When I started breaking down the wide receivers available in this year’s draft, we talked in the opening section about the importance of breakout age for a player entering the league. There’s a link in that rookie wideout piece that links to an article (with many more links) on the subject, but it’s long been relevant that productive players in the NFL were likely productive players at the collegiate level and the earlier they become a productive player, that it is a stronger signal on talent level.
I wanted to go a step further and wondered whether we could bypass breakout age and age altogether by just accounting for players that didn’t declare for the NFL draft early. RotoViz’s Blair Andrews approached this last offseason. In that piece, he showed that non-early declares are more capable of a breakout campaign within their first two seasons while even older, early declare prospects have an edge in that area over their cohorts that maxed out their collegiate eligibility.
Starting with the same wide receiver position, I’m going to widen the lens on the breakout criteria from a fantasy stance while taking in the entirety of a player’s career to this point. I’ll be taking a look at the past decade of draft picks from each position and exploring how many viable fantasy contributors come from early declares versus their non-early declare peers.
We’re only going back 10 years for a few reasons. First is we’re getting a more immediate look at this era in terms of how teams approach the draft and how players are used in a more modern climate. Second is that it was unheard of to have so many players jumping to the NFL on shortened collegiate careers prior to this era.
From 2000-2011 (two collective bargaining agreements ago, now that the latest one just passed a week ago) the average amount of underclassmen that entered the NFL draft was 49 players. Since 2012, that number is 89 with the past four years seeing over 100 players declare for early draft entry and a record-115 players declaring for early eligibility for this upcoming draft.
One of the other things we’ll be doing here is consistently scaling down the player pool to compare the weight of draft capital invested into a player and even breakout age and career performance.
With that in mind, we’re already removing all undrafted players from the player pool. Over the past 10 years, just 10% of all wide receiver seasons that performed on a per-game basis as a fantasy WR3 (WR36) or better were undrafted players. That hit rate gets worse as we move on, with just 8.3% of the WR2 or better seasons per game coming from undrafted players and just 5% of the WR1 seasons per game. If the league didn’t want to use a draft selection on a player, we’re immediately removing those players from the starting point.
WR Draft Selections Over the Past 10 Years
The table above is simple. There have been 313 total wide receivers selected over the past 10 draft classes. Of those 313 players, just 21.7% (68) have had at least one season as the WR36 or higher in PPR points per game thus far over their careers. 15.3% (48) have reached WR2 status or better while just 8.3% (26) of those players have had a WR1 season in points per game. The same rates for early and non-early declare wideouts are below those marks.
26 out of 313 doesn’t sound very great. As we go through the other positions, you can circle back to these numbers. In large part due to the sheer number of players selected at the position compared to others, but wide receivers have a lowered hit rate compared to running backs, quarterbacks, and tight ends for baseline fantasy production.
In a full drafted sample, the number of non-early declare wideouts more than double those who were afforded the opportunity to leave school early. With fewer overall players in the sample, At that surface level, early declares more than triple the hit rates of the non-early declares across the board in every arbitrary measure.
So far there’s an extraordinary gap between the two sets of wideouts, but since we’re still allowing everyone in the sample, we’re accounting for a lot of players that had extremely low odds to succeed in the league through late-round draft capital.
190 of the 313 wide receivers in the overall sample here were selected in the fourth round or later in the draft. Of those 190 players, just 12 (6.3%) have had a WR3 or better scoring campaign per game, just seven (3.7%) have reached that WR2-plus status and just three (Antonio Brown, Tyreek Hill, and Stefon Diggs) have had a WR1 scoring season per game so far. This sample comes from all players selected in that area of the draft, regardless of declaring early or not.
Draft capital is paramount. If you’re a day three draft pick, buckle in for a long road to fantasy relevancy. Undrafted players have had higher hit rates than day three wideouts, but also have a significantly larger player pool.
Tightening up our sample to account for significant draft capital investment. Here are the wideouts selected in the first three rounds of the draft.
Rounds 1-3 WR Draft Selections Over the Past 10 Years
By scaling down to just the opening three rounds, we get nearly a 50/50 split of early and non-early declares. That alone removes 71.9% of the non-early declare wideouts from the picture that are selected later in the draft. If a receiver is declaring for the NFL Draft early, there’s a high probability he’s been given a high draft grade and the league has already expressed his value in the first place. 62.1% of our starting early declare sample is remaining here.
Those two percentages paired together is a solid signal that the current NFL scouting, invitation, and drafting process is doing a decent job at the base level on diagnosing talent level and understanding that early production is relevant and cooked into player evaluation, even if indirectly. The fact that a player declares early or not doesn’t change his talent level, but it does apply us with information on how the league perceives his talent level.
Success rates rise across the board on all levels, but heads up with nearly an identical player pool and equally relevant draft investment, early-declares are much more successful than their non-early declare peers. When we get to the higher-end scoring buckets, they more than double up on WR2-plus hit rates and triple up in elite WR1 scoring season rate.
Just 12-of-59 non-early declares above have produced a WR2-plus season with just six of those 12 players having multiple WR2-plus seasons to this stage of their career. Just five total have reached WR1 per game status.
What we can also do here is incorporate collegiate breakouts and production. Wideouts selected in the first three rounds of the draft are all typically successful decorated collegiate receivers. That includes the non-early declare group. Just seven of those 59 players above failed to have a collegiate breakout season with a 20% dominator rating over the entirety of their collegiate careers.
41 of those 59 players had a breakout season prior to age 21 in college. Just 15 of those 41 players turned in a WR3-plus season per game with nine of those having a WR2-plus season and just four (Eric Decker, T.Y. Hilton, Emmanuel Sanders, and Cooper Kupp) having a WR1-caliber season per game.
23 of those 59 players had a breakout age prior to age 20. Just 9-of-23 have turned in a WR3-plus season, with five at WR2-plus status and only two reaching WR1 levels of per game output.
Looking at final year production entering the NFL draft, 39 of those 59 wideouts had a final season dominator rating of 30% or higher. 15 of those 39 have posted a WR3-level season with 11 at WR2-plus status and five at WR1 levels.
In the end, even when looking at equally productive players and draft capital, the early declare wideouts run away with probability of fantasy success, but there is one caveat that looks to be in place if diving in on a senior prospect. When pursuing players that have hit in this area of the draft that are non-early declares, you’re better off shopping for non-Power 5 prospects. Among the hits, receivers such as Hilton (Florida International), John Brown (Pittsburgh State), Kenny Golladay (Northern Illinois), and Kupp (Eastern Washington) all were smaller schools or FCS prospects. It would make sense that these players aren’t afforded similar opportunities to declare early or garner high grades earlier in their collegiate careers given the context of their competition and overall exposure to scouting. Of course, there are still misses in this bucket as well from Brian Quick, Taywan Taylor, Chad Williams and the uncertain future for Andy Isabella, but non-Power 5 prospects have had better success rates from this area than the Power 5 seniors.
Round 1 WR Draft Selections Over the Past 10 Years
Going to the final lengths here and reducing our sample to just first-round players, the early declare wideouts dominate the sample. Again, we should give the NFL some credit here in their assessment of prospects.
The sample is our smallest, but success rates are the highest. A player selected highly is going to be given a chance to produce. Even under the assumption that many wideouts bust, half of these players have had a WR2 or better season with over a quarter turning in a WR1 season.
As for the early declares, all the numbers rise and once again dwarf the non-early declare group. The only player here from the non-early declare group to produce a WR2 or better season in points per game so far has been DeVante Parker a year ago in his fifth NFL season (and likely not for the team that drafted him in your rookie draft coming out).
To be a first-round wideout, a player has likely been a combination of being productive and athletic. Even the non-early declares here largely fit those criteria. Corey Davis has a 94th-percentile breakout age and a 97th-percentile career production grade in my model. Other players such as Michael Floyd, Josh Doctson, and Kendall Wright all are also in the 90th-percentile or higher in breakout age. Guys like A.J. Jenkins and Kevin White had 90th-percentile final season production, so it’s easy to see where their stock was elevated despite falling on the lower end of things from a breakout perspective.
Looking at the 2020 Class
The top of the 2020 class doesn’t have any worries here, with all of CeeDee Lamb, Jerry Jeudy, Justin Jefferson, Henry Ruggs, Jaelen Reagor, Tee Higgins, and Laviska Shenault all entering this draft early. All of those wideouts are expected to be taken in some order at the top of the position in the draft.
Outside of those players, things become more interesting for some decorated prospects garnering buzz. Denzel Mims, Brandon Aiyuk, Tyler Johnson, Michael Pittman, Chase Claypool, Devin Duvernay, and Bryan Edwards are all prospects that maxed out their eligibility and already have positive buzz swirling on their potential draft capital. Aiyuk and Pittman are top-50 prospects on Daniel Jeremiah’s top-50 board overall. I have Mims, Aiyuk, and Johnson in my top-10 wideouts pre-draft as well, even with model applying weight in players declaring early versus not. If going down the senior prospects that weren’t in the Power 5, Antonio Gandy-Golden, is the best small-school senior bet to flirt with high enough draft capital to warrant a lifeline.
If only it were as easy as to say, “avoid all non-early declare players.”. But fantasy is played in a large gray space. Being an early declare wideout paired with draft capital is the most probable bucket for future fantasy success, but even that is no sure thing. I also would never suggest you take one lone component and base a hard rule of player selection around it. That said, even a less productive, early declare wideout paired with high draft investment criteria has been far more probable to impact fantasy than their maxed eligibility counterparts.