In the distant corners of your sports memory, does the name Danny Almonte ring a bell? He was the kid who struck out 16 en route to a perfect game in the 2001 Little League World Series. The trouble with Danny, however, was that his father forged his birth certificate to sneak him under the tournament’s age limit. Instead of being a 12-year-old phenom, he was a 14-year-old padding his stats against younger kids. Of course he was dominant! I share this story as a reminder that age does matter. It’s the reason there are birthday cutoffs for junior sports, but, for some reason, we seem to forget that fact when it comes to NFL prospects.
Consider that most people graduate from high school and enter college sometime around their 18th birthday. When accounting for a possible redshirt year, this means that the vast majority of college football players are between 18 and 23 years old, with the average starter being somewhere around 21 or 22. Based on this information, what type of player would you choose, a 23-year-old who dominated or a 19-year-old who dominated? The answer is clear -- the 19-year-old -- but there hasn’t been a good way to incorporate that directly into the stats, which is why I created the Phenom Index.
The Phenom Index is my way of adjusting production based on how old a prospect is when they produce it. It works for several fantasy football relevant positions, but for this article, we’ll be focusing on wide receivers. To calculate the index, we need two variables from a player’s final college season: age and production. For age, it’s just how old they are on December 31 of their final year. For production, we use Dominator Rating (DR), which was coined by Shawn Siegele. If you’re not familiar, DR summarizes the percentage of a passing offense for which a player is responsible. So, if a receiver caught 1,000 yards of a possible 2,000 his DR would be 50%. I use this instead of raw stats because it doesn’t care if a player comes from an option offense or a 5-wide scheme; it just looks at how dominant they were relative to their opportunities. The numbers look something like this:
Final Season Dominator Rating
35%- above average
15%- below average
Final Season Age for Draft Eligibles
All we’re doing now is comparing their production to their age. Since these numbers are on different scales, I standardize them before I divide them, but the Phenom Index is basically just:
If a player had exactly average production and was the exact average age their score would be 1, which always represents average production for any age. To have a high Phenom Index score means a player had high production and a lower age; a bad score would mean low production and higher age. Let’s look at a real life example from the 2010 NFL Draft.
It’s almost comical to think about now, but Jordan Shipley went three picks ahead of Eric Decker in the 2010 Draft. Shipley did have above-average production, but he was such an old prospect that his score was 6% below his age-expectation (.94 minus 1). We could speculate that Decker slid because of his pre-draft foot injury, but based on this metric, he was a far superior prospect and has delivered superior results. So, how much can the Phenom Index tell us about a player?
In a test of more than 300 receivers from 2006-2011, the Phenom Index alone explained 23% of variance in fantasy output over a player’s first three NFL seasons. When combined with draft position it explained 46% of variance. Without ever watching a minute of film, looking at a player’s 40 time or knowing how tall they are, the Phenom Index helps us predict 46% of a player’s fantasy football success. For perspective, predicting 100% would mean that you and Michael J. Fox just got back from the future and know how everything will unfold.
To see how this translates into today’s NFL, I’ve included the following tables, which show the best and worst scores for players drafted in the top 100 picks (2006-2013). I chose this cutoff because these guys were taken with valuable picks and expected to receive playing time. The first list is the younger guys who played far above their age-expectation and, to be clear, this is the complete list—no cherry picking.
For Josh Gordon, his final season at Baylor yielded average production, but because he was three years younger than average (19.7 compared to 22.5) his score is through the roof! Then consider his great physical attributes and strong rookie year performance and it’s no wonder he exploded in 2013. Interpreting the numbers, he was more than 3 times better than his age expectation (4.48 minus 1), indicative of a high-caliber prospect. Another 2013 breakout, Keenan Allen, was nearly 2 times better than his age expectation. Like Eric Decker, Allen fell to the third round because of injury concerns, but the precocious talent was obviously there. Overall, 30% of this top cohort have posted WR1 seasons and more than half have posted a top-25 fantasy season. I think at least three more (Hopkins, Hill, Randle) will do so before their careers are over. Scoff at Dwayne Jarrett if you must, but alcohol-related issues derailed his career and there’s no way to know about personal issues without access to these players.
Now for the bottom of the barrel, which consists of older college players with lesser performance, all of whom performed below their age-expectation before entering the NFL.
The only top 30 performer is Donnie Avery and it took him five years to achieve that. Harry Douglas came close in 2013, but that was his sixth pro season and largely reliant on others getting injured. The rest of this bunch is pretty underwhelming with the exception of 2013 draftees Williams, Patterson and Dobson. Personally, I don’t think any of them will become elite options at the position. Cordarrelle Patterson, who derived more than 30% of his fantasy value from rushing stats, might be the most fantasy useful, but I won’t own him on any teams. Oh, and if you know anyone in the Bills’, Lions’ or Rams’ scouting departments, please point them in my direction.
What does this mean for the 2014 NFL Draft?
Let’s take a look at the 13 receivers who appear in Josh Norris’ Top 100 and how they rank on the Phenom Index.
You might be surprised to see Penn State receiver Allen Robinson so high on this list. He’s not a trendy name, but his score is one of the best I have on record. Combine that with his physical attributes and I don’t think a Dez Bryant comparison is far off. Cooks, Evans and Watkins all seem likely to go in the first round and their strong showing here reinforces that.
On the flip side of the equation, I’m pretty confused by how much love Marqise Lee and Kelvin Benjamin are getting. Lee is smaller, older and less productive than people realize, which leaves me feeling indifferent about him. For Benjamin, his raw numbers look good, but he accounted for less than 30% of Florida State’s passing offense last year, which actually puts him below his age expectation. For context, Kelvin Benjamin is two months older than Josh Gordon. Imagine what Gordon would have done in the ‘Noles offense in 2013 and then reevaluate how “dominant” Benjamin’s performance actually was. This isn’t to say that Lee or Benjamin will have no value in the NFL, but I think it’s a reminder to tread carefully.