How Important Is the NFL Combine for Wide Receivers?

Does the NFL combine do anything to help us see which wide receivers will succeed and fail at the pro level?

For running backs, winning the NFL combine is sort of like a Major League Baseball team winning a non-divisional game in May. It matters, sure, but there are far more important things -- games -- to worry about.

That, at least, was what was concluded yesterday. The only real event that separated successful NFL running backs from the rest of the field at the NFL combine was weight-adjusted 40-yard dash time (Speed Score), and even that wasn't amazingly significant. College production generally tells us a better story.

At the wide receiver position -- the other one we're most worried about in fantasy football -- the same isn't exactly true: the combine is a bigger deal for the position.

Defining Success

Like we did yesterday, the only way we can find the real impact the combine has for players is by looking at guys who've been successful at the NFL level. We can then compare and contrast those players to see how they performed at the event.

The problem is actually defining what successful means. But, conveniently, that work was already done last week in a piece that looked at college production and how it translates to the NFL.

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.

Now, not all wide receivers in this data set actually participated in the combine -- we're missing numbers from Doug Baldwin, Michael Crabtree, Demaryius Thomas, and Dez Bryant. But we've still got 31 receivers to analyze.

What do their combine numbers look like?

Combine Results

Here's a look at the 31-wideout sample versus the rest of the wide receivers who've participated in the combine since 2005. (For those unaware, Height-Adjusted Speed Score, or HaSS, is a metric coined by Shawn Siegele that normalizes a 40-yard dash time for height and weight measurements. You can read more about it on his site.)

CategorySample Avg.All Avg.
Hand Size9.599.36
Arm Length32.4532.00
40-Yard Dash4.464.51
20-Yard Shuttle4.224.21

Compared to running backs, there's a decent difference between the two data sets, specifically when it comes to a player's weight and his 40-yard dash time. That's why there's such a substantial delta in Height-Adjusted Speed Score.

Among the "successful" group, only two players had a HaSS below 90: Antonio Brown and Jarvis Landry. That shouldn't be all that shocking considering both players are small, and they both ran below-average 40-yard dashes.

What's bigger is that, of the 31 wide receivers, only 7 had a HaSS that was lower than the league's combine average: Emmanuel Sanders, T.Y. Hilton, Randall Cobb, Allen Hurns, DeSean Jackson, and the aforementioned Brown and Landry.

So, bringing it all together, when you're watching the combine this week, take a look at the size of each receiver, and match it up with his 40. A good Height-Adjusted Speed Score could go a long way.