Position Progression: Wide Receivers
Gordon McGuinness takes the position progression looks to the first-round wide receiver group of the PFF Era.
Position Progression: Wide Receivers
Everybody expects their star rookie to step into the NFL and dominate the way they did throughout their college career without so much as a hiccup, but it doesn’t always work that way, in fact it rarely does.
We’ve looked at every draft pick of the PFF era and analyzed their expected progression based on both snaps and grade and the bottom line is you are doing well if your rookie plays at an above average level in his first season in the league. There isn’t a single position that projects first year players to perform better than the league average and some positions project them to play far below it. Though the NFL has become all about immediate results, despite notable exceptions the draft still remains about acquiring talent for the future, not necessarily the present.
Wide receiver is often a position that is regarded as being very boom or bust when it comes to selecting one in the first round of the draft, with impressive college careers and measurables sometimes simply not translating to the NFL. Still, in a league that has become so powered by the passing game, finding a receiver that can take over a game is still a high priority for teams around the league.
Players drafted in the first round usually perform slightly below average in their rookie campaigns, with the 23 wide receivers we have seen a rookie year from averaging an overall grade of -1.4. That’s not terrible, and it’s dragged down by some poor rookie seasons, with nine of those 23 finishing their rookie year with a positive grade.
There’s a slight increase in the average grade for first-round receivers in their second year, moving to +1.1, but we also see an increase in the number of receivers posting much better grades. For example, in recent years we have seen Julio Jones, Dez Bryant and A.J. Green combine to grade at +34.0 in Year 2, after combining to grade at +0.8 as rookies.
There’s again a small increase from the second year to the third, with first-rounders averaging an overall grade of +1.7 in year three, but what’s interesting is that this is as high as the average gets for a receiver drafted in the first round in their first five seasons in the league. The number dips slightly to +1.5 in Year 4 and falls to a negative (-1.1) in Year 5.
When you look at receivers drafted in Rounds 2 to 4, the average grade is fairly similar by Year 5 (-2.1), but that number is dragged down by several receivers who performed really poorly even when seeing fewer snaps. What’s interesting is that teams seem to show more faith in receivers who struggle than with other positions which is perhaps a reflection on a belief that they can coach them up, with drops the main thing that hurts a receiver’s grade.
Best Case Scenario
As we said earlier, teams are looking for that receiver that can take over a game and, after several Top-10 disasters at the position, the Detroit Lions finally found that in Calvin Johnson, though it did take him until his fourth season to post a grade that was better than average. Statistically, he put up impressive numbers in those first three years, but also had a Drop Rate of 11.06.
Fast forward to his fourth year and beyond and not only had Johnson grown in terms of his ability to produce big plays and take over games, but his Drop Rate through the past four years is just 6.31. To put that in perspective, his first three seasons would be comparable to where the 34th-ranked receiver finished last year, while through the past four years his mark was similar to the ninth-ranked receiver.
Obviously, Johnson’s improved hands have helped lead to an increase in his grade over his career, but it’s also clear that he has developed into one of the — if not the — most feared receivers in the game. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out like that…
Worst Case Scenario
While Johnson had all the measurables you could want coming out of Georgia Tech in 2007, he also had the on-the-field production to warrant such a high selection. Sometimes team’s get taken in by a gaudy showing at the scouting combine, though, and the poster boy for such mistakes is Darrius Heyward-Bey. Running the 40-yard dash in a blistering 4.3 seconds at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, the Oakland Raiders drafted him with the seventh overall pick in 2009. The problem for him through, has been for all that speed, he just can’t seem to hang onto the ball.
As a rookie he saw 14 catchable passes thrown his way, dropping five of them, and things haven’t really improved since. Throughout his five-year career he has now dropped 33 of the 202 catchable passes he has seen. That’s led to a 16.33 Drop Rate and an overall cumulative grade of -52.9 and a receiving grade of -48.0 from 2794 snaps. Signing with the Pittsburgh Steelers this offseason, his third team since entering the league, it doesn’t look likely that he’ll be turning the corner anytime soon.
The Path Most Trodden
So you’re drafting a receiver early in the draft and are hoping for Calvin Johnson and desperately trying to avoid Darrius Heyward-Bey. Well, when searching for the Path Most Trodden for a first round wide receiver, the most logical option is Dwayne Bowe.
Bowe’s average grade through his first five years in the league was +2.7 and, while he is capable of looking better or worse than that, he’s generally a solid receiver who’s important enough to keep around, while not being the game-changer than everyone craves.
Some of his best work came as a rookie in 2007, where he racked up 995 yards and an average of 14.2 yards per catch while dropping just five of the 75 catchable passes thrown his way. The type of receiver that doesn’t end a team’s search for someone like Johnson, but gives them a reliable target who is capable of big plays, few teams would be disappointed if they receiver they drafted this year had a similar career to Bowe.
See the progression at other positions:
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Gordon McGuinness | Analyst, Lead Special Teams Analyst
Gordon has worked at PFF since 2011, and now heads up the company’s special teams analysis processes. His work in-season focuses on college football, while he is also heavily involved in PFF’s NFL draft coverage.