- Seth Wickersham, ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Playing receiver has become a middle-aged man's game. (In NFL years, of course, middle-aged means mid-20s to 30.) Just look at the league's reception leaders the past few years: Wes Welker, this year's top man, is 30 and was 28 when he led the league in 2009. Last year's leader, Roddy White, was 28.
All the supposed attributes of youth -- speed, speed and, oh yeah, speed -- are overrated. Experienced guys simply know how to get open, using quickness and smarts. Save for few exceptions -- Anquan Boldin in 2003, A.J. Green this year -- teams typically make a mistake when they try to force rookies into being No. 1 targets.
But a few teams have found a way for their youngsters to contribute right away: By using them as complements, not go-to guys. Seattle Seahawks WR Doug Baldwin hasn't started a game, yet he leads the team in receptions (20), yards (330) and yards per catch (16.5). The Baltimore Ravens' Torrey Smith has started only three games and is averaging 26.3 yards per catch. "There are so many more three-receiver sets than in the past," says one team's director of college scouting. "So there's more opportunities to get them on the field. The process is increased, so the process of developing them has to be increased."
Seth Wickersham writes that while the learning curve for rookie wide receivers isn't quite as steep as the one facing first-year QBs, it's tough for rookie wideouts to make an early impact.