Combing the Combine to Uncover Pass Catchers

Recently, we looked at whether or not it was possible to predict NFL performance from collegiate linebackers based on their workout scores and college performance. As a position of need for the Vikings, it may end up being critical that the Vikings seek out any advantage they can when finding the right linebacker.

That may be true for the wide receiver position as well. Despite the offseason hype, Charles Johnson ended the season with nine receptions and 127 yards, finishing the year as a healthy scratch. The Vikings cut Mike Wallace, their second-most productive wide receiver, and were completely in the right to.

Only one player on the roster had more than 500 receiving yards last year, and that is the same player who is alone on the roster for having ever broken 600 yards in any season in their NFL career: Stefon Diggs.

While a legitimate debate may rage on for whether or not Diggs is a “true #1” the answer to that question ultimately doesn’t matter; the Vikings need another wide receiver, despite the Vikings’ potential insistence otherwise.

As with linebackers, can we use college production and offseason workouts to improve our odds?

Yes, we can!

Workout scores, and age-adjusted production metrics—largely based on the work that Rotoviz has done in predicting receiver performance—can give us a good idea of which receivers will outperform their draft position in the NFL.

Once again, we can look at a slideshow of round-contextual busts and booms, sorted by receiver score:

Feature receivers are hits in round one, starting receivers are hits in round two, and players who stuck around the league for quite a few years or had some excellent flashes were hits in round three—poring over the round three receivers really drives home how difficult it is to get a starter in those rounds. Like with linebackers, there were three groups. One of scores over 8.0, scores between 6.0 and 8.0 and scores below 6.0.

In the second round, there’s not a good track record of the best scores revealing the best receivers, and it may be an indication of general managers overcorrecting by moving players into the second round over better receivers in the third round too often because of their measurables, but the pattern of avoiding those with scores below 6.0 remains clear.

For what it’s worth, it certainly seems like it’s easier to find linebackers in round three than receivers.

I did the work to find out how many “adjusted” yards a receiver will earn, on average, each season—that gives five yards for each reception and twenty for each touchdown—based on their draft position. Then I found how many adjusted yards above their expected output each receiver scored and ran it against the receiver scores. The first table shows every receiver with the score above a particular number and the second one shows every receiver with a score below a particular number.

In either case, it’s pretty clear: higher receiver scores are good, and teams should try to grab players with scores of eight and above, and avoid players below a score of six. Here are the results:

WR Score vs Expected (Both)

For those interested in the math of it all, the receiver score has a correlation coefficient of 0.48 with adjusted receiving yards per year, and you can find a scatterplot of the data here and the residual plot here.

Given that only five receivers out of 22 with a score of four or lower were hits—and not spectacular ones at that—it may be prudent to strike them off a board entirely, or at least wait until the end of the third round.

Now that we have that, let’s look at this year’s crop of wide receivers, with age-adjusted production and athleticism in mind:

WR Combine Score

Here, the worries are about Laquon Treadwell, Will Fuller, Tyler Boyd and Pharoh Cooper early on, with Cooper and Boyd off of our score-based list. Treadwell’s production—once accounting for age and the relative expected draft position of his teammates—is fine, but his pro day was abysmal. It wasn’t just a bad 40-yard dash (4.63 seconds) that hurts him, but extremely poor explosion numbers (a vertical leap of 33.5 inches and a broad jump of 9’8″ at only 216 pounds).

Since 2005, only one receiver (Kelvin Benjamin) ran a 40-yard dash slower than 4.60 seconds and has averaged 1000 yards a season. Only three other receivers slower than that speed have averaged more than 300 yards a season (Devin Funchess, Mohamed Sanu and Mohamed Massaquoi).

Though many may point to players like Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, the fact of the matter is that both of those players ran faster than 4.60 at their pro days (in fact, Larry Fitzgerald never ran the slow 40-time many attribute to him, running a 4.48 at his pro day, while never having run at the combine).

There is one significant exclusion: Keenan Allen, whose pro day numbers aren’t in many databases because he was too injured to run at his school’s pro day and set up a separate one at a later date, where he ran a 4.71. Given that his injuries continued into training camp, it’s safe to assume he ran that 40-yard dash injured.

Treadwell’s broken ankle late in his second-to-last year may have impacted both his production and athleticism, and his continuous improvement through his final college year speaks to the possibility that injury inhibited him and that may have extended all the way to his pro day. Even then, a player showing signs of slow injury recovery is worthy of a red flag and if he can’t get up to form more than a year later, this data may be capturing a different kind of warning sign.

Leonte Carroo and Sterling Shepard remain mid-round sleepers, and Ricardo Louis is an extremely intriguing late-round option. At the top of the draft, only Michael Thomas and Corey Coleman stick out, while Josh Doctson’s age concerns (incorporated into the model) should be washed away with his adequate production and high-level athleticism.

Despite Braxton Miller’s age and production, the fact that the model corrects for teammate draft position may be a boon or it could be a sign that the model is too confident in him. His athleticism, much like Cordarrelle Patterson’s in 2013, is really all that we know to be good about his game, despite rave reviews at the Senior Bowl.

Players like Geronimo Allison may seem like a worry after a poor combine showing, but he showed significant improvement at his pro day, and had good age-adjusted production at Illinois.

The German receiver, Mortiz Boehringer, last a member of the Schwäbisch Hall Unicorns, may also be a case where the numbers “lie”—the production aspect of his score is drawn from his performance in the German Football League. On one hand, it may be unfair to use a production score for a player competing against adults much older than him, but on the other hand, that level of competition may still be lower than a Division III school—meaning that the fact that he was young for the league would be irrelevant.

He wasn’t the leading receiver in the league, nor even on his own team. His production score isn’t awful, but it’s much lower than his athleticism score. It’s difficult to tell what to do with that case, but his athleticism score by itself would give him an 9.9, a huge green light.

Within this list, there are only three aggressive targets projected to be drafted at wide receiver and seven reasonable targets, with some intriguing names in the UDFA market afterwards.

However, despite the fact that Josh Doctson looks clean here, an alternate method that takes into account athleticism, age and college production can create some worry. By weighting the method to only look for busts instead of trying to find the best values, we can flag about 20% of receivers in a given draft year and be right on about 70% of them.

Basically, it creates an expected yardage model for receivers based on their college production and tested athleticism and runs it against the expected yardage gained for a receiver based on their draft position. If the difference between the expected yardage from draft position and the yardage expected from athleticism and college production is too large, a receiver will be flagged.

Here are the receivers, 2005-2013, that had been flagged as potential busts:

WR Score - Flagging Busts - Corrected

The model missed on Jordy Nelson, Desean Jackson, Emmanuel Sanders, Terrance Williams, Jeremy Maclin, Robert Woods, Michael Floyd, Titus Young, Eddie Royal, Reggie Brown and Mohamed Massaquoi. In somewhat hollow news for Vikings fans, it also missed on Mike Wallace. Though the numbers above claim that it missed on Kendall Wright, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Titans fan happy with his production.

Similarly, this simple method doesn’t account for the fact that Massaquoi didn’t fulfill a two-year contract with his second team or that Reggie Brown was traded and cut. It may be the case that the model found more busts than it gave itself credit for.

On the other hand, calling Justin Blackmon a hit for the “warning” model is a bit rich. On balance, we’ll stick with these yardage averages without messing around too much and assuming it’s a good accounting of receiver ability.

All in all, if you include Wright as a boom for the Titans and a miss for the model, the “warning” model of receiver scoring correctly predicted a bust 68 percent of the time.

The model did not predict any busts in the fourth round on because the expected yardage total was so low anyway.

On average, 4.5 receivers each year are flagged this way. Which ones have been for this year?

Risk Averse 2016 WRs

All this “risk-averse” projection does is attempt to figure out what the most likely season average is for a player with a warning flag. The difference between a flagged player’s actual season total and the projected yardage amount is on average, 31 yards.

In the 30% of cases where the flag didn’t turn out to be true, players tended to perform very well. In the other 70% of cases, the risk-averse projection overestimated the player’s actual contribution by about 85 yards a season.

The biggest difference between the risk-averse yard projection and actual yardage per season in the first three rounds were Mike Wallace, DeSean Jackson and Terrance Williams.

With four receivers hit with a flag (Treadwell and Fuller with both methods), the expected outcome is that one of those receivers will outperform their expectations. I haven’t done research on what has been a common thread for the other 30% (assuming there is one and it’s predictable), so speculate away.

It could be Josh Doctson, who has a trump card in his leaping and contested catch ability, or Treadwell, whose workouts may be more representative of his ankle injuries than actual athleticism. Braxton Miller is the most complete athlete of the four and traditional production metrics would not correctly account for the path his football career has taken and Will Fuller is very similar to some of the receivers who succeeded, like Mike Wallace, DeSean Jackson and to some extent Emmanuel Sanders.

This may not make anything any easier for you, but hopefully it clears up the picture. It’s looking more and more like Fuller and Treadwell should be avoided while Corey Coleman and Michael Thomas are the best bets early on, Sterling Shepard and Leonte Carroo are enticing day two targets and that Ricardo Louis is worth some more study.

Hopefully, the Vikings have all the data they need to make the right decision.

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