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Establishing realistic expectations for Anthony Miller’s rookie season

| June 19th, 2018

Bears fans have generally been excited about Anthony Miller, and it’s not hard to see why. He has a great rags-to-riches story as a former walk-on who became a 2nd round pick, is very fun and engaging on Twitter, and is confident enough in himself that he wrote a letter to NFL GMs saying he was the best WR in the draft. Clearly this is going to be a fun player to root for, but there are also reasons to believe he’s going to be good. Miller was ridiculously productive in college, is a great fit in this offense, and has drawn lofty comparisons to Antonio Brown from NFL scouts.

All of that praise makes me feel warm and fuzzy, but I also want to be somewhat realistic about expectations for Miller, especially in his rookie season. Even if he eventually comes close to matching Antonio Brown’s production (which is extremely unlikely), Brown had less than 200 yards as a rookie. It’s not very common for players to come in and dominate from day one, even if they’re going to be very good in the NFL.

Crunching the Data

With that in mind, I want to look at recent NFL history to set reasonable expectations for Miller’s production as a rookie. Accordingly, I looked at all 42 WRs drafted in the 2nd round over the last 10 years (2008-17) and compiled their rookie stats. Full data can be seen here, but let’s start with some general stats.

The average rookie 2nd round WR in that time compiled 60 targets, 34 catches, 433 yards, and 2.8 touchdowns.

So that’s a first general baseline expectation for Miller, but it’s worth noting there was a lot of variance in that sample, as rookie yardage ranged from 0 to 1,137 receiving yards. I illustrated this in the table below, which splits yardage gained into 200 yard chunks and shows how many WRs fit in each group.

Here we can see there’s actually something of a lopsided distribution to reach the average production. Half of the WRs in the sample actually got less than 400 yards in their rookie year, but a few highly productive rookies help bring the average up. If we look at the median instead of the mean, a baseline expectation would be set at 59 targets, 30 catches, 385 yards, and 2 touchdowns.

This is not to say Miller can’t do significantly better than that; nearly 1/3 of the WRs in this sample gained more than 600 yards as rookies (If you want a more optimistic projection, FanDuel stats guru JJ Zachariason projected Miller would catch 48 passes for 575 yards as a rookie. I have no clue how he came to that, but thought it was worth sharing as a more optimistic but still reasonable expectation). I just think it’s important to understand that a hugely productive season should not be the expectation, and Miller’s rookie year should not be considered a failure if he has relatively pedestrian stats. Bears fans should remember that Alshon Jeffery had a mere 367 yards in his rookie season before averaging over 1,000 yards per year in his remaining time with the Bears.


Projecting the Future

Of course, that won’t stop all sorts of hot takes and debate about Miller’s future after his rookie season, no matter how it goes (just like we’ve had about Trubisky this year, and Floyd last year, etc.). With that in mind, I used this same list of 42 players to see if there was any way to use their performance as rookies to separate out which ones ended up being good players and which ones did not.

I first started by identifying which players were hits and misses (green and red, respectively, on this page). This left me with 18 hits, 19 misses, and 5 who I could not categorize (3 who just came off their rookie season and 2 who weren’t really hits or busts). I then sorted them based on different stats to look for any that put mostly green near the top and mostly red at the bottom.

Threshold 1: 40+ targets

I first tried based on volume, sorting by the number of targets, and that indeed seemed to be some sort of predictor. Of the players who received 40 or more targets as rookies, 16 of them turned into solid NFL WRs (Note this is solid, not necessarily stars; guys like Robert Woods, Marqise Lee, and Paul Richardson are included here), while only 7 busted. WRs who got less than 40 targets, on the other hand, had only 2 hits compared to 12 misses.

And those hit exceptions with less than 40 targets as rookies can both be explained with some context. One was Randall Cobb, who saw 31 targets as a rookie in Green Bay behind a loaded group of skill position players featuring Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Donald Driver, James Jones, and JerMichael Finley. The other was Golden Tate, who saw 39 targets in Seattle in only 11 games due to injuries.

This makes some sense. Even though there is a steep learning curve when acclimating to the NFL, highly drafted players who are going to be successful should be good enough to at least earn a meaningful role as a rookie. If the team invested a high draft pick in you but then decides you’re not worth 2.5 targets per game in your rookie season, that doesn’t generally speak well to your future outlook.

Threshold 2: catch 50%+ of those 40 targets

I then looked at the group of 23 WRs who had 40 or more targets to see if there were any efficiency stats to help differentiate the 16 hits from the 7 misses. It turns out that catch % works as a fairly useful metric here: 14 players who saw 40+ targets and caught at least half of them were hits, while only 3 who fulfilled those same criteria were misses. On the flip side, 2 players who saw 40+ targets and caught less than half of them were hits, while 4 in that same category were misses.

The two players who caught less than half of their 40+ targets and still turned into solid NFL WRs were Devin Funchess-who was 1 catch away from meeting the threshold-and Robert Woods, who spent his rookie season catching balls from Thaddeus Lewis and EJ Manuel. The Bills’ WR group that year included solid NFL WRs like Stevie Johnson, Woods, Marquise Goodwin, and Chris Hogan, but QB issues meant they only caught a combined 48.5% of their targets.

Again, this threshold makes sense. Rookies aren’t polished and should be expected to improve in future years, but wide receivers need to catch the balls thrown at them, and that should be a skill that rookies already possess if they’re going to be good.

Threshold 3: 750+ yards

This is a more optimistic threshold that’s set up a little differently. Only 7 2nd round WRs have hit this mark as rookies in the last ten years, and it’s an impressive list: Michael Thomas, Eddie Royal, JuJu Smith-Schuster, DeSean Jackson, Jordan Matthews, Torrey Smith, and Jarvis Landry. If Miller manages to have 750+ yards in 2018, we can feel reasonably confident he’s going to be a good NFL player.

Of course, there were 18 hits identified in this sample, and only 7 of them hit this threshold. That’s not as wide-reaching as the combo of thresholds 1 and 2 above, which successfully identified 14 of the 18 hits.


Lessons Learned

While it’s certainly possible that Anthony Miller could be the next JuJu Smith-Schuster, who had 917 yards and 7 TDs as a rookie in Pittsburgh last year, it’s more likely that his rookie season will feature unimpressive volume totals, and that’s totally ok. We can, however, hope that he is good enough to earn at least 40 targets this year, and that he catches at least half of those targets. If he hits both of those thresholds, he is in very good company among recent 2nd round draft picks.

It’s important to note that hitting these thresholds doesn’t magically guarantee success, and failing to hit them doesn’t guarantee failure. It’s more that most of the players who have hit those thresholds have gone on to have success, while most of the players who didn’t hit them didn’t have success. Or to put it another way: which of these groups would you most like Miller to be in at the end of the season?

Tagged:

  • The Yes Guy

    YES.

  • Big Mike

    Well done Data. If he picks up 500 yards, Bears will be looking good.

    • Irish Sweetness

      I hope that’s sarcasm ….

      • Big Mike

        In one of @johnathanwood:disqus’s very early posts about the WR group, he established a benchmark for what the WR group needed to produce. It had the requirements broken down by how many receivers needed to get a certain amount of yards. Something like 1 receiver +1000 yds, 2 receivers 500-1000, TE group x amount of yards etc. This was before Free Agency and the draft. So if the Bears can get 500 out of the rookie, it likely means Robinson, Gabriel, Burton are all getting theirs. not too mention my hope of all hopes that White just busts onto the scene in a big way.

        No sarcasm, but I can easily see how that would be funny had I been trying to be sarcastic. What’s up with you ? I haven’t been around as much lately.

      • Big Mike
  • willbest

    JuJu also ended up in a nearly perfect situation for any talented rookie. An Canton bound QB throwing to him, and a WR working on his own HoF resume to reduce the chances of dealing with a double team to around zero.

    • Absolutely. Situation matters a bunch, which is why I wanted to try and find out if there was a general threshold to sort the wheat from the chaff.

      • I’m curious if you have Bellamy’s catch % on hand?

        For some reason I seem to remember him not dropping as many down the stretch, but I wasn’t keeping count .

        • CanadaBear

          I think you’re correct about him not dropping so many down the stretch. Either that or the Bears were so bad in other areas it over shadowed it.

          • Yeah, I’m wondering if my wishful thinking distorted my perception.

            Cuz as we all know, if he could only catch, he’d be more dangerous than Meredith.

            Our cup seems to runneth over at receiver now.

            Kinda odd feeling as a Bear fan

          • CanadaBear

            I know! For some reason my mind is just not willing to accept the premise the WR room is really talented. If MT is the real deal and the injuries drop to a normal level, this could be a really fun year.

          • willbest

            Bellamy will be entering his 7th year in the league if you can believe it. 5th year as a Bear. He has only been seeing any real playing time on offense for the last 3 though. His catch % is 56, 50, 52. So not great, however his yards per catch has improved 11.8, 14.8, 15.7.

          • So Bellamy was only 52% last season overall? Yeah, not good.

            Special teams it is then.

            I just always remember Jennings dropping a bunch of INTs one season, then hitting the JUGS machine hard next off season and getting more INTs that yr. Mightve even made the PB.

            But that’s likely the exception not rule.

            Hands is like power or speed , one of those you either have or not.

            I remember in HS when they were sorting us all out, some hot shot track guy built like adonis could blaze, but couldnt catch for shit.

            Meanwhile, i wasnt going to win any 100 meters, but i could catch.

            So, made me a WR, made him RB and KR.

            Way it goes.

        • Bellamy has caught 52% of his targets in his career (62 of 119). Last year, he was at 52% (24 of 46).

          Drops are hard to quantify, but Player Profiler had him at 4 drops last year, a drop on 8.7% of his targets (https://www.playerprofiler.com/nfl/josh-bellamy/). Unfortunately, they don’t have data on drops prior to 2017.

    • Not to mention arguably the best HB and an ultra aggressive OC. And after Byrant whining, Roth wanted to make a point and fed Ju-Ju like crazy

  • CanadaBear

    Good stuff JW.

    • Thanks!

      • CanadaBear

        I should be thanking you for doing all the work. Glad it’s a labor of love for ya! I try not to have any expectations for the rookies but for some reason Miller really intrigues me. Pretty sure it’s that Steve Smith/Eric Weems attitude. Nothing like having a cornered badger mentality on the field.

  • I actually thought he reminded me more of Ju-Ju in temperament and style than Steve Smith, so hope he reaches that, but this O would have to jump to top 5 for that to happen. I just think there’s too many targets to go around.

    I suspect Burton is actually gonna be the top receiver for Trub like Ertz was for Wentz.

    I would expect a 2016 Aghlor season from Miller. 36 CA, 365 yds, 2TDs

    If Miller is really explosive he’ll hit 2017 Aghlor 62 CAs, 768Yds, 8 TDS, and he’ll be well on his way to stardom as Data noted,
    But a lot of things would have to break right

    • BenderMcLugh

      really see that 2017 Aghlor comparison coming to fruition this season. Cheers to Summer!

      • Esp those TDs.
        Was curious as to who had the most TDs in recent Bears memory

        B Marsh had 11 and 12 TDs in ’12 and ’13
        Alshon’s high was 10 in ’14

        So havent had a double digit TD WR in 4yrs.

        We’re due

        • “Modestly” Huge Bears Penis

          The last 7 Super Bowl winners did not have WR with double digit TDs.

          • Hm. I thought Alshon did, but he actually had 9 TDs (and a catch rate of 47%).

            Ertz had 8. Aghlor had 8.

            Dunno if any of them would’ve cleared 10TDs if Wentz kept the party going, but would be close.

            Is that stat specific to WRs? Could’ve sworn Gronk would clear the 10TD threshold, but he’s been inj a few times.

          • “Modestly” Huge Bears Penis

            Yes specifically WRs. I excluded TE’s because of Gronk, he had 12 TDs 4 years ago.

          • I’m a bit surprised by that stat. Yeah, Alshon was only 1 TD away, but would figure someone else would have like 12 or something.

            Makes sense on a certain level. Great QBs usu don’t lock onto one WR and spread it around. Brees, Brady, Vadgers, etc

            But would figure one WR would be in the mix.

            When I cited the best rook campaigns, Moss had 17TDs, and they went 15-1 and almost went all the way that year.

            Guess it depends.

            Be curious to see how the RB seasons for SB winning teams stack up.

            Could be good teams take the air out of the ball once they’re ahead, too.

          • “Modestly” Huge Bears Penis

            Funny you mention Vadgers. He was the last SB winning QB to have a WR with double digit TDs. Greg Jennings 12 TDs

          • “Modestly” Huge Bears Penis

            Only 3 out of the last 10 SB winning teams had a 1000+ yard rusher.
            Only 2 out of the last 10 had a RB with double digit TDs.

          • hm. So SB winning teams don’t have a truly dominant WR or HB. It’s “committee”.

            That feels counter intuitive.

            Guess that means QB-HC combo is all-important in this era.

  • Sactowns#1

    Robinson, White, Gabriel and Miller has the potential to be a really good, well balanced squad.

    • John F

      Assuming Robinson’s knee is healthy and White’s legs don’t explode in the first season game

      And Trubisky can complete more than 60% of his passes

      • Sactowns#1

        Lets make it through preseason first.

        • John F predicts that on the first PS play, White and Robinson will both run into Trub on a botched reverse reverse, and all their knees will crack like porcelain.

          • John F

            Well, now you have jinxed it …………

  • KentuckyBearsFan

    Realistic expectations? I’ll hold true to my unrealistic expectations of 1500 yards and 40 touchdowns thank you very much.

    • “Modestly” Huge Bears Penis

      That sounds a little low.

      • KentuckyBearsFan

        …only because of being taken out at halftime during blowouts.

        • “Modestly” Huge Bears Penis

          That makes sense.

  • Wow. so I was a bit curious about who had the best WR rook campaigns. (Try to guess off the top of your head)

    At first google gave me this.

    https://bleacherreport.com/articles/741234-10-best-wide-receiver-rookie-seasons-in-nfl-history#slide0

    Bullet Bob Hayes avged 21.8 yds per catch. That’s nuts (like Ditka rookie yr territory). A few names I was not expecting like Collinsworth (yes, that one) and some I never even heard of like Sammy White and Billy Howton

    But then I noticed it was from 2011. Felt dated. So FF gave a more updated version focusing on last decade. Naturally, FF was more in depth.

    https://www.profootballfocus.com/news/fantasy-football-top-20-rookie-fantasy-wrs-of-the-last-decade-nos-1-10

    A bit eye-opening.

    Spoiler alert. Best rookie WR comes down to Moss and Odell (and Maybe Hayes if you consider era, games, etc)

  • Irish Sweetness

    The United States withdrew from the United Nations Human Rights Council on Tuesday accusing it of a “chronic bias against Israel,”

    No need to listen to anyone bang on about human rights anymore. Interesting.

    • willbest

      What does the UN actually do other than waste money supporting the retarded children of genuinely powerful people and raping Africans?

      • AlbertInTucson

        Gee, I wonder where all that wasted money comes from…?

        (Sarcasm).

    • Part of a trend, comrade

      Out of Iran, check.
      Undermining our democratic allies, check
      Pull out of the UN, check…

      • willbest

        Who caused the 10 million Muslim March into Europe? The current guy is a piker compared to the last one when it comes to destabilizing allies.

        At this point, it’s reasonable to assume that ending the European Union has been a US foreign policy objective for some time.

        Here is the perspective from our inside man

        https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=EkpS-yBj7gY

        • willbest

          As an aside, “yes, minister” has to be my favorite show I have never seen an episode of

  • “Modestly” Huge Bears Penis

    Interesting…. Nick Kwiatkoski a top 5 linebacker?

    https://www.profootballfocus.com/news/pro-ilb-spotlight-top-5-in-pff-sig-stats

    • willbest

      Interesting problem to have.

    • PFF also rated Amos as like a top 5 S.

      Making me question my sanity.

      No way Kwiat looked like a top 5 LB.
      Freeman popped off the screen.

      Kwiat is like the opposite. He disappears in the pixels.

      I don’t even think he’s better than Hillenmeyer.

      Pace thought the same by drafting Roquan (unless he sees Kwiat replacing Tre after this yr)

      Kwiat ahead of Kuechly in a couple categories is kinda startling.

      He might be better suited as a SAM in a 4-3. If he could only rush, he’d be a decent OLB in our 3-4.

      • willbest

        I would venture to say their methodology is still a work in progress.

      • Johnnywad

        Hillenmeyer was not the athlete Kwiatkoski is. But he played in line with Lach and Briggs. That made his job REALLY easy. Kwiatkoski would look like a pro bowler with those two cleaning up the yard.

  • Johnnywad

    I can’t wait until Rodgers snaps his pussy lips in half in September and the Fudgers go 4-12.

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