I’ve recently been doing a lot of work on WRs: two pieces here and here on T.Y. Hilton and a piece on Stephen Hill. And recently RotoViz’s Shawn Siegele and I considered Cordarrelle Patterson’s NFL prospects: Here are my original piece, his fantastic response, and my counter. Other RotoViz studisticians are getting in on the WR act. Frank just posted his preliminary ranking of the 2013 rookie WRs. Jon Moore has a current piece on Da’Rick Rogers. Davis Mattek has a piece examining how Darrius Heyward-Bey’s addition to the Colts will impact T.Y. Hilton’s value.
Near the end of the second piece, I said this about those first-round WRs who never produce top-30 seasons (and remember that these guys make up about 33% of the total first-round WR cohort): “In total, these toxic first-round WRs tend to stick around in the NFL longer than they should, precisely because they are selected in the first-round. For the 36 toxic first-round WRs, the average time of ‘service’ in the NFL is 4.08 years. What does this mean? On average, if you draft one of these players, you risk holding him into the beginning of his fifth season before the NFL lets you know that not only is he not a player with a top-30 season in his future—he is no longer a player, and he has no future.”
So if you draft a first-round WR you have about a 66% chance of getting a guy who will produce at least one top-30 season and a 33% chance of getting a guy who doesn’t—and if he doesn’t then he’s liable to clog your roster for, on average, more than four full NFL seasons.
This last fact begs the question of whether a way exists to spot toxic players once they are already on your roster. Or, put another way, at which point can one safely get rid of a first-round WR if he hasn’t already had a top-30 season? Or, phrased positively, when do first-round WRs start to pay off? If a guy ever achieves a top-30 season, when is he likely to do so first? These are precisely the questions I want to address in this article.
Here is a table with answers to those questions—answers that should make the third-year Jonathan Baldwin a little nervous.
|Y1 T30||Y2 T30||Y3 T30||Y4 T30||Y5 T30|
|% of Cohort||22.12%||20.19%||11.53%||10.58%||0.96%|
|% of T30||33.82%||30.88%||17.65%||16.18%||1.47%|
|Tot% of T30||33.82%||64.71%||82.35%||98.52%||100%|
Remember, 68 of the 104 first-round WRs from 1978 to 2007 recorded top-30 seasons. How many of those guys got their first (and maybe only) top-30 season in year one? A remarkable 23, or 33.82%. In fact, 23 rookie first-round WRs equates to 22.12% of all first-round WRs within the 30-year timeframe. What this means is that, if a first-round WR is going to achieve at least one top-30 season, he has about a 1 out of 3 chance of doing so as a rookie. And an additional 21 guys got their first top-30 finish in their second year—which means that, if a first-round WR will get a top-30 season, he is more likely than not (by almost 2-to-1 odds) to do so within his first two years in the league.
I think you see where this is going. Going into year three, out of the original 104 players 60 remain who haven’t yet recorded a top-30 season—and 36 of them never will. Translation: Of the first-round WRs moving into year three yet to achieve a top-30 finish, the utter failure rate is 60%. For any one of these WRs chosen at random, the blind odds are greater than not (for the first time in his career) that he will never be a top-30 player at his position.
Note that this fact seems to contradict conventional wisdom, which says that WRs, even good ones, require at least a couple of years to develop. Yes, WRs probably do need time to develop, but if a first-round WR needs more than two years to mature into a top-30 positional player then he probably never will.
Does this mean that the “third-year breakout WR” is a myth? Not entirely. Some of these WRs do experience breakthroughs in year three—12 of them, or 20% of the remaining cohort yet to record a top-30 season. And these 12 guys, in addition to all doing well in year three, continue to do fairly well in years four and five, recording 13 top-30 finishes in 24 possible seasons—9 of the 12 (75%) had at least another top-30 finish, and 4 of the 12 (33%) had two more. In sum, the 12 guys who bust out in year three usually are more than serviceable in the two subsequent years.
But, again, remember that, after year two, the odds are greater than not that a “heretofore non-top-30 first-round WR” will forever remain a non-top-30 player, and so the downside of holding such a player may, to many fantasy players, outweigh the upside. And what, exactly, is the downside, the upside, and the average outcome for all 60 of these players entering year three?
For 60% of these 60 players, the next three years hold no top-30 finishes (0/108). For 40%, those three seasons hold an average of 1.625 top-30 finishes [(39/72)(3)]. When these 60 toxic and productive players are considered collectively, years three through five produce an average of 0.65 top-30 finishes per player—with 3-to-2 odds that the future holds nothing.
For these 60 first-round WRs, only 21.67% of their collective future seasons within the five-year window will be top-30 years. What this fact means for your fantasy teams is that, if you intend to continue rosterting one of these players, you should probably have 1) a particular logic that overrides the negative odds and 2) strong reason to believe the WR will produce more than one top-30 season in the next three years—that player needs to have some sort of acceptable reason for holding him and a high degree of upside.
For instance, Reggie Wayne, Eric Moulds, Alvin Harper, and O.J. McDuffie were all such players entering their third years. They were all worth continuing to roster in part because of their excellent QBs and their status as #2 WRs who lined up across from strong #1 WRs who attracted coverage. And all of these players, in fact, produced top-30 finishes in both their third and fourth years, and two even finished with top-30 seasons in year 5. These four guys, however, are the exception. If you are going to speculate in third-year first-round WRs yet to produce a top-30 season, you have to pick your spots and have a rationale for doing so.
And what I’m really saying is that you probably shouldn’t do it at all, and if you do you shouldn’t count on any of these WRs to contribute anything. To you, does Jonathan Baldwin seem most like Reggie Wayne, Ashley Lelie, or Bryant Johnson? The precise answer doesn’t matter. As long as the answer isn’t Reggie Wayne, you shouldn’t want Baldwin on your roster. If you’re betting on him to become only Ashley Lelie, who logged only one top-30 year, the disadvantageous odds don’t warrant making the bet—because the odds are that Jonathan Baldwin will be, and already is, Bryant Johnson; that is, toxic. If Baldwin is on your roster, you could be in a toxic relationship without knowing it.
Why, then, do some people talk about third-year WRs? Probably because the narrative is simple and understandable (“these guys just need time to develop”) and because, compared to the guys who “break out” in year four, the third-year breakouts are HOFers. According to the table above, you will notice that, if a first-round WR will get a top-30 season, he is more likely than not (by slightly more than 4-to-1 odds) to do so within his first three years. The odds of a guy breaking out in his fourth year are bad. In general, you shouldn’t even be thinking about these players—WRs more likely to produce top-30 seasons have to be available on waivers.
Going into year four, out of the original 104 players 48 remain who haven’t yet recorded a top-30 season—and 36 never will. Translation: Of the first-round WRs moving into year four yet to achieve a top-30 finish, the utter failure rate is 75%. Everything that was said before about third-year WRs applies here, except now the odds are even worse and the upside is just as uninspiring.
For 75% of these 48 players, the next two years hold no top-30 finishes (0/108). For 25%, those two seasons hold an average of 1.17 top-30 finishes [(14/24)(2)]. When these 48 toxic and productive players are considered collectively, years four and five produce an average of 0.29 top-30 finishes per player—with 3-to-1 odds that the future holds nothing.
For these 48 fourth-year first-round WRs, only 14.58% of their collective future seasons within the five-year window will be top-30 years. In sum, fantasy players are generally best-served by not speculating in fourth-year first-round WRs yet to produce a top-30 season. Not even with a “compelling fantasy reason” should you do it—if you expect to count on any production from that player. Really, only “external” reasons are justifiable: He was your favorite college player, he’s from your hometown, he plays for your favorite team, that kind of thing—something other than “I think he’ll eventually be a good player.” Overwhelmingly, he won’t. It’s not me saying this; it’s history.
And even if you are right, these fourth-year breakout WRs tend not to repeat. Of the 11 such WRs only 2 (18.18%) recorded top-30 finishes in year five. Uninspiring. So, go ahead, hold fourth-year first-round WRs yet to achieve a top-30 finish, and hope that one of them turns into Michael Irvin. Just know that for every Playmaker you find, you will also have to endure the likes of Peter Warrick, Donte Stallworth, Ike Hilliard, Reggie Williams, and fifteen toxic WRs not worth naming. Just to be clear—if you are rostering a fourth-year first-round WR yet to produce a top-30 season, you are probably wasting a roster spot. And if that guy somehow manages to produce a top-30 finish in his fourth year, you will probably not make a mistake in trading him immediately while his value has risen. Having said that—I’m not trading Michael Crabtree. He was one of my favorite college players, and I indulged myself by holding him into his fourth year. I got lucky. And next year, if he gets another top-30 year, transforming himself into the latter-day Irvin, I will have gotten lucky again. You cannot count on such WRs when they get to their fourth year, at least not with any degree of regularity. You just can’t.
And fifth-year first-round WRs yet to record a top-30 season? Forget about it. Only 1 out of the 37 such WRs recorded a top-30 season in year five. That’s only 2.70%. Atrocious. That one guy, Michael Westbrook, actually did finish as a top-10 player that year, a great finish, but he never finished as a top-30 player again. For being the lone jewel in the whole Reznorian crown of shit, that’s awfully dull. We really don’t need to analyze this group of one anymore. If you are counting on these types of WRs, fantasy football is not your thing. Just go buy a lottery ticket and get it over with.
So what’s the take away? 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. Feel free to do it, but just know what you’re doing.