2018 NFL Draft Class Preview - Wide Receivers (Part 1)

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Similar to the RB position, there's still plenty of debate about who's at the top of the class for wide receivers and what the order is at the top. As we jump into the prospects, I want to give a preview of my general style of analysis. Based on the work done by Kevin Cole, I primarily use a regression tree analysis for WRs based on production.

To give the quick overview, the first key factor is career market share, followed by final season market share, and then yards per reception. Generally, WRs used heavily with longer receptions translate better for fantasy success. In this regression tree, success is defined as a top 24 PPR season within their first three seasons.

Editor's Note: Read about NFL Draft prospects, dynasty risers, 2017's biggest breakouts/busts and player news coverage all year round. It's always fantasy football season here. Read More Now!

 

Courtland Sutton, SMU

If you're not an avid dynasty player, you might not be familiar with Courtland Sutton, but the SMU prospect could be the first WR selected in the NFL draft.

Courtland Sutton G Rec Yds Avg TD MS Yds MS TD
2015 FR 12 49 862 17.6 9 0.33 0.47
2016 SO 12 76 1246 16.4 10 0.39 0.45
2017 JR 13 68 1085 16 12 0.28 0.34
Career 195 3220 16.5 31 0.34 0.41

Sutton comfortably surpasses the 29 percent career market share threshold for yards and his yards per reception over 16 yards puts him in the 13th node with a 57 percent historical success rate.

Standing at 6-foot-4, it makes sense that Sutton has established himself as a consistent touchdown threat which explains his career 41 percent market share of touchdowns. If he can translate that redzone ability to the NFL level, Sutton will be a coveted asset for teams in need of a boost at WR.

Sutton will be a top three pick in rookie drafts if he's a first round draft pick. He checks all of the boxes for production and physical attributes. If he tops it all off with a strong combine, Sutton will have drafters trading up to acquire him at whatever cost is necessary.

 

Calvin Ridley, Alabama

Ridley's raw statistics don't jump off of the page, but his share of Alabama's receiving work is worth noting.

Calvin Ridley Class G Rec Yds Avg TD MS Yds MS TD
2015 FR 15 89 1045 11.7 7 0.31 0.32
2016 SO 15 72 769 10.7 7 0.24 0.27
2017 JR 14 63 967 15.3 5 0.34 0.13
Career 216 2710 12.55 17 0.29 0.25

The former five-star recruit made an impact during his first season on campus despite playing alongside eventual NFL draft picks Ardarius Stewart and O.J. Howard. And even with the regression from Jalen Hurts in 2017, Ridley remained the focal point of the Alabama passing offense.

Ridley meets the initial career threshold and his increased yards per reception puts him in a better final node of the regression tree. While his final two games did put him below the ideal 16 yards, his regular season numbers being over provide enough of a sample to overlook the inefficiency over the final two games. However, even with the dip in efficiency, his node still has a 30 percent historical success rate.

The biggest question for Ridley is his advanced age. Ridley will turn 24 during his rookie season and there's not a consistent history of success for WRs drafted at the age of 23 or older.  Still, if Ridley is drafted in the first round, he's going to get an opportunity to succeed.

For fantasy purposes, Ridley has a chance to be drafted as the first or second WR taken in rookie drafts.  If Ridley has a strong draft process and emerges as the top WR in the class, he could work his way into the conversation with the second tier of rookies behind Saquon Barkley in drafts.

 

Christian Kirk, Texas A&M

Scouts had high hopes for Kirk entering his junior season at Texas A&M as a potential first round pick. And despite playing with two QBs, Kirk put together a productive season albeit somewhat underwhelming based on his huge expectations.

Christian Kirk G Rec Yds Avg TD MS Yards MS TDs
2015 Fr 13 80 1009 12.6 7 0.30 0.28
2016 So 13 83 928 11.2 9 0.28 0.36
2017 Jr 13 71 919 12.9 10 0.28 0.45
Career 234 2856 12.2 26 0.29 0.36

Kirk held the largest market share of his college career during his freshman season, but he did manage to stay in the ideal range for his career. He never commanded a large enough share to be an elite prospect but his general usage rates put him in a final node with a 30 percent success rate.

Kirk's 36 percent career TD share and 29 percent yardage share indicates his clear position as his team's number one WR option with a well rounded usage. While he doesn't have the clear redzone upside that Sutton has, his well rounded skills should earn him an opportunity to start early. Additionally, Kirk's usage returning punts typically means that he has a versatile skill set that forced his coaches to put him on the field as much as possible.

Kirk will be a mid-first round rookie pick if he's drafted around his current project range. He appears to be an immediate impact player in a complementary role with the chance to become a team's top target.

 

Anthony Miller, Memphis

In a high volume offense, Anthony Miller was everywhere. It took him time to break out, but once he did, he did in a big way.

Anthony Miller  G Rec Yds Avg TD MS Yards MS TDs
2015 SO 12 47 694 14.8 5 0.17 0.17
2016 JR 13 95 1434 15.1 14 0.36 0.41
2017 SR 13 96 1462 15.2 18 0.34 0.46
Career 238 3590 15.1 37 0.29 0.36

Miller's 29 percent career market share is impressive, but his usage rates place him in an undesirable node with only a 3.8 percent success rate. His shorter range efficiency and lack of a truly dominant season do not have a high success rate when going to the NFL.

But it's not all gloom with Miller. He increased his yardage each season and maintained a high share of TDs in a way that is only matched by Sutton. And on one of his biggest stages of the season, Miller shined. In the American Athletic Conference championship game, Miller posted a 14 reception, 195 yard, three touchdown performance. That opened the eyes to a national audience and now he's being talked about the top WRs in the class.

Miller wasn't an elite high school prospect. He was a two star WR and walked on to Memphis and eventually sat out for his first two seasons on campus. Ultimately, this means that Miller is an older player entering the draft, but that is unlikely to hold him back if he can perform well in the Senior Bowl and at the combine. If he impresses coaches during the practice week and shows himself to be a high caliber athlete, Miller could see his stock climb up to the early second round although a mid-second round pick seems to be the highest likelihood. If he lands in a situation devoid of established targets, Miller could become a valuable asset at the back end of rookie drafts. In a RB year, Miller has potential to be a day one impact player even if his long term ceiling is somewhat capped.

 

James Washington, Oklahoma State

Oklahoma State likes to throw the ball around the field and when they do, James Washington is the primary target.

James Washington G Rec Yds Avg TD MS Yards MS TD
2014 FR 12 28 456 16.3 6 0.14 0.32
2015 SO 13 53 1087 20.5 10 0.24 0.29
2016 JR 13 71 1380 19.4 10 0.33 0.34
2017 SR 13 74 1549 20.9 13 0.31 0.35
Career 226 4472 19.8 39 0.26 0.325

Unlike the previous prospects, Washington comes up short of the 29 percent threshold for yards. So as we look for the first time to the left side of the tree, he ends up in node 21 due to his age and usage. The node has a 32 percent success rate and there's plenty to like for Washington as his deeper play usage typically translates well to the NFL and he's already demonstrated the ability to score is a pass-first offense.

Washington improved each year in the system and established himself as one of the premier WRs in college football this season.  His 1549 yards led the nation and he ranked in the top 10 for yards per reception. There's plenty to like for the former three star receiver. If he comes into the combine bigger than his expected 205 lbs, it could help ease the concerns of scouts who see him as slightly small.

Washington's combine is going to be critical. Between the drills and workouts, he'll need to standout in order to raise his draft stock into the second round. Of this group, his draft position floor is likely the lowest based on concerns with his system and size. He should still be a second day selection, but being taken in round three rather than two could hinder his chances of landing with a WR needy team. Washington is likely an early second round pick in rookie drafts, but he could gain some momentum if he lands with a quality situation.

 

Marcell Ateman, Oklahoma State

A teammate of James Washington, Ateman is a near complete opposite of his counterpart in the Oklahoma State offense.

Marcell Ateman G Rec Yds Avg TD MS Yards MS TD
2013 FR 10 22 276 12.5 0 0.09 0.00
2014 SO 8 20 268 13.4 0 0.06 0.00
2015 JR 12 45 766 17 5 0.18 0.17
2017 SR 13 59 1156 19.6 8 0.23 0.22
Career 146 2466 16.9 13 0.14 0.11

At first glance, it's not clear why Ateman would even be listed with this group. His career market share is more than 10 percent less than the next closest and he didn't have a single season above 25 percent. But let's take a look at the regression tree. Despite the low career market share, with over 933 yards on less than 4.8 receptions per game, Ateman lands in node 11 with a 50 percent success rate. Personally, I'm still concerned about his incredibly low market share, but landing in a small sample size outcome turns him from a bad prospect into one with some intrigue.

To help matters, Ateman has the ideal size for the transition to the NFL. Standing 6-foot-4 and weighing 220 lbs, Ateman won't enter the league with the same size concerns as his teammate. It's largely his size and final season that has led Ateman to high draft pick consideration. CBS Sports currently has Ateman as their third best WR in the class. His ranking varies heavily across platforms, but with that level of consideration, it's fair to say that a strong draft process could solidify him as a day two pick.

If Ateman can earn a round two selection, he'll likely be an early second round pick in rookie drafts. Already 23, Ateman will be one of the oldest prospects in the draft and that's likely the biggest concern for NFL teams. But if they can look beyond his age and limited college production, Ateman's size could make him an instant threat in the redzone.

 

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