Drafting Wide Receivers

If Lions GM Matt Millen has contributed anything to the world of football player evaluation, it's that wasting a top pick on a wide receiver is very dumb idea. The fragile-egoed temperamental prima donnas that they are, WRs are known as a notoriously undependable lot. Worse, their productivity seems completely unpredictable. But it's not true.

Using data from the draft database at Pro-Football-Reference.com, all WR draft picks from 1980-2000 were evaluated by Pro Bowl selection, receiving yards per year, and years as a starter.

Pro Bowls

Receivers were classified as being selected one or more, two or more, or three or more Pro Bowls. The likelihood of each by round and by position draft order is illustrated in the two graphs below.



After the 4th WR taken in the average draft class, it becomes drastically less likely a team will find a star player. It looks like that the drop-off usually happens around halfway through the 2nd round. By the 5th WR taken and the 3rd round, WRs appear to be about equally as likely as much later picks of becoming an all-pro at about a 5-10% probability.

Receiving Yards Per Year

I normally prefer rate stats when comparing players, but comparing the records of receivers is an exception. Yards per reception is a helpful stat, but receivers create their own receptions by getting open, so yards per reception would not capture a very important part of playing WR. Yards per "target" might be better, but targets are very subjective and unstandardized statistic. For this comparison, I'll use career yards per year broken out by round and by position draft order.

We see a similar pattern as with Pro Bowl selection. After the 4th WR taken, prospects for finding a solid contributor drop significantly.

Scout Accuracy

How well to NFL team scouts and player evaluators predict the performance of WR draft picks? The table below lists the likelihood that a WR will end up having more Yds/Yr than the next WR taken in the draft. For example, the 1st WR taken ends up as better than the 2nd WR taken only 38% of the time.






















WR PickPr(Better)
10.38
20.67
30.48
40.81
50.33
60.62
70.62
80.38
90.52
100.52
110.57
120.57
130.48
140.43
150.52


It seems to be very difficult for teams to identify the better player between two closely matched potential draft picks, even for the #1 WR taken. But overall, they seem to have selected the better receivers in the top round. These results suggest a good strategy for picking a good WR with a very high draft pick is to trade down to pick the second or third WR available in the draft. Teams should have very little confidence that the highest rated WR will turn out any better than the second. On the other hand the #1 WRs tend to become the biggest stars, being selected to three or more Pro Bowls in one out of three cases.

Years as Starter

Another way to evaluate draft picks is to look at how many years they are starters for their teams. The tables below list the averages for each round and draft order.













RoundYrs as Starter
15.7
23.3
32.1
41.3
50.7
60.5
70.6






















WR PickYrs as Starter
15.9
26.6
34.9
44.7
52.0
63.3
72.7
81.8
92.5
101.9
111.7
121.0
131.3
140.9
150.8


Conclusion

As temperamental as they may be, top WR draft picks really do turn out to be stars far more often than later picks. They seem to be a lot like QBs. There is a real scarcity of talent at both positions, and it is difficult to predict with much certainty which ones will pan out. A team's chances of finding a highly productive player are still better with a top pick.

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5 Responses to “Drafting Wide Receivers”

  1. Shake'n'bake says:

    Reggie Wayne 6th WR taken in 2001, 4 of the five taken before him are total busts and Wayne has better production than Santana. Chad Johnson and Steve Smith come in at 8 and 11 in that draft.

    Marvin Harrison, my pick for best WR in NFL history not named Jerry Rice was the fourth taken in 1996.

    Scout put most of the good WR up there on the draft boards, but they throw a whole lot of bad ones high up too.

  2. Anonymous says:

    hey bro im doing a similar project for my data statistics class.. can u plz help me how did u make the probowl graphs on excel im a newbie, i collected my daata for probowl selections by round/order for 10 years i just don't know how u made that graph plz help me!

  3. Brian Burke says:

    Yes, I used Excel. Type "create a line chart" in the help box. It will tell you everything you need. Or visit this site:
    http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/excel/HA010548401033.aspx?pid=CL100570551033

  4. Anonymous says:

    would it be useful finding the standard deviation for this data and mean, meadians and mode im doing my statistics project on this

  5. Anonymous says:

    Wow,just stumbled upon this site and I think I am in heaven.I see one flaw in this research,and that is the breakdown should be a little more fragmented (i.e...WR taken in the first round from 1-10,11-21,and 22-32)

    The reason I say this is because in my research the numbers are skewed greatly by the receivers taken very high in the 1st round vs the ones taken later in the 1st round.The WR's taken especially in the top 5 have a FAR better chance of making it in the league than the ones lower in the round.I only looked at the past 9 years,but thats what I saw. in the ones who "made it" and the ones who didnt.I know this obviously is likely the case for every round,but I think in the 1st particularly the difference is MUCH greater between the talent in the top vs bottom portion of the round.

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