Wide receiver breakout age is slowly becoming one of the more popular and effective metrics at identifying successful NFL wide receivers. Breakout age was developed through the work of Frank DuPont and Shawn Siegele. It was first introduced by Siegele in an article for Rotiviz back in 2014. Blair Andrews, Jon Moore, Anthony Amico, and Peter Howard have all advanced breakout age analysis since Siegele’s original article. Their contributions have contributed to the fantasy community’s greater understanding of how production early in college is an effective indicator of wide receiver talent.
What is Breakout Age?
Breakout age is defined as the age in which a wide receiver first produces 20 percent or more of their college team’s offensive receiving yards and touchdowns in a season.*
How effective is breakout age at identifying successful NFL receivers? This table illustrates breakout age and how it successfully identified 84 of 87 top-24 receivers from 2003-2017.** Breakout age’s effectiveness at correctly identifying successful wide receivers substantially increases when it’s combined with draft capital. Ultimately, rounds 1-3 draft capital and an 18-20 breakout age have the highest hit-rate, lowest miss rate, and highest overall draft accuracy. The effectiveness of breakout age has led to an increase in popularity and recently it has slowly crept into mainstream analysis.
Hit Rate is the percentage of receivers with a top-24 season in the sample. Miss Rate is the percentage of receivers without a top-24 season in the sample. Non-Miss Rate is the percentage of non-top-24 receivers not included in the sample. Draft Accuracy is the percentage of total Hits and Non-Misses, minus the Hits not in the sample.
Breakout Age isn’t 100 Percent Accurate
There are many popular and disingenuous criticisms of breakout age. The leading critique is “breakout age isn’t always right.” Some receivers never broke out in college and now perform as elite fantasy producers. Fair enough. As a counterpoint, please name a wide receiver evaluation methodology with the ability to accurately predict successful receivers with 100 percent accuracy. Admittedly, breakout age isn’t the Holy Grail or skeleton key of advanced metrics. Data-driven processes using breakout age occasionally miss or aren’t as high on players similar to Tyreek Hill, Wes Welker, and Michael Thomas. The following table notes significant players missed using only breakout age and draft capital.
Peter Howard has completed a significant amount of content analyzing the college profiles of breakout and successful NFL receivers. Individuals try to circumvent his analysis by labeling a particular player as “unique” or “special.” “Player X is amazing because there has never been a player like him before.” It’s a tiresome argument and misses the mark. This outlier fallacy leads to illogical decisions being made by fantasy managers on draft day.
Non-Breakout Wide Receivers
A non-breakout wide receiver is a receiver who failed to produce 20 percent or more of their team’s offensive receiving yards and touchdowns in a season during their college career. From 2003-2017, there have been 103 (17.6%) non-breakout wide receivers to enter the NFL. The players included in this analysis are wide receivers who entered the NFL between 2003-2017 and have scored fantasy points in the NFL, were drafted, or were invited to the NFL Combine. A small number of receivers were excluded due to a lack of available college statistics or a known birth date. Only three (2.9%) non-breakout receivers from 2003-2017 have produced a top-24 NFL season. Those players are Wes Welker (7), Tyreek Hill (2), and Adam Humphries (1). Seven (6.8%) non-breakout receivers have produced a top-36 NFL season. Top-36 non-breakout receivers include Wes Welker (7), Tyreek Hill (4), Steve Breaston (2), Adam Humphries (1), Marquise Goodwin (1), Danny Amendola (1), and Travis Benjamin (1).
Draft capital is the most significant variable we have at predicting future NFL success. Logically, it makes sense. The team is revealing how good they believe a player is and how many opportunities the player will be given based on the team’s level of investment. Approximately, half of all non-breakout receivers were not drafted and were signed as undrafted free agents following the NFL Draft. 39 (38%) non-breakout receivers were Day 3 draft picks. Eight (8%) non-breakout receivers were Day 1 or Day 2 picks.
It’s not surprising age is a crucial component to breakout age. Understanding the age a player first earned playing time in college and the age a player was drafted into the NFL are essential factors when describing a non-breakout receiver. Jon Moore explained the importance of age best when he wrote, “A 20-year-old dominating defensive backs who are 21 or 22 is much more impressive than a 23 or 24-year-old doing the same.”
Draft Age is defined as the age a receiver is on September 1st in the year they joined the NFL. As shown in the table below, approximately 84 percent of non-breakout receivers were 22 or 23 years old when they arrived in the NFL.
Receivers with an 18-20 breakout age have a higher likelihood of success in the NFL. Interestingly enough, a similar trend exists with non-breakout receivers. Non-breakout receivers with any level of production between the ages of 18 and 20 have produced 100 percent of the top 24-seasons and top-36 seasons between 2003-2017. Meanwhile, non-breakout receivers with zero output between 18-20 years old account for zero percent of the top-24 and top-36 seasons in the same period.
Early Declares and Games Played
Shawn Siegele and Blair Andrews have written extensively on the increased likelihood of success for early declares and how the number of years a receiver remains in school correlates to becoming a top fantasy receiver. Does this translate to non-breakout receivers as well?
A small percent of non-breakout receivers declare early for the NFL. From 2003-2017 only four non-breakout receivers have declared early for the NFL: Cordarrelle Patterson, Martavis Bryant, Michael Clark, and Tyreek Hill.
Production is a critical piece of the puzzle when analyzing breakout or non-breakout receivers.*** To have a breakout age, a receiver needs to eclipse a certain production threshold. Breakout age uses the percentage of the team receiving yards and receiving touchdowns averaged together for its production threshold. It’s commonly known as seasonal dominator rating or combined receiving market share.
A player’s career average market share of team receiving yards is a popular metric because it doesn’t include touchdown variance but still captures how a player did within their offense. The distribution of non-breakout receivers is relatively even with a slight concentration ranging from 5.0 to 14.9 percent (64%). The table below reinforces minimal production at the college level isn’t a recipe for success even for non-breakout receivers. Non-breakout receivers below the 5.0 percent market share of receiving yards did not register a top-36 fantasy season.
Career average seasonal dominator rating had a slightly different distribution of non-breakout receivers. Again, as demonstrated below, non-breakout receivers are more concentrated in the middle range with 71 percent falling between 5.0 and 14.9 percent seasonal dominator rating. Seasonal dominator rating had fewer players above the higher production threshold of 15.0 percent (6.8%) unlike career average market share of receiving yards. Seasonal dominator rating is a solid descriptive metric. It explains how a player produced in college. Seasonal dominator underwhelms as a predictive metric and a quick snapshot of this is displayed in this table. Non-breakout receivers with top-24 or top-36 seasons are spread out evenly and this prevents analysis differentiating levels of production using seasonal dominator rating.
JJ Zachariason and Anthony Amico are big proponents of receiving yards per team pass attempt because it is a superior metric at predicting future targets in the NFL. Similar to seasonal dominator rating, career average receiving yards per team pass attempt reinforces how non-breakout receivers who fail to perform at a minimum level don’t succeed in the NFL. The following table underscores this trend because 100 percent of the non-breakout wide receivers under 0.50 receiving yards per team pass attempt failed to register a top-24 or top-36 season. As with seasonal dominator rating, the concentration of non-breakout receivers decreases as receiving yards per team pass attempt increases.
Career average scrimmage yards per play is extremely useful when paired with draft capital and breakout age to identify successful wide receivers. When applied to non-breakout receivers, the density in the distribution of non-breakout receivers decreases as the scrimmage yards per play increases. Meanwhile, the successful non-breakout receivers are more concentrated as scrimmage yards per play increases.
Athleticism is vastly overrated when predicting successful NFL wide receivers.**** Regardless, wide receiver 40-times are one of the most popular athleticism metrics used when discussing incoming rookie receivers. Non-breakout receivers’ 40-times are clustered in the middle between 4.40 and 4.59-seconds. The more successful non-breakout receivers lie in the margins with two top-24 and five top-36 receivers with a 4.60-second or slower 40-time or a 4.39-second 40-time or faster.
Height-Adjusted Speed Score (HaSS) is a more predictive athleticism metric than a 40-time. Shawn Siegele first discussed it on his Money in the Banana Stand blog. Non-breakout receivers are distributed by their HaSS similar to their 40-times with a high number clustered in the middle, falling between 75.00-104.99 HaSS. Unlike with slower 40-times, there are more successful non-breakout receivers with lower HaSS than higher HaSS.
After analyzing non-breakout wide receivers’ age, draft capital, the duration they played in college, college production, and speed, there are several similarities and shared traits. There are also several attributes unique to unsuccessful or successful non-breakout receivers.
The majority of non-breakout receivers were drafted on Day 2 or Day 3 of the NFL Draft and their draft age was 22 or 23 years old.
Successful non-breakout receivers first produced between the ages of 18-20. This mirrors the trend of successful breakout receivers who have a higher hit rate with an 18-20 breakout age.
Only four percent of non-breakout receivers declared early for the NFL Draft and most remained in school for their senior season.
Successful non-breakout receivers usually played 40 or more games in college.
As a whole, non-breakout receiver production is spread out evenly across non-breakout level production thresholds. This is not the case for the highest production thresholds for non-breakout receivers. Few non-breakout receivers produce close to breakout thresholds.
Generally, across all of the production metrics, successful non-breakout receivers produced more than unsuccessful, non-breakout receivers.
Successful non-breakout receivers either had faster or slower 40-times and below-average HaSS compared to receivers with average 40-times or above-average HaSS.*****
Do these findings make drafting non-breakout receivers any less risky? Not really. The likelihood of a non-breakout receiver being successful in the NFL is still extremely low. Maybe it gives fantasy managers a slight edge on the margins. More likely than not, fantasy managers are playing a losing game when drafting non-breakout receivers. However, this analysis establishes a standard comparison for non-breakout receivers. Fantasy managers now have a tool to help them understand if a non-breakout receiver is truly a one of a kind prospect or if they are just a typical, unproductive college receiver.
Follow me to the moon and back, @ff_spaceman on Twitter, in my quest into unexplored spreadsheets and dynasty football analysis. Find other advanced metrics similar to the ones discussed in this article in my college prospect database. Also, tune into my podcast @ATaleofTwoRivals for more insightful dynasty analysis and the best banter in fantasy football. Until next time, be well and be safe.
Information found in this article was gathered from @ff_spaceman’s College Prospect Database, PlayerProfiler.com, Sports-Reference.com, Pro-Football-Reference.com, and different prospect’s college team websites.
* Rotoviz has published several excellent articles establishing 30 percent seasonal dominator rating as a more effective threshold to determine breakout age. I still prefer the 20 percent threshold to avoid removing too many successful receivers from the player pool even though it increases breakout age hit rate.
** Top-24 and top-36 seasons are calculated using weeks 1-16 because this is the standard schedule for fantasy football.
*** Several different production metrics are used in this section as I tried to reach a balance between predictive and popular production metrics. I’ve found the career average metrics to be more effective at identifying successful wide receivers compared to career-best or final season metrics.
**** Please feel free to investigate the predictive value of receiver athleticism metrics further using my RSQ values, under the link tab in my college prospect database. Peter Howard also has a list of the athleticism RSQ values in his database.
***** Due to the limited number of successful non-breakout receivers, some of the conclusions could be affected by the small sample size.
This analysis not meant to be an entirely exhaustive analysis of non-breakout receivers. In the future, it would be worthwhile to examine non-breakout receivers in relation to college injuries, college transfers, off the field transgressions, and film tendencies.