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?

Fantasy managers who stuck with Davante Adams through the tough start to his professional career were rewarded. After scoring just four times during his first two NFL seasons, Adams broke out in a big way in Year 3, catching 75 passes and 12 touchdowns.

Hindsight's in our favor now, but not bailing on Adams early on was a pretty logical move.

He was tied to Aaron Rodgers, so that was a plus. But Adams was also a beast in college. During his Sophomore year at Fresno State, he caught 131 passes for 1,719 yards and 24 touchdowns. Even as a Freshman, Adams' 100-plus receptions and 1,300-plus receiving yards were nuts.

Sure, he had Derek Carr throwing him the rock. He also had skill. He had talent. Wideouts don't accumulate over 3,000 yards receiving in two college seasons just because they were placed in a good situation.

Davante Adams' college production told us that he had a good chance of being a successful pro.

Because how a wide receiver produces at the college level can really help us figure out whether or not he'll be a winner in the NFL.

Defining Success

We know that Adams is a success story, but where do we draw the line? What is it that decides whether or not a player is successful in the NFL?

There are tons of ways to define success. Is it through longevity? Yards? Receptions? Per-target efficiency?

If you were on last week and read a running back article similar to this one, you already know where this is going. We're worried about fantasy football here. Or, at least, I am. So the way we're going to look at success is through that lens: a successful wide receiver is one who's had multiple seasons with 14 or more PPR points per game (minimum 10 games played) since 2011.

Why 14? Because that's usually where top-20 wide receivers land. Is it subjective? Just like the running back study, yes, it's subjective. Our goal here, though, is to find trends, not definitive answers. We're trying to see if there are any production-related concerns with this year's draft class based on how successful fantasy wide receivers performed in college.

Using those parameters, we get 37 wide receivers. There have been 37 wideouts since 2011 to have multiple seasons where they've averaged 14 or more PPR points per game.

These are our studs.

Of those 37, a handful played college football a long time ago, and some didn't even play wide receiver. After removing them from the sample, we get 26 relevant players, or 26 successful fantasy football wide receivers.

This year's NFL combine consists of 48 wideouts. So for today's study, we'll compare and contrast how those 48 individual prospects performed during their final collegiate season versus the 26 successful pass-catchers in our stud NFL wide receiver sample. (For players who played fewer than six games, their most recent completed season was used.)

In sum -- and this shouldn't be a surprise -- the NFL stud sample had much better final-year numbers than this year's draft class.

Statistic Sample Average 2019 Class Average
Games 12.54 11.92
Receptions 81.11 61.85
Receiving Yards 1,178.54 930.13
Receptions Per Game 6.48 5.15
Receiving Yards Per Game 93.86 78.35
Touchdowns 11.07 7.67
Reception Share 31.79% 22.98%
Receiving Yard Share 36.00% 27.12%
Touchdown Share 43.09% 29.54%

What about at the individual player level? Which wide receivers from this year's class had usage concerns? Or scoring concerns? Or no concerns at all?

Usage Concerns

None of the players in our stud NFL sample had final-season reception shares -- the percentage of team catches made by a player -- south of 20.9%. Of the 48 wideouts going to the combine, 15 failed to hit that mark in 2018.

Player Games Reception Share
Terry McLaurin 12 8.86%
D.K. Metcalf 7 9.22%
Terry Godwin 12 9.50%
Johnnie Dixon 13 10.63%
Felton Davis III 6 12.16%
Emanuel Hall 8 13.17%
Mecole Hardman 14 14.46%
Hunter Renfrow 15 14.98%
Darius Slayton 11 15.02%
Jaylen Smith 12 17.14%
Riley Ridley 14 17.77%
Olabisi Johnson 11 17.82%
Gary Jennings 11 18.56%
Jamal Custis 13 18.82%
Emmanuel Butler 9 20.35%

The number of games is listed in the table above because, naturally, a player's reception share won't be very high if he missed a large chunk of games. And games missed is a big reason D.K. Metcalf -- the top wide receiver in this year's class according to many -- appears in the table.

Ole Miss has three receivers who were invited to the combine in Metcalf, A.J. Brown, and DeMarkus Lodge. Brown had the most complete final-season production profile of the three, catching 85 passes for 1,320 yards and 6 scores. He had over 30% of Ole Miss' receptions this past year, while Lodge had 23.1% and Metcalf, as you can see in the table, had fewer than 10%.

Metcalf also only played 7 of a possible 12 games. That sort of explains his low reception share mark. Sort of.

Even if we double his reception numbers, Metcalf doesn't hit the lowest possible threshold among our NFL group. We should probably assume that if Metcalf were healthy, Brown and Lodge wouldn't have as high of reception share numbers, too. So, really, the three of them aren't going to win out in this study.

And that's OK.

As I talked through in last week's running back article, production profiles won't tell us everything, and they certainly won't tell us everything when a player had strong teammates. Here, we have three wideouts -- at least two of them in Metcalf and Brown -- who are projected to be higher draft picks. Of course they're going to hurt one another's market share numbers.

Don't mistake that with it meaning they're without concerns, though. Players with Metcalf's production profile rarely pan out. What if Brown and Lodge aren't very good, meaning Metcalf was losing production to bad players? (For the record, I think Brown is very good, especially if you look at the 2017 season.)

Metcalf, like Alabama running back Josh Jacobs, is a high-variance prospect.

Riley Ridley is a wideout I'm far more concerned about. This past season, Ridley hauled in fewer than 18% of Georgia's completed passes, well below the worst mark in our NFL sample. And market share is going to be friendly to Ridley since Georgia was one of the more run-heavy teams in college football last year. Through his three-year college career, Ridley caught just 69 (nice) passes. Almost 70% of the NFL stud sample had 69-plus receptions in their final collegiate season alone.

So, yes, I'd be nervous about taking Riley Ridley in fantasy football rookie drafts unless he falls to a great situation.

Receiving Production Concerns

The average receiving yard share in the successful NFL wide receiver subset was right at 36%. Just 8 of the 26 wideouts failed to reach a 30% share, and half of those 8 didn't play a full final collegiate season, so it made sense that their receiving yard shares were lower than the norm. Only one player -- Michael Crabtree -- wasn't able to maintain a 25% receiving yards share during his final year.

In this year's class, we've got 20 guys who failed to capture 25% of their team's passing yards in 2018.

Player Games Receiving Yard Share
Terry Godwin 12 12.12%
Hunter Renfrow 15 13.01%
Johnnie Dixon 13 13.32%
D.K. Metcalf 7 13.69%
Terry McLaurin 12 13.96%
Felton Davis III 6 16.78%
Mecole Hardman 14 17.09%
Riley Ridley 14 17.60%
Ryan Davis 13 18.88%
DaMarkus Lodge 11 21.10%
Parris Campbell 14 21.17%
Jaylen Smith 12 21.71%
Gary Jennings 11 21.75%
Olabisi Johnson 11 21.75%
Cody Thompson 13 21.84%
Emanuel Hall 8 22.80%
Nyqwan Murray 12 23.04%
Darius Slayton 11 23.17%
David Sills 12 23.39%
Deebo Samuel 12 24.87% has Parris Campbell as a first- or second-round pick, but his final-season numbers don't back that up. He played every single one of Ohio State's games last season, but still accounted for just 21.2% of the team's passing yards, giving him the 11th-worst share in the class. His production profile really doesn't stand out much at all, even if he's going to be used more as a do-it-all player at the NFL level. He had a 22.8% reception share, and he pulled in 24.0% of the Buckeyes' touchdowns last season. The stud wide receiver subset doesn't include a single player with marks that low across the three categories. If there's a positive for Campbell analytically, it's his 60th percentile breakout age.

Deebo Samuel is another prospect a lot of scouts are into, but his final-season numbers are questionable, too. He didn't hit the 1,000 receiving yards mark, and that was in a South Carolina offense that ranked 27th in pass-to-rush attempt ratio among all FBS schools. That resulted in a sub-25% receiving yard share.

Samuel's situation isn't quite like Campbell's, though. As a Sophomore, he actually had better receiving yard and reception share totals than he tallied as a Senior, albeit not by much. Having that type of production early on in his college career is a good thing, but we still should question why his market share numbers weren't higher this past season.

We're dealing with arbitrary cutoffs in the tables above, but one player who barely met the requirements to not show up in said table was Kelvin Harmon. Harmon, a consensus top receiver in this year's class, finished 2018 seeing about 29% of North Carolina State's team passing yards going his way, while his reception share was just 24.3%. He's coming out as a Junior and had a good Sophomore year, but the only player with similar market share averages in the stud wide receiver sample was Doug Baldwin.

Strictly from a production standpoint, Harmon isn't a safe option. You could make the case that his numbers were dinged having played with a draft-hopeful teammate in Jakobi Meyers, but playing with a good teammate shouldn't force us to ignore potential red flags.

Scoring Concerns

Of the three main market share categories we're looking at today -- reception share, receiving yard share, and touchdown share -- touchdown share has the largest difference in percentage between this year's prospect group and our NFL stud sample. The 26 NFL wideouts had an average touchdown share of 43.1% during their final collegiate season, and that was almost 14 percentage points lower than the average for this year's combine invites.

At an individual level, nearly 85% of our stud sample had touchdown shares north of 30% during their final college season. Exactly one half of the 48 wideouts who were invited to this year's combine hit that threshold.

Player Games Touchdown Share
Hunter Renfrow 15 2.70%
Ryan Davis 13 4.76%
Terry Godwin 12 8.82%
Jaylen Smith 12 10.00%
Nyqwan Murray 12 15.00%
Olabisi Johnson 11 15.38%
Jakobi Meyers 12 16.00%
Johnnie Dixon 13 16.00%
Jalen Hurd 12 18.18%
DaMarkus Lodge 11 19.05%
Mecole Hardman 14 20.59%
Alex Wesley 10 21.05%
Emanuel Hall 8 21.43%
Terry McLaurin 12 22.00%
Marquise Brown 12 23.26%
Darius Slayton 11 23.81%
D.K. Metcalf 7 23.81%
Parris Campbell 14 24.00%
Keelan Doss 13 24.32%
Diontae Johnson 13 25.00%
Riley Ridley 14 26.47%
Jamal Custis 13 27.27%
Kelvin Harmon 12 28.00%
A.J. Brown 12 28.57%

The bottom of the touchdown share list shows Hunter Renfrow, who scored just once for Clemson in 2018. His 2.7% touchdown share is horrific, but it should be noted that he had a 16.1%, 14.3%, and 17.7% share across his first three college seasons, respectively. He's not going to win in that area of the field, but that also means he'll probably have a really low fantasy ceiling at the next level.

One positive with D.K. Metcalf's production profile is in the touchdown column. Despite playing just seven games this past season, he had a higher touchdown share than teammate DeMarkus Lodge, and he scored just one fewer time than A.J. Brown. And as a redshirt Freshman in 2017, Metcalf's touchdown share was 25%. There's nothing wrong with that at all.

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, two players from this year's class make the cut.

Name College Reception Share Yard Share Touchdown Share
Ashton Dulin Malone 34.66% 41.05% 64.71%
Andy Isabella UMass 38.93% 47.48% 48.15%

And they're both small-school guys.

Ashton Dulin went to a college no one's ever heard of in Malone University, and against what's more than likely very weak competition, he dominated. He had a near 65% touchdown share, which is one of the highest marks we've seen a player at the combine have during his final collegiate season. He's listed at 6'2'', 210, so he should have the size to compete at the next level, but it's hard to judge a prospect who competed against teams like Alderson Broaddus and Findlay.

The other wideout above is getting more hype, and that's Andy Isabella. During his final season at UMass, Isabella crushed every market share category, and he's expected to get drafted in April. And his draft potential may get even better after the combine's over -- Isabella could put on a show in the 40-yard dash.

After loosening the parameters a bit -- after all, we don't just want to talk about small-school players who dominated lower-tiered competition -- we get the following:

NameCollegeReception ShareYard ShareTouchdown Share
Ashton DulinMalone34.66%41.05%64.71%
Andy IsabellaUmass38.93%47.48%48.15%
Hakeem ButlerIowa State25.32%42.08%45.00%
N'Keal HarryArizona State29.55%35.97%45.00%
Tyre BradyMarshall29.58%33.79%45.00%
Jamarius WaySouth Alabama30.50%35.06%42.11%

Hakeem Butler and N'Keal Harry are two big production winners in the 2019 class. But Butler's a lot riskier between the two. He's listed at 6'6'', and we don't have a ton of historical success with wide receivers who've been that tall. Only seven wide receivers since 2000 have checked in at that height at the combine, and none of them were NFL successes. We've got plenty at 6'5'', so maybe it's not that big of a deal, but it's still something to watch.

Butler also broke out later than most wide receiving prospects -- his breakout age ranks in just the 30th percentile.

N'Keal Harry is sort of a production dream. He posted numbers immediately as a Freshman at Arizona State, and he had similar market share percentages during both his Sophomore and Junior seasons. Yes, that means his Sophomore season would've also "fit the mold," or at least come close to it. That's bananas.

There are athleticism concerns with Harry, but he -- in my humble, production-loving opinion -- should be the consensus top wide receiver in this class.

We'll see how that changes after the NFL Combine.