3 Wide Receiver Prospects Who Won The Combine

Earlier this week, I posted the results of my wide receiver regression tree analysis on what NFL combine measurements and drills, and in which combinations, matter for early career success. I also took those results and identified a handful of current NFL players who fit the athletic profile for success and could be on the verge of a breakout.

We finally have all the measurables for 2016, so it’s time to run this year’s prospects through our combine success model and see who fit the profile for NFL success.

The data set includes wide receivers who participated in the combine from 2000-2013.1 Remember, success in this analysis is focused on paying off somewhat quickly: At least one top-24 PPR year a player’s first three seasons.

First, let’s revisit the combine regression tree for wide receiver prospects:

combine_wrTree_noSSBroad

Unlike the running back prospect tree, the wide receiver tree places a big emphasis on weight, splitting the data set twice – at 208 and 218 pounds. The wide receiver tree also differentiates among big receivers by agility, favoring those with a three-cone time below seven seconds.

Another takeaway from my initial regression tree analysis for wide receiver prospects was the difficultly in finding results that were free of illogical splits. My best guess is that wide receiver athletic profiles are more difficult to model because pure athleticism may have less to do with NFL success for wide receivers than it does for running backs. Research from the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective backs that up.

Let’s see which receivers from the 2016 class check all the boxes.

Big & Agile

Name School Height Weight Forty 3Cone Vertical Broad
Devon Cajuste Stanford 76 234 4.62 6.49 36 123
Marquez North Tennessee 74 223 4.48 6.90 35 123

Devon Cajuste and Marquez North hadn’t made a lot noise heading into the NFL combine, with North a no-show on the most recent RotoViz Scouting Index and Cajuste with an average wide receiver prospect ranking of just 33.2. Both should see their draft stocks rise after displaying incredible weight-adjusted agility.

There have been questions by the larger draft community exactly what position the hefty Cajuste should play at the next level. Either way, we should be excited: he athletically profiles like a successful wide receiver, and Jon Moore has found that weight-adjusted agility is the must-know measurable for evaluating tight end prospects. What tempers my enthusiasm for Cajuste is the lack of progression through his college career. The outsized wideout had his best year, in terms of receiving yards, three seasons ago as a sophomore, and his final-year 383 yards and three touchdowns doesn’t inspire confidence.

North falls perfectly into the “workout warrior” mold: His combine was amazing, but his on-field production fell each successive year. In fact, North’s decision to declare a year early for the draft was met with confusion and skepticism after only accumulating 58 receiving yards in five games during an injury-filled junior year.

Greg Conejo offers some hope for the stud wideout’s NFL prospects in his re-introduction to North. However you look at it, North will test the limits of athleticism’s ability to drive NFL success.

What If They Don’t Ever Play?

After looking at hard at Cajuste and North, I started to wonder if they could truly have that high of a predicted success rate (nearly 50 percent) with such lackluster receiving production. It was then that I realized my regression tree might need to be adjusted to better capture the success rates of borderline NFL prospects. The sample that trained my original regression tree only included combine results for prospects who actually played in the NFL. It’s very possible that players like Cajuste and North never see an NFL snap.

With that in mind, I adjusted my data set to include all combine participants, whether or not they played in the pros. Then, I placed all participants that never set foot on an NFL field into the “no” camp for NFL success.

Here is the refined regression tree:

combine_wrTree_adj

The new tree starts with the same 208 pound cutoff, but then differs substantially. The most successful path includes a few new requirements: broad jump of at least 120 inches and 40-yard dash less than 4.5 seconds. Speed does matter, just not so much for receivers who actually get into NFL action, who presumably have stronger collegiate production.

The Complete Package

Name School Height Weight Forty 3Cone Vertical Broad
Charone Peake Clemson 74 209 4.45 6.96 35.5 122

Charone Peake is the only receiver from the 2016 class that meets all the marks for the 43 percent success leaf. The fifth-year senior destroyed the combine with a sub-4.5 forty, sub-7 three cone, and 122-inch broad jump.

Peake is an intriguing name. The former four-star recruit had trouble staying on the field, suffering knee injuries in his sophomore and junior years. While he was able to stay healthy in 2015, however, his 716 receiving yards and five touchdowns weren’t mind-blowing.

Peake is a prospect that I want to learn more about, and will likely write a fuller post with what I find. Clemson has a hot streak going with its wide receivers entering the NFL (DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins), even those with less-than-thrilling collegiate production (Martavis Bryant). And that’s the beauty of exercises like the regression trees: They don’t give you the answers, but can direct you where to look.

The Speedsters

Name School Height Weight Forty 3Cone Vertical Broad
Will Fuller Notre Dame 72 186 4.32 6.93 33.5 126.0
Kolby Listenbee TCU 72 197 4.35 NA 35.5 129.0
Trevor Davis California 73 188 4.42 6.60 38.5 124.0
Malcolm Mitchell Georgia 72 198 4.45 6.94 36.0 129.0
Cody Core Ole Miss 75 205 4.47 NA 31.5 119.0
Jordan Payton UCLA 73 207 4.47 7.08 34.5 121.0
Sterling Shepard Oklahoma 70 194 4.48 7.00 41.0 123.0

I included this list of speedsters for small-receiver enthusiasts. While the broad split on the lighter wide receiver half looks like overfitting,2 the forty split at 4.5 seconds makes sense. These prospects may not have ideal size for NFL success, but their elite speed gives them a fighting chance. 

Consensus top-10 prospects Will Fuller and Sterling Shepard did nothing to hurt their draft stock, with Fuller posting the best wide receiver 40-yard dash at 4.32 seconds.

  1. We only go to 2013 to make sure that each player had the opportunity to play three years in the NFL.  (back)
  2. Why would shorter broad jumps be advantageous?  (back)