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The Problem of Cordarrelle Patterson: What Is a First-Round WR Worth?

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Anywhere from two to five WRs are likely to be chosen in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Cordarrelle Patterson and Tavon Austin locked themselves in as first rounders with solid combines, and Keenan Allen has been considered a top prospect since the 2011 college season. Additionally, Justin Hunter, DeAndre Hopkins, and Robert Woods have received some late-first-round hype.

I recently wrote this piece on Cordarelle Patterson and Justin Hunter, arguing that (despite his subpar market share of receiving yards) Patterson is the superior prospect and more deserving of a (late) first-round pick in rookie drafts.

With Patterson as the starting point for this piece, I want to consider this first-round WR not in the context of what he did in his single collegiate season but in the context of what other first-round WRs have done before him. What does the collective performance of his highly-drafted predecessors tell us about Patterson’s prospects? That is, historically, what is the true intrinsic value of a first-round WR?

This question is worthwhile because these seemingly elite and coveted players are often abundantly present. Since fantasy players tend to value RBs highly, first-round WRs are often widely available in the first round of dynasty rookie drafts. While only people picking in the top 5 usually have a shot at a first-round RB, in most years almost everyone gets a shot at a first-round WR—maybe not A.J. Green or Julio Jones, but certainly Jonathan Baldwin, A.J. Jenkins, or Darrius Heyward-Bey.

And, this year, many dynasty players are likely to have a shot at drafting Patterson, and so the questions arise: At what spot is Patterson worth drafting? What is his worth? What will he actually do once he is on your roster?

While this article (and the several that will follow) seeks to answer this general query, I must also give a broad caveat: To a growing number of “studisticians” (non-nerdy nerds who do studly things with their digits), draft position is becoming increasingly devalued as a predictive tool in the analysis of WRs. These studisticians still take draft position into account, but they consider it alongside a range of other factors, and progressively they are finding that the mathematical manipulation of these previously underappreciated factors has a predictive value few would have dreamed of a couple decades ago. In considering a WR’s prospects, draft position is not everything.

Having said that, I should also say that draft position means something; it isn’t unimportant. In fact, it still may be the most predictive factor we have for WRs. As such, we should understand exactly what it predicts.

In dynasty leagues, I think that first-round WRs should be thought of as five-year investments. Some people focus primarily on a WR’s production within the first three years, but this approach risks excluding the fourth-year breakout performances of players like the Michaels Irvin and Crabtree. As a result, I prefer a slightly longer timeframe. If these WRs produce anything beyond year five, that production is just extra. With that in mind, let’s see how first-round WRs played in their first half-decade in the NFL.

Looking at all 119 of the first-round WRs from 1978 (when the NFL initiated the 16-game season) to 2012, excluding the 1984 supplemental draft for USFL and CFL players, one can notice some general trends in their positional rankings from year to year.

Y1 PR Y2 PR Y3 PR Y4 PR Y5 PR Avg PR Y1-5
62.18 55.94 52.74 57.79 68.72 60.55

The five-year average positional ranking for this cohort is 60.55, and—perhaps unsurprisingly—the “power years” for this cohort are the middle three, as too many players struggle in year one and too many are out of the league in what should be year five, which drags down the year-five average as a whole. [Of note is that in these calculations, if a player was out of the league or inactive due to injury for any given year, he was assigned the hypothetical ranking that would have followed the lowest ranking for that year.]

As I am sure you notice, a high positional ranking of 52.74 in year three is not that high. Clearly, with this metric, the averaged performance of a first-round WR is not something to be desired.

Since some people might object to the inclusion of hypothetical rankings in the total calculation (as the players who require these speculative rankings were not active), perhaps we should see what happens when these are removed.

But, first, how many of the 104 players (from 1978 to 2007) who were “temporally capable” of being in the league for five years missed an entire season? [How many players must have at least one season of positional rankings removed from the table above?] Of the players eligible, 19 missed an entire season to either injury or failure to make a roster. Yes, 18.27% of first-round WRs miss at least one entire season in their first five years. And this percentage does not even take into account partial seasons, like Percy Harvin’s 2012 injury-shortened campaign. Additionally, 16 eligible WRs failed to stay in the NFL for five years (although Mike Williams did eventually make a comeback with Seattle). In other words, 15.4% of first-round WRs last fewer than five seasons in the NFL. Although many people know that the attrition rate in the NFL is high, few would probably expect to see this kind of attrition in top prospects. Clearly, first-round status as a WR does not necessarily signify a lengthy career.

So what are the averaged positional rankings when we look only at first-round WRs active in any given year, the guys who actually played?

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

While these numbers are improved (and the peak has shifted from the third to the fourth year), these numbers are still uninspiring. The highest positional average is now a mere 43.76, which means that in no season does the first-round WR cohort ever collectively produce a startable year. Thus, 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.

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