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The Breakout of a Late-Round NFL Receiver

The Breakout of a Late-Round NFL Receiver
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Scott Kacsmar

The best wide receiver in the NFL today may be a sixth-round pick out of Central Michigan. Antonio Brown was an All-American punt returner and caught 305 (mostly short) passes in three years. He declared for the draft after his junior season and wound up in Pittsburgh, buried fifth on the depth chart in 2010. Last year, Brown caught the second-most passes (129) and gained the sixth-most receiving yards (1,698) in a season in NFL history. Brown's consistency at getting open and producing is unparalleled. His active streak of 32 games with at least five catches and 50 receiving yards easily trumps the previous record (19 games by Laveranues Coles). He's even still on another record streak of 11 games with at least seven catches and 70 receiving yards.

So how does a receiver like that slip to the 195th pick in the draft? We might not be talking about Brown today if he was the 197th pick in 2010. That ended up being Trindon Holliday to Houston, where Gary Kubiak rarely wanted to put any wideout on the field with Andre Johnson unless that guy was named Kevin Walter. Brown may have just ended up as another return specialist the Texans discarded (a la Jacoby Jones) instead of a premier receiver.

Pittsburgh, which had traded Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes in that infamous 2010 offseason, was a blessing in disguise for Brown. The depth chart he sat at the bottom of as a rookie consisted of third-round receivers who have enjoyed successful careers, including Hines Ward, Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders. The Steelers have had a great eye for scouting wide receiver talent -- Martavis Bryant looks like the next great success story -- and Ben Roethlisberger has the passing tools to make all of the various receiving combinations work over the years.

That is really the best situation a late-round receiver can ask to go into, because how else are they going to develop into productive players? Every highly-valued position (read: not special teams or fullbacks) deals with the same problem in the NFL each year: the premium draft picks and expensive free agents get pushed ahead for more snaps and opportunities. General managers are largely judged by how those players perform, so they have to be on the field even if they are not always the better player. Amari Cooper wouldn't just slide right into Oakland's top receiving job if he was drafted in the fourth round instead of fourth overall. Then again, if he was drafted in the fourth round he likely wouldn't be the same ultra-talented Amari Cooper that we expect to see in the NFL.

That's the rub. Scouts and player personnel departments are expected to gauge prospects well enough so that the draft class resembles an exponential decay curve in career production, but we know there are always players that outperform expectations. Are late round and undrafted successes more dependent on advantageous situations whereas high draft picks are likely to succeed more on superior talent? We will never get a truly definitive answer on this as long as playing time is divided the way it always has been. Just think of how many "hidden gem" players emerged following an injury to a teammate. No matter how it comes, every opportunity is precious to such players.

Since we are talking about receivers, there's also the unshakable fact that the quarterback plays a role in how we perceive the receiver's caliber of play. We still have not found that Holy Grail of analysis, separating the quarterback from the receiver, but some progress has been made.

What we can do is look at the draft background of the most productive receivers in NFL history and the quarterback situation at the point in which they had their breakout seasons. Once the player establishes himself as capable of producing, we expect he'll be able to sustain his success moving forward. The interesting part is learning the circumstances that led to the breakout, especially for the late-round successes.

The Top 20 Leaders in Receiving Yards

We are not aiming here to create a list of the best receivers, so this is not the place to call out any "compilers." The basis for the list of receivers we will look at is most receiving yards. Sure, catches and touchdowns are nice. We have some neat advanced metrics that go back to 2006 or the late '80s, but simple yards gained works well for finding production over different eras.

The following tables will show where the player was drafted with a round-pick notation, his debut year and team, his breakout year and team, his regular-season career totals, and the quarterback(s) he broke out with.

First, let's establish some criteria on determining the breakout year, because it can be subjective. Hardly anyone is 1998 Randy Moss. The receiver did not have to be a No. 1 or No. 2 starter on his team, as some productive No. 3 receivers qualified. For example, Jerry Rice started only four games behind Dwight Clark and Freddie Solomon in 1985, but his 927 yards were nearly as much as the 964 yards by Clark and Solomon combined. However, being a full-time starter does help. I used 600 yards as a minimum requirement, but made one exception for a tight end, since this does include tight ends in addition to wide receivers. A player's rank in DVOA and DYAR were also taken into consideration when the breakout year was not so obvious.

Breakout Development: Top 20 in Receiving Yards in NFL History
Rk Player Draft Debut Team BO Team GP Rec Yds TD YPG Breakout Year QB(s) QB Note
1 Jerry Rice 1-16 1985 SF 1985 SF 303 1,549 22,895 197 75.6 Joe Montana HOF
2 Terrell Owens 3-89 1996 SF 1997 SF 219 1,078 15,934 153 72.8 Steve Young HOF
3 Randy Moss 1-21 1998 MIN 1998 MIN 218 982 15,292 156 70.1 Randall Cunningham Multi-Pro Bowler
4 Isaac Bruce 2-33 1994 LARM 1995 STL 223 1,024 15,208 91 68.2 C.Miller/M.Rypien Middling
5 Tony Gonzalez 1-13 1997 KC 1998 KC 270 1,325 15,127 111 56.0 R.Gannon/E.Grbac Middling
6 Tim Brown 1-6 1988 LARD 1988 LARD 255 1,094 14,934 100 58.6 J.Schroeder/S.Beuerlein Middling
7 Marvin Harrison 1-19 1996 IND 1996 IND 190 1,102 14,580 128 76.7 Jim Harbaugh Middling
8 Reggie Wayne 1-30 2001 IND 2003 IND 211 1,070 14,345 82 68.0 Peyton Manning Future HOF
9 James Lofton 1-6 1978 GB 1978 GB 233 764 14,004 75 60.1 David Whitehurst Scrub
10 Cris Carter 4-3 (S) 1987 PHI 1988 PHI 234 1,101 13,899 130 59.4 Randall Cunningham Multi-Pro Bowler
11 Henry Ellard 2-32 1983 LARM 1984 LARM 228 814 13,777 65 60.4 Jeff Kemp Middling
12 Andre Johnson 1-3 2003 HOU 2003 HOU 169 1,012 13,597 64 80.5 David Carr Subpar No. 1 Pick
13 Torry Holt 1-6 1999 STL 1999 STL 173 920 13,382 74 77.4 Kurt Warner Future HOF
14 Steve Smith 3-74 2001 CAR 2002 CAR 198 915 13,262 73 67.0 Rodney Peete Middling Journeyman
15 Andre Reed 4-86 1985 BUF 1985 BUF 234 951 13,198 87 56.4 V.Ferragamo/B.Mathison Scrubs
16 Steve Largent 4-117 1976 SEA 1976 SEA 200 819 13,089 100 65.4 Jim Zorn Middling
17 Irving Fryar 1-1 1984 NE 1985 NE 255 851 12,785 84 50.1 T.Eason/S.Grogan Middling
18 Art Monk 1-18 1980 WAS 1980 WAS 224 940 12,721 68 56.8 Joe Theismann MVP/SB Winner
19 Anquan Boldin 2-54 2003 ARI 2003 ARI 172 940 12,406 70 72.1 J.Blake/J.McCown Replacement level
20 Jimmy Smith 2-36 1992 DAL 1996 JAC 178 862 12,287 67 69.0 Mark Brunell Multi-Pro Bowler

The first thing that stands out: high draft picks. In fact, the top 25 leading receivers in NFL history were all drafted in the first four rounds, including Cris Carter, a 1987 supplemental fourth-round pick. It's not until Don Maynard at 26th do you find a late-round pick, and he was taken in the ninth round at a time (1957) when that meant you were the 109th player chosen, which is the fourth round today.

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Eleven of the top 20 receivers are first-round picks. Eighteen of the 20 players broke out in their first or second season. Reggie Wayne took three years in Indianapolis. Some may say Marvin Harrison didn't truly break out until he exploded in 1999, but his first year with Manning (1998) was also on pace for over 1,000 yards until injury cost him four full games. I ended up counting his breakout year as his rookie season since he led the 1996 Colts in catches, yards and touchdowns.

Steve Largent's regular-season debut was technically with Seattle, but only after his draft team, Houston, traded him in the preseason. Otherwise, every player broke out for the team that first drafted him except for Jimmy Smith, who also was the only player to take more than three seasons to break out. Imagine if Smith had stayed healthy in Dallas and paired up with Michael Irvin as the No. 2 wide receiver for Troy Aikman. Instead Smith had to make a pit stop in Philadelphia and wait his time in Jacksonville before replacing Andre Rison as a starter in 1996. Smith helped lead the Jaguars to that improbable run to the 1996 AFC Championship Game. This won't be the last time the disappointment of Rison leads to another player's good fortune in this article.

The only player with a debated breakout year here should be Andre Reed. On a miserable 1985 Bills offense, he finished second in catches (48), second in yards (637) and first in touchdown catches (four) as a 15-game starting rookie. That is pretty good for one of only three fourth-round picks on the list (including Carter).

So how important was the quarterback in getting these receivers on the path to greatness? While Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens played in the 49ers' system with two of the greatest passers ever, the rest of the list is not so favorable. In fact, I consider 12 of the 20 quarterback situations as unfavorable to the receiver. There should be four Hall of Famers here, and Randall Cunningham (twice), Mark Brunell and Joe Theismann were quite good, but that leaves a dirty dozen behind ranging from outright scrubs to just average.

We think of A.J. Green as a great receiver today who succeeds in spite of his middling quarterback, but Anquan Boldin had one of the best rookie seasons ever with an old Jeff Blake (32nd in DVOA) and a young Josh McCown (44th out of 45) for the 2003 Cardinals. Isaac Bruce had one of the greatest sophomore seasons ever in 1995 with the charred remains of Chris Miller and Mark Rypien. He even won a receiving title in 1996 with a rookie Tony Banks. While Bruce later had even more success with better play from Kurt Warner and Marc Bulger, he developed in this league without good quarterback play, as did the majority of this list in my view.

Can the draft's hidden gems say the same about their success?

Hidden Gems: The Improbable Receiving Successes

Rather than look at all of history, I limited this part of the study -- truthfully, this part was completed first -- to receivers that were drafted in the fifth round or later (including undrafted) since 1990. The timeframe better reflects the modern game with multi-receiver sets, the increase in receptions, and 16-game seasons, and it's the era of more information and available film in the draft. We also avoid things like the AFL, guys drafted by both the NFL and AFL, and the depressed stats by receivers in the defensively-focused 1970s. After excluding fullback Larry Centers, we just so happen to have 20 late-round receivers who have surpassed 5,000 receiving yards since 1990 -- an impressive round-number triumph.

Most Receiving Yards by WR/TE Drafted 5th Round or Later (Including Undrafted) Since 1990
Rk Player Draft Debut Team BO Team GP Rec Yds TD YPG Breakout Year QB(s) QB Note
1 Rod Smith UDFA 1995 DEN 1997 DEN 183 849 11389 68 62.2 John Elway HOF
2 Keenan McCardell 12-326 1991 WAS 1995 CLE 209 883 11373 63 54.4 Vinny Testaverde No. 1 pick
3 Donald Driver 7-213 1999 GB 2002 GB 205 743 10137 61 49.4 Brett Favre Future HOF
4 Shannon Sharpe 7-192 1990 DEN 1992 DEN 204 815 10060 62 49.3 John Elway HOF
5 Antonio Gates UDFA 2003 SD 2004 SD 179 788 10014 99 55.9 Drew Brees Future HOF
6 Wes Welker UDFA 2004 SD 2007 NE 169 890 9822 50 58.1 Tom Brady Future HOF
7 Marques Colston 7-252 2006 NO 2006 NO 133 666 9239 68 69.5 Drew Brees Future HOF
8 Terance Mathis 6-140 1990 NYJ 1994 ATL 206 689 8809 63 42.8 Jeff George Middling No. 1 Pick
9 Joe Horn 5-135 1996 KC 2000 NO 163 603 8744 58 53.6 J.Blake/A.Brooks Middling
10 Wayne Chrebet UDFA 1995 NYJ 1995 NYJ 152 580 7365 41 48.5 Boomer Esiason Former MVP
11 T.J. Houshmandzadeh 7-204 2001 CIN 2004 CIN 146 627 7237 44 49.6 Carson Palmer No. 1 pick
12 Shawn Jefferson 9-240 1991 SD 1996 NE 195 470 7023 29 36.0 Drew Bledsoe No. 1 pick
13 Troy Brown 8-198 1993 NE 1997 NE 192 557 6366 31 33.2 Drew Bledsoe No. 1 pick
14 Nate Washington UDFA 2005 PIT 2006 PIT 145 411 6296 40 43.4 Ben Roethlisberger Future HOF
15 Ben Coates 5-124 1991 NE 1993 NE 158 499 5555 50 35.2 Drew Bledsoe No. 1 pick
16 Michael Jackson 6-141 1991 CLE 1992 CLE 114 353 5393 46 47.3 B.Kosar/M.Tomczak 50/50
17 Antonio Brown 6-195 2010 PIT 2011 PIT 70 390 5259 28 75.1 Ben Roethlisberger Future HOF
18 Pierre Garcon 6-205 2008 IND 2009 IND 100 413 5250 28 52.5 Peyton Manning Future HOF
19 Frank Wycheck 6-160 1993 WAS 1996 HOIL 155 505 5126 28 33.1 C.Chandler/S.McNair Two Future SB Starters
20 Miles Austin UDFA 2006 DAL 2009 DAL 118 348 5049 36 42.8 Tony Romo Multi-Pro Bowler

About a fourth of the list has a breakout year to debate.

Wes Welker was the No. 3 wideout on the 2006 Dolphins, but I didn't think a season where he ranked 49th in DYAR and 48th in DVOA felt like his breakout. He is one of a few debatable Patriots on the list. Whether Troy Brown broke out in 1997 or a little later, it definitely happened with Drew Bledsoe at quarterback for the team that drafted him. Shawn Jefferson arguably never "broke out" in the NFL despite starting as a low-percentage deep threat for two AFC Super Bowl losers (1994 Chargers and 1996 Patriots). He never ranked higher than 23rd in DYAR in his career. I chose 1996 since it was the first time in his career he did things like have positive DVOA, catch 50 passes and exceed 700 yards.

Nate Washington was a tough one, as I am probably giving too much credit to his ranking of 29th in DYAR and 15th in DVOA in 2006 as a No. 3 receiver. Unlike Jefferson, Washington actually had a 1,000-yard season in his career, but that came in 2011 with Tennessee with the solid Matt Hasselbeck as his quarterback.

I really debated when Joe Horn had his breakout and ended up sticking with the 2000 Saints when he had 1,340 yards and made the Pro Bowl. However, despite starting behind Andre Rison in Kansas City in 1999, Horn blew away Rison's production and finished third in DVOA that season. His 586 yards were under the 600-yard limit though. Elvis Grbac was the quarterback that year, so either way Horn was one of the few late-round producers with middling quarterback play. Don't forget all the bad plays Aaron Brooks made in later years.

Frank Wycheck had 511 yards in 1996, but we'll cut a tight end from that era some slack. He didn't really have one clear breakout year, improving gradually from 1995 to 1997. But this gradual breakout happened with his second team, since he had been a sixth-round pick by Washington in 1993. Depending on whether you look at 1995, 1996, or 1997, Wycheck's quarterback was some combination of the underrated Chris Chandler and a young, still-developing Steve McNair.

With that in mind, here is a comparison of the two lists of 20 receivers.

Comparison of Receiver Lists
Statistic Top 20 Yards Top 20 Gems
Debut team same as breakout team 19/20 14/20
Average breakout time (seasons) 1.7 3.4
Rookie season breakouts 11/20 2/20
Breakout in years 1-2 18/20 7/20
Breakout in year 4+ 1/20 10/20
Breakout - average games played 15.9 15.7
Breakout - average games started 13.6 11.9
Breakout - average receptions 60.3 66.6
Breakout - average receiving yards 912 914
Breakout - average TD catches 6.4 6.8
Breakout - 1,000-yard seasons 4/20 8/20
QB - HOF caliber 4/20 9/20
QB - Drafted No. 1 overall 2/20 9/20
QB - Pro Bowler 12.5/20* 18/20*
QB - Total career Pro Bowls made 58 108
QB - Scrub to middling (unfavorable) 12/20 4/20
*Half credit for Jeff Blake and Bernie Kosar as Pro Bowlers

Surprisingly, 70 percent of the gems still broke out for the team that first acquired them. It just took twice as long on average for them to break out compared to the top 20 leading receivers. Only two hidden gems had breakout rookie years, to the delight of every Hofstra alumni. While Marques Colston had a great year with Drew Brees in 2006, Wayne Chrebet put Hofstra on the map first with the 1995 Jets. Despite the Jets losing starters Rob Moore and Art Monk after the 1994 season, the undrafted Chrebet had to battle his way from 11th on the depth chart in training camp to lead the team in receiving yards (726) as a 16-game starter.

The statistics for the average breakout season are strikingly similar for both groups, but the gems actually had twice as many 1,000-yard seasons. The jump from nobody to stud was more likely with the gems. Rod Smith, who holds the record for most receiving yards by an undrafted player (11,389), had 22 catches in his first two seasons combined. Once Anthony Miller left Denver, Smith exploded for 70 catches and 1,180 yards as the No. 1 receiver on the 1997 Broncos, a Super Bowl winner.

The quarterback play was clearly better for the hidden gems, with 50 more Pro Bowl appearances and more than double the amount of Hall of Fame-caliber careers. The unfavorable quarterback situations were also three times as likely for the all-time leaders in yards. These numbers are obviously not complete yet. Someone like Tony Romo still has time to win a MVP, start a Super Bowl and lock down his Hall of Fame case, but he's already better than many of the unfavorable quarterbacks on the top 20 yardage list.

What also stood out was just how many quarterbacks drafted No. 1 overall show up in the gems list. They make up almost half the list (9 of 20). Quarterbacks drafted No. 1 overall tend to have very long careers, because it's easy to find a team that will still believe in their throwing talent. Players like Jeff George, Vinny Testaverde, Carson Palmer and Drew Bledsoe certainly qualify as quarterbacks who kept getting chances for their throwing talent even if the mobility or mental game wasn't always there.

Chrebet actually had his biggest year (1998) the same season Testaverde had his career peak. There are a few overlap examples like that between these lists. Michael Jackson, with his "50/50" (one good, one bad) quarterback situation in Cleveland, also peaked in the NFL with Testaverde. He had 1,201 yards and 14 touchdowns on the 1996 Ravens. Keenan McCardell was yet another player to take advantage of Andre Rison's disappointment. Cleveland made Rison the highest-paid receiver in NFL history in 1995, but McCardell ended up catching more passes and gaining eight more yards that season with Testaverde. He got even better in Jacksonville with Mark Brunell and Jimmy Smith, but that last year in Cleveland put McCardell on the map. Also, Terance Mathis continued to star in Atlanta with Chris Chandler, who was actually really solid from 1994-2001.

In our search for a late-round receiver that was able to develop into a star without stellar quarterbacks since 1990, we are really looking at Joe Horn as the top guy. He currently ranks 67th in NFL history in receiving yards. Is that impressive enough?

Upcoming Hidden Gems: The Most Improbable Yet?

Finally, what about the active receivers drafted fifth round or later that are closing in on 5,000 yards?

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Victor Cruz (3,963 yards) is a season or two away and could go down as one of the best undrafted wide receivers ever. But he's had the better years of Eli Manning, another No. 1 overall pick, Super Bowl MVP and potential Hall of Famer.

Malcom Floyd only needs 11 yards for 5,000 in San Diego, but he's been able to play with Philip Rivers all these years, another Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback (who, like Romo, doesn't necessarily get the respect he deserves).

Lance Moore (4,479 yards) looked like he was on his last legs in Pittsburgh in 2014, but he's in Detroit now. He may not get to 5,000 yards. If he does, he'll be viewed as a product of the Sean Payton/Drew Brees offense in New Orleans.

Brent Celek (4,315 yards) could still get there as a tight end, but he developed with Donovan McNabb in a TE-friendly offense with Andy Reid. He also was present for career years by Michael Vick (2010) and Nick Foles (2013).

The name that really stands out here is 2008 seventh-round pick Stevie Johnson (4,267 yards). The same year Antonio Brown was drafted, Johnson broke out of nowhere with 1,073 yards and 10 touchdowns in a stagnant Buffalo offense with Ryan Fitzpatrick as his quarterback. Middling would be a kind word here. Sure, it helped that Terrell Owens and Josh Reed left town, but Johnson only had 12 catches coming into 2010. No one saw him coming. Lee Evans was still there, but as a one-trick pony. Johnson's route-running and ability to frustrate some of the best cornerbacks in the league made him a viable option for Fitzpatrick, who has thrown 67.9 percent of Johnson's career targets. To prove he wasn't a fluke, Johnson actually produced three straight seasons with at least 75 catches and 1,000 yards. In all of NFL history, only four receivers have done this despite being drafted in the fifth round, later, or not at all: Welker (2007-09), Colston (2010-12), Horn (2000-02) and Donald Driver (four years; 2004-07). Johnson easily had the worst quarterback situation of any of them.

Buffalo's move to EJ Manuel nearly cut Johnson's production in half and he was off to San Francisco last year as a backup wide receiver. Despite Colin Kaepernick's reputation as a one-read quarterback, Johnson played well with him, catching 35 of 50 targets and finishing 11th in DVOA.

Now that Johnson is in San Diego with Philip Rivers, is the best yet to come? He can easily get the necessary yardage to hit 5,000 yards this season. San Diego had four receivers with at least 778 yards last year. Eddie Royal is gone, Keenan Allen may not be who we thought he was as a rookie, and Antonio Gates is suspended for four games. Johnson's intermediate routes seem like a perfect match for Rivers' accuracy in this Mike McCoy offense that has limited the deep bombs of past Norv Turner creations. Floyd's also one of the oldest receivers in the league, while Johnson is still only going on 29.

This all sounds like the star-aligning opportunity Johnson has been waiting for. I am not willing to commit to him having a career year, but he should turn some heads again like he did in Buffalo. Johnson will eventually rank as one of the most productive late-round receivers, and he will have done so with less help from his quarterback than anyone on the list. Not only did he have to beat the odds of being a seventh-round pick, but he succeeded in spite of his quarterback, just like some of the highest-caliber receivers in history have done.

Comments

37 comments, Last at 24 Aug 2015, 12:34pm

1 Re: The Breakout of a Late-Round NFL Receiver

Well written article, Scott. And some interesting comparison stats. I wonder how Seattle's many low-round/UDFA receivers will fair in this comparison in the future? Then again, the Seahawks probably don't pass enough to get them into the conversation.

4 Re: The Breakout of a Late-Round NFL Receiver

I was going to start the last section by saying Doug Baldwin (2,757) and Julian Edelman (2,742) are a little over halfway to 5k, but I went right to Cruz. I'm definitely a Baldwin fan, and I actually think his 2011 rookie season was his breakout year and one of the best efforts we've seen from an undrafted guy. That was with Tarvaris too. Chrebet-esque work. Baldwin is the only Seattle guy I see having a shot at a long, productive career. Kearse only seems to make big plays in big moments, which have a tiny sample size. You have to think they'll find a better option for Russell Wilson soon.

Another (older) Seattle WR I wanted to mention in this but never found the right spot was Joey Galloway. Just another example of a high draft pick (1.8) who succeeded in spite of his QBs.

16 Re: The Breakout of a Late-Round NFL Receiver

For as good as Wilson has been, 2014 was not only a step back for him, but a step back for his chemistry with Baldwin. As Cian Fahey pointed out in his excellent article on Darrell Revis, Baldwin had Revis beat all game long in the Super Bowl, but Wilson just wouldn't pull the trigger. In that Packer game, on the 3rd and 19 play to Baldwin, Wilson held that ball forever while Baldwin was jumping up and down, wide open and the sideline was screaming and pointing to him. By the time Wilson finally found him, he nearly didn't make the play. If he played for any other team, he'd be considered a much better WR than he's currently perceived as.

2 Re: The Breakout of a Late-Round NFL Receiver

Pittsburgh had the same string of success developing pass rushers before that stopped. We all can point to their development pipeline for receivers and it is stellar - mike wallace, santonio holmes, burris, ward, brown, (and I really really like Martavius Bryant) - but can we really say its a given that pittsburgh develops receivers, when we see that their golden touch with the pass rushers has come to an end.

5 Re: The Breakout of a Late-Round NFL Receiver

That was still a pretty long stretch of LB success. Anything over 15 years is an eternity in the NFL. I think you could give the Steelers a bit more respect here. Ward was 1998 and Bryant was 2014. That's a long time too. More than saying the Packers are the best at drafting 2nd-round receivers because of Greg Jennings (2006), Jordy Nelson (2008), Randall Cobb (2011) and Davante Adams (2014). That is the best recent haul, but can they keep it going another 6-8 years? Those picks came after Robert Ferguson (2001) and Terrence Murphy (2005).

6 Re: The Breakout of a Late-Round NFL Receiver

Sure you are right...the steelers kept it up for a while. Its a bit like looking at successful mutual funds though...there are some that kept returns for a very long time. The issue is - with a large sample of funds/teams - you're going to get some weird outliers just by chance. Is Pitt just an outlier due to luck or is it skill?

Having done some work on this - I essentially used Eugene Fama's methods for testing luck vs skill on Mutual funds and applied it to NFL teams. The results look an awful lot like luck and less skill.

7 Re: The Breakout of a Late-Round NFL Receiver

It's likely obvious but I'd say having that good development pipeline is about having all the correct pieces - good scouting, only drafting players that fit the team's model requirements, good coaching, good 'peer pressure' / senior player mentoring, using players to strengths in games.

All of that fitting into a background of a franchise where consistency and stability is considered important rather than changing headcoaches every 2-3 years which would destroy any sort of pipeline.

3 Re: The Breakout of a Late-Round NFL Receiver

Wow, look who leads in YPG and think about his offenses and QBs over the years. Yes, Andre Johnson has not yet had the final years of his career to drag his stats down, but that is some impressive production for a guy who played for a run-first team with a bunch of guys as his QB for years. His low TD totals testify to the team's tendencies and QB quality. Yes, I know they weren't always run-crazy and Schaub had some good years, but he's leading Harrison and Wayne, who played most of their careers with a pass-happy Manning, and Moss, Owens, and Holt who played in a pass-heavy Rams O.

I hope he has some gas in the tank for a couple years with Luck.

27 Re: The Breakout of a Late-Round NFL Receiver

Yeah, the lack of TDs is mostly about Schaub's weaknesses throwing both deep balls and fades, and to a lesser extent Foster's excellence around the goal line. He scored a lot more TDs per target when Keenum was throwing the ball. Johnson's not the player he was, but I'm pretty sure he's got some useful production left in him. He did make some rather surprising drops last year, though.

10 Re: The Breakout of a Late-Round NFL Receiver

I started writing up a comment quibbling with your categorization of Testaverde, Esiason, Palmer, & Bledsoe as merely #1 picks, because they were all good to very good QBs in their own right regardless of draft position. Then I started doing some research, and the track record for taking QBs #1 overall is actually way better than I thought it was.

Counting just the guys I've seen play, we get:

HOF (3): Peyton Manning (1998), Troy Aikman (1989), John Elway (1983)

Good/VG (5): Eli Manning (2004), Palmer (2003), Michael Vick* (2001), Drew Bledsoe (1993), Vinny Testaverde (1987)

Meh (2): Alex Smith* (2005), Jeff George (1990)

Bust (4): Sam Bradford (2010), JaMarcus Russell (2007), David Carr (2002), Tim Couch (1999),

Young, but very good so far (3): Luck (2012), Newton (2011), Stafford (2009)

By my count, that's 11/17 that I'd categorize as worthy #1 picks, plus two serviceable QBs who didn't live up to the #1 overall billing, but were still decent starters for a while. Every draft, we always talk about the unpredictability of the position and the risk of the #1 pick, but... the track record with QBs is actually pretty good. Most of the major busts we remember were actually taken with picks 2-5, which means the guys with the pressure of the #1 pick usually made the right call.

Notes:
* FO is harder on him than most places, but I think (one of) the tragedies of Michael Vick is that he actually could/should have been an all-time great, but for a variety of reasons entirely of his own doing ended up 'merely' pretty good.
** My subjective opinion is that Smith has made the jump from 'Meh' to 'Good', but it's taken a really long time for him to do so, and I can't pretend the SF Dark Ages didn't happen. I'll leave him as 'Meh' to be conservative.

11 Re: The Breakout of a Late-Round NFL Receiver

Smith has ranked 19th and 21st by DVOA in KC. He was actually 9th his last year in SF, but I don't think a single year being in the top half of QBs makes one "good".

Likewise I wouldn't characterized Stafford as very good so far. Pretty clearly meh there (and he's not that young anymore, just finished his 6th year in the league).

17 Re: The Breakout of a Late-Round NFL Receiver

In the modern NFL I'd say Testaverde would have been gone before he really got a chance to succeed and therefore a bust. Obviously he wasn't in the modern NFL so I guess he can be graded as good.

(Perhaps it's another testament to Bill Belichick's coaching that Vinny's career began to turn round when he arrived in Cleveland, or may it really was just that bad in Tampa)

19 Re: The Breakout of a Late-Round NFL Receiver

To me - Michael Vick had a much bigger problem than his own personal demons. AS a rusher, he was unparalleled. But as a passer, he was rex grossman territory. No seriously, he would throw short passes at 100 mph and never heard of the word touch.

Once inevitably, a good defense came around that new how to contain Vick's running, he was doomed. I get that he was dynamic and at times unbelievable, but I'd rather have Stafford honestly.

9 Re: The Breakout of a Late-Round NFL Receiver

"Players like Jeff George, Vinny Testaverde, Carson Palmer and Drew Bledsoe certainly qualify as quarterbacks who kept getting chances for their throwing talent even if the mobility or mental game wasn't always there."

Seems a bit unfair. Palmer was just 12th in DVOA this past year, and you had to work in the mobility angle to include Bledsoe the later years.

Plus, I doubt it actually hurts a receiver to play with George, Palmer or Bledsoe. Them getting sacked or throwing bad passes doesn't really affect a receiver as long as the rate of good passes is roughly on par with a good QB. I think all those QBs are pretty accurate and weren't handcuffed to lower significantly lower than an average number of passes.

15 Re: The Breakout of a Late-Round NFL Receiver

"Plus, I doubt it actually hurts a receiver to play with George, Palmer or Bledsoe."

Didn't classify it that way for Palmer or Bledsoe, hence the green shading for them. I did however add George to the unfavorable situations. Thru 1994 he was a bust in Indy and while the numbers certainly improved in Atlanta's run-and-shoot, he still only ranked 22nd of 45 in DVOA that season. Btw, we'll soon be changing those QB rankings to make 200 passes the new minimum qualifier.

And Tim Couch was not a bust. I'll put that on my tombstone.

23 Re: The Breakout of a Late-Round NFL Receiver

Listing Jeff Kemp as "middling" is pretty generous, only 1 season above 2K yards. Steve Grogan and jim Zorn are also listed as "middling" and I thought they were a bit above average for their eras. Overall an interesting look at successful receivers.