The 50 Most Precocious College Receiver Seasons of the Decade: 50-26
image credit to Brooke Novak
image credit to Brooke Novak
image credit to Brooke Novak

pre·co·cious

priˈkōSHəs
adjective
having developed certain abilities or proclivities at an earlier age than usual.

Earlier this year, Shawn Siegele opened Pandora’s Box with the article Breakout Age is the Skeleton Key, which factually supported a long-held RotoViz idea that prospect age matters.  Shortly thereafter, I introduced The Phenom Index which was my way of adjusting final season production for age, so that we could more effectively compare prospects of different ages.  Since then, I’ve been full speed ahead with my quest to incorporate age-adjusted metrics into my evaluations of every position on the field.

This article puts a new twist on age-adjusted production.  Since The Phenom Index, I’ve expanded my use of age to be able to score every single season (since 2005) of a college receiver’s career relative to their age.  So, for example, we can look at Sammy Watkins’ age 18 season and compare it to Demaryius Thomas’ age 21 season and answer “which was more impressive” from an age/production perspective.  It’s pretty damn cool.  Similarly, we can use this method to evaluate current college players to see what trajectory they’re on; you’ll see a handful of such players on this list.

Methodology

Using the download of the WR Career Graph app, I had access to about 8,000 individual player seasons between 2005 and 2013 (Technically, that’s nine years and not a decade, but “the decade” sounded better, so I went with that).  From there I plugged in birthdates for as many players I could find and calculated ages for each player season.  Then I created z-scores for age and market share of yards (MSY), such that a “good” age z-score would be lower than average (a negative number) and a good MSY z-score would be well above average (a positive number).  To arrive at the final season score, I subtracted the age z-score from the MSY z-score to get a final number.  To avoid over complicating the matter, I’ve omitted those z-numbers from the article and just provided the raw MSY and age numbers, but I explain this for the sake of transparency.

To be eligible, a player must have appeared in eight games in that season.  Because the goal of this is to create a tool through which we can identify top NFL prospects while they’re still in college, military school players have been removed since we don’t get to see them in the NFL.

The Top 50 by the numbers

42 players account for the 50 seasons.  One special player accounted for three of the top 50 seasons.

36 of the 42 have completed their college careers.  The six who are still in school can be found at positions 50, 27, 22, 21, 8 and 6.

27 of those 36 have been drafted.

17 were picked in the first two rounds.

Of the nine who went undrafted, seven were from non-BCS conferences.  The two power-conference players appear at positions 46 and 42 on this list.

The 50 Most Precocious College Receiver Seasons of the Decade

50)  Tyler Boyd, Pittsburgh, 2013, Age 20.13

As a 20 year old freshman, Boyd hauled in 38.2% of the Panthers’ receiving yards en route to a 1,100 yard, seven touchdown season.  After being held in check in the season opener against eventual National Champion Florida State, Boyd ripped off 21 catches for 399 yards and four touchdowns in his next three games.  Playing in 12 games, Boyd surpassed 80 receiving yards on nine occasions while also contributing more than 100 yards on the ground and 500+ in the return game.  Although he’s older than normal for a freshman, the future looks bright for the young Pitt receiver.

49)  Jarett Dillard, Rice, 2006, Age 21.03

In the first and only year of the Todd Graham/Rice experiment, Jarett Dillard went absolutely bonkers, accounting for 44.8% of the team’s receiving yards.  Catching touchdowns in all 13 games, Dillard found the end zone 21 times for the season, which was six more than anyone else in college football that year.  He was a Biletnikoff finalist and helped Rice end a 45 year bowl drought.  This isn’t his only appearance on this list, but this is the one that everyone remembers.

48)  Jonathan Baldwin, Pittsburgh, 2009, Age 20.39

The 2009 Pitt Panthers went 10 and 3 with their three losses coming by a combined 11 points.  Baldwin was the star of the offense, accounting for 40.4% of the receiving yards in his second-to-last collegiate season. For the year, he posted seven games with 95+ receiving yards and one or more touchdowns.  Ultimately he would become a first round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs, although he has never panned out in the NFL.

47)  Lagregory Sapp, Louisiana-Monroe, 2006, Age 19.45

A forgotten name on a 4-8 Sunbelt team, the 6’2 210 lb. Sapp showed great promise during his sophomore season when he accounted for 34.2% of ULL’s receiving yards.  Unfortunately his career was derailed in 2008 after missing the entire season with academic issues.  Then, after going undrafted in 2010, his life was derailed when a routine traffic stop led to a felony conviction.

46)  Danario Alexander, Missouri, 2009, Age 21.40

Easily one of the most disrespected seasons (and prospects) in recent college football history, Danario Alexander (DX) accounted for 48% of Missouri’s passing yards during the 2009 season.  Catching an astonishing 1,781 yards from then-intriguing Blaine Gabbert, DX ranks 11th on the all-time list for most receiving yards in a season.  In eight of his last ten games, he posted 120+ receiving yards and one or more touchdowns.  Despite leading the nation in receiving yards and ranking fourth in touchdowns, he wasn’t even a Biletnikoff finalist, giving way to Golden Tate, a 24 year old Jordan Shipley and Bowling Green’s Freddie Barnes.  The disrespect continued when the 6’4 215 lb. Alexander went undrafted in the 2010 draft due to concerns about knee injuries.  DX has made a splash in the NFL though with a career average of 50 yards per game and 0.35 touchdowns per game over a 28 game, injury-prone career.

45)  Devier Posey, Ohio State, 2009, Age 19.8

Catching passes from Terrelle Pryor, Devier Posey had a spectacular sophomore campaign, accounting for 36.8% of Ohio State’s receiving yards.  The highlight of his season was the Rose Bowl where he hauled in eight catches for 101 yards and the game-clinching touchdown, which would seal the victory over Chip Kelly’s Oregon squad.  The OSU tattoo scandal in 2011 limited him to just three games, then, after being a third-round selection of the Texans in 2012, he tore his Achilles tendon in the preseason.  He’ll be the third receiver behind Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins this year.

44)  Rueben Randle, LSU, 2011, Age 20.65

For the 2011 LSU team that played for the National Championship, Rueben Randle was the star receiver.  He caught 43% of the team’s receiving yards and hauled in touchdowns in seven games, including key wins against Oregon and at West Virginia.  Unfortunately, Randle was totally shut down by Alabama on two occasions, most disappointingly in the BCS title game.  He’s in line for a huge role with the Giants in 2014.

43)  Robert Woods, USC, 2011, Age 19.72

Lost in the shuffle of Marqise Lee’s epic 2012 and now Sammy Watkins’ arrival in Buffalo, is the fact that Robert Woods is a fantastic receiver.  He caught 36.6% of USC’s receiving yards as a 19 year old sophomore and ranked fifth in the nation in receptions and fifth in receiving touchdowns en route to being named a Biletnikoff finalist.  For the year, he had six multi-touchdown games, all of which came against power-conference opponents, including the riveting late season upset at Oregon.  He ranks second on the PAC12 career receiving touchdown leader board.  Keep an eye on him as a breakout candidate for 2014.

42)  DJ Hall, Alabama, 2006, Age 20.46

In the final season before Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa, Hall was the Tide’s lead receiver, boasting 42.0% of the receiving yards.  Catching passes from John Parker Wilson, Hall posted six 100+ yard games in SEC play en route to 1,056 for the season.  He went over 1,000 yards again in 2007, but a terrible Combine showing and reportedly poor work ethic lead to him never seeing action on Sundays.

41)  Marqise Lee, USC, 2012 Age 21.1

A year after Robert Woods went bananas against the PAC12, Lee followed suit to the tune of 1700 yards and 14 touchdowns. After finishing the season in the top three of receptions, yards and touchdowns, Lee brought home the Biletnikoff award for the nation’s best receiver.  His 2012 season set PAC12 records for receptions and receiving yards, although Brandin Cooks (the must-know rookie of 2014) would break those records in 2013.  For his career, Lee has the eighth-most touchdowns in conference history.

40)  Julio Jones, Alabama, 2008, Age 19.91

Like another Crimson Tide receiver we’ll meet later, Jones was the lead dog in his debut season, hauling in 38.6% of the team’s receiving yards.  Indicative of his precocious talent, Jones caught touchdowns in four of his first five career games.  After a down sophomore campaign, Julio rebounded to go over 1100 yards in his final college season and then dominated the Combine on his way to becoming a first round pick.  Obviously he’s one of the top young pass catchers in the NFL.

39)  James Hardy, Indiana, 2005, Age 20.02

In each of the first six games of his debut season, Hardy caught at least one touchdown.  For the season, he accounted for 39.4% of Indiana’s receiving yards.  Despite only playing 33 career games, Hardy caught 36 touchdowns, good for third most in B1G Ten history.  Ultimately he would become a second round pick of the Buffalo Bills, but surprisingly has been a complete bust in the NFL.

38)  Alshon Jeffery, South Carolina, 2010, Age 20.88

Three years before he emerged as one of the best young receivers in the NFL, Jeffery dominated the college game to the tune of 1500 yards and nine touchdowns.  That year he accounted for 45.4% of South Carolina’s receiving yards, was named a Biletnikoff finalist and posted the second-highest yardage total in SEC history. Despite playing only three seasons in Columbia, he ranks third in SEC history for most career receiving yards.

37)  Kenny Britt, Rutgers, 2008, Age 20.28

In his final season under Coach Greg Schiano, Britt hauled in an outstanding 41.4% of Rutgers’ receiving yards.  He surpassed 85 receiving yards in nine of 12 games and came on strong down the stretch as the Scarlet Knights won the final seven games of their season.  During that stretch, Britt averaged 7-130-1, propelling himself into the first round of the draft.  For his career, he is the Big East’s all-time leader in career receiving yards.

36)  Stephen Hill, Georgia Tech, 2011, Age 20.69

Perhaps a controversial inclusion in this list due to Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense, Hill amassed 44.3% of Tech’s receiving yards in his final season. Doing the most with limited targets, Hill averaged 29.3 yards per catch for the season, which is the fourth-highest average of any receiver since 1956. Unlike fellow Yellow Jackets Calvin Johnson and Demaryius Thomas, Hill has struggled to translate his abilities to the pro game. 2014 is a do-or-die season for him.

35)  Hakeem Nicks, North Carolina, 2006, Age 18.96

As an 18 year old freshman, Nicks led the Tarheels in receiving, accounting for 32.4% of the receiving yards. In his very first college game he caught seven passes for 63 yards and a touchdown against Rutgers.  Steadily contributing throughout the season, Nicks closed the season on a brilliant run, averaging five catches, 108 yards and a touchdown over his final three games, setting the tone for what would be an outstanding college career. We’ll see him again on this list.

34)  Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt, 2013, Age 21.46

Concluding one of the most brilliant college careers in recent memory, Matthews accounted for a whopping 49.9% of Vanderbilt’s receiving yards.  Of the 13 games he played, Matthews surpassed 75 receiving yards in 12 of them. For the year, he posted the third-highest yardage total in SEC history. More to come from Matthews.

33)  Dezmon Briscoe, Kansas, 2008, Age 19.33

Dez Briscoe had a sophomore campaign for the ages, going for 1400 yards and 15 touchdowns, while accounting for 35.4% of KU’s receiving yards. For the season he caught touchdowns in 10 of 15 games, including three multi-touchdown performances. The highlight of the year was the regular-season-ending battle against Missouri where Briscoe went for 9-115-1 while also contributing 195 return yards in his first career performance in that role. For his career, Briscoe ranks ninth in Big12 history for receiving touchdowns and seventh for receiving yards, despite playing only three seasons. He was a sixth round draft pick in 2010 and has seven touchdowns in 25 career professional games.

32)  Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt, 2011, Age 20.46

Before he became Jordan Matthews, the sophomore showed great promise during his 2011 campaign, hauling in 36.7% of Vandy’s receiving yards. The real breakthrough came during the middle part of the season when, in consecutive SEC games against Arkansas, Florida and Kentucky, he averaged 7-150-1. Under Matthews’ leadership, this 2011 season was the start of a three-year bowl-appearance streak, which equals the total number of bowl games Vandy had been to over the previous 50 years.

31)  Hakeem Nicks, North Carolina, 2008, Age 20.96

This was the year when Hakeem Nicks vaulted himself into being a special prospect who would go on to post two top-12 fantasy seasons in the NFL before his 24th birthday. Nicks accounted for 47.3% of the receiving yards, leading the Tarheels to an 8-5 record. For the year, he caught touchdowns in seven games, including three multi-touchdown performances against power-conference foes. The highlight of the season was his brilliant eight catch, 217 yard, three touchdown game against West Virginia in the bowl game to conclude his NCAA career. His 2008 campaign ranks 10th in ACC history for the most receiving yards in a season.

30)  Marquess Wilson, Washington State, 2011, Age 19.29

This is the first of two appearances on the list for Wilson, who posted eight games of 75+ yards and a touchdown during the 2011 season. What’s more spectacular is the fact that he had two games over 220 yards and 2+ touchdowns, becoming one of only seven men to accomplish that feat in a season since 2000. Overall, he accounted for 35.9% of the Cougar’s passing yards that season, while ranking 7th in the NCAA in both receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.

29)  DeAndre Brown, Southern Miss, 2008, Age 19.22

At 6’5 230lbs, DeAndre Brown was absolutely unstoppable during his 2008 debut for Southern Miss. He accounted for 35.4% of the receiving yards in route to an 1,100 yard, 12 touchdown campaign. During the second half of the season, he went on a five game tear that averaged 7 catches, 128 yards and 1.8 touchdowns per game. Sadly, Brown suffered one of the most gruesome injuries you’ll (n)ever want to see during the 2008 bowl game as his tibia (shin bone) basically snapped in half as he came down from a jump ball.  He struggled through the next two seasons with injuries before leaving early for the draft, a move which resulted in him being undrafted.

28)  Marcus Monk, Arkansas, 2006, Age 20.68

Speaking of oversized and over-injured receivers, here’s another unfortunate “what could have been” player. The 6’4 220+lb Razorback receiver accounted for 46% of the receiving yards during the 2006 season that saw Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis “wildcat” their way to a 10 game win streak. Monk was the lead receiver, hauling in 962 yards and 11 touchdowns, including touchdowns in seven of nine SEC games. Sadly, he injured his knee after this season and underwent several surgeries, but was never the same. He slid to the seventh round of the 2008 NFL Draft and never caught a pass in the pros. He has the seventh most career touchdowns in SEC history.

27)  Titus Davis, Central Michigan, 2013, Age 20.99

2013 marked the third consecutive season in which Davis lead the Chips in receiving. For the year, he accounted for 48.7% of the receiving yards and surpassed the century mark in six of 11 games.  Heading into 2014 with one year of eligibility left, Davis is currently ranked as the 11th best senior receiver in college football.

26)  Calvin Johnson, Georgia Tech, 2006, Age 21.26

You knew this was coming, right? Megatron’s 2006 paved the way for him to become the #2 overall pick in the 2007 Draft. He accounted for 50.6% of Tech’s receiving yards en route to a 1200 yard, 15 touchdown season, as the Yellow Jackets made it all the way to the ACC Championship game.  Astonishingly, Johnson was held under 30 yards receiving on four occasions. The highlight of the season was his 6-115-2 performance in an upset win at #11 Virginia Tech. Calvin caught touchdowns in 10 of 14 games to cap off a career that ranks him as the sixth most prolific touchdown catcher in ACC history. For his accomplishments, Megatron was named a consensus All-American and took home the Biletnikoff award for the nation’s top wide receiver.

To see the top 25, proceed to part two of the list.

Jon Moore is a contributor at RotoViz and a coach at RotoAcademy.  Continue this conversation with him on Twitter or Google+.

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