News & Analysis

Fantasy Football: Clustering college pass-catchers to identify potential fantasy breakouts

Jan 11, 2021; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver DeVonta Smith (6) against the Ohio State Buckeyes in the 2021 College Football Playoff National Championship Game. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Each offseason, an influx of rookie talent enters into the fantasy equation. With seemingly endless options for fantasy managers, focus quickly shifts to what situations are ripe for targets. Landing spot has a huge impact on fantasy performance, but previous college characteristics can also help identify production.

Leveraging PFF’s data set, along with the advancement of college-to-pro modeling, we can take a look at how prior college performances should help frame the rookie pass-catchers to target in upcoming fantasy drafts. 

Let’s begin by laying out the process before applying it to this year’s wide receiver draft class. 

METHODOLOGY

Wide receiver clustering has been done at various points throughout PFF’s history, with slightly different input variables utilized to draw comparisons in college performances. For this particular process, we looked at all college wide receivers who ran at least 250 routes, had 35 targets and were draft eligible from 2014 to present. 

Clustering variables include targets per game, air yards per game, aDOT, routes run per game, targeted route percentage and wins generated above average. These variables are the most worthwhile when projecting fantasy upside at the NFL level, and all play a role in identifying who can consistently win routes downfield. 

Since we aren’t able to match actual scheme fit or have any understanding of depth charts, one of the best ways currently to identify players poised for success is to focus on the ability to win routes, especially downfield. This year's pro day numbers have the potential for more discrepancies than typical years, which makes actual college production all the more worthwhile to evaluate. 

A player's entire college career was used in this process instead of focusing on individual seasons, which seems appropriate to increase criteria given the nature of the 2020 college season. Also, no consideration was given to players' performance after their college careers ended. This model was built solely on college performance with nothing accounting for players expected to be drafted high versus undrafted free agents or those who never made it to the NFL. 

There are a number of different approaches for determining the optimal number of clusters, but the majority land on seven as the best approach for our data set. 

Although 2014 feels like a decade away after factoring in the requirement of at least one year of college data, we really only have a window of five years of NFL outcomes to compare to. Prospects who cluster with the likes of Amari Cooper, Tyler Lockett, Calvin Ridley and Stefon Diggs are hits in this process. Last year's rookie and sophomore class also had breakout hits for fantasy with DK Metcalf, Justin Jefferson, Terry McLaurin and A.J. Brown all finishing in the top 20 for fantasy scoring. Let’s start by seeing how each college cluster performed in the NFL. 

NFL PERFORMANCE TO COLLEGE CLUSTER COMPARISON
Cluster Key Characteristics Total Pass Catchers Drafted Player % Supplemental or UDFA % Top 20 Fantasy Season in NFL Overperform ADP Season
1 High Target & Yards in Air 141 15.6% 41.8% 7 20
2 High WAA & Targeted Routes 166 48.2% 27.7% 19 59
3 Field-Stretching Threat 218 17.40% 34.90% 3 17
4 Low aDOT, Designed Targets 242 19.40% 31.00% 4 6
Others 931 5.1% 24.7% 0 6

The path to being drafted and becoming a productive NFL wide receiver comes through one of four college clusters. The other three can be ignored from an NFL perspective as almost no notable NFL players emerged from them. This is worthwhile to point out, as it highlights the model's ability to identify NFL talent through college performance alone. 

Let's take a close look at the other four clusters identifying the hits and misses at the NFL level and draw out the closest comparisons for each prospect's top- and low-end range of outcomes measured by the euclidean distance between the players' principal components. 

HIGH TARGET & AIR YARDS PER GAME CLUSTER

Cluster 1 | Top NFL Players
Player Name Top 20 Fantasy Season in NFL Overperform ADP Season
Stefon Diggs 3 3
Nelson Agholor 0 3
Robby Anderson 2 2
Cooper Kupp 1 2
Jamison Crowder 0 2
Breshad Perriman 0 2

Starting off with Stefon Diggs provides far too much hope for this cluster with few other notable names having impactful performances from a fantasy perspective. Robby Anderson and Cooper Kupp have had moments of fantasy relevance, but they aren’t the follow-up to Diggs that most would hope for. This cohort consistently outperforms their ADP compared to position finish, as they have the lowest total number of players but the second-highest percentage of seasons where they outperformed their ADP by over 10 draft slots.  

Diggs’ fifth-round path to one of the best wide receivers in the NFL is unlikely, as this group is made up of a number of undrafted free agents unable to latch onto an NFL team. The counter to Diggs in this group is Kevin White, with his loftiest of outcomes barely touching Diggs’ expectation. 

Even if a group produces one shining example, it should still be avoided with more reliable groupings producing far more outsized hits from a fantasy perspective. Few highly regarded draft prospects cluster into this group, with Sage Surratt the only notable wide receiver in our top 250 this year. There are quite a few reasons to avoid Surratt in all fantasy formats, especially after ending up in a less-than-impressive cluster for this exercise. 

HIGH WAA & TARGETED ROUTE CLUSTER

Cluster 2 | Top NFL Players
Player Name Top 20 Fantasy Season in NFL Overperform ADP Season
Tyler Lockett 3 5
Amari Cooper 3 0
JuJu Smith-Schuster 2 2
Kenny Golladay 2 2
Calvin Ridley 2 2
A.J. Brown 2 1
Chris Godwin 1 3
Courtland Sutton 1 2
D.J. Moore 1 2
Tyler Boyd 1 1
Justin Jefferson 1 1
CeeDee Lamb 0 1
Corey Davis 0 1
Tee Higgins 0 1
Diontae Johnson 0 1
Deebo Samuel 0 1
Laviska Shenault Jr. 0 1
Will Fuller V 0 1
Chase Claypool 0 1

This is the ideal prospect cluster, with almost 50% of entries being taken in the NFL draft. This is essentially a who’s who of up and coming wide receivers in the NFL, with talent heavily concentrated on this cohort. 

Fifteen wide receivers have been selected in the first round of the NFL draft from this group, with the downside comprised of Josh Doctson, Corey Coleman and N’Keal Harry

The prospects from this year's group include two of the two most likely wide receivers to be first off the board, while others present opportunity in the later rounds of the draft. If you're looking for immediate impact and fantasy-relevant performances, it might be simpler to eliminate prospects that aren’t in this cohort.

This is also the cluster to focus on when hoping to identify sleeper players who will be drafted outside of the first three rounds of the NFL draft. 

Rookies on PFF's Big Board in Cluster 2
Player Big Board Rank Cluster High-End Comparable Low-End Comparable
Ja'Marr Chase 6 2 A.J. Brown Marquise Brown
DeVonta Smith 9 2 CeeDee Lamb Taywan Taylor
Rashod Bateman 18 2 Gabriel Davis Jalen Reagor
Elijah Moore 20 2 Deebo Samuel Laquon Treadwell
Rondale Moore 32 2 Tyler Boyd Richie James Jr.
Tylan Wallace 81 2 Courtland Sutton Josh Doctson
Jaelon Darden 84 2 Calvin Ridley Marcus Green
Amon-Ra St. Brown 104 2 JuJu Smith-Schuster Jordan Payton
Seth Williams 119 2 D.J. Moore Quez Watkins
Tutu Atwell 121 2 K.J. Hamler Papi White
Tre Walker 157 2 Chris Godwin Penny Hart
Shi Smith 168 2 Chase Claypool Dezmon Patmon
Dazz Newsome 177 2 Dante Pettis Deontay Burnett
Tamorrion Terry 185 2 Will Fuller V David Sills
Jonathan Adams Jr. 188 2 Gabriel Davis DaMarkus Lodge
Tyler Vaughns 211 2 Allen Lazard Steve Ishmael
Marquez Stevenson 212 2 Pharoh Cooper Quez Watkins
Damonte Coxie 251 2 Michael Pittman Jr. Kelvin Harmon
T.J. Vasher 257 2 Travis Fulgham Simmie Cobbs

FIELD-STRETCHING THREATS

Cluster 3 | Top NFL Players
Player Name Top 20 Fantasy Season in NFL Overperform ADP Season
D.K. Metcalf 1 2
D.J. Chark Jr. 1 1
Terry McLaurin 1 1
Tim Patrick 0 2
Antonio Callaway 0 2
John Ross 0 1
Phillip Dorsett 0 1
Jalen Guyton 0 1
Darnell Mooney 0 1
Brandon Aiyuk 0 1
Miles Boykin 0 1
Chris Conley 0 1

A couple of the best young wide receivers in the NFL had their college performances cluster into this group, which makes it the second-best cluster to land in for this year's prospects. 

The interesting part is that all of the first-round wide receiver selections from this group failed to live up to lofty NFL expectations. The hits have all been found in Round 2, but plenty of misses can be found throughout. 

The players that have performed well at the NFL level are consistently underdrafted, mainly due to the boom-or-bust nature of that player's fantasy performances. Because of the high variance for fantasy outcomes prevalent in this group, it appears to be the perfect target in a best ball format, where trying to make the best start-sit decision won’t be such a painstaking process each week. 

Rookies on PFF's Big Board in Cluster 3
Player Big Board Rank Cluster High-End Comparable Low-End Comparable
Jaylen Waddle 8 3 Terry McLaurin Henry Ruggs III
Terrace Marshall Jr. 26 3 Brandon Aiyuk Devin Lucien
Dyami Brown 46 3 D.J. Chark Jr. Hakeem Butler
Josh Palmer 72 3 Marquez Valdes-Scantling Austin Wolf
Cade Johnson 79 3 Miles Boykin Keon Hatcher
Simi Fehoko 130 3 Byron Pringle Marcus Simms
Austin Watkins 142 3 John Hightower Tanner Gentry
Nico Collins 150 3 Marquez Callaway Tyron Johnson
KJ Stepherson 155 3 Auden Tate Trishton Jackson
D'Wayne Eskridge 158 3 Equanimeous St. Brown Damion Willis

LOW ADOT, DESIGNED TARGETS

Cluster 4 | Top NFL Players
Player Name Top 20 Fantasy Season in NFL Overperform ADP Season
Michael Thomas 4 1
Hunter Renfrow 0 2
Isaiah McKenzie 0 1

Without Michael Thomas, this cluster would have a similar makeup to the non-relevant groupings. This gives it a similar feel to Cluster 1 with few hit rates outside of one shining example. The principal component analyses also had some crossover, with the key differentiator being depth of target showing Cluster 1’s heightened ability to separate downfield. Cluster 4 sees a number of hybrid-type pass catchers and wide receiver/tight end players. 

Slant boy isn’t just a moniker but a way of life for this cluster, which lives off of short depth targets. Tape can be found that shows them winning deep, but when trying to identify the most likely path to success, this cluster doesn’t offer nearly enough reassurances. 

Rookies on PFF's Big Board in Cluster 4
Player Big Board Rank Cluster High-End Comparable Low-End Comparable
Kadarius Toney 38 4 Lynn Bowden Jr. Austin Carr
Ihmir Smith-Marsette 124 4 Donovan Peoples-Jones Sean Modster
Amari Rodgers 154 4 Hunter Renfrow K.J. Hill

Key Takeaways

Given the price for prospects at the top of Cluster 3 and 4, I am avoiding all of them in any fantasy format. If we are making up an early rookie no-draft list, these players would be my first entries. 

After pro days, the dynasty rookie draft market has turned away from the wide receiver position, with Ja’Marr Chase sometimes not coming off the board until pick 5. I would be ecstatic to leave any draft with Chase, as he seems to be coming at a discounted price partly due to the talent at other rookie positions but also recency of his last on-field play. 

DeVonta Smith has seemingly been passed by Jaylen Waddle and Rashod Bateman but is coming off the best wide receiver season we have seen at PFF. This exercise avoids the measurements, which is the only reason to knock Smith. Could he be bullied at the line of scrimmage and become ineffective at the NFL level? Yes, but this certainly isn’t the most likely outcome and appears to already be baked into his current price. If he is coming off the fantasy board at anything other than the second rookie wide receiver, he turns into my favorite wide receiver pick of this draft. 

Further down the list in this cluster, Tylan Wallace, Jaelon Darden, Seth Williams, Tre Walker and Shi Smith all jump out, as they offer perfect comparables to take advantage of potential targets. 

These would be my favorite rookie wide receiver prospects that should fall out of the first two rounds of the NFL Draft. Given the right situation, they all could be fantasy relevant in their rookie seasons. 

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