Which Draft-Hopeful Wide Receivers Produced Like Studs in College?

By looking strictly at college production, which wide receivers look like they'll be strong fantasy football assets in the NFL?

Fantasy football managers were blessed with a great wide receiver draft class in 2020. Draft analysts thought it was going to be a good one, and despite a pandemic season that saw teams without any preseason games, we saw rookie breakout after rookie breakout at the position.

As tough as the NFL Draft is to nail, we've usually got a good feel for whether or not a particular positional group is going to be strong in an upcoming draft. That feel was there a season ago for wide receivers.

And it's there again this year.

The 2021 wide receiver draft class looks good on paper. Very good. Draft analysts are in love with this new cohort of pass-catchers.

But do the numbers -- does my model -- agree?

The Model

There are a lot of inputs that go into my wide receiver prospect model. It looks at things like breakout age, college teammate strength, draft capital and, of course, production.

The production side is what we'll be concerned about today.

If you were here last week, you may have seen this exact exercise done with the running back position. There are obviously a lot of differences between running backs and wide receivers, but one thing that I've found when prospecting through data is that production matters even more at the wide receiver position than it does at running back. In turn, any production-related numbers are more important.

The wide receiver model looks at three major production categories: best-season receptions per game, best-season touchdown share, and best-season receiving yards per team pass attempt. Each metric is weighed differently, but they all work in unison to create an aggregate "stat score."

The model uses historical player information to help find good prospects, so that means the majority of top wide receivers in the NFL -- the top wide receivers in fantasy football -- were also productive when they were in college within these categories.

So what does that mean for the potential success among wideouts in this year's class then?

The Process

The goal here is to look at a subset of successful NFL wide receivers, see how they performed within the three main statistical categories in college, and use that information to spot gems in this year's group.

How do we define what a successful NFL wide receiver is, though?

Quite simply, I've arbitrarily defined a successful wide receiver as one who's posted multiple top-20 fantasy seasons since 2011. After filtering out some older players and ones who weren't invited to the combine, I got to a sample of 36 wide receivers. Those 36 successful NFL backs are our "studs."

Here's how that sample did, on average, within the three statistical categories mentioned above:

Category NFL Studs
Receptions Per Game 6.78
Touchdown Share 43.84%
Yards Per Team Pass Attempt 3.14

If you're not one who's staring this type of data a lot, then you likely have no idea what this means. So, for context, let's take a look at how these numbers stack up against this year's wide receiver class, which includes all 34 wide receivers currently ranked within's rookie rankings.

Category NFL Studs 2021 Class
Receptions Per Game 6.78 5.97
Touchdown Share 43.84% 34.37%
Yards Per Team Pass Attempt 3.14 2.55

The 2021 class is a good one, but from a college production standpoint, it still doesn't come close to what we saw from dominant fantasy wide receivers when they were in college.

But which players from this year's class look like they belong in the studs subset most?

The Results

Receptions Per Game Concerns

Rather than reveal players who fit the mold best right away, let's take a look at players who have statistical concerns in each category, starting with receptions per game.

At face value, receptions per game clearly will benefit a player who was playing in a pass-friendly collegiate offense. It has signal within this particular model, though, and it's likely because of how it works when paired with yards per team pass attempt, which is more of a market share and efficiency combo metric.

The bottom line: it may not have a ton of standalone value, but it has value within this model. So players who score really low in receptions per game have clear red flags.

As you can see in the table above, the average receptions per game among the stud sample was 6.78. That was nearly a full reception lower within the 2021 class.

There were 10 players within this year's class sample to not exceed the 5.0 receptions per game mark.

Player College Receptions/Game
Dyami Brown North Carolina 5.00
Seth Williams Auburn 4.92
Jaylen Waddle Alabama 4.67
Tamorrion Terry Florida State 4.62
Cornell Powell Clemson 4.42
Dillon Stoner Oklahoma State 4.00
Trevon Grimes Florida 3.45
Nico Collins Michigan 3.08
Frank Darby Arizona State 2.58
Tarik Black Texas 2.27

Dyami Brown is a big play waiting to happen. He averaged 5.0 receptions per game this past year, and that, as you can see, isn't an ideal mark compared to the rest of the class. But he's a big-play receiver who averaged over 20 yards per reception in each of his last two collegiate seasons, which gave him a yards per team pass attempt rate that actually ranked ninth best in our 2021 class sample. In other words, his receptions per game is low, but he made up for it with efficiency. That's necessary in order to not fail within the model.

A couple of spots below Brown on this list is Jaylen Waddle. Someone who prospects with numbers may have a hard time with Waddle, and admittedly, he doesn't look good in my model. But the model is there for guidance above all else, and if draft capital is on Waddle's side, the lack of production profile won't matter much.

The thing is, that lack of production can all be explained away. This isn't another Henry Ruggs situation that we ran into last year, where Ruggs' production was just completely dreadful for a probable first-round pick. There's at least numbers-driven evidence that shows Waddle is a stud. For example, as a Freshman on a team with Jerry Jeudy, Irv Smith Jr., Devonta Smith, and the aforementioned Ruggs -- on a team with multiple first-round talents -- Waddle finished with 45 catches for 848 yards and 7 scores. Waddle's yards per team pass attempt that year was 1.94, a number that wasn't even hit by 11 wide receivers in this year's draft class sample.

Waddle's 2019 wasn't as strong, and then his 2020 season was injury-plagued. But during the 2020 season -- across his four healthy games -- Waddle averaged almost 140 receiving yards per contest. His worst game saw him with 120 receiving yards. He was actually pacing to have a better statistical year than the Heisman Trophy-winning Devonta Smith.

Waddle had four 120-plus yard games across four healthy games in 2020. Henry Ruggs had two of those games across his entire collegiate career.

So, yes, you're going to see Jaylen Waddle's name pop up on these concerning lists. Don't let that sway you: he's the perfect example of why draft capital is still part of the equation in the model.

Touchdown Share Concerns

The stud sample that we're working with had a best-season touchdown share average of 43.84%. That number was matched or exceeded by just 8 of the 34 wide receivers in our 2021 draft class group. There were 12 players who didn't even reach the 30% mark, which was the lowest we saw from any wide receiver in the stud sample.

Player College Touchdown Share
Nico Collins Michigan 28.00%
Damonte Coxie Memphis 27.27%
Dazz Newsome North Carolina 25.64%
Anthony Schwartz Auburn 25.00%
Jhamon Ausbon Texas A&M 22.73%
Amari Rodgers Clemson 22.58%
Cornell Powell Clemson 22.58%
Dillon Stoner Oklahoma State 22.22%
Kadarius Toney Florida 21.74%
Trevon Grimes Florida 19.57%
Jaylen Waddle Alabama 13.46%
Tarik Black Texas 4.00%

You'll see Kadarius Toney's name near the top of a lot of wide receiver rankings this year but, analytically, there's a lot that's lacking. He wasn't an early declare, he doesn't have a strong breakout age, and his production-related metrics are pretty average. He hauled in 21.74% of Florida's touchdowns during his best season within the metric, ranking fourth-worst among the 34 wide receivers in the class' sample. In receptions per game, Toney ranked 12th, and in yards per team pass attempt, he was 22nd.

He's projected to go in Round 1 because of his athletic upside. He's electric. There's no denying that. And if he goes in Round 1, my model won't despise him or anything. But his profile is concerning -- it has red flags -- making him a highly volatile selection in rookie drafts this year.

Yards Per Team Pass Attempt Concerns

The production metric that gets the most weight in my model is yards per team pass attempt. In the NFL stud sample, only one player -- Steve Johnson -- fell below 2.00 within the statistic. Meanwhile, 12 players from this year's class didn't have that high of an average.

Player College Yards Per Team Pass Attempt
Jaylen Waddle Alabama 1.94
Jhamon Ausbon Texas A&M 1.93
Nico Collins Michigan 1.82
Amon-Ra St. Brown Southern California 1.80
Cornell Powell Clemson 1.80
Tyler Vaughns Southern California 1.77
Anthony Schwartz Auburn 1.76
Terrace Marshall Louisiana State 1.74
Dillon Stoner Oklahoma State 1.68
Frank Darby Arizona State 1.61
Trevon Grimes Florida 1.25
Tarik Black Texas 0.79

Terrace Marshall
is another player who needs some context around his numbers. His best collegiate season on the production side came in 2020, where he caught 48 balls for 731 yards and 10 scores. That was accomplished in 7 of a possible 10 LSU games, as Marshall opted out for the remainder of the 2020 season part of the way through.

Marshall's an early declare with a really strong breakout age who had some of the fiercest competition imaginable in college. In 2019, when he was a Sophomore, he played alongside Justin Jefferson, who just broke the rookie receiving record in the NFL, and Ja'Marr Chase, who's one of the best wide receiver prospects we've seen. Despite that, he was able to account for 16.4% of LSU's passing touchdowns two years ago while hitting a yards per team play of 1.18.

Had Marshall played the full season, his numbers would've been much better.

The Studs

It's tough for a player to have a flawless production profile coming out of college. Almost every wide receiver will have a red flag. But if we take the stud sample averages in the three production categories we've looked at today and use those as filters within this class' sample, three players remain.

Name Receptions/GameYards/Team AttTD Share
Devonta SmithAlabama9.004.3754.76%
Elijah MooreMississippi10.753.5654.55%
Jaelon DardenNorth Texas8.223.5467.86%

One of them isn't all that surprising, and that's Devonta Smith. The only concern any of us should have with Smith -- at least analytically -- is his size, but my model cares far less about size at wide receiver than it does at running back. It's a little worrisome that we haven't really seen a player his size dominate at the next level at wide receiver (at least in a while), but we also haven't necessarily seen a player who's accomplished what he's accomplished.

Elijah Moore looks like he could be awesome, too. Aside from doing well in the model's production metrics, Moore also has an elite breakout age. He's likely to play a slot role in the NFL given he, per Pro Football Focus, played just 38 non-slot snaps last season. I'd expect him to excel there, though.

And then there's Jaelon Darden. Darden played at North Texas, so he does get dinged for compiling his profile at a smaller program, but his production was pretty flawless across the board. And, to be fair, he did have offers at bigger programs like Virginia Tech. Draft capital isn't likely to be on his side -- and size isn't, either -- but he's a fun sleeper to follow this season.

Now, like I said at the top, this class is good. It's deep. There are a ton of players from the class that I'd love to have on my fantasy football teams. And not all of those players were analyzed through this exercise.

So if you want more information on the prospect model and this year's draft class, listen to The Late-Round Podcast this week.