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Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green, and the Quest for Elite First-Round WRs

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WRs have become my obsession. I wake up in the middle of the night to find myself in a cold sweat, shivering and screaming, “Market share! Market share!” The NFL Draft can’t come soon enough.

Most recently I’ve written a piece on Stedman Bailey’s NFL prospects, in addition to two pieces here and here on T.Y. Hilton and a piece on Stephen Hill. Further, RotoViz’s Shawn Siegele and I have also engaged in a war of perspectives regarding Cordarrelle Patterson’s NFL prospects: Here are my original piece, his fantastic response, and my counter. Soon I plan to release what will likely be my final WR piece before the draft—my presentation of the most undervalued receiver in the 2013 class, “Marshall Colston.”

Finally, I’m in the middle of a five-part series that considers the value and production of first-round WRs (the first three parts can be found here, here, and here), and the present article is Part 4 of the series.

To catch you up—near the end of the third piece, I said this about first-round WRs and their likelihoods of achieving top-30 finishes, that is, becoming startable: “Based on the performances of first-round WRs since 1978, if one of these players is going to produce a top-30 finish, the odds are two-to-one that he will do it within his first two years—and the odds are three-to-two that a third-year first-round WR yet to produce a top-30 season never will. And for fourth-year first-round WRs in similar circumstances, those odds are three-to-one. Translation: ‘Danger, Will Robinson.’ The myth of the third-year WR breakout would have you believe otherwise, but if you are betting on any given third-year WR finally to produce, even if he was a first-round selection, you’re probably betting against the house while wagering dollars in the hope of winning quarters.”

Here’s where I want to start. What I wrote at the end of Part 3 sounds bad, doesn’t it? Just wait. It gets worse—sort of.

But, first, to work you into it, allow me to give you some statistics that mean absolutely nothing. How about this?—within the a five-year timeframe, what are the percentages of first-round WRs (from 1978 to 2007) to record a top-30 performance in any given year? What are the odds that a first-round WR will be a top-30 player in his first year, second year, and so on? Here is a table providing the answers.

Y1 T30% Y2 T30% Y3 T30% Y4 T30% Y5 T30%
25.53% 38.26% 40.18% 40.91% 33.65%

As the table indicates, if you are going to bet blindly on a first-round WR producing a top-30 year in any given season, the fourth year is the one to choose—but when only 40.91% of such bets pay, you’re better off not gambling in this way. Still, if you draft a first-round WR, knowing the odds of him producing in any given year makes sense.

More importantly, perhaps you would like to know what percentage of first-round WRs produce more than one top-30 season. So would I. Realistically, one top-30 season in five years is not great. We hope for more. How many of these guys have two top-30 seasons? Three? More? For the 104 first-round WRs from 1978 to 2007, here is a table showing the percentages of exactly the number of top-30 seasons they produce within their first five NFL years:

0Y T30 1Y T30 2Y T30 3Y T30 4Y T30 5Y T30
36 20 12 17 13 6
34.62% 19.23% 11.54% 16.35% 12.5% 5.77%

Remember, 36 out of 104 first-round WRs (a little over a third) never record a top-30 year. And—get this—exactly 36 players produced three or more top-30 seasons in five years. Translation: If you draft a first-round WR, you are just as likely to get a guy who is a top-30 player more years than he isn’t as you are to get a guy who isn’t a top-30 player ever. That doesn’t seem horrible, does it? Then again, you are also almost just as likely (34.62% v. 30.77%) to get a guy who produces only one or two top-30 seasons in five years. So what does this mean? If you draft a first-round WR, the odds are almost 2-to-1 that you get a player who, in his first five years, isn’t a top-30 player more often than he is. That’s not too enticing.

Look at this another way—a high percentage of the total productivity of first-round WRs is concentrated into the top-third, that elite core of guys who produce top-30 years more than they don’t. As a cohort, the 104 WRs, out of a possible 520 seasons, produced only 177 top-30 finishes: Collectively, in their first five years, first-round WRs manage top-30 seasons only 34.04% of the time. How does that low percentage of the cohort compare to the one produced by the top-third? This elite subgroup of 36 guys produced top-30 years in133 out of a possible 180 seasons. Yes, the elite top-third first-round WRs produce 75.14% of all the top-30 finishes recorded by first-round WRs as a whole. And—more to the point—guys in this elite top-third subgroup produce top-30 seasons 73.89% of the time. That’s way better than Sex Panther. That’s Sex Dragon! And who are the guys in the group? For the most part, the superstars of their day: Randy Moss, Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson, even Roddy White, and, in another year or two, Julio Jones and A.J. Green.

And what about that scary number you know is coming?—what percentage of the time do the 68 non-elite first-round WRs actually produce a top-30 season? It turns out that, for the guys who don’t log top-30 seasons a majority of the time, they don’t log top-30 seasons at a painfully high rate. These 68 players, out of a possible 340 seasons, collectively produced only 44 top-30 years: Collectively, the non-elite first-round WRs produce top-30 seasons a paltry 12.94% of the time. Yes, this number takes into account the guys who never record a top-30 year, but, even if we take them out of the equation, the 32 guys who record only one or two top-30 seasons still do so merely 27.5% of the time in their first five years. Put another way, even the “good” non-elite guys disappoint 3.625 years out of 5—and they are mixed in with the toxic guys who disappoint for all 5 years.

In effect, these statistics imply that, with first-round WRs, if you don’t acquire one of the elite top-third guys, the return you get on your investment—the value of your selection—is not great. It follows, then, that if you draft first-round WRs, planning to rely on them for consistent production in their first five years, you must select either 1) truly elite players or 2) enough first-round WRs in general to create the bench depth necessary to overcome the disadvantageous odds of rostering them.

Additionally, I think it follows further that, if you draft a first-round WR, he should be elite—or you probably shouldn’t draft him at all. Unless you are drafting a first-round WR who will put up top-30 seasons more often than not—unless you are drafting Calvin Johnson or A.J. Green—you are drafting a player who, on average, will provide 0.65 top-30 seasons in the next five years. That’s horrible.

What is a fantasy player to do? When you are considering a first-round WR, ask yourself this question, or at least something like it: “Can I see this guy putting up at least three top-30 finishes in the next five years?” And if your answer is something like, “That’s a lot to expect out of a young guy; he needs time to develop; he’s a little raw”—if that or something similar is your answer, then don’t draft the guy, or at least don’t expect anything from him—and why would you ever draft a player if you were telling yourself, as you drafted him, not to expect anything?

In sum, if a first-round WR isn’t the kind of guy you can see yourself being married to (fantastically speaking) for the next half-decade or more, you probably shouldn’t draft him. At best, a guy from whom you expect little is likely to be 60% toxic, and I see little point in being in a fake relationship with someone who disappoints you 60% of the time. No way is the metaphorical sex that good.

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