by Nathan Forster
As NFL offenses become increasingly focused on the pass, the demand for young, talented wide receivers can only go up. Unfortunately for teams interested in pass-catchers this year, Scouts, Inc. ranks only three wide receivers within the top 32 overall picks and does not place a single wide receiver in its top ten. Playmaker Score, which is Football Outsiders' statistical system for projecting college wide receivers to the next level, takes a similar read of this year's class, even as it disagrees with traditional scouting on particular players. According to Playmaker Score, this year's top wide receiver prospects are relatively mediocre, but there are several prospects from relatively low-profile schools who could be good additions in the second, third, and fourth rounds.
Playmaker Score is based on a statistical analysis of all of the Division I wide receivers drafted in the years 1996-2016, and measures the following:
- The wide receiver's projected draft position from ESPN's Scouts, Inc.;
- The 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 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; and
- 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 ESPN's Scouts Inc. Playmaker Projection's primary output projects the average annual regular-season receiving yards that the wide receiver will gain over the course of his first five NFL seasons.
Below, we take a look at some of Playmaker's top prospects in the 2019 NFL draft, along with some similar prospects from previous drafts. Our similar historical prospects are based on former players who were similar in their Playmaker statistics, so you might see us compare two physically dissimilar players because they were similar statistically.
Marquise Brown, Oklahoma
Marquise Brown is a good wide receiver, but the fact that he is this year's best prospect speaks volumes about the mediocrity of top of this wide receiver draft class. According to Playmaker, Brown is the weakest "top prospect" in the last half-decade. Every draft since 2013 has had at least one wide receiver prospect who scored higher than Brown.
That said, because most drafts have more than one successful receiver, it's not necessarily a knock on Brown that he is the best of a relatively uninspiring class. Brown earns points for entering the draft as an underclassman, for accounting for a large share of the passing yardage in Oklahoma, and for averaging over 18.0 yards per reception. Brown's weakest point is his relative lack of touchdowns. Brown scored on 2.5 percent of Oklahoma's passes as a junior. That is not a bad rate, per se, but it is a bit lower than those of top wide receiver prospects in the past.
Although weight is not a part of Playmaker, Brown is unusually light for a top wide receiver prospect. Brown weighs in at only 166 pounds. Since 1996, the lightest wide receiver drafted in the first round was Tavon Austin, who weighed in at 174 pounds.
Brown also gets a small boost from his rushing attempts for the Sooners. Interestingly, his three career rushing attempts went for exactly 0 yards.
J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Stanford
Playmaker's No. 2 wide receiver, Arcega-Whiteside, is 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, making him a more prototypical NFL wide receiver than Brown. Although physically different, Arcega-Whiteside is fairly similar to Brown from a Playmaker perspective.
Arcega-Whiteside had four more receiving touchdowns than Brown as a junior but had fewer yards per team attempt. As a result, the difference between the two players' Playmaker projections is almost entirely attributable to Arcega-Whiteside's lower rating from Scouts, Inc. As a value proposition, a team that misses out on Brown might be wise to take a look at Arecega-Whiteside early in the second round.
A.J. Brown, Ole Miss
At least from a statistical perspective, A.J. Brown is very similar to this year's top two in terms of yards and touchdowns per team attempt. Brown falls a little short of the other two, however, because his touchdowns dropped from 11 to six from his sophomore to junior year.
Hakeem Butler, Iowa State
Hakeem Butler would be Playmaker's favorite prospect in this year's draft if you removed the projected draft position factor. Butler is similar to the two Browns and Arcega-Whiteside on all of Playmaker's metrics but one: yards per team attempt. As a junior, Butler had the exact same yardage totals as Brown (1,318), but the Cyclones only passed 363 times as opposed to the Sooners' 401. Butler's 3.63 yards per team attempt is the best of any underclassman wide receiver in this class.
You could actually make a contrarian case for selecting Butler over Marquise Brown. Both players played in the Big 12, so they had relatively equal levels of competition. Brown had the benefit of catching passes from Kyler Murray, who is considered the best quarterback in this year's draft. Butler's situation was not quite as good. The quarterbacking at Iowa State was competent, but also consisted of a rotating cast, which included ten games from freshman Brock Purdy. Butler also has good size at 6-foot-5 and 227 pounds and ran a 4.48-second 40-yard dash, which is by no means slow for his size (Brown has not yet run a 40-yard dash).
D.K. Metcalf, Ole Miss
In what might be its most controversial projection, Playmaker rates Scouts Inc.'s No. 2 receiver, D.K. Metcalf, behind Butler, who might be a third-round selection. Notably, Playmaker gives Metcalf a sizeable boost for his better Scouts, Inc. ranking but still believes that Butler is slightly more likely to be the more productive wide receiver.
Playmaker expects that top prospects will have at least one strong season in college. Metcalf does not have that. Metcalf was not the most productive receiver on his team last year and recorded fewer than 700 yards in each of his two college seasons.
However, a big reason that Metcalf's numbers were so low is that he missed approximately half the season with an injury. Playmaker may underrate him as a result, but Playmaker is also right to be cautious of a player who only had a good "half season." For example, former first-round pick DeVante Parker was dominant in his injury-shortened final college season, recording 885 yards in only six games. Playmaker was right not to simply assume that Parker would have continued his breakneck production, and Parker's NFL production has been more consistent with an 885-yard college wide receiver than a 1,770-yard one. Moreover, Metcalf's production was not nearly as impressive as Parker's six-game hot streak. Even if you doubled Metcalf's production, he would still have fewer receiving yards than this year's top three prospects.
What Metcalf has in his favor is athleticism. Metcalf had an amazing 4.33-second 40-yard dash while weighing more than 220 pounds. Unfortunately for Metcalf, the 40-yard dash is a much weaker indicator of success than college production. Playmaker does give Metcalf a slight bump for his (also very good) 40-inch vertical jump, which is a slightly stronger indicator of success than the 40-yard dash. Metcalf also gets a boost from coming out of college early -- the record of success for underclassmen is good, and Metcalf is only a redshirt sophomore.
Although teams should be careful before using a first-round pick on Metcalf, he is far from a doomed prospect. Ultimately, Metcalf produced very few statistics during his short career, so statistics should not be the only perspective that a smart team considers. However, interested general managers should scrutinize his tape closely and be confident that Metcalf actually has the skills to be a successful wide receiver, because he could just as easily be the latest in a long list of failed "height-weight-speed" prospects at the wide receiver position.
N'Keal Harry, Arizona State
If N'Keal Harry drops to the third round, he could be a solid selection for a team looking for an interesting wide receiver prospect. Harry's receiving production was not quite up to that of the top three, and he averaged only 13.6 yards per reception. However, Harry averaged a rushing attempt per game during his best receiving year (his sophomore season). Rushing attempts are positive indicators of NFL success for two reasons. First, they show that the player's coach thought so highly of the prospect's athleticism that he found unique ways to get the player the ball. Second, wide receiver rushing attempts are often an indicator of a gadgety, short-passing offense that suppresses the yards per reception numbers of otherwise explosive and talented receivers.
Andy Isabella, Massachusetts
Isabella had better production this year than any wide receiver invited to the combine -- and the contest is not particularly close. Isabella had a whopping 1,698 receiving yards last season, over 200 yards more than any other wide receiver invited to the combine. Isabella also had good touchdown numbers, had a solid yards per reception number, and averaged almost a rushing attempt per game.
Isabella, however, has one giant strike against him, and it is not because he comes from a small school -- it is because he enters the draft as a senior. The track record of senior wide receivers is not good historically and it has been even worse in recent years, as almost all legitimate wide receiver prospects now enter the draft as underclassmen.
Overall, however, Isabella is probably an underrated prospect because NFL teams tend to overvalue quality of competition. Sometimes a small-school prospect is absurdly productive due to level of competition, but many times the small-school prospect is productive because he is actually a legitimate talent. Isabella might not do anything in the NFL, but the chance that he could be the next Antonio Brown more than justifies selecting him with a fourth-round pick.
Parris Campbell, Ohio State
Campbell enters the draft as a senior. Playmaker gives a huge penalty to players who use their full eligibility, so Campbell had to really out-produce his younger contemporaries to compete with them in Playmaker's metrics. Campbell, however, was actually less productive than the other highly ranked wide receiver prospects of this class. Campbell had only 1,063 receiving yards in his best season, despite playing in 14 games as a senior. Moreover, the Buckeyes attempted 561 passes this year, so Campbell's yardage numbers look even worse in context. Similarly, Campbell's 12 receiving touchdowns look good as absolute numbers, but once you account for the number of passes the Buckeyes attempted in 2018, his touchdown rate numbers are worse than the likes of Marquise Brown and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside.
Moreover, unlike D.K. Metcalf, Campbell cannot claim that his stats were the product of limited action. Campbell played in over 40 games during his college career, and thus had plenty of opportunities to shine like a future NFL star should. As a junior, for instance, Campbell had only 40 receptions for 584 yards and three touchdowns. When given the opportunity, most future NFL star wide receivers dominated as juniors. Campbell's failure to do so is a major red flag.
The best argument for Campbell is that he was part of a talented wide receiver corps at Ohio State and that these skilled teammates siphoned away pass attempts that would have been directed to Campbell in a less talented group. There may be some truth to that theory, but Campbell is so far behind the other prospects in his class that it seems doubtful that he would have put up Andy Isabella-like numbers on another team. There are limits to statistical analysis of NFL prospects to be sure, and Playmaker could very well be wrong about Campbell. However, he remains the most solid bet to bust of the highly rated wide receiver prospects in the 2019 draft.
Below is a table of the Playmaker Projection and Playmaker Rating for every Playmaker-eligible Division I wide receiver in the 2019 draft who received an invitation to the NFL combine.
|Playmaker Score, 2019 NFL Draft Wide Receiver Prospects|
|A.J. Brown||Ole Miss||1-2||500||83.2%|
|Hakeem Butler||Iowa State||2-3||496||93.8%|
|D.K. Metcalf||Ole Miss||1||489||73.0%|
|N'Keal Harry||Arizona State||2-3||457||89.6%|
|Parris Campbell||Ohio State||1-2||369||47.0%|
|Deebo Samuel||South Carolina||2||347||54.9%|
|Kelvin Harmon||North Carolina State||3||318||66.4%|
|Greg Dortch||Wake Forest||5-6||260||77.7%|
|David Sills||West Virginia||5-6||219||64.0%|
|Jakobi Meyers||North Carolina State||4-5||218||64.1%|
|Antoine Wesley||Texas Tech||7-UDFA||215||82.2%|
|Miles Boykin||Notre Dame||5||170||54.8%|
|KeeSean Johnson||Fresno State||5||167||28.6%|
|Jovon Durante||West Virginia||UDFA||162||68.9%|
|Terry McLaurin||Ohio State||4||149||21.4%|
|Felton Davis||Michigan State||4||134||17.5%|
|Gary Jennings||West Virginia||UDFA||121||51.1%|
|Jamarius Way||South Alabama||UDFA||115||41.3%|
|Nyqwan Murray||Florida State||4-5||89||9.0%|
|Travis Fulgham||Old Dominion||UDFA||81||36.6%|
|Johnnie Dixon||Ohio State||7||35||16.8%|
|Bisi Johnson||Colorado State||UDFA||8||16.8%|
The main portion of this article originally appeared on ESPN+.