Many experts knew going into the 2014 NFL draft that the wide receiver class was among the best ever.
Most had Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans as surefire No. 1 receivers, but the rest of the group was deep and there were others who showed the potential to be elite players. The class had high expectations and did not disappoint, with three rookies reaching the 1,000-yard plateau and seven more having at least 500 with a clear path to a breakout 2015.
But no matter how good the class was overall, none of those receivers -- including Watkins and Evans -- had anywhere near the ability, star power or production of the Giants' Odell Beckham Jr.
Despite missing four games with an injury, Beckham led all rookies last year with 91 catches, 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns. He became just the 18th player in history to have at least 90 catches, 12 touchdowns and 14 yards per reception in a single season. He's the youngest player to accomplish the feat.
Consider that he needed a few games to get up to speed, so his breakout performance didn't really come until the eighth game of the season against the Indianapolis Colts, when he had eight catches for 156 yards. Over the final nine games, Beckham had 81 catches, 1,199 yards and nine touchdowns, which is the second-most receiving yards in NFL history in the final nine weeks of a season. The most was Calvin Johnson, who had 81 catches, 1,326 yards and four touchdowns in the final nine games of 2012.
The biggest difference between the two is Beckham was just 21, still young enough to conceivably be entering another year of college but instead was spending his Sundays embarrassing professional cornerbacks and frustrating NFL defensive coordinators who have no way to defend him.
So is Beckham, now a "veteran" at 22, already the best receiver in the league?
When he was healthy last season, he was nearly the most productive. Over the final 13 weeks, Beckham ranked third in catches, second in yards, second in touchdowns and fourth in yards after the catch. He was also second in broken tackles with 15 after Randall Cobb, who had 17. OBJ has an innate ability to somehow go deep and be the classic No. 1 receiver like a Julio Jones, but also has the shifty, make-a-play-anyway-you-can slot receiver skills like Cobb. He's the best of both worlds, and that's why his highlight reel is probably the most popular one around right now.
He also had just two drops on 129 targets, and his catch rate of 70.5 percent was the seventh best in the NFL among players who were targeted at least 100 times. A few of the guys ahead of him -- like Cobb, Jarvis Landry and Julian Edelman -- aren't quite tasked with making some of the regular deep catches that Beckham had to make.
When Cris Collinsworth said Beckham's famous one-hander against the Cowboys "may be the greatest catch I've ever seen in my life," he was speaking for most of America. He's still up to those same one-handed antics in the preseason this year, and it's not likely to stop any time soon. Even if "best all-around receiver" is up for debate, "best pass catcher" might not be. No pun intended, but he has a pretty tight grip on that title.
According to Pro Football Focus, Beckham gained 2.74 yards per route run -- indicating more accurately than YPC or YPA how valuable a receiver is on every passing play -- which ranked third behind A.J. Green and Demaryius Thomas.
There is also a quality-of-competition question. Was Beckham that great or was he just really good against some terrible defenses? Here are the games in which Beckham had at least 100 yards, as well as where the opposing defenses ranked against a No. 1 receiver last season (using Football Outsiders' DVOA metric):
• Colts (9th)
• Seahawks (4th)
• Cowboys (14th)
• Titans (10th)
• Redskins (29th)
• Rams (19th)
• Eagles (24th)
That's three teams in the top 10 against No. 1 receivers, plus another two in the top 20. Not a very easy schedule to go against other than Washington (three touchdowns) and Philadelphia (season-high 185 yards).
Perhaps more impressive than the defenses he's faced, the one-handed catches or that he did it all with no prior professional experience is the fact that Eli Manning is the guy on the other side of those spectacular plays. Manning has proven to be a very capable quarterback over the last 11 seasons, but he's also led the NFL in interceptions three times and is known to be erratic during games.
Only two throws toward Beckham last season turned into interceptions, and Manning had a career-high 63.1 percent completion rate and 70.91 QBR, even though Victor Cruz missed 10 games. Beckham had to catch an NFL-high 20 passes above his head, per FootballOutsiders.
Compare OBJ to some of the other top receivers in the NFL. Most of them have great-to-elite QBs throwing the ball to them:
• Dez Bryant and Tony Romo
• Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger
• Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and Peyton Manning
• Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Aaron Rodgers
• Julio Jones and Matt Ryan
The biggest competition in that respect may be the Bengals' Green catching passes from Andy Dalton, while the Lions' Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate must do their best to wrangle in some inconsistent throws from Matthew Stafford. While Stafford may be on par with Eli Manning, Dalton is a little worse than both of them, yet Green has managed to make the Pro Bowl in all four of his seasons. So there is an argument that Beckham and Green are in similar situations, and both have been spectacular.
Despite all that … has watching Green play ever felt as magical as watching Beckham play?
Green's career-high yards-per-game average for a season is 89.1, while Beckham had a league-leading 108.8 yards per game last season. Only two players since 1995 -- Calvin Johnson and Josh Gordon -- have posted a season with a higher YPG, and both of them caught fewer than 60 percent of their targets.
Now the competition for "best NFL receiver" is probably too tight to call, with Johnson, Bryant, Brown, Green, Thomas and Jones all in the conversation. But it's not like a couple of years ago when Johnson was at his best, destroying every record and overshadowing the other greats of his era. (Then again, we don't know that the Johnson era is over. Randy Moss and Jerry Rice also had second winds in their careers after many said they were slowing down.)
Still, the fact that Beckham is even in the conversation is impressive enough. He isn't as tall as Bryant or Thomas, nor does he have to be. OBJ plays like the Empire State Building. He reaches higher than the Statue of Liberty.
Some might say that if they had to pick one receiver for just one game, they would go with Bryant. But if you had to pick any receiver for just one play, the answer -- at least for now -- might resoundingly be Beckham.