We are in football’s golden era of passing, and receivers are reaping the benefits. More than half of the top 15 marks for receiving yards in a single season have come since 2011, and more than a quarter of the 100-catch seasons in NFL history have occurred in the past five years. The slot receiver has effectively replaced the fullback as a starting position: The number of plays with three receivers on the field (plus one tight end and one running back) jumped from 34 percent to 66 percent from 2008 to 2018. Receivers are catching more passes, gaining more yards, and seeing more playing time. But finding good ones in the draft is as tricky as ever.
The 2020 draft features the deepest class of wide receivers in years, providing teams with a chance to add to their pass-catching portfolios and a high FOMO risk if they don’t. A whopping 12 of the top 66 players on Danny Kelly’s Big Board are wide receivers, including six of the top 28. But before teams start adjusting their playbooks to make way for a new generation of playmaking pass catchers, they need to have done their (virtual) homework. It’s a notoriously difficult position to evaluate: From 2016 to 2019, receivers taken in the second round have significantly outperformed those drafted in the first round, as pointed out by NBC’s Peter King. Skills that are essential for NFL receivers, like beating press-man coverage and running routes with precise timing, are less important in college, so figuring out which receivers will succeed in the pros is an educated guess.
“NFL coaches want things done in a very specific manner,” Sam Monson, the director of consumer operations for Pro Football Focus, told The Ringer. “It’s like ‘You need to break this off at 12 yards. You need to do it in seven steps.’ In college, it’s a lot more ‘If you understand the guy’s leverage and you understand how to attack a defender, get him moving in the wrong direction, then break back out. We don’t care that much if you do it at 12 or if you do it at 13 or 11 yards.’ There’s a lot more wiggle room involved. As long as you’re getting open, they’re happy.”
In other words, if being a good college receiver is about creating space, being a good NFL receiver is about creating space at the right time. NFL cornerbacks try to disrupt a receiver’s timing with physicality as soon as the ball is snapped. How an NFL wide receiver avoids that contact as he leaves the line of scrimmage is an art in and of itself. But college cornerbacks rarely put their hands on wide receivers after the snap, so college receivers have less responsibility to preserve the play’s timing and can focus solely on creating separation.
Sage Rosenfels, a backup quarterback in the NFL for eight years, said that the separation a receiver creates gives the quarterback a greater margin for error on his throw. “Look at the NBA,” Rosenfels said. “Every shot is different. There’s contested shots, and then there’s guys that are wide open. It’s harder to shoot a contested shot, just like it’s harder for a quarterback to throw to a receiver who’s completely covered.”
But how do scouts evaluate a college receiver’s ability to get open with the added physicality they can expect to face in the NFL?
“You are basing a lot of your evaluation, in my opinion, on specific traits that pertain to the position and measurables that win at the position historically,” said Matt Bowen, a former NFL safety and current ESPN analyst. The two most basic measurables are speed and size. This year’s prototypical speed player, Alabama’s Henry Ruggs III, is expected to be a surefire first-round pick. Ruggs—who at 5-foot-11 and 188 pounds ran a 4.27-second 40-yard dash—will be one of the league’s fastest players. Speed is an obvious asset to creating separation. It’s easy to separate from people if you’re faster than them.
The other most basic measurable is size. There are plenty of big receivers in this year’s draft, including Baylor’s Denzel Mims (6-foot-3, 207 pounds), USC’s Michael Pittman Jr. (6-foot-4, 223 pounds), Clemson’s Tee Higgins (6-foot-4, 216 pounds), and Notre Dame’s Chase Claypool (6-foot-4, 238 pounds). Their size may help them fight press coverage at the next level and can help them catch contested passes, but it’s not as obvious of an advantage as it might seem.
Monson, an analyst at PFF since 2008, said that a player’s vertical height doesn’t matter nearly as much as the horizontal separation they create with the defender. A short receiver who is wide open gives his quarterback a throwing window the size of a doorframe, while a tall receiver who is covered gives his quarterback a throwing window the size of a door handle.
“The bottom line is, quarterbacks throw to open guys,” Monson said.
If the goal is to get open, then how much does size matter?
There is no question that bigger pass catchers get more opportunities. When play-callers get closer to the end zone, we expect them to target the 6-foot-5 receiver instead of the 5-foot-10 guy, and the data backs this up. In 2015, PFF’s Mike Clay found that taller and heavier receivers get significantly more targets around the end zone than shorter or lighter ones. But when Clay adjusted those numbers for opportunity, he found something surprising. While bigger players get more targets in and around the end zone and therefore more touchdowns, there is little evidence that they are better at converting their opportunities into scores than shorter or lighter players.
“What I found was that the efficiency on those throws was basically equal,” said Clay, now an analyst at ESPN. “There was no real difference.”
Other research backs up Clay’s findings. While height seems like an intuitive advantage, once it’s adjusted for opportunity, tall receivers have not outperformed shorter ones in the red zone or anywhere else on the field. The size of receivers has consistently gone up over the past 30 years, but height has not correlated with an increase in production.
This flies in the face of anyone who has ever played monkey in the middle with an older sibling: Bigger is better when you’re trying to catch something, right? But take PFF’s contested catch statistic as an example: In 2017, the leaders in contested catch rate—or the percentage of contested passes the receiver reeled in—were Stefon Diggs (6-foot, 191 pounds) and Sterling Shepard (5-foot-10, 196 pounds). Diggs also ranked second in 2018, behind Kansas City’s 5-foot-10 Tyreek Hill. Last year, just two of the top five players in contested catch rate were taller than 6-foot-2. Extend it to the college ranks, and you’ll find similar results: Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy (6-foot-1, 193 pounds) reeled in a higher rate of contested catches over the last two years than Clemson’s Higgins. Last season, the five college receivers with the highest rate of turning contested passes into catches (minimum 100 targets) were either 6-foot-1 or 6-foot.
In the NFL, some taller receivers, like Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans (6-foot-5, 231 pounds) or the Los Angeles Chargers’ Mike Williams (6-foot-4, 220 pounds), are excellent at coming down with the football no matter who is around them, but other receivers similarly lauded for their ability to catch contested passes, like DeAndre Hopkins (6-foot-1, 212 pounds) and Odell Beckham Jr. (5-foot-11, 198 pounds), aren’t nearly as big. And besides, even if players are good at snagging contested catches, that doesn’t mean throwing jump balls is a good play.
The end zone fade—the classic receiving route for taller, jump-ball receivers—is one of the worst plays in football. PFF looked at more than five years of data, from 2013 to midway through 2018, and found that in college football, the end zone fade is the most frequently thrown route inside the 5-yard line but is also the least successful (under 33 percent completion). In fact, PFF found that end zone fades were so unsuccessful that they lowered the team’s probability of scoring. When PFF looked at the NFL and focused on players who got the most fade targets during the same span—DeAndre Hopkins, Dez Bryant, Brandon Marshall, Jimmy Graham, A.J. Green, Calvin Johnson, Alshon Jeffery, Michael Crabtree, Julio Jones, Larry Fitzgerald, and Rob Gronkowski—they found the same completion percentage (under 33 percent) as in college. It’s not a high-percentage play, no matter whom it’s being drawn for.
Most importantly, the concept of being good at contested catches misses the forest for the trees. Remember, a receiver’s main job is to create enough separation that the catch is not contested at all. Being considered a jump-ball receiver can actually be a back-handed compliment for a receiver prospect.
“If a guy’s catching a lot of 50-50 balls but they’re completely covered all the time, to me there’s a positive there,” Rosenfels said. “But there’s also a negative in the sense that they aren’t getting any separation from the defensive back.”
When it comes to big receivers who reeled in many of their catches in contested situations, like Clemson’s Higgins or Baylor’s Mims, keep an eye on how analysts compliment them. See whether they talk about their size as a way to create separation—like being physical to beat press coverage—rather than as a way to make contested catches.
“Can you be physical enough where you can use your hands to slap down at the line of scrimmage and defeat a jam and then be able to get downfield to physically overtake a defensive back?” Bowen said. “That’s where size and strength and physical play style can come into play.”
In other words, size matters, but only if you know how to use it. That leads teams to prioritize the traits that can’t be coached—height, weight, and speed—and then rely on their staff to teach players how to maximize those traits at the next level. It’s a sensible strategy, but one that relies on players improving upon certain skills while moving up from college to the pros. When you’re holding a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. When you’re a football coach, most player problems look like they can be coached away. There’s an inherent bias that a player will improve when he gets into our system, one that often overvalues the power of a team’s coaching.
“Projecting development is a tricky area,” Monson said. “It’s one of the interesting things about PFF’s grading at the college level versus the way people traditionally look at scouting. The guy is not necessarily that good at something: You say, ‘Well, think what’ll happen when we clean that up and when we fix all this kind of stuff, it’ll be even better.’ And PFF’s starting point is ‘Well, if he wasn’t ever able to do it at college, why are we suddenly expecting it to get better at the next level?’”
There’s also the practical matter of professional self-preservation that comes into play for executives making high-profile selections in an industry where roughly half of first-rounders succeed. Few general managers get second chances, and that leads to teams being famously risk-averse, unless there is a clear precedent for the decision they are making.
“CYA—that’s called ‘cover your ass,’” Rosenfels said. “This is why a lot of times general managers will draft somebody, let’s say in the first round, that has all these tangible numbers. And if the player doesn’t work out, the GM or whoever can say, ‘Well, he did check all these boxes, right?’ Sometimes coaches go with the bigger guy or the guy with those tangible numbers because then there’s at least sort of an excuse there.”
Bowen agrees that players who have all the physical traits give the decision-makers who pick them more cover if things don’t work out.
“If he busts, well, you as the head scout, you say to the general manager, ‘He checked every box you wanted. We didn’t develop him right. Not my fault. I just told you what he could do.’”
The NFL just went through a size thought experiment at quarterback. Baker Mayfield (6-foot-1) and Kyler Murray (5-foot-10) went no. 1 in the draft two years in a row, which would have been hard to believe just a decade ago for a position that has traditionally valued bigger players.
“It’s just like quarterbacks,” Rosenfels said. “We used to think everyone had to be 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-6. And then you go, ‘You know, Brett Favre was 6-foot-2. Aaron Rodgers is 6-foot-2, Russell Wilson’s 5-foot-11, Drew Brees is 6-foot.’ There does seem to be a lot of quarterbacks who are in that 6-foot-2 range who aren’t 6-foot-4 or 6-foot-5. Being a little bit smaller does lower your center of gravity and allows you maybe to do more things that the taller athletes can’t do.”
Part of the aversion to drafting short quarterbacks in the past was the legitimate fear they wouldn’t be able to see over the offensive line. But there was also little precedent for them, and nobody wanted the blame for drafting one who didn’t work out. (The same bias stretches to quarterbacks who are too tall.)
“I’ve got college coaches telling me they will not recruit an offensive tackle who is under 6-foot-4,” Bowen said. “And I just say, ‘Well, OK. What about this guy? He’s a stud. He’s 6-foot-3. What does that mean?’”
Pay attention to when scouts, general managers, or analysts talk about this loaded crop of receiver talent from now through the draft. When someone mentions a player is big, it’s often to bolster their argument in favor of a player. There’s nothing wrong with being big, but it can be misconstrued as a positive.
“You’re always going to say that in the draft process [when it helps your argument],” Bowen said. “When I talk about Jerry Jeudy, I never mention [size]. I don’t. Because he gets open.”