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2014 NFL Draft: Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, and the Early Wide Receiver Rankings

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With both the NFL regular season over and college bowl season completed, hard core draft and fantasy addicts are already poring over reams of data on the 2014 NFL Draft.

Why Models Matter, Why NFL History Always Repeats Itself, and Why the Lions Are Probably Doomed

Models matter. A lot. Martin Mayhew recently escaped what should have been a complete purge in Detroit despite repeated debacles in the draft. Three years ago, he selected Titus Young over Torrey Smith even though Smith was bigger, faster, and had represented a much larger share of his college team’s receiving offense. Two years ago he selected Ryan Broyles over Rueben Randle even though Randle possessed superior physical attributes and was three years younger.

For the most part, NFL general managers are made to serve long apprenticeships, prove themselves on the grunt work, scratch and claw their way up. The problem with this approach is that organization-defining decisions are much more likely to come down to general strategy and tactics than football knowledge and work ethic. (I’m not suggesting these need to be mutually exclusive.)

Trading Up for Julio Wasn’t A Bad Choice, Unfortunately It Was Thomas Dimitroff’s Only Recent Good Decision

By the time May’s draft rolls around, we’ll probably have written somewhere between a hundred thousand and a million words about the receivers in question. This emphasis is not misplaced. Josh Gordon and Alshon Jeffery were the two most important players in fantasy football in 2013. Around the league the presence or absence of receiving firepower is defining the seasons of quarterbacks like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Matthew Stafford, and Matt Ryan. Brian Xanders was essentially run out of town on a rail in Denver, but his supposed input on the ill-fated Tim Tebow draft brought Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker to town. The underrated stardom of those two players is not only the reason Manning posted his second highest AY/A at the absurd age of 37, their presence also contributed to his initial Denver recruitment.

While most of the rhetoric surrounding the NFL Draft focuses on building in the trenches, wide receivers might just be the most important players on the field.

How to Evaluate Wide Receivers

Last year Jon Moore explained why age makes a difference for quarterback prospects, and he recently published a list of ages for skill players in the upcoming draft. Several years ago, Rany Jazayerli published a groundbreaking study showing that age made a bigger difference than seemed possible when looking at baseball draft prospects.

Last week I published a piece on the three holy grail components to wide receiver evaluation. Not surprisingly, one of those components is age.

What follows is a first look at the highest profile members of the 2014 class. We won’t have accurate workout information for quite a while, so my interest here is focused on age and collegiate market share. For those who are new to the market share idea, previous research has demonstrated that receiving market share is more predictive than raw stats. We’ll talk about more sophisticated models in the future, but right now I’m using Dominator Rating as a quick rule of thumb in exploring this area. The Dominator Rating is the average of a receiver’s market share of yards and market share of touchdowns.

Exploring the Dominator Rating

Players like Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant, Hakeem Nicks, and Demaryius Thomas all had a collegiate DR above .50. Anything above .40 suggests a player is in the conversation to be a No. 1 at the NFL level, especially if they also meet certain size/speed thresholds. Keenan Allen did not meet those thresholds, but his .43 Dominator Rating proved portentous.

More frequently, prospects fall in the .30 to .40 range. Players who fall below .30 are not necessarily destined for failure, but the risk rises precipitously. Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson both fell into that category last year. Examples of players who failed to meet the .30 barrier and yet went on to successful NFL careers are rarer than you might think. Meanwhile, the category of first and second round busts is a veritable graveyard of sub-.30 players.

Full profiles of hits versus misses are available in the holy grail article.

Finally, A Conjecture

In addition to Dominator Rating, I’m going to reference rookie age information that was compiled by Jon Moore. I’m also going to propose a conjecture: while age at draft time is clearly meaningful – both in terms of calculating likely ceilings and in terms of the number of years a team-controlled player will be at his peak* – the age at college breakout may also be important.

* Before we go any further, I think the point about team control is pretty important. If you miss on a player, it doesn’t really matter how old he is during his second contract, but if you hit, it becomes crucial. You want to re-sign those players, but when you draft a 23-year-old, you’re essentially committing to paying for the decline phase of that guy during his second contract. 

Back to age at college breakout. One of the things that’s pretty quickly becoming evident is that among young men, age has a huge impact on performance. This was even addressed several years ago in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. Boys who are old for their grade, even by a matter of months, tend to be disproportionately represented in sports. That extra little bit of maturation makes a big difference. If that’s true, and the age at draft time makes a difference, it only stands to reason that it matters what age a prospect was when he first broke out against mostly older players.

Keenan Allen and DeAndre Hopkins are fairly similar physically. Both are tall enough to be borderline No. 1s at the NFL level, and neither is heavy enough or fast enough to project into the group that contains guys like Megatron, Julio Jones, and Demaryius Thomas. Despite their similarities, we liked Hopkins more than Allen last year (in part for the same reason everybody else did; Allen was hurt).

Although Allen’s abbreviated season had a slightly higher DR, Hopkins had improved sharply from the previous season. This is frequently a strongly positive indicator according to work done by Moore and Chad Parsons. On the other hand, although Allen and Hopkins were both young when drafted, Allen was even younger when he dominated as a sophomore. He did so despite splitting targets with Marvin Jones. Hopkins was a relative non-factor at that age, eclipsed by one of the men we’re about to examine. Sammy Watkins.

I haven’t tested the impact of age at breakout, but it’s something I plan to do later this offseason. I’m including it because I think it’s interesting and it might pique someone’s curiosity in this or a related area. If it does, RotoViz is always excited to welcome new contributors. Update: I’ve since examined this issue, and it turns out breakout age is hugely important. In fact, for evaluating receiver prospects, breakout age may be the skeleton key.

A First Look at the 2014 Class

I’ve listed the following players in the order they are ranked by I’ve then provided age and Dominator Rating followed by a few thoughts on whether the preliminary ranking seems accurate. (I’m providing a DR at breakout and am using a 0.30 DR as the threshold for breakout. If the breakout DR is listed as “same” this means the final season was the breakout season.) Players who are considered fairly valued are in blue, undervalued in green, and overvalued in red.

One thing we know. The NFL still values prospects on an aesthetics-based model as opposed to valuing their likely ability to impact points scored. This inefficiency should start to close pretty quickly as the impact of analytics becomes more obvious. But it’s an efficiency that does currently exist.

1. Sammy Watkins 2013 Dominator Rating 0.32

Age during rookie campaign: 21.5, Age at first breakout: 18, DR at first breakout: 0.33

Watkins is going to be a very interesting prospect as he falls right into the sweet spot of several types of justifiable debate. His DR just barely reaches the draftable range. His height and weight would seem to put him into the category of a vertical, field-stretcher more than a true No. 1. Such players are overdrafted every season. Watkins appears to be a better prospect than Kendall Wright was in 2012, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility that he will play the role of Wright while a member of this year’s Second Round plays Alshon Jeffery.

On the other hand, Watkins is very young and managed an even better DR as an 18-year-old true freshman. If he runs well at the Combine – say in the 4.35 range – then he could be more like a bigger DeSean Jackson or T.Y. Hilton.

My early take: I say that Watkins could be like a bigger Hilton, but T.Y. had a .41 DR, an underrated part of why he was such an elite prospect. So, really they’re nothing alike. Watkins is likely to be a very good NFL player but seems a better fit for a team that already has a big No. 1. The fastest path to a dominant NFL offense is to pair elite receivers. The best fits for Watkins would be opposite Josh Gordon or Calvin Johnson.

My post-combine take: Watkins ran a 4.43, a fast time for a big receiver but at 6’1″ 210 Watkins isn’t going to create space with his bulk. He then jumped only 34 inches and didn’t flash in the agility drills. The presumptive No. 1 wide receiver is seeing his Combine spun mostly as a positive, but if you want to be drafted in the range of Calvin Johnson and Julio Jones, you need to run like those guys. Watkins most definitely did not. His advocates are pointing back to the work on the field, but he just wasn’t that good when you adjust for the prolific Clemson offense. My Kendall Wright comp is looking more and more accurate. Still overvalued.

2. Mike Evans 2013 Dominator Rating 0.30

Age during rookie campaign: 21.4, Age at first breakout: 20, DR at first breakout: same

Evans notched a 1000-yard season in his first year with Texas A&M, but his Dominator Rating was still well below .30. Scouts love his size, but it’s a mild concern that the Aggies have thrown for 67 touchdowns the last two seasons and Evans only caught 17 of them. This could be a scheme issue or a double-team issue, but the value in drafting Evans should theoretically be greatest in the red zone where he has been solid but not spectacular. (Check out the full breakdown using the College WR Career Graphs app.)

My early take: As was the case with Watkins, I’m a little skeptical of Evans based on market share, not to mention his late season mini-fade. There’s also the issue of positional value. Evans is not expected to post a strong 40 at the Combine, which puts him more into the tight end category, except without actually being a tight end. Jace Amaro had a similarly impressive college season and would probably provide more mismatch potential.

My post-combine take: As unfair as it may be, Evans gets graded on a curve due to his massive size. Running significantly faster than Eric Ebron, for example, should clinch a Top 15 draft slot for the Texas A&M star. The market share question won’t go away for Evans, but his size/speed/age profile is much more rare than the one possessed by Watkins. Switching to fairly valued.

3. Marqise Lee 2012 Dominator Rating 0.42*

Age during rookie campaign: 23.1, Age at first breakout: 20, DR at first breakout: 0.30

Because of injuries, I’m using Lee’s Biletnikoff award-winning 2012 season instead of his desultory junior campaign. This might or might not be cheating. Like Watkins and Evans before him, Lee should prove to be a splintering prospect. He was so good as a sophomore that the Trojans basically ignored Robert Woods, a talented player coming off of a strong season himself. Unlike the previous two prospects, he has crested the .40 DR level and did so despite competing with Woods. On the other hand, even though he was a year behind in school, Lee is actually slightly older than Woods. He won’t be a young rookie, and there are real concerns about the way speed receivers age.

My early take: If Lee posts a blazing 40, he’ll be the top player on my board. Otherwise, I think he’s similar to Watkins in that his niche is probably as a co-No. 1. He’s another player who migdoht work as an elite complement to Megatron and also fits well in Pittsburgh, Kansas City, and Philadelphia.

My post-combine take: I expected Lee to run considerably better and validate his Biletnikoff-winning 2012 season. A 4.52 just doesn’t get it done for a sub-6′, sub-200 pound receiver. Lee showed better in the other drills, hinting at the likelihood of a solid NFL career, but his pre-draft fall should continue. Switching to overvalued.

4. Kelvin Benjamin 2013 Dominator Rating 0.29

Age during rookie campaign: 23.9, Age at first breakout: 22, DR at first breakout: same

In the early going, Benjamin is shaping up as this year’s Cordarrelle Patterson. Scouts are already saying things like “could have the highest ceiling in this year’s draft class,” and he’ll receive a small narrative-based bump for catching the national title winning touchdown even though his struggles through three and a half quarters contributed to the Seminoles’ deficit.

The erstwhile Baby Megatron was not able to dominate collegiate competition like the real thing. A DR of .29 isn’t a death knell by any means, but he’s the only member of our early round cadre below the 30% barrier. Moreover, Benjamin is quite old for a redshirt junior. He’s a literal fit for the man-among-boys label.

My early take: I’m of two minds about Benjamin. He possesses elite size and if anything size tends to be undervalued in the reality draft. If he runs well at the Combine his Height-adjusted Speed Score could be up in the same range as Vincent Jackson. On the other hand, his age and DR are both huge red flags. The age issue suggests scouts are likely to get his upside calculation wrong.

My post-combine take: Nothing has changed on Benjamin. He looked sluggish at the Combine and remains massively overvalued.

5. Allen Robinson 2013 Dominator Rating 0.37

Age during rookie campaign: 21.4, Age at first breakout: 19, DR at first breakout: .38

While it could change in the coming months, there’s currently a fairly strong consensus on the top three receivers. After that the board is both deep and wide open. Robinson isn’t generating a ton of buzz right now but could easily rise up the board. He’s going to be young as a rookie, just posted back-to-back strong DR seasons, and has better height than Watkins and Lee. A strong Combine could put him in the mid-first round conversation.

My early take: Speed receivers are going to be all the rage again in 2014 due to the postseason fireworks generated by T.Y. Hilton and the strong overall season turned in by DeSean Jackson. It will be easy to forget the struggles of Mike Wallace or that Jackson required Chip Kelly’s schematic genius and Hilton required Andrew Luck’s transcendence. In the face of this hype, Robinson might be the best pick for teams needing to build their receiving corps from the ground up. If he measures a full 6’3” at the Combine, that type of size really helps lesser quarterbacks.

My post-combine take: Scouts were all over the place on what to expect from Robinson in the 40. Most expected a faster time than 4.6. Jon Moore still lists him as a Combine winner due to his tremendous work in the other drills. I don’t think much has changed for Robinson, but those hoping he might emerge as the clear No. 1 player on their boards are probably disappointed. Still mildly undervalued.

6. Odell Beckham 2013 Dominator Rating 0.35

Age during rookie campaign: 22.2, Age at first breakout: 21, DR at first breakout: same

I’ve seen Beckham referred to as a tight end in a speed receiver’s body. Toughness is always good, but it needs to translate into actual on-field value. Beckham has the type of size/age/DR profile that’s solidly mid-second day.

My early take: Mock drafts have Beckham all over the place. As the Fantasy Douche often points out, similarity is not destiny, but Beckham is not particularly similar to successful first rounders. I’m not rooting against him by any means, but merely on the numbers he’s a strong candidate to be overdrafted.

My post-combine take: Beckham really needed to run in the 4.3s to confirm the enthusiasm for a player of his size and production. He managed a solid 4.43 but exploded in the vertical and agility drills. He’s still the type of player who ends up being overvalued in the reality draft, but he should have at least some value to the team that drafts him.

7. Brandin Cooks 2013 Dominator Rating 0.39

Age during rookie campaign: 21.3, Age at first breakout: 20, DR at first breakout: same

Like Mike Evans, the Oregon State speedster recorded a 1,000-yard season at the age of 19, but his touchdown percentage wasn’t high enough for it to qualify as a breakout by my criteria. He rectified all of that in winning the Biletnikoff Award this past season. It will be interesting to see what Cooks runs at the Combine. A 4.35 would put him in the conversation with folks like T.Y. Hilton. When you’re his size, absolute blazing speed is a necessity.

My early take: It’s frequently difficult for smaller, speed receivers to put up an elite DR because of the difficulty of registering Red Zone touchdowns – a problem that usually follows them to the NFL – but, as is the case for other receivers, when they do post a high DR it’s a very good sign. A 39% market share for a diminutive receiver, especially when it represents huge raw numbers, shouldn’t be ignored. I expect Cooks will be mildly overrated by traditional NFL types and mildly underrated by those who value physical size above on-field production. He best fits in a wide open offense with an elite quarterback at the helm.

My post-combine take: In profiling the Combine needs of the 2014 class of small receivers, I argued that Cooks needed to burn a 4.34 to put his name in the same conversation as players like Steve Smith, Marvin Harrison, and Torry Holt. He did 0.01 better and authored what should be a swift rise up the draft board. The comparisons to Harrison and Holt are still fanciful. Harrison’s DR was over 50% and Holt is the only player I’ve found to crest 70%, but Cooks is the real deal. He’s head-and-shoulders above names like Tavon Austin and Markus Wheaton.

8. Jordan Matthews 2013 Domator Rating 0.48

Age during rookie campaign: 22.5, Age at first breakout: 19, DR at first breakout: .35

With Matthews we reach the first player for whom our RotoViz eval is likely to diverge sharply from the scouting report. Because of this, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s branded in some quarters with the Marvin McNutt label. (For newcomers to the market share idea, McNutt’s low draft slot followed by dearth of real NFL opportunity is something of an obsession for analysts.)

Perhaps those concerns are unfounded. While Matthews is considered a borderline first round prospect at best, he’s not expected to fade deep into the middle rounds either. Moreover, Matthews is the owner of better numbers and numbers accumulated at an earlier age. It probably would have helped Matthews to declare a year earlier from an age perspective, but he had his original breakout at 19 and then backed it up with two elite seasons.

My early take: If Matthews measures a full 6’3” and then runs well at the Combine, teams really should consider him the equal of the trendier players.

My post-combine take: Just check the Exceedingly Optimistic Jordan Matthews Comps.

9. Jarvis Landry 2013 Dominator Rating 0.40

Age during rookie campaign: 22.1, Age at first breakout: 20, DR at first breakout: 0.32

Landry shared the field with Odell Beckham and many will excuse Beckham’s more pedestrian DR because of Landry’s presence. Having to share the wealth can be an issue, but it’s worth noting again how Stedman Bailey’s 2012 DR was better than Justin Hunter’s and Cordarrelle Patterson’s combined. (I mention those players in particular because splitting the pot is an excuse used for the former Vols even though Bailey had to share with the No. 8 pick in the entire draft.)

My early take: Landry could be something of a sleeper. He’s listed a hair bigger than Beckham and sports a better DR than the flashy names like Watkins and Evans.

My post-combine take: I find it a little obnoxious all the huffing and puffing about prospects not competing at the Combine. If you’re a prospect, your responsibility to yourself is to get drafted as early as possible. Landry did far more damage to his chances by competing than if he’d made a simple excuse and stayed home. He’s still a good player. He’ll fall out of the first several rounds and perhaps be a value in rookie drafts. 

10. Davante Adams 2013 Dominator Rating 0.42

Age during rookie campaign: 22.0, Age at first breakout: 20, DR at first breakout: .34

It gives you a little bit of a sense of the depth in this class that we’ve profiled nine players before reaching the Paul Warfield Award winner. Adams put up 1,719 yards and led the nation with 24 touchdowns. Adams seems to be devalued because he played in the Mountain West and caught passes from a prolific quarterback, but his market share easily trumps many of the bigger names.

My early take: Like Robinson and Matthews, proving size will be a key. If he shrinks from his listed 6’2”, 212, then he’ll lose a meaningful advantage he appears to enjoy over many of the hyped names. If it holds up, I wouldn’t be overly worried about his level of competition with all of the other positive markers.

My post-combine take: Adams did lose an inch but held firm at 212. The Fresno State alum is supposed to be a straight line prospect who benefited from Derek Carr and an easy schedule, but he bested Watkins in the 3-cone and jumped 39 inches. Still undervalued.

11. Paul Richardson 2013 Dominator Rating 0.47

Age during rookie campaign: 22.7, Age at first breakout: 21, DR at first breakout: same

Richardson is another very interesting prospect in that his market share reaches toward that rarified air of a big time No. 1 receiver. Among players profiled here, only Evans and Beckham averaged more yards per catch. Richardson sports weight and age red flags, so his Combine 40 will go a long way to determine whether he projects as a difference maker or spare part.

My early take: Richardson seems like he would be a good fit for the teams that successfully create space for faster, smaller receivers. A franchise that misses on Brandin Cooks might find a superior consolation prize in Richardson.

My post-combine take: Richardson clocked a solid 4.4 in the forty and solidified himself as a prospect who should be able to put pressure on the defense deep. He’s still not receiving appropriate credit for his elite market share and remains underrated.


If you liked this article, you’ll love the preseason and in-season content as well as the suite of league-destroying appsSubscribe to RotoViz.

Shawn Siegele is the creator of the contrarian sports website Money in the Banana Stand and Lead Writer for Pro Football Focus Fantasy.

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