If Lions GM Matt Millen has contributed anything to the world of football player evaluation, it's that wasting a top pick on a wide receiver is very dumb idea. The fragile-egoed temperamental prima donnas that they are, WRs are known as a notoriously undependable lot. Worse, their productivity seems completely unpredictable. But it's not true.
Using data from the draft database at Pro-Football-Reference.com, all WR draft picks from 1980-2000 were evaluated by Pro Bowl selection, receiving yards per year, and years as a starter.
Receivers were classified as being selected one or more, two or more, or three or more Pro Bowls. The likelihood of each by round and by position draft order is illustrated in the two graphs below.
After the 4th WR taken in the average draft class, it becomes drastically less likely a team will find a star player. It looks like that the drop-off usually happens around halfway through the 2nd round. By the 5th WR taken and the 3rd round, WRs appear to be about equally as likely as much later picks of becoming an all-pro at about a 5-10% probability.
Receiving Yards Per Year
I normally prefer rate stats when comparing players, but comparing the records of receivers is an exception. Yards per reception is a helpful stat, but receivers create their own receptions by getting open, so yards per reception would not capture a very important part of playing WR. Yards per "target" might be better, but targets are very subjective and unstandardized statistic. For this comparison, I'll use career yards per year broken out by round and by position draft order.
We see a similar pattern as with Pro Bowl selection. After the 4th WR taken, prospects for finding a solid contributor drop significantly.
How well to NFL team scouts and player evaluators predict the performance of WR draft picks? The table below lists the likelihood that a WR will end up having more Yds/Yr than the next WR taken in the draft. For example, the 1st WR taken ends up as better than the 2nd WR taken only 38% of the time.
It seems to be very difficult for teams to identify the better player between two closely matched potential draft picks, even for the #1 WR taken. But overall, they seem to have selected the better receivers in the top round. These results suggest a good strategy for picking a good WR with a very high draft pick is to trade down to pick the second or third WR available in the draft. Teams should have very little confidence that the highest rated WR will turn out any better than the second. On the other hand the #1 WRs tend to become the biggest stars, being selected to three or more Pro Bowls in one out of three cases.
Years as Starter
Another way to evaluate draft picks is to look at how many years they are starters for their teams. The tables below list the averages for each round and draft order.
|Round||Yrs as Starter|
|WR Pick||Yrs as Starter|
As temperamental as they may be, top WR draft picks really do turn out to be stars far more often than later picks. They seem to be a lot like QBs. There is a real scarcity of talent at both positions, and it is difficult to predict with much certainty which ones will pan out. A team's chances of finding a highly productive player are still better with a top pick.