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08 Jul 2004

Hard Times for the Class of '96

by Aaron Schatz

With the first pick in the 1996 draft, the New York Jets selected Keyshawn Johnson out of USC and kicked off what may be the greatest wide receiver draft in NFL history.  Just as 1983 is known for its quarterbacks, 1996 is known for its wide receivers.  The first round featured Johnson, Terry Glenn, Eddie Kennison, Marvin Harrison, and Eric Moulds.  The first receiver picked in round two was a bust, Alex Van Dyke out of Nevada (by the Jets) but the rest of the second round brought Amani Toomer, Mushin Muhammad, and Bobby "The First Down Machine" Engram.  The 49ers grabbed Terrell Owens in the third round.  The Chiefs took a community college receiver named Joe Horn in the fifth.

Compare this haul of wide receivers to the other drafts of the era, and you see just how impressive it was.  The first round of 1997 included Ike Hilliard and a parade of stiffs who aren't even in the league anymore: Reidel Anthony, Yatil Green, and Rae Carruth, with Joey Kent, Will Blackwell, and Kevin Lockett in the second round.  The first round of 1995 gave us Michael Westbrook, Joey Galloway, and J.J. Stokes, the second round Frank Sanders and Jimmy Oliver.

I can't think of another draft in NFL history that produced so many top offensive players who were still fantasy football studs after seven or eight seasons, let alone so many top offensive players at the same position.  In researching some data about Terrell Owens, however, I discovered some bad news for fans of these players.  The long reign of the class of 1996 is coming to an end.

Terrell Owens had more than 1300 receiving yards each year from 2000-2002. Even though he fell to 1102 yards in 2003, most people expect him to be back among the league leaders this year.  He's the dominating number one receiver Donovan McNabb has been looking for since he arrived in Philadelphia, and he's the main reason why the Eagles are the only NFC team with a Las Vegas over-under line above 10 wins.  I went back into the Doug Drinen database to see if history could teach us anything about what to expect from Owens in 2004.  The trends I found were not positive for Owens and the Eagles.  Historically, the record of top receivers switching teams in the offseason has been remarkably poor.

  • Counting Tony Martin twice, 32 different wideouts in the post-merger era have switched teams after years of 900 yards or more, and 28 of the 32 had fewer yards the next year.  The four exceptions are Henry Ellard (1994 WAS), Irving Fryar (1996 PHI), Rocket Ismail (1999 DAL), and Tony Martin (1998 ATL).
  • Only four of the 21 wide receivers with 1000 receiving yards who switched teams even had 1000 yards again the following year: Ismail, Anthony Miller (1994 DEN), Tony Martin (1999 MIA), and Laveranues Coles (2003 WAS).
  • Nine of these 21 receivers didn't even catch 50 passes with their new team the year after a 1000-yard season.  On average, the 12 receivers who did catch 50 passes the following year fell from 1140 yards with their old teams to 911 yards with their new teams.
  • Only 11 receivers even caught 50 passes with their new team the year after a 1000-yard season, and on average these 11 receivers dropped from 1130 yards and 6.7 TD with their old teams to 860 yards and 5.1 TD with their new teams.

One problem with this analysis is that Terrell Owens isn't just a receiver who is switching teams after a 1000-yard season.  He may be the best receiver in history to switch teams after a 1000-yard season.  A number of receivers considered here went from second wideout with one team to top wideout with another team, and couldn't quite hack it (Hi, Peerless Price) and that is certainly not Terrell Owens' situation.  So I decided to look at it from a different angle.  Terrell Owens isn't just switching teams; he's also clearly past his prime.  How often does a receiver of Terrell Owens' caliber who declines in his eighth season rebound in his ninth season?

This is where the rest of the class of '96 comes in.  I ran a list of receivers who had at least 1000 receiving yards in their seventh season, and declined by at least 150 yards in their eighth season.*  There are 28 post-merger receivers on the list (counting Lance Allworth 1968-1970) and six of them are the studs of the class of 1996.  Terrell Owens had an off year.  Marvin Harrison had an off year.  Eric Moulds had an off year.  Like everyone associated with the New York Giants, Amani Toomer had an off year.  Joe Horn had an off year, though fantasy players didn't quite notice because he caught more touchdowns.  Keyshawn Johnson quit on his team.  It wasn't until last night that I realized the connection: this is the roll call of the class of 1996.

  7th Season (2002) 8th Season (2003)


Yards TD Receptions Yards TD
T. Glenn 56 817 2 52 754 5
M. Harrison 143 1722 11 94 1272 10
J. Horn 89 1314 7 78 973 10
K. Johnson 76 1088 5 45 600 3
E. Moulds 100 1287 10 64 780 1
T. Owens 100 1300 13 80 1102 9
A. Toomer 82 1343 8 63 1057 5

The whole class didn't do poorly, mind you.  The "lesser members" of the class of 1996 were fine last year -- Engram, Kennison, and Muhammad.  But the studs of 1996 all fell off in their eighth seasons.  The next question is, will these guys bounce back.  Everyone is expecting it.  In ESPN's Offseason Overview of the Colts, John Clayton writes, "Marvin Harrison will benefit from the rule adjustment that will flag contact after five yards. He should put up more than 120 catches this season."  Brian DeLucia of FOX says "Keyshawn Johnson will be a strong immediate fit in the [Cowboys] passing game" and "Owens is exactly the type of difference maker that's been missing from the Eagles' passing game."  I have yet to find a fantasy website that doesn't say Eric Moulds will rebound in 2004, and I don't think they just mean his touchdown total. 

History says to lower your expectations.  Here are the average numbers of the 22 other post-merger 1000-yard receivers who fell by more than 150 yards in their eighth seasons.  I've pro-rated the numbers for anyone involved in a 14-game season or strike year, but not for players who had injuries (in either season eight or season nine).

Season Receptions Yards TD
7 80 1242 8.4
8 56 780 4.9
9 51 736 4.2

I'm not sure if season eight is some magical demarkation in a wide receiver's career, but this doesn't look too promising.  Here are a number of examples of this phenomenon that might help us to understand just what the class of 1996 should expect this year.

  Isaac Bruce
Rod Smith
Andre Reed
Gary Clark
  Receptions Yards TD Receptions Yards TD Receptions Yards TD Receptions Yards TD
Season 7 87 1471 9 113 1343 11 81 1113 10 70 1340 10
Season 8 64 1106 6 88 1012 5 65 913 3 64 912 5
Season 9 79 1075 7 74 846 3 52 854 6 63 818 4

That's just the stud wide receivers who stayed useful after their season eight declines.  There's a whole list of receivers who declined in season eight and then fell off the face of the earth in season nine.  Derrick Alexander in 2002.  Carl Pickens in 2000.  Herman Moore in 1999.

Yes, there are players who have bucked this trend, but in most cases they didn't play full seasons in their eighth year, which makes the ninth year comeback a bit more expected.  Jimmy Smith missed two games in 2000 and gained 1213 yards, then played a full season again in 2002 in gained 1373 yards.  Mark Clayton gained only 406 yards in 10 games in 1990 , then played a full season again in 1991 and rebounded to 1053 yards.  It also helps to be named "Ismail," as both Qadry and Rocket had off-years in their eighth seasons and rebounded in their ninth seasons.

That's good news for Keyshawn Johnson, who of course declined last year mostly because he felt like being a jackass.  Unfortunately, the players I just named were only able to stave off decline for one more year.  Jimmy Smith fell to 1027 yards in 2002 and 805 yards last year.  Clayton fell to 619 yards in his tenth season, 331 in his eleventh.  Qadry Ismail fell to 462 yards in his tenth season, 2002, and Rocket Ismail didn't even play a tenth season.

Only two wide receivers were able to weather an eighth-year decline and then rebound in their ninth seasons and continue to play at a 1000-yard level for more than another year.  One is Tony Martin, who seems to be coming up in this article a lot.  He had good years in his ninth and tenth seasons before declining 393 yards in his eleventh season.  The other is Art Monk, who played only nine games in 1987 due to the strike and injury and had only 483 yards, but had 946 yards in 1988, 1186 yards in 1989, and 1049 yards in 1991 -- his twelfth season.

And not all receivers fell off in their eighth seasons, of course.  A number of stud wideouts had no problem in their eighth seasons, their ninth seasons, and in fact continued to play well for a number of years.  But these are the cream of the crop, the all-time greats: Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, Henry Ellard, Steve Largent, Cris Carter, Charlie Joiner.  Oh, and, believe it or not, Keenan McCardell, who had his second-best season last year with 1174 yards in his twelfth season.  He's not worth that silly raise he wants for next year, but he's definitely worth it retroactively.

The moral of the story is that most of the members of the stud wideout class of 1996 who declined last year will not rebound in 2004.  One or two of them probably will, and one or two of them will continue to play at a high level for a few more seasons and stake their claim on the list of all-time greats.  Marvin Harrison, for example; when your huge decline leaves you at 1272 yards, you are still one of the top three wideouts in football.  But aside from Harrison and Moulds (due to his ridiculously low touchdown total, not actual performance) I wouldn't go moving any of these guys up my fantasy draft list based on the idea that they are going to have the same seasons they had in 2002.  And if I was a Cowboy fan -- depending on a 97-year old quarterback and two failed baseball players to throw to not just one but two of these players -- I'd be a little worried.  The era of the class of 1996 has passed.

*(Note: Unfortunately, I don't have player ages, just the number of seasons they have played, so there are some mild quirks in the data.  For example, Rocket Ismail's years in the CFL are ignored, and he's treated as a rookie in 1993.)

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 08 Jul 2004