Wide Receiver Prospects, Part 4: Conclusions By Conference

(See parts one, two, and three.)

I already covered the SEC and Pac-12 in two earlier posts. Now I intend to review the receivers drafted from the other four major conferences since 2000 in detail (the data is in part three), and see if we can find any patterns here.

(Stats are through week 6 of 2016, when I first compiled these spreadsheets.)

Let’s start with the one that doesn’t exist anymore, because it had by far the highest hit rate:

The now-defunct Big East only had one true “bust” in our millennium at wide receiver; Jon Baldwin simply never showed any sort of NFL capabilities. His most noteworthy moment was being shipped for a fellow late-first bust at receiver in A.J. Jenkins.

The major source of talent here is the early 2000s University of Miami team. Those teams were among the most talented in CFB history, sending numerous players at all positions to the NFL. You know you’re looking at an all-time position group when the “worst” player in it still has 10,000 career receiving yards. Add in Larry Fitzgerald in 2004, and you’re looking at three Hall of Fame-caliber receivers and another one who was very good for a long time.

Fun note: I pegged Kenny Britt as “average” return going into the season, but this year he hit 1,000 yards as the only real option for a horrible Rams offense. He’s still only 28; another year or two of that and he’ll be in the clear as a above-expectations return.

Onward to the conference that once was eight and is now twelve:

The Big 8 / 12 had one of the lower hit rates in our study– they weren’t quite the flameouts of the Pac-12, but of the seven first-round receivers whose careers have come in for judgment, two were above-average returns, two were average, and two were busts. (Mark Clayton rated as slightly disappointing by the metric, but if you want to call him a bust, too, I won’t argue, as he never produced the kind of season you’d want of a first-round pick at the position.)

Justin Blackmon had the talent to succeed, but alcohol sank his career before it ever really got going. A shame.

The players still active are a little unusual. Kendall Wright is in his fifth year, and yet the jury is out. He’s had a 1,000-yard season in his career, but his production has steadily declined since then, and he has found himself third in Tennessee’s receiver rotation this year. He still has the talent to carve out a career of at least average return, but his decline is concerning.

Kevin White and Josh Doctson have been injured, so it’s hard to make a call on them. I marked Corey Coleman as “optimistic” largely because of his week 2 performance; it may be too soon to call that honestly. Tavon Austin got a second contract that implies he isn’t a disappointment, but his on-field production suggests he is. Perhaps a good offensive coach can figure him out how to make him useful.

The second round is most notable for having three of the picks in the massive second-round receiver run in the 2008 draft; Jordy Nelson was one of only two to produce like a star (DeSean Jackson being the other), out of nine picks total at the position.

Speaking of the Big Ten, let’s look at their hit rates now:

The first round here is decidedly a mixed bag. Even the two “above-average” returns ran into career problems: Burress missed two years of his career so Michael Bloomberg could show black people in New York who was boss, and Santonio Holmes flamed out on the relatively young side after a tremendous start to his career. Pittsburgh traded him, and his days as a productive receiver ended soon after. He was washed up by age 28.

All three busts were complete, unquestioned busts. Charles Rogers particularly hurts because he was taken one spot ahead of Andre Johnson, and seen as every bit the talent. A combination of injuries and lack of work ethic killed his career, though.

Three of our four “jury out” receivers played at Ohio State. I listed Michael Thomas as an “optimistic” start; he is quite likely to finish the season with over 1,000 yards receiving (at 981 yards today, with one game to go), so that seems accurate.

I loved Devin Smith’s talent coming out of college, but he has been injured too often to get onto the field and get into a rhythm with the Jets’ QB carousel. Braxton Miller is in his first year at wide receiver. The last “jury out” player, Leonte Carroo, has struggled to break Miami’s receiver rotation as a rookie.

We close with a look at the ACC:

The ACC seems to hit substantially better than our last two conferences. (Even though DeAndre Hopkins is having a down year, his 2014 and 2015 are enough for me to call him a success anyway.) Georgia Tech and Clemson seem to be the biggest places to score a hit here: Sammy Watkins has star talent, although his injuries have made it difficult to say he’s achieved his potential. He’s capable of it, though.

Kelvin Benjamin isn’t having a great year, but after opening with a 1,000-yard rookie season, it’s easy to have cause for optimism going forward.

It always amuses me that Peter Warrick, Ron Dugans, and Laveranues Coles were taken in the same draft, and that the last of the three picked had by far the best career. (Florida State dominates this list; not everyone worked out, but guys like Coles and Anquan Boldin provided substantial value beyond their draft position.)

As he’s become nearly invisible on a really bad San Francisco team, it’s easy to forget how good Torrey Smith was in Baltimore. And Eddie Royal has never been a star, but from that 2008 draft, he is the only player aside from the aforementioned Nelson and Jackson to still be in the NFL today. (Donnie Avery was the last holdout among the rest of the bunch, but he last played in 2014– and was the only one of the other six who ever made any kind of contribution to an NFL team.)

I already covered the SEC and Pac-12, so I won’t do so again, but here is the raw data from those conferences:

The hit rates by conference, in my best estimation:

1. Big East (defunct)
2. SEC
3. ACC
4. Big XII
5. Big Ten
6. Pac-12

I don’t know how applicable this information is to the 2017 draft. It might be good news for Mike Williams fans, and reason to be a little wary of John Ross or JuJu Smith-Schuster. I still value film above all else, but it’s important to consider other factors: film might look good at first glance, but if, say, a receiver is going up against weak cornerbacks that don’t play physically, or a receiver is old and dominating by virtue of being 2-3 years older than his competition, those need to be considered as well. The Pac-12 and Big XII have reputations for being weak defensively; I suspect there may be something to that in the Pac’s case, as far as making receivers look better on film than they actually are.

I’ll try to write up one more post with some more subjective conclusions of mine.

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