For NFL wide receivers, athleticism doesn’t necessarily lead to value

It seems intuitive to suggest that the more athletic, NFL wide receivers are, the more valuable they are to their teams. However, the statistics prove that intuition to be false.

It seems logical to suggest that the NFL’s most athletic wide receivers are also its most effective ones. Traits like speed, strength, and agility would naturally lead to a wide receiver having a more significant impact on their offense. However, this intuition is a misleading one. Often, a wide receiver’s athleticism and their value to an offense appear to be entirely unrelated.

I know that is not a very intuitive claim, so I will be using two metrics to help illustrate my point: the Offensive Share Metric (OSM) and the Relative Athletic Score (RAS). The OSM measures how much influence a player had over their own statistics, and therefore how much impact they had on the offense overall. The RAS, meanwhile, measures the athleticism of NFL prospects by combining their pre-draft measurements, such as their height and weight, and their 40-yard dash times, into a single score.

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In-depth analytics show that the most valuable wide receivers in the NFL are often not the most athletic

When you look at the wide receivers with the highest OSM grades, they fit into a wide range of athletic profiles. In the chart below, you can see the top ten receivers according to the OSM compared to their RAS. The RAS reflects a player’s athletic profile when they were drafted, so the wide receiver won’t necessarily have the exact same athletic traits now, but it should do for a rough estimate.

Team OSM RAS
Hunter Renfrow OAK 39.00 2.94
Deebo Samuel SF 38.63 7.92
Cooper Kupp LAR 38.41 5.0
Michael Thomas NO 38.31 9.12
Tyler Lockett SEA 37.90 7.7
Adam Humphries TEN 37.79 4.19
Chris Godwin TB 37.51 9.67
Albert Wilson MIA 37.36 7.17
Robert Woods LAR 36.39 3.55
Willie Snead BAL 36.33 1.84

 

Their scores show as many variations as a one-to-ten scale possibly could, ranging from exceptional athletes like Godwin and Thomas to Snead, who is staggeringly unathletic for a player who has had a pretty solid career. Nearly as lacking in athleticism was Renfrow, who was the most impactful wide receiver in the NFL in 2019.

Related | The bottom five teams with the lowest RAS grades since 2001

It isn’t just that these wide receivers have varying degrees of overall athleticism, either. Many of those ten players excelled in entirely different areas. Take Lockett, for example. He weighed in at less than 5’10” and 182 pounds, but he had a high-speed score, running a 4.4 40-yard dash.

On the other hand, Kupp performed poorly in most areas the RAS measures, but his overall score was dramatically increased by excellent agility grade due to a quick short shuttle and three-cone drill. Despite their many differences, all ten of these players had a great deal of impact on their own statistics, and on their offenses overall, indicating that the athletic traits they possess are not the primary factors in their successes.

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Why do wide receiver OSM grades often not match their athleticism?

The goal of the OSM is to calculate how much impact a player had on their offense. When it comes to wide receivers, many of the primary factors involved are not inherently related to how big or fast or agile a wide receiver is. The most obvious example of this fact is a receiver’s catch percentage. Being bigger or faster might help a player catch the ball more consistently, but athleticism alone will not make them a consistent pass-catcher. This point is easily demonstrated by looking at a few more examples.

Related | PFN OSM illustrates the sad decline of WR Antonio Brown

The wide receiver with the highest catch percentage last season was Thomas, who caught a staggering 80.54% of his targets. As I already mentioned, Thomas is undeniably a gifted athlete; his RAS was relatively high, at 9.12. However, his athleticism is not the primary contributing factor to his catch percentage. If it were, you would expect other, similarly athletic players to perform equally well, and less athletic players to perform significantly worse. However, neither scenario proves to be true.

The receiver after Thomas in terms of catch percentage was Humphries, who caught 78.72% of his targets. As you saw in the chart above, Humphries is not a particularly impressive athlete, with a RAS of 4.19. At the other end of the spectrum, the player with the lowest catch percentage among NFL wide receivers was the Green Bay Packers Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who only caught 46.43% of his targets.

His problem certainly wasn’t a lack of athleticism; his RAS was 9.27, even higher than Thomas’. At 6-foot-4, 206 pounds, and running a blazing fast 4.37 40-yard dash, he is one of the most athletic receivers in the NFL. And yet, the difference between his and Humphries’ catch percentages was more than 30%.

Of course, catch percentage doesn’t fall solely on the wide receiver. The quality of the pass thrown by the quarterback plays a part, as does how well the defenders are covering the wide receiver. However, those factors don’t account for such a massive difference between their catch percentages. The difference lies in how Humphries and similar players use the talent that they do have while on the field.

Another, less obvious area in which athleticism is surprisingly unimportant is in a wide receiver’s average separation, defined by the NFL as how far away the nearest defender at the time of a catch or incompletion. This area is one where, intuitively, you would think that speed and agility especially would lead to better performances. However, once again, the evidence shows that a receiver’s athletic ability is not very impactful.

Related | The top five teams with the highest RAS grades since 2001

Take Washington Redskins rookie Terry McLaurin as an example. He had a RAS of 9.57 and ran a 4.35 40-yard dash. But despite his speed and athleticism, he only averaged 2.1 yards of separation, which was tied for the third-lowest number among qualifying NFL wide receivers.

Meanwhile, the wide receiver who averaged the most separation last season was Diontae Johnson, despite him having a low RAS at 4.21. He performed incredibly poorly in the three-cone drill and the short shuttle, and a relatively slow 4.53 40-yard dash. This analysis is far from a comprehensive, but the implication of these examples is that separation is not the result of a receiver’s athletic attributes, but rather how effectively they use those attributes on the field.

What types of wide receivers should the NFL be looking for?

The point of these statistics is not that NFL teams shouldn’t try to draft athletic wide receivers. Athleticism often separates a good receiver from a great one. An extraordinary wide receiver combines their athleticism with skill and technique. Thomas is the best example of this happening in the NFL right now. It’s why he is so successful despite the fact that the New Orleans Saints offense often seems to run through him.

What the statistics do show is that a player can have a great deal of influence on their offense even if they aren’t the most athletic. Players like Renfrow and Snead might never rack up 1,000-yard seasons or make multiple Pro Bowls, but they can still be incredibly valuable pieces for their teams. More importantly, they show that an athletic receiver can only have a similar amount of value if they can back up their physical prowess with technical skill.

Those players might still produce statistically at a high level, but how they do so will be highly inefficient. Miami Dolphins receiver DeVante Parker fit this mold last season. He had 1,202 receiving yards and nine touchdowns last season and had a very high RAS coming out of college, at 9.75. However, his OSM grade was 28.03, extremely low for a wide receiver, primarily because he only caught 56.3% of his targets.

The OSM shows that players like Parker, who only produce inconsistently, will be less valuable to their offense than less athletic players with better technique. Skill and consistency are just as crucial to a receiver’s impact on their offense as their athleticism, if not significantly more so. NFL teams and fans need to do a better job of recognizing that fact and focusing on the traits that actually matter when it comes to how effective a wide receiver is, rather than on how athletic they are.

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