Re-Examining Wide Receiver Size and Production

Everyone has an opinion on wide receiver size and expected production, but what do the numbers have to say?

Debate centering on the prognostic properties of wide receiver size will never subside.

Anybody skeptical of the empirical data that suggested wide receivers 6'2" or taller and at least 215 pounds and heavier can simply point out Antonio Brown's 2014 campaign and anecdotally annihilate the numbers.

However, numerous studies have been done on this topic, and most seem to agree with a basic tenet: wide receiver height and weight does correlate positively to "success" in whatever was being studied (Net Expected Points (NEP), fantasy points, touchdowns).

JJ Zachariason concluded that, entering the 2014 season, roughly one wide receiver per year shorter than 72 inches (6'0") would finish with a Reception NEP greater than 100.00 -- roughly top-15 numbers for the season. In 2014, 14 receivers hit that threshold. Six were shorter than 72 inches, and if you include Jeremy Maclin (listed at 72 inches, per Pro-Football-Reference), then half of the top-14 in Reception NEP were six feet or shorter.

Does this change everything we know or thought we knew? Or did we never know anything at all?

A Study

I've been aware of the wide receiver size studies, but I decided to conduct my own analysis before reviewing others (which I know is backwards). I wanted to avoid any biases on how other studies were done or what they examined.

I gathered up data on the receivers who caught at least 32 passes in a season in the past three years (2012 to 2014). It's not deep historically, I know, but it yielded 245 unique seasons to examine. I also know 32 is an arbitrary number, but I figured 2.0 receptions per game wasn't much to ask. For each season, I gathered relevant NEP data and raw stats and found correlations between size -- height, weight, and body mass index (BMI) -- and these measures of production.

I also then examined the correlation between touchdowns scored and these size measurements as well.

The Results and Analysis

Naturally, there were a lot of results to examine, so I'll just have to hit you with a big long chart and then explain later. A correlation of 1 means that as one variable increases the other increases (or one decreases and the other decreases). A correlation of -1 indicates that one variable increases and the other decreases. A correlation of 0 means there's no relationship.

Again, this chart indicates correlations among 245 receivers who have caught at least 32 passes in a given year between 2012 and 2014.

Reception NEP0.290.320.13
Target NEP0.120.150.07
Reception NEP/Tar0.180.11-0.07
Catch Rate-0.23-0.150.05
Rec Successes0.200.270.16
Rec Success Rate0.300.19-0.09

I don't want to infodump this big chart on you and follow it up with more results, so I'll add analysis at this point, moving down the list.

Right out of the gate, these correlations are pretty mild. We don't see that height and touchdowns have a correlation of 0.90 or anything absurd, but given the information, we can still make some cautious assumptions.

Age is basically a non-factor, but the negative correlation does indicate that as age is lower, players are taller, meaning that young wideouts are likely to be taller than their older counterparts. Again, it's a very, very small relationship though.

Receptions, targets, Reception NEP, and Target NEP are most strongly correlated with weight -- not height (and especially not BMI). However, per-target NEP favors the taller receivers than the heavier ones, and that will become clearer by the end of the table.

Catch Rate, which is just receptions divided by targets, doesn't favor taller receivers, which makes sense anecdotally. 13 of the top 15 seasons in terms of Catch Rate came from players 6'0" or shorter, and the two that didn't came from players 6'1": Kenny Stills in 2014 and Earl Bennett in 2013.

Reception Successes, the number of receptions that add positively to a team's NEP, favor heavier wide receivers by a smidgeon, but this basically suggests that heavy, tall wide receivers see more opportunity and that, when they do convert, the theoretical sticks get moved. On the other hand, Reception Success Rate, the percentage of receptions moving the NEP sticks, favors taller wide receivers to heavier ones. The difference here is that Reception Successes favor heavier, possession wide receivers, but the rate stat (Reception Success Rate) values less frequently targeted taller players, who likely add more yards downfield per reception.

That was actually an on-the-fly hypothesis of mine before generating the correlation for yards per reception, and the hypothesis is supported by this. Further, weight has a stronger correlation with yards per game (0.28) than with yards per catch (0.15), so the idea of heavier players as possession guys is further supported.

Touchdowns are pretty much equal between height (0.26) and weight (0.28), but there is definitely a positive correlation, mildly suggesting that bigger players scored more touchdowns during the past three seasons. In terms of per-target or per-reception stats, height seems to be a better indicator than weight, but again, these findings are quite tame.

More Results

With players such as the 6'6", 214-pound Kris Durham in the mix, skewing data (sorry, Kris, I'm sure you're a really good guy!), I wanted to break things down just a bit further and measure the correlation between Reception NEP and size but in a tiered manner.

Here are the results of the correlations between tiers of Reception NEP leaders.

Reception NEPTop 2526-5051-7576-100

Well. The 25 best seasons in the last three years (the top 10% of the 245 seasons) favor tall and heavy wide receivers, those who can both score touchdowns and rack up yards. After those top 25, the smaller wideouts (slightly) maintained the middle of the list, from season 26 to 75. Why was the top so skewed? 13 of the 15 best Reception NEP scores came from players 6'2" or taller. Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders both had top-15 Reception NEPs from this year.

If we're talking absolute, elite production, your best bet is more than likely a tall wide receiver, and a heavy one, too.

If you want touchdown talk, I have that, also.

Here are the average measurements of the players within certain touchdown tiers based on touchdowns scored in a single season. In parentheses are the number of players in the given tier.

Average Measures10+ TD (30)7-9 TD (37)5-6 TD (50)< 4 TD (128)
Height (Inches)74.5073.4672.9872.34
Weight (Pounds)214.00205.92202.54199.47

The average double-digit touchdown scorer was 6'2.5" and 214 pounds in the past three years. Height and weight decline in each subsequent tier. Compounding this, Denny Carter found that the top-12 composite receiver from 2009 to 2013 would have been about 6'2" and 213 pounds.

Not much separates the players with 7-9 touchdowns from the 5-6 crowd, but it's pretty evident that bigger players score more often than their shorter, lighter counterparts.

Same Old Story

It's hard to deny that wide receiver height and weight correlates positively to on-field production. This doesn't mean that every tall prospect is a sure thing, and it doesn't mean that Antonio Brown isn't awesome.

These correlations were, in reality, quite mild, but examining the top tier of touchdown scorers and Reception NEP seasons, bigger is better -- or at least it has been for the past three seasons.

If you want to focus on the elite at the position, and if you want to invest a first-round fantasy pick on a wide receiver, your best bet is to go with the taller, heavier player than the shorter player.