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The main skill NY Jets should covet in potential R1 WR targets

Rome Odunze
Rome Odunze, Getty Images

This skill tends to be a good predictor of future success for highly-regarded WR prospects

Earlier this week, I wrote about one of the best particular skills to look for when trying to project how an offensive tackle prospect will fare in the NFL. I set out to find a similar signal for wide receiver prospects.

Currently holding the 10th overall pick in a draft that is notoriously loaded with WR talent, the New York Jets are considered a strong candidate to select a WR in the first round. They remain in the mix for an OT or even Georgia tight end Brock Bowers, but the WR hype is picking up steam. There has even been talk of the Jets exploring a trade-up for one of the draft’s consensus top-three WR prospects.

Since the Jets may end up selecting a WR in the first round, I wanted to focus my attention on first-round WR prospects from recent drafts. Which aspects of their college profiles turned out to be the strongest predictors of their NFL success?

I analyzed the 21 WRs who were drafted in the first round from 2018-2022. I charted their performance in various metrics during their final college seasons and calculated the correlation between each metric and their NFL career average in yards per route run.

Here’s what I found.

What’s been the most correlative metric for R1 WRs in recent history?

I chose 12 different metrics from each player’s final college season and found the correlation coefficient between each metric and the player’s NFL career average in yards per route run.

For perspective, a perfect correlation is either -1.0 or 1.0, while zero correlation is 0.0. The closer the number is to -1.0 or 1.0, the stronger the correlation. A positive number means the players’ yards per route run tended to increase as the metric increased, while a negative number means the players’ yards per route run tended to increase as the metric decreased (i.e. something like drop rate where a lower number is better).

This is how the metrics stacked up:

  1. Contested catch rate (0.458)
  2. Targeted QB rating (0.454)
  3. Touchdown rate (0.405)
  4. Yards per route run (0.337)
  5. YAC per reception (0.273)
  6. Overall PFF grade (0.271)
  7. Drop rate (-0.246)
  8. Slot alignment rate (0.220)
  9. Contested target rate (-0.211)
  10. Percentage of yards gained from YAC (0.191)
  11. Missed tackles forced per reception (0.107)
  12. Average depth of target (-0.050)

Two metrics separated themselves from the pack: contested catch rate (0.458) and targeted quarterback rating (0.454). Since targeted quarterback rating is an overall metric that doesn’t evaluate one particular skill, contested catch rate is the specific skill that stands out as the best predictor of future success for first-round WR prospects from 2018-2022.

This correlation occurred mainly because the absolute best first-round WRs from this sample strongly tended to fare well in contested catch rate, whereas the worst performers strongly tended to disappoint in contested catch rate. The middle of the pack was a mixed bag, but generally speaking, having a good contested catch rate nearly ensured you wouldn’t be a bust, while having a subpar contested catch rate nearly eliminated you from being one of the best first-round picks.

Among the 21 WRs analyzed, four of the top five in career yards per route run had a contested catch rate of 50% or better in their final college season:

  • Justin Jefferson: 1st/21 in NFL Y/RR (2.67), 92.3% contested catch rate in final college season
  • CeeDee Lamb: 2nd (2.29), 38.5%
  • Jaylen Waddle: 3rd (2.27), 100%
  • Chris Olave: 4th (2.23), 62.5%
  • Ja’Marr Chase: 5th (2.19) 50%

Conversely, among the bottom eight players in career yards per route run, seven of them had a contested catch rate below 50% in their final college season:

  • Henry Ruggs: 14th (1.64), 47.1%
  • Marquise Brown: 15th (1.55), 33.3%
  • Jameson Williams: 16th (1.42), 33.3%
  • Rashod Bateman: 17th (1.35), 40%
  • Treylon Burks: 18th (1.28), 43.8%
  • N’Keal Harry: 19th (1.07), 51.4%
  • Jahan Dotson: 20th (1.03), 41.7%
  • Jalen Reagor: 21st (0.94), 42.1%

That brings us to the 2024 WR class. How did each of the top prospects fare in contested catch rate during the 2023 season?

Here’s the answer for each WR prospect who is currently ranked top-40 on the NFL Mock Draft Database consensus big board:

  • Marvin Harrison Jr., Ohio State: 43.3% (13/30)
  • Malik Nabers, LSU: 45.5% (10/22)
  • Rome Odunze, Washington: 75.0% (21/28)
  • Brian Thomas Jr., LSU: 53.8% (7/13)
  • Adonai Mitchell, Texas: 36.4% (4/11)
  • Xavier Worthy, Texas: 23.8% (5/21)
  • Ladd McConkey, Georgia: 40.0% (2/5)
  • Keon Coleman, Florida State: 33.3% (10/30)
  • Troy Franklin, Oregon: 36.8% (7/19)

Looks like great news for Rome Odunze and Brian Thomas Jr. – specifically Odunze, who was utterly dominant in contested situations. Meanwhile, potential top-five picks Marvin Harrison Jr. and Malik Nabers weren’t quite as reliable in contested situations as many would believe.

Of course, this is not to suggest that Harrison or Nabers are guaranteed busts or that Odunze and Thomas are guaranteed All-Pros. There are no metrics, combine drills, or traits that can guarantee a player’s NFL future. Evaluating draft prospects is never that easy.

All you can do is look for indicators that give you a slightly better chance of nailing a pick, and contested catch rate seems to fit the bill, so it’s a category worth keeping in mind. Many other metrics have proven to reveal nothing at all about a player’s odds of succeeding. If you’re going to place stock into something when evaluating a prospect, place stock into a piece of information that has proven itself to have at least some correlation with NFL success.

Still, the metric shouldn’t be used to cancel out other key strengths and weaknesses in a prospect’s profile. CeeDee Lamb was not a great contested catcher in college and he turned out just fine because he was elite at pretty much everything else. Harrison and Nabers should be able to do the same. On the other hand, N’Keal Harry was a good contested catcher but couldn’t do much of anything else, and that sank his NFL career. While it is a valuable skill, it is not enough to carry a player on its own.

This, like anything in draft scouting, should not be taken as gospel. It is merely an indicator to help us get a slightly better idea of a player’s NFL outlook. Overall, recent first-round WRs with good contested catch rates have tended to perform better in the NFL than those with subpar contested catch rates.

Among the 21 first-round WRs from 2018-2022, here is the difference in career production between those with a contested catch rate of at least 50% in their final college season versus those with a rate below 50%:

  • 8 players at 50% or better: Average career Y/RR of 1.99, average career YPG of 63.5, 5/8 players averaging 60+ career YPG (62.5%)
  • 13 players below 50%: Average career Y/RR of 1.62, average career YPG of 46.0, 5/13 players averaging 60+ career YPG (38.5%)

That’s a difference of 17.5 yards per game along with a 24% difference in a player’s odds of reaching 60 yards per game for their career (pace for 1,020 yards over 17 games). It might not seem like much, but look at it this way: among the 50%+ group, 6 of every 10 WRs have been 1,000-yard receivers in the NFL, while for the sub-50% group, only 4 of every 10 WRs have gone on to become 1,000-yard receivers.

Does this mean every 50%+ prospect in 2024 will be great and every sub-50% prospect will be bad? Absolutely not. But does it mean there will be one or two more successful picks among the first-round WRs with 50%+ rates than those with sub-50% rates? It seems likely if recent history is any indication.

As it pertains to the Jets’ specific situation, this could be excellent news. Odunze seems to be the most attainable WR prospect for New York among the consensus “big three” which also includes Harrison and Nabers.

While it is almost universally agreed that Harrison will not slip past No. 5 and Nabers will not go any lower than No. 6, there are many mocks that have Odunze dropping to No. 9, and even a select few that have him tumbling into the Jets’ laps at No. 10. There could be a remote chance that he is available to them without moving, and even if he does not make it that far, the Jets might be able to grab him by only trading up two or three spots. Conversely, getting Harrison or Nabers would likely require a massive trade package to reach the top five.

What’s exciting about Odunze is that he soared far beyond the 50% bar, which puts him in particularly fantastic company. With a 75% contested catch rate in his final college season, it would be a shock if Odunze does not become a great player based on the success of other elite contested-catch prospects.

From 2018-2022, only five WRs were drafted in the first round after catching at least 60% of contested targets in their final college season: Garrett Wilson (61.5%), Chris Olave (62.5%), Drake London (65.4%), Justin Jefferson (92.3%), and Jaylen Waddle (100%).

Four of the five players have exceeded 1,000 yards in every season they’ve been in the NFL. The exception is London, who is much better than many realize. His career average of 1.96 yards per route run is better than Wilson’s (1.69). He’s just been held back by a low-volume, low-efficiency Falcons passing game, but London is a stud in actuality, making this a five-for-five group of big-time weapons.

When anyone talks about Odunze, his contested catch ability is the first thing that comes up. Everyone knows how dominant he is in that department, but now that we know how important that skill is for predicting the success of first-round WRs in the modern NFL, it makes him all the more appealing.

Perhaps making a small trade-up for Odunze is the Jets’ wisest bet to maximize their chances of landing a star player in the first round.

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