2023 NFL Draft: Contextualizing Wide Receiver Production

Wide receiver production continues to increase across the league. With that, we’ve seen rookie receivers come in and step up earlier over the past few seasons. There was a shift in the 2019 season and it’s an efficiency that’s continued since. Rookie receivers averaged a high 1.58 yards per route run in 2022.

Rookie Wide Receiver Production
Data from TruMedia

Year100 routesYPRR2+ YPRR100 targets

That makes looking at college prospects thrilling. But while receiver production in college is also running wild, it can be difficult to fully contextualize the production across those offenses. There’s a significantly wider gap between offenses, schemes, and roles in college than in the NFL.

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A way to help differentiate those offenses to it is a metric I’ve called Target Yards Added. Simply, Target Yards Added takes a wide receiver’s yards per target and subtracts yards per attempt when the quarterback throws to anyone else on offense. In that way, we get a bit of a baseline of what the overall production was and what a given receiver adds to it.

The average in this class is about 1.48. That would mean the offense averaged 1.48 more yards per play when targeting the receiver in question than when they through at anyone else. That class average is a bit lower than past classes and there is no clear No. 1-type receiver at the top but there are still plenty of interesting prospects in this group.

This metric is not meant as a proxy for receiver rankings but it can provide some more color around what these receivers did.

Here’s where the receivers of the 2023 NFL Draft class stack up:

2023 NFL Draft Wide Receivers, Target Yards Added
raw data provided by Sports Info Solutions

PlayerSchoolRoutesTargetsYPTQB other-YPATarget Yards Added
Jaxon Smith-Njigba (21)Ohio State36511314.218.186.03
Marvin MimsOklahoma3389012.037.025.01
Jalin HyattTennessee3659113.929.014.92
Matt LandersArkansas3247312.347.584.77
Andrei IosivasPrinceton3418510.876.834.04
Antoine GreenNorth Carolina3346911.577.763.80
C.J. JohnsonEast Carolina3869410.817.113.70
Malik HeathMississippi3398910.917.223.69
Michael WilsonStanford1664110.206.583.61
Tyler ScottCincinnati3338810.226.903.31
Jalen BrooksSouth Carolina2234610.987.733.24
Justin ShorterFlorida2215410.697.523.16
Michael JeffersonLouisiana273909.005.893.11
Quentin JohnstonTCU3129810.918.052.86
Charlie JonesPurdue4871578.675.962.71
Zay FlowersBoston College4581278.496.052.44
Malik KnowlesKansas State312769.547.102.44
Trey PalmerNebraska3161129.317.022.30
Jaray JenkinsLSU264419.857.702.15
Elijah HigginsStanford351828.666.522.14
Johnathan MingoMississippi360899.697.592.09
Jalen CropperFresno State4221139.657.562.08
Jordan AddisonUSC2888110.808.821.98
Je'Quan Burton*FAU275608.626.971.65
Jake BoboUCLA383869.507.891.61
Parker WashingonPenn State264679.127.531.59
Demario DouglasLiberty3631218.266.671.59
Tank DellHouston5071549.087.781.31
Xavier HutchinsonIowa State4281637.186.250.93
Puka NacuaBYU149699.068.140.92
Rashee RiceSMU4141578.627.740.87
Joseph NgataClemson295707.516.680.83
Ronnie BellMichigan3201008.898.140.75
Tre TuckerCincinnati289828.207.460.73
Kearis JacksonGeorgia121339.619.000.61
Jadon HaselwoodArkansas273789.018.420.59
Jayden ReedMichigan State326867.406.900.49
Josh DownsNorth Carolina4461208.588.170.40
Jalen WayneSouth Alabama3591047.817.810.00
A.T. PerryWake Forest4131318.408.61-0.21
Rakim JarrettMaryland262647.367.59-0.23
Jason BrownleeSouthern Miss3541197.497.89-0.40
Mitchell TinsleyPenn State316807.217.91-0.70
Kayshon BouteeLSU341747.278.00-0.73
Grant DuBoseCharlotte3951137.017.80-0.79
Dontayvion WicksVirginia279755.736.69-0.96
Derius DavisTCU240707.598.86-1.28
Dontay Demus Jr.Maryland233425.557.77-2.22
Cedric TillmanTennessee188597.0710.56-3.49
Bryce Ford-WheatonWest Virginia3691086.2510.66-4.41

Finding The Standouts

It’s typically a good sign when receivers that are highly regarded and viewed as the best in the class come out at the top of this metric. That’s where we are with Jaxon Smith-Njigba. Smith-Njigba only ran 36 routes in 2022 before a hamstring injury put him out for the rest of the season.

We’re using his 2021 data here but that was in an offense with two 2022 first-round picks, Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave. Smith-Njigba was so good in that offense, it kind of warped the numbers around Wilson and Olave, who both thrived as rookies this past season.

The two main knocks on Smith-Njigba are his athleticism and role as a slot receiver. Neither really holds up. He might not have blazing straight-line speed, but at the combine, Smith-Njigba put up a 96th-percentile 3-cone and 97th-percentile 20-yard shuttle times along with a 75th-percentile broad jump. The explosion and agility are both there and jump out when he plays. He can win off the line and create separation within his routes. There probably isn’t a better receiver at understanding leverage and spacing and using that to his advantage in this draft class.

He’s not just a slot receiver that feasts on zone coverage. Per Sports Info Solutions, Smith-Njigba had a 73% positive play rate against man coverage in 2021 but also had a 74% positive play rate against man. 

There have been enough top targets that have lined up in a majority of their snaps in the slot. Just last season Amon-Ra St. Brown — a popular comp for Smith-Njigba — was in the slot for 54% of his snaps. The previous year, Cooper Kupp had nearly 2,000 receiving yards while he was in the slot 63% of the time.

It’s not hard to imagine Smith-Njigba on the St. Brown-Kupp scale. In 2021, he spent 86% of his snaps in the slot but that doesn’t mean he can’t line up more often on the outside.

In a shorter wide receiver class, TCU’s Quentin Johnston has the size of a prototypical No. 1 receiver at 6-foot-2 and a 96th-percentile wingspan. However, he doesn’t typically play like it. Johnston’s best work has been done after the catch, where he averaged 8.9 yards after the catch per reception, second in the class, and a class-high 0.38 missed or broken tackles per catch, per SIS.

He can struggle in contested situations and had just a 38% positive play rate against man coverage last season, opposed to 59% against zone. The NFL is increasing in zone coverage with nearly 70% of defensive snaps in zone last season according to TruMedia, but winning against man coverage and tight situations is what a team would be looking for in a top receiver.

Of course, Johnston’s lack of success in those areas did not stop him from producing overall. He averaged 3.4 yards per route run and was targeted on 31% of his routes last season.

We could also mention Jordan Addison here to round the group mostly regarded as the top three in this class. Addison isn’t at the top of Target Yards Added but his figure is more than acceptable for a top receiver.

He gets knocked a bit for how good the USC offense was because the baseline was so high. The 8.82 yards per attempt to non-Addison USC receivers was one of the highest in this class. Still, Addison had crazy efficiency of 3.03 yards per route run while battling some injuries.

Addison also has a track record of performing well in two offenses. On his way to pulling Kenny Pickett into the first round of the 2022 draft, Addison had 3.3 Target Yards Added and 3.02 yards per route run when he was named the best receiver in college football as a sophomore during the 2021 season.

There have been some knocks on Addison’s height (5-foot-11) and weight (173 pounds) but that hasn’t gotten in the way of the receiver getting open. He understands how to separate with a diverse route tree and success against man coverage.

Lifting A Bad Offense 

Zay Flowers is the WR4 in this class, per Grinding The Mocks, and among his strengths was carrying a bad offense that didn’t produce much without him. On throws not to Flowers, the Boston College offense averaged only 6.05 yards per pass attempt which was the third-lowest figure for a receiver prospect in this class.

Flowers has shown the ability to win in just about every area of the field, despite his frame of 5-foot-9 and 181 pounds. He won both outside and from the slot and 49% of his routes were charted as deep by SIS, the second-highest rate for a receiver in this class. In that way, he could profile like a Brandin Cooks-type receiver who wins on the outside with smaller size. 

Once Flowers gets into space he’s one of the most dangerous receivers with the ball in his hands. He was 10th in yards after the catch per reception and tied for fourth in missed or broken tackles per reception. That can also play in the route. He had the most receiving yards in college football on double moves last season.

If there is a place where the size can be an issue, it’s against man coverage. Flowers only had a 37% positive play rate against man coverage opposed to 52% against zone. There was also a bit of the offensive quality at play here since just 60% of Flowers’s targets against man coverage were charted as catchable per SIS, 62nd of 70 players with at least 30 man coverage targets last season. 

High Degree of difficulty

Negative Target Yards Added is typically a red flag for a wide receiver prospect. Providing less value than others to their own college offense isn’t a great sign for a transition to the pros. But this year there are a few worth digging into a bit more because of the situation.

The first is Tennessee’s Cedric Tillman. Tillman played through an ankle injury for the majority of the 2022 season after he was insanely productive in the 2021 season. The Tennessee offense needs all of the contextualizing it can get because of how unique it was and Tillman was massively penalized to how good the offense was throwing to everyone else — Jalin Hyatt included. Tillman still had good rate stats while his raw numbers fell. 

A.T. Perry and Jason Brownlee had a fairly high degree of difficulty producing in their offenses. Perry and Brownlee were among the college football league leaders in routes run as an isolated receiver. That asks a lot of those players to win on their own, especially ones who were such a big part of their offenses. Brownlee had a target share of 34.3%, which was the highest among the class. Perry’s 27.6% was not far behind.

No player in college football ran more routes against man coverage than Perry. He also led college football in air yards against man coverage and was second in air yards overall behind Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr.

That type of deep role against tight man coverage could project Perry as a DeVante Parker clone. The ball winners who rely on size and ability at the catch point work well when the ball is on target but the margin of error can be much smaller to make those types of plays work. His physical profile is also close to Parker’s.

Mid-round Finds

The most fun part of this metric is finding the undervalued receivers who produced well above their college offenses. This year, two stand out.

Marvin Mims saw some of his raw production drop when Lincoln Riley and Caleb Williams left Oklahoma but he still managed to rise well above the rest of the Sooners’ offense. Mims has explosive ability that led to a ton of big plays in his college career. He averaged 19.5 yards per reception in his college career with 20+ yards in each of the past two seasons.

Knocks on Mims include his size and the limits of the Oklahoma offense. But his ability to win down the field should play at the next level. He was third among all college football receivers in deep receiving yards during the 2022 season.

Trey Palmer had a breakout year in his lone season with Nebraska after he transferred from LSU as a former 5-star recruit. Palmer was instantly the focal point of the Cornhuskers’ passing game and one of the few receivers in this class to be among the leaders in yards per route run, target share, and targets per route run.

There is plenty of speed and athleticism for Palmer that could translate and help ease a transition to the NFL level. His initial college football impact came as a punt and kick returner. Palmer has the ability to win deep where his speed could have an instant impact. He was second in receiving yards and first in touchdowns on post routes among all college receivers last season, per SIS.

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