Projecting the top wide receivers in the 2018 NFL draft

  • Nathan Forster

ESPN INSIDER

Not every year produces multiple high-quality wide receivers at the top of the NFL draft. The 2014 draft brought us superstars
Odell Beckham Jr
. and
Mike Evans
, along with 1,000-yard receivers such as
Allen Robinson
,
Kelvin Benjamin
and
Brandin Cooks
. Far more common are drafts such as the 2013 class, which included only one superstar in the first round (
DeAndre Hopkins
), a midround steal (
Keenan Allen
) and a small collection of busts.

This year's draft is far more likely to follow the pattern of the 2013 class than the 2014 one. Football Outsiders' system for projecting wide receivers, Playmaker Score, is highly uncertain about the highly rated pass-catchers available in this year's draft. Although one or more of these players could turn out to be quality wide receivers, Playmaker suggests that teams should skip the highly rated pass-catchers and go bargain-hunting in the later rounds.Playmaker Score's primary output projects the average number of regular-season receiving yards that a wide receiver will gain per season during his first five NFL seasons. For more on how Playmaker Score is calculated, click here for the methodology.Here's a look at how Playmaker Score judges some of this year's top prospects.Note: Players are listed in order of their projected average receiving yardage.

D.J. Moore, Maryland Terrapins: 566 yards per season

Scouts Inc.: No. 34 overall
Similar historical prospects: Allen Robinson, Andre Johnson
Of the three wide receivers Scouts Inc. believes are likely to go in the first round, Playmaker likes Moore the best. Moore might appear to have only average receiving numbers for a top prospect (80 catches, 1,033 yards, eight touchdowns), but those numbers are quite impressive when put in the context of how little the Terrapins threw the ball. Maryland attempted only 318 passes during Moore's junior year. Moore also was used (effectively) in the running game, gaining 61 yards on five carries.That said, Moore is not quite an elite prospect like Beckham or Amari Cooper. Playmaker gives him the edge over top-rated prospect Calvin Ridley, despite a significant adjustment for Ridley's projected draft position.
Calvin Ridley, Alabama Crimson Tide: 525 yards per season

Scouts Inc.: No. 18 overall
Similar historical prospects: Earl Bennett, Mohamed Sanu
Ridley is a decent prospect, but Playmaker believes that he is way overrated as the top wide receiver prospect in this draft. Put simply, Ridley does not have top-tier production, even after adjusting for Alabama's relatively run-heavy offense. Ridley's touchdowns were particularly weak for a potential first-round draft pick. As a junior, Ridley had only five touchdowns in 332 team pass attempts, while Moore had eight touchdowns in only 318 team pass attempts.Nor is it likely that there are any other team-related factors holding Ridley's projection back. Playmaker did miss somewhat on a former wide receiving prospect from Alabama -- Julio Jones -- but Ridley is a far cry from Jones. Jones was a physical freak who ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash at 220 pounds. By contrast, Ridley ran the 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds and weighs in at only 189 pounds. Moreover, Ridley had a poor vertical leap (31 inches), which historically has been the workout metric that is most predictive of success for wide receivers (though even the correlation between vertical leap and success is relatively weak). Without outstanding production or workout numbers, it is a little puzzling that Ridley is so highly regarded.
Christian Kirk, Texas A&M Aggies: 485 yards per season

Scouts Inc.: No. 31 overall
Similar historical prospects: Dennis Northcutt, Roscoe Parrish
Playmaker thinks that Kirk is a good prospect who is overrated as a potential first-round pick. Like Ridley, Kirk simply lacks the top-tier production that typically comes with a player of his projected draft status. Kirk averaged just over 2.0 receiving yards per team attempt in his best season, and his touchdown rate was average. Kirk's best statistic is by far his peak rushing attempts per game, averaging just under one rushing attempt per game. The fact that the coaches at Texas A&M saw fit to get the ball in Kirk's hands in space on multiple occasions suggests some potential for success, but overall, Playmaker is lukewarm on his prospects, given the relatively early pick that will likely be needed to get him.
Courtland Sutton, SMU Mustangs: 472 yards per season

Scouts Inc.: No. 47 overall
Similar historical prospects: Sammy Watkins, Brandon Lloyd
Playmaker and conventional wisdom are pretty much in agreement about Sutton, and Playmaker thinks he is appropriately rated as a second-round pick. Sutton has similar numbers to Ridley with one important exception: Sutton was much more prolific in terms of touchdowns. As a junior, Sutton scored a touchdown on approximately 2.5 percent of SMU's pass attempts. That touchdown rate is solid, if not otherworldly (Larry Fitzgerald, for example, scored a touchdown on more than 5.0 percent of his team's pass attempts as a sophomore). Sutton could be a good match for a team looking for a large body (6-foot-3, 218 pounds) to catch passes over the middle.
Anthony Miller, Memphis Tigers: 394 yards per season

Scouts Inc.: No. 76 overall
Similar historical prospects: Kendall Wright, Kevin Johnson
Miller has the top-tier production that most of this year's top receiver prospects lack. Playmaker, however, has one significant concern about Miller's prospects: He enters the draft as a senior. The ranks of highly drafted senior wide receivers include some successful players but are also littered with busts such as Peter Warrick, Troy Edwards and Travis Taylor. Most wide receiver prospects will eagerly seize the opportunity to enter the NFL as soon as possible. If a wide receiver prospect has to wait until he is a senior before his NFL prospects are viable, that is often a major red flag.That said, Miller was quite good as a junior, which makes it hard to dismiss his prospects out of hand. A smart front office would scrutinize why Miller stayed at Memphis for a senior year.Two prospects similar to Miller whose projections are low enough that they fail to make this list are Oklahoma State's James Washington (projected at 366 yards per season) and LSU's D.J. Chark (projected at 362 yards per season). Like Miller, Washington and Chark enter the draft as seniors. Miller, however, had a higher peak touchdown-per-team-attempt rate than both Washington and Chark. Chark, in particular, scored on just over 1 percent of his team's pass attempts, the worst rate of all of the wide receiver prospects that Scouts Inc. projects in the first four rounds.Although neither Washington nor Chark is a hopeless case, Playmaker thinks that both of those players are overrated at their current projected value, somewhere in the second round. Even after accounting for Washington and Chark's higher projected draft position, Playmaker believes that Miller is the most likely to be successful in the NFL -- and at a much lower price.
Jordan Lasley, UCLA Bruins: 389 yards per season

Scouts Inc.: No. 57 overall
Similar historical prospects: Donte Moncrief, Bruce Ellington
Lasley is another member of the parade of mediocre prospects who populate the top end of this year's draft. He's heavier than Ridley but similar in most other respects. Lasley has the same touchdown rate as Ridley. Ridley has more yards per team attempt than Lasley, but Lasley was more explosive on a per-catch basis. Playmaker would actually rate Lasley as a slightly better prospect than Ridley, if not for Ridley's large edge in projected draft position.
Tre'Quan Smith, UCF Knights: 369 yards per season

Scouts Inc.: No. 149 overall
Similar historical prospects: Shaun McDonald, Chris Henry
The fact that Playmaker puts Smith within striking distance of many of this year's top prospects, despite Smith's low projected draft position, speaks to how highly Playmaker rates his prospects.Smith's prospects are solid across the board. He is the only underclassman wide receiver in this year's draft who scored a touchdown in more than 3 percent of his team's pass attempts in his best season. Smith also had solid yardage numbers and a good yards-per-reception rate, and he averaged a little less than half a rushing attempt per game.Teams should not be turned off because Smith faced competition in the American Athletic Conference rather than the SEC. For wide receivers, there is no historical correlation between strength of competition in college and success. Some of the top wide receivers in NFL history have come from schools that are a lot smaller than UCF. Just to name a few, Jerry Rice went to Mississippi Valley State University, Randy Moss went to Marshall, and Antonio Brown went to Central Michigan. That's not to suggest that Smith will enter such rarefied company, but he is certainly worth a flier in the middle of the draft.
Methodology

Playmaker Score is based on a statistical analysis of all of the Division I wide receivers drafted in the years 1996 through 2015, and it measures the following:
  • The wide receiver's projected draft position. These projections use the rankings from Scouts Inc.
  • The wide receiver prospect's best or peak season for receiving yards per team attempt (i.e. a wide receiver with 1,000 receiving yards whose team passed 400 times would score a 2.50)
  • The wide receiver prospect's peak season for receiving touchdowns per team attempt
  • The difference between the prospect's peak season for receiving touchdowns per team attempt and the prospect's most recent season for receiving touchdowns per team attempt (this factor is simply 0 for a player whose peak season was his most recent season)
  • The wide receiver's vertical jump from pre-draft workouts
  • A variable that rewards players who enter the draft as underclassmen and punishes those who exhaust their college eligibility
  • The wide receiver's college career yards per reception
  • The wide receiver's rushing attempts per game during his peak season for receiving yards per team attempt.