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Is Henry Ruggs an all-time outlier? Inside a deep and deeply weird 2020 receiver class

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Successful receivers in the NFL tend to follow a blueprint. So who fits that mold in the 2020 class? We use historical checkpoints to identify the safe and scary prospects in the draft.

Southern Miss v Alabama
Henry Ruggs is one of the fastest players ever, but will that be enough?
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Unless you’re an actuary, your eyes may glaze over when discussing risk avoidance and I get it. It’s boring. It’s also vital to the success of a draft. Selections are risk profiles, and the goal is to both avoid risk while maximizing potential return. It’s just as important to identify the potential mitigating factors to success as it is to identify the things that could make a player potentially successful. Considering the importance of adding a dynamic pass catcher for the Green Bay Packers, using this information can help us determine which players are most likely to succeed.

That goes beyond tape study to historical profiles, which the Green Bay Packers already use in a way with their athletic preferences. Who are the risky prospects in this draft? One player stands out above the rest, but there a handful of other players potentially on Green Bay’s radar who may be bigger risks than most realize.

First, a caveat. Much like the athletic profile, historical success is not a guarantee of future success, but it does show up in patterns. Even more than Green Bay’s athletic preferences, two stats around receivers consistently deliver reliable projections. One is based on college production, the percentage of total targets, catches and touchdowns a player produces relative to his teammates. It’s called College Dominator.

Breakout Age is what it sounds like, and for our purposes, the important part to know is the earlier to the better. You can get further explanations for those stats here and some added context here.

Frank DuPont, who pioneered Dominator, set the cutoff at 30% and no player who actually played receiver in college had recorded multiple 1,000-plus yard seasons in the NFL if they come in at less than 25-percent until Tyreek Hill. (Julian Edelman is an outlier, but he played quarterback at Kent State.) In other words, if a receiver didn’t account for roughly 30% of his team’s pass production, his hit rate as a top-tier receiver in the NFL is essentially nil.

In the last five years, 52 NFL WRs have posted a 1,000 yard-season. Of the 50 who actually played WR in college, only six had a below-average Dominator: Mike Williams, Doug Baldwin, Jeremy Maclin, DJ Chark, Marvin Jones Jr., and Hill . Edelman and fellow college QB Terrelle Pryor are the other two.

Only four had a below-average Breakout Age: Michael Thomas, John Brown, Tyrell Williams, and Brandon Marshall. Notice there is not a first-round pick in that bunch.

And only one player who put up 1,000 yards receiving in the last 5 years had both a below average Dominator AND Breakout Age: Hill. This is another way you can compare Henry Ruggs to Hill because that’s Ruggs as well, but Hill was a 5th round pick. Some tout Ruggs as potentially the best receiver in this class or at least the scariest — and he is, just not in the way most analysts mean.

Players who succeed in the NFL don’t profile as college players the way Ruggs does. Betting on him to be a historical outlier in the top-15 would be unprecedented. It will likely happen and hell, it could even work, but the odds are against it.

Think about how this fits with drafting a receiver in the first round generally. If the average receiver hits in the first around 55% of the time, adding another layer of risk with a historically failing production profile doesn’t seem like a particularly good idea. If a team wants to take a flyer, do it in the middle rounds.

Of the top receivers in this draft, three fail the Dominator test: Ruggs, Jerry Jeudy, and Van Jefferson. Ruggs and the aforementioned Jefferson also fail the age test. In some ways, this could be viewed as good news for the Packers. Players with heavy risk profiles will go before they have a chance to pick, potentially saving them from players with bust potential.

Extending down the receiver list, Donovan Peoples-Jones, a potential second-round target for Green Bay, misses on Dominator as well.

Age non-qualifiers include Brandon Aiyuk, Michael Pittman, Chase Claypool, and Devin Duvernary. The good news for them is they hit the Dominator marks.

That leaves us with potential top-100 receivers who hit both checkpoints:

  • CeeDee Lamb
  • Justin Jefferson
  • Jalen Reagor
  • Tee Higgins
  • Denzel Mims
  • Laviska Shenault
  • KJ Hamler
  • Bryan Edwards
  • Tyler Johnson
  • Gabriel Davis
  • Quintez Cephus

The further down the draft board, the less it may matter because the risk is less, but this information can also be leveraged to make bets on players like Edwards who come into the draft injured and couldn’t go through athletic testing. By metric testing, he’s an elite prospect, worth taking a flier on later in the draft. Even in an environment where the Packers doctors can’t examine him, the tape and production say he’s worth considering.

If we want to get really crazy, we can overlay the Packers athletic preferences to get something resembling a final list. Players who haven’t tested will remain on the list.

  • CeeDee Lamb
  • Justin Jefferson
  • Jalen Reagor*
  • Denzel Mims
  • Laviska Shenault
  • Bryan Edwards
  • Tyler Johnson
  • Gabriel Davis

*Reagor posted sufficient athletic numbers via a video pro day so ... who knows?

This, of course, doesn’t mean don’t draft players who didn’t make the cut, but rather understand the risk profiles are different. This final group of players comes in with the fewest risk factors, but it doesn’t make them the only players worth drafting, or even that they’re potentially better players than some of the guys left off.

They’re the cleanest prospects on the list, however, and particularly in the top-100, teams are looking for the squeakiest clean players they can find. For a team like the Packers, hoping to win now, there is talent here to both minimize bust potential and maximize upside. Guys like Justin Jefferson, Reagor, and Mims look like the perfect solution to Green Bay’s lack of dynamic receiver talent for 2020 and beyond.