My Model Monday: Wide Receiver Draft Model

This year’s class of players entering the NFL draft lacks real star power at the Wide Receiver position. At first glance, there doesn’t appear to be a cant-miss player like a Julio Jones or Calvin Jonson. However, it’s important to remember that the most dominant receiver in the game today, Antonio Brown, was considered a below average prospect prior to the 2010 draft, and wasn’t picked until the 6th round, after 21 (!) wide receivers already went off the board. It is certainly possible there is another hidden gem hiding in this years crop of Wide Receivers.

Using college statistics, combine performances and even high school recruiting rankings, I fitted a multiple linear regression model that predicts the peak NFL receiving yards that a player will reach in the NFL. Peak NFL receiving yards was used as the response variable because it limits the effect of injuries and career longevity, and it is a good measure for how prolific that player was at his very best.  All of the data that was used to build this model came from pro-football-reference.com and espn.com. Our sample consists of division 1A wide receivers (sorry Adam Thielen) who attended the NFL combine and played in the NFL since 2000.

As a first step, we looked at the relationship between college and NFL statistics. The plots below show stats from a player’s peak college season on the x axis versus that player’s peak NFL receiving yards on the y axis.

Just as we would expect there is a positive correlation between all of these stats and peak NFL receiving yards. It turns out that wide receivers who were good in the NFL were also pretty good in college as well. Crazy, right? While all of these relationships are relatively week, NCAA touchdowns is the strongest predictor of NFL peak receiving yards with an R^2 of 0.028. This could be because touchdowns are a better indicator of a player’s big play, or “home run” ability then just yards or catches. It could also be due to the fact that coaches tend to call more pass plays near the goal line when they have an elite wide receiver on their team.

On the other hand, none of the drills at NFL combine have a significant relationship with peak NFL receiving yards.

Given how much attention the NFL combine gets, I would have expected to see the numbers from these drills have more predictive power on NFL performance. There is a slight negative correlation between peak NFL yards and 40 time but this is very week (p-vale = 0.65). None of the combine drills have a significant relationship with NFL peak receiving yards.

By far, the strongest explanatory variable in our data was the high school prospect grade from ESPN.com. Many wide receivers who have done well in the NFL were also highly regarded high school recruits. The plot below shows the relationship between ESPN.com prospect grade and peak NFL receiving yards.  Unfortunately, many NFL wide receivers were not ranked at all in high school. I accounted for this in the model by also including a binary (1 or 0) variable for whether or not a player was ranked.

In the end I settled on a model that incorporates NCAA yards, NCAA touchdowns, prospect grade, and broad jump from the NFL combine.  The table below shows the projected peak NFL yards for the wide receivers entering the 2018 NFL draft.

Draft Yearplayerprediction
2018Anthony Miller1015.5
2018Calvin Ridley989.0
2018Christian Kirk977.1
2018Trey Quinn976.8
2018Deon Cain903.6
2018Tavares Martin876.3
2018Braxton Berrios861.2
2018Dante Pettis831.6
2018Deontay Burnett822.2
2018Allen Lazard783.4
2018Marcell Ateman781.3
2018Equanimeous St brown775.3
2018Robert Foster762.7
2018Steven Mitchell702.0
2018Michael Gallup691.8
2018Keke Coutee679.1
2018Trequan Smith667.4
2018Auden Tate664.1
2018Dylan Cantrell645.6
2018DJ Chark639.8
2018Karaun White637.7
2018Antonio Callaway615.9
2018Jmon Moore615.3
2018Chris Lacy583.7
2018Courtland Sutton582.3
2018Simmie Cobbs566.6
2018Cam Phillips556.3
2018Darren Carrington II550.5
2018Javon Wims543.0
2018Marquez ValdesScantling542.3
2018DJ Moore522.9
2018Cedrick Wilson516.6
2018Jordan Lasley508.3
2018Jester Weah501.3
2018Byron Pringle496.1
2018Daesean Hamilton491.0
2018Quadree Henderson489.5
2018Jaleel Scott482.2
2018Korey Robertson468.5
2018Richie James457.5
2018Rayray McCloud448.5
2018James Washington425.3
2018Davon Grayson418.5
2018Jake Wieneke400.4

Check out how our model has done on prior drafts in the table below. These predictions were calculated by removing a draft year from our sample, refitting the model, and then using the model to predict peak NFL yards on that year. Keep in mind that some players drafted in recent years likely haven’t reached their peak NFL receiving yards yet in their career.

Draft YearPlayerPredicted Peak YardsActual Peak YardsRoundPick
2010Antonio Brown42318346195
2010Demaryius Thomas4721619122
2010Emmanuel Sanders5851404382
2010Dez Bryant8381382124
2010Golden Tate9241331260
2010Eric Decker6351288387
2010Riley Cooper7128355159
2010Jordan Shipley484600384
2010Damian Williams769592377
2010Dexter McCluster439511236
2010David Gettis4225086198
2010Jacoby Ford5344704108
2010Arrelious Benn770441239
2010Dezmon Briscoe5173876191
2010Kyle Williams4822416206
2010Mardy Gilyard47163499
2011Julio Jones931187116
2011AJ Green937142614
2011Randall Cobb4591287264
2011Torrey Smith6751128258
2011Jeremy Kerley6378275153
2011Denarius Moore5927415148
2011Greg Little700709259
2011Titus Young510607244
2011Leonard Hankerson574543379
2011Niles Paul5715075155
2011Vincent Brown450472382
2011Austin Pettis503399378
2011Dwayne Harris4373966176
2011Aldrick Robinson5273656178
2011Jerrel Jernigan459329383
2011Tandon Doss7373054123
2011Greg Salas5091674112
2012TY Hilton6221448392
2012Alshon Jeffery8641421245
2012Marvin Jones64011015166
2012Kendall Wright6571079120
2012Michael Floyd5451041113
2012Travis Benjamin5979664100
2012Rishard Matthews9189457227
2012Rueben Randle890938263
2012Justin Blackmon127786515
2012Mohamed Sanu604790383
2012Chris Givens458698496
2012Jarius Wright6055884118
2012TJ Graham520361369
2012Stephen Hill544342243
2012Ryan Broyles688310254
2012Keshawn Martin5212694121
2012Nick Toon5462154122
2012AJ Jenkins548130130
2012Junior Hemingway7401257238
2012Devon Wylie482534107
2013DeAndre Hopkins9491521127
2013Keenan Allen8191393376
2013Marquise Goodwin592962378
2013Kenny Stills7629315144
2013Terrance Williams489840374
2013Robert Woods908781241
2013Markus Wheaton554749379
2013Aaron Dobson753519259
2013Tavon Austin57750918
2013Justin Hunter864498234
2013Ace Sanders4514844101
2013Cordarrelle Patterson526469129
2013Marquess Wilson5294647236
2013Stedman Bailey1093435392
2013Quinton Patton6644084128
2013Tavarres King6052405161
2013Cobi Hamilton5702346197
2013Corey Fuller5462126171
2013Chris Harper6371334123
2013Josh Boyce6711214102
2014Odell Beckham4811450112
2014Allen Robinson6211400261
2014Mike Evans817132117
2014Brandin Cooks5161173120
2014Jarvis Landry6431157263
2014Sammy Watkins622104714
2014Kelvin Benjamin5651008128
2014Davante Adams690997253
2014Jordan Matthews516997242
2014Quincy Enunwa5218576209
2014Marqise Lee754851239
2014Martavis Bryant7257654118
2014Donte Moncrief508733390
2014Paul Richardson528703245
2014Ryan Grant3875735142
2014TJ Jones4633996189
2014Bruce Ellington6163304106
2014Josh Huff453312386
2014Cody Latimer683287256
2014Devin Street4731145146
2014Kevin Norwood4821024123
2015Amari Cooper854115314
2015Stefon Diggs7409035146
2015Jamison Crowder7078474105
2015Nelson Agholor956768120
2015Tyler Lockett508664369
2015Dorial GreenBeckham804549240
2015Chris Conley715530376
2015Phillip Dorsett741528129
2015Breshad Perriman657499126
2015Sammie Coates674435387
2015Justin Hardy5302214107
2015Kevin White58318717
2015Jaelen Strong631161370
2015Ty Montgomery614136394
2015Keith Mumphery5551295175
2015Devin Smith632115237
2016Michael Thomas5671245247
2016Michael Thomas4891245247
2016Mike Thomas4688206206
2016Sterling Shepard686731240
2016Tyler Boyd799603255
2016Tajae Sharpe5005225140
2016Josh Doctson624502122
2016Corey Coleman575413115
2016Malcolm Mitchell5934014112
2016Ricardo Louis6413574114
2016Rashard Higgins5393125172
2016Chris Moore5552484107
2016Demarcus Robinson8602124126
2016Cody Core5172006199
2016Laquon Treadwell875200123
2016Braxton Miller601162385
2016Pharoh Cooper6151064117
2016Aaron Burbridge521886213
2016Demarcus Ayers448537229
2016Leonte Carroo59229386
2017JuJu SmithSchuster648917262
2017Chris Godwin643525384
2017Kenny Golladay593477396
2017Trent Taylor4434305177
2017Corey Davis72237515
2017Dede Westbrook6743394110
2017Zay Jones507316237
2017Taywan Taylor419231372
2017Curtis Samuel769115240
2017Josh Reynolds5311044117
2017Chad Hansen645944141
2017Josh Malone678634128
2017Noah Brown743337239
2017Jehu Chesson546184139