Being tall has its benefits. I’m not necessarily a giant, but at 6’1’’, I can reach anything in my kitchen with ease, and can usually see over people in a crowded area. Yes, that’s the definition of a humble brag.
It’s no different at the wide receiver position in football. In fact, being tall while playing wide receiver for a living matters a lot more than it does as an Editor-In-Chief of a sports analytics website. I know – shocking.
Just like I posed in my article yesterday on wide receiver 40 times, the question here is “how much”? How much does height play a role in wide receiver success? Is it overrated? Underrated? Worthless to look into?
Naturally, I wanted to find some answers.
Short Receivers: The Idea
The idea here is simple: wide receivers under six feet tall aren’t as effective on the football field when compared to their taller peers.
I’d say that’s a fairly obvious statement to make. Just like I’m better at getting the crock pot down from the top shelf in the kitchen than my fiancé, Calvin Johnson’s going to have a better time catching passes with a guy covering him compared to DeSean Jackson.
Again, the question isn’t whether or not there’s an advantage – there is. The question is how much of an advantage does a tall wide receiver have compared to a short one?
To scratch the surface of this deep question, I decided to take a look at each drafted NFL wide receiver since the year 2000, filtering out those who were taller than six feet in height. Using this formed group of small wide receivers, my next objective was to see how they performed throughout their careers (and in the case of many, how they’ve performed thus far in their careers).
Like the 40-yard dash study from yesterday, I used numberFire’s Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) metric to judge a player’s overall performance. It’s a much cleaner and accurate approach than looking at yards, touchdowns or receptions, as it looks at down and distance and game situations to measure the point contribution a player makes with his catches. We do have a metric called Target NEP as well, for the record, which looks at how well a player performs on all targets.
For a deeper understanding of our Net Expected Points metrics, check out our glossary.
Since 2000, the NFL has seen 454 receivers selected in the NFL Draft, according to Pro Football Reference. Of these 454 receivers, 104 of them were shorter than 72 inches (six feet). Keep in mind that height data varies from source to source, so that number may be off by a few players depending on where it’s being pulled from.
Nevertheless, roughly 23% (give or take a couple of percentage points) of wide receivers selected in the NFL Draft since the year 2000 have been, well, shorter than me. But they’re much better at football than I am. Well, most of them.
Short Receiver Production
As I mentioned, I wanted to look at how this group of 104 small guys performed by looking at their Reception NEP. Initially, I wasn’t concerned with where the players were drafted. Rather, I just wanted to see how these smaller receivers did on the field.
Before we go on, I should note that I made this group into 105 in order include the most famous small boy in all the land, Wes Welker. He was undrafted, and therefore didn't make the initial group. It wouldn't be right to omit one of the best short receivers in the game, so I included him.
Since 2000, the average wide receiver Reception NEP season has been a little over 39 points. In other words, it would seem like the typical wide receiver (undrafted ones, too) would contribute 39 points for his team when looking at receptions only. However, that average is skewed a bit from the top performances – the median of the data is actually just over 29 points. So for the purposes of what I call an “average wide receiver season”, I used 35 Reception NEP as my mark.
Keep in mind that the average season for a wideout includes data from guys who were hurt, as well as players who only caught a pass or two. But that doesn’t matter – it’s essentially what you’d expect an average wide receiver to score in a given season.
In relation to the short wide receivers, I looked for three things during data collection: number of seasons played, highest Reception NEP season and number of seasons over 35.00 Reception Net Expected Points. To put this another way, the data collection included how many years the wide receiver had played in the NFL (many wide receivers in this group are still playing), as well as his best season and how many years he performed above average.
In total, there have been 320 small wide receiver seasons – seasons where a short wide receiver caught at least one pass – since 2000 among all players who were drafted (and Wes Welker). Some players, like Syndric Steptoe (probably the best name in the history of life), played in just one season despite being selected in the NFL Draft. Others, like Richmond Flowers of Tennessee-Chattanooga, did nothing in the NFL and don’t even have their own Wikipedia page.
Out of the 320 short pass-catcher seasons, 148 were deemed “above average” – about 46.2% of the seasons analyzed involved a receiver accumulating a Reception NEP total of more than 35 points.
I wouldn’t say this is a bad thing, especially when you consider the disadvantage a short wide receiver inherently has on a football field. And moreover, a lot of short wide receivers are drafted later than taller ones (only seven sub-six foot wideouts have been drafted in the first round since 2000, about 12.7% of all first-round wide receiver selections), so it’s clear the talent level isn’t the same as what you’d potentially see from an average receiver.
But something a little alarming was the lack of upside these wide receivers have shown in terms of production. It’s not that they’ve been meaningless to the game of football – it’s that there’s a possibility that, naturally, their ceiling is capped by their unfortunate height.
As I said, I marked down the top Reception NEP seasons by each wide receiver in this 105-person group. The best short wide receiver season since 2000 was Wes Welker's 2011, where he totaled 146.44 Reception Net Expected Points. Steve Smith's 2005 campaign came close, as he contributed 143.33 points through receptions for the Panthers that year.
But Smiff is just one of 10 short wide receivers have hit the 100 Reception Net Expected Points total in a single season over the last 14 years. The others? Santana Moss (best season was 137.04 Reception NEP), Antonio Brown (120.20), Lee Evans (119.38), Greg Jennings (115.32), Laveranues Coles (114.54), DeSean Jackson (109.75), Pierre Garcon (109.62), and Santonio Holmes (109.44).
Moreover, of these receivers, Steve Smith, Greg Jennings, Wes Welker and Antonio Brown are the only ones with multiple 100-plus Reception Net Expected Points seasons. Brown has two, Smith and Jennings have three, and Welker has four. So, in total, there have been 18 instances of a wide receiver shorter than two yards in height hitting 100 Reception Net Expected Points in a single season since 2000. That’s a little over one per year.
Is a 100 Reception Net Expected Points score important at wide receiver? No, it’s rather arbitrary, but as I mentioned in my article yesterday, it’s typically the mark of an elite receiver season. There are usually 10 to 15 wide receivers hitting it each year, and there’s been a total of 190 of these types of Reception NEP seasons over the last 14 years.
These short wide receivers, in other words, own just 9.5% of the high-end, elite wide receiver seasons since 2000. Meanwhile, as I showed earlier, approximately 23% of wide receivers in the league are under six feet tall.
Fantasy Football Impact
Instead of focusing on the actual NFL Draft and whether or not a short wide receiver will be successful in the league, let’s think of this from a fantasy football perspective. Because Reception NEP looks at a receiver’s contribution on catches only, it will often correlate nicely with fantasy success. But unlike fantasy points, Reception NEP data isn’t skewed by odd scoring systems, making it more reliable.
One thing you have to keep in mind here is that I’m not deeming short wide receivers undraftable in fantasy football. However, we’ve seen that there’s an average of just one 100-plus Reception Net Expected Point season from these smaller receivers each year. We've also seen the territory dominated by just a few small receivers, and each of those receivers (outside of Smith) have benefitted from having stellar quarterback play (Brady, Rodgers, Favre, Manning, Roethlisberger)
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be the one trying to find that receiver come draft time.
That’s why I’d have a hard time going in a small receiver’s direction early in a fantasy draft. Typically the height of a receiver is embedded in his performance, and therefore that receiver will have a lower average draft position. But we’re seeing players like Percy Harvin, Antonio Brown, Randall Cobb and Pierre Garcon make a name for themselves, surely resulting in higher costs come draft time.
It’s not as though there are six short wide receivers in the league, and you’re choosing from one of them. There are plenty of them. And personally, I'd rather take my chances with a taller guy who can get separation and not have to rely so heavily on quarterback play and speed.