Making the Case for Nelson Agholor as the #2 Rookie WR

In the wake of the first round of the NFL Draft, I updated my wide receiver projection models and was surprised to see Nelson Agholor in a dead heat with Jaelen Strong and Kevin White to be the second-highest projected receiver from the 2015 class. For the record, Amari Cooper is number one and has been for a while. But after Cooper, I think Agholor’s landing spot and talent warrant a discussion about what his ceiling looks like. Obviously there are still many things that need to be resolved, but I think the case for Agholor is too interesting to overlook. Here’s what I mean…

The Environment

Before the draft Kevin Cole created a brilliant guide to assessing WR opportunity across the NFL landscape. In that article, the Eagles ranked as the 12th most favorable landing spot for a rookie. While I agree with Kevin that the Eagles are a good, not great, destination on the surface, I think the situation may be better than we realize. Here’s a quick look at their 2014 season stats:

Eagles depth chart

From that 2014 passing game, Jeremy Maclin is gone, which frees up 143 targets, or 23 percent of the Eagles’ opportunities. Coincidentally, Agholor is VERY similar to Maclin as a prospect, but more on that in a minute. I’d also like to point out that Riley Cooper, who graded as PFF’s worst receiver in 2014 commanded another 95 targets (15.3 percent), which I wouldn’t be surprised to see reduced in 2015. Conceivably, more than a third of Philly’s targets will need to be redistributed in 2015, which could mean immediate and significant opportunities for Agholor. With the opportunity now clearly identified, I suppose the question now is whether or not Agholor is any good.

Small Excellence

One of the objections to Agholor being so highly coveted, at least among the RotoViz community, relates to Agholor’s size. No, he’s not the Mike Evans or Dez Bryant prototype, but as the NFL rules have shifted to favor the passing game, we’ve seen a second archetype of successful receiver emerge, which coincidentally looks a lot like Agholor.

Combing through the top 50 receivers in my projection model, and searching for players with similar size and college usage to Agholor, I come up with this list: Maclin (how convenient), Odell Beckham Jr., Greg Jennings, Golden Tate and Santonio Holmes. A pretty talented cohort, right? And that’s not me just cherry-picking the most successful guys; that’s me picking all the most similar guys.

Jumping into the numbers, I think the first thing to check out are their measurables, since, like Odell Beckham last year, Agholor’s size and workout data is a point of contention in these parts.

WRHtWtFortyBenchVertBroadShuttle3ConeBMISpd Scr
Nelson Agholor72.11984.421236.51254.346.8326.8103.8
Non-Agholor Avg71.11964.411236.71214.196.8827.3103.3
Jeremy Maclin72.11984.4535.51204.257.0626.8101
Odell Beckham71.31984.43738.51223.946.6927.4102.8
Greg Jennings71.11974.4236.51174.186.6927.4103.2
Golden Tate70.31994.4217351204.347.1228.3104.3
Santonio Holmes70.61884.35381264.266.8226.5105
Combine WR Avg72.9201.44.5016.535.3120.34.256.9226.698.2

Basically, if you were to put Maclin, Beckham, Jennings, Tate and Holmes into some kind of Weird Science blender, the resulting product would look a lot like Nelson Agholor.

Perhaps the more interesting matter, however, is whether or not that level of athleticism is actually any good. As you can see on the chart, I included the Combine positional averages for the wide receiver position, which are not that much different than the Agholor comparables. So what gives?

I think if there’s a type of receiver that RotoViz is prone to miss on, it’s a guy like Agholor. It’s not that they’re bad prospects, but they are typically not physically imposing and their on-field attributes show up in nuanced ways. So, while their athleticism is “average”, that is compared to a survivor-biased group. If a player is athletic enough to be invited to the Combine, then he’s probably athletic enough to succeed in the NFL. Where things get really interesting though is with their college production.

The Production

Where Agholor stands out for me is with his age-production profile. Here’s how he compares in the passing game to the cohort:

WR20% MSyd breakout agebreakout MSydF AgeF YPTF msYDSF msTDF Yds/GF TD/GF MSyd PHENOM
Nelson Agholor20.628.921.69.834.130.8101.00.91.747
Jeremy Maclin19.623.620.69.527.631.790,00.92.221
Odell Beckham19.
Greg Jennings20.328.422.39.146.446.6114.51.32.169
Golden Tate20.433.921.411.238.550.0124.71.32.386
Santonio Holmes19.822.221.811.436.

The key takeaways here are that all of these guys broke out at a young age and were significant contributors in their college teams’ passing offense before they could legally buy beer. Also, notice how this group maintained high per-target efficiency in their final season while shouldering a large percentage of the receiving yards. Finally, their quality Phenom Index scores are in line with what 2014’s elite fantasy football receivers were doing in college.

More than just the passing game, what makes this group unique is their dynamic contributions elsewhere on the field. Note that the table below represents career totals.

WRRU attRU ydsPuRt ATTPuRt YdsPuRt AvgPuRt TDKiRt ATTKiRt YdsKiRt AvgKiRt TD
Nelson Agholor7183754014.642444318.50
Jeremy Maclin916684857712385204924.12
Odell Beckham777625579242104424.90
Greg Jennings1892495411124192122.50
Golden Tate31227262871114490920.70
Santonio Holmes3183838510.111942522.40

Even in moderate doses, it’s fascinating that their college coaches deliberately gave these guys the ball on run plays. What I love most, though, is how exceptional these guys were in the return game, each of them scoring at least one punt return touchdown in their college careers. In case you missed it, there’s hidden value in special teams stats.

I’ve written before that I think about NFL success as a three-part equation that hinges on opportunity, athleticism and production. For Nelson Agholor, there’s a real chance that he could see 100+ targets as a rookie. His athleticism, if not elite, is still on par with the NFL’s top smaller receivers. Finally, his college production was multi-faceted, precocious, and significant. Opportunity knocks for Nelson Agholor and if we can see past his non-prototypical measurables, we might find a guy who can challenge Amari Cooper to be the top-performing rookie receiver.

Jon Moore is a contributor at RotoViz and a cohost of Rotoviz Radio – A Fantasy Football Podcast.  Continue this conversation with him on TwitterGoogle+ or Facebook.