Why wide receivers are taking over the NFL draft

NCAAF

In the 2020 NFL draft, teams selected a record 13 wide receivers in the first two rounds, from No. 12 pick Henry Ruggs III to No. 59 Denzel Mims. Each of the 13 gained at least 220 yards through the air last season, and eight had at least 500. Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson, the No. 22 pick, gained 1,400; Buffalo had traded said pick to the Vikings as part of a deal for star Stefon Diggs, but Diggs outgained the rookie by only 135 yards.

The production spread beyond the top guys in the draft. Fifth-rounder Darnell Mooney (631 yards and four touchdowns) was Chicago’s No. 2 receiver, and fourth-rounder Gabriel Davis (599 yards at 17.1 per catch) and undrafted Tyron Johnson (398 yards at 19.9 per catch) gave the Bills and Chargers, respectively, extra deep pop. In all, 23 rookie wideouts caught at least one ball per game. That might not be the highest bar, but at this position, rookies became useful players quickly.

This high hit rate didn’t begin in 2020 — of the 29 wideouts who served as their team’s No. 1 receiver in terms of yardage (two teams were led by a tight end, one by a running back), 15 began their career in the past three seasons, 12 in the past two.

If projections are any indication, this year’s draft could be just as prolific. In his most recent mock draft, Mel Kiper Jr. projects 14 wide receivers to go in the first two rounds; Todd McShay projects a more conservative 10, but that’s still the potential continuation of a trend. While nine or more wideouts had gone in the first two rounds just three times in the 10 years between 2009 and 2018, this is shaping up to be the third year in a row that it happens.

You never want to go too far down the “TRENDING!!” road when something happens three times. After all, 21 wideouts went in the 2014 and ’15 drafts’ first two rounds before averages regressed again. But it would certainly make sense if we were witnessing an upward trend in how receivers are valued on draft boards, and for a number of reasons.

1. NFL teams are passing more

We’ll start with the most obvious one. Total dropbacks have increased in nine of the past 12 years, and total completion yardage has increased by 6% in the past three seasons alone. Any impact felt as more teams build analytics departments is going to trend toward more passing, as it is the more efficient and explosive way of moving the football and has been for a while. Eventually, pass rates could increase to the point of diminishing returns, but that hasn’t happened yet — last year’s leaguewide 45% success rate (calculated in this instance by the frequency of plays with an Expected Points Added figure, or EPA, of greater than zero) was easily the highest of the past decade.

With an increase in both the importance and efficiency of passing games, quarterbacks are duly getting paid more than ever. Seven are currently in contracts with at least $100 million in guaranteed money, and 16 active QBs are averaging at least $23.5 million per year (only four non-QBs are making that much), but to maximize the effectiveness of these increasingly important stars, you need guys who can reliably catch their passes and do damage with them.

Even some running backs are now establishing more of their value from their pass-catching abilities: While these numbers slid a bit in 2020 due at least in part to injuries to specific stars, 37 RBs caught at least 30 passes in 2019, and three generated at least 600 receiving yards, compared to 26 and one, respectively, a decade earlier. But if you need guys to receive your well-paid quarterback’s passes, it makes sense to draft players with “receiver” right there in the name of the position.

2. College teams are passing more

In 2016, the overall pass percentage* in college football was 49.4%. Twelve FBS teams topped 60%, while 11 teams fell under 40%. Of the teams in the Associated Press’ year-end top 10, only two (USC and Clemson) were above 50.4%; Alabama was at 46.7%, and three others were lower than that. Most of the top teams still took the time to establish the run.

By 2020, just four seasons later, the average pass percentage was up to 52.2%, with 23 teams over 60% and six under 40%. Of the year-end top 10, every team was at 49.0% or higher; its modernization complete, Alabama was at 50.8%, even with lots of garbage-time rushes with big leads.

There is still variety in college football, and there always will be — the talent differentials that exist within the sport will forever necessitate creativity and, in some cases, extreme tactics. But the average college football team throws more than it did a decade ago, and more importantly, the elite teams, the ones that score all the elite recruits, do too.

It probably isn’t a coincidence, in other words, that five of the top seven receivers drafted last year played for either Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma or Clemson, or that four of this year’s potential top-five receivers in the draft played for either LSU’s 2019 title team (Ja’Marr Chase, Terrace Marshall Jr.) or Bama’s 2020 team (DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle). The fifth, Florida’s Kadarius Toney, played for the team Bama beat in the SEC Championship.

* pass percentage = (pass attempts + scrambles + sacks – spikes) / (plays – spikes – kneels)

3. There are more star recruits at the receiver position

From 2012 to ’16, there were, on average, 12.2 running backs and 18.0 wide receivers among ESPN’s top 150 prospects. From 2017 to ’21, those averages shifted to 11.0 running backs and 22.0 receivers, a 10% decrease and 22% increase, respectively.

In some cases, you could almost consider this shift a like-for-like switch. Some of the top receiving prospects in recent classes — Ohio State’s Julian Fleming (listed at 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds as a recruit) and Garrett Wilson (6-1, 181), LSU’s Kayshon Boutte (5-10, 180), Maryland’s Rakim Jarrett (6-0, 190), Notre Dame’s Jordan Johnson (6-1, 185) and Georgia’s Dominick Blaylock (6-1, 187) — are of a certain build that, in a slightly different generation, they might have ended up lining up in the backfield in high school and becoming blue-chip running backs. Similarly, versatile prospects of the late 2000s, such as the late Joe McKnight (6-0, 190 as a top prospect in 2007) or DeMarco Murray (6-1, 190), might have ended up as receivers had they come up as prospects in the early 2020s. Still, as more big-time prospects make their way from the high school ranks to college, it would stand to reason that more such prospects would make their way into the pros, too.

4. There’s a lot more versatility in NFL ball distribution. And versatility is the strength of the 2021 crop

In 2010, 39% of overall completions went to players lined up outside, 25% to players in the slot, 23% to players out of the backfield and 13% to tight ends lined up in-line. Of the 32 800-yard wide receivers in the league, 24 made at least 70% of their catches outside, and only five made at least 50% of their catches out of the slot.

In 2020, 38% of completions still went to outside receivers and 12% to in-line tight ends. That hadn’t really changed. But slot receiver usage was up to 31%, passes out of the backfield down to 19%. Among 36 800-yard wide receivers, only 14 made at least 70% of their catches outside, and 10 made at least 50% out of the slot.

Receivers are moving around a lot more, and the ball is finding its way into more hands. While 25 players in 2010 received at least 30% of their team’s touches for the season (two over 50%), only 12 did so in 2020, and only Titans running back Derrick Henry was above 44%. Meanwhile, 95 players got 10-30% of their team’s touches in 2020 compared to 59 in 2010. The age of egalitarianism is upon us — more opportunities for more players.

Based on some combination of offensive coordinator preference and personnel, pass distribution ranged pretty significantly from team to team.

The distribution is pretty broad — about 14 percentage points between the maximum and minimum in percentage of passes to outside receivers, 16 percentage points to players lined up in the slot, 19 to players lined up in-line and 19 to players lined up in the backfield. Teams including the Jets and Texans distributed passes very close to the league average, while the Broncos loved passing to tight ends, the Bills almost never threw to tight ends and a few teams, including the Patriots, threw almost a third of their passes to players out of the backfield.

Young receivers such as Dallas’ CeeDee Lamb and Atlanta’s Russell Gage have seen a majority of their early success in the slot (85% of Lamb’s 74 receptions in 2020 came from there), but virtually every successful receiver spends time there — Diggs caught 25% of his passes from the slot, Jefferson 31%, Green Bay’s Davante Adams 40%, etc.

It would behoove teams drafting receivers early in 2021 to move their respective rookies around quite a bit, as most of this year’s top prospects — in this case, the receivers that either Kiper or McShay project to go in the first two rounds — spent a ton of time in the slot in college.

LSU’s Chase and Alabama’s Smith were brilliant no matter where they lined up, while Waddle, Toney and to a lesser extent Elijah Moore and Rondale Moore were used in particularly versatile ways. But nine of these 15 players caught at least 53% of their passes from the slot, and only four caught more than 70% from outside positions. The draft order for many of these players could be very much based on team needs, and the players who end up seeing the most early success could be the ones who end up with teams ready to move them around quite a bit.

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