The 2020 NFL draft's wide receiver class has been widely hailed as perhaps the best in over a decade. Playmaker Score, which is Football Outsiders' statistical system for projecting college wide receivers to the next level, agrees that there are several promising prospects in this year's class. However, Playmaker Score is only lukewarm about much of the depth available at the top of the draft. While the very top prospects look to be quite excellent, many of the receivers slated to go in the second half of the first round are not any stronger than the first-round wide receivers of drafts past.
Playmaker Score is based on a statistical analysis of all of the Division I wide receivers drafted in the years from 1996 to 2017, and measures the following:
- The wide receiver's projected draft position. These projections use the draft projections from Draft Scout.
- 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'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).
- A variable that rewards players who enter the draft as underclassmen and punishes those who exhaust their college eligibility.
- The wide receiver's rushing attempts per game during their peak season for receiving yards per team attempt.
- A factor that gives a bonus to wideouts who played on the same team in college as other receivers who are projected to be drafted.
Playmaker's primary output projects the average number of regular-season receiving yards that the wide receiver will gain per year over the course of his first five NFL seasons.
Those of you familiar with Playmaker Score might notice that we have changed the factors a bit this year, making this version 3.0 of the Playmaker Score system. First, we have added the factor for "talented wide receiver teammates" for the first time this year. Basically, this works by aggregating the draft value of the prospect's teammates. For example, following the 2000 season, the University of Miami sent wide receivers Santana Moss and Reggie Wayne to the NFL draft. Because both were projected first-round picks, each player had a teammate score of "641.5," which is the projected average NFL receiving yards per season for a wide receiver projected to be drafted in that round. Historically, Playmaker Score has underrated those wide receivers who had fewer yards and touchdowns because they split passes with one or more other talented wide receivers. The new metric fixes that problem.
Second, we have eliminated the vertical jump and the yards per reception metric from the model. The two metrics were never especially strong predictors of performance, and their predictive value has faded considerably in recent drafts.
The incorporation of the "talented teammates" metric has necessitated a change, and we are now retiring the part of the Playmaker Score system called "Playmaker Rating." Previously, Playmaker Rating was expressed as a percentile. Thus, a 90% Playmaker Rating meant that the prospect had a stronger projection that 90% of wide receiver prospects in the past. The goal of Playmaker Rating was to provide a measurement that was independent on a prospect's draft projection. However, we can't do that anymore. Even if we don't include a receiver's draft projection in the computation, we're still considering the draft projection of his teammates in the computation.
This would lead to some very strange results. For example, imagine we had two receivers who both played for LSU entering the draft in 2020. Both receivers have the exact same statistics over their careers. The only difference is that receiver A is a projected first-round pick and receiver B is a projected third-round pick. In the traditional Playmaker Rating, we would now forecast Player B as the better prospect. Why? Because Player B posted his numbers while competing with a first-round pick while receiver A was competing with a third-rounder. That's ridiculous, of course.
Instead of Playmaker Rating, we're going to list a new metric, Yards Over Draft Projection (YODP). For example, a player with a first-round projected draft position and a +35 YODP is projected to gain 35 more yards per season, on average, than the typical first-round projected wide receiver. We're hoping this new metric helps identify which players are forecast to be sleepers or busts compared to their projected draft position.
The chart below shows the top prospects of all time in Yards Over Draft Projection. It's an interesting mix of elite prospects and some late-rounders -- and one of those worked out in a big way.
|Top Playmaker 3.0 Yards Over Draft Projection, 1996-2017|
|Demaryius Thomas||2010||1||22||DEN||Georgia Tech||+377.9|
|Antonio Brown||2010||6||195||PIT||Central Michigan||+223.6|
|Stedman Bailey||2013||3||92||STL||West Virginia||+211.4|
|Hakeem Nicks||2009||1||29||NYG||North Carolina||+191.3|
|Stephen Hill||2012||2||43||NYJ||Georgia Tech||+189.4|
|Dante Ridgeway||2005||6||192||STL||Ball State||+188.2|
|Terry Glenn||1996||1||7||NE||Ohio State||+182.0|
Below, we take a look at some of Playmaker Score v3.0's top prospects in the 2020 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.
CeeDee Lamb, Oklahoma
Playmaker Projection: 690 Yards/Season
Similar Historical Prospects: Odell Beckham, Amari Cooper
For the second straight year, an Oklahoma Sooners wideout holds the Playmaker projection top spot (Marquise Brown held the distinction last year). CeeDee Lamb was an all-around productive receiver, recording 1,327 yards and 14 touchdowns as a junior. Moreover, contrary to Oklahoma's reputation from past years as a pass-happy team, the Sooners only passed the ball 381 times during the 2019 season. As a result, Lamb has the best touchdowns per team attempt and yards per team attempt of any underclassman receiver in this class. In short, Lamb, like many successful NFL wide receivers before him, was a focal point to his college's passing offense.
Another positive sign for Lamb is that his coaches involved him in the running game as well. Lamb attempted nine rushes in his career -- all recorded during his junior year. That may not seem like many, but any carries at all are a good indicator that the wide receiver's coaches thought the player was a special talent who should have the ball in his hands.
Although not necessarily a knock on Lamb, it's worth noting that no other Oklahoma wide receiver prospect was invited to the combine this year, so Lamb does not get any adjustment for working with talented teammates. It's true that Lamb had to fight Marquise Brown for pass attempts as a sophomore, but Playmaker only uses the receiving numbers from the wide receiver prospect's best season. For Lamb, that was his junior year, after Brown was long gone and catching passes for the Baltimore Ravens.
However, like all draft prospects, Lamb is not a lock to succeed. Lamb had excellent production, but it was not quite to the superhuman level that the very best historical prospects -- such as Randy Moss and Larry Fitzgerald -- reached in college. Still, the numbers think that Lamb is well worth his high projected draft position.
Jerry Jeudy, Alabama
Playmaker Projection: 668 Yards/Season
Similar Historical Prospects: Sammy Watkins, Reggie Wayne
Jerry Jeudy was a reasonably productive wide receiver in college, but his numbers are much more impressive in the context of the absurd amount of receiving talent on the Crimson Tide. In 2020, Jeudy had to compete for passes with Henry Ruggs III, who is also projected to a first-round pick. Amazingly, neither Jeudy nor Ruggs was the receiving yards leader on his own team. Devonta Smith outgained both of them, but declined to enter the 2020 NFL draft and is returning to Alabama for his senior season. The 2019 Alabama Crimson Tide might have had the most receiving talent since the 2000 Miami Hurricanes, which sent Reggie Wayne, Santana Moss, and (one year later) tight end Jeremy Shockey to the first round, with future star Andre Johnson on the bench.
Playmaker does not give Jeudy credit for playing with Smith, but it gives him a sizeable boost for playing with Ruggs. You could argue that it should give Jeudy credit for playing with Smith, but historically no adjustment is necessary for players who have to compete with a potential future draftee for passes. Overall, Playmaker projects Jeudy to be slightly more productive than the average first-round wide receiver.
Justin Jefferson, LSU
Playmaker Projection: 599 Yards/Season
Similar Historical Prospects: Roy Williams, Michael Crabtree
If you only read Justin Jefferson's stat line at LSU, you might think he was far and away the best wide receiver in this year's draft. Jefferson caught 111 passes for 1,540 yards and 18 touchdowns. However, LSU passed the ball 569 times in 2019. After adjusting Jefferson's numbers on a per-play basis, he falls behind both Lamb and Jeudy. His numbers are still good, of course, and they put his projection about 30 yards per season ahead of the average wide receiver drafted in the first round.
Moreover, Jefferson had to compete with Biletnikoff winner Ja'Marr Chase for passes. Chase is not in this year's draft -- he's not eligible until 2021 -- so Jefferson does not get a bump for competing with a talented teammate. However, even if Chase were able to enter this year's draft -- and was projected as a first-round pick -- Jefferson would still fall just short of Jeudy's projection.
Henry Ruggs III, Alabama
Playmaker Projection: 567 Yards/Season
Similar Historical Prospects: Laveranues Coles, Travis Taylor
There is an appealing theory supporting Ruggs' success. Ruggs played in one of the most talented receiving corps in college football history and might have dominated on a team with less competition for passes. Ruggs also flashed big-play greatness, averaging 18.7 yards per catch.
However, the counterfactual is that a mid-first-round pick is a high price to pay for a wide receiver who never had more than 746 receiving yards in a single season. As a junior, Ruggs averaged less than 2.0 yards per team attempt. The most successful wide receiver in Playmaker's data set to average less than 2.0 yards per team attempt in his best college season is Laveranues Coles. Coles is actually a fairly good comp for Ruggs because Coles had to compete with other highly drafted wide receivers (namely, Peter Warrick and Ron Dugans) during his senior year at Florida State. However, after Coles, the record of wide receivers with less than 2.0 yards per team attempt is not good. The second-best is Kenny Stills, and it is downhill from there. Only two wide receivers since 1996 have been drafted in the first-round and averaged less than 2.0 yards per attempt: Cordarrelle Patterson and Travis Taylor. Neither made much of an impact in the NFL (at least, not on offense -- Patterson was just named first-team All-Pro as a kick returner for the third time in his career).
Ruggs' potential upside is intriguing, and his unique situation makes it easy to explain away his low production. However, Playmaker is concerned that Ruggs' production might be too low, even after accounting for the intense competition for passes in Alabama's offense. Overall, Playmaker sees Ruggs as a prospect who belongs in the middle of the first round rather than near the top.
Denzel Mims, Baylor
Playmaker Projection: 469 Yards/Season
Similar Historical Prospects: Michael Floyd, Kevin White
Denzel Mims' receiving production rates somewhere between Ruggs' and Jefferson's. However, Playmaker rates Mims significantly below those two because Mims enters the draft as a senior. Mims had a nice college career, but he simply lacks the dominating numbers necessary to overcome Playmaker's big penalty for exhausting his college eligibility.
Mims' Playmaker Rating might be a bit unfair to him because it assumes that he will be a first-round pick. Draftniks seem split on whether Mims is a first-round prospect or not, and Mims would present much better value in the third round than the first.
Jalen Reagor, TCU
Playmaker Projection: 425 Yards/Season
Similar Historical Prospects: Koren Robinson, Chad Jackson
Jalen Reagor's production was better than Ruggs', but Reagor had much less competition for passes in the TCU offense. Other than Reagor, the most productive wide receiver on TCU was Taye Barber with 372 receiving yards -- a far cry from the dominant wideouts who played with Ruggs at Alabama. Reagor gets a boost because he was heavily involved in the Horned Frogs' rushing offense (he averaged one rushing attempt per game) and because he entered the draft as an underclassman.
Tee Higgins, Clemson
Playmaker Projection: 417 Yards/Season
Similar Historical Prospects: Torrey Smith, Reggie Williams
Higgins has the same issue as Justin Jefferson: his raw numbers look good, but are less impressive when adjusted on a per-play basis. Higgins gained 1,167 receiving yards and caught 13 touchdown passes as a junior.
Tyler Johnson, Minnesota
Playmaker Projection: 288 Yards/Season
Similar Historical Prospects: Deion Branch, Justin McCareins
The most productive receiver in this draft class is not CeeDee Lamb or Jerry Jeudy; it's Tyler Johnson from Minnesota. As a senior, Johnson recorded 1,318 yards with 13 touchdowns. His numbers are even more impressive when you consider that Minnesota only attempted 323 passes in 2019, resulting in an outstanding 4.08 receiving yards per team attempt. To put Johnson's yardage numbers in perspective, only 18 drafted FBS/Division I-A wide receivers hit 4.0 yards per team attempt or higher in their college careers, and most of them were ultimately first-or second-round picks. The most lowly drafted of the group to date is Justin McCareins, who was drafted in the fourth round and significantly outperformed his draft projection. Although Playmaker significantly downgrades Johnson's prospects because he enters the draft as a senior, his outstanding production more than suffices to overcome his upperclassman status.
Johnson fits the profile of a wide receiver who could succeed despite a relatively humble draft position. The typical profile of a successful late-round wide receiver is not a raw height-weight-speed player with little production -- it's a productive college wide receiver whom scouts maybe second-guessed a little too much. Johnson fits the latter description to a T.
That humble draft projection is, of course, the real damper on Johnson's prospects -- Scouts, Inc. projects him as worthy of a pick near the very top of the sixth round. Although there are many famous examples of fifth- and sixth-rounders who become stars, the vast majority of these players either have very short careers or never make it out of training camp. So will Johnson buck the trend and be a star? Probably not. However, his chances are considerably better than most fifth- and sixth-round picks. Even accounting for Johnson's projected draft position, Playmaker thinks Johnson has more than twice the chance of succeeding as a typical fifth- to sixth-round wide receiver -- or roughly the same chance of succeeding as a typical wide receiver drafted in the third round.
What follows is a table with the Playmaker Score numbers for all of the eligible prospects available in this year's draft.
|Top Playmaker Scores, 2020|
|Henry Ruggs III||Alabama||1||567||-39.1|
|KJ Hamler||Penn State||2||416||+4.8|
|Laviska Shenault Jr.||Colorado||2-3||395||+47.1|
|Michael Pittman Jr.||USC||1-2||379||-112.6|
|Brandon Aiyuk||Arizona State||2||370||-41.3|
|Chase Claypool||Notre Dame||2||364||-47.3|
|Isaiah Hodgins||Oregon State||6||260||+157.9|
|Omar Bayless||Arkansas State||6-7||216||+136.4|
|Quez Watkins||Southern Mississippi||6-7||184||+105.0|
|Bryan Edwards||South Carolina||3-4||169||-84.3|
|K.J. Hill||Ohio State||4||151||-65.0|
|Quartney Davis||Texas A&M||5||131||-22.2|
|John Hightower||Boise State||5||121||-31.6|
|Cody White||Michigan State||UDFA||98||+77.5|
|Jeff Thomas||Miami (FL)||7-UDFA||53||+14.2|
|K.J. Osborn||Miami (OH)||UDFA||40||+19.0|
|Ben Victor||Ohio State||7||15||-43.2|
|Chris Finke||Notre Dame||UDFA||2||-18.2|
|Kendrick Rogers||Texas A&M||UDFA||0||-20.6|
|Stephen Guidry||Mississippi State||UDFA||0||-20.6|
|Austin Mack||Ohio State||7||0||-58.2|
|Darrell Stewart||Michigan State||UDFA||0||-20.6|
|Dezmon Patmon||Washington State||UDFA||0||-20.6|
Portions of this article originally appeared on ESPN+.