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Stedman Bailey and Second-Round Productivity: The Next Isaac Bruce?


I’ve been on quite a WR kick lately. In addition to writing two pieces here and here on T.Y. Hilton and a piece on Stephen Hill, I’ve also engaged in a war of perspectives with RotoViz’s Shawn Siegele regarding Cordarrelle Patterson’s NFL prospects: Here are my original piece, his fantastic response, and my counter. 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), with parts four and five on the way. And be on the lookout for what will likely be my final WR piece before the draft—my presentation of the receiver I believe to be the most undervalued in the 2013 class, the man whose “RotoViz code name” (starting now) is “Marshall Colston.”

In this article I want to look at the guy who was my favorite player of the 2012 college season, Stedman Bailey. If he were two inches taller, seven pounds heavier, and one-fifth of a second faster, an NFL team would draft the WVU product with a top-ten pick. Instead, CBS-NFL Draft Scout has him ranked as its #14 WR, worthy of a pick in the third or fourth rounds—after the unproductive Marquise Goodwin. Clearly, Bailey’s internet draft stock is depressed.

And yet, like Ryan Broyles last year, Bailey seems to be an excellent candidate to sneak into the second round; some team will simply be too smitten with his collegiate productivity not to take a chance on him. And if Bailey is selected in the second round he will be the steal of the draft. The other RotoViz writers, Frank in particular, have devoted a good deal of space already to The Studman: in this piece FD gestures toward Bailey’s relative value, here he provides a list of comparable players, and here he details Bailey’s productiveness. To Frank’s work I hope to contribute a larger historical perspective that will provide a framework for evaluating Bailey’s NFL potential.

And what is his NFL potential? As a second-round pick, Bailey will be one of the players people think of years from now when they think of the 2013 Draft. Not only will he outperform the average second-round receiver; he will outperform the average first-round receiver. I’m not saying this just to be bold. I’m saying this because the numbers and historical precedents support the statement. How good will Bailey be? If chosen in the second round, he will offer the production of the average receiver selected with a top-ten pick. Ultimately, as long as he is chosen in a certain range, it doesn’t matter that Bailey won’t be selected at the top of the draft—he’ll produce as if he had been. He is a top-ten caliber talent.

Almost twenty years ago, Isaac Bruce was chosen in the second round by the Rams. After five NFL seasons, Bruce was joined by Torry Holt, a talented receiver drafted with a top-ten pick. Both guys ended up having very similar careers (Bruce’s total stats are a little better, and he had two more top-30 fantasy seasons), and both I have found are historical comparables for Stedman Bailey. Essentially, Bailey is a slightly shorter, barely thicker latter-day version of the second-round receiver chosen by the Rams years ago—a guy every bit as good as his top-ten teammate. (Did you see what I did, with the “veiled” reference to Tavon Austin? Nice, right?) Stedman Bailey is the next Isaac Bruce.

As Frank noted when comparing Bailey to recent players, the WR has the production profile of guys who are bigger, faster, and/or drafted higher. Creating a list of comparable players is thus difficult. For this reason, I have looked at the last twenty years of college seasons to produce a broader and hopefully more predictive list.

Additionally, Bailey’s raw statistical production is almost unrivaled, even when one considers WRs regardless of their size, speed, and draft position. And when looking at short and small players drafted in the last twenty years within the first three rounds, only the final collegiate seasons of a few select players roughly compare, and most of those fall short. As a result—although I generally prefer to use both raw stats and advanced metrics when comparing players—the only recourse in this instance is to look at Bailey’s production through market share alone.

While Bailey is not likely to be a top-15 pick, his Dominator Rating of 47.31%, as Shawn Siegele suggests in this piece on the 2012 rookie WRs, is what one might expect of a WR chosen in the top-half of the first round. Additionally, Bailey’s high TD component of his DR seems to imply that scoring lots of TDs is a constitutive part of who he is as a player—despite his size, that dude routinely finds pay dirt. Thus, the guys on my list of comparable players were all prolific at scoring TDs in their final seasons.

Given Bailey’s size, speed, production, and likely draft position, I chose these parameters when looking for comparables: 1) No taller than 6’0”, 2) no heavier than 200 lbs upon entering the NFL, 3) no faster than 4.42 in the 40-yard dash, 4) drafted no lower than the third round, 5) MSYds no lower than 35%, 6) MSTDs no lower than 45%, and 7) last college season within the last twenty years. Note that not all of the 40 times and entrance weights are available for the players drafted before 1999; for these players I used the weight available at Pro Football Reference and either used 40 times I found online or left the 40 times blank. Also, for those players who had available game-by-game statistics, I did not count any missed games against those players in the computation of their DRs. In total, fourteen comparable players were found. The list is arranged by draft position.

Player Team DrftYear Age Rd Pk Ht Wt 40T MSYds % MSTDs % DR %
Torry Holt StL 1999 23 1 6 72 192 4.44 47.80 57.89 52.85
Terry Glenn NE 1996 22 1 7 71 195 4.60 40.43 51.52 45.98
Donte Stallworth NOR 2002 22 1 13 72 197 4.48 36.65 55.56 46.11
Troy Edwards PIT 1999 22 1 13 70 191 4.57 38.50 56.25 47.38
Charles Johnson PIT 1994 22 1 17 72 200 ?? 42.68 64.29 53.49
Johnnie Morton DET 1994 23 1 21 72 190 ?? 39.70 45.16 42.43
O.J. McDuffie MIA 1993 24 1 25 70 194 ?? 40.86 60.00 50.43
Isaac Bruce StL 1994 22 2 33 72 188 4.53 44.97 55.56 50.27
Greg Jennings GB 2006 23 2 52 71 197 4.42 46.8 48.28 47.54
Bobby Engram CHI 1996 23 2 52 70 188 ?? 46.54 55.00 50.77
Peerless Price BUF 1999 23 2 53 71 180 4.55 40.89 50.00 45.45
Golden Tate SEA 2010 22 2 60 71 199 4.42 38.54 50.00 44.27
Mario Manningham NYG 2008 22 3 95 72 181 4.59 44.17 50.00 47.09
Chris Penn KAN 1994 23 3 96 72 198 ?? 50.05 57.14 53.60
Avg 22.6 1.64 38.8 71 192 4.51 42.76 54.05 48.4
Median 22.5 1.5 29 71 193 4.53 41.79 55.28 47.46
Stedman Bailey ?? 2013 22 ?? ?? 70 193 4.52 37.79 56.82 47.31

As you can see, this cohort as a whole quite closely matches Bailey. The composite player presented here is Bailey’s age, a little taller, barely lighter and faster, marginally more productive in MSYds, less productive in MSTDs, and not even a full 1% better in DR. For all intents and purposes, these guys were the Stedman Baileys of the last twenty years.

Yes, you may look at this table and say, “Well, half of these guys were first-round selections, so this sample isn’t representative.” Here is what I would say back: 1) Bailey may very well be picked at the bottom of the first round—that would not surprise me, as the 49ers last year surprised many by picking A.J. Jenkins; 2) even if he isn’t selected at the bottom of the first round, he should be, and I say this partially because of Bailey’s own merits and partially because of what I have to say next; 3) as a group the second- and third-round WRs are (effectively) just as successful as the first-round WRs in their first five NFL years—they turn 36.36% of such seasons into top-30 finishes; the first-round cohort WRs, 37.14%. And, although I tend to think of any production attained after the fifth year as extra and something that should not be counted on, the two groups are still basically equal after the first half-decade—not much of a difference really exists between Holt, Glenn, and McDuffie and Bruce, Jennings, and Engram. In short, miraculously, the round in which a player in this cohort was drafted does not matter. As long as he is in the group, any given WR has roughly the same chance of producing top-30 seasons as any other cohort receiver . . .

Well, that’s sort of but not exactly true—it’s true for first- and second-round draft picks, but not for third-round. Although the sample size is small, the division existing between the two groups is clear in this cohort, as the following three tables show. And, what’s more, the third-round drop-off is not the most notable feature of these tables. Check out the second-round WRs—but, first, here are the first-round WRs.

Player DR% Y1 PR Y2 PR Y3 PR Y4 PR Y5 PR Avg PR Median PR High PR Low PR T30%
Torry Holt 52.85 34 7 8 15 2 13.2 8 2 34 80
Terry Glenn 45.98 14 65 41 25 20 33.0 25 14 65 60
Donte Stallworth 46.11 38 70 35 20 36 39.8 36 20 70 20
Troy Edwards 47.38 45 97 101 71 67 76.2 71 45 101 0
Charles Johnson 53.49 55 80 27 57 29 49.6 55 27 80 40
Johnnie Morton 42.43 100 34 35 18 35 44.4 35 18 100 20
O.J. McDuffie 50.43 83 59 24 19 36 44.2 36 19 83 40
Avg 48.38 52.7 58.9 38.7 32.1 32.1 42.9 38 20.7 76.1 37.14
Median 47.38 45 65 35 20 35 44.2 36 19 80 40

For players who, on average, are of less than optimal size and speed, this production is pretty good. Collectively they produce almost two top-30 finishes within their first five years, one of which is almost a top-20 season. In years four and five they almost average top-30 seasons, and their lowest PR years are not that low. In general, when they are not startable, they are almost startable. For first-round players of questionable value, that’s not bad at all—but the second-round cohort receivers do even better. Check out this table.

Player DR% Y1 PR Y2 PR Y3 PR Y4 PR Y5 PR Avg PR Median PR High PR Low PR T30%
Isaac Bruce 50.27 70 2 8 31 73 36.8 31 2 73 40
Greg Jennings 47.54 53 12 4 21 4 18.8 12 4 53 80
Bobby Engram 50.77 61 70 22 30 117 60 61 22 117 40
Peerless Price 45.45 68 40 21 7 32 33.6 32 7 68 40
Golden Tate 44.27 112 75 32 73 75 32 112 0
Avg 47.66 72.8 39.8 17.4 22.3 56.5 44.4 42.2 13.4 84.6 43.48
Median 47.54 68 40 21 25.5 52.5 36.8 32 7 73 40

Wow. Not only are the second-round cohort WRs just as productive as their first-round counterparts; they are noticeably, for whatever reason, more so. Whereas the first subgroup turns 37.14% of their first five NFL years into top-30 finishes, this “lesser” subgroup has a 43.48% top-30 rate. More impressively, the average high positional ranking for the second-round subgroup is markedly higher than that of the first-round subgroup (13.4 v. 20.7). Yes, the second-round receivers also have a lower average low positional ranking than do the first-round guys (84.6 v. 76.1), but in effect that doesn’t matter, because when any of these players is at his lowest he wouldn’t be anywhere near your starting lineup anyway. What really matters is how a player does when you start him, and the second-round cohort receivers do better—and you can start them more often.

How does one explain the odd discrepancy between the productions of first- and second-round WRs? Why do their NFL performances not correlate as strongly to their draft positions as one might expect? The answer, I believe, lies in (and highlights) the (in)efficiencies in the evaluative processes and draft strategies employed by teams. For the most part, the players selected in both rounds are of the same caliber, except that the second-round receivers slipped in the draft, most likely due to a perceived lack of pedigree or physical ability. They are first-round players who were acquired at a discount in the second round. But why do they collectively outperform the first-round subgroup? I submit that they perform better because they are second-round players. Not only may they have extra motivation, but more importantly they may also be aided by the “deficiencies” that dropped them to the second round in the first place.

While the first-round WRs are almost identical to the second-round receivers in size and production, they are usually more athletic, and so perhaps in college they rely more on talent and less on technique to produce. As professionals, they are initially disadvantaged because their athleticism is no longer exceptional and so they must adjust from being athletes to being technicians. The second-round cohort WRs, though, may have an easier adjustment to the NFL because they are already and always have been technicians, craftsmen of their trade. Being less physically gifted, they do not produce in college through their athleticism (although they are adequate athletes) but through their technique, knowledge, and attention to detail. In other words, upon entering the NFL they have more of the skills required for success. The skills that enabled them to overcome so spectacularly their (minor) physical limitations in college facilitate their greater success as professionals. For the most part, the first-round WRs do not dominate as thoroughly in the NFL because they largely rely as undergrads on their athleticism. In contrast, the second-round WRs in college rely on almost everything except athleticism, and so when they enter the NFL they simply continue to do what they’ve always done—produce.

Note that the best of the first-round WRs, Holt, was known more for his ability to run routes and consistently create separation through technique than for his ability to run right by the guy covering him. In general, within this cohort of 14 players, the guys who succeed with technique, not athleticism, are the ones who experience the best production—and because of how NFL teams evaluate players a higher percentage of those guys are second-round WRs.

For the most part, the first-round cohort WRs are selected high in the draft because the teams that choose them value (in addition to their production) their athleticism and/or pedigree. The second-round cohort WRs are selected lower because the teams selecting them—while still valuing athleticism and/or pedigree highly enough not to take them in the first round—value technique to such an extent that they are willing to invest in players whom the rest of the NFL undervalues. In both cases, the teams make decent investments, beating the average top-30 rate of 34.04% for all first-round WRs since 1978—but the teams that select the second-round cohort WRs do much better, ultimately receiving better production while investing a lower pick.

Look at it this way: Any random WR chosen with a top-10 pick from 1978 to 2007, on average, turned 44.87% of his first five NFL years into top-30 finishes. The five second-round WRs in this cohort average 43.48%. In other words, these guys produce like the average WR drafted with a top-10 pick—but at a fraction of the cost. If Stedman Bailey is drafted in the second round, he’ll be joining a group of highly productive and undervalued FBS WRs who produce like receivers selected at the top of the draft. He will be Golden Tate at worst—and at best some combination of Peerless Price, Bobby Engram, Greg Jennings, and, yes, Isaac Bruce.

Now, let’s be careful. The information in the two tables above does not mean that Bailey’s prospects will be diminished if he gets drafted in the first round instead of the second, or vice versa, or that (if we are Bailey fans) we should wish for a second-round selection. Rather, this information merely suggests that 1) if he is drafted in the second round we should not hold his draft status against him and 2) if he is drafted in the first round NFL teams will have proven themselves to be better at evaluating talent than they were previously.

If, however, Bailey is not chosen until the third round . . . well, take a look for yourelf.

Player DR% Y1 PR Y2 PR Y3 PR Y4 PR Y5 PR Avg PR Median PR High PR Low PR T30%
Mario Manningham 47.09 153 30 17 60 77 67.4 60 17 153 40
Chris Penn 53.60 121 134 48 51 67 84.2 67 48 134 0
Avg 50.35 137 82 32.5 55.5 72 75.8 63.5 32.5 143.5 20

This is not pretty. If I’m hoping for a guy to turn into Mario Manningham, then I should probably just select another player. Manningham’s not bad, but if he represents the upside (especially when Penn represents the downside) then Bailey—if selected in the third round—may not be a desirable player to roster. Collectively, these two guys form a composite player with a top-30 rate of 20%. His average high positional ranking isn’t even a top-30 finish. If Bailey is drafted in the third round . . . it will be a shame. Yes, every year we see a third-round WR do well—this year that guy was T.Y. Hilton—but Bailey, although not too dissimilar from Hilton in build and college production, lacks Hilton’s speed. He is unlikely to become the next T.Y. Hilton.

And yet the only scenario I can imagine right now in which I would be excited about Bailey falling past the second round is the one in which he actually does become the next T.Y. Hilton—with Bruce Arians drafting him. If The Wide Receiver Whisperer selects Bailey, I don’t care what the round is in which he’s chosen: Bailey will be a player to target. In his stints as the offensive coordinator for the Steelers and Colts, Arians oversaw the drafting of these WRs from rounds three to six: Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown, T.Y. Hilton, and LaVon Brazill. All of these guys are fast/shifty undersized receivers, and Bailey certainly would fit in with that group.

And as relatively good as Andre Roberts was last year I can see Arians wanting a smaller receiver of his own choosing to match with Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd. Regardless of round, Bailey is attractive as receiver if selected by Bruce Arians. Otherwise, Bailey as something less than a second-round WR is something we shouldn’t want to see. OK, maybe if he’s taken in the third round by the Giants—literally becoming the next Mario Manningham. Or maybe if he’s taken in the third by the Cowboys to operate in the slot between Dez and Miles—something like that: A special situation that makes you say, “Yeah, OK, he wasn’t drafted highly, but on that team he could really have success.” If the Patriots take him in the third, I’ll be intrigued. But for the most part Bailey will not be on any of my teams if he falls below the second round.

And I don’t think he will. All it takes is one person to recognize Bailey’s great value for him to be drafted in the second, someone like Arians, Belichick, Thompson, Reese, or Newsome. And when that happens, I’ll treat him like a top-ten pick, because the odds are that he’ll produce like one.

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