Antonio Brown, Wes Welker and the Hidden Value of Special Teams Stats

When Wes Welker left Texas Tech for the NFL, he was a 5 foot 9 inch 186 pound prospect with a 4.65 forty and a 30 inch vertical.

When Antonio Brown left Central Michigan, he was a 5 foot 10 inch 186 pound prospect with a 4.56 forty 105 inch broad jump.

I can only imagine the doom and gloom articles that team RotoViz would have written, if we had existed then.

Actually, come to think of it, we probably wouldn’t have even wasted our time, which, obviously, would have been a really foolish move.

As there continue to be a handful of non-obvious receiver success stories every year, I thought it might be necessary to revisit their collegiate profiles and examine whether there were interesting data points that were overlooked. In the case of these two players, and many more like them, what I found was interesting: they had exceptional special teams résumés in college. So, I went back into my database and plugged in career punt and kick return stats for hundreds of wide receivers. Here is what I found…

The Hidden Value of Special Teams

Historically, when I have run regressions on receivers, I have been trying to solve for fantasy points, which roll receptions, yards and touchdowns into one number. However, in my latest round of testing, at the suggestion of Mr. RotoViz Staff, I tried to solve for the components on their own: receptions, yards and touchdowns, along with their per-game siblings. What I found was that, in 14 of the 24 models I ran that looked at various cross sections of a player’s first four professional seasons, special teams stats remained as significant variables, even with draft position kept in the model.

To be perfectly clear, draft position is still the single most important variable in predicting future success, but the fact that special teams stats stay in the model, even with a weight of 6 percent or less, means that the market isn’t appropriately considering their importance, which could give you, or an NFL team, a slight advantage in the evaluation process. As you’ll see, receiving prowess still matters, often in the form of market share of yards and career receiving yards, but I think there’s something to see here.

Receiving Touchdowns per Game

Consider first, the projection model for receiving touchdowns per game over the first two years of a player’s career (r^2 = 0.386). Note that factors like 40-yard dash or speed score aren’t included here, which essentially means that the NFL is already using that in their draft selection process; it’s baked into draft position. The factors that remain are the ones the NFL isn’t currently valuing properly. The special teams variable here is kick return average.

rotoviz f2 rec td per game

Case Study in Kick Return Average

TY Hilton – Over 105 career attempts, Hilton averaged 27.7 yards, including four career kick return touchdowns. He was also in the top-15 in NCAA in kickoff return average for each of his final three college seasons. His 4.37 forty time is a boon to his overall athletic profile, but still only gives him a 100 speed score. Elsewhere, his physical attributes are below average for his size. That said, 12 touchdowns in his first two seasons, or 0.39 per game, is a similar pace to what much bigger receivers like Alshon Jeffery (0.39) and Dwayne Bowe (0.38) accomplished in their first two seasons. Honorable mentions: Austin Collie, Doug Baldwin, Odell Beckham Jr.

Total Receptions

Now a look at the projection model for total receptions through the first three years of a player’s career (r^2 = 0.478), where career punt return average will make an appearance:

rotoviz f3 receptions

Case Study in Punt Return Average

Antonio Brown – of players in my database with at least 40 career punt returns, Antonio Brown ranks second for yards-per-attempt with 15.5, behind only Devin Hester (15.6). For his career, Brown racked up more than 800 total punt return yards, including three returns for touchdowns. Just for good measure, he added 2600 more yards and two touchdowns in the kick return game. Despite his sixth round draft pedigree and minimal rookie year production, Brown accumulated 151 receptions through his first three seasons, which is hot on the heals of first rounders like Santonio Holmes (156) and Michael Floyd (157). Honorable mentions: Dez Bryant, Desean Jackson, Jordy Nelson.

Total Receiving Yards

Now a look at the projection model for total receiving yards through the first four years of a player’s career (r^2 = 0.457), where career punt return touchdowns will make an appearance.

rotoviz f4 rec yards

Case study in Punt Return TDs

Wes Welker – despite his horrendous measurables, which I detailed in the intro, Welker returned eight punts for touchdowns during his Texas Tech career. EIGHT! In his rookie campaign, he tallied 1800 return yards, but no receiving yards, before accounting for nearly 2300 receiving in years two through four. Honorable mentions: Dez Bryant, Desean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin.

As a closing thought for this section, the point here isn’t to focus on any one special teams variable, but rather to show that, in different capacities, special teams stats are useful in predicting a variety of NFL receiving measures.

“He Plays Faster Than His Timed Speed”

Honestly, I’ve never understood, or cared for, this phrase until now. However, I think it makes sense in the cases of Wes Welker and Antonio Brown — and to lesser extents Lance Moore and Golden Tate. These are all special teams mavens whose measured athleticism was average at best, but, in a way, seemed to have functional athleticism that allowed them to perform at a level that would otherwise seem improbable.

And, since I can see you reaching into your pocket to pull out your Ted Ginn and Cordarrelle Patterson trump cards, I’ll reiterate that receiving prowess is still really important. All the overachievers I just listed supplemented their special teams play with 2700+ college receiving yards. So, while it’s not a silver bullet, I think looking at exceptional special teams play, can help find some of these diamonds in the rough.

That said, if a guy is ultra athletic, productive as a receiver and also has special teams prowess, I’m good with that too.

2015 Special Teams All-Stars

Since I’ve already killed about 900 words in the making of this article, I’ll move quickly to identify some 2015 receivers who were outstanding special teams contributors and have interesting receiving data points. At the bottom there’s a table with 80+ relevant prospects where you can do your own research.

Punt Return Avg

Ty Montgomery – I recently penned my Montgomery manifesto in this article What Ty Montgomery has in common with Dez Bryant and Jordy Nelson.

Kevonte Martin-Manley – Iowa’s pass game is perma-miserable, and Manley’s receiving profile is lacking, and I’m still not sure I’ve recovered from the Marvin McNutt situation, but 15.7 career yards per punt return is interesting and his athletic profile is passable.

Tyler Lockett – Simply put, Tyler Lockett looks a lot like the next TY Hilton or Antonio Brown.

Punt Return TD

Nelson Agholor – Considering his power-conference pedigree, four career punt return touchdowns and 2500 career receiving yards, it’s hard to figure out how Agholor won’t be a success in the NFL. The fact that Agholor is a plus athlete too leaves him with few comparisons; the one that strikes closest to home is Jeremy Maclin.

Jamison Crowder – Ultra-productive and totally unathletic, Crowder is exactly the kind of guy I’m trying to find by doing this article. In a sense, he’s the closest thing that 2015 has to Welker or Brown. That’s not to say he’ll have as good an NFL career, but let’s leave the light on for him.

Kaelin Clay – most famous for dropping the ball short of the goal line against Oregon, Clay makes this list on the shoulders of his three punt return touchdowns in 2014. Filling in for Dres Anderson, he was admirable in his first season of FBS ball, and did enough to earn a Combine invite, which means he has the NFL’s attention, even if he doesn’t have yours.

Kick Return Average

Vernon Johnson – The Texas A&M-Commerce product is like the special teams hipster of this article. He never returned a punt in his career (why bother?), and never returned a kickoff for a touchdown, but somehow managed to average a Hilton-esque 27.6 yards per kick return for his career. While the athletic profile is limited, it’s tough to argue with 113 receiving yards per game and 1.1 touchdowns per game for his career.

Mario Alford – Playing second fiddle to his WVU teammate Kevin White this draft, Alford was actually first fiddle in Morgantown when it came to scoring touchdowns. The diminutive speedster played running back at junior college before transferring to WVU and his block-following skills were evident as he racked up more than 26 yards per return over the last two years. Some think he’s a discount version of Phillip Dorsett.

Stefon Diggs – A breakout star in his age 18 season, Diggs has flown under the radar after two up-and-down seasons in Maryland. His 35 percent market share of receiving yards in 2014 is worth your attention, as is his 2200 career receiving yards before his 21st birthday.

WRCollegeF AgePuRt AttPuRt YdsPuRt AvgPuRt TDKiRt ATTKiRt YdsKiRt AvgKiRt TD
Jamison CrowderDuke21.56586913.444493021.10
Nelson AgholorUSC21.63754014.642444318.50
Kaelin ClayUtah23233461532254824.91
Ty MontgomeryStanford21.91223819.8291249327.43
Tyler LockettKansas State22.33248815.3277219628.54
Christion JonesAlabama16671910.9268172725.42
Levi NorwoodBaylor22.5645598.723876820.20
Kevonte Martin-ManleyIowa22.22031415.7248220.50
Rashad GreeneFlorida State22.33846812.3236521.70
J.J. NelsonUAB22.73537510.7176193225.45
Shane WynnIndiana22.1201678.4185185421.81
DeAndre CarterSacramento State21.71012512.511842623.70
Nick HarwellKansas23.91618711.7137023.30
Andre DavisSouth Florida21.312665.510000
Rannell HallCentral Florida21.9000082208325.40
Stefon DiggsMaryland21.1252359.4057147225.82
Jameon LewisMississippi State23.129772.7063141422.41
Tre McBrideWilliam & Mary22.11112211.1056129423.10
Kenny BellNebraska22.8351.70511277251
Antwan GoodleyBaylor23.30000451037230
Mario AlfordWest Virginia21.83-13-4.303797226.32
Tello LuckettHarding23.900003893224.52
Vernon JohnsonTexas AM-Commerce22.700002980027.60
Javess BlueKentucky228202.502551020.40
Phillip DorsettMiami (FL)2216794.902344919.50
Dominic RufranWyoming21.43511701942622.40
Deon LongMaryland2439301842523.61
Titus DavisCentral Michigan22211858.801838721.50
Austin WillisEmporia State1294.501536524.30
R.J. HarrisNew Hampshire22.600001729017.10
Dres AndersonUtah22.400001225120.90
Devin SmithOhio State22.85183.601323317.90
Brad MarquezTexas Tech2200001223219.30
Vince MayleWashington State23.60000917719.70
Jamal TurnerNebraska21.984050817221.50
Milton WilliamsDelaware State20.80000916318.10
Tony PiersonKansas10000611719.50
Shakim PhillipsConnecticut22.800005100200
DeAndrew WhiteAlabama23.223417058116.20
Kasen WilliamsWashington22.1201537.7036822.70
DeAndre SmelterGeorgia Tech23.11112411.30565130
George FarmerSouthern Cal21.5000035919.70
Jaelen StrongArizona State20.90000348160
J.J. WortonCentral Florida237274010.30122220
Dezmin LewisCentral Arkansas22.11202000000
Jordan LeslieBYU23.22261300000
Cameron MeredithIllinois State22.31131300000
Chris ConleyGeorgia22.219900000
Tommy ShulerMarshall22.127243900000
Justin HardyEast Carolina23634957.900000
Chris HarperCalifornia21.1191226.400000
David FrazierMiami (OHIO)21.8161006.300000
Michael BennettGeorgia23.115500000
Matt MiltonLouisville23.315500000
Rasheed BaileyDelaware Valley21.43144.700000
Kevin WhiteWest Virginia22.500000000
Amari CooperAlabama20.500000000
DeVante ParkerLouisville21.900000000
Dorial Green-BeckhamMissouri20.700000000
Breshad PerrimanCentral Florida21.300000000
Sammie CoatesAuburn21.800000000
Devin FunchessMichigan20.600000000
Deontay GreenberryHouston20.800000000
Darren WallerGeorgia Tech22.300000000
Tony LippettMichigan State22.500000000
Josh HarperFresno State23.100000000
Jaxon ShipleyTexas22.500000000
Jordan TaylorRice22.900000000
Matt MillerBoise State23.700000000
Devante DavisUNLV22.200000000
Davaris DanielsNotre Dame2100000000
Evan SpencerOhio State21.600000000
Jeff HillBentley21.700000000
Tyrell WilliamsWestern Oregon2200000000
Jamal RobinsonLouisiana-Lafayette2200000000
Jarrod WestSyracuse22.100000000
Nigel KingKansas22.200000000
Keyarris GarrettTulsa22.300000000
Lemar DurantSimon Fraser22.400000000
Christian GreenFlorida State22.400000000
Keith MumpheryMichigan State22.600000000
Bud SasserMissouri22.600000000
Kenny CookGardner-Webb22.600000000
Cam WorthyEast Carolina22.700000000
Malcome KennedyTexas A&M22.700000000
Ezell RuffinSan Diego State22.800000000
Neal SterlingMonmouth2300000000
Austin HillArizona23.500000000
Kyle PraterNorthwestern23.500000000
Gavin LutmanPittsburg State23.800000000
Geremy DavisConnecticut2300000000
Da'Ron BrownNorthern Illinois23.310000000
Demetrius WilsonArkansas23.71-6-600000

Jon Moore is a contributor at RotoViz and a cohost of Rotoviz Radio – A Fantasy Football Podcast.  Continue this conversation with him on TwitterGoogle+ or Facebook.

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