by Nathan Forster
Not every year produces multiple high-quality wide receivers at the top of the NFL draft. The 2014 draft brought us superstars Odell Beckham Jr. and Mike Evans, along with 1,000-yard receivers such as Allen Robinson, Kelvin Benjamin, and Brandin Cooks. Far more common are drafts like the one we saw in 2013, which included only one superstar in the first round (DeAndre Hopkins), a mid-round steal (Keenan Allen), and a small collection of busts.
This year's draft is far more likely to follow the pattern set in 2013 than that of 2014. Football Outsiders' system for projecting wide receivers, Playmaker Score, is quite uncertain about the highly rated pass catchers available in this year's draft. Although one or more of these players could turn out to be quality wide receivers, Playmaker suggests that teams should skip the highly rated pass catchers and go bargain hunting in the later rounds.
Playmaker Score is based on a statistical analysis of all of the Division I wide receivers drafted in the years 1996 to 2015, and measures the following:
- The wide receiver's projected draft position. These projections use the rankings from NFL Draft Scout.
- 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 2.50 yards per team attempt).
- 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 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 (which projects each wideout's average receiving yards over the course of his first five NFL regular seasons) is a more realistic measurement. Playmaker Projection acknowledges that a player with a first-round grade and a mediocre Playmaker Rating is more likely to succeed than a seventh-rounder who Playmaker Rating 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's a look at how Playmaker Score judges some of this year's top prospects.
D.J. Moore, Maryland
Playmaker Projection: 634 Yards
Playmaker Rating: 92.5%
Of the four wide receivers whom NFL Draft Scout believes could go in the first round, Playmaker likes D.J. Moore the best. Moore may appear to have only average receiving numbers for a top prospect (80 catches, 1,033 yards, eight touchdowns), but those statistics are quite impressive when they are put in the context of how rarely the Maryland Terrapins threw the ball; Maryland only attempted 318 passes during Moore's junior year. Moore was also used (and used effectively) in the running game, gaining 61 yards on five carries. That said, Moore is not quite an elite prospect like Odell Beckham or Amari Cooper. Playmaker gives Moore the edge over top-rated prospect Calvin Ridley despite a significant adjustment for Ridley's projected draft position.
Calvin Ridley, Alabama
Playmaker Projection: 525 Yards
Playmaker Rating: 69.3%
Calvin Ridley is a halfway-decent prospect, but Playmaker believes that he is way overrated as the top wide receiver prospect in this draft. Ridley, put simply, does not have top-tier production even after adjusting for Alabama's run-heavy offense. Ridley's touchdowns were particularly weak for a potential first-round draft pick. As a junior, Ridley had only five touchdowns in 332 team pass attempts, while D.J. Moore had eight touchdowns in only 318 team pass attempts.
Nor is it likely that there is any other team-related factor holding Ridley's projection back. Playmaker did miss somewhat on a former wide receiving prospect from Alabama -- Julio Jones -- but Ridley is a far cry from Jones. Jones was a physical freak who ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash at 220 pounds. By contrast, Ridley ran the 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds and only weighs in at 189 pounds. Moreover, Ridley had a poor vertical leap (31 inches), which historically has been the workout metric that is most predictive of success for wide receivers (although even the correlation between vertical leap and success is relatively weak). Without outstanding production or workout numbers, it is a little puzzling that Ridley is so highly regarded.
Christian Kirk, Texas A&M
Playmaker Projection: 485 Yards
Playmaker Rating: 77.4%
Playmaker thinks that Christian Kirk is a good prospect who is overrated as a potential first-round pick. Like Ridley, Kirk simply lacks the top-tier production that typically comes with a player of his projected draft status. Kirk averaged just over 2.0 receiving yards per team attempt in his best year, and his touchdown rate was average. Kirk's best statistics are his rushes -- he averaged nearly one rushing attempt per game. The fact that the coaches at Texas A&M saw fit to get the ball in Kirk's hands in space on multiple occasions suggests some potential for success, but overall Playmaker is lukewarm on his prospects, given the price that he will likely command.
Courtland Sutton, SMU
Playmaker Projection: 472 Yards
Playmaker Rating: 83.7%
Playmaker and conventional wisdom are pretty much in agreement about Courtland Sutton, and Playmaker thinks that Sutton is appropriately rated as a second-round pick. Sutton has similar numbers to Calvin Ridley with one important exception: Sutton was much more prolific in terms of touchdowns. As a junior, Sutton scored a touchdown on approximately 2.5 percent of SMU's pass attempts. That touchdown rate is solid, if not otherworldly (Larry Fitzgerald, for example, scored a touchdown on more than 5.0 percent of his team's pass attempts as a sophomore at Pittsburgh). Sutton could be a good match for a team looking for a large body to catch passes over the middle.
Anthony Miller, Memphis
Playmaker Projection: 462 Yards
Playmaker Rating: 77.6%
Anthony Miller has the top-tier production that most of this year's top receiver prospects lack. Playmaker, however, has one significant concern about Miller's prospects: he enters the draft as a senior. The ranks of highly drafted senior wide receivers include some successful players, but are also littered with busts such as Peter Warrick, Troy Edwards, and Travis Taylor. Most wide receiver prospects will eagerly seize the opportunity to enter the NFL as soon as possible. If a wide receiver prospect has to wait until he is a senior before his NFL prospects are viable, that is often a major red flag.
That said, Miller was actually quite good as a junior, which makes it hard to dismiss his prospects out of hand. A smart front office would scrutinize why Miller stayed at Memphis for a senior year.
Tre'Quan Smith, Central Florida
Playmaker Projection: 428 Yards
Playmaker Rating: 92.7%
The fact that Playmaker puts Tre'Quan Smith within striking distance of many of this year's top prospects, despite Smith's low projected draft position, speaks to how highly Playmaker rates his prospects. Smith's prospects are solid across the board. Smith is the only underclassman wide receiver in this year's draft who scored a touchdown in more than three percent of his team's pass attempts in his best season. Smith also had solid yardage numbers, good yards per reception, and even averaged almost half a rushing attempt per game. Nor should teams be turned off because Smith faced competition in the American Athletic Conference rather than the SEC. For wide receivers, there is no historical correlation between strength of competition in college and success. Some of the top wide receivers in NFL history have come from schools that are a lot smaller than Central Florida. Just to name a few, Jerry Rice went to Mississippi Valley State University, Randy Moss went to Marshall, and Antonio Brown went to Central Michigan. That's not to suggest that Smith will join such rarified company, but he is certainly worth a flyer in the middle of the draft.
Equanimeous St. Brown, Notre Dame
Playmaker Projection: 413 Yards
Playmaker Rating: 75.2%
Equanimeous St. Brown's best season was a 961-yard effort as a sophomore, which is decent considering that Notre Dame passed the ball less than 400 times. Brown had a major slump as a junior. However, historically, a prospect's best season has been more predictive than his most recent season, so Playmaker only gives St. Brown a small downward adjustment for his lackluster junior year.
D.J. Chark, LSU
Playmaker Projection: 410 Yards
Playmaker Rating: 67.9%
James Washington, Oklahoma State
Playmaker Projection: 366 Yards
Playmaker Rating: 69.9%
Like Miller, D.J. Chark and James Washington enter the draft as seniors. Miller, however, had a higher peak touchdown per team attempt rate than either Washington or Chark. Chark scored on barely one percent of his team's pass attempts, the worst rate of all of the wide receiver prospects that NFL Draft Scout projects in the first three rounds. Although neither Washington nor Chark are hopeless cases, Playmaker thinks that both of those players are overrated at their current projected draft status, which is somewhere in the second round. Even after accounting for Washington's and Chark's higher projected draft position, Playmaker believes that Miller is the most likely to be the successful professional and at a much lower price.
Below is a table 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, 2018 NFL Draft Wide Receiver Prospects|
|Name||College||Proj. Round||Playmaker Projection||Playmaker Rating|
|Christian Kirk||Texas A&M||1-2||485||77.4%|
|Tre'Quan Smith||Central Florida
|Equanimeous St. Brown||Notre Dame||2||413||75.2%|
|James Washington||Oklahoma State||2-3||366||69.9%|
|Michael Gallup||Colorado State||3||336||70.5%|
|Korey Robertson||Southern Mississippi||5-6||288||78.0%|
|Richie James||Middle Tennessee State
|Deontay Burnett||Southern California||4-5||270||71.1%|
|Byron Pringle||Kansas State||7-UDFA||245||83.5%|
|Cedrick Wilson||Boise State||5-6||238||72.2%|
|Allen Lazard||Iowa State||4||215||43.5%|
|Name||College||Proj. Round||Playmaker Projection||Playmaker Rating|
|Daesean Hamilton||Penn State||3||209||15.4%|
|Auden Tate||Florida State||7||200||69.9%|
|Marcell Ateman||Oklahoma State||5||138||23.4%|
|Ka'Raun White||West Virginia||7-UDFA||94||29.1%|
|Marquez Valdes-Scantling||South Florida||7||94||23.2%|
|Tavares Martin||Washington State||UDFA||77||38.6%|
|Jaleel Scott||New Mexico State||5-6||74||8.1%|
|Cam Phillips||Virginia Tech||UDFA||59||22.6%|
|Dylan Cantrell||Texas Tech||6||48||7.5%|
|Davon Grayson||East Carolina||UDFA||5||6.9%|
|Steve Mitchell||Southern California||UDFA||0||0.4%|
|Chris Lacy||Oklahoma State||UDFA||0||0.0%|
Portions of this article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.