Darren Page, DLD Lead Scout
The NFL Draft is all about value. Few teams are afforded draft picks in the double digit amounts and those that are only have that opportunity every so often. When your team gets is allotted 3.1% of the 256 available draft picks, maximizing value with each selection is the only way to improve your team in a way that others cannot match.
Many positions have seen their relative value increase in recent years as NFL rules are constantly adapted for player safety and offensive schemes continually transform to maximize their output. In short, the passing game is now king. With that comes an increase in the value of having effective wide receivers.
NFL teams have filled their slot or #3 receiver position by bargain shopping for years. Consider players like Wes Welker, Victor Cruz, Danny Amendola, and Marques Colston. These receivers and others like them have been drafted with late round picks or even gone undrafted, only to blossom into high-level pass catchers who thrive from the slot. Either the market failed to identify the value in these types of players or NFL teams simply cannot properly identify talented slot receivers. I decided to take matters into my own hands to find out which was which.
Questions I sought out to answer or at least obtain information on:
- Where do NFL teams draft effective slot receivers compared to less effective slot receivers?
- Where do NFL teams draft effective split-out receivers compared to less effective split-out receivers?
- How do the effective (both slot and split-out) receivers’ combine numbers compare to the less effectives receivers?
- Do NFL teams struggle to evaluate and allocate resources properly into one type of receiver in comparison to another?
- What type of correlation exists between having an effective slot or split-out receiver and being a statistically efficient offense in terms of the passing game?
- Are there current prospects who are being overlooked and could be value picks?
To answer these questions, I used a simple yet encompassing statistical formula and applied it over a six season time frame (2008-2013). The formula multiplies the completion percentage when the receiver is thrown to by their yards per route run. Players are rewarded for catching the ball at a high rate, being a focal point of their team’s passing game, picking up yards after the catch, making big plays down the field. On the other hand, they are punished for dropping passes, being a small part of their offense, and not picking up yardage after the catch or through the air. Touchdowns are an inconsistent statistic and are highly situational and were not included.
Thresholds were placed on the number of routes run to ensure an adequate sample size. Slot receivers with over 200 routes run from the slot were considered. That totaled 162 receivers or an average of 27 slot receivers each season. Split-out receivers with over 400 routes from the outside were considered. All stats from snaps in the slot were subtracted from total stats to give only the production they had when lined up on the outside. That totaled 147 receivers or about 25 split-out receivers averaged each season.
In order to provide a feel for the outcomes, I’ll give some examples. The best slot performance of the last six years came from Wes Welker in 2009. He caught 82% of balls thrown his way and averaged just over 3 yards per route run that year for a score of 2.51. The worst slot receiver in the last six years that met the criteria was Syndric Steptoe in 2008. Steptoe caught 48% of the balls thrown his way and averaged .56 yards per route run. Only statistics that come from snaps in the slot are considered.
On the split-out side of the study is utter domination from one man: Andre Johnson. He finished with the top three scores overall from his 2008, 2012, and 2009 seasons respectively. Bryant Johnson sits on rock bottom twice. In 2010 he caught 36% of targets with .44 yards per route run. He gives abysmal a new definition.
To define what an effective receiver is and what one isn’t, I divided the outcomes into a top and bottom half for both receiver types. It may not be perfect, but it keeps things from becoming overcomplicated and too hard to draw conclusions from. For the purposes of the study, I called the top half A slots or A splits and bottom half B slots or B splits.
The nitty-gritty of the statistics can be found here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B9yhel0y9bc7TU1MWUxDZTVhWjA/edit?usp=sharing. Follow along as I go through each of the questions posed and explain what I found.
1. Where do NFL teams draft effective slot receivers compared to less effective slot receivers?
By starting here, we can identify how the 32 NFL teams spend their resources when it comes to players who wind up being utilized primarily in the slot. The results say a few different things.
The amount of A slots that were undrafted is staggering. Wes Welker and Victor Cruz make up 6 and 3 of the 19 occurrences respectively. So while Welker and to a less degree Cruz may skew this group, they don’t even make up half of the undrafted A slots. It’s still a large group.
On the other hand, there are a number of A slots who were first round picks. The repeat occurrences were Calvin Johnson with two and Percy Harvin with two. Teams have actually spent valuable resources on players and then played them in the slot. Kendall Wright and Justin Blackmon are both recent first round picks who hit A slot status with their 2013 and 2012 seasons respectively.
A much higher percentage of B slots land between the 2nd and 7th round. The round with the highest percentage of B slots is the third round. Is this where teams start to value smaller receivers suited for the slot and begin to draft them? When you look at both charts, it’s clear that a run on these types of receivers begins in the second or third round and runs out at the end of the fifth round. Whether or not NFL teams draft slot receivers well will be revisited for the fourth question. The graphs paint an interesting picture, certainly.