Week 1 Rookie Receiver Report Card: First rounders all impress in debuts

Three wide receivers were taken in the top 10 of the NFL Draft, so it's only natural we report on how each rookie played in their debut.

Last season, we witnessed history as Justin Jefferson put up the most yards ever for a rookie receiver in a season. Which rookie in our Week 1 receiver report card has the best chance to put up big numbers in 2021? All three receivers drafted in the top 10 of the 2021 NFL Draft scored touchdowns on Sunday, and each helped their team win. So, who was the most impressive?

Week 1 rookie receiver report card | Ja’Marr Chase

The order of names here is based solely on their draft position to ensure we don’t give anything away. That means Ja’Marr Chase is up first in the rookie receiver report!

The first WR drafted proved a few things right off the bat. First, even though they had a long-distance relationship for a year, the bond between him and Joe Burrow is stronger than what he has with any other receiver. The first love is often the strongest.

Chase led the team in both targets and receptions. Even in his first game of the season, he proved to be the team’s top target. The fantasy football experts appear validated by that, at the very least.

Secondly, he looked excellent catching the football, which is what people were in a tizzy about before Week 1. He made a fine adjustment on a pass Burrow left out in front of him as Chase settled down a bit. That play happened on a 3rd and 16, in which Chase picked up 15 yards, setting up a fourth-down attempt that ultimately failed.

Where Chase won

Chase’s Week 1 rookie receiver report included him feasting against zone coverage, showing a great feel for the soft spots on the archaic country or spot-drop zone coverages NFL teams rely on. It’ll be interesting to see how he fairs against man coverage throughout the season. Although he’s athletically gifted, his one area of improvement coming out of LSU was his route running.

There weren’t many instances where the Vikings forced him to beat press, or if they were running it, he was on the opposite side of a half-field concept. The one deep route he ran against Patrick Peterson was a slight double move, but he didn’t gear down completely on the route. Although he separated late, it was a catchable ball, and he could have made a big play.

And that’s what I think we’ll see from him. His game is reminiscent of the top-10 pick version of Michael Gallup. However, Chase will get a much higher volume. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him have a lower catch rate but one of the highest per-catch averages in the league. He’s a big-play threat.

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Week 1 rookie receiver report card | Jaylen Waddle

Jaylen Waddle’s evaluation is more difficult to produce. Join me on my soapbox as I vent about how ridiculous the Miami Dolphins’ passing concepts were in Week 1.

A bit off-topic, but important context

I can’t remember a time in my life I’ve watched such a basic passing concept, on the whole. Slant-flat is a staple attack, and besides a possible curl-flat, is the first read a quarterback is taught in Pop Warner.

It feels like the offensive staff doesn’t trust opening the playbook to Tua Tagovailoa, which we didn’t expect from Alabama, where it seemed he had a great handle on things. Last year, he admitted he struggled with the playbook. That cannot continue if the Dolphins want to consistently win games.

Maybe it was a game plan issue. But if this continues into Week 2 and beyond, even Will Fuller won’t be able to consistently separate.

Back to Waddle

Waddle definitely had his ups and downs in this one. However, the positives certainly outweighed the negatives in his rookie receiver report.

Waddle dropped a critical third-down catch. He gator-armed the pass that ended up on his fingertips and then on the ground.

Aside from that, he appeared to be what we thought he could be early in his career for the Dolphins. After getting him involved early, seemingly by design, he disappeared for most of the game. The endless dose of slant-flat made it so he was nothing but a decoy for most of the game, as he ended up as the flat receiver from most.

Waddle did run vertically once, though. He was aligned in the slot in a trips formation into the boundary, with Mike Gesicki alone aligned off the line but tight to the formation. Devin McCourty was on that hash, and the defense was showing Cover 1.

Waddle ran by Jalen Mills like he was standing still. The ball was underthrown a bit (which could have been by design, but not ideal, considering how burnt Mills’ toast was on the play). Nevertheless, Waddle elevated and finished the catch.

His touchdown reception was fun because he dove to finish it, but it was really just a foot race off some well-called return motion.

Week 1 rookie receiver report card | DeVonta Smith

The final player on the rookie receiver report card is DeVonta Smith. Like Chase, Smith led his team in catches (tied with Jalen Reagor), yards, and targets. For their first touchdown, the Eagles dialed up a man-beating combination that used a rub route to free Smith down the sideline and easily into the end zone.

Smith’s night was much more routine than his draft counterparts, but that’s what makes Smith special. He’s a complete receiver. Sure, he can work acrobatics along the sideline and make plays through contact over the middle, but he just gets open.

However, not unlike Chase, Smith really flourished against zone coverage in this game. He did a fantastic job feeling out open spots in soft zones. Most of those targets came within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. He did, however, make one more splash play.

Jalen Hurts busted right out of the pocket after not liking his initial options. Smith ran a route from the slot favoring the middle of the field — in the intermediate area — and then slid toward the right sideline as Hurts rolled the same direction. That pass ended up going for 19 yards on a 3rd and 9.

Good showings to start the season

All three rookie wide receivers receive good grades on their report card. It’ll take many more routes, targets, drops, catches, and touchdowns to know exactly what impact they’ll have for the rest of the season.

However, it appears that Chase and Smith are the guys. Meanwhile, Waddle is seeing Will Fuller return next week to Miami. His role in the offense will almost surely become spotty. Waddle may not be the WR3 for a while, but he’ll most likely battle for WR2 supremacy with DeVante Parker.

Because Fuller is the guy in Miami, for as long as he’s healthy.

Dalton Miller is the Lead NFL Analyst at Pro Football Network. You can read more of his work here and follow him @daltonbmiller on Twitter and Twitch

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