What Does an NFL Wide Receiver's Career Look Like?

Sammy Watkins and company lit up the receiving world last season. Should we expect them to have long and productive careers now?

I've recently made it my personal mission to catch up on "The West Wing", the acclaimed late 1990s/early 2000s television political drama-comedy. Written by award-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, this program simultaneously seems to be one of the wittiest and heaviest pieces of entertainment I've ever witnessed, deftly maneuvering between snarky quips and delicate handling of international political situations. Amazingly, the show lasted eight years and won numerous Emmy awards, despite writing and subject matter that didn't rely on cheap humor or idiot plots, at the time in television media that that became quite common.

This is the kind of thing we're hoping for, ideally, when a new wide receiver prospect enters the league: intelligent, refined in their style of play, but with some real emotional strength beneath the surface. Our dream on draft day is that they have a long run in the league, and maybe even win a few awards. But what is the likelihood that they do turn into multiple-year contributors, or perennial all-stars in the league? What does an NFL receiver's career arc look like?

Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc

I will never be able to repeat this enough: the NFL is a heavy-volume passing league now, to such an insane extent that even 10 years ago passing and receiving statistics look totally unrecognizable. I’ve used this statistic before, but it bears repeating again: the league has seen an 8.5% boost in both passing play call percentage and number of passing attempts by volume in just the last 15 years alone. I can also tell you that, in 2000, there were 188 receivers who had 50 or more targets that season. In 2014, there were 224 such players. These numbers highlight the importance of valuable depth at the receiver position in this day and age; even the guys fifth or sixth on the depth chart can be useful.

We still see quite a few older wide receivers (Greg Jennings, Hakeem Nicks) whose explosiveness may have waned still sitting on the sidelines in free agency. With 2014’s wide receiver class as perhaps a signpost of a new era, we can see that highly talented and explosive receivers are being asked to do more, earlier these days. Since these players are the tools with which the air-raiding offenses of the day are operating, we have to be aware of the value of these players and where it comes from. The position is split into many specialized roles these days, but we want to look at the position as a whole for now: what should our NFL teams expect from their wideouts?

“He Shall, From Time to Time…”

To map out the likely course of this position, we will use numberFire’s signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP helps us take the numbers we see in the box score and assign them contextual value as they relate to the game on the field. By adding down-and-distance value, we can see just how much each play and each player influence the outcome of the game. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

For this study, I wanted to pull apart a few different factors. First, what does the course of a typical wide receiver career look like under the lens of NEP? Second, does draft round affect anything about this expected career arc?

I plotted out the Total NEP (NEP gained from both receiving and rushing) data by year of each wide receiver drafted since 2000, as well as assigning their draft round and overall pick. The table below shows our first tool: a map of average Total NEP production for each league year of a wide receiver. What do we find?

League YearTotal NEP

The interesting thing about this chart, first, is that I ran the numbers twice. The first time, I took the average of only players still playing in the league for any given year; those that had retired or gone unsigned had no data entered and didn’t drag the averages down. That chart saw receiver value peak in Year 9 to Year 12. Here, though, we can see that by averaging all receivers and allowing the average to drop along with those who “didn’t make it”, the hypothetical graph has a very different shape.

The takeaways on this difference are: if a receiver is good enough to survive in the league for a while, they will likely last for quite a while and be highly productive even into their double-digit seasons. However, the converse notion is that attrition is extremely high at this position, and that should be taken into account when they are drafted, or selected in fantasy leagues.

Looking at this chart, however, takes into account all of our wide receiver data pool (477 of them). The typical career arc for them sees the peak production occur in Year 2 to Year 3. Year 1 appears to be one level of value production, and then a “breakout” happens in Year 2; this is contrary to the commonly-held belief that receivers break out in their third year of play. After Year 4, however, every year in the league is a gradual step down in average effectiveness across all receivers. The next plateau is Years 5 and 6, and then Years 7 through 10 are another step down, and fairly equivalent as well.

Remember, though: if a player makes it this long in the league, it’s likely that they’re pretty exceptional and the average of the other 476 receivers since 2000 is dragging his values down in this part of the study.

This provides an excellent visual to show how receivers have produced in the last decade and a half. But can we break it down further? How do receivers perform by round?

Jefferson Lives

We want to examine how draft round affects the career of an NFL wide receiver, so that we can figure out all the facets of what goes into a receiver draft selection. Will we see a pattern emerge among the top valued wideouts, or will there be more equity in this position?

The table below shows the average length of an NFL wide receiver’s career in terms of years played in the league, years above replacement-level (set at the 128th-best wide receiver by Total NEP in 2014, theoretically the worst roster-worthy wideout in the league), and years above elite level (set as a top-10 wide receiver by Total NEP in 2014). These are divided by round of draft pick. What do we find when we break this apart?

Round DraftedCareerR-LevelE-Level

In every category, be it career length, replacement level, and elite potential, there is a steady drop-off from Round 1 on down. Rounds 1 and 2 have similar career length and R-Level factors, but Round 1 is by far better when it comes to E-Level, or elite upside. This potential drops off almost entirely once we reach even Round 3. That said, there is still more R-Level value in Round 3 than any round after, as the picks from Round 4 onward are almost a flat tier in every category.

What does this tell us? Perhaps the Lions weren’t so crazy during the Matt Millen years -- in theory. With better scouting, spending your first-round draft pick isn’t a bad idea, as they have by far the most value of any round in the draft: a first round receiver is all but guaranteed that each of their six average years in the league will be replacement level, and there’s a good chance at least one of them will be a top-ten year.

For fantasy players, this means that if a receiver is deemed good enough to go in the first round of the NFL Draft, they are likely to be a continual contributor to your team, especially in a high-volume era like this. What we’ve also found is that if you don’t see marked improvement in a receiver prospect within the first four years, it’s entirely likely that they will never pan out. Finally, a middle-round NFL receiver is just as likely to become impactful as a late-round receiver in career terms -- don’t overpay for middling talent, and take your cheap fliers late.