Gdula: Fantasy Football Rookie Wide Receiver Tiers
I'd have to imagine that every evaluator has a dream of being perfect, of finding the flawless process. Whether it's the stock market or climate or fantasy football, prognosticators inherently thrive on accuracy and being right.
Unless you're very new to fantasy football and the NFL Draft (if you are, welcome to the club!), you know that the entire draft process is ultimately a guessing game. Surefire picks don't always pan out, and late-round fliers can sometimes become elite producers.
We simply can't predict the future, so everyone will always be wrong every now and again. But we all still try. And that's what I've done with my version of an NFL Draft model, which aims not to find the best draft picks and additions to NFL squads but rather the best producers for our fantasy football teams.
The model is based on a few factors, which really boil down to draft stock, age, athleticism, and production. Giving these values certain weights returns a pretty promising list of NFL producers, but I'm not claiming it's a perfect model. You can skip the next paragraph if you're not interested in the details that go into the model.
The first variable in the model is draft equity (at this point, projected draft equity based on various sources to try to form a bit of a consensus), which does a pretty good job of eliminating the noise surrounding prospects who may test out as great athletes but poor producers and other similar hype-generating profiles. This also helps give a quantifiable weight to scouting and tape watching, obviously a crucial piece to the puzzle. The second is breakout age (which has shown to be predictive of NFL success based on research from Rotoviz). The third is size-adjusted athleticism (height-adjusted speed score for wide receivers). The fourth and final is dominator rating, a combination of yardage and touchdown shares, in a player's final collegiate season (I use game logs for incoming prospects to help eliminate imbalances caused from missed games) and add an adjustment based on a player's pass defense schedule using FootballOutsiders' S&P+ metrics to help level the playing field between Division III prospects and Power 5 prospects. In total, I have nearly 800 prospects in the database.
All of these factors spit out a value for each prospect. Here, I simply rely on that to generate my own rankings for incoming prospects with some tweaks here and there. Mostly for fun, I'll throw in some comps of players with similar profiles to the prospects. These are meant more for context and are based on overall trends in profiles -- not how similar the prospect plays to the players listed as profile comparisons.
So, here are my post-combine tiers for my top 32 wideouts who received an invite to the NFL Combine.
N'Keal Harry, Arizona State - Harry graded out as the top prospect in my draft model by a pretty solid margin until the combine measurements. The gap closed for a few reasons. Harry was listed at 6'4" in college but measured 6'2" at the combine. A projected first-rounder (or early second-rounder), Harry tested out with above-average size-adjusted athleticism, giving him positive grades in the four main categories. Harry dominated half of his games in 2018, though not necessarily against his toughest competition. Either way, he’s clearly in the number-one conversation. Similar Profile to: Larry Fitzgerald, Allen Robinson, Michael Floyd
DK Metcalf, Mississippi - Metcalf blew up at the NFL Combine (excluding his worrisome three-cone and overall agility scores), but he had been lingering as a top-flight prospect even before his 4.33-second 40-yard dash. Metcalf's dominator rating -- again, even when looking only at the games he played in -- this season was kept in check because of teammates AJ Brown and DaMarkus Lodge. However, the 6’3”, 228-pound wideout generated an elite 14.3 yards per target in 2018, compared to 11.5 for Brown and 8.4 for Lodge. The elite ceiling he could provide makes him a number-one candidate. Similar Profile to: Julio Jones, Demaryius Thomas, Mike Williams
AJ Brown, Mississippi - Brown was not as efficient as Metcalf was in 2018 from a per-target basis, but that can be expected from the slot receiver. Brown still posted an above-average dominator rating despite his conference and competition for targets. Brown’s production profile -- generating at least 27% of Ole Miss’ yardage in all but one game -- suggests the slot man is a pretty safe bet to transition well to the NFL. Similar Profile to: JuJu Smith-Schuster, Anquan Boldin, Courtland Sutton
JJ Arcega-Whiteside, Stanford - Arcega-Whiteside had an elite dominator rating at Stanford (42.7%) despite seeing just 22.4% of his team’s targets. The 6'2", 225-pound prospect did the majority of his damage against weaker opponents, but he still hauled in 14 of 29 touchdowns for Stanford. He didn't run the 40 at the combine, so there's some mystique here, but projections have him in the upper 4.5 range, which would be about average for his size. Similar Profile to: Dez Bryant, Jordy Nelson, Dwayne Bowe
Kelvin Harmon, North Carolina State - Harmon graded out less positively in the athleticism column than some of his other big-bodied peers and didn’t have the overall production to be on par with the Tier 1 wideouts, as his dominator rating still grades out around middle-of-the-pack. He also has a below-average breakout age. The imbalanced profile -- with still a high projected draft equity -- makes him very difficult to compare to past prospects. Similar Profile to: Michael Thomas (without the production), Mike Williams, Dwayne Bowe
Hakeem Butler, Iowa State - The 6'5", 227-pound Butler was prolific at Iowa State in 2018, notching an 89th-percentile dominator rating among receivers in my draft model. Problematically, the redshirt junior didn’t break out until his age-21 season. His biggest criticisms are route running and drops, but he's a big, fast, productive prospect. Similar Profile to: Brandon Marshall, Kenny Golladay, Robert Meachem
Andy Isabella, Massachusetts - Isabella's production at UMass vaults him up the list a good ways, but his 4.31-second 40-yard dash helps a lot, too. He was elite game-in and game-out, and he posted a 94th-percentile dominator rating in my model, which aims to adjust for opponents faced. Isabella actually grades out as a second-round pick in some mock drafts, and his draft stock should really tell us all we need to know about his short-term NFL future. Similar Profile to: T.Y. Hilton, Tyler Lockett, John Brown
Deebo Samuel, South Carolina - There’s a pretty massive range of outcomes for the injury-riddled wideout, who played 30 games over four seasons at South Carolina. He notched 11 touchdowns on 62 receptions in 2018, breaking out at nearly 23 years old, not a great sign. There’s upside but also downside with Samuel, yet he projects as a second-round talent in some mocks. Similar Profile to: Nelson Agholor, Michael Gallup, Josh Huff
Marquise Brown, Oklahoma - The big question mark is Brown's size (5’9”, 166 pounds), but that didn’t stop him from being a touchdown-maker in college. Brown scored 17 times in two season at Oklahoma, and all 10 were from outside the red zone this season. He didn't run the 40-yard dash at the combine, but it's safe to say he's one of the fastest prospects in this year's class. Similar Profile to: DeSean Jackson, Tyler Lockett, John Brown
Parris Campbell, Ohio State - Campbell tied Isabella's 4.31-second 40-yard dash for the best raw speed among combine-invited receivers. He posted just a 31st-percentile dominator rating, per PlayerProfiler (worse in my model when adjusting for opponent). We saw the raw production from him, too, with a 1,063-yard, 12-touchdown season (but Ohio State threw for more than 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns, so the context matters). His ceiling is high if everything clicks. Similar Profile to: Mike Wallace, Torrey Smith, Curtis Samuel
Emanuel Hall, Missouri - Hall played only eight games this season due to injuries and personal matters. The deep threat didn’t really thrive against elite defenses, but he totaled 16 receptions of 20-plus yards in just eight games. In games Hall played, Drew Lock averaged 15.33 yards per attempt to Hall (54 targets) but 7.03 when targeting players other than Hall, a testament to Hall's abilities. Similar Profile to: Mike Wallace, Michael Gallup, D.J. Chark
Miles Boykin, Notre Dame - Boykin, 6’4” and 220 pounds grades very out well in the physicality department, but the track record is suspect. He jumped from 18 catches through three seasons to 59 in 2018, when he was 22. Not many prospects have his size and (lacking) early production profile. Similar Profile to: Martavis Bryant, Kevin White, Ricardo Louis
Lil'Jordan Humphrey, Texas - Humphrey was pacing toward checking all the boxes, with better-than-average marks in all four categories, something that usually indicates some level of continued NFL success. At 6’4” and 210 pounds, Humphrey ran a 4.75-second 40-yard dash, the worst mark of any wideout who ran at the combine. Humphrey collected just 9 of 28 touchdowns in the Texas offense in 2018, but interestingly, only two of his touchdowns came from inside the red zone. A middling dominator rating and problematic athletic testing bumped him way down the list. Similar Profile to: Mohamed Sanu, Brandon Lloyd, Laquon Treadwell
David Sills, West Virginia - Sills, a tall, thin prospect at 6’3” and 211 pounds, finally found a home as a receiver at West Virginia. He didn’t eclipse a 35% yardage share in any game this season but posted consistent game logs throughout and scored 15 times in 13 games. Similar Profile to: Brandon LaFell, Juron Criner, Seyi Ajirotutu
Antoine Wesley, Texas Tech - Wesley, tall and thin at 6’4” and 206 pounds, grades out solidly across the board but doesn’t particularly excel in any individual area. He also didn't run the 40-yard dash at the combine. Wesley did post yardage totals of 82, 119, and 171 against the three top-50 defenses he played this year. Players with his overall profile haven’t exactly done much at the NFL level, but he is considered an elite playmaker on deep balls. Of his 88 catches, 23 went for 20-plus yards. Similar Profile to: Eric Decker, Nick Toon, Javon Wims
Dillon Mitchell, Oregon - I like Mitchell, who owns an average breakout age and a 75th-percentile dominator rating. He was productive in nearly every game and stood out against tough opponents. Mitchell ran a 4.46-second 40-yard dash at 6'1", 197 pounds. Honestly, I'd reach for Mitchell in my rookie drafts if I had to, but that isn't factored in here. He actually comps pretty similar to Stefon Diggs, but I won't try to oversell him. Similar Profile to: Michael Gallup, Domenik Hixon, Jordan Lasley
Greg Dortch, Wake Forest - Dortch is a small player who measured shorter than expected (5’7”, 173 pounds). However, he but posted a 79th-percentile dominator rating at Wake Forest this season while contributing on returns. Dortch played just two seasons after being redshirted yet scored 19 times in 20 games, including returns. He should hang around with the special teams ability but doesn't profile as an overly productive fantasy asset. Similar Profile to: Steve Smith, Isaiah McKenzie, Solomon Patton
Riley Ridley, Georgia - Ridley played three years at Georgia and never cracked 600 yards, though he did score nine times in 2018. This gives him a low dominator rating and a problematic breakout age. We’ve seen other unproductive receivers from good schools fail to pan out quite often, so there’s cause for concern. He also ran just a 4.58-second 40-yard dash (a 90.5 height-adjusted speed score, 35th-percentile). He should have value, assuming he gets drafted on Day 2, as he's projected. Similar Profile to: James Jones, Andre Caldwell, Brandon Tate
Travis Fulgham, Old Dominion - Fulgham was a walk-on at Old Dominion after not receiving any Division I offers. However, he proved productive at ODU in his final season (1,03 yards and 9 touchdowns for a 74th-percentile dominator rating). Despite rumblings of hoping to flash speed in the 4.4-second range in the 40, Fulgham clocked in at 4.58, around average for his height and weight (6'2", 215). Fulgham, with a great dominator but low breakout age, is shaping up to be one of the most enigmatic prospects in the class. Before accounting for draft stock, he actually comps well with Michael Thomas. Similar Profile to: Dwayne Bowe, Chad Hansen, Daurice Fountain
DaMarkus Lodge, Mississippi - Third on the totem pole at Ole Miss this year Lodge naturally lacks a great dominator score, but he also failed to match Metcalf (14.3) and Brown (11.5) in per-target efficiency (8.4). Overall, the lack of a great breakout age and performance relative to his stud teammates push Lodge well down the list. Similar Profile to: Steve Johnson, Geremy Davis, Michael Thomas (from Southern Miss)
Mecole Hardman, Georgia - Hardman is shy of six feet (5'10") and weighs 187 pounds. His 4.33-second 40-yard dash netted him a 74th-percentile height-adjusted speed score. His minuscule dominator rating looks a little better after knowing that 8 of his 34 receptions went for 25-plus yards and that he’s an elite returner. Similar Profile to: Tyreek Hill, Jacoby Ford, T.J. Graham
Tyre Brady, Marshall - A late bloomer and Miami (FL) transfer, Brady lacks a stellar breakout age but did produce in two seasons at Marshall: 1,944 yards total receiving yards and 17 touchdowns. Brady, though, will be 24 by the time draft week rolls around. He didn't run the 40 at the combine but projects as an average athlete for his size. Similar Profile to: Terrance Williams, Tim Patrick, Cobi Hamilton,
Anthony Johnson, Buffalo - After playing three seasons at the community college level, Johnson will be nearly 25 before he steps on an NFL gridiron. He transitioned well to the MAC conference in his first year (1,356 yards and 14 touchdowns) and followed it up with 1,011 and 11 this past season. Johnson didn't run at the combine. Similar Profile to: James Jones, Chad Hansen, Korey Robertson
Gary Jennings, West Virginia - Jennings, 6'1", 214 pounds, secured a 4.42-second 40-yard dash at the combine to give him an 93rd-percentile height-adjusted speed score. He has an above-average mark in breakout age, athleticism, and dominator rating, despite dealing with an ankle injury in his final season. Similar Profile to: Pierre Garcon, Josh Morgan, David Moore
Terry McLaurin, Ohio State - McLaurin’s profile was actually pretty similar to Riley Ridley’s, albeit with different draft equity, before he tore off a 4.35-second 40-yard dash. At 6'0" and 208 pounds, that's a 94th-percentile height-adjusted speed score. There are questions about production and breakout age, but in the right landing spot, McLaurin is an interesting name. Similar Profile to: Cordarrelle Patterson, Charone Peake, Kolby Listenbee
Stanley Morgan, Nebraska - Morgan has no real red flags in his profile, but he breaks a 43rd-percentile ranking in just dominator rating (75th). His breakout age is average at best, and his modest speed (though above-average agility) and draft stock don't suggest a superstar in the making. His profile is actually similar to Anthony Miller's, though Miller's draft stock was much better. Similar Profile to: Rishard Matthews, Roger Lewis, T.J. Jones
KeeSean Johnson, Fresno State - Johnson was steadily productive in 2018 and over his final three years at Fresno State (773, 1,013, and 1,340 yards) but will be 23 at draft time. An above-average breakout age helps adjust for that, though. Similar Profile to: Steve Johnson, Michael Thomas (from Southern Miss), Brandon Gibson
Jakobi Meyers, North Carolina State - The converted quarterback showed flashes in 2018, with 90-plus yards in seven games. However, just two of those came against top-50 pass defenses, and in his other four top-50 matchups, he averaged 39.0 yards. He ran a 4.63-second 40-yard dash to give him a 33rd-percentile height-adjusted speed score. Similar Profile to: Brandon Lloyd, J'Mon Moore, Demarcus Robinson
Ashton Dulin, Malone - Dulin thrived at Malone, accounting for at least a third of the Pioneers’ receiving yardage in nine of 10 games this season. Dulin had been listed at 6'3" but measured at 6'1" (and 215 pounds). Still, he has the size needed to make the transition, and his dominator rating and breakout age place him in the 93rd percentile or better in my model. Of course, the talent jump will be large for Dulin, but in the right offense, he could make a splash. Similar Profile to: Miles Austin, Kamar Aiken, Da'Rick Rogers
Emmanuel Butler, Northern Arizona - The NAU grad notched an 87th-percentile dominator rating this season (676 yards and 7 touchdowns in nine games). A few things there. He scales to the 60th percentile when attempting to adjust for schedule, but he played with four different quarterbacks and had even better seasons prior (1,208 yards and 15 touchdowns in 11 games in 2015 and 1,003 yards and 9 touchdowns in 11 games in 2016). While now older for a prospect, he broke out early, and the 6’3”, 217-pound Butler is an obvious name to watch. His imbalanced profile (low draft equity and projected athleticism (he didn't run at the combine) but great breakout age and production) is tough to compare. Similar Profile to: Jarrett Boykin, Dezmin Lewis, Cody Hoffman (BYU)
Jazz Ferguson, Northwestern State - Ferguson has the size (6’5”, 227 pounds) to transition to the next level. He transferred to Northwestern State from Louisiana Tech due to some off-field issues. He’s a really tough prospect to pinpoint succinctly, and few match his collegiate efficiency and size while lacking a great breakout age, like Ferguson does. Similar Profile to: Tommy Streeter, David Gettis, Riley Cooper
Alex Wesley, Northern Colorado - Wesley popped after dominating the third-highest rate of games among combine-invited receivers this season, and he -- in 2017 -- showed out against Colorado to indicate he can get things done against better competition. Despite three titles in the Big Sky 400-meter, Wesley notched a 54th-percentile height-adjusted speed score. The productive option could certainly cling to an NFL roster. Similar Profile to: Sterling Shepard, Trey Quinn, Dwayne Harris