2023 expectations for NFL Draft WRs: Who's set to start from Day 1?

With the NFL Draft behind us and all the landing spots revealed, Matt Harmon slots all the receivers drafted on Day 1 and 2 into three groups to outline expectations for when they might contribute as full-time players.

Day 1 starter

Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Seattle Seahawks

The best prospect in the class at the wide receiver position and the first guy off the board will play a big role as a rookie. This should not be a controversial stance.

There has already been a groundswell of panic over the lack of three-receiver sets that the Seahawks' offense ran last season.


Have you seen some of the WR3 candidates Seattle has rolled out in the last few years? Yeah, you would play a second tight end over some of those guys too. You don’t take a receiver 20th overall to not let him man the slot receiver position as a 75%-80% snap player right away. Especially when Smith-Njigba is uniquely good at playing that position.

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We’re one year removed from questioning Pete Carroll’s coaching decisions for what turned out to be nonsensical reasons. Let’s not do it again.

While I have no concerns with his playing time, competition for targets is another story. It’ll be tough sledding for the rookie while playing alongside two of the premier wideouts in the league. Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf just won't cede many looks to Smith-Njigba. They were already one of, if not THE best, receiver duo in the league and adding JSN makes them a complete and complementary trio.

Given the lack of other options in the passing game, I think the rookie could push for 70 to 75 catches as a rookie but his ceiling is capped in Year 1, even if he is a Day 1 starter.

Jordan Addison, Minnesota Vikings

Head coach Kevin O’Connell laid out the assignment for Addison quite plainly in a post-draft presser: You’re about to get some extremely favorable coverage looks, so just go win.

Addison profiles as an excellent No. 2 receiver who will win on in-break routes at all three depths against off-man and softer zone coverages. Those are the looks and plays O’Connell mentions. Given his pro-ready profile, Addison should be able to feast right away.

The Vikings need a successor to long-time WR2 Adam Thielen, who had aged out of a featured role. K.J. Osborn is a nice third receiver but Addison should leapfrog him by Week 1. He’s the heavy favorite to be the most productive rookie wideout this season.

Has a few hurdles but will play a significant role

Zay Flowers, Baltimore Ravens

Flowers could easily be the best receiver on the Ravens in due time. We may consider him that guy by the end of his rookie season.

However, if Odell Beckham Jr. and Rashod Bateman are healthy, they are good players. They provide formidable target competition, as does Mark Andrews at tight end. Bateman has shown through his first two seasons he can play and win at multiple receiver spots. I want to buy low on his skill set. Beckham is the bigger wild card as he’s just such an unknown at this stage from a physical standpoint.

All that said, Flowers has an incredibly interesting set of receiver tools and could slide in as the slot or flanker receiver full-time. He showed enough skills as a press-coverage beater in college to play X-receiver at times, too. I bet he’s a big contributor to this offense by the end of the year even if there is a lot of target competition to start things off.

Quentin Johnston, Los Angeles Chargers

As long as everyone is healthy, the top-three target-getters in Los Angeles are set. The pecking will go, in some order, Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and Austin Ekeler. Given some of the holes in Johnston’s game coming into the NFL, I can’t see him pushing those three aside in almost any scenario. I’m not a huge Josh Palmer fan but I could even see him holding the WR3 gig for the first four games or so, with Johnston just being deployed situationally.

Johnston’s time should come in 2024 when one or both of Williams and Allen have moved off the roster. Still, he should earn more playing time and more targets from Justin Herbert as 2023 wears on. We see rookie receivers take a leap in the second half of their first seasons all the time. Johnston should fit into that trend.

Jonathan Mingo, Carolina Panthers

Veterans Adam Thielen and D.J. Chark are the favorites to open the season as the starting wide receivers. Each of those guys has a flaw or two in their games at this point that would leave the door open for Mingo to carve out a significant role.

Mingo is a bit of a developmental player but I like his skills translating to the big slot position. That may keep him off the field in three-receiver sets but that will come in time.

The pass catcher rotation on this team is more wide-open than consensus seems to think. There’s a chance Mingo could be the team’s leading receiver in 2023 — and it would not be the least bit shocking.

Jayden Reed, Green Bay Packers

I like Reed’s ability to play all three receiver positions. The Packers’ 2022 rookies, Romeo Doubs and Christian Watson, both profile as outside receivers. Reed’s best bet for immediate playing time is winning the primary slot receiver job.

That would still make him something of a part-time player. This team should be pretty run-oriented and will likely lean on heavy personnel. So Reed needs to be better than Doubs in training camp to win a spot in two-receiver sets. I like Reed’s game a lot so I think that’s likely.

Josh Downs, Indianapolis Colts

Downs is a craft-based route technician who offers far more explosive play potential than you typically see from a bunny-hop slot receiver. I think he will be ready to contribute early in his rookie season.

Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Josh Downs (1)
Could Josh Downs make an early splash in his first NFL season? (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Downs will slide in perfectly as the slot receiver between two hulking outside options, Michael Pittman and Alec Pierce. His game should complement them well and give Anthony Richardson a reliable middle-of-the-field separator. He would need to beat out Pierce to be the every-down flanker option, sending Pittman to X-receiver, or have the Colts be a near 90% 11-personnel team to be on the field a ton as a rookie. Both are possible but not likely.

Downs will have his moments in Year 1, the production might just be sporadic.

Future bet

Marvin Mims, Denver Broncos

The Broncos trading up for Mims tells us they view him as a big part of their future at wideout and Sean Payton is lukewarm on the holdover “big-name” receivers. I understand both notions. Mims might not be a heavily targeted player in Year 1 but I could see him emerging as a clear-cut starter when some of these names are jettisoned next season.

Rashee Rice, Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs have a climbable wide receiver depth chart but I think Rice needs to do a ton of developing before he’s ready to play routine snaps. He could have a rookie year much like Skyy Moore did for these Chiefs. I think the most likely scenario is Rice taking over a starting outside role from Marquez Valdes-Scantling when Kansas City moves on from his contract.

Cedric Tillman, Cleveland Browns

After playing in Tennessee’s difficult-to-translate offense, Tillman may take some time to get up to speed in the NFL. However, he shows legitimate X-receiver traits and skills. Maybe Donovan Peoples-Jones keeps that job this year but Tillman should take it long-term.

Jalin Hyatt, New York Giants

Hyatt has the same translation concerns as Tillman and his collegiate role was even more “non-NFL-like.” The Giants have a ton of slot receivers on the roster right now with Isaiah Hodgins and Darius Slayton penciled into the outside spots. Hyatt will likely mix in as a situational deep threat and coverage dictator as a rookie while the Giants try to find his best position.

Tank Dell, Houston Texans

Dell was apparently a favorite of C.J. Stroud’s when they met up to throw during the draft process. While he’s a smaller player, Dell brings juice and separation skills. I see Dell mixing into the rotation in Year 1 while pushing for the starting slot receiver gig in his second season.

Michael Wilson, Arizona Cardinals

Wilson’s college career was mired by injuries but he demonstrated a solid ability to beat press and man coverage outside. If DeAndre Hopkins gets moved, Wilson would be Arizona’s lone big-body receiver who could play the X spot.

And maybe he plays more than I’m expecting slotting him into the group.