The Breakout of a Late-Round NFL Receiver
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|
|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|
|16||Steve Largent||4-117||1976||SEA||1976||SEA||200||819||13,089||100||65.4||Jim Zorn||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.
[ad placeholder 3]
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|
|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|
|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?
[ad placeholder 4]
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.