by Nathan Forster
The 2014 NFL draft may turn out to be one of the deepest wide receiver drafts in league history. In addition to boasting top end talent like Odell Beckham Jr. and Mike Evans, the 2014 draft produced a small army of pass catchers who at one point or another have made significant contributions to their teams, including Jarvis Landry, Brandin Cooks, Allen Robinson, Jordan Matthews, Sammy Watkins, Kelvin Benjamin, Davante Adams, and Martavis Bryant.
Although the 2017 NFL draft may lack elite wide receivers such as Beckham and Evans, it may turn out to have even more depth than the much ballyhooed 2014 class. According to Playmaker Score -- Football Outsiders' system for projecting college wide receivers to the professional level -- there is plenty of wide receiver talent available even in the mid- to late rounds.
Playmaker Score is based on a statistical analysis of all Division I wide receivers drafted between 1996 and 2014. Playmaker Score consists of the following elements, which are the factors that historically correlate to NFL success:
- The wide receiver prospect's best or "peak" season for receiving yards per team attempt (i.e., a wide receiver with 1,000 receiving yards whose team passed 400 times would score a "2.50.")
- The wide receiver prospect's peak season for receiving touchdowns per team attempt.
- The difference between the prospect's peak season for receiving touchdowns per team attempt and the prospect's most recent season for receiving touchdowns per team attempt. (This factor is simply "0" for a player whose peak season was his most recent season.)
- The wide receiver's vertical jump from pre-draft workouts.
- A binary variable that rewards players who enter the draft as underclassmen and punishes those who exhaust their college eligibility.
- The wide receiver's college career yards per reception.
- The wide receiver's rushing attempts per game during their peak season for receiving yards per team attempt.
Playmaker Score has two outputs: "Playmaker Rating" and "Playmaker Projection." Playmaker Rating is the "purest" output for Playmaker Score: it is expressed as a percentage that measures how highly the player ranks historically based on the factors evaluated by Playmaker Score. For example, a player with a 75 percent Playmaker Rating scores more highly than 75 percent of wide receiver prospects drafted since 1996. Playmaker Projection is a more realistic measurement. Playmaker Projection acknowledges that a player with a first-round grade and a mediocre Playmaker Score is more likely to succeed than a seventh-rounder who Playmaker Score loves. Thus, in addition to the Playmaker Score factors, Playmaker Projection also incorporates a transformed variable based on the player's projected draft position from NFLDraftScout.com.
Here are the Playmaker Scores for the top wide receiver prospects available in the 2017 NFL draft, plus one notable mid-round receiver with a poor projection.
John Ross, Washington
Playmaker Projection: 694 Yards
Playmaker Rating: 96.9%
John Ross made his mark on NFL draft coverage by running a record 4.22-second 40-yard dash, but the hoopla around his combine performance distracts from the fact that Ross had a strong career as a wide receiver for the Washington Huskies. Ross scored a touchdown on more than four percent of all of the Huskies' pass attempts in 2016. Ross was also somewhat involved in the running game, averaging approximately one rushing attempt every two games, which further boosts his projection. Ross is a bit of a one-hit wonder because he had less than 600 career receiving yards before exploding with 1,150 yards as a junior. However, there is a long history of successful NFL wide receivers, such as Terry Glenn or Brandon Marshall, doing even less than Ross did early in their college careers before breaking out as juniors.
Corey Davis, Western Michigan
Playmaker Projection: 669 Yards
Playmaker Rating: 90.6%
Playmaker Score includes a significant penalty for players who enter the draft as seniors because underclassmen typically enjoy much more success than their more experienced counterparts. The fact that Corey Davis is Playmaker Score's second-highest wide receiver despite this penalty speaks to how dominant Davis was for the Western Michigan Broncos. Significantly, Davis caught a touchdown on more than five percent of his team's passes as a senior. Only seven of the 500-plus wide receivers drafted since 1996 can say the same: Randy Moss, Dez Bryant, Larry Fitzgerald, Terry Glenn, Torry Holt, Andre' Davis, and last year's Corey Coleman.
Curtis Samuel, Ohio State
Playmaker Projection: 565 Yards
Playmaker Rating: 97.4%
Curtis Samuel is a somewhat unusual prospect whose relatively positive projection comes exclusively from his use in the running game. Samuel had 74 rushing attempts as a junior, making him one of the most run-heavy wide receivers who Playmaker Score has ever evaluated (topped only by running back-turned-wide receiver Dexter McCluster). Intuitively, one might think that these college "gadget" players would struggle to perform as conventional wide receivers at the NFL level, but prospects similar to Samuel have enjoyed a moderate level of success. The top four wide receivers in Playmaker Score's rushing attempt metric are McCluster, Tavon Austin, Percy Harvin, and Randall Cobb. None of these players are likely Hall of Famers, but all have been considerably more successful than the average drafted wide receiver.
On the other hand, because it is unusual for a wide receiver prospect to have such a high number of rushing attempts, there are reasons to doubt Samuel's high Playmaker Rating. Because there are so few wide receivers with 50-plus rushing attempts in a season, there is no way to verify whether there are diminishing returns for the extra rushing attempts. It may be the case that a wide receiver with 50 rushing attempts is not much more likely to succeed than one with 75 rushing attempts, but we have no way to measure if that is the case because wide receivers with such high rushing attempts are so rare. Moreover, there is anecdotal evidence to support the "diminishing returns" hypothesis because the closest recent analogue to Samuel is Tavon Austin, who has thus far dramatically underperformed his Playmaker projection. Thus, although the numbers support drafting Samuel, one might be wise to be skeptical of the numbers in this instance.
Carlos Henderson, Louisiana Tech
Playmaker Projection: 541 Yards
Playmaker Rating: 97.4%
If you are looking for what may be Playmaker's most controversial call for the Class of 2017, look no further than its ranking of Carlos Henderson over Clemson's Mike Williams, whom many consider to be the top receiver available in this draft. In short, Playmaker thinks Henderson is likely to be the better player than Williams (although by a relatively small margin), even though Williams is much more highly rated by pre-draft prognosticators.
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Henderson scores reasonably well in all of Playmaker Score's metrics -- he caught plenty of touchdowns, gained plenty of yards, entered the draft as an underclassman, and even contributed to the running game. However, Henderson's strongest metric is his explosive 19.6 yards per catch.
Another factor that is not included in the projections might also slightly militate towards a strong outlook for Henderson. Henderson competed with teammate Trent Taylor, who is a draftable prospect himself, for passes. Because Playmaker's metrics are based on how much attention the prospect received within his own passing game in college, it likely underrates players who had to compete with NFL-caliber prospects on their own teams. The best example of this dynamic is Reggie Wayne and Santana Moss, who had relatively low Playmaker projections because they played on the 1998 Miami Hurricanes together and had to compete not only with each other for passes, but also with future Pro Bowl tight end Jeremy Shockey. We are fairly certain that competition with other NFL-level prospects affects a prospect's Playmaker Score, but unfortunately have not yet come up with a practical (and statistically significant) way to measure it.
Mike Williams, Clemson
Playmaker Projection: 514 Yards
Playmaker Rating: 70.9%
Although Playmaker Score likes the 2017 draft class generally, it is a bit down on Mike Williams, whom many draftniks consider to be the top wide receiver available. Williams simply does not stand out relative to his peers in any of Playmaker's metrics. Typically, larger wide receivers like Williams boost their Playmaker Scores by catching touchdown after touchdown, but in 2016 Williams had only 11 touchdowns even though Clemson was a fairly pass-happy offense. Moreover, Williams did not have a single rushing attempt during his career, and his yards per catch numbers were just average.
That said, Williams is still an "above-average" wide receiver prospect. Williams' problem, however, is that a wide receiver drafted in the first round scores typically scores an 80.0 percent or better Playmaker Rating. Williams, by contrast, barely scores a 70.0 percent. Although that may not sound like a large difference, it is significant in a draft as deep at wide receiver as this one. There are stronger prospects in the second round, not to mention several better risk/reward propositions in the mid- to late rounds.
Chris Godwin, Penn State
Playmaker Projection: 487 Yards
Playmaker Rating: 87.0%
Chris Godwin has one distinct advantage over many of the other wide receiver prospects available in the fourth round -- Godwin enters the draft as an underclassman. Although Godwin's numbers are not particularly impressive without context -- 982 yards receiving and 11 touchdowns in 2016 -- he is only a junior. Plenty of wide receivers, such as Mike Wallace and Donte Stallworth, were good but not great as juniors, entered the draft, and blossomed once they reached the NFL.
DeDe Westbrook, Oklahoma
Playmaker Projection: 440 Yards
Playmaker Rating: 93.7%
DeDe Westbrook has similar Playmaker numbers to Corey Davis, its other favorite 2017 senior wide receiver prospect. Westbrook scored touchdowns at a slightly lower rate than Davis, but has more yards per team attempt, rushing attempts, and more yards per reception. Indeed, you might even seek to excuse Westbrook's failure to come out early because he spent his first two years of eligibility in junior college. You could make a decent argument that Playmaker Score's junior/senior adjustment is overly harsh on junior college transfers, and there is some precedent for similar players outperforming their projections.
The big advantage that Davis holds over Westbrook -- which is likely to be at least partially the cause of Westbrook's lower expected draft position -- is size. Davis is 6-foot-3 at 209 pounds and Westbrook is only 6-foot-0 at 178 pounds. There have been some players (although not a lot) who have been as light as Westbrook and have been successful, such as Roddy White and T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, Southern California
Playmaker Projection: 425 Yards
Playmaker Rating: 80.3%
JuJu Smith-Schuster declared that he "is the top receiver in this class." Playmaker Score, along with most draftniks, believes that to be an overstatement, but Smith-Schuster could nevertheless be a good addition in the third round. Smith-Schuster had a nice sophomore season where he caught 89 passes for 1,454 yards and ten touchdowns, which is all the more impressive considering that he broke his hand halfway through the season.
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Jalen Robinette, Air Force
Playmaker Projection: 409 Yards
Playmaker Rating: 97.8%
Jalen Robinette has a great projection, especially considering that NFL Draft Scout projects him to be an undrafted free agent. Robinette's 959 receiving yards and six touchdowns in 2016 may not be impressive in absolute terms, but he had monster rate statistics because Air Force only attempted 150 passes in the 2016 season. As a result, Robinette averaged 6.39 yards per team attempt. To put that in number in perspective, no other wide receiver in this draft class averages as much as 4.00 yards per team attempt.
However, there is good reason to actually trust the scouts over the numbers when it comes to Robinette. For one, there have been a few recent wide receivers who fit Robinette's statistical profile -- great per-attempt receiving statistics in unusually run-heavy offense -- and Playmaker Score was too optimistic regarding many of them. Playmaker Score loved Stephen Hill, for example, and Hill turned out to be an amazing bust. On the other hand, Demaryius Thomas, who similarly had great rate statistics but average absolute numbers, became an NFL star. Unlike Thomas, however, Robinette is not graded as a first-round pick, but as a late-round afterthought, so it seems more likely than not that Robinette will significantly underperform his Playmaker Score projection. That said, a team sitting in the seventh round would not be crazy to spend their late pick on Robinette on the chance that Playmaker Score's numbers are actually right about him.
Taywan Taylor, Western Kentucky
Playmaker Projection: 407 Yards
Playmaker Rating: 79.1%
One of Playmaker's lessons is that wide receivers from non-powerhouse schools are often underrated. In that regard, Taywan Taylor could be a pleasant surprise for some team looking for a wide receiver in the third round. Taylor's yards per team attempt and yards per reception are among the best in this class, his touchdown rate is above average, and he even added a few rushing attempts to give his projection a boost. Playmaker downgrades him considerably because he came out of college as a senior, but that should be less concerning for a player from Conference USA, because senior success stories are likelier to come from lower-profile programs.
Zay Jones, East Carolina
Playmaker Projection: 286 Yards
Playmaker Rating: 37.6%
According to Playmaker Score, Zay Jones is the most overrated wide receiver prospect in this class. Jones' weakest point is a low average of 10.7 yards per reception. Possession receivers in college tend not to succeed in the NFL, even as possession receivers. College wide receivers with lower yards per reception numbers can succeed in the NFL, but they tend to be "gadget" wide receivers who are heavily involved in the running game. Jones had only four rushing attempts in 2016, which is not an unusually low level for a pro prospect, but certainly well below where he would need to be to make up ground for his low yards per reception. Jones also did not find the end zone much for a top wide receiver prospect. He caught only eight touchdowns as a senior even though his team attempted an above-average 554 passes. It's worth noting that Jones' Playmaker Projection listed here is almost 100 yards per season lower than what was listed in the ESPN Insider version of Playmaker Score because Scouts Inc. (associated with ESPN) rates Jones higher than NFL Draft Scout.
Below is a chart of the Playmaker Projection and Playmaker Rating for every Playmaker-eligible Division I wide receiver in the 2017 NFL draft who received an invitation to the NFL combine.
|Playmaker Score, 2017 NFL Draft Wide Receiver Prospects|
|Name||College||Proj. Round||Playmaker Projection||Playmaker Rating|
|Corey Davis||Western Michigan||1||669||90.6%|
|Curtis Samuel||Ohio State||2||565||97.4%|
|Carlos Henderson||Louisiana Tech||2.5||541||97.4%|
|Chris Godwin||Penn State||2||487||87.0%|
|JuJu Smith-Schuster||Southern California||2.5||425||80.3%|
|Jalen Robinette||Air Force||UDFA||409||97.8%|
|Taywan Taylor||W. Kentucky||3||407||79.1%|
|Isaiah Ford||Virginia Tech||3.5||375||85.0%|
|Josh Reynolds||Texas A&M||5||303||83.9%|
|Shelton Gibson||West Virginia||5||293||81.7%|
|Name||College||Proj. Round||Playmaker Projection||Playmaker Rating|
|Kenny Golladay||Northern Illinois||4||286||71.3%|
|Zay Jones||East Carolina||2.5||286||37.6%|
|Travis Rudolph||Florida State||4.5||248||63.8%|
|Noah Brown||Ohio State||4||211||49.0%|
|Trent Taylor||Louisiana Tech||7-UDFA||134||44.3%|
|Ryan Switzer||North Carolina||4.5||132||13.8%|
|Rodney Adams||South Florida||7||126||38.6%|
|Fred Ross||Mississippi State||7-UDFA||123||42.9%|
|Robert Davis||Georgia State||6||106||37.2%|
|Name||College||Proj. Round||Playmaker Projection||Playmaker Rating|
|Devante Noil||Texas A&M||UDFA||80||57.1%|
|Johnathan Howard||North Carolina||6.5||70||22.8%|
|Mack Hollins||North Carolina||UDFA||38||26.8%|
|Gabe Marks||Washington State||7-UDFA||14||4.9%|
|Victor Bolden||Oregon State||UDFA||11||10.6%|
|Levonte Whitfield||Florida State||UDFA||0||7.1%|
|Jesus Wilson||Florida State||UDFA||0||3.3%|
|Darreus Rogers||Southern California||7-UDFA||0||0.0%|
|Ricky Seals-Jones||Texas A&M||UDFA||0||0.0%|
Here is a list of prior Playmaker projections:
Portions of this article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.