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The RotoViz Skeleton Key: Picking Better Wide Receivers for Fantasy Football
Sammy Watkins NFL Draft RotoViz Skeleton Key
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Shawn Siegele recently posted several thought-provoking pieces, 2014 NFL Draft: Three Holy Grail Components to Wide Receiver Evaluation and Keenan Allen, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Why Breakout Age is the Skeleton Key, the latter of which sent me down a rabbit hole.  Intuitively, his hypothesis that Breakout Age might be the Skeleton Key for predicting NFL success made sense to me, but I needed to see more.   So, here’s what I did:

1)  Looked at every wide receiver drafted between 2006 and 2011 (about 190 players).  I stopped at 2011 because I wanted to have three years of professional data to see how well they made the jump to the NFL.

2)  Isolated on receivers who broke-through to post a Dominator Rating (DR) of greater than .3 at least once in their collegiate career (99 players).  Then I found their breakthrough age and separated them into groups, so that all the 18 year old breakthroughs who got drafted were together, all the 19 year olds, etc.  As a reminder, when we talk about Dominator Rating, that is essentially saying “what percentage of a team’s passing offense did a player account for?”

3)  For each player, I researched whether or not they posted a top 30 fantasy season, or, even better, a top 15 fantasy season, in their first three NFL seasons.

Here is what I found…

DISCLAIMER:  If you are of the opinion that prospect age doesn’t matter, now might be a good time to stop reading this article.  Here’s something about Johnny Manziel that might hold your interest.


18 year old breakthroughs

# of players: 5

Top 30 players: 3  (60%)  Hakeem Nicks, Kenny Britt, Mike Thomas

Top 15 players: 1  (20%)  Hakeem Nicks

19 year old breakthroughs

# of players: 12

Top 30 players: 6  (50%)  DeSean Jackson, Julio Jones, Sidney Rice, Steve Smith (NYG), Darrius Heyward-Bey, Randall Cobb

Top 15 players: 4  (33%) DeSean Jackson, Julio Jones, Sidney Rice, Steve Smith (NYG)

20 year old breakthroughs

# of players: 32

Top 30 players: 9  (28%)  Greg Jennings, Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant, Eric Decker,  Mike Williams Torrey Smith, Dwayne Bowe, Mario Manningham, Santonio Holmes, Justin Blackmon, Michael Floyd, Marvin Jones

Top 15 players: 5  (16%)  Greg Jennings, Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant, Eric Decker,  Mike Williams

Note: Michael Crabtree and Golden Tate finished a fraction outside the top 30, while playing less than 16 games, so they could have snuck in here, which would have made this group even stronger, but I kept them out.

21 year old breakthroughs

# of players: 21

Top 30 players: 7  (33%)  A.J. Green, Mike Wallace, Brandon Marshall, Mike Walker, Demaryius Thomas, Steve Johnson, Antonio Brown

Top 15 players: 5  (24%)  A.J. Green, Mike Wallace, Brandon Marshall, Steve Johnson, Demaryius Thomas

22 year old breakthroughs

# of players: 21

Top 30 players: 2  (10%)  Robert Meachem, Denarius Moore

Top 15 players: 0  (0%

23+ year old breakthroughs

# of players: 8

Top 30 players: 1  (13%)  Austin Collie, whose 2010 season ranked #31, despite only playing 9 games, so I counted him.

Top 15 players: 0  (0%)

Graphically, the results look something like this.  Note the distinct downward trend, a.k.a. age DOES matter.  It’s amazing that the 18 year old breakthroughs are SIX TIMES more likely to achieve a top 30 season than 22+ year old breakthroughs.  It’s even startling to see that 19 year old breakthroughs are nearly TWO TIMES more likely to succeed in than NFL than 20 year old breakthroughs.


WR Breakthrough Skeleton Key Top 30


The same downward trend applies to Top 15 fantasy performers.  While there is less certainty about this one, there is one indisputable take-home message, which is, ZERO PERCENT of wide receiver prospects who break through for the first time as a 22+ year old college player have gone on to achieve top 15 seasons.  None.

WR Breakthrough Skeleton Key Top 15


How You Can Benefit From This:

As you read in the intro, this data was drawn from Wide Receivers drafted between 2006-2011, which means that the draft classes of 2012, 2013, and 2014 are unwritten stories (maybe).  If we apply our new knowledge to these draftees, here are some things for you to consider.

2012 Draft

Buy:  Unfortunately there were no 18yo breakthroughs in this draft.  However, many of the younger bunch has already posted top 30 seasons, including Kendall Wright (19yo breakthrough), Alshon Jeffery (19), TY Hilton (19), Justin Blackmon (20), Michael Floyd (20), and Marvin Jones (20).

If you’re looking to speculate on WRs who might breakthrough in their third pro season, you could target (in order of their best fantasy seasons to date):  Rueben Randle (WR48), Chris Givens (WR50), Stephen Hill (WR91), or Brian Quick (WR103).  If you’re looking to read about them, check out We need to have a talk about Giants WR Rueben Randle, Are we overlooking Brian Quick’s Star Potential?, Stephen Hill: I Know What You Did Last Season, and Chris Givens Vs. T.Y. Hilton.

Avoid:  Guys like Mohamed Sanu (breakout age 22), Jarius Wright (22), Tommy Streeter (23) and Nick Toon (23) have all had some sleeper buzz in the past 16 months, but there is, historically, about a 10% chance they ever post a top 30 season and a ZERO PERCENT chance for them to ever post a top 15 season.  Okay, maybe there’s a chance, but it’s small.  (Say goodnight to my 2nd year sleeper: Nick Toon and Davis Mattek’s Deep Sleeper: Tommy Streeter)

2013 Draft

Buy:  Keenan Allen has already posted a top 30 Fantasy season and guys like Aaron Dobson (18), Tavon Austin (19), Robert Woods (19), and DeAndre Hopkins (20) all posted top 60 seasons in their rookie year.  Of the group I like “indisputable disappointment” DeAndre Hopkins the best, but it’s hard to argue with Dobson’s size, pedigree, and environment.

With the exception of Marquess Wilson (drafted 236 by the Bears), every other 18 year old breakout has been drafted in the top 107 picks.  This could be attributed to Wilson being under-weight and weak at the combine, but considering he was the youngest WR in the 2013 draft, it would have been savvy for someone to snatch him up, let him mature, and then deploy him in a 2014 or 2015.  Wait…what’s that…Brandon Marshall is a free agent after 2014 and that’s exactly what the Bears are doing with Wilson?…Oh, okay, cool, I’ll be sure to add him to my dynasty rosters.

You can read about other notable names, like Josh Boyce (20), Markus Wheaton (21), and Quinton Patton (21) in Dynasty Fantasy Football: Speculative Adds for 2014.  Oh, and Stedman Bailey (21) who is, maybe, the next Isaac Bruce.

Avoid: Chris Harper (22), Corey Fuller (22). The elephant in the room is Terrance Williams (23) who ranked as the #40 Fantasy receiver in 2013.  He’s got a good QB and a friendly spot across from Dez Bryant, but I’m going to stay away from him because of the trend.  For what it’s worth, this simple Terrance Williams comparables piece might have been THE article that opened Pandora’s Box when it comes to prospect age.

2014 Draft

Buy: Amazingly, the upcoming draft has three prospects who broke through at 18 while playing in major conferences: Jordan Matthews (.36 DR), Sammy Watkins (.35 DR) and Donte Moncrief (.35 DR).  Meanwhile, 19 year old breakthroughs like Allen Robinson (.38 DR), Jalen Saunders (.38), and Cody Hoffman (.31 DR), provide nice depth and upside to the class.  There are also about 10 solid 20 year old prospects.

Avoid: I’d be wary of these guys, who didn’t eclipse .3DR until 22+, or never at all:  Kelvin Benjamin, Josh Huff, Shaq Evans, Martavis Bryant, Jeremy Gallon, Jared Abbrederis, Kevin Norwood.

If you feel compelled to do your own research on WR prospects, be sure to check out the RotoViz College Career Graph app.  Meanwhile, Shawn Siegele has taken a first crack at 2014 WR Prospect Rankings.  Finally, If you are curious to peruse prospect ages for (nearly) every Fantasy relevant player in the 2014 NFL Draft, check out the prospect age project.

Jon Moore is  the creator of The College Football Experiment.  You can continue this conversation with him on Twitter or Google+.

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