Does an unproductive rookie year spell doom for the young receiver?
Typically, we’ve been conditioned to believe that the long view is the best way to think of young players. In some ways, that’s true — we won’t know for a fact that a team has missed on their evaluation until late in the process.
But we might have some leading indicators that give us a clue. Our ability to determine quarterback quality seems to be accelerating and we can have clearer conclusions sooner than we did before on how a signal caller’s career is going to play out. If that’s true for the game’s most cerebral position, shouldn’t it be true for positions that are theoretically easier to learn?
In that case, we can at least develop soft conclusions about the long-term prospects based on their first year.
I was inspired in part to write this post by a first-year analysis of Jaelen Strong by the data-driven fantasy football website Rotoviz, where they compared his progress to the perpetually almost-ready-to-breakout Cody Latimer.
It was a somewhat compelling analysis — essentially arguing that all third-round starting-quality receivers had fairly good rookie years — but I wanted to be forward-looking instead of backward-looking (I wanted to ask “how many rookies were as unproductive as Laquon Treadwell and how did they pan out” instead of asking “what did the best overall receivers look like as rookies”) and I wanted to focus on first- and second-round receivers instead of third-round receivers, who tend to be much worse in the NFL than fans typically assume.
Think about it this way: since the 2011 draft class, the most productive third-round receiver is Terrance Williams, who Dallas Cowboys fans seem to hate. Only four of the 54 receivers drafted in the third round between 2002 and 2012 average over 50 yards per game — or 800 yards per year. As a group overall, third-round players in that set average 22 yards per game, or 352 yards per season.
That isn’t a dataset I wanted to draw from, because there’s every possibility that it could be polluted by the fact that third-round receivers just aren’t that good, and adding them to the comparison set would make Treadwell look worse just by happenstance.
Not only that, it’s possible that first- and second-round receivers get every opportunity to get on the field, where third-round receivers may be forced to prove themselves early or not at all.
Between 2002 and 2012, there were 35 receivers who were drafted in the first two rounds who appeared in at least one game and posted under 300 yards receiving for the season. Only three of them ended up as 800+ yard receivers — Demaryius Thomas, Vincent Jackson and Golden Tate — while the rest of them fell short.
The next two most productive receivers that follow are not who Vikings fans would want Treadwell to aspire to: Rueben Randle and the Steve Smith who played for the Giants.
I ran some numbers to see if there was anything from college, the draft process or a player’s rookie year that would suggest that they’d still be able to succeed after a poor rookie showing. I wanted to see if there were commonalities between Thomas, Tate and Jackson, with some relationship to Smith, Randle or even Michael Jenkins.
I was able to create a model that was surprisingly strong in that capacity (for the nerds: r of 0.58 and r2 of .336), but it should be noted that it’s built off three successes and 35 players, so there’s a lot of wiggle room.
The four players it identified as having the best chances to break out were Charles Rogers, Thomas, Jackson and Tate. Smith ended up seventh and Randle was 13th.
The important factors were rookie yards per game (it’s good to have at least 20 yards per game as a rookie, even in a bad rookie year), draft pick (lower picks get need to do more to get on the field, so it turned out that the lower the pick the better), rookie targets per game and college receiving production (as a percentage of team passing yards).
Treadwell fares poorly in many of the categories that suggest room for redemption. He averaged 1.7 yards per game, averaged 0.33 targets per game — the average in the set was 2.4 targets per game, while the three successes averaged 2.2 — and was a higher-than-average draft pick at 23. His best showing was in college receiving share, where he earned 35 percent of his team’s receiving yards.
Even in his best category, there’s room to worry. The breakout receivers earned over 40 percent of their team’s receiving yards and it seems like there’s a high threshold in that category in terms of identifying who can overcome their poor rookie seasons.
Players who had poor rookie years in the NFL and earned at least 40 percent of their college team’s receiving yards averaged twice as many as those poor rookie performers with fewer than 40 percent of their team’s receiving yards.
Altogether, Treadwell’s profile is substantially worse than all three of the successes while also being worse than the three biggest failures.
In fact, when compared to the 35 players in the data, Treadwell has the single-worst performance by percentile and the third-worst performance by the weighted model.
There’s some quibbling with the model that doesn’t match intuitive expectations.
What didn’t matter, weirdly, were age or athleticism. While both of those are significant factors for predicting performance from players in college, once a player had entered the NFL (as a receiver) whatever benefits they should have from age or athleticism should reveal itself quickly.
I’m skeptical of both of those conclusions and I think that there’s a good chance that such a limited sample size overemphasized some factors (like draft pick) and underemphasized other factors, like age. Unfortunately, any version of a model that includes age would penalize younger players, not boost them.
The draft-year age (on Dec. 31 of their final college year) of the three breakout receivers was 21.8 years old and the average age of all of the receivers in the set was 21.7 years old. The players who showcased the least improvement (A.J. Jenkins, Taylor Jacobs, James Hardy and Limas Sweed) averaged 21.7 years old.
That’s not great for Treadwell, whose best argument is probably his youth.
Treadwell isn’t doomed. This analysis cannot be definitive, simply because there haven’t been that many early-round draft pick receivers who didn’t produce as rookies. Even if there were a good number of rookies to draw data from, this would tell us — at best — a probable range of outcomes, not a definitive one.
Two of the breakout players, Jackson and Thomas, were plagued with injury problems their rookie years and missed games because of it. They may not, therefore, be the best comparative examples — and the model is built off their successes by necessity.
Intuitively, arguments about the former Ole Miss receiver’s age, his potentially still-recovering leg and uniquely physical play may overcome these historical factors. He did have some injury issues in his rookie year, notably a foot injury and thumb injury that impacted his status in at least two games, if not more. Not only that, there could be some general suspicion against rookies from this coaching staff that didn’t impact the other players in the dataset.
Those arguments should be considered, though they don’t very much compel me. Treadwell is more than a year removed from his horrific injury, and the issues described by the Vikings coaching staff were mental, not physical.
In late September, head coach Mike Zimmer told media that Treadwell’s issue was that “he was thinking too much,” and a day later substantiated it with specific issues about how deliberate he’s been in practice planning out steps in route, hitting the right route depths and so on.
Route depth is one of the things that his college coach identified as one of the key challenges he’ll have had to overcome in his NFL transition.
In November, Zimmer mentioned that Treadwell had suffered (and recovered from) a foot injury, but that his primary issue was that he was “pressing” too much. That was the week he was slated to start, then found himself behind Cordarrelle Patterson on the depth chart to see no targets in that game.
The Zimmer staff may be a little hostile to rookie playing time, but they’ve also not been shy about putting rookies in positions to succeed when injuries occur. Aside from the fact that Anthony Barr started immediately and Eric Kendricks didn’t take much time earning a starting spot on the team, both Stefon Diggs and Teddy Bridgewater took on starting roles in response to injury and didn’t give them up.
T.J. Clemmings did something sort of similar, and actually has the second-most starts out of all of the draft picks in the Zimmer era (which is depressing in its own way). Shamar Stephen started three games as a rookie and Jerick McKinnon started six.
That wouldn’t be relevant except for the fact that the Vikings had four different receivers start at least seven games. Injuries to both Diggs and Charles Johnson (as well as Johnson’s shaky hold on the starting gig in the first place) gave Treadwell every opportunity in the world to earn more playing time and he didn’t eke it out.
There are reasons to hold off on declaring Treadwell a bust this early in his career. There are especially reasons that the data used to project poorly performing rookies doesn’t apply to Treadwell—it’s a small sample, it doesn’t capture the wide range of reasons a player might fail early, the best players in the set are outliers, it doesn’t match intuitive expectations, and so on.
But I think there are a lot more reasons to worry than there are to simply say none of these early returns matter. And that should impact how the Vikings evaluate the receiver position going forward.