Those who aren’t as crazy as the Rotoviz writers are about numbers are naturally going to be a fan of Vincent Brown‘s game. His measureables and college production ratios are really terrible, but he looks like a good NFL player on film. Every discussion that comes up about Brown centers on a few things: the Thursday night game where he caught a long touchdown from Philip Rivers and had another called back, the preseason hype from 2012 where Chargers beat writers and coaches were talking Brown up, and the 40 times of Jerry Rice and Anquan Boldin not hindering their NFL production.
The Historical Perspective Of Slow, Short Wide Receivers
Here are the top 20 seasons posted by wide receivers shorter than 6 feet and weighing less than 183 pounds since 1999 (Brown is 5’11 and 181):
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The 40 times of those receivers don’t paint a pretty picture for Brown. Harrison ran a 4.38, Jackson a 4.35, Wallace a 4.28, Ismail a 4.28, Shaun McDonald a 4.53, Lance Moore a 4.52, and Albert Connell ran a 4.40. I was unable to find times for Mathis or Martin. The slowest 40 time of this grouping was McDonald, who had only one season of success, never again topping 523 yards or 3 scores. What becomes apparent is that small receivers who excel at the NFL level have excellent speed. Even the slowest receiver on this list has a 40 time .18 seconds faster than Brown’s. It is worth noting that Brown reportedly ran a 4.53 at his pro day, but when official combine numbers are available, I prefer to use them.
I’m not saying Brown isn’t a good football player, doesn’t run good routes, or that it is impossible for him to a post a top 30 wide receiver season. However, since 1999, the only receivers to run an official 40 time at the combine slower than 4.65 and post top 30 fantasy seasons are Micheal Clayton and Anquan Boldin, and Boldin is the only receiver to do it more than once. It’s worth noting that Boldin had a combine weight 35 pounds heavier than Brown, and he is also listed as 3 inches taller than Brown, so they really aren’t all that comparable, physically.
To bet on Brown posting a top 30 season is to bet against 14 years of historical data (official combine times and 40 numbers are much more difficult to find, pre-1999). Slow receivers becoming fantasy studs is a rare thing, and Boldin is a rare player.
Being fast as a wide receiver is a helpful skill, but so is being good in the red zone, and neither Brown’s college nor pro numbers thus far suggest that he is. Brown has just three red zone targets as a pro (no touchdowns) and here are his college red zone TD rates:
Again, these are not optimal rates for any receiver. If Brown will flourish as a fantasy wide receiver it will be as someone who gets force fed targets. As Jon Moore has explained in several articles and on the 2 Mugs FF Podcast, a #1 WR in college would ideally score a touchdown 30% of the time on a red zone target. Brown’s numbers are a lot closer to a player like DeSean Jackson, whose RZ TD Rate was 17% his final season. Jackson has struggled in the red zone in the NFL, as have many other players his size. Brown, however, doesn’t have the blazing speed of D-Jax, and he isn’t even Anquan Boldin. Boldin’s final Dominator Rating (a metric created by Shawn Siegele, and explained below) was .41, or suggestive of a first round NFL WR. Brown’s final DR was .35, more indicative of a 2nd-3rd round fringe guy.
Jerry Rice Ran A 4.71
An interesting refrain is that Jerry Rice ran a 4.71 40, and therefore, “box score scouts” would have missed out on his greatness. I’d contend that his record-breaking raw production would have merited a 1st round grade regardless, but I took it a step further.
In his book The Game Plan, the Fantasy Douche explains that perhaps the best way to evaluate college WR production is not through raw numbers, but through market shares of production, by the way of yards or touchdowns. Building on that concept, Rotoviz Writer Shawn Siegele invented the dominator rating, which takes the Market Share concept a step further. Shawn’s scale is as follows: “In terms of predicting NFL success, any number over .50 – which roughly corresponds to having caught 50% of your team’s yards and TDs – projects as an NFL superstar or Top 10 overall pick value. .45-.50 is excellent (roughly Top 15 pick value), .40-.45 very good (Top 20 pick), .35-.40 (late first, early second), .30-35 (second round to third round), below .30 (middle round pick).”
Jerry Rice played for Division 1-AA Mississippi Valley State Devils, so statistics for the rest of his team weren’t exactly easy to find, but this CBS Sports article contains the info we need. For comparison, I’m going to include Calvin Johnson, because he is the best WR prospect ever; Keyshawn Johnson, because he was the only WR drafted first overall since Irving Fryar in 1984, and Fryar himself, since he went #1 overall the year before Rice came out. Then, I included the 2 WR’s who went ahead of Rice in the 1985 draft (Al Toon and Eddie Brown), to give some generational context to how impressive Rice’s numbers were. Vincent Brown is also included, to show how he measures up.
Not only was Rice clearly the best WR prospect in his draft class, but his DR was superior to Keyshawn’s (which came years later), and when accounting for the sheer mass of Rice’s raw production, Rice, from a stat scouting perspective, would have been beloved by the stats community in his specific draft. In between the raw stats and DR, Rice is the most impressive prospect on this list. Brown performed about the same as Keyshawn Johnson did back in 1996, but I haven’t done enough studying to know about shifts in DR over generations to know if there is anything we can glean from that fact. In any case, it looks like several of these receivers were either wildly over drafted or in Johnson’s case at least, done so on crazy impressive measureables (6’4, 211 pounds). If there is a serious shift, then Rice’s Dominator Rating is even more impressive.
What is overlooked in the discussion of Rice’s 40 time is that a player’s combine measurables are just a small part of what the stat community does when projecting wide receiver performance in the NFL. While I understand the resistance to only projecting players based on their speed and physical profile, that isn’t really what we at Rotoviz are doing. Even my arguments about Vincent Brown are not just centered on his measurables, but also his lack of production. To not look at what a player did on the field would be silly. For example, look at Shawn Siegele’s pre-draft WR rankings for the current rookie class. Shawn, who I look up to and whose work I follow rigidly, had a Division II wide out as his #1 overall prospect, based not only on his very solid Height Adjusted Speed Score (HaSS), but also his .50 Dominator Rating.
In email correspondence, Mr. Rotoviz himself pointed out that, in relation to physical measureables, if it was easy for slower wide receivers to succeed, then it would probably happen more often. However, the oft-cited examples are Rice and Anquan Boldin, which happened 30 years and 10 years ago, respectively. As I mentioned, Boldin and Mike Clayton are the only wide receivers to post slower than 4.65 40 and have a top 30 wide receiver season since 1999. When speaking of Boldin and Rice, what you’re pointing out isn’t that a slower WR can succeed; you’re also pointing out exactly how rare it is for a slower WR to post usable fantasy numbers. It isn’t that it can’t be done, it’s just that it’s rare when it does happen.
So, what would the stat community have thought of Jerry Rice? Given that he set the NCAA record for touchdowns and yardage at the time, his superior Dominator Rating and his ability to score touchdowns, we probably would have been just fine with him.
Just because a receiver is slower than average doesn’t mean that he is destined for failure, but it doesn’t set him up for success either. To have success, in a fantasy context, it helps to be bigger or faster, and Vincent Brown is neither.