In my analysis, I focus mostly on the role of the quarterback. But football is a team sport and quarterback performance can’t easily be separated from the roles of other players. Is the offensive line giving the quarterback time to throw? Is there a running game that forces defenses out of nickel personnel? And is there enough talent at wide receiver to catch the quarterback’s passes?
Bill Belichick, easily the most accomplished head coach in the Cap Era, struggles mightily with wide receivers. If you look at Patriot drafts, they’re littered with receiver busts. For every Julian Edelman at the end of the draft, there are two Chad Jacksons and a Bethel Johnson near the beginning. And he’s hardly alone.
The Detroit Lions had one of the all-time bad number-two overall picks with Charles Rogers in 2003. The following year, it was Roy Williams at number seven, who was a little more effective, but hardly worth the pick. In 2005, they doubled down with Mike Williams at number ten, who did pretty much nothing in his first four years. Undaunted, they struck gold at number two in 2007 with Calvin Johnson.
With other teams, it’s not so dramatic. I’ve tracked wide receivers chosen in the last 16 years, and there have been 25 chosen in the top ten. I’d be generous if I said half of those picks were worth it. In general, about 40-50% of wide receivers picked in the first round become effective starters. That drops to about one third in the second round, so it’s not like teams have no idea what they’re doing in the draft room. It’s just difficult to find good receivers.
How do you even define good? Someone has to take the field, even if a team doesn’t have anyone on the roster worth a darn.
I decided to study the issue. Since every team needs at least a couple of effective wide receivers, what should they look for? Analytics is the buzz word of 2015. Technically, it’s the art of finding meaningful patterns in seemingly random data.
In the NFL, you build through the draft. The annual Scouting Combine gives teams an opportunity to collect data on these players. They use that data, along with interviews and a lot of tape-watching to come up with their best guesses on players worth drafting. And they still miss a lot of the time.
I tried to put together a full list of Combine (and some Pro Day) performances for wide receivers over the 1999-2015 time period. I have heights and weights along with 40-yard-dash times for everyone. Where I could find them, I included vertical jumps, broad jumps, the 20-yard shuttle drill and the three-cone drill. I even have some bench presses thrown in there, and hand size for the last few years.
I would love to have some objective way to measure the Gauntlet drill, or at least a lot of tape I can watch myself and maybe come up with a metric. I’m a big believer in the Gauntlet. In this drill a receiver runs from sideline to sideline, alternating taking passes thrown from his left and from his right. It’s a timing drill, and players need to get into a rhythm. But it’s also a test of hands and a mental test that I think is quite relevant to running routes. I score players not only on whether they can show decent speed getting into their rhythm and making clean catches, but also how much they “cheat” in the drill by slowing down or running on curves so they can gain a tiny advantage in turning to the next throw. Run straight, quickly, don’t drop any balls and you “pass” the drill. It’s very tempting to cheat, but the players who take the Combine seriously do their best not to cheat. And I think challenging yourself by following the instructions is an important mental test in this day and age when agents prepare athletes so thoroughly to answer questions in interviews.
Alas, it’s not easy to find tape from old Combines. So I ran what numbers I could, and now I understand a little better why teams have so much trouble drafting wide receivers.
The best I can do with size and Combine performance is explain maybe (if I work a little harder) one quarter of a player’s potential. That’s lousy.
By far the most important number is a player’s time in the 40-yard dash. Even though they’re running without pads, and Jerry Rice has certainly taught us that raw straight-line speed is not a requirement for NFL success, the 40-time is deservingly the Combine headliner. I found the vertical jump was about half as valuable – more for long-term success than instant success. I found the broad jump was just a little less valuable, but more important for younger players. The three-cone drill had small significance. The shuttle run and the bench press were completely irrelevant.
On the pure size side of the equation, I shocked myself a little. I found weight was maybe a little more important than the broad jump. Receivers need some bulk to get past press coverage – that makes sense. But height was insignificant – correlating to success at maybe 1-2%. In fact, when you consider that weight already includes height (they correlate with each other at 71%) and many really short receivers show up as not having done well simply because they were drafted exclusively to return kicks, I don’t see the value of considering height in any way when I look at a wide receiver.
If nothing else in this study comes back to Front Office Football, that probably will. It makes sense to say that height gives a receiver that added oomph when going up for a competitive ball (as Calvin Johnson so often does), but that’s not a universal experience.
I played with the numbers for a while and came up with a “Combine Score”. That tells me that Donte Moncrief, chosen by Indianapolis in the third round last year, is the best receiver from that draft. So far, he has definitely been worth the pick. But, on the other end of the scale, this metric suggests Jarvis Landry, selected by Miami toward the end of the second round, would be useless. And he had a stronger rookie season than Moncrief.
I come away from this exercise realizing I have a lot more work to do before I can execute analytics in a manner that has any use for the NFL draft. Certainly, I can add variables. I could throw in college performance, competition faced, maybe those elusive Gauntlet tapes. I think that would help. But the simple Moncrief/Landry example illustrates why this is a very difficult task.
Just for grins, the list of top 2015 draftees based on this metric:
1. Chris Conley, Georgia
2. Darren Waller, Georgia Tech
3. Sammie Coates, Auburn
4. Jaelen Strong, Arizona State
5. Kevin White, West Virginia
6. Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri
7. Tre McBride, Willliam & Mary
8. Kenny Bell, Nebraska
9. Ty Montgomery, Stanford
10. Antwan Goodley, Baylor
11. DeVante Parker, Louisville
12. Devin Funchess, Michigan
13. Amari Cooper, Alabama
14. Nelson Agholor, USC
15. Devin Smith, Ohio State
Of this group, White, Cooper and Parker are considered easy first-rounders. Green-Beckham, Strong, Coates, Agholor and Smith possible first-rounders. Funchess and Rashad Green (33rd) had rough Combines and their grades have dropped to rounds 2-3. And will anyone reach to grab Combine stars like McBride, Bell, Waller and Conley, who were expected to be late picks or priority free agents until last week? Oakland loves guys like that.