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3 Rookie Wide Receiver Sleepers Projected as Mid-Round NFL Draft Picks - Yards Per Route Run Analysis

Javon Baker - Fantasy Football Rankings, College FB, WR, NFL Draft Sleepers

It's tricky to find sleepers these days since the dynasty and devy community have proven to be sharp minds for NFL Draft prospects. Two metrics to look at for receivers as a starting point involve yards per route run and targets.

There's somewhat of a strong correlation between yards per route run and targets per game in the NFL. That makes sense because the better receivers earn targets and produce on a per-route level, as seen below.

We've highlighted the leaders in targets per game and a handful of players with high yards per route run, but the scatter plot became messy when we added too many names. Though it's not a perfect stat because each metric needs context, let's look at how the 2023 college receivers fared in targets per game and yards per route run below.

 

Yards Per Route Run Analysis for Rookie Wide Receivers

Each metric filter helps us identify player names to dive deeper into their profiles. The purpose of this column will be to examine three 2024 receiver prospects who popped in yards per route run and are projected to go in the middle rounds of the NFL Draft. We'll look at the reasons for optimism, concern, and early pre-NFL Draft outlook.

 

Javon Baker, WR, UCF

One of the most intriguing 2024 receiver prospects that pops up is Javon Baker. He hardly played at Alabama for two seasons, then transferred to UCF for his final two collegiate seasons. However, it's worth noting Alabama had DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle, John Metchie, and Jameson Williams during Baker's two years there. At UCF, Baker broke out as a junior and peaked in his senior season with a 32 percent receiver dominator. 

Interestingly, Baker produced efficiently on only 52 receptions with 1,139 receiving yards, translating into 21.9 yards per reception. Baker's career yards per reception of 17.53 compares closely to Jalen Tolbert (17.65), Phillip Dorsett (17.62), Henry Ruggs III (17.51), and Will Fuller (17.44). Those give us solid comparisons as notable NFL names.

Many of the players in the visual above made big plays in college and at the pro level. Baker might join this group of big-play receivers after turning heads at the Senior Bowl. At the Senior Bowl practices, Baker showed off his route running, separation skills, and physicality, listed at 6-foot-1 and 208 pounds. So, let's examine the reasons for optimism and concern in Baker's profile. 

Reasons for Optimism

Baker stood out with the eighth-highest yards per route run at 3.21 among all college receivers with 25 targets. Among receivers with 25 or more targets, 22 had a yards per route run of 3.00 or higher. Eight came from the 2024 class, including Malik Washington, Malik Nabers, Marvin Harrison Jr., Troy Franklin, Ladd McConkey, Baker, Xavier Legette, and Tahj Washington. Unsurprisingly, Baker performed well against man and zone coverages. That's evident in his 45th-highest YPRR against man coverage at 3.13 ahead of Malik Washington (3.1). Baker won against zone coverage, given the 10th-best YPRR versus zone at 3.48. 

With Baker's uber-efficiency on a per-catch basis, it's unsurprising to find his 17.1 average depth of target (aDOT) ranking second in the 2024 class behind Devontez Walker and 12th among qualified college receivers. The visual below shows the college receiver leaders in aDOT, including their yards after the catch per reception. 

We listed the top 15 receivers sorted by aDOT with their yards after the catch per reception (YAC/Rec). It's rare to earn targets downfield and create yards after the catch, and Baker does that. Fuller, who we mentioned, feels like a high-end outcome since he posted week-winning performances when healthy.

Reasons for Concern

Considering his size, college production, and Day 2 potential draft capital, Baker's comparisons bring up a mixed bag. Since 2010, Baker's upside comps include Romeo Doubs, Khalil Shakir, Marvin Jones Jr., Terrance Williams, and Rashee Rice.

However, Baker's downside comps raise concerns with Bryan Edwards, Collin Johnson, Erik Ezukanma, Travis Fulgham, and Ty Montgomery. There's also a former UCF receiver in Gabriel Davis popping up, which might present a fair outcome with the ceiling and floor. 

Two other concerns involve Baker's later breakout and middling targets per game at 6.54, ranking 66th among 143 qualified receivers. Let's consider the team context. At UCF, they averaged 28.2 pass attempts per game (No. 93) and 40.7 rush attempts per game (No. 15) out of 133 teams, meaning the opportunities remained limited through the air. On one hand, it's positive that Baker efficiently produced on a per-catch basis, but he lacked the volume through the air.

Baker's Pre-NFL Draft 2024 Outlook

Some early mock drafts have Baker as a fifth round or Day 3 selection. However, there's good reason to believe he'll push closer to a top-100 pick as a possible Day 2 player. NFL teams will see Baker's tape with his ability to make big plays at his size and win against man coverage, pushing him up draft boards. That's especially true if he tests well in the athletic measurables. Baker ranks as WR5 in the 2024 rookie prospects via the spreadsheet, and we'll want to prioritize him later in dynasty rookie drafts.

 

Malik Washington, WR, Virginia

When looking at the collegiate data, Malik Washington explodes based on the numbers. After four seasons at Northwestern, Washington flashed in his fifth collegiate season with 110 receptions, over 1,400 receiving yards, and nine touchdowns. That translated into a 47 percent Receiver Dominator, ranking first in the 2024 class ahead of Marvin Harrison Jr. 

It's worth noting Washington totaled 110 receptions, 1,281 receiving yards, and three touchdowns in his previous college seasons at Northwestern. Interestingly, Washington wasn't at the Senior Bowl, but he attended the East-West Shrine Bowl. Washington stood at 5-foot-8 and 192 pounds at the Shrine Bowl, like a beefier Rondale Moore. Regardless, Washington's college production in his final college season makes him an intriguing middle-round receiver prospect. 

Reasons for Optimism

On a per-route level, Washington earned 11.5 targets per game (No. 2) and 3.1 yards per route run (No. 14) among receivers with 25 targets. Washington garnered heavy volume and dominated the team's offensive production. He ran routes in the slot 87.9 percent of the time, with a career slot rate of 84.1 percent, so there's a good chance he lands on a team running tons of 11-personnel.

Most notably, Washington produced highly against zone defense, ranking 14th with 3.29 yards per route run and fifth in the 2024 class. Against man defenses, he posted a respectable 3.1 yards per route run, ranking 47th out of 419 qualified receivers with 25 targets. As seen above, we had 14 receivers with over 3.0 yards per route run against man and zone coverage in 2023. Washington was on that list.

Reasons for Concern

A couple of areas for concern involve his age (he played five college seasons) and his lower aDOT at 8.1, ranking 455th out of 518 receivers with 25 targets. That indicates Washington might be a volume-based receiver who doesn't garner opportunities downfield. In 2023, eight NFL receivers averaged an aDOT of eight or below with a YAC/Rec of five or higher. That list includes Amon-Ra St. Brown, Demario Douglas, Josh Downs, Deebo Samuel, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Rondale Moore, Hunter Renfrow, and Rashee Rice.

They're typically used in the short area of the field to use their yards after the catch skills to produce like Washington. The visual above shows the NFL receiving leaders in yards after the catch per reception and average depth of target. Washington's path to success might be like Rice's since he averaged 8.3 yards after the catch per reception (No. 12).

We mentioned Moore earlier, but Douglas is also an interesting comparison. Finally, Washington's historical comparisons based on production don't give us much optimism. He compares similarly to Scott Miller, Olamide Zaccheaus, and D'Wayne Eskridge. That profiles like a slot receiver at best, though maybe Washington is an outlier.  

Washington's Pre-NFL Draft 2024 Outlook

Washington's stock has risen from a fifth-round pick to potentially a fourth-rounder. The dynasty community on social media loves Washington, so expect him to rise as we go through the NFL Combine and inch closer to the NFL Draft. Since Washington probably plays in the slot most of the time, let's look at potential team fits based on teams that ran high rates of 11 personnel.

The top-seven teams that ran 70 percent or more 11 personnel include the Rams, Panthers, Giants, Chargers, Colts, Buccaneers, and Commanders. The data points to Washington being a top-five receiver in the 2024 class with top-three potential, making him a priority late-round receiver prospect.

 

Brenden Rice, WR, USC 

Brenden Rice, the son of Jerry Rice, looks to make his mark in the NFL in 2024 and beyond. Rice played two seasons at Colorado before heading to USC. He peaked as a senior with a 29 percent Receiver Dominator after catching 45 receptions for 791 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns.

USC had a loaded squad, including four 2024 prospects in Caleb Williams, Marshawn Lloyd, Tahj Washington, and Rice. Rice bested Washington in Receiver Dominator (29 percent vs. 23 percent), partly due to the touchdowns, though Washington hauled in 1,062 receiving yards. 

Reasons for Optimism

Sticking with the theme of late-round receivers with good yards per route run numbers, Rice fits that mold. Rice ranked 32nd in yards per route run at 2.75 behind Malachi Corley (2.78) and ahead of Jermaine Burton (2.74). He trailed his teammate Washington with 3.06 yards per route run (No. 19), but Rice still posted solid numbers. Among receivers with 50 targets, Rice joined a group of receivers who averaged 2.5 yards per route run against man and zone coverage, including several of the top 2024 receiver prospects. 

That indicates Rice can produce against man and zone, as he ranked 54th in yards per route run against man (2.97) and 37th in yards per route run versus zone (2.91). Rice being listed at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds profiles as an outside receiver with 86.8 percent of his routes coming lined up out wide. As a big-bodied receiver who makes plays downfield (15.1 aDOT), it's positive to see him win against man coverage. We saw some of that in the Senior Bowl practices and college.

Reasons for Concern

Based on collegiate production, projected draft capital, and size, Rice's comparisons don't inspire confidence via the RotoViz Box Score Scout. Those top comps include Chris Moore, Ty Montgomery, Riley Ridley, Michael Wilson, and Joshua Palmer, with the latter two players being the most favorable, as seen below. Age might matter less these days, with several receivers playing in college for four to five seasons, but Rice produced well on a per-target basis.

However, it's worth noting Rice hadn't surpassed 1.9 yards per route run until his senior year. The USC offense seemed to spread the ball around since Rice only earned 5.83 targets per game, though his teammate Washington also lacked targets at 5.7. Rice converted 60.9 percent of his contested targets in 2021 and 2022, but that fell to 25 percent in 2023.

Rice's Pre-NFL 2024 Outlook

The knocks against Rice involve his late college production and weak comparisons. However, there's a good chance Rice's NFL Draft stock will continue to rise, especially if he smashes the workout metrics at the NFL Combine, which seems likely. Though Rice's receiving production doesn't wow us, he deserves our attention given his yards per route run, ability to win downfield, and against man coverage. Rice projects as a third- or fourth-rounder in the NFL, and someone to prioritize in the third round of rookie drafts. Many teams would benefit from an outside receiver like Rice as a WR2 on the team's respective offense. 



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