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.
16 Apr 2013
by Danny Tuccitto
Based on the comments sections the past few weeks, I'm glad to see the Football Outsiders readership enjoying this series. As I stated in the first installment, my aim here has been to try to put numbers on things the best I can, and thereby drum up an entertaining discussion. With franchise rankings and an objective take on the best and worst drafts out of the way, we can now turn to more granular draft splits based on value above expectation (VAE) and return on investment (ROI). Today, I'll stoke the fire that is alumni passion.
As a reminder, like FO's distinction between DYAR and DVOA, VAE is a measure of total value relative to baseline (in this case, the expected career value of a given pick), whereas ROI is a measure of percentage value (or value per pick, given expectations). Interestingly enough, within the same college, there's significant divergence between the two stats, possibly because of the NFL's almost-blind ambition regarding players from certain schools.
Before showing the stats table, let me first discuss a few colleges that didn't make the cut. Easily the most surprising based on its sheer number of picks is Nebraska. From 1970 to 2007, 181 Cornhuskers were selected among the first 222 in a given year. In the aggregate, those picks yielded -52.3 VAE and -13.6% ROI. Among the 70 schools with at least one draft pick per year, Nebraska's VAE ranks dead last, and their ROI ranks 64th. Despite having the fifth-highest expected Career AV per Year (384.5), only 38.1 percent of Cornhuskers were positive-VAE picks (average among this group was 40.7 percent). Basically, for every Roger Craig (+4.8 VAE, +181.4% ROI) and Ahman Green (+3.9, +185.3%), there are twice as many Bruce Pickens (-5.0, -84.2%) and Trev Alberts (-4.0, -75.0%).
Though not as much of a disaster as Nebraska, draft picks from USC haven't fared much better in the aggregate. From 1970 to 2007, Trojans were picked the most (200 in the top 222 from 1970 to 2007) and had the highest expected CarAV/Yr (491.6), but were essentially a wash in terms of relative value (+1.2 VAE, +0.2% ROI). Although it's true that USC had an above-average percentage of positive-VAE picks (43.5 percent), for every Anthony Muñoz (+4.3, +72.1%), there was a Matt Leinart (-3.2, -72.3%). For every Marcus Allen (+2.5, +55.9%) and Hoby Brenner (+1.2, +54.7%), there was one Ricky Bell (-3.5, -48.9%).
Nebraska and USC aren't even some kind of big-school anomaly. Among the top 10 colleges in terms of total selections, seven more didn't make the table with respect to top VAEs and ROIs. Here they are, in order of selections: Penn State (180 picks, -6.9 VAE, -1.7% ROI), Ohio State (177, -11.7%, -2.8%), Notre Dame (168, -11.8, -3.2%), Michigan (162, -2.4, -0.7%), Oklahoma (157, -33.2, -9.7%), Tennessee (153, -16.1, -4.7%), and Florida (144, +4.1, +1.2%).
Now you know some of the familiar schools that weren't among the best at producing draft value from 1970 to 2007. Luckily (for ease of presentation, at least), the top 21 colleges in terms of VAE also ranked in the top 21 of ROI. So, below is a table of the top 20-plus-one (min. 38 picks):
|San Diego State||80||+12.6||14||+8.0%||14|
Miami is the only college among the top 10 in total picks to also be among the top 20 in VAE and ROI. It should come as no surprise that the most valuable Hurricanes come from the halcyon days of 1995-2001. Among picks that produced +3.0 VAE are Ed Reed (+5.2 VAE, +150.1% ROI), Frank Gore (+4.7, +204.4%), Reggie Wayne (+4.6, +143.4%), Ray Lewis (+4.6, +136.1%), Clinton Portis (+4.4, +173.9%), Warren Sapp (+4.4, +102.3%), Edgerrin James (+3.9, +88.3%), Vince Wilfork (+3.3, +91.2%), and Jon Beason (+3.0, +88.3%).
Lest we forget, however, those that came before them. Suprisingly, the best pick from the University of Miami in terms of VAE was way back in 1973, when the Minnesota Vikings selected Chuck Foreman 12th overall (+5.6 VAE, +129.9% ROI). In his first five years, Foreman made five Pro Bowls, was voted first-team All-Pro once, and averaged an absurd 13.8 Adjusted CarAV/Yr; he also spearheaded three Vikings Super Bowl appearances.
In contrast to Miami's slew of household names, LSU boasts less-heralded picks that produced at least +3.0 VAE. I mentioned the impeccably named Tommy Casanova last week (+6.1 VAE, +189.3% ROI), but first on the Tigers' list is a running back who had one of the best three-year stretches of the salary cap era. Domanick Williams (nee Davis), selected 101st in 2003 by the Houston Texans, gained at least 1,300 yards from scrimmage in each of his three seasons, good for 8.5 Adjusted CarAV/Yr. Another blast from the past is wide receiver Eric Martin (+6.3, +562.5%), who the New Orleans Saints took at No. 179 in 1985. To this day, and despite the team's pass offense exploits over the past two decades, Martin still holds the franchise record for receptions and receiving yards.
To further feed the narrative of Pennsylvania football, the Pittsburgh Panthers rank in the top six of both VAE and ROI, and have produced the highest percentage of positive-VAE picks (53.0 percent). In the top 222 picks of drafts between 1970 and 2007, they boast six Hall of Famers, with Darrelle Revis poised to make it seven if he successfully returns from his 2012 ACL tear. Among other Panthers that produced at least +3.0 VAE were Giants defensive tackle Keith Hamilton (+4.4 VAE, +242.9% ROI), Oilers cornerback J.C. Wilson (+3.3, +354.3%), and 49ers cornerback Carlton Williamson (+3.1, +133.5%). If you're wondering about Larry Fitzgerald, he's produced +0.5 VAE and +7.9% ROI thus far in his career.
The only other college with an aggregate VAE above +30.0 is Georgia. But unlike LSU, Miami, and Pittsburgh, the Bulldogs don't have a single Hall of Famer to show for their relative draft value -- at least not yet. I'll get into the topic more when I present the best and worst individual picks since the merger, but for now I'll simply point out that Jake Scott produced 10.2 Adjusted CarAV/Yr as the 159th pick in 1970 and Terrell Davis produced 9.9 Adjusted CarAV/Yr as the 196th pick in 1995. Davis has several more bites at the Hall of Fame apple, but Scott's omission is a total mystery to me after having run the stats for this series.
Finally, we come to the "Luke, I am your father!" moment, a point at which we must talk about the thing you least expected. Tiny Jackson State, a member of the Southwestern Athletic Conference, boasts less than one-fifth as many students as my alma mater, the University of Florida. Yet Jackson State shows up in the top 21 while said alma mater does not. With a mere 39 picks, these Tigers have the fifth-highest percentage of positive-VAE picks (48.7 percent), which includes two Hall of Famers: Walter Payton (+4.0 VAE, +72.7% ROI) and Jackie Slater (+2.1, +107.5%).
Interestingly enough, neither Payton nor Slater are among Jackson State's best three draft selections in terms of VAE. Leon Gray (+4.9 VAE, +234.4% ROI), taken 78th overall by the New England Patriots in 1973, was an eight-year starter at left tackle for the Patriots and Oilers, made four Pro Bowls, and was voted first-team All-Pro three times. Rickey Young (+4.3, +354.9%) was San Diego's pick at No. 164 of the 1975 draft, started at either fullback or halfback during his first seven seasons for the Chargers and Vikings, and led the NFL in receptions in 1978.
And then there's Jimmy Smith. Chase Stuart has already made a convincing argument for why Smith is one of the best wide receivers in NFL history, so feel free to click that link. In terms of FO stats, the 36th pick of the 1992 draft had the following DYAR rankings from 1996 to 2001: 4th, 10th, 13th, 1st, 11th , and 7th. After that bit of information, along with his draft value stats (+4.1 VAE, +137.6% ROI), I can't say I disagree with Chase all that much.
I've detailed a mere one-quarter of the VAE/ROI table, so feel free to ask questions and offer opinions in the comments section. Next week, I'll be finishing off this series with a look at the best individual picks from 1970 to 2007. Here's a teaser: Tom Brady is not No. 1.
UPDATE: Comments requested it, so I set up this link, which shows the VAE and ROI stats for all 70 qualifying schools.
57 comments, Last at 27 Apr 2013, 7:23pm by Ryan Quincy