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Running The Numbers: Breaking Down Williams’ Stats
Earlier this week, I published a stat breakdown of Cowboys’ early-round picks Travis Frederick and Gavin Escobar. In it, I mentioned that draft analytics have come a long way in recent years, with the ultimate goal being to determine which numbers can predict NFL success for different players.
One thing I want to clear up, however, is the idea that stats and numbers are all that matters. Although I think the 40-yard dash is the most predictive stat for running backs, you can’t look solely at a running back’s 40 time and immediately say he’s going to be a success or a failure. It’s just one piece of the puzzle.
Further, a stats-based interpretation of draft talent isn’t meant to take the place of scouts. Rather, it should be a complement to the work they already do. When I say that a 5-9, 216-pound running back with 4.55 speed is a better bet than a 6-0, 204-pound back with 4.63 speed, that declaration is made with the scouts’ views in mind. We can’t just find an athletic guy on the street who is big and runs fasts and say he can play football; the reason that the metrics are predictive is because the prospects are basically pre-screened by scouts.
Thus, I think the best way for draft assessments to move forward is for scouts to uncover and grade prospects into tiers, then have the stats guys sort those tiers based on predictive measures. If two backs are given mid-round grades by the scouting department, it’s probably best to go with the one whose “comparables” – those players with similar past production and measurable – have been the most successful in the NFL. We shouldn’t rate a “workout warrior” with a mid-round grade ahead of a stud who was graded with first-round talent, but when “the eye test” can’t immediately differentiate two prospects, you’re probably better off using “the numbers test.”
With that said, let’s take a look at the first of the Cowboys’ two third-round selections, wide receiver Terrance Williams.
The first thing that jumps out about Williams is his staggering 2012 production for Baylor: 97 receptions, 1,832 yards, and 12 touchdowns. College production is perhaps the most overlooked aspect of grading prospects; the best predictor of future performance is past success. Williams obviously had that in his senior season. We shouldn’t dismiss the fact that he dominated Big 12 competition.
Prior to 2012, though, Williams never surpassed 60 receptions or 1,000 yards in a single season. Why? Part of it is probably due to Baylor’s offense, but another potential explanation is that Williams, who was redshirted all the way back in 2008, played the 2012 season at age 23. There’s quite a difference between a 23-year-old and a 20-year-old in terms of maturity and experience.
Williams will begin his rookie season at age 24; compare that to Browns second-year receiver Josh Gordon, who caught 50 passes for 805 yards and five touchdowns last year in his rookie campaign at age 21. By the time Gordon is 24 years old, he’ll be in his fourth season in the NFL. That’s invaluable to Cleveland. Whereas Williams’ age 24 season will basically be a learning experience, Gordon could very well already be playing at near peak efficiency. Williams’ age isn’t debilitating to his career outlook by any means, but it should still be a factor in our assessment.
Think of it this way: If Williams had come out of school after the 2011 season, one in which he caught 59 passes for 957 yards, where would he have been drafted? Probably not in the third round. The question is whether or not Williams maxed out on his potential in college because he was more experienced than the competition, playing at an age a few years older than many NFL rookies. It’s tough to tell, but there are other things to like about Williams.
There’s a pretty strong correlation between wide receiver draft spot and 40 times, i.e. the fastest wide receivers tend to get drafted the earliest. However, size (in terms of both height and weight) is actually more predictive of NFL success for wide receivers. One of the things that the Cowboys have done so well is equip themselves with big, physical wideouts; had they not emphasized finding upside through measurables in the past, they wouldn’t have Miles Austin on their roster. In Williams, Dallas got yet another big target for Tony Romo, giving them one of the elite wide receiver corps in the NFL.
It’s not as if speed doesn’t matter for receivers, however, and Williams’ 4.48 40 time makes him one of the elite size/speed combinations in this draft. That’s important; if the ’Boys were at all hesitant about drafting Williams because of his age, his undeniable skill set should have eased some concerns.
Another big positive for Williams is that he’s demonstrated an above-average ability to find his way into the end zone. He converted 13.4 percent of his college receptions into touchdowns, and he (along with fellow rookie Gavin Escobar) could become immediate contributors in the red zone. It seems like the Cowboys made an obvious effort to upgrade their red zone offense in this draft, and I think it will pay off.
When you add it all together, the ’Boys made a good choice in selecting Williams. From a physical standpoint alone, you’re looking at a relatively rare player. When you add in his 2012 production, enhanced by his age or not, you have a prospect who shouldn’t have fallen into the third round.