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Can the Packers bank on a ‘third-year leap’ from young wide receivers?

Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown face plenty of questions heading into their third year. Should we expect big improvement?

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Wide receivers making a significant leap in production in their third year is taken as something of a given in Green Bay. Mike McCarthy spoke of it frequently, and it’s easy to see why: improvement from within is a key feature of team building for a franchise that counts on the draft as much as the Packers have.

But does it actually exist? Inspired by Jon Meerdink’s recent article on the Packers’ apparent targeting of high-RAS players, I decided to take a look.

I ran this study based on one simple question: Is there a third-year leap in wide receiver production? To find the answer, I have analyzed the average production of third year receivers throughout the league, focusing especially on how individual players improved their production between their first and third years. While looking at averages isn’t necessarily the most precise, it does say something about the overall trends at this position, as well as the likelihood that a player will improve entering his third season.

Further, I analyzed the connection between RAS and third-year production. This analysis also looks into both averages and individual patterns.

The analyses are made upon collected data from 2010-19 on games, targets, receptions and yards from and data on Relative Athletic Scores (RAS). The two datasets are not directly compatible, so there are some missing pieces here and there. I was able to get data on 100 rookies in the period 2012-2017 who played at least 3 years in the period 2010-2019.

The third-year leap on average

So, can we generally expect a third year leap for the average player? The chart below breaks down third-year total production into the first-year totals, plus second- and third-year leaps (this equals third-year production). The average third-year production was 391 yards, while first-year production is approximately 300 yards. There is indeed a second-year leap of approximately 100 yards, but the third-year leap is actually an 11-yard regression on average. In other words, the average third-year wide receiver in this study actually regressed slightly; there was really no third-year leap.

Third-year production and first-year targets on average

Having come to this initial conclusion, I tried to identify some statistics that might identify which receivers were most likely to produce an improved third-year total yards outcome. Even if the typical third-year receiver in my study didn’t make a jump, some did. So what predicts the jump? One of the best identifiers I found happened to be targets in their first year. The results are illustrated in the chart below.

For first-year receivers with 50+ targets, the third-year production was 683 yards on average; for wide receivers with less than 30 targets, the average production was 215 yards. The in-between wide receivers had a third-year production of 334 yards.

The high-target first-year receivers only had a small leap in their second year (around 50 yards), before regressing slightly in their third year. Both medium- and low-target wide receivers made small jumps in their second years, but minimal leaps in their third years. For all three groups of receivers, the third-year leap was negative or close to zero. So again, no clear third-year leap on average.

Third-year production and first-year targets on a player-by-player basis

Trying to gauge the question on a more individual basis, we can plot the players’ first-year production against the third-year production (see chart below).

The pattern is still that good first-year production tends to lead to good third-year production. However, there is a lot of variation. Many very good (600 or more yards) first-year players retain production, some get better, and still others get worse. Solid players (400-600 yards in their first year) also may turn very good or very bad or stay the same. Less good players (below 400 yards) typically stay the same, worse or in some cases into solid players — but rarely very good third-year players (above 800 yards).

A first-year production below 400 yards seems to indicate that the player is very unlikely to become very good (800+ yards in third year). We have only four examples of first-year production below 400 yards and third-year production above 800 yards, and two have extenuating circumstances. Injured his first season, Mike Williams jumped from 95 yards to 1001 yards in his third year. Likewise, Quincy Enunwa had issues with a suspension and injury in his first year and didn’t record a catch, but then had 857 yards in his third year. Our other two examples include Adam Thielen jumping from 137 yards to 967, and Dontrell Inman going from 158 to 810 yards.

Third-year production and RAS

What about athleticism? Is that predictive of third-year wide receiver production? My analysis not only showed a third-year regression for “Elite Athlete” (RAS +9) draft picks of approximately 100 yards, it also showed an “Elite Athlete” average third-year production 108 yards lower than “Good Athlete” picks (RAS 7-9), and roughly similar to less good athletes (RAS<7) at 383 yards.

Second-year leaps are sizeable (around 100-200 yards) for all three athlete categories. For third-year receivers, only the 72-yard regression for Elite Athletes really stands out. So again: no third-year leap on average among the 100 players I analyzed, but actually some regression for players with RAS above 7.

Third-year production and RAS in detail

I was surprised with the poor average results of Elite Athlete draft picks (RAS>9). Are they really that much worse than wide receivers with a lesser RAS? How about the “boom-or-bust” adage? What might a more detailed look reveal?

Below I’ve distributed the 100 WRs into 10 equally large groups (10 players in each) according to RAS and 10 equally large groups according to third-year production. If Elite Athletes were really good, we would expect that a lot of them were placed in the high production groups (e.g. 800+ yards), while the lesser athletes are placed in lesser production groups. That is not the case, as the chart below shows.

In fact, only one of 10 players in the group of players with the uber-elite RAS of 9.7-10 end up with more than 1100 yards in their third year; two more had a moderate output of 575-780 yards. Seven have a production of less than 300 yards. It is not that much better with RAS between 9.1 and 9.7 with three above 575 and five below 300 yards.

With this data, high RAS seems to indicate a lot of bust and little boom. The boom/bust story seems the same for RAS between 8.7 and 9.1, although the boom part is a bit better: three players are in the best decile with more than 1100 yards in third-year production. The bust seems also much worse, although some of the three players with 0 yards production might be data errors or injuries.

In the two more modest 7.2-7.7 and 7.7-8.7 RAS ranges, there seems to be more solid albeit less stellar production. Five and seven players, respectively, produce more than 600 yards, but none more than 1170 yards. Strangely, with RAS lower than 7.2, we see 4 WRs with a 1100+ production: Cooper Kupp, Mike Evans, Jarvis Landry (whose RAS is an astonishingly bad 0.27), and DeAndre Hopkins. So elite RAS is not at all a requirement for elite production.

All in all, these numbers do seem to confirm the boom/bust adage of the elite athlete wide receivers (with more bust than boom). It certainly also confirms that gems can be found in the rough — actually most likely with modest RAS. Obviously, RAS is not all there is to be a receiver.

A small suspicion regarding the uber-elite athletes is that they maybe have been living their college career by simply running past rather average athletic defenders. In the NFL, the defenders are rarely inferior athletes. Possibly, a less than stellar RAS may be a blessing in disguise, forcing a player to rely earlier on route running and other receiver-related skills than just dominating through athleticism.

What does explain third-year production, then?

The best analytical answer I could come up with is that third-year production depends on third-year targets. That should certainly not come as a surprise since the relatively small variations in completion rate and yards/target cannot account for total production. If you are not targeted you cannot produce yards. This shows clearly in the chart below.

The point is (perhaps too) simplistic, but it still underlines that production is mostly dependent on decisions by others: targets (the quarterback), and play calling and snap count (coaches).

Now, why might there still be an impression of a third-year leap? Let’s look at players with an increase in game count from their second to third years. These may be likely to capture the fans’ attention as gems found in the rough. And sure enough: Their third-year leap is indeed a sizable 145 yards. So, the players that appear to leap in their third years are actually just those to whom coaches and quarterbacks give more opportunities and targets. And sure enough, their third-year production leaps accordingly.

Summing it all up

We have seen that on average, there is no third-year leap except for players who get more opportunities in their third season, and chances are those were players who were already pretty good to begin with. On average, players with 50+ targets in their rookie year seem to remain good, while players with fewer targets do less well on average. Individually, less good players may still become very good, but rarely players with less than 400 yards of first-year production attain production of 800 or more yards in their third year.

With regard to RAS, the data show that elite athletes with a RAS above 9.7 have a lot more boom than bust, and actually also the largest third-year regression. A bit lower RAS improves third-year production but still contains significant bust as well. In the mid-RAS ranges of 7.2 to 8.7 both elite and bust potential seems smaller as production is a bit more solid. Perhaps surprisingly, four of the 10 best third-year players had a RAS below 7.2. It seems that RAS is far from all that is to playing wide receiver. Other talents and skills (such as route running) help less-athletic players to become very good receivers.

Editor’s note: Our thanks to APC reader DanishCheeseHead for submitting this excellent breakdown.

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