Keenan Allen, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Why Breakout Age is the Skeleton Key
This spring RotoViz will roll out a book tentatively entitled Fantasy Football Cheat Codes. It may seem like there’s too much football information out there these days to ever reprise the perpetual magic of up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-b-a … but we still live very much in a pre-Moneyball world as far as the NFL is concerned.
It’s a bit of an upset that we find ourselves here nearly a decade after excellent sites like Football Outsiders and Advanced NFL Stats began proselytizing the masses, but an odd thing happened on the way to statistical nirvana. While the internet brought sabermetrics to the casual baseball fan, it brought “tape grinding” to the armchair quarterback. Inspiring a cottage industry of amateur draftniks, the NFL Draft quickly became an event. The cottage morphed into a sprawling metropolis. Regardless of your take on the scouts-versus-analysts debate, this is unequivocally a good thing.
It’s a good thing because what’s good for football is good for anybody who loves football, and that’s all of us. It’s also a good thing because the emphasis on tape study appears to be fueling inefficiencies that would otherwise close. As a fantasy player, you can take advantage. Last week, I proposed three components to wide receiver evaluation that are something akin to discovering a football Holy Grail (let me emphasize that I didn’t stumble across any of these elements on my own but merely compiled some info and built on the truly innovative work of people like Jon Moore, Chad Parsons, and the Fantasy Douche).
Earlier this week, I looked at the top members of the 2014 draft class* and offered some very preliminary analysis suggesting the class was going to be improperly valued barring a huge turnaround in sentiment. I also proposed a conjecture: If age at draft time matters, then age at breakout probably matters too.
For this article, I decided to look at this issue using the same 136-player sample from the holy grail column. I scoured the hits and misses to find out how old each player was when they “broke out.” Regular RotoViz readers are probably familiar with the Dominator Rating, our term for a player’s market share of his team’s receiving offense. In order to qualify as a “breakout,” my criterion was that the receiver needed a 0.30 Dominator Rating (average of market share touchdowns and market share yards).
The results were just as striking as those in the original column, and I believe answer the question fairly definitively. In other words, a skeleton key.
|–||Early Breakout %||Breakout Age|
You’ll remember that 67% of the first round picks qualified as “hits.” Considering all of the uncertainty inherent in any type of professional sports draft, this seems like a pretty good success rate until you start to look at the misses and see how avoidable they probably were. 92% of the hits posted more than one strong collegiate season. Meanwhile, 50% of the misses were 1-year wonders. Of the players who did break out, the average age was 21. That means these receivers would have been 23 by their rookie seasons, already old by the standards we’ve established in previous columns.
|–||Early Breakout %||Breakout Age|
The second round is the entire key to the NFL Draft. In the first round your GM really should hit on his selection, while picks made in the third round or later have a relatively low expected return. (Regardless of what you hear on TV during the draft itself, the expected value of such picks truly isn’t very high.) The second round is where good teams separate themselves and bad teams fail. If you’ve read the original column, you know the recent success rate for second round receivers is less than 50%.
Much as was the case in the first round, your GM can dramatically improve his odds by targeting specific attributes. Here again, nearly every hit was a multi-year success in college. Not only that, but the hits broke out before their 20th birthdays. The misses were not so lucky. 69% were one-year wonders, and the handful of players with a previous breakout accomplished the feat at a relatively old age.
|–||Early Breakout %||Breakout Age|
A year ago I ranked the Buffalo Bills dead last for their draft and gave them a grade of Z-. In that article I argued that it was inexcusable to draft Robert Woods with Keenan Allen on the board and then make matters worse by picking Marquise Goodwin with Stedman Bailey still available. I probably seemed overconfident in my criticisms, but I hope the numbers in this column help to explain why I thought those were such terrible selections. It may also illustrate why I believe waiting three years to grade a draft is counterproductive.
|–||Early Breakout %||Breakout Age|
The profile for receivers from the final four rounds seems to contradict the earlier data, but it’s important to realize that the pool of hits is very small and thus mostly random. These are lottery ticket selections. While actual lottery tickets are often described as a tax on the poor, allowing teams to select wide receivers on the third day of the draft is something of a tax on bad franchises. (If you’re going to brave the elements and use a dynasty rookie draft pick on a late round receiver, there are some important differences in the profiles of hits versus misses.)
Breakout Age and the 2013 Class
It’s fun to focus on the 2014 Draft class, but there might be an even more immediate use for this information. If you’ve read Coleman Kelly’s Rookie Derangement Syndrome column from last fall – a piece that recommended scooping up Alshon Jeffery and avoiding DeAndre Hopkins – you’re probably targeting second year receivers anyway.
We’ve seen what these players did during their rookie campaigns, but many of them didn’t receive the types of opportunities they can expect going forward. In many cases, the college careers of these players may still offer the strongest signal as to their future promise.
Keenan Allen – Round 3 Pick 76
Final Dominator Rating: 0.43 Breakout age: 18.7** Breakout DR: 0.33
Allen surpassed the 0.30 threshold every year he attended Cal and recorded one of the youngest breakouts in our database.
The Breakout Candidates
Tavon Austin – Round 1 Pick 8
Final DR: 0.28 (.35) Breakout age: 19.8 Breakout DR: 0.30
Last year I suggested Austin was a combination of Dexter McCluster and Ted Ginn, a pair of comps that look fairly accurate after one year. Austin never posted an elite Dominator Rating at West Virginia, but he squeaked out a 0.30 as a sophomore. If you create an adjusted DR by giving him credit for his rushing yards, his final year numbers combined with his speed/weight profile suggest he would have been a very solid pick in Round 3 of the reality draft.
DeAndre Hopkins – Round 1 Pick 27
Final DR: 0.40 Breakout age: 20.6 Breakout DR: same
The Clemson product played well as a true freshman but only reached a .25 DR. He took a step forward as a sophomore in terms of raw numbers, but his DR sagged. That he only broke out in his final season is a mild red flag. When you consider his college career in the context of posting a 700-yard rookie season with the windmill-tilting Texans, his prospects are still encouraging.
Cordarrelle Patterson – Round 1 Pick 28
Final DR: 0.17 (0.24) Breakout age: none Breakout DR: none
If you followed RotoViz in the run-up to the 2013 Draft, you know Patterson is basically a non-prospect from an on-field performance perspective. Draftniks seemed to universally love his ability in the return game, as a running back, and on wide receiver screens. As an NFL rookie, Patterson continued to flash electric ability with the ball in his hands.
For the good or the bad, the heir apparent in Minnesota is clearly more running back than wide receiver. He made virtually no impact in 2013 when running a route across the line of scrimmage. 87% of his yards after catch occurred on passes thrown behind the line of scrimmage. The more I think about Patterson, the more I believe he fits into the “basketball player turned tight end” model. Essentially, Patterson lacks the skillset of an NFL receiver, but he might eventually develop those tools based on elite athleticism and the likelihood that he’ll be given a long time to develop. This is something that pretty much never happens at wide receiver, but since it does happen at tight end – and there are reasons to think tight end might be the more difficult position to learn – it would be arrogant and close-minded to believe it couldn’t happen at wide receiver. He’s still a strong sell in dynasty since the hype currently surrounding him basically prices in his best case scenario.
Justin Hunter – Round 2 Pick 34
Final DR: 0.27 Breakout age: none DR at Breakout: none
Hunter had a much better final college season than Patterson, but he too failed to meet the breakout level in any of his seasons at Tennessee. Injury probably played a role. It’s worth noting that over the last two seasons, Ruston Webster has used two Top 35 picks at wide receiver and now has a possession guy (Kendall Wright) and a longshot deep threat (Hunter). That’s probably not the way to approach personnel acquisition, but both players are inexperienced and could still possibly end up with more well-rounded ceilings.
Robert Woods – Round 2 Pick 41
Final DR: 0.26 Breakout age: 19.7 Breakout DR: 0.37
I’m turning back around on Woods a little bit. He isn’t a very good athlete by NFL standards, and he was completely eclipsed by Marqise Lee during his junior season. It’s never a good sign when your final season falls below the 30% threshold, but Woods turned in a .37 DR as a sophomore. He’s not going to be Keenan Allen, but he could be a solid possession receiver if the Bills improve their passing game. He’s a candidate to emerge as a viable starter in PPR leagues.
Aaron Dobson – Round 2 Pick 59
Final DR: 0.13 Breakout age: 20.6 Breakout DR: 0.39
Dobson was drafted by the Patriots almost entirely due to his strong junior season, which was borderline first-round-pick quality. Dobson regressed mightily as a senior and probably counts as a reach by the Patriots. He’s something of a wild card in fantasy.
Terrance Williams – Round 2 Pick 74
Final DR: 0.38 Breakout age: 23.3 Breakout DR: same
The Baylor product exploded as a redshirt senior, but his paucity of other results make him a poor bet to develop into a fantasy force.
Marquise Goodwin – Round 3 Pick 78
Final DR: 0.11 Breakout age: none Breakout DR: none
In selecting a player who would be an older rookie and had never generated any meaningful results, the Bills were basically saying Mack Brown should have been fired a long time ago.
Markus Wheaton – Round 3 Pick 79
Final DR: 0.36 Breakout age: 21.9 Breakout DR: same
Wheaton emerged as a senior. This is actually a great time to sell high while he’s riding the “Emmanuel Sanders may depart and free up a role that isn’t very valuable in fantasy anyway” momentum.
Stedman Bailey – Round 3 Pick 92
Final DR: 0.47 Breakout age: 21.1 Breakout DR: 0.33
The former RotoViz darling posted a .33 DR as a sophomore. If there’s a note of caution to be sounded, it’s that he was already 21 at the time. I’d say do whatever it takes to acquire Bailey, but the Rams do face the three Top 5 defenses of the NFC West at least six times a year. Sam Bradford is also expected to remain the quarterback, and the same coaches who saw fit to bury him behind Austin Pettis remain in charge.
I won’t bore you with the complete rundown of players who are almost certainly irrelevant, but there is one guy who might be of interest.
Marquess Wilson – Wilson dropped to Round 7 after his contretemps with Mike Leach left him with the “quitter” tag, but his two previous seasons were very impressive. He posted a .33 DR at the age of 18.3 and followed that up with a .38 at 19. He’s currently somewhat blocked behind the twin towers of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, but he should be owned in all but the shallowest of dynasty leagues.
* I used information generated by Jon Moore to help piece together the ages. For info on all the 2014 skill positions, check out his rookie age bible.