by Vince Verhei
Sometimes, there simply aren't many good wide receivers in a given draft. Take the 2002 class, for example. Eleven wideouts went in the first two rounds of the draft that year, but a decade later we find that only three of those men ever gained more than 1,000 yards receiving in an NFL season. Deion Branch leads that class with a paltry sum of 6,644 yards, an average of less than 50 yards per game over his career.
I bring this up to point out that sometimes even the best wide receivers available don't warrant early draft picks -– and the numbers say that 2013 could be one of those years.
At Football Outsiders, we've been working on our Playmaker system for projecting wide receiver success for several years now, refining it to try to more accurately forecast which receivers will succeed in the NFL, and which are likely to fade away. Playmaker is based purely on empirical data, not scouting info or subjective opinions. The goal is simple: to identify those wide receivers with a track record of success and the athletic gifts necessary for success in the NFL.
Playmaker looks at each player's receiving yards and touchdowns in college, adjusted for the number of passes that player's team threw. There is also a slight bonus for yards per reception. Only a player's best season is considered, rather than career totals, to avoid penalizing players who transferred from junior college or declared early for the draft.
Playmaker also uses some data from the NFL scouting combine and various pro days, checking each player's 40-yard dash time (or, when available, the 10-yard split) and vertical leap.
None of these numbers were chosen arbitrarily. All collegiate receiving numbers and combine data were checked for their ability to project NFL success, and those with the most predictive ability are used in the formula.
Is it accurate? The following table sorts all wide receivers drafted from 2005-09 by their Playmaker Score coming out of college, along with their average receiving yards per season in the NFL:
It's important to remember that most drafted players don't accomplish much in the NFL, so the standards for success here are awfully low. The key number for Playmaker appears to be 400. Those with Playmaker Scores of 400 or higher have about a 50-50 chance of becoming a legitimate No. 1 NFL wide receiver, while the odds are much shorter below that level, and quickly plummet when scores drop below 200 or so.
Which brings us to this year's class of receivers. The following table takes the 13 receivers in the draft with a grade of 70 or higher from ESPN's scouts, and sorts them by Playmaker. None of them cross the critical 400 threshold (though one comes very close):
|Stedman Bailey||West Virginia||75||399|
|Markus Wheaton||Oregon State||77||274|
|Quinton Patton||Louisiana Tech||86||197|
|Tavon Austin||West Virginia||93||190|
|*-Vertical leap not available; projected using average vertical leap.|
Why the dearth of quality wideouts? For starters, there's not a physical freak in the class like Julio Jones or Calvin Johnson, a guy whose raw athletic gifts jump off the page. The fastest players in this group in the 40-yard dash (Tavon Austin and Kenny Stills) were both below average in vertical leap, while the best leaper (Justin Hunter) was just average in the 40.
Meanwhile, the best statistical guys in this class seem to come up short athletically. The average 40 time among these receivers was 4.46 seconds, but the guys with the best NCAA numbers (Stedman Bailey, Terrance Williams, DeAndre Hopkins, Robert Woods) were all slower than that.
There's another problem here: we're looking only at receiving data, not rushing or special teams numbers. Cordarrelle Patterson averaged 12.3 yards on 25 rushes for Tennessee last season, and he also scored three touchdowns on the ground and two more on special teams. Tavon Austin had 643 yards and three touchdowns as a rusher for West Virginia, and he too scored twice on returns. None of those numbers mean anything in Playmaker.
Should they? A long touchdown on a kick return or an end-around demonstrates "football speed" and open-field running talent, but it may not tell us much about beating professional cornerbacks. Success in the NFL is primarily a matter of bursting off the line (as measured in our combine numbers), followed by running precise routes and actually catching the ball (which we can measure with NCAA stats). Return touchdowns show lightning-in-a-bottle home-run ability, but they may not show the kind of every-down talent around which you can build an offense.
Patterson, in particular, is a polarizing case. His big-play ability is tantalizing, but he often disappeared from games. He didn't crack the SEC's top 10 in receiving yards, despite playing for a team that had the second-most pass attempts in the conference. He had just one 100-yard game with the Volunteers, and that came against Troy. Against SEC competition, he never gained more than 88 receiving yards, and averaged less than 50 yards per game on a pass-heavy team. For all his gifts, Patterson has done very little as a receiver to show he can play in the NFL.
Austin and Patterson both finish below the 200 level in Playmaker Score. What have other players with similar scores done in the NFL? From 2005-09, there were 62 receivers drafted with Playmaker Scores below 200. The best of those in the NFL has been Steve Johnson, who has gone over 1,000 yards in three straight seasons now. Some other big names in the group include Steve Breaston and Eddie Royal, both of whom were also threats to score on special teams in their collegiate careers. Those players, though, are the exceptions. As a group, these 62 receivers have averaged less than 100 yards per season in the NFL. Patterson and Austin could buck those odds, but those are not the kind of numbers around which NFL general managers should want to base their team's fortunes.
(Ed. Note: Could Playmaker Score be right about Patterson, a consensus first-round pick? Matt Waldman will have a rebuttal on Wednesday. Also, check out Waldman's Futures columns scouting out Tavon Austin, DeAndre Hopkins, and Terrance Williams.