I’ll be more enthusiastic about encouraging thinking outside the box when there’s evidence of any thinking going on inside it. – Terry Pratchett
A year ago, Marqise Lee won the Biletnikoff Award as college football’s best receiver. Had he been draft eligible, he would have almost certainly been the first receiver off the board. Sammy Watkins probably would have been the third receiver selected, although he was coming off of a disappointing, injury-prone season that saw him play second fiddle to DeAndre Hopkins. (Jon Moore recently compared Watkins and Hopkins and found they were very similar.)
Fast forward a year and Watkins is gaining steam as a dark horse candidate to go No. 2 overall, while Lee – fresh off of a disappointing Combine 40 time – is widely anticipated to fall into the beginning of the second round. Many of my favorite NFL writers are listing Watkins among the best wide receiver prospects in recent memory and writing Lee off as a probable bust with a low ceiling even in the best case.
Watkins over Lee seems like a rare area where film watchers and metrics guys agree, but should any of us buy this rabid meme? Or are we all focusing on the wrong numbers/tapes?
Raw Career Numbers – Who Does the Box Score Like?
Because Watkins was a superior threat in the running game, I’ve included all plays from scrimmage. You can see that the two receivers are very equal here. You could argue that Lee is slightly more explosive on a per play basis, but his edge on receptions only is 0.6 yards per catch. If there’s anything to break the tie, it would be the far more difficult schedule Lee faced. According to Sports Reference/CFB, USC’s schedules rated 6.22, 5.76, and 3.49, while Clemson’s rated 3.06, 1.14, and 1.18 (higher is better). These are large margins.
Advantage: Small edge to Lee
The Measurables – Who Better Fits the Holy Grail Components?
Both Watkins and Lee are slightly below the average height for “hits” but this is much more problematic for Lee who is 13 pounds lighter than the “misses.” Watkins is about at the weight of hits. Watkins is faster than the 1st round hits, but speed tends to be overvalued in the first round. (The misses were actually faster.) Finally, Watkins is a year younger than the hits, while Lee was slightly older than the misses. Moreover, Lee’s Combine 40 time was fairly disastrous. Before the event, I wrote that he needed to run in the 4.3s to confirm fantasy WR1 potential. He didn’t even get close.
The biggest argument for Watkins is not his size/speed profile, which is decidedly average. And it’s not his on-field production, which we’ll address in a second. It’s his age. Watkins will be very young when he enters the NFL, and he was very young when he authored his best college season as a true freshman. If you believe in Watkins’ talent – and most people do – his age should be considered rocket fuel for his upside projection.
Advantage: Huge edge Watkins
Explosion and Agility – Who Better Fits the Unified Theory of Athleticism?
It seems safe to assume that Watkins is a better athlete when looking at 40 time, but this may actually not be the case. RotoViz has previously demonstrated that the leaping drills tend to help demonstrate explosiveness and are a good secondary metric in judging receiver athleticism. Moreover, neither Watkins nor Lee owns the sort of size/speed profile that renders irrelevant poor lateral explosiveness. Here are their results in those categories.
If experts were a little disappointed in Watkins’ 4.43 forty, they had to be extremely disappointed in his performance in the peripheral drills. A 34-inch vertical is not what you’re hoping to see from an elite athletic specimen. Lee performed much better with a combined Explosiveness Score just below only Donte Moncrief, Tevin Reese, and Allen Robinson.
The difference was even more striking in the agility drills. In a somewhat counterintuitive result, less agile wide receivers score more fantasy points, but that doesn’t mean you actually want your receiver to lack quickness. It simply means that weight is much more important – you’d prefer Demaryius Thomas over Tavon Austin, for example – and bigger prospects aren’t as quick. Watkins is obviously heavier than Lee, but he doesn’t fit the profile of a receiver who will succeed due to height and weight. Speed receivers need quickness, and Watkins didn’t bring that to the table at the Combine. He was far slower than Lee in the short shuttle and finished 19th at the position in the 3-cone.
Recently, Scott Smith developed a metric called the Catch Radius Score which includes height, arm length, vertical, speed, and agility. Average is 200. Lee finished with a 201.3, while Watkins trailed at 193.6. If you’re part of the small minority that believes Lee is the superior athlete, it’s quite possible you’re right. Even with his deficiencies in weight and speed, Lee provides more reason for optimism than Watkins.
Advantage: Solid edge Lee
Career Heat Map – Who Does the RotoViz College WR App like?
This is an area where it gets pretty ugly for Watkins. As you know from the WR Holy Grail article, receivers who are drafted in the first round and go on to meet expectations average a 43.9 Dominator Rating, or average of market share touchdowns and market share yards. Those who miss average 34.6. Watkins final year numbers are below the average for misses. Lee’s final year numbers are also below the average for misses, but when you look only at market share, a strange thing happens. His “disaster” season came in at .29. That’s a virtually identical result to the man who just won the RotoViz WR bracket.
Let’s look at these numbers a variety of different ways.
Final season: Watkins .33 over Lee .29
Best season: Lee .42 over Watkins .35
Worst season: Lee .29 over Watkins .18
Initial season: Watkins .35 over Lee .30
20-year-old season: Watkins .33 over Lee .30
Depending on your model, you could go either way with this information. Age is a very important component of receiver evaluation, so you’d be very justified in prioritizing the three areas where Watkins wins. But that tends to ignore just how much more dominant Lee was on a per game basis. The Fantasy Douche recently did a study focusing on Games Dominated. Here are the numbers for our two players.
|Games Played||Games Dominated||GD %|
This is a truly gigantic gap. In FD’s model that left the two players with similar projections, even though the other variables – final season DR, breakout age, and final season age – all swing decidedly in Watkins’ favor. (RotoViz Staff provided a convincing explanation for Watkins’ sagging DR in his Prospect Report Card.)
Advantage: Large edge Lee.
Watching the Film
One of the many reasons I think watching film can cause more problems than it solves is the effect of priming. The order you watch game tapes on a prospect can make a big difference in how you see that player. The brain quickly forms impressions about what it sees and then it becomes increasingly difficult to avoid fitting subsequent observations into that initial framework. (To be sure, this can also be an issue with statistical analysis.)
Just for fun, I’ve included Marqise Lee’s record-breaking, 345-yard display against Arizona and Sammy Watkins’ epic, screen pass-fueled 227-yard outing against Ohio State. Feel free to check out the two players at their best and decide who you think has the higher ceiling.
Watkins versus Ohio State
Lee versus Arizona
The Final Verdict
The most important components in our models are age, weight, final season DR, and age-adjusted games dominated. These metrics tend to slide firmly in favor of Watkins. Even with his healthy edge in dominating games, Lee still falls short of Watkins in the projections made in that system. Moreover, many will consider draft slot the final big piece of the puzzle, and Watkins should hold a huge edge in that category. The Clemson star should clearly be selected ahead of Marqise Lee in your rookie draft, and he probably has a better NFL future. That said, I believe there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that Lee is actually the superior player. So many teams are desperate for a solid No. 2 receiver that if Lee falls into a good situation on draft day, I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up delivering more fantasy value in both the short and long term.
It may seem like a cop out to rate the two prospects as basically even, but such a conclusion has huge ramifications for a team like Detroit which appears to be considering mortgaging the farm to move up for Watkins when Lee would be available in a trade down.
Of course, even better prospects than either Watkins or Lee will probably be available when Detroit drafts at 42.
Shawn Siegele is the creator of the contrarian sports website Money in the Banana Stand and Lead Writer for Pro Football Focus Fantasy.