Which Draft-Hopeful Wide Receivers Produced Like NFL Studs in College?
Becoming the best of the best doesn't happen by chance.
Though that sounds like a corny inspirational quote from a tear-off calendar, I mean it. People who are good at their jobs -- people who have found success in something they do -- usually worked their way to become good at that something. Sure, sure -- things are inherited, I get it. But the majority of folks who are brilliant at what they do got there gradually through work, not by chance.
That includes athletes. Specifically, NFL players. Specifically, NFL wide receivers.
It's rare to find a successful professional wideout who produced little at the college level. Impossible, even. And that tells us something important: for a receiver to be good in the future, he has to also be good in the past.
Just as we did with running backs last week, the goal here is to look at successful NFL wide receivers and see if there are any commonalities between how these success stories produced in college. We can then use these shared production metrics to see who, within the incoming draft class, has got a high chance of succeeding at the NFL level.
The issue is that defining "successful wide receiver" is subjective and difficult to do. Is a successful wide receiver someone who can handle a lot of volume? Is it a player with great hands? With great blocking ability?
From that problem alone, it's very clear that a study like this is nothing more than an initial look at this year's young crop of wide receivers. (In other words, please don't set my Twitter mentions ablaze because your favorite wide receiving prospect didn't match somewhat unscientific criteria.) But, hey, let's move forward with this anyway.
One way to measure success -- and one way we do it here at numberFire -- is through our Net Expected Points (or NEP, which you can read about more in our glossary) metric, which shows the numbers of real points a player adds for his team versus expectation. We can look at NEP with receivers in a lot of different ways, like by how many points a guy is adding on all targets, on just catches, or even per target.
To keep things simple, we'll dig into Reception NEP, which looks at points added on catches only. Because a catch rarely will yield negative expected points, that means Reception NEP numbers are always high -- a lot higher than running back Rushing NEP totals, for instance. But that's fine, because we're looking within the context of only wide receivers. No big deal.
The other thing Reception NEP helps us capture is volume. Generally speaking, we should expect good wide receivers -- top wide receivers -- to see a lot of targets. If they're good, they'll get volume. And the more volume, the higher Reception NEP.
So, I gathered up the top Reception NEP producers since 2005. That was Step 1.
Step 2 in setting the parameters for a "successful wide receiver" was to make sure longevity was considered. For instance, a player who played a lot of NFL seasons will accumulate a decent amount of Reception NEP (as long as he's usually on the field), but that doesn't make him successful. Neither does a wide receiver who had just one good Reception NEP season.
As a result, I subjectively chose wide receivers who averaged 60 Reception NEP per season (an above-average total) who also played at least three seasons (I really wanted to include the incredible 2014 wide receiver draft class in the data set).
In summary: we're looking at wide receivers who played at least three NFL years since 2005 while averaging 60 or more Reception Net Expected Points per season. That's how we're defining a successful wide receiver.
That produced 35 wideouts with FBS data.
How similar were the 35 wide receiver production profiles in college?
In short: very similar.
Looking at only their final year of school before going pro (for Dez Bryant, I used his last healthy season), here's a look at the 35 wide receiver sample's averages in major college production categories:
|Market Share (Tgt)||29.57%|
|Market Share (Yds)||36.32%|
|Market Share (Rec)||31.93%|
|Market Share (TD)||40.65%|
Like I said, becoming the best of the best doesn't happen by chance. Successful NFL wide receivers were -- you guessed it -- really good at producing at the college level.
Among the 35-player sample, there were two players -- A.J. Green and Eric Decker -- who played fewer than 11 games in their final season. (I mentioned Dez already, who played just three games.) Decker ended up having the lowest target market share (19.74%) as a result, but the numbers for the two of them didn't skew the larger sample all that dramatically.
Aside from Decker, the lowest target market share of the bunch came from Kenny Stills, who's arguably the worst wide receiver analyzed in the sample. His share was 21.54% during his last season at Oklahoma. And only Marvin Jones (OK, maybe he's the worst wideout of the crew -- I promise the sample includes studs) saw a touchdown market share below 25.00%.
Players of Concern
Let's use this information and see what it means for the 2017 class, looking at players who have concerning production profiles.
(Players selected to analyze were taken from WalterFootball.com's top wide receiver prospects.)
|Name||Games||Rec||Rec Market Share|
It's no shock that Speedy Noil has the lowest reception market share (percent of completions that went to a receiver) of the 43 incoming wide receivers analyzed, as he played just 7 games. But he also declared early for the draft after a season of just 21 catches (2.33 per game) and could easily go undrafted.
JuJu Smith-Schuster is an interesting prospect given his production during the 2015 season -- his Sophomore year -- was a lot stronger than his Junior year. Things changed within the team's offense, but there are certainly some red flags when you consider his reception market share went from 28.80% to 23.03% in 2015 to 2016.
Remember, the average successful wide receiver in our sample had a reception market share of 31.93% during their final season. And the lowest mark, 20.53%, was barely below Smith-Schuster's 2016 share.
Receiving Production Concerns
|Name||Games||Yds||Yds/G||Yds/Rec||Yd Market Share|
This is the second chart in a row where we see Damore'ea Stringfellow, and while he's got an elite name, there are definitely questions surrounding his potential to be an elite NFL wide receiver.
For reference, no player in our sample saw a receiving yardage market share total below 21%, meaning every guy in the chart above would be breaking some sort of mold to be a successful NFL wideout. That, again, includes Stringfellow, who could be drafted as early as the second day if a team likes his size enough, or if he kills the NFL Combine.
|Name||Touchdowns||Touchdown Market Share|
A player everyone is talking about is Mike Williams, who, among this year's draft class, is probably best at making contested catches. That seems like it would translate to scoring, but that wasn't exactly the case in 2016, as he scored 26.19% of Clemson's passing touchdowns (despite finding the end zone 11 times).
I can't reiterate enough that this doesn't mean Williams is destined to fail at the NFL level. Within the successful wide receiver sample, though, only 3 of the 35 wideouts saw a touchdown market share as low as Williams', and one of those players was Randall Cobb, who wasn't close to a traditional pass-catcher in college.
Fitting the Mold
If we look strictly at the reception, receiving yard, and touchdown market share averages from our successful NFL wide receiver sample, only two wideouts actually make it through the filter.
|Name||Yd Market Share||Rec Market Share||TD Market Share|
One of these is not like the other.
Corey Davis hits on every market share metric -- he's someone who's been praised by plenty of draft analysts during this pre-draft process, and he's projected to be one of the best wideouts in the class. This just confirms that he's a really good prospect.
Jalen Robinette is not Corey Davis. He played in a run-heavy offense at Air Force that featured a ton of play-action passes, which definitely helped his numbers. But he's also built like a top receiver with great size -- a good showing at the NFL Combine could go a long way.
No one's saying he'll be a stud, but he's also a really fun and intriguing prospect.
If we were to be a little more liberal with the parameters -- subtracting 3% from each average -- here's a look at a few more guys who fit the market share molds.
|Name||Yd Market Share||Rec Market Share||TD Market Share|
To anyone who's dug deep into this year's wide receiver class, these names should be a bit surprising. But this tells just part of the story -- we still have the NFL Combine next week.