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?