Rankings Insight for This Year’s WR Class

Marvin Jones can tell a story that keeps cornerbacks guessing a big reason he’s my No.4 WR in the NY Times RSP Series. Photo by John Martinez Pavliga.

When it comes to this series, I usually just provide a teaser of the post to the Fifth Down and link you to the rest. But with today’s receivers,  No.5 WR Greg Childs and No. 4 WR Marvin Jones, I want to discuss the thought process behind their unusually high ranking – and a few general philosophical points with how I rank players. I believe additional perspective is a good thing in this case because many of you reading this post are fantasy owners in addition to football fans and draftniks.

Based on what I am hearing from other draftniks and draft analysts that monitor and pursue contacts with NFL organizations (Rob Rang is a one prominent example), there is a notable disparity among teams when it comes to how the NFL perceives this wide receiver class. Yet, I wonder just how surprising this really is when you consider the amount of receivers the league drafts every year.

The chart below displays the number of receivers drafted per year and per round.

Compared to other skill positions, wide receiver numbers look like those from a Hollywood casting call for extras. I believe the high volume of receivers taken in the NFL Draft every year reflects a number of things. The most obvious is that the NFL is a passing league. Fewer teams are using two-running back alignments as its base formation and if they are, it’s likely that its frequency of use accounts for far less than half of its total plays in a game.

What I think is less obvious is that the number of receivers drafted each year reflects the NFL’s lack of confidence with how it evaluates this position. Quarterback, defensive back, and wide receiver are widely regarded as the most difficult positions to accurate evaluate a player. The disparity in scheme, narrow gap of athleticism among pro players, increased physical toll of the game, and additional pressures pro athletes face are all factors that create the high churn rate of draft prospects at these positions.

Interestingly enough when a team hits on these positions, the career lengths of these players can be some of the longest in the league and not all of them are superstars. Here’s a list of players who aren’t likely to get enshrinement in Canton, but their career length at least doubles the average career (a little more than three years) of an NFL player:

  • Mark Brunell (17 years)
  • Charlie Batch (14 years)
  • Jeff Blake (14 years)
  • Kerry Collins (17 years)
  • Jake Delhomme (13 years)
  • Trent Green (12 years)
  • Matt Hasselbeck (13 years)
  • Bernard Berrian (8 years)
  • Jason Avant (6 years)
  • Arnaz Battle (9 years)
  • Deion Branch (10 years)
  • Jerricho Cotchery (8 years)
  • Patrick Crayton (8 years)
  • Malcolm Floyd (8 years)
  • Ernest Givens (10 years)
  • Jeff Graham (9 years)
  • Terance Mathis (13 years)
  • Mike Adams (8 years)
  • Will Allen (Giants-Dolphins 10 years)
  • Jordan Babineaux (8 years)
  • Leigh Bodden (9 years)
  • Sheldon Brown (10 years)
  • Sammy Knight (11 years)

I’m cherry-picking, but you get the point. If you hit on a player, they’re going to contribute long enough to make a difference. I’m not saying this is the best way to scout and acquire players – I’m just saying that’s the reality of the league today.

Based on this reality, I would rather give higher scores to prospects that I believe possess baseline skills that will help them negate the slow athletic decline that comes with age. These skills in wide receivers include great hands, good routes, and a willingness and track record of success engaging in physical play. Greg Childs and Marvin Jones possess these skills more than some of the prospects in this draft that have more promising athleticism like Stephen Hill or Chris Givens.

I like what Hill and Givens might develop into and they are worthwhile selections for a team. However, I see Jones as a player I feel confident that I can get 8-10 years of quality production if he stays healthy. Steve Smith of the Giants was my No.3 receiver in the 2007 draft class for similar reasons. If he stayed healthy, he was a far better prospect than the likes of Dwayne Jarrett, Anthony Gonzalez, Robert Meachem, Craig Davis, or Ted Ginn. From the standpoint of size, athleticism, and “potential,” most of the players listed were favored over Smith. However, you could probably combine their production and Smith would still come out ahead.

Meachem still might have a good career because he has worked on his hands. However, during the time it has taken for him to do this work, I would argue Smith has more meaningful contributions to his team at his position – including the past year and a half spent recovering from an injury. This is why I prefer technicians over dynamic athletes as a general rule when ranking prospects.

It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take a chance on these phenoms, but if a prospect with better technical skill has the baseline athleticism and physical dimensions then I’m not weighting height, weight, and speed over technique. It is overkill and you can see the players that busted above as evidence of that fact. That difference in athleticism will only matter if those great athletes can refine the techniques and concepts of the position to a level where their decision-making and reaction time is diminished. Otherwise, they continue to perform slower, shorter, and weaker on the field than a player who is slower, shorter, and weaker in a t-shirt and shorts.

Childs is a different story. When healthy, his athleticism rivals – if not exceeds – the likes of Hill and Givens. Although his recovery from a patella tendon injury makes him a gamble, I think he’s a better gamble than most receivers that lack his technical skill and ability to succeed against physical play from opposing defenders. Neither Hill nor Givens have convinced me that they possess or will ever possess these skills at the same level as Childs.

It’s difficult to teach a player to become more comfortable with contact or to improve his hands. Throw in the fact that Hill needs to get better at his routes and I’d rather not make a large investment in a player this raw – despite his upside – when I can have a player where I invest less to acquire him (Childs) and if he’s as healthy as he looked in his workout, I could get much more. Passing on a player like Hill or Givens to take other needs – if the talent is there at those other needs – and waiting for Childs is a comfortable risk for me.

I think the risk-reward ratio is lower. I have Childs ranked No.5, but it doesn’t mean I would pick him this high. I know I can get other players I covet in this range, because most of my peers have Childs ranked 10-15 spots lower. Yet his talent when healthy exceeds all but five receivers on my current list and the gap is pretty narrow among them.

Rankings are a unique expression of priorities and values. I believe some people give more weight to the opportunity a player will have based on what they guess an NFL team likes or dislikes about that player as opposed to actual skill at the game. With some notable exceptions, I try to rank a player based on his talent and where there are “ifs” to his game (if he can recover from injury, if he gets a chance to see enough reps to prove himself), I ignore some of them when ranking.

I don’t like making the statement,if player X were healthy, I’d rank him 10-12 spots higher. I do it, but I try to avoid it. I’d rather look at talent and leave it to you to determine how comfortable you are with taking a risk.

Download the 2012 Rookie Scouting Portfolio for rankings, play-by-play analysis, player comparisons, and more for over 150 prospects at QB, RB, WR, and TE. 

5 responses to “Rankings Insight for This Year’s WR Class”

  1. no joke – this article is why I your page is in my favorites.

    The talking heads of your business all mimic one another. Sometimes to look like the genius who went against the grain (most likely never held accountable 2+ years later for the big wiffff ie. Griffen is better than Luck statements out of no where) just to build some attention to themselves, the draft or their employers website.

    I am digressing a bit but I mean this article is very A-typical of other sites. Hope you get rich and famous for your efforts.

  2. I hope you get rich and famous for your luxuriant beard. 🙂

    Oh, and I’m totally on board with the bill of goods your selling here. Have been for a while. Many fantasy footballers, and draftniks, have long fallen into the trap of drafting based on hype, or in some cases alleged pedigree, instead of actual production on the field.

    Jones is a excellent example in this case. Big program, quantifiable production and a ton of film proving that he has what it takes to be a pretty complete WR, but chances are he’ll wind up drafted a couple rounds later than Stephen Hill….he of the, what, 40 career catches total who can run two or three routes? It’s sort of silly. For Hill to be worth the investment that it’s likely to take to land him he almost HAS to turn into something that, currently, not only he isn’t, but that he has yet to do much to show that he’ll ever become.

    Will Jones become a surefire stud? Probably not, but he’ll likely be a productive player for a while. Will Hill become a surefire stud? Probably not, but if he doesn’t I think he’s out of the league a hell of a lot faster than a guy like Jones is.

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