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49ers’ Draft: Which college stats are indicators of NFL wide receiver success?

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49ers Draft Wide Receiver
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As the San Francisco 49ers look to add a wide receiver in the 2018 NFL Draft, we take a look at the top draft prospects and how their college statistics match up against successful NFL receivers.

 

Last week, we asked whether the San Francisco 49ers should use free agency or the draft to land their wide receiver of the future. With the answer being “both” and the 2018 NFL Draft quickly approaching, today we’ll look at the college stats that are indicators of NFL success, and how the top receiver draft prospects linked to the 49ers measure up.

In order to determine which college statistics are most likely to translate to NFL production, we should first identify which NFL statistics are “stickiest” — or the best indicators of future performance — and are also recorded at the college level. While metrics based on targets and routes run are the stickiest at the NFL level, they’re not regularly recorded in the NCAA, so we’re forced to settle on the next stickiest statistics – receptions and receiving yardage.

One problem with translating the college game to the pro game is the vast majority of NFL offenses are fairly similar — from a volume standpoint — compared to college offenses. In 2017, the lowly Cincinnati Bengals finished the season with 29 percent less yardage than the New England Patriots, while many college teams regularly double or triple the annual yardage output of some of their opponents.

J.J. Zachariason recently discussed his study on college players’ transitions to the NFL, and the methodology he uses to deal with this disparity on numberFire’s Late-Round Podcast. The study found that market-share numbers were better indicators of future success; instead of a players’ total number of receptions — which is skewed by his offense’s total volume — a player’s percentage of his team’s receptions is a better way of comparing apples to apples. Zachariason’s model uses both reception market share and receiving yardage market share, as well as touchdown market share. While touchdowns aren’t as sticky as receptions and receiving yardage, they do correlate positively in the NFL — and obviously, they’re an important part of a wide receiver’s value. Zachariason compiled a list of “successful” wide receivers — loosely defined as receivers who have multiple seasons with production levels in the top two-thirds of all number-one wideouts. By calculating the market-share numbers from these “successful” wide receivers’ final college seasons — they averaged a 31.27% reception market share, a 35.89% receiving yardage market share and a 42.29% touchdown market share — we can compare these numbers to those of the current draft class to determine which receivers may be worthy of an early-round selection.

But first let’s take a look at the 49ers’ 2017 draftee — and one of the NCAA’s most productive wide receivers — Trent Taylor. In 2016, Taylor caught 136 passes for 1,803 yards and 12 touchdowns for the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs. Taylor had an amazing statistical season, but his numbers come into better perspective once you compare them to those of his teammates — including fellow receiver Carlos Henderson, who finished the season with over 1,500 yards and 19 scores. Taylor’s reception market share was an impressive 37.56%, but his receiving yardage market share of 35.42% was under the “successful” wide receiver average, and his 27.90% touchdown market share was a far cry from the “successful” average of 42.29% — although it was above the lowest “successful” wide receiver rate of 25.92%. Without watching Taylor’s game film or knowing his combine numbers or lack of size, we can still form a basic opinion on what type of player he is: a receiver who catches a lot of short passes and moves the chains, but doesn’t rack up long receptions and isn’t a red-zone target. While Taylor is unlikely to become a “successful” wide receiver using the above inflated standard, he’s already proven to be a reliable chain-mover and a steal in the fifth round of last year’s draft.

Prior to last weekend’s NFL Scouting Combine, Calvin Ridley was pegged as the surefire top receiver in this year’s draft class, with many envisioning San Francisco as a potential landing spot. However, Ridley’s usage numbers last season create some cause for concern. Ridley’s reception and receiving yardage market shares were both slightly under the “successful” receiver average, but the real eye-opener was Ridley’s touchdown market share of only 17.86%. Ridley did find the end zone more often as a freshman and sophomore, but didn’t reach the “successful” receiver average in any of his college seasons. Perhaps Ridley is worth a late-first-round selection, but the 49ers would be wise to avoid using the No. 9 pick on a receiver who isn’t an established red-zone threat.

Courtland Sutton helped himself at the combine, and can now be found in some mock drafts’ top-10s. Unlike Ridley, Sutton didn’t have a problem finding the end zone in college, scoring at least nine touchdowns in each of his three seasons. Sutton’s 36.36% touchdown market share reflects that, although it was still under the “successful” receiver average. Sutton also missed the average with a 28.34% receiving yardage market share, but his biggest red flag was his 24.03% reception market share, which was close to the low-end of the “successful” receiver range. Based on his market-share numbers, Sutton — like Ridley — may not belong in the first half of the first round of the draft.

Equanimeous St. Brown also improved his draft stock over the weekend, running a 4.48 40-yard-dash and putting up 20 bench-press reps, after measuring in at almost 6-foot-5. Although St. Brown hopes his combine performance will propel him into the first round, based on his usage as a junior last season, he appears to be more of a long-term project. St. Brown missed the “successful” minimum on all three metrics, with an 18.13% reception market share, a 22.14% receiving yardage market share and a 20.00% touchdown market share. St. Brown did have a more successful sophomore campaign — catching nine touchdown passes from quarterback DeShone Kizer — but still failed to meet any of the “successful” averages. St. Brown is certainly an interesting prospect, but will come with risk, even as an early second-day selection.

In the 2018 draft class, only one wide receiver’s college usage surpassed all three metrics — Maryland’s D.J. Moore. Moore’s 45.71% reception market share, 53.25% receiving yardage market share and 53.33% touchdown market share blew away each “successful” receiver average. Prior to the combine, Moore was considered a late-round pick, but thanks to a workout that included a 4.42 40-yard dash and a 39.5 inch vertical jump, Moore has now entered the first-round conversation. Although Moore effectively ruined my weekend with his dominating performance, there are other late-round gems to be found in this year’s draft.

The 2018 NFL Draft class certainly appears to be light at wide receiver, especially at the top of the draft. But even the very weakest of classes still has its share of competant receivers who will contribute at the NFL level. Even with a lack of top talent, multiple receivers are likely to go in the first round, so the 49ers will be best served to first address other areas of need before shifting their focus to the wide receiver position.

Be sure to check out J.J. Zachariason’s work on football analytics and fantasy football — as well as March Madness –on numberfire.com.

Chris Wilson is the Lead Writer for Locked on 49ers - part of the Locked On Podcast Network. You may have seen Chris Wilson’s work on NFL game theory, statistical analysis and film breakdowns at FanSided, Niner Noise, 49ers Webzone, ClutchPoints, Insidethe49 and others. Follow Chris Wilson on Twitter @cgawilson.

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