Wide Receivers and the NFL Draft

The NFL Draft begins Thursday, and I’ve been taking some time the last few days to study how the draft works. In particular, I’m looking at wide receivers and Combine scores.

This first post, however, will focus on performance alone.

The Amateur Draft is an important piece of team building. Perhaps it’s the most important piece, because teams receive on average eight new draft picks every year and only 53 players are on the team during the season. Trades are still very rare in the NFL, especially involving young players.

When you draft a player, he’s yours for four years. After that, he’s more-or-less a free agent and gets paid based on a combination of experience, expertise and the role he’s expected to play. There are very few important bargains in free agency. You fill holes in free agency; you don’t build a team. And when signing contract extensions after that fourth year, you have to pay the market rate.

To analyze the effectiveness of a draft pick under a hard salary cap, therefore, you should limit your analysis to those first four years. In other sports you can factor in the market and the style of a particular owner. Even the NBA has its “Bird exception” and its “Rose rule” and other odds and ends to turn the cap into something a little different. But in the NFL, the draft gives you that young base that shapes your team.

I chose wide receivers to examine because there’s a simple statistic that defines them quite effectively – at least when applied to hundreds of players over a long period… receiving yards. While you can dig deeper with receivers – adding points for first downs earned in passing situations and for touchdowns – simple accumulated receiving yards are quite meaningful.

The scope of this study is 2001-2014. That’s the last 14 years of receivers who have reached four years of experience. 2001 is a good place to begin a study of the most recent passing emphasis within the game. It was the last year before the eight-division, 32-team format. There were 444 wide receivers drafted during that period – more-or-less evenly dispersed in the seven rounds of the draft with a slight increase in the seventh round.

For each player, I tried to find Combine data (and where that wasn’t available, data from the respective Pro Day). I also tracked total receiving yardage through year four. Eighty-five of these players never caught an NFL pass. The highest of these 0-yard picks (and only second-rounder) was Dexter Jackson, 58th overall in 2008, a shorter (5094) small-college star who ran a 4.37 40-yard dash. Tampa Bay tried him in a few games as a return specialist as a rookie, then waived him late in training camp the following year.

Sixteen of the 444 wide receivers exceeded 4,000 receiving yards in their first four years – all the way up to A.J. Green of Cincinnati with 4,874. Eight of those 16 were first-rounders (five in the top eight picks, including Green), four seconds, two thirds, a fourth (Denver’s Brandon Marshall) and a seventh (Marques Colston of New Orleans). Both Marshall and Colston were drafted in 2006.

In fact, 27 of the 43 receivers who have exceeded 3,000 receiving yards were first-round picks. Part of this is self-fulfilling – you draft a wideout in the first round and you had better feature him in the offense right from the start. But scouting receivers isn’t as hard as scouting quarterbacks and the learning curve isn’t quite as steep, so coaches have a decent idea of who will and who won’t thrive in the NFL.

Average receiving yards by round drafted: 1st – 2,708, 2nd – 1,725, 3rd – 1,139, 4th – 813, 5th – 510, 6th – 340, 7th – 293. I broke down the first round, and while the average tails off noticeably in the last few picks of the round, the sample sizes get too small to provide significant delineation.

I also took a look at how individual teams draft. I did this through assigning a score to every pick based on the expected four-year yardage totals for each round. Every team drafted between 8 and 19 wide receivers during the 2001-14 study period (average of about 14).

The “best” team at drafting wide receivers was Indianapolis by a wide margin. Part of that is likely that the Colts could probably get away with lower receiver skill sets because Peyton Manning was so remarkable. Part was having amazing longevity in the form of Marvin Harrison (before the study) and Reggie Wayne. So Indianapolis was also one of two teams with eight receivers drafted (San Diego – average in quality of picks – was also at eight). Philadelphia, Chicago, Arizona, Jacksonville, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Dallas made up the rest of the top quartile. Minnesota, Tennessee, Tampa Bay, Seattle, St. Louis, Baltimore, Kansas City and (dead last) New England made up the bottom quartile.

Why New England? Perhaps Bill Belichick just isn’t great at evaluating college receivers. He’s a master at seeing low-round (or even undrafted) guys on other rosters who can help, but when he reaches for draftees, it’s not pretty. His highest receiver picks at New England were Chad Jackson (36th overall, second round) in 2006 and Bethel Johnson (45th overall, second round) in 2003. Combined, they didn’t reach 1,000 yards in their entire careers. New England is also the only team in the NFL that has not drafted a wide receiver in the first round in this millennium (Minnesota and Detroit are tied for first at four). You’d have to go back to 1994 and Michigan’s Derrick Alexander to find a Belichick-led team and a first-round wide receiver.

It’s not easy finding effective wide receivers, though. There is an element of lottery to it. Just look at 2008. In addition to Dexter Jackson, nine other wideouts were chosen in the second round. Four others were below 500 yards in their first four years. Four were above average for the round, including Donnie Avery, Eddie Royal, Jordy Nelson and DeSean Jackson. Of the group, only DeSean Jackson (4,085) was above 2,600 yards in four years. No receivers were taken in the first round. But second to Jackson in four-year yardage from that entire 2008 class was Davone Bess, who came out of Hawaii, ran a 4.60 40-yard dash, stood 5097 in height and went undrafted. Scouts seemed uncertain whether Hawaii’s incredible passing game in those days worked because of quarterback Colt Brennan (a sixth-round pick in 2008 who never played an NFL game) or Bess.

To wrap up this first post, I’ll talk about Combine numbers. I’ve tried to accumulate as much information as possible about the Combine tests for wide receivers. However, not all prospects run all of the drills and some information comes from Pro Days and some from the NFL Combine itself. I don’t want to throw out information, but a Pro Day might have more favorable (or less favorable) conditions. In addition, not running a test is hardly evenly distributed. Expected top picks are more likely to skip the tests, not wanting to jeopardize their standing with a poor result. And there’s less information about players unlikely to be drafted.

I have a 40-yard time on 441 of the 444 drafted players, ranging from 4.22 (Jacoby Ford, 2010, a fourth-rounder with average fourth-round production through four years) to 4.78 (Jonathan Smith, a seventh-rounder who accumulated 77 career receiving yards). There’s vertical leap data for 372 players, broad jump for 334, a shuttle drill for 297 and a three-cone drill for 288. In addition, I have height for every player and hand size and arm length for most.

I will start out by saying that 40-yard dash time hardly correlates at all with four-year receiving yard totals, despite a positive 16% correlation with draft position. That’s what we’re up against with any study of Combine numbers. More soon.

Author: Jim Gindin

Founder and Lead Developer, Solecismic Software