Which receivers were truly most effective with the ball in their hands last season? We look at the leaders in YAC+ for 2014 and the last nine years.
08 Apr 2013
by Tom Gower
As we do every year about this time at Football Outsiders, it is time to step into the time machine and take a trip back to the April of six years ago. There were top quarterbacks with questions. There was a freak wide receiver who had put up phenomenal numbers with a legendarily bad college quarterback. There was a rock-solid left tackle who elected to spend draft day on a fishing boat instead of being feted in New York City.
Looking at the Report Card Report, the Browns had the consensus best draft for taking that left tackle, then moving back into the first round to add their new franchise quarterback. People liked what the Falcons did to improve their defense, the Raiders for using the first overall pick on their franchise quarterback, Carolina for finding a middle linebacker and a center, and Tampa for taking the first defensive player and a safety whose name would become legendary.
Conventional Wisdom: How good, really, was JaMarcus Russell? Michael David Smith offered the opinion in September that he was not at all deserving of a first-round pick. Many people agreed with him. A fantastic performance in the Sugar Bowl and one of the best pro days anyone had seen cemented him as a high pick.
Brady Quinn looked much less impressive that January day in the Superdome, though he had the misfortune of facing LSU's pass defense instead of Notre Dame's and remained the consensus second-best quarterback in the draft. If you could overlook his Garo Yepremian moment, the Lewin Career Forecast (v. 1.0) suggested he was a far superior prospect to Russell and likely to become a good NFL quarterback.
Beyond the top two, beauty was very much in the eye of the beholder. BYU's John Beck was an older prospect with a limited ceiling who might be proficient. Trent Edwards was a four-year starter at Stanford, though he did not make it unscathed through any of those seasons.
Highest pick: Russell, first overall to the Raiders.
Best player: Um ... do I really have to pick one? Third-round pick Edwards has the most attempts, completions, passing yards, and interceptions of any quarterback in the draft. Russell actually ranks third in all three categories, though of course he has been out of the NFL long enough that he is now attempting a comeback. I will cast a reluctant vote for surprise second-round pick and LCF's favorite quarterback in the class (thanks to a respectable completion percentage as a four-year starter at Houston), Kevin Kolb. He ranks second in attempts, completions, and passing yards, and has thrown the most touchdown passes. More importantly, he is the only quarterback in the class who still has realistic hopes of being somebody's starter six years on.
Biggest bust: It was an awfully bad year for quarterbacks. The Dolphins were so impressed by the four games Beck started as a rookie they did not let him play in 2008 and released him the next April. Drew Stanton has not attempted a pass since 2010 and has fewer than 200 career attempts. Quinn's 2012 performance with the Chiefs led no one to call for him to get more playing time... other than Chiefs opponents.
Nevertheless, the biggest bust is still Russell, both in terms of both personal girth and quality of play.
Best value: Seventh-round selection Tyler Thigpen lost out in a battle for the Vikings' third quarterback job, but the Chiefs picked up him and he ended up as their primary starter in 2008. In the four years since then, Thigpen started one game and has attempted 83 passes, but one below-average season (-9.9% DVOA, 29th in DYAR) as a starter running a lot of pistol, which he had experience with at Coastal Carolina, is enough to make him the best value in this draft.
Conventional Wisdom: Adrian Peterson spent 2004 through 2006 destroying collegiate run defenses. NFL teams may have been scared off by a physical running style and heavy workload that too often left him nicked up. Cal's Marshawn Lynch was the best prospect after Peterson, with some believing he had similar potential, while others were much more concerned by his history of injuries and questioned his ability to carry a full load.
There was no consensus third-best running back, but the most intriguing player after the top two was Michael Bush of Louisville, who suffered a broken leg during the 2006 season and was unlikely to be a factor in 2007. Which team would be willing to take the same risk on him the Bills did with Willis McGahee in 2003, and when?
Highest pick: Peterson, seventh overall to the Vikings.
Best player: On the one hand, the critics were right about Peterson; 2012 was the first season he started all 16 games. On the other hand, he has never missed more than four games, averaged at least 4.4 yards per carry every season, rushed for at least 970 yards every season, and never ranked worse than 17th in DYAR. To put things in perspective, he has over 2,800 more rushing yards than the most prolific passer of this draft, Edwards, has passing yards. Yeah, he's been everything the Vikings were hoping for and more.
Biggest bust: It certainly was not Peterson or Lynch, who also has more rushing yards than Edwards has passing yards. Kenny Irons looked like the next great Auburn back when the Bengals selected him with the 50th pick, but blew out his knee in the first preseason game and was cut the next offseason. In the non-injury category, Arizona's Chris Henry blew up the Combine with a great 40 time and had a terrific Speed Score, but the Titans should have paid more attention to the fact that he did not crack 900 rushing yards total in college. He finished with 32 more NFL carries than Irons, only one of them good (a 24-yard touchdown run on a counter against the Raiders as a rookie).
Best value: Bush was a nice player for the Raiders after they snagged him with the 100th overall selection, but the best value came from the seventh round. The Giants found Ahmad Bradshaw out of Marshall, and he turned into a key contributor beginning in 2009. His size and resulting injury issues mean he is currently looking for work as a free agent, but over 900 carries and 4,000 rushing yards is a lot more production than teams normally find that late in the draft.
Conventional wisdom: Calvin Johnson had size, speed, hands, smarts, and almost everything else you could want from a wide receiver prospect. Plus, his experience catching passes from Reggie Ball at Georgia Tech had him well-prepared to be highly productive as a high pick on a team without a franchise quarterback. Beyond him, it was a good draft to look for a receiver early. Ted Ginn had speed to burn, but was not nearly as polished a wide receiver as fellow Buckeye Santonio Holmes had been the year before. Russell's favorite target Dwayne Bowe and Tennessee's Robert Meachem were both big receivers who had some speed. Dwayne Jarrett played at a high level at USC, but did not have good speed. Steve Smith, Craig "Buster" Davis, and Anthony Gonzalez were not quite as highly regarded, but were still expected to be early picks.
Highest pick: Johnson, second overall to the Lions.
Best player: Johnson has finished in the top ten in the league in DYAR four times in six seasons, including first overall the past two years and ninth in 2008 when the Lions went 0-16 with Dan Orlovsky, Jon Kitna, and Daunte Culpepper at quarterback. Now that he actually has teammates around him he gets to do things like blow away the NFL record for receiving yards in a season.
Biggest bust: Of the six receivers who went in the first round, two left their teams very happy: the Lions, and the Chiefs with Bowe 23rd overall. Two teams did not get what they hoped for, but still got some value out of the players -- the Dolphins with Ginn ninth overall and the Saints with Meachem 27th. The other two ended up with deeply disappointing performers. Gonzalez had a nice start to his career after the Colts snagged him at the end of the first round, ranking first and third in DVOA his first two seasons in a limited role, but was never again healthy and has only five more receptions to his credit. The Chargers took Davis two picks earlier, and he never came close to even that brief period of success. He ranks as this class's biggest bust, narrowly edging out Panthers second-round pick Jarrett.
Best value: The 73rd through 80th picks in the draft were all wide receivers asides from a tight end going 77th. The dividing line ended up being pick number 78. Including that pick (James Jones of San Jose St. to the Packers), ten of the 14 receivers drafted up to that point spent 2012 in the NFL. After that point, only two did. Fifth-round pick Legedu Naanee outplayed fellow 2007 draftee Davis in San Diego, but has never been the sort of player a team would commit to. Fellow fifth-rounder Steve Breaston from Michigan was a very useful second or third receiver for the Cardinals for a few years and drew good money in free agency from the Chiefs, which is enough to earn my nod as the best value pick.
Conventional wisdom: Greg Olsen was the latest, though not the greatest, Miami tight end prospect, if you could overlook his 7th Floor Crew experience (link NSFW language(!!), questionable taste, bad rapping; Olsen segment at 6:09). Arizona State's Zach Miller did not offer nearly the same speed threat Olsen did, but was well-regarded for his hands and route-running.
Highest pick: Olsen, 31st overall to the Bears.
Best player: Probably Olsen, even if he never quite was the game-changer the Bears were hoping for. 2012 was his first season with good efficiency numbers (fifth in DYAR, never better than 22nd before). Miller lived up to his billing, serving as a high-volume, modest-efficiency target for a series of quarterbacks in Oakland (which tabbed him with the 38th overall pick) before moving to Seattle in free agency.
Biggest bust: None, really. The closest thing was Falcons fourth-round selection Martrez Milner. The Georgia product got hurt as a rookie and never played a game thereafter, but how big a bust can the 133rd overall pick really be? Every other tight end drafted before the seventh round was around in 2012, though Kevin Boss's concussions should probably lead him to retire.
Best value: The Eagles took Brent Celek from Cincinnati in the fifth round, 162nd overall. His 76 catch 2009 campaign is the best season any tight end in the class has had, and he ranks narrowly ahead of Olsen and Miller in receiving yards, though the gap between first and third is a mere 132 yards.
Conventional wisdom: If you wanted a left tackle, Wisconsin's Joe Thomas was your man, especially if you wanted to start a team fishing show. Penn State's Levi Brown was the consensus second tackle, though his lack of elite athleticism might mean an eventual move to the right side. Central Michigan's Joe Staley was a small-school prospect who could develop into a mean left tackle if you wanted to take a chance. If you wanted a guard in the first round, Auburn's Ben Grubbs was the one who merited a selection, while USC's Ryan Kalil was the top center in the draft.
Highest pick: Thomas, third overall to the Browns.
Best player: Thomas has made the Pro Bowl every season of his career and been named first- or second-team All-Pro by the Associated Press five times. Staley, who went 28th overall to the 49ers, has turned into a very fine player in his own right and may now be better than Thomas, but I rate Thomas as having the better career to date. Grubbs and Kalil have both been nice players as well.
Biggest bust: This looked like Brown, fifth overall to the Cardinals. He has not come anywhere close to living up to his draft status. Still, he is better than he used to be, and, as we saw in 2012, much better than the Cardinals' other alternatives at the position. The bigger busts came later. With the 67th pick, the Cowboys took James Marten, who played both left guard and left tackle at Boston College. He never appeared in an NFL game, getting cut after spending his entire rookie season as a healthy inactive.
Best value: 2007 was not the right season to look for an offensive lineman late in the draft. The last player drafted to turn into a starter was Purdue's Uche Nwaneri, who went 149th overall to the Jaguars and has started at guard the past five seasons.
Conventional wisdom: If you wanted a speed rushing defensive end, Gaines Adams was the top player on your board and probably the first defensive player to be chosen, while Jarvis Moss was your second choice and a better pick later in the first round. If you wanted a bigger end, Jamaal Anderson was rated a top-ten pick after picking up 13.5 sacks at Arkansas in 2006, with Nebraska's Adam Carriker your second choice. If you wanted a defensive tackle, 19-year-old Amobi Okoye from Louisville was an intriguing penetrator, while Michigan's Alan Branch was your standard issue man-mountain in the middle. Justin Harrell was the number three defensive tackle and a player who could be something special if he could stay healthy and develop pass rush moves.
Highest pick: Adams, Clemson, fourth overall to the Buccaneers.
Best player: It was a bad year to be in search of a defensive end. Charles Johnson, who went to the Panthers in the third round, 83rd overall out of Georgia, is the most prolific defensive lineman in terms of sacks. He has 43.0, despite not being a regular starter until his fourth season. Overall, though, it's been Cal defensive tackle Brandon Mebane, who went 85th overall to the Seahawks and quickly became a regular starter.
Biggest bust: There are a lot of candidates here, as the four defensive ends taken in the top 17 have combined for 36.0 career sacks, and Adams had 13.5 of those before his tragic death. The overall winner, however, is Harrell, whose NFL career was even more injury-plagued than his college career. He played in seven games in 2007, six in 2008, and one in 2010 before the Packers released him.
Best value: It was not much of a draft at the bottom for defensive lineman either. Sixth-rounder Jacob Ford spent a couple years near the top of our best prospects list, but was never more than a nickel rusher and finished with only 15.5 sacks. The last player to develop into a starter was fifth-rounder Antonio Johnson, whom the Colts picked up off the Titans' practice squad. Like Johnson, fourth-rounders Brian Robison (Vikings) and Paul Soliai (Dolphins) eventually turned into starters, but not until their fourth seasons in the league. If you want to consider Mebane here as well, I will not disagree with you too strongly.
Conventional wisdom: Patrick Willis was a tackling machine in the middle of the field and the best linebacker in the draft. Jon Beason, Lawrence Timmons, and Paul Posluszny were pretty good in their own rights and could be first-round selections. LaMarr Woodley and Anthony Spencer were undersized defensive ends who might make good 3-4 outside linebackers.
Highest pick: Willis, Ole Miss, 11th overall to the 49ers.
Best player: Willis. In case you have not noticed the trend, the conventional wisdom and NFL teams in this draft were either pretty close to right or there were very few, if any, other good options available. Timmons (Florida State, 15th, Steelers), Beason (another 7th Floor Crew member at Miami, 25th, Panthers), Posluszny (Penn State, 34th, Bills), Woodley (Michigan, 46th, Steelers), and Spencer (Purdue, 26th, Cowboys) all turned into good or better players.
Biggest bust: The linebackers who went in the first two rounds all turned into NFL starters, so we turn our eyes to the top of the third round. The Arizona Cardinals selected "the other Buster Davis," who was undersized but highly productive at Florida State, 69th overall. He did not make it out of training camp and was recently a high school football coach in Florida, where he was fired after his team was outscored 358-8 in their first season of play in 2012.
Best value: This looked like it would be Clint Session, but concussion problems pretty much ended the career of the Colts' fourth-round pick, 136th overall out of Pitt, after he signed a free-agent contract with the Jaguars. Instead, the last drafted player to develop into a long-term starter was South Florida's Stephen Nicholas, who went 102nd to the Falcons.
Conventional wisdom: Leon Hall and Darrelle Revis, in some order, were the top two corners in the draft and expected to go somewhere in the middle of the first round. The stars of the draft were in the safety class, where four players could be chosen in the first round. The brightest of those was LaRon Landry, a likely top ten pick. The University of Texas offered a pair of intriguing prospects in safety Michael Griffin and, another corner who could be a first-round pick, Aaron Ross.
Highest pick: Landry, LSU, sixth overall to the Redskins.
Best player: Revis, Pitt, 14th overall to the Jets. In the safety class, the best player was found not in the first round but early in the second, where the Chargers took Utah's Eric Weddle.
Biggest bust: The question, as it often does, becomes a question of how big and what type of bust you prefer. The Jaguars tired of Florida star Reggie Nelson three years after taking him 21st and traded him for David Jones, who was jaw-droppingly, unbelievably terrible. Making back-to-back Pro Bowls did not force the Patriots to keep Brandon Meriweather until the end of his rookie deal.
With the final pick in the second round, the Buccaneers took a player Pete Prisco really liked, Sabby Piscitelli. Not too far outside the top 100 players for NFL Draft Scout and Scouts Inc., the Oregon State product became a starter in 2009 and was one of the most gloriously inept players in recent league history. He missed tackles. He blew coverages. He took bad angles. He blew gaps in run support. He is now out of the league.
Best value: In a recurring theme of the draft, the first two rounds were the place to find players, and anything after that was a bonus. The biggest exceptions to the rule came in San Francisco, where the other Texas corner, fifth-rounder Tarell Brown, became a starter in his fifth season and the fourth-round pick, 126th overall out of Washington, free safety Dashon Goldson, ended up as the real standout.
Conventional wisdom: Only two years removed from the Mike Nugent experience, nobody was going to take a kicker in the second round again. If you were a team that believed in taking a kicker relatively early in the draft, Mason Crosby of Colorado offered an excellent combination of a strong leg and very good accuracy, even outside of Colorado's Folsom Field. UCLA's Justin Medlock was the other consensus draftable kicker, while Arizona's Nick Folk was borderline. At punter, the two to consider were Baylor's Daniel Sepulveda and Maryland's Adam Podlesh, with Sepulveda offering the stronger leg and Podlesh better accuracy.
Highest pick: Podlesh, 101st overall to the Jaguars. Yes, Gene Smith drafted a punter in the fourth round five years before he took Bryan Anger in the third round because he's a starter. Podlesh, Sepulveda (who went 112th to the Steelers), and Anger are the only punters drafted in the first four rounds in the past seven drafts.
Best player: Notwithstanding Gene Smith's evaluation of the worth of the punting position, Podlesh has consistently been an outstanding directional kicker who does not boom the ball but instead works very well with the coverage teams to limit returns. He did not face fierce competition in this class, though.
Biggest bust: No kicker drafted in 2007 has been above-average, but Medlock was clearly the worst. The Chiefs took him late in the fifth round, 160th overall, but an inconsistent preseason and a missed 30-yarder in the season opener convinced them it was time to move on. He finally returned to the NFL in 2012 with Carolina, but they cut him after ten games.
Best value: The Dolphins drafted Brandon Fields out of Michigan State in the seventh round, 225th overall, and he is not only still in the league, he is also still the Dolphins' punter. As far as I know, there is no collection of fans that wants to run him out of town on a rail. By position group standards, that makes him a rousing success.
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