A dive into advanced stats for the draft-eligible receivers
Evaluating draft-eligible wide receivers can be a tricky task, especially when looking at the numbers. College offenses are all over the place in terms of how often they throw, which can lead to a wild variance in production.
Knowing it can be tricky to isolate a receiver’s role in a college offense, I started putting together a metric called Target Yards Added to attempt just that. It’s a fairly simple metric mathematically, taking a wide receiver’s yards per target and subtracting his team’s passing yards per attempt to get an idea of what that receiver added to the offense.
Over the past few years, I’ve found Target Yards Added to be a good guideline to dig further into wide receivers. It’s not intended to be a ranking proxy — the top wide receiver in Target Yards Added doesn’t translate to being my WR1 in the draft. But it does help add some color to wide receiver production throughout the evaluation process. Let’s take a look at this year’s draft class and break down what it means.
Shout out to Sports Info Solutions, whose data made this significantly easier to put together than in years past. Should also note some players like Keelan Doss of UC Davis are not included because FCS schools are still in the statistical stone age when it comes to things like targets.
I’ll usually separate these players into different groups to add more context into these numbers.
High TYA, highly regarded
When the scouting reports and Target Yards Added agree at the top, that’s the sweet spot. There isn’t really an overwhelming consensus WR1 in this class, but a few prospects considered for that title come out favorably. DK Metcalf only played seven games this season due to a neck injury, but he was by far the best receiver Ole Miss sent out in a class that features three Rebels receivers. Hakeem Butler’s performance is incredibly impressive with how much he added to the offense considering he was targeted on nearly a third of Iowa State’s passing attempts. Stanford’s JJ Arcega-Whiteside also rates well and should be considered much more than a tall jump-ball red zone threat.
High TYA, mid-round grade
These players are the types that usually sit atop the Target Yards Added chart. They can be productive deep threats if put in the right situation. Last year Keke Coutee, Tre’Quan Smith, and D.J. Chark fell into this category. But they’re also not sure things. Players like Josh Malone, Shelton Gibson, and Leontee Carroo have been in this range over the past few seasons — it’s a reason why Target Yards Added is just a guideline for a deeper evaluation. This year, players like Emanuel Hall and Terry McLaurin fit the mold. Hall could have been targeted more, but he missed five games in 2018 due to a groin injury. Still, Hall easily leads this group in Target Yards Added. McLaurin is the type of high-value prospect that should be targeted in the middle rounds, with big-play ability and a role on special teams.
This can also be a place to find some potential diamonds in the rough. This year that would point to Xavier Ubosi of UAB. Ubosi hasn’t gotten a lot of attention yet in the draft process — he’s a senior who was not invited to the Senior Bowl, though he did play in both the NFLPA Bowl and East-West Shrine Game — but he was one of college football’s best deep threats in 2018. Per Sports Info Solutions, he had 12 catchable targets on go routes, which resulted in 10 catches for 479 yards and seven touchdowns. He also led the entire NCAA in yards per reception (23.9).
Sub-1.0 TYA, questions start
A sub-1 result in Target Yards Added isn’t an automatic red flag, but it should make you ask why. That should especially be the case for highly regarded prospects and even more if that prospect is viewed as a big-play or deep threat. John Ross (0.25 TYA) fell into this category two years ago. But there are also successes here too. Chris Godwin was there in 2017 and he’s carved out a role in Tampa Bay. Perhaps the best success was Tyler Boyd (0.37) in 2016, but it took him until 2018 to really break out. Marquise Brown falls in that range this season. He had impressive production, but gets knocked for being in the most high-powered offense in college football with the amount of success Oklahoma had throwing to just about everyone else in the offense.
Negative TYA, stay away
While sub-1 Target Yards Added can start the questions, negative Target Yards Added raises an immediate red flag. It’s hard to be a productive receiver in the NFL if that receiver wasn’t adding anything to his college offense. From 2014-2018, I have Target Yards Added for 167 prospects. 18 of those prospects had negative TYA and none have yet to become productive NFL receivers. The biggest contributor of the group has been Ty Montgomery, who found his success as a running back. Dante Pettis (-0.55) could be working his way to the lone exception. He played 12 games last year and was productive on his 45 targets with the San Francisco 49ers.
This year features more potential top prospects in this category than any previous season, specifically Georgia’s Riley Ridley. There’s already some debate over Ridley, who some peg as a top-5 receiver in this class. Ridley, younger brother of Calvin (2.76 TYA), has the size and physical traits many scouts will like at the position, but production that leaves nearly infinite more questions than answers.
Target Yards Added is just intended to be a tool in the box of evaluating receiver prospects, but I’ve found it to be a good jumping off point to look closer at these prospects and there’s a lot more looking to be done before April.