Future Projections: Wide Receiver

Today I wanted to look at some various futures projections at the wide receiver position. I thought this might make an interesting read for the current NFL with a number of big name receivers looking for contract extensions as well as for fantasy possibilities. To examine expectations I am sampling receivers from 2004 from 2014 into two groups: those who produced at least one 1,000 yard seasons in their first four years in the NFL and those who produced none. From there we can use the average yearly improvement levels (adjusted for outliers) to estimate the results over the next few seasons.

The Elite Players

The following table shows the average improvement level in four per game metrics for the players who pulled off the 1,000 yard season early in their career:

SeasonTargetsReceptionsYardsTDs
220.4%28.7%10.0%18.1%
321.1%19.7%18.7%-1.5%
41.2%-1.5%-1.9%0.2%
5-1.9%-1.1%-4.3%-6.8%
6-1.2%-1.0%-0.2%-4.7%
7-5.2%-6.7%-9.9%-9.8%
8-9.4%-9.7%-10.0%-15.0%
9-4.8%-6.4%-13.9%-11.6%
101.6%-1.4%-7.1%2.8%

In general the big progress for a receiver comes in the second and/or third years. That should come as no surprise as the majority of players that first break the 1,000 yard mark do so in those seasons. Years 4 through 6 are essentially steady state level, meaning teams should still expect high end results in those seasons.

Year 7 is where the decline begins, and my guess is the decline is actually steeper than the numbers indicate. I think at this point teams are just realizing they have to adjust to the fact that their star player is no longer playing at the same superstar level. In year 8 we see it happen more with a major decline in usage which should mean they are being replaced by a younger player. The slide continues in year 9.

While many players certainly outperform these benchmarks (about 25% of players will show some moderate improvements in later years) these are the kinds of numbers the NFL team needs to consider and is considering when they make a contract offer.  Therein lies the problem for the established players working off five year contracts who are not reaching free agency early.

A player like a Dez Bryant has most likely seen his peak performance. There is little doubt he will sustain it this year, but he’ll do so playing on a one year franchise tag. His value will drop after that at which point he will need to convince a team that he should earn his top value and can be a guy that doesn’t have a steady decline. In the last three seasons Dez’ average year has been 91/1,311/13.7. Those are numbers that will compare with anyone and should earn in excess of $14 million per year. He’ll likely maintain that this year.

But in 2016 through 2018 we would be looking more at an average of 75/1,050/11. Those numbers are still terrific, but those aren’t other worldly numbers, outside of the touchdowns and the back end is going to likely be under 1,000 yards. That doesn’t merit $14 million. That may not merit $11 million.  It’s going to be an uphill battle on a contract and the franchise tag just empowers the team that much more.

For someone line a Julio Jones their best time to strike a deal is now because they are still right in the prime of their career and Jones projects to be the most productive non first year player in the NFL. If the Falcons have any intention of doing a long term deal it is also in the best interest of the team to do the deal now as well to best mitigate the backend risk by having little dead money left to consider when needing to release the player or renegotiate the contract.

The players in a position to do best over the next few years are Odell Beckham, Jr., Jones, Antonio Brown, Demaryius Thomas, DeAndre Hopkins, Mike Evans and TY Hilton. Name players likely on a decline include Victor Cruz, Brandon Marshall, Torrey Smith, Mike Wallace, Dwayne Bowe and Hakeem Nicks. Other than Smith there is nothing that ties the club to those players moving forward so teams are pretty insulated.

Beckham’s rookie season was so ridiculous if projected out to 16 games that I’m not including him in the chart, but of the players who played in 2014, here would be their 2015 projection and their 2015-2017 avg. projection where I had the data available (I didn’t go beyond 12 years due to lack of  sample size) assuming the player is healthy for 16 games.

Player2015 Tgt2015 Rec2015 Yds2015 TD2015-2017 Tgt2015-17 Rec2015-17 Yds2015-17 TD
Antonio Brown178.8127.71694.312.4167.4118.11531.311.0
Julio Jones170.6109.71625.96.0166.3106.51569.95.6
Demaryius Thomas181.8109.91615.510.5170.1101.71460.19.3
DeAndre Hopkins153.890.91436.45.9154.089.71397.65.8
T.Y. Hilton141.486.21406.97.5139.085.21365.47.0
Jordy Nelson136.988.51366.911.0133.284.31212.110.3
Dez Bryant134.487.11317.115.2125.880.61190.413.6
Mike Evans156.693.31232.815.1179.4105.01377.115.0
Randall Cobb124.690.01231.511.2121.587.41189.110.5
A.J. Green141.384.01226.06.9137.781.51183.76.5
Calvin Johnson150.081.81140.88.7144.977.71032.68.2
DeSean Jackson91.853.91122.15.489.451.4995.05.1
Alshon Jeffery146.783.71111.110.0144.382.81078.39.4
Kelvin Benjamin174.593.91108.510.6199.8105.71238.210.5
Keenan Allen167.4105.31062.34.5167.7103.91033.64.4
Eric Decker121.278.11023.95.1113.472.3925.44.5
Josh Gordon152.275.6950.80.0149.674.8922.80.0
Victor Cruz108.060.7896.72.5101.156.2810.42.3
Roddy White123.880.0890.96.1NANANANA
Vincent Jackson123.161.3848.11.5NANANANA
Marques Colston101.658.2838.15.189.751.2719.04.1
Michael Floyd100.246.3824.76.098.545.8800.45.7
Brandon Marshall132.674.1824.510.1117.065.1707.48.1
Kendall Wright107.564.2801.36.9105.763.5777.76.5
Mike Wallace109.062.5776.59.0100.757.3692.27.8
Larry Fitzgerald105.962.8770.01.9NANANANA
Torrey Smith90.248.4733.910.388.047.1708.69.6
Miles Austin98.961.8703.72.787.354.4603.72.2
Dwayne Bowe96.559.9692.10.093.256.9626.50.0
Greg Jennings93.558.2689.56.282.551.2591.54.9
Michael Crabtree102.463.5628.73.694.558.1560.53.1
Jerricho Cotchery74.944.7531.70.9NANANANA
Steve Johnson55.838.9481.83.154.337.1427.22.9
Wes Welker65.848.9455.71.9NANANANA
Brian Hartline59.736.4427.01.855.133.3380.61.6
Hakeem Nicks64.535.5364.83.659.532.5325.23.1

The Non-Elites

The non-elite players are those that didn’t have those massive seasons on a rookie contract. While many will eventually find their way to 1,000 yards, such as Golden Tate did last year, most of them don’t remain at that level and are more likely to fall back down over time. Here is our look at the performance  of the players who never achieved a 1,000 yard season in their first four years in the NFL.

SeasonTargetsReceptionsYardsTDs
228.2%23.9%10.1%-1.9%
31.3%4.4%-26.1%-21.4%
4-10.2%-5.5%-27.5%-35.3%
5-13.5%-9.1%-30.5%-30.8%
6-9.9%-12.3%-24.7%-31.6%
7-6.8%-11.1%-14.6%-48.9%
8-26.1%-22.6%-32.9%-29.0%
9-10.9%-10.2%-22.0%-49.1%
10-16.4%-21.5%-28.3%-2.8%

While the averages for these players has been poor, there is much more variance than in the elite player group and it is not uncommon for a large number of players to see pretty big spikes in a given year. That is offset by the massive drops that other see. But what seems to be a bit more consistent is the fact that it’s not really sustainable and usually you are not finding a number 1, who hasn’t already achieved that status elsewhere. I don’t think most teams are seeking that out in these players, the exception being Kansas City with Jeremy Maclin, which is why players like Emmanuel Sanders come in on relatively low cost deals.

Here is a list of the top projected performers moving forward that fit into this category.

Player2015 Tgt2015 Rec2015Yds2015 TD2015-2017 Tgt2015-17 Rec2015-17 Yds2015-17 TD 
Emmanuel Sanders127.088.61057.86.2110.976.1855.63.8
Jeremy Maclin133.275.61125.05.1106.562.2823.13.5
Golden Tate129.786.81002.82.7113.374.6811.11.7
Julian Edelman142.793.5948.22.3114.077.0693.71.6
Brandon LaFell107.264.9718.04.893.655.7580.73.0
Rueben Randle114.167.1680.41.9100.560.5503.41.4
Andrew Hawkins103.361.1611.31.594.354.1488.31.0
Kenny Britt78.342.7638.51.562.635.1467.11.1
Harry Douglas91.960.5632.81.473.549.8463.00.9
Brian Quick80.154.0621.84.470.648.7460.03.2
Doug Baldwin84.760.0573.82.177.453.1458.31.4
Mohamed Sanu88.052.9573.13.277.647.7424.02.3
Eddie Royal67.348.0522.25.059.141.6407.33.3
Pierre Garcon77.652.6504.82.168.245.7393.61.4
Andre Holmes85.642.7482.02.878.237.8385.01.9
Cecil Shorts117.159.3476.80.9106.952.5380.90.6
Percy Harvin89.555.8507.40.671.545.9371.20.4
James Jones99.765.5519.63.181.852.6367.62.8
Riley Cooper85.648.2434.72.174.741.4351.61.3
Louis Murphy75.940.1471.81.560.733.0345.21.0
Malcom Floyd68.741.2484.14.666.331.2343.34.6
Jarius Wright55.739.7426.51.349.135.8315.60.9
Jermaine Kearse66.138.3415.50.758.334.5307.40.5
Donnie Avery64.635.6400.60.051.629.3293.10.0

The Young Guns

For the players who didn’t reach that 1,000 yard mark but have only played two seasons in the NFL I just decided to run them through an average of the two filters. While players with three years still fit in the “unknown” category since the majority of growth usually occurs by the third season I didn’t think it was worth giving them the benefit of the doubt.

Sammie Watkins is the player with the best potential though a new coaching staff will likely see the use be very different and his numbers were based more on lack of options in Buffalo last year. Brandin Cooks is probably the most interesting player because of the team he plays on and the increased opportunity he should get from this point forward. Martavis Bryant should also get some opportunities both as a byproduct of how good Antonio Brown is and the possibility that Brown’s contract becomes an issue in the future. Here is a look at the top 25:

Player2015 Tgt2015 Rec2015 Yds2015 TD2015-2017 Tgt2015-17 Rec2015-17 Yds2015-17 TD
Sammy Watkins159.082.11080.46.5168.187.71012.95.8
Brandin Cooks137.2107.1968.25.2145.0114.4907.74.6
Martavis Bryant95.452.5966.413.8100.956.1906.012.3
Allen Robinson161.097.0964.63.5170.2103.6904.43.1
Jordan Matthews128.084.6959.48.6135.390.4899.47.7
Kenny Stills98.475.3956.22.893.772.4846.12.4
Jarvis Landry139.2106.1833.95.4147.1113.4781.84.8
John Brown126.760.6765.75.4134.064.8717.94.8
Allen Hurns120.564.4744.86.5127.468.8698.35.8
Taylor Gabriel89.545.5683.21.194.648.6640.51.0
Robert Woods115.672.8673.04.4110.070.1595.63.8
Justin Hunter99.341.8639.33.594.540.2565.73.0
Markus Wheaton95.659.4620.11.891.057.1548.71.5
Charles Johnson87.546.3609.82.483.244.6539.62.0
Marqise Lee105.557.5571.41.3111.561.5535.71.2
Terrance Williams73.441.5597.97.169.839.9529.16.1
Davante Adams82.048.0490.73.286.751.3460.02.9
Donte Moncrief60.940.4488.53.264.443.2458.02.9
Stedman Bailey58.538.4478.71.055.637.0423.60.9
Philly Brown55.132.6400.82.758.234.9375.82.4
Albert Wilson46.426.9381.40.049.028.8357.60.0
Cordarrelle Patterson74.537.0369.70.970.935.6327.20.8
Paul Richardson58.339.1318.01.261.641.7298.21.0
Marquess Wilson81.343.5308.12.077.441.9272.61.7
Kenbrell Thompkins61.026.9288.30.058.025.9255.10.0

The Rookies

Rookies are pretty far removed from thinking about a second contract, but for fantasy or informational purposes here are the average showings in each season since 2004, with the pretty much expected decline in performance in each round of the draft.

RoundTgtRecYdsTD
179.544.6616.14.1
251.127.6352.42.1
329.416.3217.61.2
429.013.9178.11.2
517.78.1113.70.7
611.15.161.60.4
714.36.783.20.4
UDFA13.14.354.20.3