Over the last three years at DLF, I have charted key wide receivers entering the NFL draft. You can find last year’s version here for reference. Also, for more information on how AIR scores are calculated, here is the original article via Eric Hardter.
While I looked last year more at age and the impact on AIR scores, I will take a different approach for this version. My charting can all be found here for the 2016 season, which includes (currently) 27 wide receivers who entered the draft (and four who didn’t). What follow will be a breakdown of my findings and who stands out as a result.
2016 Target Data and AIR Scores
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Let’s start with two pieces of data which are hard to find: player targets and subsequently, their AIR scores.
[table id=105 /]
Let’s start with the AIR scores. Typically, I look for a 1.20 score or above as a threshold, unless it is a small school prospect. In those cases, I hope it is a little higher to account more for factors that can skew the score. Some of those include:
- Inferior surrounding receivers – Since the calculation is comparing a player’s production relative to their teammates, a good player on a mediocre team should over-index higher than those on better teams.
- Role pigeonholing – Even the good teams are guilty of this. A wide receiver is their best option in short or deep field and are relegated to only that part of the field. Deep field exclusive options see higher AIR scores since their yards per target/catch increase (think Devin Smith).
- Level of competition – While I am not a big believer in downgrading or upgrading a prospect based on their competition, it can influence their raw statistics. That includes a receiver playing against a backup cornerback due to an injury or changes in personnel as a result of the next bullet point.
- Game flow – This can manifest in several forms. The classic “garbage time” scenario not only increases pass rate, but impacts completion rates and depth of targets. The inverse is true as well when a team is leading by a large margin, especially in college.
Let’s look outside just the AIR scores for a moment. Clearly, Zay Jones’ 220 targets is an eye popping number. For context, Freddie Barnes is the only other receiver to eclipse 220 targets since 2005. If you’re not familiar with his work, consider yourself a person with a life. Any time a target number is that large (his team target share was 40%!), it means shorter routes, increased attention, a usually a deflated AIR score.
Another surprising number to me is Dede Westbrook’s 78% catch rate. For a player who is such a vertical threat (15 of his 17 touchdowns came from 20+ yards), it is an unusually high number. Part of that is due to Baker Mayfield, a quarterback who has a 68% career completion rate. However, Westbrook doesn’t get enough credit for being a sure-handed receiver, a rarity with deep options like him.
2016 Red Zone Performance
While I understand these numbers can fluctuate greatly given their sample size limitations, I believe they also speak to a team’s willingness to leverage their skills in the area where it matters most. Not every receiver is built to be a red zone option, but we have seen players like Randall Cobb redefine the archetype for a successful option inside the 20.
[table id=106 /]
The first item that jumped out to me was five of the top eight red zone target accumulators were players from smaller schools. This makes sense given those players were the best options by a significant margin. That makes Kenny Golladay’s eight targets a disappointment, especially considering he is 6’4” and 218 lbs. He did have some responsibilities in the run game, even in the red zone, so Northern Illinois did try to be creative with his usage.
There are also suppressed numbers from SEC receivers who had large/talented runners. Ardarius Stewart, Josh Malone, Malachi Dupre/Travin Dural all managed eight or fewer targets. Add in Dede Westbrook as another player who contended with a strong run game in the red zone. Meanwhile, Chris Godwin, playing with arguably the top running back from the 2018 class (and maybe in all of college football) still saw 13 targets in the red zone including six inside the 10 yard line. Granted, none of these receivers are physical, contested catch options but seeing them cede opportunities does show that landing spot will determine their red zone upside more than others.
After charting these receivers across 2016 and examining the plays and subsequent results, here are my thoughts on who I shifted in my rankings:
Josh Malone, WR, Tennessee – Malone has consistently remained in the late third to early fourth round rookie draft conversation. He is a straight line player with a lot of size (6’3″, 208 lbs) and it showed with 34% of his receptions going for 20+ yards (tied for first with Westbrook). He had nearly 40% of the team’s passing touchdowns and over 30% (31.4%) of the team receiving yards despite just 17.9% of the team’s targets and only six of those coming inside the red zone. At that point of a rookie draft, he is worth a shot as a guy capable of big plays and maximizing his target opportunities.
Josh Reynolds, WR, Texas A&M – Reynolds had the highest AIR score (1.73), which was buoyed by his insane 48% share of the team’s pass touchdowns, a result of 23% of his receptions going for a score (highest in the class). However, he did all this despite Speedy Noil and Ricky Seals-Jones, two well regarded receivers, competing for share. Reynolds’ price tag as a mid-third round rookie pick is fair and he could be a player who rises above his NFL draft slot.
Ardarius Stewart, WR, Alabama – Another player who outperformed a talented corps, Stewart stood out among a group that included Calvin Ridley and O.J. Howard. He ended up with 35% of the team’s receiving yardage and 42% of the passing touchdowns on about 26% of the team’s targets. Considering that low red zone target rate and good (but not elite) big play rate (20+ yard receptions) of 26%, Stewart could be a versatile threat for a team. That’s easily worth the mid-third rookie pick needed right now.
Others: Chris Godwin, Carlos Henderson
Isaiah Ford, WR, Virginia Tech – I struggle with Ford. His AIR score (0.91) is extremely low for a player who was clearly the best receiver on the team. The high target count contributed to the subsequent stats and he did have an average rate of big plays (20%), which helped the cause. That said, he caught a low percentage of passes (58%), well below the team average (64%), and only had five red zone touchdowns despite 18 targets (including just 3 for 10 inside the 10 yard line). His testing was largely disappointing and for me, there is a lot of projection needed to envision a successful scenario for a late second to early third round rookie pick. Pass.
John Ross, WR, Washington – Ross has injury issues outside of his 2016 performance that have me worried, but let’s keep this simple. His big year was nice, buoyed by a ton of red zone targets (34), but he struggled against Alabama in the playoffs and had as many games below 30 yards (three) as he did 100 yard games. Ross’ big play rate (15%) was largely a result of a weak-armed quarterback, but his situation makes it hard to know who he is as a receiver. That to me, is something I’d rather pay a second round price for than a late first.
Mike Williams, WR, Clemson –The size is great (6’4”, 219 lbs) but he came out average in a lot of ways. I like the big play rate (24%) especially considering what we have seen from Deshaun Watson. What I don’t like is poor success inside the 10 yard line (3 for 12), below average team target share (22%), and an inability to maximize those targets into yardage (27.3%) or touchdowns (24.4%) as a share of the team’s passing totals. The counting stats look great but that’s a function of a high volume offense. What I wanted to see is him stand out to cement himself inside that initial tier of six. He didn’t do that.
Others: Zay Jones, Ishmael Zamora
That will do it for this analysis. Obviously, what I have shared is not comprehensive to create your player rankings. I hope it helps though. Share below players you agree/disagree with or if you want me to add someone to the shared spreadsheet, let me know!