PFF Debate: Is Rashard Higgins a better WR prospect than Will Fuller?

Sam Monson and Mike Renner debate whether the super-productive Higgins should come off the board ahead of the speedster Fuller.

| 6 months ago
(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

PFF Debate: Is Rashard Higgins a better WR prospect than Will Fuller?

Notre Dame wide receiver Will Fuller is being projected by some evaluators as a first-round pick in the 2016 NFL draft, after a season in which he ranked No. 1 in the nation in deep-ball catch rate.

That’s part of the reason why PFF analyst Michael Renner likes him as one of the top WRs in this class, but colleague Sam Monson isn’t nearly as convinced. In fact, he prefers a smaller-school wideout who doesn’t have nearly the same 40-yard dash time, but much higher PFF grades: Colorado State’s Rashard Higgins.

Which is the better receiver prospect? Mike and Sam debate:

Sam Monson: Mike, you and I see this receiver class very differently, at least when it comes to a few specific receivers. Nowhere is that difference greater than when it comes to Rashard Higgins from Colorado State and Will Fuller from Notre Dame.

I love Higgins, despite average (at best) measurables, and I wouldn’t touch Fuller before the third round despite his blazing 40-yard dash time of 4.32 seconds. You don’t view it that way, do you?

Michael Renner: I do have the exact opposite opinion. I don’t believe measurables tell a better story than the game tape, but athletic outliers in either direction need to be examined. Higgins put up fantastic numbers over the previous two seasons, there is no denying that, but in every draft class there is always some small-school receiver putting up video-game numbers. Most can’t get open in the pros. Heck, Mike Hass even did it in the Pac-10 and he couldn’t crack a starting lineup. What works in the Mountain West doesn’t necessarily work against Darrelle Revis.

And I think it’s been fairly well shown that a 4.64 40-yard dash tends not to work in the NFL, either.

Sam Monson: Other than that Jerry Rice 4.71 40 time. But hell, we know that’s an outlier.

Writing about Higgins gets me into some trouble, because I keep wanting to compare him to Hall of Fame or All-Pro players. I’m not saying he’s that good, it’s just that those are the natural comparisons for him. I’ll admit the pedestrian workout numbers give me pause for concern, but I think his production can trump it in a similar way to Rice’s. Mike Hass had a nice few seasons, but he never caught more than 7 TDs in a single season. He finished with 20 career TD receptions. Higgins had 17 in 2014 alone.

Rice’s numbers were even more ridiculous, albeit at a lower level. Rice put up 1,845 yards and 28 touchdowns in 11 games, which might explain how he became arguably the greatest WR to ever play despite that 4.7.

It’s been suggested that a better way of measuring WR production is in terms of “market share of production” both in terms of yards and touchdown catches. Essentially, what percentage of the team marks was that one player responsible for? Higgins accounted for 51.5 percent of the team’s touchdown catches in 2014 and 42.2 percent of the receiving yards. Putting those two together gives you an average of 46.9 percent, which according to Rotoviz’s “Dominator Rating” gives him top-15 value. Our grading supports the same idea; give Higgins an effective QB, like he had in 2014, and he was one of the highest-graded receivers in the nation.

Last year the three highest receiving grades we gave were to Amari Cooper, Tyler Lockett, and Higgins. All three were higher than any mark this year by a good distance. The first two guys look pretty useful so far.

Michael Renner: That’s a nice anecdote, Sam, but no one else among the top 10 receiving grades last year cracked 500 yards as a rookie. Again, college production is a great thing, but it’s far from a surefire indicator of NFL success, especially when it comes against low-level competition.

You’ve yet to describe any part of Higgins’ game that you think will translate to him being a starting receiver in the NFL, besides him being slow not mattering because the greatest receiver of all-time was slow. I hate to break it to you, but the 4.71 time that gets thrown around is a myth. Just like Bo Jackson didn’t run a full 10th of a second faster than Chris Johnson.

Even if Rice was slow, he came into the league over 30 years ago. The 100-meter dash world record has dropped by .35 seconds in that time. The NFL has gotten faster across the board. You can be slow at receiver, and you can be small at receiver, but you can’t be slow and small, unless you’re a slot receiver only. It will be very difficult for him to get off of corners that are much bigger, much faster, and jump far higher than him, no matter how well he sets up his routes.

Oh, and since you threw it out there, Fuller’s “Dominator Rating” last season was 46.5 percent. That’s only a small shade below Higgins’ 2014 figure and a good deal better than Higgins’ 2015 rating of 36.5 percent. And Fuller did it with a backup quarterback playing against Power-5 competition, unlike Higgins, who had the third quarterback selected in the 2015 draft (Garrett Grayson) throwing to him and faced only three Power-5 teams all year.

Sam Monson: Injuries accounted for a couple of those well-graded rookies not showing up, and I’m far from writing off another two (Nelson Agholor and Jaelen Strong), who were both a little raw.

I think the difference in grading is key, too. He wasn’t just in the top 10, he was right there with Cooper and Lockett, significantly higher than the rest, especially when snaps are taken into account. His grade per snap was actually the highest in the nation.

I think you’re underselling college production. The key is to look at the right kind of production. Maybe raw statistics don’t translate well, but I think grade is a more telling factor.

As for what he does well: There actually isn’t much he doesn’t do well. He runs some of the best routes of the class, has a great feel for setting up defensive backs and drifting away from them with subtle moves. He’s fantastic after the catch despite the measurables, having averaged more than 16 yards per reception on bubble screens over the last two seasons. And pretty much every time the ball is in the air deep and you want him to go and get it, he comes down with the football.

Maybe he doesn’t have a wealth of tape versus the Power-5, but what he does have is still impressive.

Michael Renner: I’m glad you brought up bubble screens! Because while they are a nice skill to have, they are far less prevalent in the NFL, with some teams not using them at all. In Higgins’ vaunted 2014 season, 26.6 percent of his yards and 23.9 percent of his receiving grade came on screens. That’s a quarter of his production that will almost completely vanish in the NFL.

On the other hand, Fuller had only 8.2 percent of his yards come via screens.

It is also debatable whether his Power-5 tape is still as productive as you made it seem. In three Power-5 matchups over the last two years, Higgins put up a +5.2 grade on 218 snaps, compared to a +48.2 grade on 991 versus non-Power-5 competition. So while he played well, it’s fair to say he saw a significant reduction in performance against better schools. And in Higgins’ one matchup with a true NFL talent, he didn’t have a single catch against Utah cornerback Eric Rowe (the Eagles’ second-round pick in 2015) on one target, despite being matched up often in their bowl game matchup (he had seven catches for 109 yards against other Utah defensive backs).

Sam Monson: The WR screens thing was more an illustration of what he can do with the ball in his hands. The NFL runs enough short, quick routes to give him that opportunity, and it’s not like it was just free yardage — the grading matches the gaudy raw totals on those plays. Despite the measurables, Higgins can do damage when he has the ball.

The point in all of this was to say that despite his poor measurables, Higgins can really play, whereas Fuller’s impressive raw totals have never had a correspondingly good grade.

He is fast, and can burn past college defensive backs, but he doesn’t go up to get the ball, and his hands are bad. Meaning you’re relying on teaming him up with a quarterback who goes deep often and can make those passes accurately, because if they’re not on the money, Fuller is not challenging defensive backs for a contested catch well.

Mike Wallace teamed with Ben Roethlisberger was a devastating weapon, but in two different places since then he has been an expendable letdown for precisely the same limitations that Fuller has. Ted Ginn has barely been able to cling onto rosters until he landed in Carolina and the Panthers were forced to live with his drops because of their ability to take advantage of his deep speed.

Speed is great, but without the rest of the WR skill set it’s a very dependent skill, and not that valuable overall. What Higgins can do is valuable everywhere.

Michael Renner: I think you’re underrating what speed does to opposing defenses. Fuller will never be Antonio Brown or Julio Jones in terms of being one of the league’s best wideouts, but pair him with a true No. 1 receiver and defenses will be pushed to their limits. Unless you have two legit corners, there will be defensive schemes that you simply can’t run for fear of giving up a big play to Fuller. That has value.

While you mentioned two extreme examples of why speed isn’t all that matters, receivers like T.Y. Hilton, DeSean Jackson, and Torrey Smith have all done fairly well for themselves without being able to win many contested catches. And Fuller’s 40 time and college stats trump all of those guys by a good margin. The man averaged over 25 yards per target on pure go routes last year! That’s per target, not per catch — an absurdly good number.

The reason why it’s crazy to have a third-round grade on Fuller is because his floor is so high. At the absolute worst, he’s Ted Ginn, a man who’s already had a nine-year NFL career as a No. 2 or 3 receiver. That’s far better than the majority of guys that go in the third round.

Sam Monson: I’d say the only reason Ginn is still on an NFL roster is because of his return skills. It took Carolina going into injury crisis at WR to get him back into a real role there. As a stone-handed deep threat alone, he wasn’t worth the snaps.

Higgins, on the other hand, can succeed at all levels and on all routes. I’ll take that guy every time.

  • Tim Edell

    Great discussion and very valuable points in regards to both players. While I wouldn’t draft Fuller in the 1st round due to his hands and mainly ball skills he, as Mike pointed out, does so much to open up an offense. Higgins to me is a 4th round pick who will struggle getting open in the NFL. While I love PFF I think sometimes grades are used too much, especially in Higgins case, to project future NFL success. Before the year Sam loved Kessler from USC because of his huge grade last year but after watching him play it instantly struck me this guy, at best, is an 8-10 year career backup. Anyways, great article!!

    • Chris

      Higgins is a post/ quick cut WR very talented ( the lost of how QB whow was a senior and I believe their was a couch change which effected his numbers ) he may not be they fasts but his ball skills are just like Amari Cooper was, I hope they vikings or Tennessee or even they panthers bring him in as UFA. He’s worth a shot ( I’ve loved him for they last 2 years) but he can make they jump

  • Michael

    Higgins had a down year, for him, yet the talent is there. In the third to fourth round he’s excellent value. Three keys are good health and more importantly quarterback/scheme and three, being a no. 2 receiver.

    Solid investment.

    Fuller made too many big plays, consistently, to not have value, yet in the first round is too rich, despite any team’s need.

    He is best slotted in the third or fourth round too and used as a 2nd or 3rd receiver.

    • Chris

      They other thing is Higgs had a freshman QB their numbers are always low for they QB and their star WR

      • Michael

        Excellent point Chris. Grayson was outstanding. Stevens was new and learning.

        • James Divirgilio

          Tajae sharpe is a great example of a small school wr who i along with the titans staff belive will b a great nfl wr, he punished defenses in ncaa and has already most likely won the staring job catching passes from super mario, even tho he is from a small school like umass…