Where to Find Top Wide Receiver Talent: A Look at Production By College Conference (And the Curious Case of T.Y. Hilton)
T.Y. Hilton is weird. I don’t mean his personality—maybe he’s strange, maybe not—but rather his ability to produce high-level numbers in his first two NFL seasons. Now that’s weird.
It’s weird because Hilton is a 5’9”, 178-pound receiver from a small school (Florida International) who was drafted in the third round at a relatively old age (22). We know that small wide receivers, regardless of their speed (Hilton is sub-4.4), usually have problems in the NFL. We also know draft slot and age matter a whole lot when projecting players.
But we don’t know all that much about how a player’s college/conference affects his NFL performance. Clearly big-school prospects are superior to small-school ones overall—that’s why they’re drafted higher—but what about when they’re valued the same by NFL teams? How do small-school third-round receivers compare to big-school third-round receivers over the long run, for example?
How College Competition Affects NFL WR Production
In my article on running back production by conference, I showed that small-school running backs are by and large undervalued in both NFL and fantasy drafts. It’s probably because, since running backs are so dependent on their teammates for production, the position is a really difficult one to project. It’s hard to isolate running back talent. NFL teams value big-school running backs, however, which causes small-school players to drop too far.
In looking at wide receiver production, there appears to be the opposite effect (big thank you to Ian Hartitz for helping me collect this data). Breaking down rookie receiving yards by conference…
Look at the Sun Belt killing it! Absolutely destroying the competition. Actually, those numbers are skewed because only three Sun Belt receivers were drafted during the time studied, and one of them was…you guessed it…T.Y. Hilton.
After the Sun Belt’s misleading superiority, you see a bunch of big-school wide receivers leading the way. The same is true for rookie touchdown receptions…
Big School vs. Small School
There’s a pretty clear effect here when it comes to BCS and non-BCS wide receivers. To show how wide receiver differs from running back when projecting small-school talent, here are the rookie receiving/rushing yardage numbers for both positions, this time categorized into big school vs. small school.
While big-school wide receivers have averaged just under 250 receiving yards in their rookie years, that number drops to around 175 yards for small-school wide receivers. Compare that to the big-school/small-school effect with running backs.
We see a similar phenomenon with rookie touchdowns…
More touchdowns for big-school wide receivers than small-school ones, but more touchdowns for non-BCS running backs than BCS ones. Two different positions, two different effects.
My theory is that because running backs are so dependent on their teammates for production, two things happen; as mentioned, one is that they become difficult to project, but another is that their NFL production is often a poor reflection of their true talent as well. Olandis Gary has the third-most rushing yards for any rookie in the past 20 years, if that tells you anything.
Meanwhile, wide receivers are easier to isolate. Although they’re dependent on their quarterbacks, we still see the same prototype continually win out at wide receiver. Further, we have stats like market share which do an awesome job of separating wide receivers from their environments.
We have the bulk data, but what about if we control for draft round? Small-school running backs outperform their BCS counterparts on a per-round basis, but is the same true for small-school wide receivers?
Not really. There’s a small gap there, but the two lines—based on approximate value—are more or less the same. That means BCS and non-BCS wide receivers have basically performed the same in the NFL after accounting for where they were drafted.
So is it beneficial to consider a wide receiver’s school/conference when projecting his rookie season? Yes and no. It’s beneficial if you’re simply looking at bulk stats for big versus small-school players since the former will get more playing time as the result of being drafted higher.
If you account for draft slot, though, there’s perhaps no reason to be overly concerned about a wide receiver’s school in the same way that you should consider it for running backs.
What About Hilton?
When it comes to Hilton, here’s my answer as to how he was so productive through two NFL seasons, despite a lack of size and falling to the third round (which was at least partly due to attending a small school): targets.
Hilton had 132 receptions for 1,944 yards and 12 touchdowns in his first two NFL seasons, but he also had a ridiculous 229 targets and ran 1,216 total routes. That means he caught just 57.6 percent of his looks and averaged only 1.60 yards per route. Forty-three receivers had more than 1.60 yards per route in 2013 alone, according to Pro Football Focus, so it’s a mediocre number.
But even if Hilton turns into a Hall-of-Fame wide receiver, it doesn’t discount the numbers. One of my biggest qualms with those who pick apart stat nerds like us is identifying a single individual as evidence that the numbers are meaningless. “Well T.Y. Hilton is small and got drafted in the third round but still had a good rookie year, so why worry about size or draft slot?” That’s silly.
We use numbers because they tilt the odds in our favor. You aren’t going to hit on every 6’5”, 220-pound receiver who dominated in college, but you sure have a better chance than by continually targeting 5’9”, 178-pound receivers.
And chances are the early NFL success of such players, regardless of their school, will be fleeting.