Do Small Hands Doom a Wide Receiver in the NFL?

T.Y. Hilton of the Indianapolis Colts has 8 1/2-inch hands, some of the smallest in the NFL. Can small-handed receivers succeed?

You know what they say about wide receivers with big hands… That they have better catch rates and more offensive value in the National Football League.

Get your mind out of the gutter, readers.

As we rapidly approach the NFL Scouting Combine -- where players will be poked, prodded, scrutinized, and examined down to their cuticles -- we see just how obsessive the NFL gets about figuring out every facet of the players they may be investing millions of dollars in, by selecting to their team in April. We’ve all heard of the 40-yard dash, but the NFL measures player arm length and hand size as well, and there is a massive systemic bias against players with small paws.

But is this a fair prejudice to have? The Seattle Seahawks hit big on wide receiver Tyler Lockett in last year’s draft, despite his having 8 3/8-inch hands. That didn’t stop him from catching a solid 51 of 68 targets (75.0 percent Catch Rate) for 664 yards and 6 touchdowns in his rookie year. Our own Brandon Gdula looked at body size for receivers to see whether this was predictive of success, and the expectation was proven correct. I was inspired to do this similar study to his, just with receivers’ hands as our subject.

Will it be that way with their hand size?

Hand in My Pocket

To explore this, I looked at all of the wide receivers who attended the NFL Combine between 2009 and 2013 (where the most reliable physical measurements are taken) and have accrued at least 120 career targets. We want to assess whether this physical quality will affect a player’s career, not just one season, so I assumed an average of around 40 targets per year and at least three seasons for each player to give us a solid sample size of 64 careers.

I compiled their resumes in this period of time, comparing hand size to a number of statistics, and another metric that helps to illuminate a player’s entire contribution to his team: Net Expected Points (NEP).

NEP is a metric that helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and shows how that player did versus expectation. By adding down-and-distance value to standard box score information, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. If a receiver catches a pass for five yards on 3rd-and-2, it means more to the game than it does on 3rd-and-10, and those plays should be valued accordingly. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

So, with all of this put together, I ran some correlations between hand size and career receiving yards, career receiving touchdowns, and average career Total NEP. Put simply, a correlation of 1.00 means that as one variable increases the other increases (or one decreases and the other decreases). A correlation of -1.00 indicates that one variable increases and the other decreases. A correlation of 0.00 means there's no relationship. Is there a broad statistical relationship between these variables?

Correlation with Hand Size Correlation
Targets 0.16
Receptions 0.17
Yards 0.15
Yards Per Rec -0.14
Touchdowns 0.14
Yards Per Game 0.18
Yards Per Target 0.02
Catch Rate 0.17
Career Total NEP 0.14

Across the board, it seems, there is support for the potential for there to be a correlation between receiving value and hand size in wide receivers. There are very mild -- though nowhere near ironclad -- correlations between hand size and each variable, excepting only Yards Per Target. This is to be expected, though; yards per target can also be heavily influenced by quarterback or scheme tendency.

The strongest correlation is a positive one in Yards Per Game, which suggests that receivers with bigger hands are able to haul in more when we correct for playing time. Interestingly, though, Yards Per Reception has a negative correlation. This also makes sense, however, as the bigger-handed receivers tend to be physical, possession-style wideouts who have high volumes of receptions. This will water down their per-reception yardage, whereas players like Chris Givens or Torrey Smith are lesser-used deep threats (and lower Catch Rates might correlate because fewer receptions will also keep those rates high).

Sure enough, Catch Rate comes in as strong positively as Receptions. This puts us on the right track for confirming our hypothesis.

Bedazzled Fingernails

Now, some don’t realize that correlations can be thrown off by major outliers in the data. For instance, when I started this study, we had plenty of players like  B.J. Cunningham and Marvin McNutt with no career catches and, therefore, no data. 58 of our original 193 wide receivers (before putting in a targets minimum) fell into this category but had a variety of hand sizes.

Interestingly, the average “bust” wide receiver hand size is exactly identical to the “successful” average -- 9 1/3 inches -- but of receivers with 10-inch hands or more, they were non-contributors at about a 27.59 percent rate; receivers with smaller than 9-inch hands busted at a slightly higher 30.30 percent rate.

Still, we had to pare away some of the noise so we could better get at the signal. By splitting our 64 qualified receivers into a top quartile (25 percent), a midrange (middle 50 percent), and a bottom quartile, we can see how hand size correlates in those tiers to NEP.

Total NEP Hand Size
Top 25% 0.23
Mid 50% 0.27
Bot 25% 0.38

It’s always heartening to see a pattern. What we see here is that the lower we go in average annual NEP, the more that hand size matters to determine value within the tier. For instance, in the top tier, we find A.J. Green (9 1/4-inch) is our best performer in this tier, while Alshon Jeffery (10 1/4-inch) is merely middling relative to his peers. In the bottom tier, however, Leonard Hankerson (10 5/8) has a clear leg up on Tiquan Underwood (8 1/2).

When we step outside of this box of players and look at the 75 best seasons in NEP history by a wide receiver from 2009 to 2015, what do we find?

Correlation With Hand Size NEP Per Target
Top 25 0.06 0.20
26-50 0.29 -0.06
50-75 0.19 -0.21

When we split these tiers, we see a similar -- but again mild overall -- correlation between hand size and NEP reflected in the tier breakdown.

The only difference here is that in the top-25 seasons, the hand size is nearly negligible. But as we get lower, it increases in importance by tier. What is compelling, though, is that the per-opportunity NEP rate for the top tier shows hand size as a solidly positive correlation, giving us some distinction based on this physical size for our premier receivers.

With Arms Wide Open

So, what exactly does all of this mean?

No, you shouldn’t run out and buy up every player in your fantasy football leagues with exactly a 9 1/3-inch hand or that you should immediately sell any receiver you own who has  "shrimp forks". But, when looking for elite upside at the wide receiver position, it is better to have baseball mitts to catch with than tweezers.

Not every wideout with enormous hands is going to be incredible on the football field, but this is simply another piece of information to watch carefully this weekend at the NFL Combine.

After all, you know what they say about receivers with small hands… They have to excel in other ways to get solid playing time.