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USA Today Sports Media Group
Saivion Mixson

Drafting a WR2 high has mixed results

When the Minnesota Vikings decided to draft Jordan Addison with the 23rd pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, I immediately pointed to all the positives. He was one of the more pro-ready receivers in a draft that “lacked talent.” He’s a perfect complement to what Jefferson does best with his ability to get open underneath coverages. Addison flourished off pre-snap motions and flares in Lincoln Riley’s offense, adding another avenue for production in O’Connell’s offense. He fits like a glove.

Not to mention, a second wide receiver was a necessity. Minnesota lost hometown favorite Adam Thielen this off-season to the Carolina Panthers. With an extension for Justin Jefferson looming around, you have to surround him with as much help as possible to accentuate what he does best.
But it also got me thinking about the value of drafting a WR2 this high. How has it worked for other teams? Would it work here? Is this a gamble worth taking in this stage of rebuilding the roster?

So, I did some research from drafts past and found a few situations where WR2s got drafted in the top 50 picks in the NFL draft. I took the data from the 2018-2020 drafts. That way, there are, at minimum, three years of production and situational differences to analyze. And within those situations, three separate scenarios continued to arise that we are going to discuss.

One Last Ride

AP Photo/Brett Carlsen

There have been a few instances where teams see their roster and decide “I just want one more go at it.” They see a unit, whether offense or defense, that can get them to that next level and decide to take that gamble to get there. But if it backfires, the repercussions are dire.

Let’s take the 2017 Arizona Cardinals as an example. On offense, they had Carson Palmer reaching the end of his ability as a plus starter. He and running back David Johnson had injuries that ended their seasons early. They had to rely on Drew Stanton and Blaine Gabbert to drag their offense to the finish line, and they went 8-8. Their defense had Chandler Jones, Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu playing some of their best football. Their defense finished 3rd in defensive DVOA behind only the Jacksonville Jaguars and Minnesota Vikings. Both of these defenses helped lead their team to conference championships that year. So, Bruce Arians said: “screw it, one last time.” He ran it back while giving WR1 Larry Fitzgerald a little extra help. They drafted Christian Kirk 47th in the 2018 NFL draft to add some extra pop to the offense.

In 2019, the Indianapolis Colts and then-head coach Frank Reich were at a crossroads. They were a middle-of-the-road team that needed something to give them a spark. Across the country, Philip Rivers was playing his last snaps as a Los Angeles Charger. A change of scenery was imminent as the franchise was looking to look in a new, younger direction at the position. Reich brought in Rivers to give him one last shot at a playoff run and outfitted him with a few more weapons. At pick 34, Indianapolis drafted Michael Pittman, Jr. to help boost the talent in the receiver room.

Going from good to great

AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn

In today’s age of football, nothing is more aesthetically pleasing than a good passing attack. Spreading out and confusing the defense one route concept after another; that’s what fans want to see. That is what wins ball games now in the modern NFL. But defenses are becoming more crafty, adaptable and deceptive. So, what is the most surefire way to continue to be one step ahead? To continue to build the talent in the passing game, even if it was good the year before.

The 2018 Atlanta Falcons thought this would be the key to unlocking the last few years of Matt Ryan. As Atlanta reeled from the Super Bowl that shall not be named, their offensive output the year after was still exceptional. They were still top-ten in EPA/play, offensive DVOA, and passing DVOA. Ryan secured his seventh-straight 4,000-yard season and Julio Jones accumulated his third-straight 1400-yard season receiving. With all this, they were still only 15th in the league in points scored. They needed more firepower to get the ball in the endzone. And they got it. With the 26th pick, Atlanta chose a route technician out of Alabama in Calvin Ridley.

In 2019, the Dallas Cowboys offense was an excellent unit. Dak Prescott had a 30-11 TD-to-INT ratio. Ezekiel Elliot was a 1300+ yard rusher. They had two 1100-yard receivers in Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup. Everything was working on the offensive side of the ball for Jason Garrett and Kellen Moore. However, they still only finished 8-8 that season. And it’s not like the defense was an issue that season. They were 13th in EPA/play in 2019. So, there was obviously plenty of talent on this team; they just needed that extra push, extra explosiveness to win and close out games. And they found it with the 17th pick in the 2020 draft in Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb.

We need some help

AP Photo/Peter Aiken

This is the most common example of why someone would go the WR2 route so high in the draft. Sometimes teams don’t have enough talent on the offensive side of the ball to compete. As defenses get better at taking away what offenses do best, the need for a second wide-receiver option continues to grow in importance.It can become difficult trying to build/rebuild an offense, especially when the quarterback situation is questionable.

The 2017 Denver Broncos offense was a stagnant unit. That usually happens when you split the 16 starts at the quarterback position between Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiller, and Paxton Lynch. It was a season to forget. The team only broke 20 points six times throughout the year and that was due to the passing game. They were 29th in EPA/play and 31st in both offensive DVOA and passing DVOA. They had good receiver options in the late Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. But they needed more. So, after adding Bradley Chubb in the first round, the Broncos decided to add more firepower in the receiver room with SMU product Courtland Sutton.

The 2019 Jacksonville Jaguars had a plan in place. Run the football a lot with the newly acquired Leonard Fournette. For the passing game, they should be getting just enough with Super Bowl legend Nick Foles. After Foles got hurt almost immediately, Minshew mania made its first appearance in the NFL but did not lead to many wins. When Foles returned to action, he wasn’t the same, and Jacksonville rolled with Minshew to end the year. They ended the season 23rd in EPA/play, 24th in offensive DVOA, and 23rd in passing DVOA. Those results are utterly mediocre. But Minshew and wide receiver DJ Chark showed flashes of exciting play, so they decided to give Minshew a chance the next season. To help out the explosion factor, they drafted Laviska Shenault with the 42nd pick.

How did they end up?

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Christian Kirk

Kirk ended up helping this offense a lot while it was going through a transitional stage behind the scenes. The quarterback position (Palmer to Murray), primary receiver position (Fitzgerald to Hopkins) and head coach/play-caller (Arians to Kingsbury) changed after 2018. When targeting Kirk, Kyler’s passer rating rose every year.

  • 2019: 87.3
  • 2020: 95.0
  • 2021: 112.2

That 112.2 ranked ninth for passer rating when targeted for anyone over 100 targets. He gave Arizona stability at the WR2 position until he ventured out and tried his hand at becoming a WR1 in Jacksonville. After one season, it has worked well. Kirk became Trevor Lawrence’s favorite target in 2022. However, he will probably be WR2 now as Calvin Ridley enters Duval County poised to break out.

Michael Pittman Jr.

Pittman steadily climbed to the number one option in Reich’s offense as Hilton dealt with multiple injuries. As the carousel continued on, Pittman was the most reliable piece in this offense besides all-pro running back, Jonathan Taylor. Other than his injury-riddled rookie year, Pittman took the lion’s share of the targets from both Carson Wentz and Matt Ryan. Indy hasn’t had the most stable of offenses but Pittman was one piece that Reich or whoever the play-caller was could rely on. In 2023, Pittman has once again taken over the number-one receiver duties and seems will be a favorite target for Anthony Richardson as Indianapolis builds its offense.

Calvin Ridley

Ridley made it abundantly clear about his situation in Atlanta through his Players’ Tribune article. While he was there, he helped Atlanta become one of the premier passing attacks in the league. Even when the team struggled between 2018-2020, they were still 10th in EPA/dropback and 5th in dropback success rate. However, after dealing with mental health struggles and what could only be described as a questionable year-long suspension, Ridley missed almost 65% of the games played in 2021 and 2022. Poised for a bounceback, Ridley will be the reason why Kirk will probably be a WR2 in Jacksonville in 2023. 

CeeDee Lamb

Lamb made it clear that he was much more than a regular WR2. He wanted to be a premier receiver and loved to put on a show for the fans when he had the ball in his hand. While having Amari Cooper helps any receiver, it was clear from day one that Lamb had what it took to be a premier guy. Football Outsiders has a metric called DYAR, it measures the total value of a receiver and measures it against the others in the league. Lamb came into the league as a top-50 receiver in this metric. In 2021, he became a top-20 receiver. Last season, he was the fifth most valuable receiver in the NFL. Needless to say, his value made it easier for the Cowboys to trade Cooper before 2022 and hand over the WR1 reins.

Courtland Sutton

Sutton came in and handled all of the quarterback turnover that Denver threw at him. From Keenum to Flacco to Bridgewater to Lock, nothing really stayed consistent with this passing game, except for Sutton. He consistently remained a bright spot in a passing game that has stayed near the bottom of the league in EPA/dropback. He even made a pro bowl back in 2019, when he ranked top-20 in the league in receiving yards. Sutton has proven he belongs in this league and can be a reliable target for an offense. He just needs a competent quarterback to get him the football. Hopefully, he finds that this season with the duo of Russell Wilson and Sean Payton.

Laviska Shenault

Shenault is the only story on this list that didn’t live up to the hype. And even then, that may be a stretch. Shenault came into the league as a project at receiver and Jacksonville did not have the facilities to develop him. Shenault’s best season was his rookie season in 2020, where he hauled in 58 of his 79 targets for 600 yards. However, after whatever that season was with Urban Meyer, Jacksonville decided to go in a different direction with the receiving room. Now, Shenault is set to be a small part in rebuilding the Carolina Panthers receiving room.

What this means for Minnesota

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

What this means for the Minnesota Vikings is that there is a solid chance that drafting Addison was a good decision. There seem to be many more positive outcomes to drafting a WR2 this high than there are negatives. For those situations above, teams usually found a solid piece to help bolster their receiving room. In a few cases, like Sutton and Lamb, found themselves a new premier receiver to covet for the future. That’s probably something we don’t have to worry about here with Jefferson but it’s always nice to know it’s a possibility.

Of course, you have to take into account the opportunity cost that comes into drafting a support piece this high in lieu of a possible need. For instance, there were plenty of edges or corners that the Vikings could have picked instead of Addison. Names such as Deonte Banks and B.J. Ojulari come to mind immediately. Also, these situations are clearly based on quarterback play as Pittman and Sutton showed some struggles with the constant quarterback turnover in their respective organizations.

At the end of the day, when you look at the results for each of these situations, it seems that teams don’t doubt taking that risk for the offensive upgrade. The pros of looking for that extra explosiveness in the passing game, especially in today’s game, outweigh the potential cons. I believe that Addison is a perfect complement to both Osborn and Jefferson. If they keep this receiving corp together, this could be the beginning of something beautiful in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

The Real Forno Show

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