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Teams should worry about Julio Jones
Playmaker Score 2.0 projects Jones as only the 13th-best WR in the 2011 class
By Vince Verhei
Julio JonesAP Photo/Michael ConroyJulio Jones' combine performance was impressive, but he doesn't project well as an NFL receiver.
Alabama's Julio Jones stole the show at the NFL scouting combine. At 6-foot-3 and a rock-solid 220 pounds, he ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash, posted a 38½-inch vertical leap, and shined in receiving drills. His performance had some observers predicting he'd be the first wide receiver off the board in April's draft.
Before any team selects Jones, though, they need to take a close look at what he did on the field. In three seasons at Alabama, Jones didn't dominate the way a first-rounder should.
Predicting NFL success based on NCAA statistics is a tricky proposition. Many players perform in radically different environments from their peers, with extreme variances in surrounding talent, offensive scheme, quality of opposition and weather conditions. For several reasons, it's a lot easier to catch 50 passes at Texas Tech than it is at Georgia Tech. When we account for these factors, though, we find definite trends in collegiate numbers that forecast professional fortune.
Two years ago, in Football Outsiders Almanac 2009, we introduced a metric called the Playmaker Score that tried to find those trends. It was moderately successful in that it pointed out players to avoid, but it wasn't particularly accurate in seeking out stars. This year we've gone back to the drawing board and rebuilt Playmaker from the ground up, accounting not just for players' statistics but also the situations in which they played.
The exact formula behind Playmaker is too complicated to get into here, but it is based on six factors:
• Receiving yards per game
• Receiving touchdowns
• Average yards per catch
• The team's yards per pass
• The team's passes per game
• The conference the receiver played in
The last step is perhaps the most critical, as it accounts not only for the quality of defenses the receiver played against, but also the weather they typically played in. ACC and Big Ten wideouts get a boost because receivers in those conferences have generally fared well, while those from the Pac-10 and Big East have usually flopped.
The final Playmaker Score has a real, tangible value. A score of 500, for example, means that player is expected to average 500 yards a season in the NFL. That's about the minimum standard for Playmaker Scores, too. Those with scores of 500 or higher are usually successful, while those below that level usually are busts.
Unlike the original version of Playmaker, the new formula is accurate up and down the scale. If we take wideouts from FBS schools drafted in the five-year window from 2004 to 2008 and sort them by Playmaker score, we see that the collegiate stars tend to rise to the top of the professional ranks:
Playmaker WRs drafted Avg. Yds per season, NFL
600+ 5 745
500-599 8 634
400-499 9 368
300-399 7 162
200-299 30 247
100-199 37 161
<100 36 82
For 2011, Playmaker (like most scouts) says that Georgia's A.J. Green (Playmaker Score: 592) is the safest wide receiver pick in the draft. It must be noted, though, that this is a weak crop of receiver prospects -- most years, Green would rank second or third. The only other prospect in the 500 range is Miami's Leonard Hankerson (509).
Dropping a little lower, we find three prospects in the 400s, including Auburn's Darvin Adams (435), who we'll get to shortly. Aldrick Robinson (463) averaged better than 18 yards a catch and nearly 80 yards a game for Southern Methodist, with 30 career touchdowns. Hawaii's Gregory Salas (411) averaged 101 yards per game in college -- no other receiving prospect even topped 90. UTEP's Kristopher Adams (398) sits just below them, thanks to 30 career touchdowns and more than 18 yards per catch. (NFL GMs shouldn't be scared by smaller schools -- some of the best receivers in the NFL are from non-BCS teams, including Western Michigan's Greg Jennings, Alabama-Birmingham's Roddy White, and Central Florida's Brandon Marshall.)
And Jones? With a score of 312, he's only the 13th-highest prospect in the Playmaker rankings. When we compare his numbers to Adams', he's not even the best prospect from the state of Alabama. Both receivers played in the SEC, for teams that threw about 25 passes per game and averaged about eight yards per pass. But Adams had better numbers than Jones in yards per game (73 to 66), yards per catch (17.2 to 14.8) and scored more touchdowns than Jones (17 to 15) in significantly fewer games (27 to 40). It's hard to argue that Jones was the better collegiate player.
It's the low touchdown total that really kills Jones -- of all the individual elements of Playmaker, touchdowns are by far the most accurate predictor of NFL success. The Crimson Tide preferred to run for scores, amassing 93 rushing touchdowns in the last three years. However, they still scored 52 touchdowns in the air and they rarely threw Jones' way in the red zone.
No projection system is perfect. Playmaker said that Darius Watts and James Hardy should have been Pro Bowlers, but it didn't see much promise in DeSean Jackson or Marshall. Jones' low Playmaker score doesn't prove that he can't be an NFL success, but it does mean teams should watch tape very carefully to find out why it was so low before they select him high in the draft.
Vince Verhei is a contributor to the CFB and NFL sections of Rumor Central. He also writes the Any Given Sunday column covering the biggest upset each week of the NFL season, also available on ESPN Insider. He has been a writer and editor for Football Outsiders since 2007. Follow him on Twitter at @FO_VVerhei.