First Round Rookie WRs. What 2009 Statistics Mean Going Forward

by Koski

Perception is everything in the NFL, and the NFL is perceived as being very mobile from the top of the standings to the bottom from year to year. Such is the case in the Bay Area, where six seasons of losing has not soured the offseason optimism of Bay Area football fans. In fact, regular offseason optimism has been bolstered by the selection of playmaking wide receivers in this year’s draft. “With the seventh pick of the 2009 NFL draft, the Oakland Raiders select Darrius Heyward-Bey…” As soon as the words left Commissioner Roger Goodell’s mouth, the 2009 NFL draft had its first round storyline. Desperate to make a move in the standings and in need of a dynamic receiver, the Raiders selected Heyward-Bey, which consequently enabled highly touted Michael Crabtree to fall to the 49ers with the 10th pick. Not only did experts claim Heyward-Bey was a reach over Crabtree, but they had fellow first round picks Jeremy Maclin and Hakeem Nicks rated higher as well. After 2008 saw zero picked in the first round, 2009 saw six teams select playmaking receivers in the first round. The Vikings picked Percy Harvin to compliment Adrian Peterson’s running attack and free up Bernard Berrian’s downfield speed. The Eagles picked Jeremy Maclin to bolster their passing game and appease Donovan McNabb. The Giants picked Hakeem Nicks to fill the void left by Plaxico Burress’ release, while the Tennessee Titans picked Kenny Britt hoping to draft the first reliable receiving option since Derrick Mason in 1997 and balance out their offensive attack. That’s six fan bases that will be scrutinizing and dissecting their first round receiver all year long, searching for a verdict on ability. But what rookie statistics are important for a successful career? What can 2009 tell us about who made the “right” pick and who whiffed? What statistics can the average fan point to and say, “Receiver X was a good pick because….?” In an attempt to answer who was the better pick, Heyward-Bey or Crabtree, I searched for some statistical indicators that fans can keep track of this season that, hopefully, will help evaluate this year’s first round receivers solely on the basis of their rookie year statistics.

The first indicator is seemingly basic. No, not seemingly basic, just basic: the number of games started. Most first round rookie wide receivers (FRRWRs) are thrust onto the field immediately. After all, that’s why they were drafted in the first place, right? The reason Games Started is a good indication of future success is because it shows that the FRRWR is good enough to displace those ahead of him on the depth chart and, more importantly, he possesses the ability and health to stay on the field throughout the season. You’ve probably heard it before, but it warrants repeating. Health is a skill. Heyward-Bey is already battling hamstring problems during OTAs while Michael Crabtree has yet to get on the practice field as he heals from foot surgery. Tim Kawakami addressed the issue of rookie health last week:

An old coach told me long ago that the first thing rookies have to prove is that they can stay healthy in the NFL–the practices are harder and more important than in college, the games are tougher, and the willingness to baby players is less prevalent.

If they can’t get through practices, doesn’t matter how talented they are, they’ll never make it as NFL standouts.

Since 1988, the average FRRWR has started about half of the sixteen game schedule. That’s the average FRRWR, but what number of starts is an indicator of a promising future? Starting a lot of games may not mean anything more a stubborn coaching staff or a lack of better options. A FRRWR may get thrown onto the field at the beginning of the season and not produce, leading to a loss of playing time as the season goes forward. Conversely, a FRRWR may have trouble getting on the field early in the season due to various reasons and only log starts after his team has thrown in the towel. Parsing the data, most successful receivers started at least 10 games as FRRWRs. Seventy-six FRRWRs have been chosen since 1988. Of those, thirty have started more than ten games in their rookie seasons. Of these thirty, twelve have made at least one Pro Bowl, with ten selected to multiple Pro Bowls. That’s more than a 40% chance you have a Pro Bowl caliber player if your FRRWR starts at least 10 games. A 40 percent success rate is nothing to hang your hat on, but it’s more than double the success rate for FRRWRs who start fewer than 10 games, where only nine of forty-six made a Pro Bowl. 10 starts is a good start (get it) but is still incomplete for evaluation purposes, as Reggie Williams and Rod Gardner each started 10 games as rookies.

Scoring is the second FRRWR success indicator, but we should first eliminate the unrealistic expectations. Don’t expect double digit touchdowns from a FRRWR. Of the 76 FRRWRs drafted since 1988, only one has caught double-digit touchdowns: Randy Moss in 1998 when he burst onto the scene with 17 receiving touchdowns! Seventeen! That was good enough to tie fifth best all time among all receivers, not just rookies! Over the last twenty seasons, no other FRRWR has reached double digits. The next highest FRRWR totals are Eddie Kennison in 1996 and Lee Evans in 2004 with nine apiece. I think it’s fairly obvious that a FRRWR who catches double-digit TDs is probably going to be pretty good, but if he only sniffs out one or two, it doesn’t mean he’s doomed either (For example: Sterling Sharpe 1, Roddy White 3, Calvin and Andre Johnson 4). After all, Donte Stallworth caught eight TDs as a rookie while Reggie Wayne didn’t catch one. The best TD indicator of future success seems to be five touchdowns. Andre Johnson and Calvin Johnson are notable FRRWRs with 4 TDs, but so are JJ Stokes and Charles Johnson. Of all the FRRWRs since ’88 with five or more TDs, nine of the 19 are Pro Bowlers, with seven having more than three Pro Bowl appearances. Also among those 19 FRRWRs with 5 TDs is Dwayne Bowe. Add Bowe to the Pro Bowl party and you’ve got the majority of FRRWRs with 5 TDs being Pro Bowl caliber players. Great receivers are great playmakers. Great playmakers know how to find the end zone and five seems like the magic number for FRRWRs. Less than a quarter of the FRRWRs catching less than five touchdowns have made a Pro Bowl.

The next indicator is receiving yards, and the cut off number was surprising. First off, forget about 1,000 yards. It’s big, it’s sexy, but it’s rare and won’t help us evaluate the FRRWRs going forward. Only four FRRWRs have gone over the 1,000 yard mark since ’88: ’98 Randy Moss, 1313, ’04 Michael Clayton, 1193, ’96 Terry Glenn, 1132, ’95 Joey Galloway, 1039. Since 1,000 yards is not going to be helpful, what yardage total will help us evaluate our FRRWRs? Surprisingly enough, that number appears to be a rather unimpressive 650 yards. Twelve of the 25 FRRWR with at least 650 yards receiving have made a Pro Bowl and that group of 12 does not include our friends Dwayne Bowe and Calvin Johnson. Add one of those guys and a majority of FRRWRs with at least 650 yards are Pro Bowl caliber players. The crazy thing is that 650 yards is that it’s a pretty mediocre total for a receiver. In fact, 650 yards comes out to slightly less than 41 yards a game over an entire season or roughly Bobby Wade’s 2008 yardage total. That’s it. Match Bobby Wade’s numbers from 2008 as a FRRWR and you’re more likely than not to have a promising NFL future. The FRRWRs who failed to gain 650 yards is a mish mash of hits and misses with less than 20 percent of them becoming Pro Bowlers.

Each indicator so far offers some value in and of itself, but when a FRRWR achieves all three, you can be fairly certain you’ve got a Pro Bowl caliber player. The list of FRRWRs who started at least 10 games, gained more than 650 yards receiving and caught 5 TDs totals 13 players, 8 of whom made a Pro Bowl:

This is a pretty impressive list, even the non-Pro Bowlers on the list were worthy of being first round selections: future Pro Bowler, Dwayne Bowe, surprising non-Pro bowler, Joey Galloway, deep threat, Lee Evans, better numbers than you thought, Eddie Kennison and injury plagued Michael Clayton. The evaluation of the 2009 FRRWRs will be incomplete until several seasons of data reveals the complete truth, but we can still make some reliable predictions based on rookie statistics.

Research Bonus: Which was the best first round draft for wide receivers since 1988? Time will tell, but right now it comes down to 1988 or 1996. The 1988 first round receiver class was headlined by Tim Brown, Sterling Sharpe, Michael Irvin and Anthony Miller with Aaron Cox and Wendell Davis the less notable selections. The 1988 picks combined for a total of 24 Pro Bowl selections, 3,343 receptions, 48,852 yards and 315 touchdowns and two became Hall of Famers (Irvin and Brown). The 1996 first round featured Keyshawn Johnson, Terry Glenn, Eddie Kennison, Marvin Harrison and Eric Moulds. A total of 15 Pro Bowl selections, 3,821 receptions, 52,314 yards and 327 touchdowns and probably only one Hall of Famer (Harrison). The 1996 draft has better stats and is more talented overall, but 1988 has more Pro Bowl appearances and an extra Hall of Famer. I want to say that the 1988 class came of age during a less pass happy offensive time in the NFL, but the average pass offense in 1988 threw for 3210 yards passing, while the average NFL offense in 1996 threw for 3318 yards. I give the edge to the 1988 class for having more Super Bowl rings, an extra Hall of Famer and more Pro Bowl selections.

You'll find each draft class and their rookie numbers below. Click on the tabs to see how the data sorts out for a given category.