Baseball is a great game to analyze because the various game states can all be broken down and run expectancies for each inning can be calculated. For instance, one of the things that baseball researchers know is that the sacrifice bunt is overused in a way that really doesn’t make sense. The run expectancy for a team after a “successful” sac bunt is actually lower than before the at-bat started. So the at-bat, even if “successful”, is a negative proposition. But some baseball managers refuse to believe that’s the case. Not all. But some.
There are decisions in football that aren’t that far off from the sac bunt in baseball. These are decisions where even a “successful” outcome isn’t really a success. In the same way that a sac bunt caps the upside in your range of outcomes, I think that NFL teams using WR picks on undersized players does essentially the same thing. The best case scenario is probably that a team gets a guy that can operate between the 20s and maybe out of the slot. The chances that they get the next Josh Gordon are close enough to zero that you could just approximate those chances by saying zero. Could a team get the next Antonio Brown? I suppose, but that’s a problem in its own right. If you know that most top receivers are among the biggest players at their position, except for maybe one or two guys, does it make sense to look for the prospect that looks like the outlier? Then even if you’re successful getting a player that exceeds his draft spot while being undersized, you might be sending 166 targets per year to a player that can’t help you in the red zone (a la Antonio Brown).
That’s kind of where I’m at with Bruce Ellington. I actually kind of like him as a player because he’s stocky and seems like he could be a decent combo RB/WR. But for teams expecting him to play receiver, he doesn’t fit the mold of what has made for top end prospects in the past. For his age, his production isn’t very impressive. Out of the three elements of big, young and productive, Ellington doesn’t really qualify on any of them. In the comparables table below you’ll see that most of the similar players haven’t done very much in the NFL. That is, except for Mike Wallace. But Wallace was .17 seconds faster in the forty yard dash, a fact that probably wouldn’t matter for most players but did end up mattering for the very specific way that Mike Wallace compiled his NFL production. Justin Hunter is also included in the table although it’s worth noting that Hunter is some 7 inches taller than Ellington.
Like I said, I kind of like Ellington as a player if I thought that a team would use him as a combo player. So instead of taking an RB in the third round, take Ellington and then use him as an RB on obvious passing downs when he could be moved around the formation. Ellington wasn’t used as an RB in college, but he is built like one. I think that’s a way to transfer WR-like passing game efficiency into your backfield, rather than transfer RB-like passing game efficiency into your receiving corps like the Chiefs did with Dexter McCluster.