Which Draft Hopeful Wide Receivers Produced Like Studs in College?

By looking strictly at college production, which wide receivers should teams be targeting in this year's NFL Draft?

Players who succeed in the NFL generally produced in college, too.

It's such a simple concept, but when you turn on your television for a little draft analysis, you'll hear more about a guy's hip swivel than his yardage market share during his final college season.

There's nothing wrong with analyzing film -- it's a great and needed way to evaluate a college prospect. There are other, nerdier ways to evaluate, though, too. Data-driven ways.

Again, if we know players who are successful at the NFL level were also good during their college careers, then we can analyze some of the production-related traits that NFL studs share in order to find prospects who fit the NFL mold. So let's do that.

Defining Success

If the title of this article sounds familiar, it's because it was done last season. The 2017 wide receiver class didn't exactly show up on the field this past NFL season, and the college production profiles for those rookies also weren't all that strong. There wasn't a ton of upside in the class, and when there was upside (like with JuJu Smith-Schuster), there were concerns (his production dipped during his final collegiate season).

Last year's study looked to our Net Expected Points metric to help define success, but I figured it'd be a lot more simplistic to just go at this from a fantasy football angle. After all, you're probably reading this article because you're curious about which wideouts can help your fantasy squad.

So instead of looking to define "success" by using a metric that may be confusing at times, I decided to define it by how many fantasy points a player scored. To be more specific, I looked at all wide receivers who've had multiple seasons since 2011 with 200 or more PPR points. That essentially captures most WR1s and WR2s across a single season, and the sample wasn't watered down by dudes who had random outlier seasons. Hitting 200 points more than once showed that the wide receiver was actually a success.

That provided a list of 42 wideouts. But not all of those wide receivers had played recently (Andre Johnson), and some went to small schools (Pierre Garcon). And one didn't even play wide receiver in college (Julian Edelman). After weeding out some of these players, there was a sample of 31 studs.

Here's how the sample of successful NFLers compares to the 2018 class, with the class being defined as wide receivers who were invited to the NFL Combine and also played this past year. All of the averages below are taken from each player's final collegiate season.

Statistic Sample Average 2018 Class Average
Games 12.65 12.45
Receptions 80.23 62.07
Rec Yards 1,177.19 920.57
Receptions Per Game 6.56 5.02
Rec Yards Per Game 93.12 74.17
Touchdowns 10.97 7.95
Reception Market Share 31.27% 23.06%
Yard Market Share 35.89% 26.33%
Touchdown Market Share 42.29% 29.42%

The top-tier NFL wide receivers fared much better in college than the average of this year's class. That should be the least shocking thing you see all day. But which players stand out? Which players have usage concerns? Which players have scoring concerns? Do any players have zero concerns?

Usage Concerns

So, uh, here's the thing: this year's class is filled with red flags from a production angle. Of the 40-plus wideouts who are heading to the NFL Combine, all but four failed to hit the average reception market share (the percentage of receptions within their offense) number reached by our NFL sample.

Name School Reception Share
Chris Lacy Oklahoma State 6.15%
Robert Foster Alabama 6.86%
Richie James* Middle Tennessee State 10.99%
Steven Mitchell Southern California 13.27%
Tavares Martin Washington State 14.37%
Ray-Ray McCloud Clemson 15.86%
DaeSean Hamilton Penn State 17.61%
Equanimeous St Brown Notre Dame 18.13%
Marcell Ateman Oklahoma State 18.15%
Jester Weah Pittsburgh 18.30%
Deon Cain Clemson 18.77%
Jaleel Scott New Mexico State 19.14%
Davon Grayson East Carolina 19.22%
Byron Pringle Kansas State 19.23%
Auden Tate Florida State 19.80%
Dylan Cantrell Texas Tech 20.11%
Jordan Lasley* UCLA 20.47%
Tre'Quan Smith Central Florida 20.56%
Ka'Raun White West Virginia 20.75%
DJ Chark Louisianna State 22.35%
James Washington Oklahoma State 22.77%
Simmie Cobbs Indiana 23.53%
Allen Lazard Iowa State 23.67%
Braxton Berrios Miami 23.89%
Courtland Sutton Southern Methodist 24.03%
Javon Wims Georgia 24.19%
Jake Wieneke South Dakota State 24.81%

*Didn't play the entire season.

One of the most complete prospects in this class from a production standpoint is James Washington, who battled alongside a lot of strong wide receivers in the Oklahoma State offense this past year. That's a big reason that we probably shouldn't be overly concerned with his usage profile, especially considering his receiving yard share and touchdown share within the Cowboys offense far outpaced his overall reception share.

You'll notice that Jordan Lasley is on the list, too, but he also didn't play the whole 2017 season due to a suspension. Lasley actually finished with the third-highest receptions per game rate among NFL Combine invites, and his prorated reception share is closer to 28%, making his usage less of a concern.

There's also Richie James. You'll see his name a lot on these lists, but it's not because he's an unproductive receiver. He just missed time due to a broken collarbone. Prior to 2017, James had 32.13% and 30.09% of Middle Tennessee State's receptions during his Freshman and Sophomore seasons, respectively. His production has been fine.

One guy getting a lot of love is Southern Methodist's Courtland Sutton. You can see Sutton in the chart above, showing off a not-so-great 24.03% reception share in the SMU offense last year, a number far lower than teammate Trey Quinn's 40.28%. While a lower reception share isn't the biggest deal in the world, only five wideouts in the NFL sample hit a sub-24% mark during their final collegiate seasons.

Receiving Production Concerns

We saw the successful NFL wide receiver sample average a receiving yardage market share of 35.89% during their final college seasons, and only two -- Michael Crabtree and DeSean Jackson -- saw yardage shares below 25%.

Only three wideouts who are in this year's NFL Combine hit the 35.89% average, though Alabama's Calvin Ridley was a close fourth. And plenty didn't even hit the minimum threshold of 25%.

Name College Receiving Yard Share
Chris Lacy Oklahoma State 5.22%
Robert Foster Alabama 6.43%
Richie James* Middle Tennessee State 8.88%
Ray-Ray McCloud Clemson 15.26%
Steven Mitchell Southern California 15.38%
Tavares Martin Washington State 17.43%
Dylan Cantrell Texas Tech 18.81%
Braxton Berrios Miami 21.31%
Auden Tate Florida State 21.48%
Equanimeous St Brown Notre Dame 22.14%
Deon Cain Clemson 22.26%
DaeSean Hamilton Penn State 22.72%
Marcell Ateman Oklahoma State 22.85%
Davon Grayson East Carolina 23.22%
Jaleel Scott New Mexico State 24.40%
Ka'Raun White West Virginia 24.97%

*Didn't play the entire season.

The thing about Crabtree and Jackson is that they had other things going for them to combat their lack of receiving yardage shares. Crabtree, for instance, was an elite touchdown scorer in college. He also had a freshman season that was better than his final, sophomore year. And DeSean Jackson has one of the more unique skill sets we've seen from a wide receiver over the last decade with his speed.

A lot of the players on this list appeared on the last one, and some are relatively big names. In more ways than one. Analysts are into Equanimeous St. Brown out of Notre Dame, and had we only looked at last year's numbers (his Sophomore campaign) rather than this year's (Junior), we wouldn't have to talk about him right now. But his production dipped year over year, and while quarterback play surely had to do with some of that, we're also looking at shares within the offense. There's a lot of upside with St. Brown, but his production profile during his final year wasn't all that strong.

Scoring Concerns

Successful NFL wide receivers dominated the end zone in college. It was their home away from home.

Within the sample we're looking at today, the average receiving touchdown market share was 42.29%. The difference between that number and what we're seeing from this year's NFL Combine participants was largest among all market share categories.

Scoring matters.

Six wideouts in this year's class -- well, of the wideouts invited to the NFL Combine -- hit that touchdown share mark. That's reassuring. But there are lots with uninspiring scoring numbers.

Name College Touchdown Share
Chris Lacy Oklahoma State 0.00%
Robert Foster Alabama 3.57%
Ray-Ray McCloud Clemson 5.88%
Richie James* Middle Tennessee State 13.04%
Steven Mitchell Southern California 15.38%
DJ Chark Louisianna State 17.65%
Calvin Ridley Alabama 17.86%
Dylan Cantrell Texas Tech 20.00%
Equanimeous St. Brown Notre Dame 20.00%
Marcell Ateman Oklahoma State 21.62%
J'Mon Moore Missouri 22.73%
Davon Grayson East Carolina 23.08%
Marquez Valdes-Scantling South Florida 24.00%
Michael Gallup Colorado State 24.14%
Tavares Martin Washington State 24.32%
Cedrick Wilson Boise State 26.92%
DaeSean Hamilton Penn State 28.13%
Keke Coutee Texas Tech 28.57%
Jordan Lasley* UCLA 29.03%
Javon Wims Georgia 29.17%

*Didn't play the entire season.

If you had to point to one player as the wide receiver who'll probably be the first off the board in this year's draft, it's Calvin Ridley. His usage and overall production numbers were pretty solid, but things get troublesome in the touchdown department. Among these NFL Combine participants, Ridley actually had the seventh-lowest touchdown share in his offense this past year, and that ranking would've been even worse had Richie James actually played a full season.

For reference, the lowest touchdown share in the successful NFL wide receivers subset was 25.92%. And arguably (probably) the worst player within the dataset, Mike Wallace, hit that mark. Ridley's 17.86% mark is really concerning, but there's some hope in that his Freshman and Sophomore seasons saw a 29.93% and 29.87% mark, respectively.

This study last season pegged Mike Williams with slight scoring concerns (a 26.19% touchdown share), but the difference was that he had no real track record. Ridley does.

Fitting the Mold

If we only look at the average reception, receiving yard, and touchdown shares among our NFL subset and use that as a baseline, one player from this year's class makes the cut.

Name College Reception Share Receiving Yard Share Touchdown Share
DJ Moore Maryland 45.71% 53.25% 53.33%

DJ Moore's
production profile is otherworldly. If we were to place his final season numbers into the 31-player NFL sample, his reception share would rank third, his receiving yardage share would rank third, and his touchdown share would rank fourth.

Not bad.

If we want to be a little more liberal with the restrictions and throw out usage and reception concerns, we get the following:

NameCollegeReception ShareReceiving Yard ShareTouchdown Share
DJ MooreMaryland45.71%53.25%53.33%
Korey RobertsonSouthern Mississippi30.89%35.44%50.00%
Anthony MillerMemphis31.27%33.57%46.15%
Trey QuinnSouthern Methodist40.28%32.33%37.14%
James WashingtonOklahoma State22.77%30.62%35.14%

Now, this clearly isn't the end-all to every single wide receiver debate out there. Utilizing final-year production numbers is just another piece to the puzzle. Film helps. Physical measurements help. Combine results help.

There's just no reason to ignore production because, as we know, successful NFL players were productive in college, too.