Receiver Fever: How NFL Teams Should Handle the Position on Draft Day
Maybe it was something as simple as the phrase “diva receiver”, but I have no idea why the song “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls was triggered in my head while I was writing this article. There’s something silky, smooth, and seductive about that song -– even more than a decade after it came out. At the same time, the singers give off an air of danger and volatility; the song is a warning, after all. Nonetheless, it’s a classic pop sensation, and was one of the few that kicked off the pop phenomenon that makes up today’s Top 40 hits.
Similarly, that’s how the wide receiver position appears to most NFL teams on draft day: get one that hits, and it’s amazingly seductive-looking for other teams to draft them highly, even when their physical skills are raw. Teams usually clamor for upside in their receiver prospects, not worrying about the little things like route running or hands refinement. Yet, when all of these come together and you have a slick-moving pass-catcher with soft hands, that’s the kind of top of the pops star a team is aiming for.
We’re going to look at how likely it is to find someone who can just contribute –- backing vocalists, if you will –- as well as “the next big thing” at the wide receiver position once a team is on the clock. What are the telltale signs of success, and where are the pitfalls? How do teams get and cure their receiver fever?
I Want It That Way
We want to know how much teams should invest in their wide receivers in the draft, and the way we’ll do that is by seeing how much each player has produced by their given draft slot. To measure this, I plotted out their Total Net Expected Points (NEP) to help us see just how valuable each was for his team. Net Expected Points is a metric that shows us the number of expected points a player adds for his team both with his receiving work and rushing ability. You can read more about NEP in our glossary.
I put that data side-by-side with each player's round selected in, overall pick, and draft cost per the standard NFL draft evaluation chart, which assigns each draft pick a relative value from 3,000 points for first overall to 0 points for 250th overall. Next, I measured the correlations between each of these draft factors and a player's career Total NEP or average Total NEP over their career. The strongest positive correlation between these factors is actually between the value of the draft pick and the player’s average annual Total NEP, to the tune of 0.557; this indicates a very strong relationship between career production and how early a player is drafted.
This bodes well for our study: if we plot out rounds or even perhaps ranges of picks, maybe we will begin to see a pattern emerge in the data.
Quit Playing Games With My Heart
I wanted to properly measure success, not just with raw numbers themselves, but with value thresholds as well. In order to properly map out success versus value, I assumed an average of four wide receivers in regular use on each NFL roster; replacement level, to me, simply meant good enough to be on an NFL roster. I therefore set a value of 10.28 NEP (the 128th-best wide receiver Total NEP score in 2014) for this threshold. I also wanted to measure the potential for greatness, so I set a threshold for elite production as a top-ten receiver in 2014, or 109.47 Total NEP.
To also understand the “bust rate” of players at such a volatile position, I applied a Non-Factor percentage -- this would be any player that did not contribute any Total NEP in their first year in the league. With receivers, it takes a slightly different meaning that other positions, as a decent amount of these are being “redshirted” for their first season in the league. Still, it helps to provide some context for their production or lack thereof.
With these benchmarks in place, it was time to see how our wideouts measured up by their draft values. My goal was to see the percentage of players in each round that even once reached these replacement and elite thresholds. The table below shows this data by round value.
I expected the results to get worse with each round, but not to this extent. We clearly see that Round 1 receivers have the highest chance of panning out, more than a 25% chance of having at least one elite season, and little chance of totally busting. By Round 3, however, there is very little chance already of an elite season, R-Level% has dropped from the 90’s to just over three-fourths, and the Non-Factor rate has skyrocketed to over one-quarter of the population. By the mid-to-late rounds, there is almost no chance a player will be elite, a chance of less than one-third that they become solid contributors, and more than three out of five receivers will never contribute at all.
This seems so bleak that it’s ludicrous to think we should draft any but early round receivers, but that isn’t the case at all. One way to think of drafting a wide receiver is that late-rounders are never more than flier picks -- you might get something out of them, you might not, but it was a costless gamble if a team wanted to take it. The other upside -- unlike other positions, the receivers have a great amount of relative upside, even in the late rounds. If first-rounders have more than a 25% chance of a top-10 season, that’s a great solidity. There is even a sustained, not-insignificant chance throughout the rounds that you might find an elite diamond in the rough. The receiver position is one you could certain do worse than take a lottery ticket from.
Just as in my running back and quarterback value articles, I want to examine how well the value of spending draft picks on this position works out for teams. By taking the average career Total NEP of wide receivers per round and dividing that by the average slot value for those rounds (per the standard NFL value chart), I was able to come up with a sort of cost-benefit ratio. Essentially, the cheaper the pick you spend and the more production you get from it, the better off you are. If I can get Marques Colston (874.72 career Total NEP) at 252nd overall for draft value cost of 0.0001, I’d much more prefer that to spending the second overall pick with a draft value cost of 2,600 on Charles Rogers (42.14 career Total NEP).
The table below shows this average data in a per-round manner.
Here’s where my speech on late-round cost versus late-round upside really comes into play. You’ll get a lot of production from your elite options, but it comes with a cost too. If you have to spend a late-round pick on a flier option, make it a wide receiver in the 6th or 7th rounds; they may never pan out, but they will be very cost-friendly on Draft Day. Round 7 is highly inflated thanks to both Colston and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, but they are great examples of these kinds of selections that were groomed into stars.
To coordinate a best possible point for teams to select a stud wideout, factoring in reliability (Non-Factor% and R-Level%), potential (E-Level%), and per-cost production (NEP/Value), based on this data, I would suggest bookending with your picks: either pay the premium for elite talent in Rounds 1 or 2, or wait until the end and see what gems fall to the bottom of the NFL Draft. Due to the risk factors becoming so drastic without cost diminishing much from the third to the fifth rounds, it’s a poor strategy to bank on spending mid-round picks on receivers.
General managers should be prepared to take only the ends of the spectrum in the draft: go get your studs, or just lay back and wait. True game-changing talent will cost a ton, but you might get lucky in the lottery with a cost-free late option.