What to expect from the 2012 rookie WR class
Whether it's actually true or not, it definitely seems like the breakout of wide receivers is happening at a younger and younger age in the NFL. Consider that Calvin Johnson is probably the best example of a can't miss wide receiver prospect that the NFL has seen since Randy Moss entered the league, and yet Johnson caught less than 800 yards and just 4 touchdowns in his rookie year. Lions quarterback John Kitna actually threw for 4,000 yards that year, so Johnson's production is really something of a head scratcher.
Fast forward to the 2011 season, when both Julio Jones and A.J. Green put up numbers that, on a per game basis, were probably good enough for WR1 or WR2 production in your fantasy league. The fact that Green and Jones came into the league and were immediately very good receivers from a fantasy standpoint has generated a lot of interest in rookie receivers.
But figuring out exactly how interested you need to be in this year's incoming group of receivers is something that probably requires a little study. The first thing that might be worth thinking about is the idea that last year's rookie wide receiver performance might have been an outlier. Here's a graph that shows the average yards/game for rookie wide receivers taken in the first round of the draft.
You can see that 2011's rookie first round picks outperformed prior year first round picks by a healthy margin. The interesting thing to note about the graph is that 2011's rookies aren't even part of a trend. They were a departure from the trend which was basically flat and just bumping along in the 30 yards/game range.
From a macro perspective, it might be reasonable to think that last year's receivers were better than we can expect from rookies most years. But what can we expect specifically from this year's incoming group of WRs?
There are a few ways to answer that question. The first method, and the one that is the most straightforward, is to just use a simple linear regression model that contemplates a receiver's size, speed, college production, and overall draft selection. These are all variables that I have found to be statistically significant in predicting wide receiver performance. Specifically, the most predictive variables are draft position, a receiver's share of his college team's passing yards, and a receiver's touchdowns per game number from college. I use those variables to predict the receiver's share of his pro team's fantasy points in his first three years.
Using this model, the following is how I have this year's rookie receiver's ranked:
|Player||NFL Tm||Wt||40 Time||TD/G (College)||Market Share Yards|
|Draft Pick||Projected (NFL) Receiving Market Share|
The rankings roughly follow the order that the receivers were drafted in, with a few notable exceptions. Perhaps more important than the actual rankings are the projected shares of receiving production in the last column. It probably helps to have some context to understand what I mean when I project Justin Blackmon to score 23% of Jacksonville's receiving fantasy points over the course of his first three years in the league. To get a sense as to what that means, consider that Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson, and Andre Johnson all accounted for approximately 35% of their teams' receiving fantasy points during their first three years in the league. However, that is actual production and it might make more sense to compare this year's rookies to other rookies in terms of their quality as prospects.
Even Justin Blackmon, who I have projected as the top receiver, fits in what I would call a 2nd tier of receiver prospects. Think of the first tier of receiver prospects as being players who have no question marks coming into the league. They are big, they are fast, and they are accomplished receivers. That tier consists of guys like Calvin and Fitzgerald. Below that tier are guys who might be missing one or more requirements to be in the top tier. Maybe it's a big receiver who didn't dominate in college. Maybe it's a guy who did dominate in college, but is average sized. A good example of that type of receiver is something in the range of Roddy White, Reggie Williams or Michael Crabtree. White dominated in college, but at a smaller program. He was also of average size. Williams was a physical specimen, but had been underwhelming in terms of actual accomplishments as a college wide receiver. Crabtree also misses being in the top tier of WR prospects because he caught such an underwhelming share of Texas Tech's receiving yards (about 25%, compared to 40% of more that a top prospect will catch).
So this year's top receiver, Justin Blackmon, fits into a 2nd tier of wide receiver prospects (that includes guys like Reggie Williams, Roddy White and Michael Crabtree). That is not an insult to Blackmon. It just means that he doesn't fit into the group of can't miss prospects who are big and also accomplished. Blackmon is somewhat accomplished as a receiver. His touchdown numbers are excellent. In terms of his share of Oklahoma State's receiving yards, he's actually on the low end of the spectrum for a top WR. Consider that all of Calvin Johnson, Greg Jennings, Hakeem Nicks, and Roddy White caught at least 45% of their college teams' yardage in their final college season. Blackmon's share of OSU yards was just 32%. Additionally, at just 207 pounds, Blackmon is probably about 10 pounds light for what could be considered a big wide receiver. None of this means that Blackmon won't be a good receiver, it's just that it's not guaranteed. I have him ranked as my top receiver among the rookies, but it's not guaranteed that another receiver couldn't outperform him.
Here are some thoughts on the other receivers in this year's class:
- Kendall Wright is barely behind Blackmon. They played basically the same schedule because they played in the same conference. Wright was a little behind Blackmon in touchdowns per game, but was ahead of him in Yards Market Share. Wright is also a little smaller than Blackmon.
- Stephen Hill is a wide receiver that I have ranked highly, but that has the widest range of potential outcomes. Hill is a big and fast receiver who caught a large share of Georgia Tech yards, but unfortunately, that wasn't actually a lot of yards. I wouldn't be surprised to see Hill end up as a Top 10 receiver some day, and I wouldn't be surprised if he was never any good at all.
- A.J. Jenkins rates highly in terms of his share of Illinois' yards. That's a stat that typically goes overlooked (or undervalued) by teams when they draft. Teams tend not to pay a lot of attention to it (i.e. it has one of the lower correlations with draft slot), and yet it has a good amount of predictive value.
- Michael Floyd is a little bit of a puzzle because his junior year was actually better than his senior year. If we use his junior year touchdown total, we get 12 touchdowns, which would address his chief deficiency by my projections. However, I use a player's last year of college as I've found it to be more predictive in general.
- There are two players, Alshon Jeffery and Rueben Randle, that I think we can't really judge based on these metrics. While I haven't found a way to include strength of schedule in my projections because I can't find a way to make it statistically significant, I do think that common sense says that playing in the SEC is going to be more difficult for a receiver than playing in the Big 10. I wouldn't be surprised if either of them ended up as a top receiver in the league and if I had to guess which one it would be, I would say Randle. Randle did catch 39% of LSU's receiving yards and he also looks like the smoothest wide receiver in this year's rookie class.
I use the projections above as sort of a general rule of thumb when I'm drafting teams. I like to keep track of where receivers fall in the spectrum of talent that runs from elite to ordinary. But another thing that I like to do is keep track of who a player might be similar to. You could think of this as an attempt to find a professional comparable for the incoming crop of wide receivers. Let's look at an example to see what I mean.
Comparing Justin Blackmon to Braylon Edwards
|Player||Justin Blackmon||Braylon Edwards|
|TD Market Share||0.49||0.60|
|YD Market Share||0.32||0.48|
Blackmon is reasonably similar to Braylon Edwards based on each player's last year in college. They are also of a similar size and speed. I'm always careful to say that similarity doesn't equal destiny, but I do think it's helpful to think about Blackmon with the Braylon Edwards comparable in mind. To me this is actually a point in Blackmon's favor. While some might worry that Blackmon's yards per catch number was disappointing, Edwards had a similar number coming out of school. While Braylon has probably been disappointing as a pro, his problem was never that he couldn't get open (he just couldn't catch the ball).
Let's look at a few more comparables.
Comparing Kendall Wright to Golden Tate
|Player||Kendall Wright||Golden Tate|
|Market Share of TD||37%||50%|
|Market Share of Yards||36%||39%|
This comparison is probably missing a piece of information that is illustrative of why comparisons can't tell the entire story. Game watchers would generally agree that Golden Tate wasn't a very good route runner coming out of Notre Dame. On the flip side, they would say that Wright is a very good route runner. This goes back to the idea that similarity is not equal to destiny. Sometimes statistically similar guys will not have similar careers. We don't know if Wright and Tate will have similar careers, we only know that they mildly resemble each other based on college numbers.
Comparing Stephen Hill to Kenny Britt, Jon Baldwin, and Julio Jones
|Player||Stephen Hill||Kenny Britt||Jon Baldwin||Julio Jones|
|% of Tm TDs||26%||28%||31%||28%|
|% of Tm Yds||42%||41%||31%||33%|
This is what I would call the "physical freaks, underwhelming achievements" group of receivers. None were dominating in college. A dominant college receiver should catch about a touchdown per game. None of the players in this group caught more than about a touchdown every other game. But they are all big and fast receivers. This group also illustrates the idea that similar receivers could have different outcomes as pros. It looks like Britt and Jones have already broken out, while Baldwin looks much further behind. He was not an efficient receiver at all last year.
Comparing Michael Floyd and Reggie Williams
|Player||Michael Floyd||Reggie Williams|
|Market Share of TD||43%||47%|
|Market Share of Yards||33%||34%|
This might seem like an attempt to denigrate Michael Floyd, but it really is not. The point is that even large receivers who are taken with high draft picks don't always work out every time. Williams never produced more than 700 yards in a season. There is one metric that Floyd and Williams are similar on, that sets them apart from most prospects. They both produced a very pedestrian number of yards on a per catch basis. In order for Floyd to be more similar to other large receivers in his general range of college stats, he would have needed to produce closer to 15 yards per reception, which would have made him more similar to Julio Jones or Dwayne Bowe. Floyd may have a better pro career than Williams did, but as prospects they are reasonably similar.
The result of going through player comparables shouldn't be to decide how a player's career is going to shape up. It should be to give your brain a clue about how you might view that player in the future. For instance, when I look at Stephen Hill, I'm going to be trying to see if he might fit in that Kenny Britt/Julio Jones range. He might not, but I like to give my brain that extra bit of information as context.
I've blown through about 2,000 words and haven't given you a lot of actionable fantasy advice. Just so you don't feel like you've just wasted 10 minutes reading this, here is the actionable advice I have:
- If we saw another year for rookie wide receivers like last year, it would be another outlier, it wouldn't be part of the trend. For that reason I think you look for a maximum of one rookie wide receiver that you think could produce decent fantasy numbers. And the reality is that you might decide that none of the rookie provide the risk/reward you're looking for.
- Of the rookies that will be available to draft this year, in terms of prospect quality, they fit in with a 2nd tier of wide receiver prospects. They are not on par with the group of "can't miss" prospects like Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson.
- Justin Blackmon appears to grade out the best among the prospects. However, he is a guy that I would like to see more of in the pre-season. I'm interested in Blaine Gabbert's progression as a QB and I'm also interested in whether Laurent Robinson will be the actual #1 WR in that offense.
- Kendall Wright could be a fine wide receiver, but I tend to gravitate more towards the big receivers who I think will be good in the red zone. I have enjoyed owning Mike Wallace in the past, but I'm never crazy about his prospects once the Steelers cross the 30 yard line. It's not impossible that Wright could be good in the end zone, it's just that it's usually the bigger wide receivers that actually are effective in that part of the field.
- There was something very interesting to me about Stephen Hill. The thing that I like about Hill is that he fit with a group of wide receivers who have extremely high ceilings. Julio Jones and Kenny Britt have both been responsible for single handedly winning fantasy games in the past. I will definitely be paying attention to Hill during the pre-season to see how involved he is, and whether the Jets offense could allow him to flourish. Remember that he doesn't need a lot of targets to generate a lot of fantasy points. He averaged 30 yards per reception at Georgia Tech. Hill is currently being taken as the 60th WR in ADP. If he ends up starting for the Jets, I'll be taking a pretty hard look at him pre-draft.
- A.J. Jenkins might end up being a better real wide receiver than fantasy wide receiver. He's going into a crowded situation in San Fancisco where they have Mario Manningham, Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss. I guess I have a tough time believing that he will immediately produce good fantasy numbers.
- Michael Floyd is interesting from at least one standpoint. None of these rookies will probably see softer coverage than Floyd. With Larry Fitzgerald on the opposite side of the field, Floyd could be working against favorable matchups all season long. I actually think that it's worth going back and looking at situations where a rookie 1st round wide receiver went to a team with a top veteran, in order to see what kind of production they yielded. That's fodder for another article entirely.
I've spilled a lot of pixels here, but I do think the main takeaway is that last year's rookie wide receivers were probably outliers and you don't need to get as excited about this year's group. It would be a lot more reasonable to expect them to break out in year two or three, instead of be immediately productive as rookies.