By Bill Barnwell, Football Outsiders – special to BSMW Patriots Game Day
Surely, there’s got to be someone left on Detroit Lions’ President and General Manager Matt Millen’s side. D.J. Gallo probably doesn’t want Millen to be fired. Well, and Ted Thompson. Actually, you can do a whole NFL Network commercial parody around that with NFC North personalities alone. You don’t need to tell Brett Favre twice that Matt Millen’s an excellent general manager. Lovie Smith knows he’ll need to spend a whole half-hour gameplanning against this mess of a franchise. Fred Smoot’s been preparing his boat all week. Najeh Davenport hasn’t come out of the sorority closet all week. Lions football. Now, on the NFL Network. OK, maybe Najeh’s not in the NFC North anymore, and maybe that joke is busted. But you know if you saw it on TV, you’d laugh heartily.
As the Pats prepare to host the Lions this week, there are a lot of ways to take a look at the visiting team and how their plan has been miserably executed over the last several seasons. I could go the gimmicky route of hindsight and list all the players the Lions could’ve chosen with their high draft picks, but that’s really unfair. Sure, the Lions could do a better job of scouting, but it’s hard to say that a player who went onto success somewhere else would have succeeded on the Lions; after all, it could have been the poor coaching of one of the three staffs that have presided over the team during the Millen Era.
Alternately, I could point out that the 80 teams who have drafted a wide receiver in the first round since 1979 have won a grand total of eight games more (or, yes, .1 wins per team) in that wide receiver’s third season (at which point you’d be hoping that this stud wide receiver you drafted was making a difference) than the team did in the year before they drafted that wide receiver. That number is lower than any other position except for interior linemen and defensive backs, which would seemingly point to the drafting of wide receivers in the first round as being a relatively fallacious decision, but that research is a little too dependent upon the rest of the team to be conclusive. So let’s not bash Matt Millen for wanting to draft a wide receiver in the first round. Well, at least once.
Instead, what I want to evaluate is whether there’s anything in history that tells us whether the wide receivers Matt Millen chose — the infamous trio of Texas’ Roy Williams, Michigan State’s Charles Rogers, and USC’s Mike Williams — had pedigrees that would have made them advisable draft selections. I’m going to look at all the wide receivers who were drafted from 1983 (the draft from the year following the bye) to 2001, and evaluate how they did in their first year, their first three years, and their first five years (2001 will be the endpoint so that we can look at five years’ worth of statistics for those players). We’ll look at the first five years since that’s when Millen could’ve definitively expected the players to be Lions property; obviously, from there, the players could’ve moved on if so enticed. Following that, I’ll break the players down into groups to see if we can find out anything in particular about them that would make them stand out.
To do this, I’m going to use the really nifty draft history available from, shockingly enough, DraftHistory.com. I’ve cross-checked that with the excellent player database from Pro Football Reference, and compiled data from other sources on the net with regards to injuries and conferences.
First, let’s take a look at how wide receivers selected in the first round do. Keep in mind that all the numbers I’ll list are the cumulative statistics of all wide receivers from that Conference over the specified timeframe, divided by the number of wide receivers that fit said criteria, providing an average performance by each wide receiver over that time frame as opposed to a seasonal average.
As you can see here, the sample is somewhat limited by the fact that there have only been 61 wide receivers chosen in the first round over that timeframe. What this points to at least anecdotally, though, is that Big 10 receivers (like Rogers) tend to perform significantly better than receivers from the Pac-10 (like Williams) or the SEC. The lone Big 12 receiver in the sample, by the way, was Rae Carruth.
The list of SEC receivers from that timeframe is pretty staggeringly bad, actually. It includes busts like Clyde Duncan (who compiled all of four catches in two seasons with St. Louis), Ricky Nattiel, Reidel Anthony, and Marcus Nash, and mediocrities like Willie Gault (chocolate swirl smoothness notwithstanding), Tim McGee, Wendell Davis, Alvin Harper, Ike Hilliard, and Travis Taylor. The only SEC guys who really lived up to their draft status were Anthony Miller, Eric Moulds, and eventually, Eddie Kennison.
The Pac 10 also didn’t provide particularly fantastic talent. While Keyshawn Johnson was undoubtedly an excellent selection over those first few seasons, Mike Sherrard’s numbers were pretty poor, while Aaron Cox was an outright bust. Sean Dawkins, Curtis Conway, Johnnie Morton, and J.J. Stokes all had solid performances over those five seasons, but the four combined averaged 47 catches and 648 yards a season — adequate numbers, sure, but you’d want more out of the playmaker you drafted with your first round pick. The last Pac 10 wide receiver to go in the first round was Reggie Williams in 2004; it’s safe to say he hasn’t shown any signs of stardom so far.
The Big 10, meanwhile, can name five first-round wide receivers better than anyone the SEC produced in that timeframe: Al Toon, Andre Rison, Joey Galloway, Terry Glenn, and David Boston (in his first five seasons, at least). Furthermore, O.J. McDuffie, Derrick Alexander, and Plaxico Burress all had numbers as good as Miller, Moulds, and Kennison. Only Kenny Jackson, Mark Ingram, and Thomas Lewis would be characterized as Big 10 draft busts at WR. Of course, Rogers would ensue to be a bigger bust than all of them, but with this in mind, it’s reasonable to say that First Round-caliber Big 10 WRs have some pedigree attached to them.
The four guys in the “Other” category didn’t do too poorly for themselves, either — outperforming most of the major conferences! Want to know why? Those four guys are Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, Shawn Collins, and Sylvester Morris. You may not remember the latter two too well; they combined for 16% of the group’s catches. So, essentially, if you’re going to draft a player from a small school in the first round at WR, well, make sure he’s really good before you do it. See — tautology!
Expanding the player pool to all wide receivers chosen on Day 1 of the draft (in the first three rounds) pushes everyone towards the center of the pack.
You’ll note the solid performance of the players from the Independent teams; since teams are organized into the conferences they played in at the time, that includes guys like Michael Irvin, Ernest Givins, Brian Blades, and Isaac Bruce — players who would make any conference look good. Big 10 wide receivers still look like a winning proposition, but you’ll notice that the Pac-10 suddenly looks very solid as a receiver factory. That’s because the Pac-10 produces some nifty players in the second and third rounds at wide receiver, guys like Vance Johnson, Flipper Anderson, Jerome Pathon, Dennis Northcutt, and Ed McCaffrey. To compare, while the SEC produced Robert Brooks, Peerless Price, Frank Sanders, Carl Pickens, and Darrell Jackson in the second and third round, they also gave eleven players to the NFL who would end up with fewer than twenty catches.
It’s when you look at the statistics of all the wide receivers selected over a five year span, though, that three groups stand out.
The Big 10 has to be considered the predominant producer of wide receiver talent in the country based upon this data. Later round Big 10 wide receivers that became contributors included Derrick Mason and Tim Dwight (Round 4), Calvin Williams (Round 5), Mark Jackson (Round 6), Tai Streets and Ernie Jones (Round 7), Curtis Duncan (Round 10), and Anthony Carter (Round 12).
The Big East isn’t too shabby, either; besides first rounder Marvin Harrison, it’s produced the woefully underappreciated Kevin Johnson, Antonio Freeman, and depth guys like Horace Copeland, Jerry Porter, and Qadry Ismail. That being said, Harrison’s numbers do skew a somewhat small sample size.
What the numbers show here is that the Big 10 is a good place to look if you want to get a wide receiver, and if you have a wide receiver you have some regard for, his presence in the Big 10 might be a sign that he’ll be useful in the future. So, strangely enough, Matt Millen’s selection of Charles Rogers may actually, at the time of his selection, have been the most defensible of the three if you judge from history. As for Roy Williams, it’s hard to say because the recent shift to the Big 12 leaves data for that conference pretty incomplete. Recent first round draft picks from the Big 12 include Matt Jones, Mark Clayton, and Rashaun Woods, which doesn’t hold out much in the way of future suggestion that they’ll be regarded highly.
And now, a data dump.