1st Round WR's: What Should We Expect?


Drafting wide receivers is risky business. While there is always a lot of risk in a high draft pick regardless of position, wide receivers tend to flop at a higher rate than many other positions. The adjustment going from a simplified college scheme to a more complex NFL scheme tends to claim a lot of victims. On top of that, receivers are going up against some of the best CB's in the world instead of college players who will never even sign in the NFL as undrafted free agents. Many high-profile college receivers simply cannot adjust to the pro game. So, what should you expect if your team is brave enough to select a WR in the 1st round of next year's draft?

Since the AFL/NFL merger, there have been 131 WR's drafted in the 1st round of the NFL draft. Of these, 127 appeared in at least 1 game in their rookie year. Robert Meachem (Saints, 2008), Yatil Green (Dolphins, 1997) and Randy Burke (1978, Colts) were injured before their rookie season and Johnny Rodgers (1973, Chargers) signed in the CFL after being drafted.

The remaining 127 1st round WR's have averaged a mere 2.23 receptions and 33.77 yards per game in their rookie campaign. Not so impressive. 27 1st round WR's (18%) caught 1 or fewer passes per game. Here's the distribution in graphical form:

  Catches_per_game_medium

Only 12 averaged 4+ catches per game (including Charles Rogers, who was injured much of his rookie season):

Best_wr_medium

Looking at those rookie standouts, two things stand out:

1. Only 5 (including Rogers) of the best rookie seasons come from top 10 picks. There have been 43 top 10 WR picks and they have fared only slightly better than the non-top 10 (2.5 receptions/game, 35.9 yards/game).

2. Big rookie seasons don't mean big careers. The top two rookie performers dropped off after their great 1st season: Terry Glenn averaged 4.12 catches per game for the rest of his career and Michael Clayton a meager 1.93 (and never caught more than 38 in a season after his rookie year).

With all of that in mind, the NFL has certainly changed over the years. Considering the proliferation of the spread offense and the rule changes favoring offenses, it's not surprising that 10 of the top 12 reception-per-game seasons have come since 1995. In order to understand receiver impacts across the years (as well as reducing the impact of playing for a pass-heavy team), it's more useful to look at the percentage of a team's passing offense that a WR has contributed. To that end, we see the top receiver performances as this:

 

Best_wr2_medium

Here we see the 15 1st round WR's who accounted for more than 20% of his team's total passing offense. We see a lot of the same names, but the top reception-per-game guys drop down the list a little bit. Interestingly, we see only 5 top 10 receivers in this list. This suggests that the impact a rookie receiver makes isn't affected by how early in the round he is selected. 

Viewed with respect of percentage of a team's offense, 1st round rookies average 11.26% of his team's catches and 14.17% of his team's total passing yards. Based on the league average in 2010 (328 completions, 3545 yards), that works out to be 36 receptions for 502 yards. To put that in context, there were 75 WR's in 2010 who hauled in 36+ passes and 69 who had 502+ yards. In other words, the average 1st round WR doesn't produce top 50 WR numbers in his first year.

Later this week, we'll look at the 1st round duds and explore the middle rounds of the draft.

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