On Scouting Wide Receivers

If you're trying to find the next Dez Bryant, then data has a vital place but if you take the approach that tries to reverse engineer a process that is unintentionally based on the idea that all productive receivers are like Dez Bryant, it's misguided. Photo by A.J. Guel.
If you’re trying to find the next Dez Bryant, then data has a vital place but if you take the approach that tries to reverse engineer a process that is unintentionally based on the idea that all productive receivers are like Dez Bryant, it’s misguided. Photo by A.J. Guel.

I believe analytics have value, but the grading of wide receivers based heavily on speed, vertical skill, and production is an ambitious, but misguided idea. Further the application is the torturing of data to fit it into a preconceived idea and making it sound objective and scientific due to the use of quantitative data.  Unless the data is getting into some Nate Silver-like probability analysis, analytics is going to arrive at conclusions that are safe based on the past, but lack game-changing predictive value.

Some of my colleagues and friends at Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus, and RotoViz will disagree.  And many of you will too, because you’ve bought the idea that what’s being studied is objective and scientific. There is often an air of certainty and black-and-white finality to the communication of this “quantitative” information that readers find more palatable than if “qualitative” information is delivered with the same tone. Numbers make people sound more powerful and intellectual even if the quality of the information isn’t well designed.

I can tell you that I write because I put words together in a pattern that you can read. It doesn’t mean that I’m writing well. The NFL has bought into analytics for reasons that are both sound and naive. Analytics should only get better over time and I believe in its future. I just don’t buy into it lock, stock, and barrel.  I think in this area of study with wide receivers, analytics needs to raise its standard and find another way.

The NFL will realize this about some methods of analytics sooner than later. Many teams are seeking a magic pill without fully understanding the manufacturing process that goes into it. Since they have been able to get this information for a modest fee and oftentimes at no charge in the early days (and we’re just emerging from the earliest of days in the era of analytics)  because these individuals and companies found the payment of notoriety an acceptable alternative to money.

It only makes sense that “quants” figured they could make the money off readers later if they couldn’t earn it from teams now. This dynamic is also changing, but it’s worth understanding the nature behind their relationship with the league. Fortunately for both parties, they will continue to work together and only deliver better products on and off the field.

I’m trying to do the same from a different vantage point. The more I watch wide receivers, the less I care about 40 times, vertical results, or broad jumps. Once a player meets the acceptable baselines for physical skills, the rest is about hands, technique, understanding defenses, consistency, and the capacity to improve.

I liked Kenbrell Thompkins, Marlon Brown, Austin Collie, (retired) Steve Smith, several other receivers lacking the headlining “analytical” formulas that use a variety of physical measurements and production to find “viable” prospects. What these players share is some evidence of “craft”. They weren’t perfect technicians at the college level or early in their NFL careers, but you could see evidence of a meticulous attention to detail that continued to get better.

This video does an excellent job of explaining why speed is the most overrated part of a wide receiver’s game. Speed should be seen as the icing and not the cake. Technique is the cake. It’s a great instructional guide on route releases and breaks, how they differ on the NFL level. Check it out. I continue to on a regular basis.

For analysis of skill players in this year’s draft class, download the 2013 Rookie Scouting Portfolio available now. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2013 RSP at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio for just $9.95 apiece.

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