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Stats, trends favorable toward NFL draft's 'middle class' of receivers

Last year’s NFL rookie wide receiver class was historic. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, 2014 rookies set records for most players with at least 50 catches (eight), with at least 500 receiving yards (12) and with at least five receiving touchdowns (nine).

Odell Beckham Jr. led rookies in receptions (91) and yards (1,305) and was co-leader in touchdown receptions (12) despite missing four games because of injury. Beckham, Mike Evans and Kelvin Benjamin became the first trio of rookies to have 1,000 receiving yards in NFL history.

But how long will the class of 2014 hold those rookie receiving records? This year’s group of draft-eligible receivers, though perhaps not as top-heavy as last year’s, appears to have a larger middle class than in 2014, with scouting grades that align with recent trends of teams’ draft patterns.

More quality depth in 2015 class

Last year’s draft included five receivers who received at least a 90 grade by Scouts, Inc. But the wide receiver class of 2015 has a bigger middle class, with 16 players regarded as at least a “solid prospect” by Scouts, Inc. (70+ grade), more than last year’s record-setting class (which had 14). Among the top 10 receiver prospects, the average grade this year is 88.6; last year, it was 88.3.

On average, this year’s top 10 prospects are bigger, faster and stronger than last year’s top 10 wide receiver prospects. This year’s top 10 averaged a 4.45-second 40-yard time, compared with 4.50 last year, and they averaged a vertical jump of 37.0 inches to last year’s 36.3 inches.

Mel Kiper Jr., in his most recent mock draft, has three wide receivers going in the top 15 picks this year, and Todd McShay has four top-15 receivers in his. The 2014 draft featured three wide receivers in the first 15 picks, but the depth of this year’s middle class could justify passing on the higher-priced talent.

More solid receivers, drafted slightly later

From 1995 to 2004, there were an average of 2.4 wide receivers selected in the top 15 picks. That number has been 1.5 in the last 10 drafts. But whereas teams aren’t selecting receivers in the first half of the draft’s first day as frequently, the average number of wide receivers taken in the first three rounds has risen. From 2005 to 2014, there were an average of 13.2 receivers chosen in the first three rounds, compared with 11.9 from 1995 to 2004.

Head of the class

Highlighting the 2015 class are three prospects with Scouts, Inc., grades of 92 or higher: Amari Cooper, Kevin White and DeVante Parker.

Amari Cooper: Cooper led the FBS with an SEC-record 124 receptions. He had 84 more receptions than any other Crimson Tide player last season, the largest disparity between a team’s Nos. 1 and 2 receivers in the country. He excelled on downfield passes (ranking second in the FBS on receptions of 20 yards or more) and after the catch (third in yards after the catch).

Closest similarity in 2014 class: Beckham Jr. led rookies in yards after the catch (481) and tied for second in 20-yard receptions (16) last season. Similar to Beckham Jr., Cooper has the versatility to beat teams in a variety of ways.

Kevin White: White is a physical receiver who can snatch the ball out of the air and make plays after the catch. On passes of 20 yards or longer, he tied for second among Power 5 receivers with 13 catches and ranked fourth among Power 5 receivers in yards after the catch.

White measured at 6 feet, 2 5/8 inches at the NFL combine and ran a 4.35-second 40-yard time. The last player to run the 40 that fast who was at least that tall was Calvin Johnson in 2007.

Closest similarity in 2014 class: Sammy Watkins. Like Watkins, White has game-changing speed and good hands. White is a little taller and ran a faster 40 than Watkins, but their physical style of play (Watkins led NFL rookies in yards after contact per reception) is similar.

DeVante Parker: Parker is one of the home run threats of this year’s class. He gained 49 percent of his receiving yards on passes thrown 20 yards or longer last season. From the start of Week 8, when Parker returned from injury, to the end of the season, only Ohio State’s Devin Smith matched Parker’s 12 catches on passes thrown 20 or more yards downfield (and Smith played four more games).

Closest similarity in 2014 class:Mike Evans led the NFL with 18 receptions of 20 yards or longer last season after leading college receivers in that statistic in his final season at Texas A&M. Although Parker is shorter than Evans, he tracks deep balls and can make tough over-the-shoulder catches like Evans.