strong as first-night selections. Green-Beckham could be worth the risk despite his lengthy list of off-the-field concerns. Green-Beckham, who hasn't suited up since the 2013 season prior to his dismissal from Missouri's program, has the potential to be the best receiver in this class.
The 6-5, 237-pounder draws size comparisons to Detroit Lions star Calvin Johnson and could quite honestly become a similar player. That is, if he can smarten up and remain out of trouble. His one year at Oklahoma (in which he sat out due to transfer rules) was promising in that regard.
Agholor and Strong are both exceptionally solid receivers and have been mocked all the way up to the mid-teens. Depending on which receivers are off the board when wideout-needy teams like Cleveland, Houston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and New England pick on Thursday, Agholor and Strong will certainly fit the bill as receivers who could come in and challenge for the top starter spot.
Former Miami (Fla.) pass catcher Phillip Dorsett is on the smaller side at 5-10, 185, but is lightning quick. He and ex-Ohio State wideout Devin Smith have even been talked about as potential first-day choices, too.
Go even deeper and players like Florida State's Rashad Greene, Auburn's Sammie Coates, Michigan's Devin Funchess and East Carolina's Justin Hardy will all prove to be worth the early to mid-round grades they've received.
Teams like the Browns and Eagles need multiple receivers because the offseason wasn't kind to either of them. Cleveland stud receiver and perpetual drug abuser Josh Gordon is already suspended for all of 2015, and the Eagles lost Jeremy Maclin to Kansas City via free agency. Now the need for help on the outsides offensively is dire.
If both teams spend early round picks on receivers and want to double-dip later on, players like Dezmin Lewis, Kenny Bell, Stefon Diggs and Titus Davis will be perfect additions who can help a receiving corps right away.
Naturally we won't know how good this receiver class can be until the players step foot out on the field in NFL regular-season action. But with the 2014 class being called one of the greatest of all-time in terms of first-year production, it will be interesting to see just how this 2015 one stacks up. On paper, it looks exceptionally promising.