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Can College Conference Predict WR Fantasy Success, and Should We Be More Scared About Allen Robinson?

Allen Robinson 1

Jonathan Bales is the founder of RotoAcademy—a fantasy football training school—and author of the Fantasy Football for Smart People book series.

After I published a breakdown of wide receiver production by college conference, the Fantasy Douche, aka RotoViz Staff, aka Frank DuPont, aka Ol’ Dirty Bastard asked me how that production compares to our expecatations. Certain conferences will naturally have players selected higher than others, so it’s important that we account for changes in draft slot when analyzing each conference.

We’d never expect small-school conferences to continually outperform the BCS conferences in terms of raw stats, but that might not be the case after adjusting for draft slot. That’s what we saw with running backs, as I showed in my article One Simple Trick to to Help Identify Undervalued Rookie Running Backs.

So I broke down rookie wide receiver production by both draft slot and conference to see which conferences are underachieving. First, take a look at the average draft slot for all receivers drafted since 2003.

Rookie WR Conference 6

The surprise here is the Sun Belt, but that’s due entirely to a small sample. Only T.Y. Hilton, Tyrone Calico, and Jerrel Jernigan were drafted out of the conference since 2003. Hilton was crazy good in his rookie year, which throws off all of the other numbers in this analysis in a three-receiver conference. I don’t want to say I’m throwing out the Sun Belt entirely. . .but I’m throwing out the Sun Belt entirely.

Establishing a Baseline of Rookie WR Production

Now let’s take a look at how a receiver’s draft slot affects his rookie production. First, a look at yards…

Rookie WR Conference 1

The r-value is -.507—an unsurprisingly strong relationship between draft slot and rookie production. There are expectedly a few outliers, but almost all quality rookie receiving seasons have come from players drafted in the first three rounds.

Another way to view this data is to sort the players into buckets based on draft slot.

Rookie WR Conference 3

Here, you can see a very clear trend, with the majority of rookie production unsurprisingly coming from first-round picks. It’s strange to see the players drafted between 11 and 20 out-producing top 10 picks, although the sample is unusually small; there were just five receivers drafted in that area during the time studied, compared to 15 in the top 10 and 15 more between picks 21 and 30. Thus, the jump in production for mid-first-round picks is likely just variance from a small sample.

Looking at rookie receiving touchdowns, we see a slightly weaker relationship to draft slot than we do for yards—the r-value for the touchdown/draft slot correlation is -.447. Here’s a scatterplot of all rookie receiver scoring.

Rookie WR Conference 2

A lot of zeros near the middle and late rounds, with the majority of production again coming in the first three.

Rookie WR Conference 3.5

Again, the players drafted from picks 11 to 20 have been the most productive, but there’s no reason to think they’re better than top 10 receivers. The touchdown distribution comes very close to mirroring the yardage distribution.

Calculating Production Relative to Expectations

With those baselines calculated, we can determine how many yards and touchdowns wide receivers from specific conferences “should have” posted in their rookie years. Using trendlines for expected production, I charted how many average yards and touchdowns over expectation each conference has recorded in the receivers’ rookie years.

Rookie WR Conference 4

The Sun Belt is the clear winner here, thanks to Hilton. After that, the Big East and ACC have dominated over the past decade-plus. The Big East hasn’t had a huge number of wide receivers drafted, but Larry Fitzgerald, Mike Williams, and Kenny Britt were all highly productive in their first years.

From the ACC, Anquan Boldin leads the way with a ridiculous rookie line of 101/1,377/8—one of the best rookie receiving seasons of all-time. Eddie Royal, Andre Johnson, Calvin Johnson, Torrey Smith, and Demaryius Thomas also check in near the top of the list.

As for touchdowns, it’s more of the same.

Rookie WR Conference 5

The SEC leapfrogs into third place on the backs of receivers like Julio Jones, Mike Wallace, Percy Harvin, A.J. Green, and Dwayne Bowe.

What the hell is wrong with the Big Ten?

To me, the most interesting part of this analysis is how poorly Big Ten receivers have performed in the NFL. Their rookie seasons have collectively been really poor, and although I won’t get into their career numbers in this post, trust me that those are awful as well.

To give you an idea of how bad it has been, here are the top 10 performers in terms of rookie receiving yards:

1. Lee Evans (843)

2. Santonio Holmes (824)

3. Anthony Gonzalez (576)

4. Braylon Edwards (512)

5. Brian Hartline (506)

6. Bryant Johnson (438)

7. Ted Ginn (420)

8. Arrelious Benn (395)

9. Courtney Roby (289)

10. Charles Rogers (243)

When Charles Rogers makes any list of top performers, you know there’s a problem. At this point, I guess I’m supposed to offer a possible explanation. Well, I don’t have one. I really don’t know why the Big Ten has been so poor at producing wide receiver talent.

If I have to guess, my explanation is that a vast majority of great football players come from high schools in the south and California, and high school players—even blue-chippers—attend a college in their region of the country more often than not.

So should we drop Allen Robinson in our rankings based on this information? I just have a hard time believing that should be the case. The Big Ten’s struggles are perplexing, but the Pac 12 hasn’t been all that much better, either, despite possessing most of the top West Coast talent. If I could formulate a clearer theory as to why Big Ten receivers suck in the NFL, then maybe we could potentially test it and then work from there. But based on this data alone, I’m not going to downgrade Robinson some arbitrary amount.

I’ll leave any other explanations to the comment section, but perhaps a more comprehensive breakdown of draft value based on conference for other positions is the next step.

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