20 Feb 2009
I was talking to a friend the other day about the Giants and he brought up the questionable ratings given to Sinorice Moss in a popular video game franchise whose namesake is a particular commentator. I noted, rather astutely, that Moss should have been given a Hiding rating, since he didn't bother to show up for his first season in New York. While Jared Lorenzen actually disappeared for his entire rookie campaign on the Giants practice squad, the second-rounder was around but failed to make a difference on the Giants season. Some of the blame can be put on Moss' strained quadriceps, but Big Blue could have sorely used Moss to stretch out opposing defenses and create space for Jeremy Shockey and Plaxico Burress to work underneath.
A couple of days later, I was talking to another friend (yes, I'm quite popular) about Chad Jackson, the Patriots' second round pick. I retold the Moss story and remarked that Jackson should have also received a Hiding rating -- the Patriots were signing street free agents and Reche Caldwell was their number one wideout most of the year and Jackson still didn't get any burn! "Must have been a bad crop of wide receivers", my friend remarked. That got me to thinking -- was it a bad crop? Historically bad, or just unlucky bad? Or, alternately, do fans just expect too much of rookie wide receivers? The easiest way to find out is to take a look back at wide receivers
I crunched the numbers on the last ten years of wide receivers. Since I was talking about Moss and Jackson, I looked at second-round picks initially, but I spread it out to third and fourth-rounders to try and gain a broader sense of performance. I didn't include first-rounders because more is naturally expected of them.
Compared to other classes, the second, third, and fourth-rounders of 2006 were atrocious. The seventeen wide receivers selected averaged fewer than nine catches and 117 yards each for the season; the average year's average receiver catches fifteen balls and gains over 200 yards. The only other group that was in 2006's territory was even worse: the "class" of 1997.
1997's first round wide receiver crop may go down as one of the all-time worst hauls from a position in a draft, ever. Although it's outside the boundaries of our study, it's worth pointing out that this round saw Ike Hilliard, Yatil Green, Reidel Anthony, and Rae Carruth come off the board. It's not a good sign when your career consists almost solely of three entirely torn ACLs and you are still better off than someone else in your pool. The Florida pair of Hilliard and Anthony did not live up to their relative expectations. As you will see, their performance still blew away the receivers to come.
While 1996 saw Amani Toomer, Muhsin Muhammad, and Bobby Engram go in the second round, and 1998 gave out useful parts like Germane Crowell, Mickael Ricks and Jerome Pathon, 1997's second round offered no redeeming value whatsoever. Kevin Lockett, a college star at Kansas State, wasn't an NFL-caliber receiver. The fact that he lasted seven years in the NFL makes him the star of the group. Will Blackwell, drafted by the usually-reliable Steelers, made Troy Edwards' career in the black and gold look good. The third member of the class was Joey Kent, who had all of thirteen career NFL catches. Hooray.
The third round saw only one wide receiver get drafted: Dedric Ward, who went to the Jets. Ward was actually a useful receiver for a single season, which probably makes him the second-most valuable receiver of the entire group, after Hilliard, until you take a look at the fourth round.
The fourth round, well, it was surprising. It can bring good players into the league -- '96's fourth round brought Charlie Jones into the league, while '98 saw Tim Dwight, Donald Hayes, and Az-Zahir Hakim into pro football. These guys don't generally get much playing time, as fourth-rounders only average eight catches per player their rookie year (that is, if they even make it at all). Even so, '97's performance was below average; it's receivers only caught five passes each. Those receivers? A mix of good and bad. Macey Brooks didn't play until his third season, and was done in the league after his fourth. Keith Poole was developing into a solid receiver with 42 catches in his third year, but he was out of the league by 2002. Albert Connell also had a big third year, and saw himself joining Poole on the unemployment line in '02.
On the other hand, Marcus Robinson's enjoyed a solid professional career, with a big season his sophomore year and a few good weeks in 2003. He'll collect a pension. The other guy to go in Round 4? Derrick Mason, who did nothing until the fourth year of his career but hasn't let up since. Mason had 47 catches through his first three years.
After 1997's season finished, this group of receivers would have been hailed as an awful, awful crop of talent. Carruth had 45 catches, Anthony 33, and after that, Ward had 18 That's abysmal, even for a set of rookies. Furthermore, the guys who had the best NFL careers, Mason, Hilliard (who was injured and only played two games his rookie year) and Robinson, all didn't produce their rookie year. It brings up another question to look at: are the guys having big rookie seasons the ones who develop into future stars?
Going round-by-round, here are the biggest performances and what they boded for the future, as well as the biggest stars and how they did their rookie campaigns:
Second Round: Anquan Boldin's rookie-record 101 catches lap the field; Kevin Johnson's 66 are a runner-up, and he had the benefit of being the only threat on an expansion team that was always losing. Pathon's 58 catches are third, Chris Chambers' 48 fourth, and Antwaan Randle El and Keary Colbert are tied for fifth with 47.
That's an uneven group of receivers. Boldin's a stud. Johnson had a couple more big years but fell out of favor in Cleveland and his career never recovered; he's out of football. Pathon was perpetually expected to break out and never did. Chambers is perceived, at least, as a stud, while his performance has yet to match up. Randle El is yet to match his rookie numbers, and Colbert's lost his spot and on his way out in Carolina. Two (one for Boldin and a half each for Chambers and Randle El) isn't really a strong prediction rate.
The biggest stars from the timeframe that went in the second round would probably be Boldin, Amani Toomer, Chad Johnson, Deion Branch, and Muhsin Muhammad. Toomer had one catch his rookie year; Johnson, Branch, and Muhammad were all around or above the league average for second round wide receivers, but none of them stood out as future stars the way that Boldin did.
Third Round: The best year belongs to Darrell Jackson, whose 53 catches were 16 more than second-place Stepfret Williams. That's right -- the guy whose poster Patrick Crayton had on his wall. Number three is Terrell Owens. Fourth in performance their rookie year was Marvin Minnis, and fifth was friend of the law Chris Henry. Nate Burleson and Laveranues Coles also make appearances in the Top 10.
Maybe Williams did nothing, and Minnis suffered multiple injuries that forced him out of football. Jackson and Owens have had excellent careers, and Burleson, Henry, and Coles aren't doing poorly for themselves either. Stats seem to be a slightly better predictor for this round.
A top five based on career value would include Owens, Jackson, Coles, Steve Smith (10 catches his rookie year), and Hines Ward (15). A better group than the second-rounders, certainly.
Fourth Round: Again, someone steps out from the pack; it's the aforementioned Charlie Jones, who caught 41 passes for the '96 Chargers. He had a similar year in '98, but was out of football after '99. This group's top five finally sees some 2006 guys show up, with Demetrius Williams second in catches with 22, and Brandon Marshall fifth. Hakim is fourth, and Titans receiver Roydell Williams third. The jury is still out on three of these guys; Hakim benefited from being in the right place at the right time, and hasn't done much since he left said spot.
The best fourth rounders from the time period don't compare to the other rounds. Mason stands out, and there are plenty of guys who have had varying degrees of success, but pick four from Robinson, Hakim, Ernest Wilford, Brandon Lloyd, Jerricho Cotchery, Tim Dwight, Hayes, Justin McCareins, and Brandon Stokley and you'll be picking four guys who haven't really developed into anything beyond solid complementary receivers.
So, then, is there hope for the 2006 crop? I'd say so. It's not unprecedented for guys like Moss or Jackson to take big leaps forward as they learn more of the playbook and get more NFL game time in their sophomore season. The land of guys with five-catch rookie seasons, though, is littered with a lot more failures than the stratospheric heights reached by Boldin and Darrell Jackson. If you're a Giants fan (or administrator), hope Moss will get better, but don't depend on it; in the Patriots' case, hope that Bill Belichick's faith in Florida Gators works out slightly better than his previous obsession with guys from LSU.
New England takes over the top spot in DVOA, one of six undefeated teams that give us an almost 1-in-10 chance of a team going 16-0 in 2015. Cincinnati and Atlanta battling in the first all-undefeated Super Bowl? It could happen.