PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 9: Mike Wallace #17 of the Pittsburgh Steelers makes a catch against the Tennessee Titans during the game on October 9, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Steelers defeated the Titans 38-17. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
In a comment to this article about Mike Wallace, Neal Coolong said the following:
"Here’s an aspiring piece if anyone wants to write it. How many other players have had as much success, comparably speaking, as Wallace has in three years? How many third-round draft picks nearly get franchised before they’re even free agents? What’s happening with Wallace wasn’t exactly expected; his value is way higher than they drafted him. That just doesn’t happen to wide receivers this quickly into their careers."
I’m game. But PaVaSteeler and Phantaskippy both beat me to the punch. PaVaSteeler’s post was based on the value of comparable current receivers. Phantaskippy’s fanshot links to this Pro Football Reference table comparing receivers since 1990. Both were interesting looks at what Wallace has done so far and how he compares. (Not to give anything away, but the conclusion in both cases is "very favorably.)
But I thought I would take this a bit farther. I decided to both compare his first three seasons to other receivers in the league over 15 seasons, and to use that data to try to project what we might expect from Wallace in future years. Because after all the really interesting question is not how valuable he’s been to the Steelers thus far, but how valuable he might or might not continue to be.
I looked at receivers who were ranked higher than #75 or so in their first season, which puts them in approximately the top 50% of receivers, depending on the year. (Wallace was number 64 in his rookie season.) I picked up some others who were ranked equivalently to Wallace in years two and three (Wallace was number 30 in 2010 and number 16 in 2011.) Therefore I also ended up with some later bloomers on the list. I followed the rankings for all chosen receivers as long as they were in the league. I also looked up a few receivers of interest to Steeler fans who might otherwise not have been on the list.
518 wide receivers have been drafted from 1994 through 2009, an average of 32 per season. This number doesn’t include signed UDFAs, as that would get unwieldy pretty fast. So UDFAs only made the list if they had significant success in their first few seasons.
If a receiver drafted in 1994 or later was ranked in the top 3 in during any season he also made it onto the list, even if he didn’t have early success; hence Wes Welker appears. Still, some highly respected players didn’t make it onto the list because they took too long to develop, like Donald Driver. These were generally late-round picks or UDFAs. I wasn’t trying to be exhaustive, just to get a reasonable set of data.
I ended up with 102 receivers on my list, about 20% of the total drafted receivers during this time. This includes Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, just for interest, although they don’t have third-year stats, and they mostly won’t be considered. When they aren't the list is 100 players.
Let’s take the second question first. "How many third-round draft picks nearly get franchised before they’re even free agents?" I’m not going to answer the question precisely, because I have no intention of going back through all the transactions to find out the financial details. Besides, free agency is different since the new CBA if I understand it correctly, and there is a shorter period before a player becomes a free agent, so that makes comparisons more difficult.
Instead, I’ve chosen to interpret the question as "How many (non-first round) draft picks have been successful as quickly as Mike Wallace?" My comment about Wes Welker demonstrates where I think Neal was going. The idea isn’t whether a later-round or undrafted player can be valuable over the long term, but whether they can develop with the rapidity Wallace has. (I suppose when you’re fast, you’re fast : ) I took it even farther than this, though, because of the following information from an article on Advanced NFL Stats:
After the 4th WR taken in the average draft class, it becomes drastically less likely a team will find a star player. It looks like that the drop-off usually happens around halfway through the 2nd round. By the 5th WR taken and the 3rd round, WRs appear to be about equally as likely as much later picks of becoming an all-pro at about a 5-10% probability...
As temperamental as they may be, top WR draft picks really do turn out to be stars far more often than later picks. They seem to be a lot like QBs. There is a real scarcity of talent at both positions, and it is difficult to predict with much certainty which ones will pan out. A team's chances of finding a highly productive player are still better with a top pick.
If you look at their graphs in the article it is clear they are talking about the top four specifically, rather than the more amorphous "around halfway through the 2nd round." In 2008, for example, no wide receivers were taken at all in the first round. In 2009 Hakeem Nicks was the fifth receiver taken, at 1:29. Therefore I decided to also include the positional information for first and second round picks—in other words, were they the first, or second, or eighth wide receiver picked in that draft. I only checked for first and second round players, as four receivers have always been taken well before the third round, even in 2008.
With that rather long preamble, let’s look at the data.
38 wide receivers from my list of 100 receivers made it into the NFL top 50 during their rookie year between 1994 and 2009. I decided not to include everyone who matched or bettered Mike Wallace’s first year ranking of #64 because that would be well over half my list.
Most of the headings are self-evident, but "Pos." stands for where in the group of wide receivers in a given year a player was taken, as per the Advanced NFL Stats article.
22 of the 38 players, or 58%, were Round One picks. This is scarcely surprising. Perhaps it is more surprising it isn’t higher, as top picks tend to get more opportunities in their rookie year than later picks. If you’re counting by top-four picks rather than by round, there are also 22 top-four picks. However, not all of them were chosen in Round One, and not all of the Round One picks were one of the top four in the class.
There are seven Round One or Two players on the list chosen after the top four. So 29 of the 38, or 76% of the players on the list, were chosen before the third round. However, if the assertion of the Advanced NFL Stats guys is correct, even being taken in Round One is more or less moot from the predictive point if the first four wide receivers have already been taken. As they said, "By the 5th WR taken...WRs appear to be about equally as likely as much later picks of becoming an all-pro at about a 5-10% probability."
In other words, Hakeem Nicks (taken at 1:29, but as the fifth receiver off the board) is not a great deal more likely, statistically speaking, to succeed than Mike Wallace, or for that matter Tiquan Underwood, the last receiver taken in 2009. This seems counterintuitive, but that’s stats for you. It’s worth remembering their criteria for "success" is becoming an all-Pro. It also presumably doesn’t take into account whether a class was considered to be "deep" or not in receivers.*
So 42% of the receivers ranked in the top 50 in their rookie year were drafted after the top four, which according to the Advanced NFL Stats guys makes them more or less equivalent to Mike Wallace. Even if you don’t buy that, note there are five players chosen after Round Three, including two UDFAs, and a third round pick taken at 3:80. (Wallace was taken at 3:84.) All of them were far more productive than Wallace in their first season, according to the NFL ranking. In fact, out of the 100 receivers I followed, the NFL ranking of 64 for his first season puts Wallace at #60, which is essentially in the bottom third of the receivers. And my list includes some people who did not show huge early success, but were Pittsburgh guys, like Will Blackwell, and one guy I included because how could you not, with a name like Snoop Minnis.
In fact, if one removes all of the top four receivers in their class from the list of 100 players and looks at their first year, there are 62 players left. Wallace is 30th on that list. (He just beat out Snoop Minnis, who was #32.) If you remove everyone who was drafted before the third round, the list is cut to 33 players, and Mike Wallace is 13th in his first year. Somehow I don’t view this as a huge indication of his gifts; after all, he’s competing against everyone (both for stats and money,) not just those who were drafted at or below his level.
But the first season isn’t the whole story by a long shot. Wallace was ranked at #30 in the official NFL stats in his second year. Here’s the list:
The list of all receivers ranked in the top 30 in their second year gives us a list of 38 receivers this time. 17 of them, or 45%, were top four receivers. Mike Wallace is in a tie for number 30 with four other receivers. Three of the five were taken in the third round within a few picks of Wallace. (The arrangement of those five players needn't be in any particular order—I chose to order them by lowest draft pick first.)
I left Antonio Brown in this time, as he roundly beats out Wallace as the 21st player on the list. Which illustrates another of the difficulties of this sort of exercise, as it seems reasonable to assume Brown would not have fared as well on a team without a big-threat receiver in the lineup as well. But there are only so many things one can allow for...
Since the chart is sorted for Year 2 positioning, something interesting shows up—the very different numbers for Year 1. It varies all the way from Mario Manning, ranked at #146 in his first year (essentially the worst ranked receiver of his year) to Anquan Boldin at #3.
So what happens when we remove top four receivers from this list? The list drops to 21 players, and Wallace is in a four-way tie. If you drop the Round One and Two players, the list further shrinks to 13 players, with a three-way tie for 10th place.
Let’s compare Mike Wallace’s Year 3 ranking of #16 with our other 99 players. (Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders are off the list, since they haven’t had a third season yet.)
There were only 25 receivers, or 1/4 of our list of 100, who matched or bettered Mike Wallace’s third year production. Of those, 12 were top four picks, or 48%. Five of the remaining players are third round picks, including Wallace, and the other four placed significantly higher than Wallace. Also note that Jerricho Cotchery, a fourth-round pick in 2004, was ranked #20 in his third year after being ranked in the bottom third of all receivers in his first two years.
To repeat the experiment once again, what happens if we take out top four picks? The list shrinks to 13. Removing the first and second round picks reduces it further to eight players. However, don’t forget a few very fine receivers are missing because of their slow start, and since they were generally low round or undrafted picks this list is artificially a bit smaller than it should be.
Up until now we’ve been considering the numbers for each year in isolation. Now let’s look at the average of all of the listed players’ first three years. Mike Wallace has an average NFL ranking of 36.67—the average between 64, 30, and 16. Here is where he ranks in my list:
His average NFL ranking for years 1-3 is #37 among the 100 players considered. As usual, there are a number of top-four picks—21, to be precise, or 57%. For this comparison I decided to determine the position of every player, not just the players in the first two rounds, as I thought it might be an interesting comparison. Since there were a couple of UDFAs on the list, for the purposes of comparison I assumed they were the first UDFA signed in that draft. (For example, in 2008 35 wide receivers were drafted, so DaVone Bess is assumed to be the 36th receiver chosen.) As the 11th receiver chosen in his draft, Wallace is well below the top four, but so are 14 other players ahead of him. Once again, Wallace’s first three years are impressive but scarcely unprecedented.
Now let’s look at some of the stats Phantaskippy and PaVaSteeler were admiring. I looked up the Weighted Career Average Value (from Pro Football Reference) for my 100 players. Mike Wallace comes in at #67 for all players drafted from 1994 on, with a WCAV of 27.
But it seems hardly fair to compare Wallace to players who played in some cases for five times as long as he has so far. So I looked at the accumulated Approximate Value (from PFR) for each player’s first three years.
Now we begin to see why Mike Wallace looks so much more impressive in the figures PaVaSteeler was quoting. All of a sudden, Wallace moves up to #11 for his first three seasons, and is in front of some very distinguished names. This does bring up the question of why the Pro Football Reference numbers vary so significantly from the NFL rankings. It is, I presume, a result of the additional factors the PFR guys take into account. The NFL rankings are predicated on the obvious things. They take a combination of number of receptions, total yards, average yards/reception, average yards/game, number of touchdowns, longest reception, number of 20+ and 40+ yard receptions, number of first downs, percentage of first downs/reception, and fumbles.
Here's the brief explanation for Approximate Value—to find out all of the details look here:
AV is not meant to be a be-all end-all metric. Football stat lines just do not come close to capturing all the contributions of a player the way they do in baseball and basketball. If one player is a 16 and another is a 14, we can't be very confident that the 16AV player actually had a better season than the 14AV player. But I am pretty confident that the collection of all players with 16AV played better, as an entire group, than the collection of all players with 14AV.
Essentially, AV is a substitute for --- and a significant improvement upon, in my opinion --- metrics like 'number of seasons as a starter' or 'number of times making the pro bowl' or the like. You should think of it as being essentially like those two metrics, but with interpolation in between. That is, 'number of seasons as a starter' is a reasonable starting point if you're trying to measure, say, how good a particular draft class is, or what kind of player you can expect to get with the #13 pick in the draft. But obviously some starters are better than others. Starters on good teams are, as a group, better than starters on bad teams. Starting WRs who had lots of receiving yards are, as a group, better than starting WRs who did not have many receiving yards. Starters who made the pro bowl are, as a group, better than starters who didn't, and so on. And non-starters aren't worthless, so they get some points too.
None of this really still explains to me why there should be such a difference in the end result. I'm guessing it is primarily because some things are more important to the PFR guys than they are to the NFL guys, or vice versa.
So, many thousands of words and numbers later, what’s the answer to Neal’s question? In case you’ve forgotten it, here’s the question as I interpreted it: "How many (non-first round, or more precisely, non top-four) draft picks have been successful as quickly as Mike Wallace?"
As always, it depends on what numbers you’re looking at and how you interpret them. According to the NFL’s official seasonal rankings for wide receivers, the answer is "quite a few." But that clearly isn’t quite the case, or there wouldn’t have been so much potential interest in Mike Wallace when he became a restricted free agent.
Thus far, though, this interest hasn’t translated into any actual offers. It’s hard to say whether this is because of the first-round pick a team would give up, the hints Wallace put out about expecting Larry Fitzgerald sort of money, or whether teams looked more closely at his numbers and decided he was overvalued right now.
The one thing the figures demonstrate for sure is this: there is no "for sure" in this business. Although top-of-the-draft-class receivers have a much higher percentage of panning out, there are plenty of cautionary tales.
Take Sylvester Morris. He was the 21st pick of the 2000 draft, the fourth wide receiver taken, drafted by Kansas City. He looked pretty good during his first year, and was ranked 50th overall in the NFL rankings. Although he was listed with a team for the next four seasons (two more years with Kansas City and two years with Tampa Bay) he never really played again after the first season, as he sustained a number of season-ending knee injuries. He ended up with a total Weighted Career Average Value of 6. Let’s look at the top ten receivers since 1994 on my list according to their Weighted Career Average:
Interesting. There are two top-four picks, six players taken in the first or second round, three third-round players, and Rod Smith. In 1994 30 wide receivers were drafted, and Rod Smith wasn’t one of them. Strangely, there are more third-round guys than top four on this list. But if we take Neal's question again, of the listed third-round players on this top-ten list only Terrell Owens had as much or more early success than Mike Wallace has had.
And since I’ve gone on far too long already, watch this spot for the next installment. In it I will attempt to project a career path for Mike for at least the next few years, using all this lovely data. To Be Continued...
*This brings up an interesting question. Does anyone know whether classes said to be "deep" in certain types of players, as the 2012 class is said to be in offensive linemen, can actually be shown to be so enough years down the road to evaluate the actual outcome? I’m not asking if there actually are classes that are richer at certain positions, just whether the perception before the draft and the reality after the draft coincide.