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Wide Receiver Size and Survivorship Bias

From 2007 to 2013, NFL wideouts posted 37 different 1,000 yard receiving seasons. Almost half, 16, came from “small” guys who weighed 200 pounds or less. Last season, five of the top 10 fantas y wide receivers weighed 200 pounds or less. Does that mean WR size doesn’t matter? Not at all. It does matter. A lot.

Yesterday I read this article by Philly Mag’s Sheil Kapadia. In it, Ed Marynowitz, the VP of Player Personnel for the Philadelphia Eagles, had this to say:

“Big picture wise, you want to play with the odds, not against the odds. And the odds are telling you that the majority of these guys that are under this certain prototype do not play at a starting level in the NFL. If you have seven draft picks, do you really want to waste one, especially in the top three rounds, on a guy that history is telling you… typically these guys with these types of measurables don’t produce at this level?…”I think size/speed wins,” Marynowitz said. “[Chip] brought up the line, Nick Saban used the same line, big people beat up little people. There’s a reason why heavyweights don’t fight the lightweights. This is a big man’s game. For what we do offensively, especially at the receiver position and their involvement in the run game in terms of blocking for us, I think size matters in that aspect as well.”

Pause and let that sink in. The Eagles are saying size matters, and even suggest that to ignore this concept would be to waste a draft pick. That’s not a new idea at RotoViz, and to be honest, it’s not a new idea in football either. Can players who lack “the requisite size” be successful? Of course. Can you build a winning team by searching only for those exceptions to the rule? Probably not.

A Big Pond

We’ve written extensively about the issue of size, especially at the wide receiver position, so I won’t rehash all of those arguments. What I will do is point out a different angle that demonstrates the importance of weight. Discussions of WR size are typically framed in terms of players already on, or drafted by, NFL teams. But that’s not really the entire pool of receivers. The entire pool of receivers includes all the WRs available to the NFL.

I culled my database and came up with two WR cohorts. First, I found 5,759 FBS players, from 2007 to 2013, who were listed as a WR, flanker, or split end, and for whom I have height and weight.1 Then, for the same date range, I found 187 wide receivers drafted by the NFL. This first table shows the percentage of receivers in five pound increments for each cohort.

wt1

A much greater percentage of college receivers play at lighter weights. Remember, these are NFL draftees, so it’s not like they had a few seasons to mature and pack on weight.

This table shows the cumulative percent of receivers at each weight increment.

wtwt

 

The average college receiver is 190 pounds. The average NFL draftee? 199 pounds. Looked at differently, three times as many NFL draftees2 weigh over 205 pounds.

One more chart to really drive home the fact that the NFL values size. This chart shows the percentage of total college WRs versus the percentage of CFB players drafted by the NFL.

 

mcheavy

A college WR weighing more than 205 pounds has more than double the chance of being drafted as a receiver below that weight.  Another example: just over two percent of college receivers in the 170 – 175 pound weight range were drafted, while more than double that, 4.8 percent, of those in the 200 – 205 pound cohort were drafted. The point is that there are a lot of small wide receivers out there. But the NFL game doesn’t mirror the pool of college receivers. Only a relatively small – or in this case, heavy – subset of college receivers make it to the NFL.

Heavy Duty

Let’s assume that talent is independent of size, and is evenly distributed across the weight spectrum. If that’s true, then weight clearly has value in and of itself. Otherwise we’d see many more small receivers, since the pool of available lightweight college receivers is much larger than the pool of heavy receivers. Take a look at the raw numbers of players.

Weight CFB NFL Draftee NFL PCT
< 195 3829 79 2.1%
> 195 1930 108 5.6%

Despite a talent pool twice as large, the likelihood of a receiver weighing less than 195 pounds being drafted is less than half that of a receiver weighing more than 195 pounds. Size matters.

Survivorship Bias

The main point of this work is to emphasize something Brian Burke at Advanced Football Analytics said eloquently. Instead of weight, he’s talking about speed, but the same mechanism is at work.

Measurable aspects of performance such as speed, strength, and agility do matter greatly. But the statistical comparisons of the numbers are misleading because we can only observe a small subset of the overall population of players. In other words, instead of comparing the athletic potential of all the amateur players, we are comparing the potential of players ‘given they were invited to the combine’ and ‘given that they were chosen in the draft’…We trick ourselves into believing that these attributes don’t matter when they really do. It’s just that we only get to observe the very best players who have survived an extreme selection process. After surviving selection the differences among players in measurable attributes is swamped by their differences in “error,” which is just shorthand for “all the other stuff that affects career success.”

What does that mean? It means that a small receiver who was good enough to stand out from the crowd of collegiate receivers and earn an NFL draft selection has a significant amount of something else (speed, talent, etc.) that compensates for his weight.

To take it a step further, a lightweight receiver who is good enough to not only get drafted, but stick on a roster and make a significant impact in the NFL really has a lot of something else that compensates for his weight. In other words, when a Steve Smith or Antonio Brown happens, it doesn’t mean weight doesn’t matter. It just means they’re exceptionally rare in some other way.

So if you look at NFL production, and think the production difference between light and heavy receivers isn’t significant, or that small receivers are just as good as big receivers, you might be right.3 But you’re also wrong. It would be more accurate to say “the surviving small receivers are as good (or even better) as the surviving big receivers.”

Conclusion

When you look at the total pool of available talent, it’s very obvious that weight matters a lot. The number of small receivers that survive the college-to-pro gauntlet is really small, in both raw and percentage terms. The exceptional small receiver is a rarity. Circling back to the beginning of the article, the Eagles are saying the same thing. They’re playing the odds, and looking for hits where they’re most likely to be found – tipping the scales.

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  1. FBS schools account for 87 percent of NFL rosters, so this seems like a good proxy for the universe of collegiate talent.  (back)
  2. 30 percent, vs. just 10 percent of CFB receivers.  (back)
  3. Probably not though. Two-thirds of the very best WRs were bigger than average.  (back)

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