More often than not, you can count on modest production from rookie pass-catchers in the NFL. Learning the intricacies of NFL-level offenses, and understanding the sophisticated responses from defenses, can be a year-long task. In 2010, for example, a combined seven rookie receivers and tight ends caught more than 40 passes.
So I think it's notable that very early in the NFC North season, we have two receivers on pace to eclipse the 40-catch plateau in Titus Young of the Detroit Lions and Dane Sanzenbacher of the Chicago Bears.
So while many of you were leery about debating this issue in Week 4, I thought it was worth raising the question of which pass-catcher has been the most impressive in the early going of 2011.
Young drew some praise for ascending to a prominent role even after missing most of training camp with a leg injury. The Lions were eagerly anticipating his return, of course, and didn't have a logical challenger for the No. 3 receiver's role.
But Young has nevertheless demonstrated exceptional ball skills, strong hands and, as severs28 notes, a sense of calm in the clutch: "Titus has come through with some big time catches. A 42-yard catch on third-and-24, a 15-yard grab on third-and-12, 10-yard gain on third-and-8. The timing of his catches so far have been perfect."
Bmillerclan agreed that "Young is most valuable as a pass-catcher," but added: "Cobb is the most essential for his role on the team. The Packers have traditionally had an unimpressive special-teams showing. That is obviously changing. When was the last return for a touchdown in Green Bay? 1964?"
Ha. Actually, Cobb's 108-yard kickoff return in Week 1 was the Packers' first since 2000. And while Cobb has caught only five passes, keep in mind that he has been on the field for only 36 plays, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That translates into roughly one catch for every seven snaps. For comparison, Jennings is averaging one catch for every 10 snaps.
Wrote swiftwings88: "His performance sitting behind so many weapons in Green Bay makes his achievements much more impressive."
Meanwhile, Sanzenbacher's nine catches and pair of touchdowns have come for an offense that is hardly clicking. Wrote J.B. Thompson:
"In my mind, it comes down to potential upside for the team as a whole, and I think Sanzenbacher offers more value to a Bears team that needs some offensive help. The Lions have great options across the board, so Young is in an environment that is far easier to succeed in. He can be brought in, make some good catches, and the Lions have their investment returned. Same thing goes for Cobb on the Packers."
I would argue Sanzenbacher’s biggest advantage is an unquestionably tight relationship with Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, who has been talking him up since training camp. It's a great start, if nothing else, to have a quarterback who wants to throw to you.
There wasn't an extensive body of work to evaluate Rudolph with, but he did catch three of his four receptions last Sunday against the Detroit Lions, and Supavike1 noticed his soft hands right away:
"I don't know how he's catching some of these misfires from [Donovan] McNabb. But he is and he always turns and gets past the first defender. I don't know how he does it but he catches and turns and the defender runs right by him as if he's expecting a wider turn. I don't know what it is really. But if he can make an impact with McNabb being so off-target I like imagining what he can do when McNabb gives way to someone with accuracy."
My take? You really could make an argument for all four players.
Sanzenbacher really had to impress a lot of people in Chicago to become one of Cutler's favorite receivers after entering camp as an undrafted free agent. Rudolph has already made some catches with a high degree of difficulty, which as ESPN.com's Ashley Fox writes, shouldn't be a surprise based on the quarterback throwing to him.
You all know how I feel about Cobb, who is one of the division's most dangerous open-field runners. But the pass-catcher who has surprised and impressed me the most is Young.
We were led to believe, or at least we allowed ourselves to believe, that the Lions drafted him to extend the field vertically while Calvin Johnson dealt with double coverage and Nate Burleson worked the intermediate routes. But we've already seen Young make a number of difficult diving or leaping catches over the middle to secure important first downs.
You figure there will be some plays when Young runs past defenders, especially early in his career. But if he's already making tough catches over the middle, he's poised to contribute much more than a typical rookie receiver.
Thanks, everyone. This was more fun than you thought it would be.