Is the Ja'Marr Chase-DeVonta Smith WR1 debate a 2011 repeat? Possibly, but history suggests otherwise
Ten years ago, NFL general managers in need of help at receiver had quite the decision.
Julio Jones or A.J. Green?
It’s easy to forget that Green went No. 4 overall to the Bengals and not Jones, who “slipped” to the Falcons at No. 6. Atlanta actually traded up from the No. 27 pick to land the Alabama wideout. While the argument certainly shifted in Jones’ favor as Green dealt with injuries in the last few years, it’s also easy to forget that Green earned 2 All-Pro honors before Jones got his first one in Year 4. Each earned 7 Pro Bowl honors and were easily 2 of the best receivers of the decade.
It’s possible that 10 years later, history will repeat itself with Ja’Marr Chase and DeVonta Smith. Both lit up SEC defenses and put themselves in the driver’s seat to be the first receiver off the board in the NFL Draft. For all we know, Chase and Smith will battle it out for NFL receiving titles on a yearly basis for the next decade.
We’re talking about one prospect who had 84 catches for 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns as a 19-year-old and another who was the first receiver to win the Heisman in nearly 3 decades. Rarely do 2 receivers have such overwhelming arguments to be the top player selected at the position.
There is, however, a reason 2011 was unique. There really hasn’t been another draft quite like that. At least not this century. History suggests that there will be a right and a wrong choice on draft night between Smith and Chase. Or rather, history suggests that when we’re talking about 2 receivers going that high, rarely does it work out for both.
Here are all the instances in which multiple receivers were drafted in the top 10 in the 21st century (the ones in italics made multiple Pro Bowls):
- 2000 — No. 4 Peter Warrick, No. 8 Plaxico Burress, No. 10 Travis Taylor
- 2001 — No. 8 David Terrell, No. 9 Koren Robinson
- 2003 — No. 2 Charles Rogers, No. 3 Andre Johnson
- 2004 — No. 3 Larry Fitzgerald, No. 7 Roy Williams, No. 9 Reggie Williams
- 2005 — No. 3 Braylon Edwards, No. 7 Troy Williamson, No. 10 Mike Williams
- 2007 — No. 2 Calvin Johnson, No. 9 Tedd Ginn
- 2009 — No. 7 Darrius Heyward-Bey, No. 10 Michael Crabtree
- 2011 — No. 4 A.J. Green, No. 6 Julio Jones
- 2014 — No. 4 Sammy Watkins, No. 7 Mike Evans
- 2015 — No. 4 Amari Cooper, No. 7 Kevin White
- 2017 — No. 5 Corey Davis, No. 7 Mike Williams, No. 10 John Ross
See what I mean?
That 2011 draft was absolutely the outlier. Nobody wants to have a draft like the Lions in 2003 when they chose Rogers instead of Andre Johnson (it’s wild to think the Lions took a receiver in the top 10 in 3 consecutive years and then still needed to draft Calvin Johnson at No. 2 in 2007 after all 3 whiffed). Nobody wants to be like the Bills in 2014 when they took Watkins instead of Evans.
This is actually going to be the first time since 2017 that a receiver goes in the top 10. Including Jaylen Waddle, it wouldn’t be surprising to see 3 come off the board in the first 10 picks. But it’s almost like general managers saw that trend with picking between the top wideouts and they punted. Even in a draft that was loaded with receiver talent like 2020 with Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs and Justin Jefferson, not a single wideout went in the top 10.
Besides 2011 with Green and Jones, the only other examples of multiple top-10 receivers in the same draft making at least 1 Pro Bowl was 2004 (Roy Williams made a Pro Bowl during his lone 1,000-yard season).
Even if you want to bump it out to the entire first round, how many 21st century drafts had multiple Round 1 wideouts make multiple Pro Bowls? Just 3 (2010, 2011, 2014). That’s not to say it’s either drafting a Hall of Famer or drafting a bust when it comes to elite wideouts, but the miss rate is so much higher on the position than what some might realize.
Would I bet on either Chase or Smith becoming a star? Of course. The guys went out and lit up elite competition week after week. I pity the general manager who actually has to sit down and make a decision between those 2. Whenever I see an article claiming that one is better, I find myself defending the other. That’s what happens when you deliver 2 of the best seasons we’ve ever seen at the wide receiver position. When you consider that both did that for unbeaten, historically dominant national champions, it’s that much tougher.
But would I bet on Chase and Smith becoming stars? I certainly wouldn’t bet the farm on it. There’s still so much that can impact what happens to them.
Jones and Green were fortunate enough to play for capable NFL quarterbacks. Say what you want about Andy Dalton — the guy did make 3 Pro Bowls — but there’s no doubt it benefited Green to spend nearly a decade playing alongside the guy who went in the same draft as him. Jones, of course, spent his entire career with the same quarterback, too. Matt Ryan wasn’t Aaron Rodgers, but he was a 4-time Pro Bowl quarterback who missed 3 games in a 13-year NFL career (and counting).
Rarely are there transcendent players like Larry Fitzgerald who reach that level despite having a revolving door of quarterbacks and head coaches. That could be the situation that Chase or Smith walk into (especially if they go to a team like the Jets). Neither has red flags like Rogers or is 1-dimensional like Heward-Bey.
If Chase or Smith fail in the NFL, odds are, it’ll be because they didn’t land in a favorable situation. Or rather, they couldn’t develop in a favorable situation.
Maybe there’s something that’ll happen in the next 2 months — even without the NFL Combine — that’ll put either Chase or Smith as the obvious leader for WR1 in the 2021 NFL Draft. The 2011 NFL Combine only complicated things when Jones ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash, and suddenly, Green wasn’t considered the surefire WR1. Of course, he still went ahead of Jones, but it was at least a debate.
What seems inevitable is that many a spirited debate will center around Chase vs. Smith. Shoot, maybe there’s a team picking in the top 10 who will fall in love with Waddle and take him ahead of both of those guys. Whatever the case, it’s clear that the words “can’t miss” will be attached to the elite receivers in this draft class. Maybe it will be.
Just don’t assume we’re destined for a 2011 repeat.