Let’s be honest.
Projecting success at the pro level for wide receivers these days can seem a little like this:
There are many reasons why “can’t miss” prospects bust at the wide receiver position, some of which we will cover here. Luckily, however, there are also clear signals that can point to a receiver excelling or even dominating as a pro. You just need to know what to look for in their college and athletic profile.
In a keeper or dynasty league that features a rookie draft, fantasy owners often draft receivers based solely on draft capital. There is some merit to this, but it’s not uncommon for multiple receivers to be selected in the first round of an NFL Draft. Furthermore, receivers bring with them multiple skillsets, making landing spots almost equally as important as draft capital.
Sadly, even relying on draft capital and landing spot isn’t enough. In the last five years, there have been 17 wide receivers taken in the first round. Only Amari Cooper, drafted in 2015, has played in a Pro Bowl. A few, like D.J. Moore and Marquise Brown, could join him, perhaps as soon as this season. But for every Moore or Brown, there are twice as many Josh Doctsons, Corey Colemans, and Laquon Treadwells.
Fortunately, we live in an age of advanced analytics that can provide some filters to weed out prospects with profiles who are more likely to bust once they’re exposed to NFL-level competition, while simultaneously identifying those who are more likely to thrive at the next level. It goes without saying that data, as an instrument, should go hand-in-hand with film-study to build a more complete picture of a prospect that the numbers may not reveal.
That said, film analysis is still rather subjective, and some of the conclusions reached through film study aren’t measurable and quantifiable. Not long ago on Twitter, I witnessed two well-respected film analysts, both of whom I admire, disagree on whether or not a running back prospect (who would eventually be taken very high in the most recent NFL draft) had great contact balance or not, before the discussion quickly turned into a debate on how to even define contact balance in the first place.
In no way does this reduce the merits and value of film study. Instead, it merely illuminates how two sets of trained eyes can see the exact same football movement a player makes and yet draw two different conclusions as to whether or not it constitutes a positive trait in the player’s evaluation.
With that in mind, there are a series of analytical data points, in addition to the film, that one should consider when trying to identify which rookie wide receivers to take in rookie drafts. This 2020 class has been compared to the historic 2014 class in aggregate, as the depth and breadth of talent run deep.
Part One of our rookie wide receiver analysis will focus primarily on age and draft capital. Let’s start with one of the most important, but arguably the most overlooked, indicator of future success at the wide receiver position and its relationship to the most commonly referenced contextual factor.
Breakout Age (BOA) and Draft Capital
Breakout age is best defined as the age in which a wide receiver first achieved a 20% or greater Dominator Rating, a metric which reflects a player’s total team receiving yards and touchdowns – essentially, what the player’s team market share equates to in terms of yards and scoring. The greater a wide receiver’s share of his team’s yards and touchdowns, the greater the Dominator Rating. A “DR” over 20% is considered necessary to qualify as a “breakout”
If a wide receiver never commanded a dominator rating of 20% or greater, it begs the question of why the receiver was unable to command a greater share of the team’s offensive production, regardless of how big or fast he may have been at the time. Conversely, market share can reveal whether a player was truly dominant or whether he was simply the beneficiary of a prolific passing offense with a bloated total number of pass attempts. In such cases, even their or fourth option in an offense may finish with impressive stats. That’s where film study becomes paramount.
Simply put, the best players typically get the ball more often than the mediocre ones, and thus, their market share should be greater. A college receiver who wasn’t very productive does not figure to be very productive against more advanced competition in the NFL. The younger a player was able to “breakout,” theoretically the more legitimate his talent given his ability to thrive against older, more experienced competition. I realize there is a lot of conjecture in that statement, but the numbers prove it’s not entirely baseless.
Dynasty League Football’s Peter Howard has done extensive research on the topic, publishing a substantial database of breakout ages and other metrics used to predict prospect success at the NFL level. Using the 20% dominator rating threshold, he discovered that 18-year-old breakouts held a hit rating (top 24 PPR season) of nearly 40%, while 19-year-old breakouts hit above 30% of the time, and 20-year-old breakouts saw a hit rate of 20%.
The Players will be divided by Breakout age, base don some of the information I'll include in the report, and my upcoming @DLFootball article where I've broken down Hit rates by Draft Round and Breakout Age (there's a trend) pic.twitter.com/ASSRWVr4OW
— Peter Howard (@pahowdy) April 17, 2018
Thus, we know that the younger a receiver comes into his own in college to produce at a high level, the more likely he will be able to do so once he reaches the NFL. Jesse Reeves of RotoUnderworld continued the contextualization of draft capital paired with breakout age and found that wide receivers with a BOA of 19 who get taken in the first round have a 66% hit rate (at least one top-24 season), but that rate drops for 19-year-olds taken in the 2nd round (36%) and 3rd round (21%). Conversely, those with a BOA of 20 taken in the 1st round appear to have a hit rate of 31%, whereas those with a BOA of 20 taken in the 2nd round actually have slightly better odds (38%).
So how can we apply that data to this 2020 class?
First, some outliers. Jalen Reagor and Tee Higgins broke out at age 18 (which is even better than age 19 if you haven’t already guessed). Bryan Edwards is the standout from Round 3 give his unparalleled breakout age (17!!!) and the fact that the Raiders had a Round 2 grade on him and he likely fell only due to injury. Brandon Aiyuk‘s breakout age is technically up for debate:
If you want to disregard community college production, feel free. I imagine Ayiuk truthers out there will still add that feather to his cap and say he “broke out” at 19.
Still, there is one obvious name missing from that table above that I haven’t even mentioned yet. Yes, I’m talking about the first receiver actually taken in the NFL Draft.
Since 2003, 131 WRs have entered the draft process without ever breaking out in college. Only 10 (7.6%) of them have ever gone on to post a top 24 PPR season in fantasy. No matter what way you slice it, Henry Ruggs' career arc is an uphill climb.
— Jesse Reeves (@JesseReevesFF) February 16, 2020
There are a few names missing from that list, which I’ll get to in a minute.
The question you’re probably wondering: where are the rest of the wide receivers just drafted in the NFL who qualify as early breakouts? Here’s the list of receivers with breakout ages ranging from 18 through 21 and beyond, with the round each pass-catcher was taken listed next to his name in parenthesis:
|Age 18||Age 19||Age 20||Age 21+|
|Jalen Reagor (1)||CeeDee Lamb (1)||Michael Pittman (2)||*Brandon Aiyuk (1)|
|Tee Higgins (2)||Jerry Jeudy (1)||Lynn Bowden Jr. (3)||Chase Claypool (2)|
|Bryan Edwards (3)||Justin Jefferson (1)||Joe Reed (5)||Van Jefferson (2)|
|Laviska Shenault (2)||Quintez Cephus (5)||Devin Duvernay (3)|
|KJ Hamler (2)||Tyler Johnson (5)||Collin Johnson (5)|
|Denzel Mims (2)||James Proche (6)||Quez Watkins (6)|
|Gabriel Davis (4)|
|Antonio Gandy-Golden (4)|
|Donovon Peoples-Jones (6)|
|Isaiah Hodgins (6)|
|Jauan Jennings (7)|
Perhaps now you can see why so many have hailed this class of wide receivers as one of the best ever, and why many felt you could find a starting NFL-caliber talent as late as Day 3. Based solely on the breakout age alone, Jalen Reagor has roughly a 38.5% chance of a top 24 PPR season in the NFL, while Aiyuk is staring at 8.9% odds, according to Howard’s model. However, the odds for both go up dramatically once draft capital is added to the equation.
— Peter Howard (@pahowdy) May 1, 2020
Ah, so basically any receiver taken after Round 3 is basically worthless. Is that what you’re saying?
Ok, fine. Perhaps that was a bit too hyperbolic, but you get the point. The majority of the “big dawgs” in the NFL out wide were Day 1 or Day 2 picks.
Of course, even the most astute of analysts would admit that these numbers merely indicate trends and probabilities, but alone in a vacuum, they ignore so many other contextual factors that play a role in a prospect’s success. Coaching, scheme-fit, quarterback skill, off-field history, even other quantifiable variables cause interference.
The fact remains, as excited as a 38.5% hit rate may seem to you when prospect hunting, if I told you that you had a 38.5% chance of driving to the grocery store today without colliding with another vehicle, I bet you’d be less enthused. Breakout age matters. It should be considered, but if a late breakout age can be explained and other factors bolster the case for the player, then trust your gut.
For example, Aiyuk was a late breakout if you want to discount his JUCO production, but his athleticism, production, and size all point to a quality prospect. He goes to the 49ers, a team with a head coach that doubles as one of the best offensive play callers in football. Joining a Super Bowl contender means the young receiver will not be forced to carry the team on his back, and his head coach can scheme him the ball in ways that exploit his strengths and mitigate his weaknesses.
So while the numbers suggest Aiyuk’s chances of success are long due to his late breakout age, they don’t take into account the fortune of his landing spot. On the flip side, Isaiah Hodgins, a 19-year-old breakout, is more than 20% likely to succeed as a prospect than Aiyuk is based solely on breakout age, but Hodgins was a 6th round pick, not a first-rounder like Aiyuk.
Draft capital matters. 19-year-old breakouts CeeDee Lamb and Jerry Jeudy were drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft, but Tyler Johnson and Jauan Jennings were both Day 3 picks, with Jennings lasting until the seventh round before the 49ers selected him.
With draft capital comes opportunity and patience. Teams are more likely to give more practice reps and more chances to higher round picks for a variety of reasons: the investment of draft capital, financial obligations, even stubborn ego if it will justify the pick. Nobody calls a 7th rounder who fails to crack a roster a “bust” for which the front office must answer during sessions with the media.
When we look at the numbers objectively, it becomes clear that the odds are greater a receiver will be successful in the NFL the earlier he was successful in college. The odds are even better when those prospects come with early-round draft capital. It’s no surprise that early production often leads to an early declare when it comes to prospects, which brings us to our next signal.
Junior vs Senior Draft Declaration
The earlier in age a player breaks out in college, the sooner he finds himself on the radar of NFL scouts and GMs. For this reason, players are more likely to declare for the NFL Draft in their junior year if they enhanced their stock enough. This is not always the case, as early breakouts may still return to college for their senior year for a variety of reasons. Nonetheless, there is statistical evidence to support those receivers who declare early are more likely to find success at the next level.
If we examine the success rates of receivers who wait until after their senior year to declare for the draft, the results are… well, see for yourself:
|Year||Senior Bowl WR Invites||Top 24 WRs|
As you can see, history has not been kind to wide receiver prospects who come out their senior year. Most of the time, these receivers have benefitted from more time spent with the starting quarterback in college to build chemistry, while simultaneously being older and more experienced while taking on underclassman defenders. Such will not be the case in the NFL, and these receivers often find themselves overmatched.
Non early declare WRs selected in the 1st Round over the past decade…
Combined two top-24, two 200+ point PPR seasons in a combined 43 seasons played.
— Rich Hribar (@LordReebs) February 11, 2020
Who comprises this year’s senior class for 2020?
|Wide Receiver||Draft Round|
Based on prior precedent extending more than ten years, if we’re lucky, we will see two of those names produce a top 24 WR season in the NFL.
Almost all of the names above taken on Day 1 or Day 2 of the NFL Draft are fantasy prospect darlings in most circles, due largely to their athletic testing and production scores in college.
I can see a compelling case for five or six receivers on that list, but such a result would run contrary to what history has shown us about receivers who come out after their senior year.
Chase Claypool goes to Pittsburgh’s wide receiver factory, but there are major questions about his ability to separate outside. Van Jefferson is a nice scheme fit, but his college production was underwhelming. Denzel Mims has an alpha athletic profile, but he’s raw and many Baylor receivers have historically had trouble adjusting to the NFL. There’s also the “Adam Gase” effect Mims must contend with while in New York.
Most of the rest of them don’t have the draft capital to consider as more than a dart throw. Antonio Gandy-Golden, Jauan Jennings, and Gabriel Davis all landed in perfect scheme fits. Gandy-Golden brings a much-needed big man presence to Washington, Jennings led the nation in missed tackles forced, fitting in seamlessly with HC Kyle Shanahan’s “YAC attack,” and Gabriel Davis looks tailor-made for the type of play-action Buffalo runs. Additionally, all three share the age-18 breakout age to make them highly appealing lottery tickets. Again though, the draft capital suggests their respective team will give them only so much rope, and all three appear buried on the depth chart.
Tyler Johnson had one of the more prolific college careers ever for a receiver, was highly coveted by HC Bruce Arians, and could eventually assert himself as the big slot presence in Tampa Bay. However, he’s rather slow, and he wasn’t even issued a Senior Bowl invite, so that tells you how low the league was on him. Like the previous three names, Johnson could also be buried on the depth chart. In deeper dynasty league startup drafts, these receivers are worth late-round consideration.
While it would be foolish to ignore every name on that list in favor of just the early declare wideouts, it may be prudent to limit your exposure to this senior crop if you have limited draft picks in your rookie draft. If I had to choose three names above with the best chance to achieve a top-24 season at the position, I would probably lean towards Brandon Aiyuk, Michael Pittman, and Bryan Edwards.
Aiyuk was sixth in the nation among receivers in YAC, and he is a perfect scheme fit for what the 49ers want to do with receivers in their offense, getting them the ball in space to take advantage of their elusiveness and run-after-the-catch ability. Many people slept on Deebo Samuel, another senior prospect, in last year’s rookie drafts, and the same may hold true again with Aiyuk. The scheme fit and Kyle Shanahan’s effusive praise combined with the coach’s ability to maximize his players’ skillsets gives Aiyuk a chance to be special. He will probably never be a high volume receiver, but his ability post-catch in an offense where his coach has the chops to scheme him open makes him an intriguing target in rookie drafts.
Michael Pittman was the apple in Frank Reich’s eye leading up to the draft, even going so far as to suggest he was the best receiver in this class, and he’s precisely the type of receiver Philip Rivers frequently targets. Despite being late breakout (20 years old), Pittman possesses a nice blend of production, athleticism, and size to excel at the next level. He’s very sudden for his size, and he understands how to leverage that size to his advantage.
Lastly, Bryan Edwards did not participate in the combine drills due to injury, and he was taken alongside two other receivers in this draft by the Las Vegas Raiders. However, Edwards is the only pass-catcher who profiles as strong X-receiver among the Raiders three picks. A physical playmaker in the mold of Anquan Boldin and Michael Thomas, Edwards has the youngest breakout age I’ve seen on record anywhere, plus draft capital and production to overcome the poor odds that seem to accompany being a wide receiver who declares after his senior year.
You can make arguments for all the others on the list as well. ESPN analyst Louis Riddick loves Joe Reed’s big-play ability for the Chargers. Baltimore’s Devin Duvernay was dominant from the slot in college, and Lamar Jackson led the league in TD receptions completed to pass-catchers in the slot. If there was ever a year where three or more seniors could emerge from the fray to post top-24 fantasy numbers one day at the position… this might be it.
As we’ve discussed, draft capital gives these young receivers the opportunity to succeed. Breakout age provides a notable indicator of the likelihood these prospects succeed. Yet, these tools are just half of what we should consider when evaluating rookie wideouts.
In Part II of this series, we will examine the role that size, production, and athletic testing have in determining prospect success.
(Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire)