The 2019 NFL draft is coming and I’m breaking down past wide receiver classes, looking for patterns in production from 2012-2017. Instead of my usual attempts and broad scale context and examples, instead I want to look more specifically and conversationally. This will give us a six-year sample of what wide receiver production looked like, without having to justify every sentence with a graph.
We’re making a model but with words.
So let’s check in on the second season that was – compared to the three or four years before it – part of a wide receiver recession.
The first thing I should say about 2016 is that I got it all wrong. Very wrong. If Tyler Boyd hadn’t come true in 2019 I might never admit 2016 happened. Michael Thomas (and later in the fifth round Tyreek Hill) are the stars of this class (so far). These players look almost nothing like the hits we identified already.
So, that established, what went “wrong” with 2016 and what can we learn from it?
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The “signal” of how players are drafted continues to prove promising. And yet as with 2013 and even 2015, that doesn’t dim the lights on the very best in the class. It’s hard to imagine a higher hit than DeAndre Hopkins, Amari Cooper, or Michael Thomas.
Tyler Boyd is both proof that production helps evaluate good players and the exception that continues to highlight how it can struggle to rank. On the one hand, he’s a fine example of how productive players continue to be better long shots as the first three years pass by. On the other, he’s clearly not been the diamond of the 2016 draft. Boyd has the highest average Dominator we have seen since 2012, and the fourth highest since 2010 (third if you don’t count Dezmon Briscoe who I only have two seasons of data on).
It wasn’t until last year, his third season that Boyd finally managed to live up to some of that college production. However, he did cross the 600 receiving yard threshold in his rookie season.
Up to this point, the most successful rookie we have seen with an average Dominator under 25% is Jarvis Landry followed distantly by Nelson Agholor and Devin Funchess. In 2015, Will Fuller was a fairly productive player who worried me based on fact the height of his Dominator rating failed to meet that mark. Coupled with the hype around his speed, which I typically undervalue compared to most, he was a hard player to accept especially before the draft.
Josh Doctson, Laquon Treadwell and Corey Coleman all looked the part, to various degrees, of NFL wide receivers at the Combine. Coleman especially to my eye. But looking back, the fact they both broke out late and failed to beat the average should have been red flags.
Doctson looked better based on the heights of his overall production but perhaps should have been behind Laquon Treadwell because he was further behind the average. For his part, Treadwell still brought a double whammy of uninspiring total production with a below-average receiving yards average – not to mention an inability to keep up with or catch up with the average as he gained more experience.
Hindsight is fickle, however. Technically Fuller fits the criteria of an underproductive player who has never broken out. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit he has looked a lot better than the others on the field when healthy. Although; it’s easy for me to convince myself that being above the average at age 20 and 21 makes him a better prospect. In the end, his production still led me to be lower on him than most. But the fact he has not yet produced a top-36 PPR season in the NFL is not clear proof it was the right call. Injuries are not predictive so Fuller is hard to place.
That leaves underwhelming but overall positive profiles from Sterling Shepard and Tyler Boyd. And I was all in on Boyd.
Michael Thomas has one of the most unusual production profiles we have seen so far. In fact, you have to go back to Brandon Marshall or Andre Johnson to find another player whose overall production underwhelmed as much as and yet hit in the NFL so hard. And even they had seasons above 40% Dominators in their final year of college.
Without Drew Brees and the draft, I would have completely failed to target Thomas anywhere. Sometimes you get lucky and sometimes outliers happen.
Following on from the lessons I’d learned from past classes, I was excited to draft Leonte Carroo. I’m still hanging on to that “taek”, but it’s fast looking like Carroo was very much an outlier of his own (in the wrong direction).
I think we can happily accept Thomas (with the second most yards for a rookie wide receiver since 2012) as someone who beat the odds. But is there any way to explain Carroo’s current failure or Boyd’s struggle outside of draft spot?
Just Yards: Where the Cream Rises
If I had this class to do over again, I’d either have to make the exact same “mistakes” based on their production or use my knowledge of the future for my own personal gain. Which would be fine by me. What’s’ the point of a little time travel if you can’t place a bet?
To my mind, the hits are not as interesting as the misses from 2016. True, with only two years in the NFL I’m nowhere near done betting on Carroo and Fuller. However, from where we sit right now, the 2016 class seems to be an exercise in how the NFL can bet on the wrong things, especially if they look the part. But it’s also an example of how that can work out.
Treadwell and Coleman both had good all-around NFL traits and measurable from the Combine. But they were borderline productive at best. (It was enough to talk myself into Coleman as the WR1 in the class, so I’m not trying to say there wasn’t anything there. However, I never did jump on board the Treadwell train.)
The NFL is not a developmental league, in my opinion, and players with weaker profiles who have that much expectation on their shoulders (as first round picks) are capable of stumbling. Once that kind of investment has been invested, the NFL seems much more likely to mumble about the player’s “work ethic” or dietary practices. That’s both unfair and something that repeats.
Or maybe their early injuries just sucked at their opportunity more than other prospects. (Not Treadwell, he was healthy and just didn’t earn targets.) But through the last two classes, DeVante Parker, Josh Doctson, Breshad Perriman, Will Fuller and Corey Coleman have all seemed to struggle with an injury of some sort, from hamstring strains to foot fractures. Zooming in has its problems but even going back to 2000, it was hard to find a first player – let alone series of them – through successive classes to be this held back due to injury.
Ultimately the two best prospects from 2016 have been a second-rounder with poor-to-average college production and a fifth-rounder (Tyreek Hill) who basically had nothing to his name but a very bad back story and “light the world on fire” speed. Betting on either of those things leads to a lot more misses than hits.
The 2016 class taught us that production can fail to highlight any of the best players in a class – at least sometimes. But it also teaches us that in those cases, the hits rarely look like one another. One of the outliers had a full but poor college career by comparison to the average of good NFL players but was more talented than that. The other had to develop without too much on his plate too soon as and ended up playing more games in a row at the position in the NFL than he ever did in college. Neither are going to be mistaken for the other walking down the street or in a foot race.
Draft capital matters. But sometimes the wrong opportunity can kill.
Next up is the 2017 class. Wish me luck on the journey as there are still a few sharks in this ocean and the water line is starting to get shallow the closer we get to the beach.
See you there and thanks again for checking out this series!