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Randy Moss, First-Round Stratification, and the Systematization of Jerricho Cotchery

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My obsessions with WRs is coming to a head. I have a few more pieces left that I want to write about rookie WRs, but, basically, I’m almost done—and this final piece in my series on the value and production of first-round WRs is, as it were, the beginning of the end.

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.” And, of course, the RotoViz staff has recently created the 2013 composite rookie rankings for each position, and I recommend that you check out Jon Moore’s presentation of the WR composite rankings. (And, if I can say, my presentation of the composite RB rankings is also worth a look.)

If you wish to refresh your memory on what I said in the previous pieces to the present series, you can read the first four articles here, here, here, and here.

To catch you up—near the end of the fourth piece, I said this about first-round WRs and their likelihoods of achieving multiple top-30 seasons within their first five years: “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. [. . .] 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. [. . .] 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?”

Here’s where I would like to begin. If drafting a first-round WR isn’t really a productive activity unless that guy is going to be a star—such as Randy Moss, Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson, even Roddy White, and, in another year or two, Julio Jones and A.J. Green—then how can we know in advance if a guy will actually become a star? The answer is that, to a degree, we can’t.

Then again, the flipside to the answer I just gave is this: To a degree, we can. Clearly, we (usually) can’t tell beforehand precisely who will be elite and who won’t, but in 2011 everybody knew that a substantial difference existed between A.J. and Julio on the one hand and Jonathan Baldwin on the other. Even my use of his surname to ensure that you can identify him speaks to that difference. Fantasy players are on a first-name basis with A.J. and Julio. In contrast, if fantasy players bother to call Jonathan Baldwin anything at all, it probably isn’t his name.

How can we know before a first-round WR even plays an NFL game if he will be elite? One easy way, it would seem, would be to consider the relative position in which he is selected. Do top-ten picks do better than guys chosen with later picks? Does correlation exist between where a WR is chosen in the first round and his eventual NFL performance? After all, if receivers selected in the first round do better than those selected later in the draft, why can’t WRs selected high in the first round do better than those selected lower? Here’s the table that breaks down all the first-round WRs from 1978 to 2007.

Picks # of players # T30 players % T30 players 1Y T30 2Y T30 3Y T30 4Y T30 5Y T30 # T30 Seasons Total Seasons % T30 Seasons
1-10 37 29 78.38 7 4 7 8 3 83 185 44.87
11-20 36 23 63.89 7 6 5 4 1 55 180 30.56
21+ 31 16 51.61 6 2 5 1 2 39 155 25.16
Total 104 68 65.39 20 12 17 13 6 177 520 34.04

Quite visibly, draft position within the first round correlates to success, and the gap between picks 1-10 and 11-20 is much greater than that between picks 11-20 and 21+. While only 35.58% of all first-round WRs are selected with top-ten picks, these highly-drafted players make up 50% of the elite top-third subgroup of WRs who record at least three top-30 seasons in their first five years. In the categories of “% of top-30 players” and “% of top-30 seasons,” the players selected at the top of the first round outperform the overall averages—and those selected in the middle and at the bottom of the first round underperform. Although the correlation is not tantamount to predestination, it exists, and from one subgroup to the next it is fairly strong, which is good and bad news.

The good news is that this correlation establishes a clear and predictive factor that fantasy players can incorporate into their decision making process. Indeed, when you need WRs if you did little else besides draft available top-ten WRs then you probably woudn’t be disappointed with the results—perhaps. The bad news is that the top-ten WRs often available to everyone in a rookie draft are available exactly because few people want them, and often their depressed fantasy value is justified. The latest case in point is Darrius Heyward-Bey. In effect, either one must have a very high pick in a rookie draft to secure a WR selected in the top ten or one must select with a lower pick a top-ten WR whose prospects other fantasy players have determined to be incommensurate with his NFL draft position.

What this correlation means, then, is very little. In general, the people it helps are only those with high draft picks, and even without the existence of this correlation those people would probably select obvious (non-DHB-esque) top-ten WRs anyway, since those guys, the thoroughbred studs of college, tend to become the studs of tomorrow’s NFL.

Thus, fantasy players must rely on something else to tell us which first-round WRs to draft and which to avoid. We need a metric of some sort to tell us which of the top-ten WRs are likely to join the 48.6% of their ranks to become elite. Likewise, and much more crucially, we need a metric to indicate which players are likely to join the 26.87% of non-top-ten first-round WRs to become elite, because some of these players—such as Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, Andre Rison, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, and Roddy White—do become elite, and these players are often available with low first-round picks to everyone and thus are the ones who win fantasy championships.

Here is a table that, while confirming the general trend of the previous table, serves to emphasize the potential we have to find low first-round WRs who radically outperform their relative draft position. Particularly, note the subgroup of WRs drafted with picks 21 to 25.

Picks # of players # T30 players % T30 players 1Y T30 2Y T30 3Y T30 4Y T30 5Y T30 # T30 Seasons Total Seasons % T30 Seasons
1-5 15 12 80.00 3 2 2 3 2 35 75 46.67
6-10 22 17 77.27 4 2 5 5 1 48 110 43.63
11-15 14 10 71.43 3 3 2 2 0 23 70 32.86
16-20 22 13 59.10 4 3 3 2 1 32 110 29.10
21-25 16 11 68.75 4 2 2 1 2 28 80 35.00
26+ 15 5 33.33 2 0 3 0 0 11 75 14.67
Total 104 68 65.39 20 12 17 13 6 177 520 34.04

Although the general trend across the subgroups shows a correlation between the pick used on a player in the first round and his future success, the anomalous performance of the subgroup of WRs selected with picks 21 to 25—which includes Randy Moss, Andre Rison, and Dwayne Bowe—suggests the extent to which any given player may outplay his draft position. And this suggestion in turn gestures towards the opportunity that exists for 1) fantasy players to find valuable players at a discount and 2) stat-heads to craft systems of analysis that surpass the scouting approaches leading to the drafting of WRs at positions that correlate roughly but inefficiently. In sum, the aporia created by the existence of this divergent subgroup sets the stage for the comparative battle between scouts and statisticians to settle the issue of who can predict with more accuracy what a player’s future is likely to be and thus where he should be drafted. Scouts and NFL front offices have provided a system exhibiting notable imprecisions. Can statisticians do any better? And what are the metrics they should consider?

If I knew that question’s answer, I would already have a full system—and I don’t. I do, though, have something approaching a system, as do many of the guys at RotoViz, and separately and collectively we are working on the creation of analytical apparatuses capable of predicting a rookie WR’s NFL success with great accuracy. No system is perfect, but can the existing systems be improved? Yes, and the bros at RotoViz—the BrotoVizes—are working to do just that.

And what do I see as being the specifics of this task? I think we primarily need to create a system that 1) takes into account positional rankings across the years (since trends in scoring can differ across decades) and 2) distinguishes primarily the rookies likely to record at least three top-30 finishes in the their first five years from the rookies unlikely to do so. Why this type of player? Because 1) players who prove useful more often than they don’t are preferable to players who don’t—clearly—and 2) such players are the guys we all ultimately want on our fantasy teams each year anyway because they are consistent.

While this definition of desirable player may seem restrictive, it actually isn’t. We want to own WRs who, in their first five NFL seasons, are likely to contribute to our teams. To be targeted by such a system a guy doesn’t need to be a future Randy Moss, but he does need to have a good chance of developing into perhaps Tampa Bay’s Mike Williams or at least Jerricho Cotchery—the latter of whom was a solid fourth-round WR who provided, in years three through five, positional finishes of 23, 25, and 30. That’s not sexy, but that’s consistent production that was available off of waivers in dynasty leagues. Considering where he was drafted, Cotchery may have been the most valuable WR of the 2004 Draft—perhaps more valuable than Larry Fitz, Roy E. Williams, Lee Evans, and Bernard Berrian.

What is the task that we have before us in evaluating college WRs entering the NFL? To discover, before they have played an NFL down, what distinguishes players like Fitz, Roy Williams, Evans, and Cotchery from others like Reggie Williams, Michael Clayton, Michael Jenkins, and Rashaun Woods, all of whom were first-round WRs in 2004 and all of whom proved to be disappointments in dynasty leagues. The task is to create a system that tells us to draft Cotchery in the third round of rookie drafts instead of Reggie Williams in the first. And if we can create a system that tells us not to draft Clayton in the first and Berrian in the third but instead to trade away the draft board so that we can draft Fitz with the top pick and then grab Cotchery on waivers—then all the better.

That is the task, at least as I see it. And I imagine that, in the creation of such a system, we will need to balance various concerns, outcomes, and scenarios that fantasy players (de)value and seek either to amass or avoid depending on their affinity to risk. Ultimately what I foresee is the formation of what may be called “the mythical master coefficient” that takes into consideration (perhaps in equal proportions) the different likelihoods of a WR’s five-year 1) upside (what will his highest positional ranking be within the timeframe?), 2) downside (will he produce at least one top-30 season in the timeframe?), and 3) consistency (will he produce at least three top-30 seasons in the timeframe?). Once we know what a WR’s highest positional ranking is likely to be within his first half decade and what the odds are of his producing one top-30 finish (and also three top-30 finishes) within that period . . . then we’ll probably know enough to have an awareness of the information we need to discover next.

That is the task. Time will tell if the RotoViz staff is up to it.

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