Last year Keenan Allen fell into the third round of the draft due to lingering injury concerns, a sub-par 40 time, and a failure to really flash on tape. It didn’t help that his exposure was limited by playing for a poor Pac-12 squad and that NFL decision-makers probably failed to fully account for the value of his youth. Allen ended up landing in San Diego and posting a line of 1,046 yards and 8 touchdowns.
Will anyone reprise that role in 2014?
The obvious answer is no. In the last twenty years, the only other non-first round picks to post a borderline WR1 season or better were Anquan Boldin, Marques Colston, and Mike Williams.1 So expecting any player from the non-first round basket to produce a WR1 rookie season isn’t realistic, which makes it even less realistic to expect any specific player from that basket to produce such a season.
Now that we’ve got the boring caveats out of the way, let’s look at the contenders.
The guy who lost momentum due to injury – Marqise Lee
If Lee hears his name called in the first round by the Jets, Chiefs, or Panthers, he probably doesn’t qualify, but it’s starting to look very possible that the man who wants to be drafted by Detroit could even be available to them in Round 2.
In the eyes of the scouting community, Lee has fallen below Odell Beckham and could slip below Brandin Cooks and Kelvin Benjamin. According to most in the analytics community, it’s questionable whether he’s even one of the ten best receiving prospects. (Check out where he went in the RotoViz Rookie Mock 2.0 and be on the lookout for our staff Consensus WR Rankings to see what I mean.) It’s certainly not impossible a team becomes enamored with RotoViz Reach candidates like Allen Robinson! or Davante Adams! and selects one of those players ahead of Lee. Such a scenario would send him plunging into the second round.
Lee’s fall seems related to two essential issues. First, his nagging injuries appear to have exaggerated our general lack of awareness about the impact of market share in evaluations. Most people realize he dealt with injuries but most also believe he played poorly when he did play. In part, this is due to spurious notions about catch and drop rate. But when you examine his season through the lens of market share, many of those concerns melt away.
Viewed in this light, Lee’s 2013 was essentially equivalent to the one turned in by Sammy Watkins or Mike Evans, and yet the general impression of their respective seasons is probably wider than the philosophical gap between film watchers and stat crunchers.
If Lee’s size and athleticism didn’t bother you after his incandescent 2012 season, those attributes probably shouldn’t bother you now.2 Unfortunately, Lee appears to be the rare small/slow player who is actually getting hammered for those qualities. (Remember two years ago when these concerns were leveled against Kendall Wright but everyone agreed that he “played faster.”) This leads me to believe draftnik issues with his production profile and his athletic profile are being conflated in a way that obfuscates rather than illuminates, even if confusing the two doesn’t necessarily lead to the wrong answer.
Lee’s lack of WR1 athleticism shows up clearly in his poor Freak Score, but he’s actually pretty athletic in every other way, a conclusion verified by a Catch Radius Score that easily trumps the number put up by Sammy Watkins. It’s also true that he crushes Watkins in percentage of games dominated. If you believe players should be evaluated based on what they accomplished on the field, Lee is your guy.
One of Allen’s best attributes was his age, and Lee is older than you’d like in an elite prospect. Of course, Lee was also one of the top receivers in college football from the first moment he stepped on campus.3 Should he get a little boost from dominating despite a lack of experience, a boost that might cancel out some of the age-related concern? Perhaps.
With Lee I’m torn between the “you can’t draft a WR1 unless you try to draft one” sentiment and believing Lee is the safest receiver in this draft with a healthy floor in the range of the aforementioned Wright. In a more optimistic scenario, he could turn in multiple seasons like the one Antonio Brown just authored for the Steelers.
The guy who doesn’t flash – Jordan Matthews
Sigmund Bloom is the world’s foremost Matthews detractor. Bloom’s also a whirling dervish on Twitter, who’s a genuinely good dude and an awesome fantasy drafter. I like to pay attention to smart people with differing points of view, and he definitely sees the world in almost opposite terms. For example, he recently suggested that watching tape would tell you whether or not a player’s tools were activated and stated that a model is a good place to start a conversation, not finish one.
Is it good if a player’s tools are activated? I mean that in all seriousness. Take for example the idea that Jordan Matthews is overrated. By any objective measure, Matthews is just as athletic as Sammy Watkins and more accomplished on the field. So if these guys are similar athletes, should we assume the more successful one has his tools activated? Or the other way around? Are we supposed to believe that watching tape will show us Watkins’ tools are activated, but he’s just marshaling his actual on-field dominance for the NFL? By the same token, if Matthews has yet to activate his tools, couldn’t that be a good thing? Couldn’t it mean that a crafty NFL position coach will show him how to really use his athleticism? If that’s true, watch out.
This is one of the odd things about Matthews. He was one of the most successful receivers in the history of the nation’s toughest conference – and, again, he’s a good athlete – but he has so little perceived upside the Lions are considering trading up in the first round to select Watkins instead of targeting the Vanderbilt star in the second.
This is at the core of the problem with scouting. Is it better or worse to have technical flaws? My contention would be that the answer must be arbitrary. If you like a guy, the areas where he can improve demonstrate almost unlimited upside (Cordarrelle Patterson is going to magically develop wide receiver skills any second now). If you don’t like a guy, his flaws are uncorrectable and uninteresting.4
I think if there’s anything we can all agree on, it’s that the age 31 through age 33 seasons of Matthews’ second cousin offer a compelling lesson in upside. If you have elite work ethic but only average athleticism, you’re probably going to hit your ceiling early and struggle to improve upon it.
Did I mention that Jordan Matthews is widely considered to have incredible character and work ethic? If only he would activate his tools. 5
I have to admit I think Matthews looks pretty good on these plays, but these plays are cherry-picked. Of course, any video you see purporting to advance a negative thesis about Matthews will also necessarily consist of cherry-picked plays. We have an app for looking at the big picture. It’s called the WR College Career Graph.)
The guy whose age isn’t fully baked in – Brandin Cooks
@lifesyourcup Maybe if it was 3+ years. No evidence at all to suggest that younger players will somehow develop more – it’s not Madden
— Greg Peshek (@NU_Gap) April 14, 2014
I love Greg Peshek’s work. I eagerly await each of his new articles at Rotoworld, but I don’t believe he’s right about this.6 His tweet also offers circumstantial evidence that the age-related inefficiency still exists.
Brandin Cooks is fast, and being fast is very important for small receivers. Brandin Cooks posted an awesome Dominator Rating last year and having a strong Dominator Rating is overwhelmingly the most important trait for any type of receiver. But Brandin Cooks might be even better than those two characteristics suggest because he’s very young and being very young is even more important than most realize.
I have to consistently fight against my own True Believerism and irrational optimism. I have to remind myself that even though Cooks is a much better prospect than was DeSean Jackson, he probably won’t be a better professional simply because Jackson has basically hit his high projection.
I point all of that out so you know not to take me seriously when I say Brandin Cooks looks like he could be some kind of unholy hybrid between what T.Y. Hilton provides for the Colts and what Wes Welker has provided for the Pats and Broncos.
Brandin Cooks is one of the youngest receivers entering the draft in the last decade. And that matters.
The guy who played for a bad Pac-12 team – Paul Richardson
Paul Richardson wasn’t drafted in the RotoViz Rookie Mock 2.0. Out of 36 guys. Our notions about size are starting to creep into the national dialogue, but that still doesn’t explain the relative lack of interest in the Colorado speedster.
Richardson is 175 pounds but otherwise a superstar. He owns the third best projection in the class according to the Games Dominated algorithm. It seems strange to me that pundits often lavish praise on small guys who weren’t particularly good in college, so you can imagine my reverse mystification at the existence of a small guy who was flat out awesome . . . and yet very few seem to care.
Richardson ran a 4.4 at the Combine, and, for someone of his weight, you’d strongly prefer a 4.3 flat. However, the peripheral drills confirm what his Dominator Rating suggests and, ahem, what you see on tape.* His Explosion Score was better than that of Odell Beckham, Sammy Watkins, Devin Street, Bruce Ellington, and Brandin Cooks, all guys who are having their size at least partially excused due to perceived elite athleticism.
* I’m actually not sure what the tape says because when I put on Colorado highlights Richardson is usually the only guy on the screen when he catches the ball. I mean, how am I supposed to know if Richardson excels at the catch point, or has good body control in traffic, or highpoints the ball, if he separates so easily that nobody is ever around?
So, I was obviously kidding, because if you go to the :55 second mark, you’ll see one of the greatest catches in college football history. And then you’ll see a lot of other amazing catches representing those other items sprinkled in. Anyway, those are just highlights, so he may have looked awful on all the plays he wasn’t riding to a .47 DR.
I really don’t understand why Richardson isn’t generating more publicity. We’ve spilled quite a bit of ink talking about how Cooks is probably better than Tavon Austin, but Richardson might be better by an even larger margin and he could fall out of the first three rounds.7
The guy with the sun dial speed – Jarvis Landry
The Fantasy Douche has already examined this parallel between Landry and Keenan Allen. More recently, the Intersect examined Landry and came away convinced he was at least Odell Beckham’s equal.
My thought would be that Landry’s numbers probably say more about Zach Mettenberger being underrated and Beckham being wildly overrated than they do about Landry.8 The only other logical explanation would be that Beckham received the Calvin Johnson treatment, which left Landry essentially uncovered.
The problem with that idea is that Megatron still dominates and his teammates still don’t – because Megatron is awesome and his teammates are, to eschew profanity, not awesome. The problem is that if market share predictability could be so easily thwarted by extra defensive attention, we probably wouldn’t see it show up as such a massively determining factor.
The simplest conclusion about Keenan Allen’s 4.7 forty is that his PCL injury wasn’t anywhere close to being healed. The simplest conclusion concerning Landry’s is that he isn’t an NFL level athlete. His results in the other drills were also quite poor, providing ample support for this thesis.
Anyway, the LSU skill players are pretty unusual because Jeremy Hill also recorded tremendous on-field results despite being able to jump only slightly higher than Michael Sam.9 Maybe Cam Cameron is really a genius.
And the winner is . . .
Who’s going to be the 2014 Keenan Allen? Probably nobody. But maybe one of those five guys. I have a lot of rookie picks this summer,10 and I’m going to try to draft them all.
If you liked this article, you’ll love 8 Breakout WRs You Must Own for 2014.
- Williams is also a great candidate to have a big bounceback season in 2014. (back)
- It’s okay if they bothered you then. (back)
- He was almost 20 at the time. (back)
- Tajh Boyd’s collegiate AYA kind of humiliates the numbers put up by Derek Carr or Tom Savage (back)
- Galileo and Billy Beane would probably tell you a model is a good place to end a conversation. If the model is right. (back)
- For his notion about age to be right, it would have to also contradict what has been demonstrated in other sports. (back)
- Or he might go early in Round 2. This is going to be a crazy draft. (back)
- Beckham is actually a very solid prospect, just not a legitimate choice in the first round of such a deep draft. (back)
- Or me – which is not a group you want to join, unless you think it’s a compliment when your coach yells, “slide a piece of paper under.” (back)
- Because I’ve traded out of 2015 and 2016 almost entirely, which may or may not be what FD meant by delaying gratification. (back)