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Jonathan Baldwin, Toxic Relationships, and the Problem with First-Round WRs

I am currently obsessed with WRs; I have been for about the last year. My first two RotoViz pieces were on T.Y. Hilton: A Historical Perspective and Present Context. My fourth piece was on Stephen Hill’s disappointing rookie season and what it suggests for his future. Recently RotoViz’s Shawn Siegele and I have been waging a friendly war of words about 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 recently 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.

Recently, I started a series on first-round WRs and their historical performances and value, and this present piece is the second in the series. 8001584318_aa692e6270_c

At the end of the first piece, I said this about first-round WRs in general and Cordarrelle Patterson in particular: “On average, if you draft a first-round WR, you have to wait four seasons for him to hit his peak—and that peak will be disappointingly nonproductive. What does this mean for Patterson? Not only is he problematic in his own right, but the “elite” group to which he will likely belong is anything but elite. So why do people draft first-round WRs, and why should you still consider Patterson if he falls to the bottom of the first round in a rookie draft? Because, you know, I lied. First-round WRs are sort of awesome, and in the next article on this topic I’ll start to talk about why.”

This is where I want to start. Here are the numbers on which I based my statement about first-round receiver unproductivity. These are the averaged positional rankings of only those first-round WRs active in any given year, from 1978 to 2007.

Y1 PR Y2 PR Y3 PR Y4 PR Y5 PR Avg PR Y1-5
60.28 49.83 45.17 43.76 48.54 49.52

These numbers don’t look good, but they are of course misleading. The averages are skewed by outliers, and realistically, when you select a first-round WR, you are much more likely to draft someone who either moderately beats or markedly underperforms the averages than to draft someone who actually produces seasons in line with the averages. In general, few first-round WRs are first-round-average. Most are better, and the rest tend to be much worse.

With that in mind, the question for many people probably becomes not one of averages but one of likelihood—if I draft a first-round WR, what is the likelihood that he will have a top-30 season? That is, what is the percentage of first-round WRs who submit a top-30 season within their first five seasons?

Of the 104 first-round WRs from 1978 with five years of opportunity, 36 failed to achieve a top-30 season in their first five years. This is good news and bad news. The good news is that 65.39% of such WRs produce at least one top-30 season within a reasonable timeframe. If you invest a pick in a first-round WR, you have (on average) better than 50-50 odds of receiving a return on your investment. The bad news is that 34.62% of such WRs fail to produce a top-30 season in the timeframe. That number’s not as low as it could be, but it’s still low enough to give fantasy players pause, especially when they are faced with the prospect of using a high pick.

What’s more, the 2:1 success-failure ratio that we see above holds true across sizable chunks of time throughout the decades. For every 2009 (each of the 6 first-round WRs has at least one top-30 season), we find a 1997 (the 4 first-round WRs collectively produced only 1 top-30 season). In the 70s, for every John Jefferson and James Lofton we find a Willis Adams. Nowadays, for every A.J. Green and Julio Jones, a Jonathan Baldwin.

So 34.62% of first-round WRs don’t produce a top-30 season within their first five years. Of these players, how many of them don’t last five years in the league? Phrased another way, how many of these guys—and how long will they—actually clog your roster?

Again, good news and bad news—really, just bad news disguised as good news. Of the 36 non-top-30 WRs, 21 play in the NFL past year five: 58.33% of these non-top-30 first-round WRs stick around for at least five seasons. While we normally think that NFL longevity is unqualifiedly good, we are wrong—longevity is good only for fantasy when the long-lived player is himself a good fantasy player. Long-lived roster parasites can kill you. If a player is going to disappoint, the best he can do is to do so quickly. The only thing worse than a non-top-30 player is a non-top-30 player who stays in the NFL (and thus on your dynasty roster) for years.

Rostering these guys is the fantasy equivalent of being stuck in a toxic relationship. You know it is going nowhere, yet you hold out hope that things will eventually get better. Why? Because you chose, out of all the eligible people available, this particular person to live in your apartment (without paying rent!), and now you don’t want to kick the person out—all because you don’t want to admit that your original decision was wrong and you don’t want to think about who to bring into your apartment next—because, face it, someone will have to fill that spot—you never could be alone.

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. To me, over four years sounds like a long time to wait only to have a mutual friend inform you that the relationship with your “partner” is finished.

A smidgen of good news, however, can be gleaned from the statistics above. Of the 36 toxic WRs, 15 of them last fewer than five years in the NFL—and, remember, the total number of the WRs in this cohort not to last five years is 16. Translation: 93.75% of the short-lived WRs are toxic. If a guy can’t go five years, he is almost guaranteed not to be a top-30 WR—but, sadly, not vice versa. Still, it’s nice to know that, if a guy flames out quickly, at least you’re vacating from your roster a guy who was disappointing you anyway.

And more information can be found. Given that 15 short-lived WRs are toxic, the 1 remaining short-lived WR—the snake-bitten Hart Lee Dykes—actually produced a top-30 season. Yes, only 1 out of the 68 eligible top-30 WRs was short-lived. Translation: 98.53% of the top-30 WRs in this cohort stay in the NLF at least five seasons. In general, if a guy logs a top-30 finish, he’s almost guaranteed to give you at least five years of service. This fact makes sense and seems intuitive—nonetheless, I like seeing the numbers substantiate what we think we already know.

OK, so now you know the percentages—the odds that any given first-round WR will submit a top-30 season in his first five years . . . but you want more information, right?

You want to know if a way exists to spot toxic players once you have already drafted them. Look for the answer in the next article on first-round WR value.

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