Is There NFL Hope for College Receivers with Bad Hands?

Will Kelvin Benjamin become great, or fall on his face? It's all in his hands.

We all know that kind of guy: big, tall, chiseled, handsome, speedy, but still agile and flexible. We begin to dream about “what might be” if somehow we could get our hands on him, if he would stop being such a bad boy, and just show a little discipline and focus - then he’d be a dreamboat.

Sorry. Whoa. I’m talking about football prospects, of course. It’s the time of the year when NFL personnel and fans alike zoom in close on the top college players in the draft and begin to imagine “what might be” for their NFL and fantasy teams. I myself do scouting and evaluation of prospects for fantasy purposes, and one facet of a wide receiver’s game that I am particularly picky about is catching ability. A receiver’s primary job, after all, is to catch the ball, and so I tend to be very critical of receivers coming out of college with a reputation for “bad hands” or a case of the “dropsies."

Yet I’ve received some flak for my critiques of players’ hands, especially in the case of one of this year’s top wideout prospects, Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin. Now, put aside any of the positives about him (he’s a monstrous 6’5”, 240 pounds, and runs a surprising 4.61 40-yard-dash) and any other criticisms (his agility in the three-cone and shuttle scores is poor at best, and he is the oldest underclassman at a 2014 NFL Kickoff age of 24).

I’ve been told that his inability to catch is “coachable” or “fixable”, and that other evaluators project him to do just fine in the NFL. My question to them, and what we’ll examine today: Is bad catching really fixable? Can we just project away a flaw like that because if everything else about him pans out, he could be great?

College Counts

I decided to look at every NCAA Division I pass-catcher (wide receivers and tight ends) drafted between 2006 and 2012 in order to see if their NFL careers were at all affected by their college catching ability. Of the 3,000-plus players who caught a pass at a Division I school in this span of time, only 311 were drafted or signed as undrafted free agents in the NFL. These 311 are the players we’re interested in.

The exercise of mining this data in and of itself was very revealing. For reference, the NFL’s average catch rate over the past decade is 62.5%, and the players selected in the draft had a combined average college catch rate of 63.5% - quite close. For the time being, let’s hold our standards high and consider anything below that average college benchmark as fodder for this study: that leaves us with 235 players.

Now, we don’t want to pin a “bad hands” label on someone for just one fluky bad or injured season. To avoid this, we’ll eliminate any players who had only one “below average” season. This drops our sample size from 235 to 172 players, which means 56.59% of the receivers and tight ends drafted between 2006 and 2012 were truly below-average catchers coming out of college.

Follow me so far? What happens next is pretty startling.

Now that we have our crop of bad-handed college players (172 of them), we want to see how they did in the NFL, right? That’s our big question about Kelvin Benjamin: what will happen once he reaches the big leagues? So, let’s see if history is in his favor.

Taking the Next Step (Or Not)

Next, I plotted out the Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) career arc for each pass-catcher from our sample. Reception NEP is a metric that shows us the number of points a receiver adds for his team on catches only. You can read more about NEP in our glossary.

Right from the start, 30 players in this sample recorded either a zero or negative Reception NEP score. In other words, 17.44% (30/172) of all of these players made no impact, or a negative one, for their teams.

Of the remaining 142 guys, a hypothetical average player was most likely to have a career lasting 2.70 seasons in the NFL, where they accumulate 89.24 Reception Net Expected Points, or 33.05 NEP per season. This 33.05 NEP puts our hypothetical replacement player just inside the top-90 pass-catchers in Reception NEP from 2013. This seems to suggest that the average player with a poor catch rate in college turns out to be, well, average (40.7% of our pass-catcher sample reached this 33.05 NEP threshold once in their NFL careers).

But what are the odds that a player like Benjamin turns out to be more than average? If he’s destined for greatness, being touted as the next Calvin Johnson in the making, can we find out how likely it is that he’ll achieve that?

If, as we established before, the 90th pass-catcher in any given season is about “average”, then we need to look much higher to see the threshold where true greatness lies. Additionally, we don’t just want a flash-in-the-pan if we’re an NFL general manager; we want sustained excellence, so it’s a major bonus if these players crossed this threshold multiple times in their careers.

I set a threshold of the top 20 pass-catchers in 2013 to see how many players in the initial sample surpassed these “elite” annual thresholds. No tight end drafted since 2006 has reached this mark. For wide receivers, it’s barely better: only seven poor-handed players have joined this exclusive club. This gives us a final percentage of 4.07% of all pass-catchers drafted in the last half-decade who had “hands problems” reaching elite status.

The Future of Rock-Handed Receivers

So let’s recap this: of the 172 players we started with, 17.44% never touched the ball in their careers (or had a negative NEP), 40.7% reached an NEP threshold qualifying them as “average”, and just 4.07% became top-level talent.

Now, is it possible that Kelvin Benjamin will turn his catching woes around? Certainly. Is it likely? A 4.07% chance seems to say otherwise, especially when most of the receivers who did correct their catching problems are considered the best in the game (including the likes of Julio Jones, Alshon Jeffery, Demaryius Thomas, and DeSean Jackson). Folks, Benjamin’s college career catch rate was a paltry 59.6%. Calvin Johnson had a 48.1% catch rate, but he is the exception to all rules. The only other near-great receiver who was worse in college was Julio Jones (51.8%).

Benjamin’s ceiling could be that of the aforementioned Jeffrey (who, interestingly, had an identical 59.6% college catch rate to Benjamin), if he finds a coaching staff like Marc Trestman’s Bears who are willing to drill him and force him to focus on his receiving game. It will take a lot of coaching, a lot of time, and a great situation around him to foster that kind of development. Calvin Johnson had no pressure on him because his Lions team was going nowhere for his first few years in the league. The others have great offensive minds coaching them, and have had good NFL quarterbacks throwing them the ball when they broke out.

If Benjamin falls to the back end of the first round, as many project he will, his best fits based on these common factors probably include New England, San Francisco, Carolina, and Seattle. Good-to-great quarterbacks and excellently coached offenses can only spell success for the development of a raw product like Benjamin.

Still, I have major reservations about his future and many others with the “bad hands” tag. Call me pessimistic about incomplete players, but I don’t want to be left waiting by the phone for this “bad-handed” bad boy or any others to come around.