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Can PFF receiving grades at the college level predict NFL success?

Initial results were somewhat surprising, as PFF receiving grades earned per route run for all players correlate from college to pro at a rate of about 0.25, which is roughly half of the year-to-year correlation in PFF receiving grades for players already in the NFL, suggesting that the learning curve in terms of catching the ball at the NFL level is far more steep than that for things like run-defense or pass-rushing.
For receivers, these players clustered into outside receivers, slot receivers, tight ends and running backs.
As with coverage, among players who played in the same position in college and as pro, most of the pertinent metrics became more predictive, specifically PFF receiving grade per route run (0.29), yards per route run (0.09), catch rate (0.57), yards per reception (0.49).
The year-to-year correlation in PFF grade earned per route run is still substantially less than it is year-to-year for pro players, though, suggesting again that, even among players playing familiar roles, the learning curve is steep for receivers.
About Running Backs… As we discussed Tuesday on the PFF Forecast, pass-receiving prowess for running backs (at least as measured by PFF grades and per-route metrics) is more predictive than it is for other positions.
Thus, so far we know more about how running backs will do in the passing game at the NFL level from how did they did in college than we do for wide receivers and tight ends.
Looking at this by position (see table below) we see that stability is highest for slot receivers (0.37) followed by tight ends (0.32).
Avg Broad Correlation 1 27 (23) 4.49 73.8” 35.8” 125” 0.28 (0.49) 2 14 (9) 4.51 71.4” 36.1” 120” 0.61 (0.65) As one might expect, the more impressive athletic cluster earned a substantially higher mean grade in the NFL and those receivers who stayed in the WR cluster showed good stability from college to pro.
Agholor is an example of a player who found his NFL success when he transitioned into the slot role that he played in college which is not surprising considering the drastic uptick in correlation when looking only at Cluster 1 slot receivers that fall into the same position cluster in the pros.
Avg Broad Correlation 1 6 (6) 4.63 76.1” 33.3” 120” 1.0 2 13 (13) 4.83 76.8” 31.8” 116” 0.70 Conclusions/Prospect Discussion Tre’Quan Smith out of UCF fits the Cluster 1 wide receiver bill with his 4.49 40-yard dash, 130-inch broad jump, and 37.5-inch vertical.

Dec 2, 2017; Orlando, FL, USA; UCF Knights wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith (4) celebrates after a touchdown against the Memphis Tigers at Spectrum Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Stamey-USA TODAY Sports

As we wrote about a week ago, passing the ball and stopping the pass are the most important aspects of football. While the quarterback is generally the straw that stirs the drink for teams offensively, players on the other end of their passes need to possess the requisite talent to make the most of their signal-caller’s talent.

With draft weekend upon us, we continue our series of deep dives into what Pro Football Focus grades and data at the college level mean as they translates to the NFL. We have three years of PFF college grades and data for players that have subsequently played in the NFL, which amounts to 164 total players with at least 75 routes run in each setting.

Initial results were somewhat surprising, as PFF receiving grades earned per route run for all players correlate from college to pro at a rate of about 0.25, which is roughly half of the year-to-year correlation in PFF receiving grades for players already in the NFL, suggesting that the learning curve in terms of catching the ball at the NFL level is far more steep than that for things like run-defense or pass-rushing. Yards per route run, one of our signature stats for pass-catchers, is even less predictable (0.07), while catch rate (0.50), yards per reception (0.43) and yards after the catch per reception (0.49) translate more easily to the NFL level.

Positional Influence

As with pass coverage players, combining all receivers into one group has the advantage of increasing the sample size, but lumps together the play of individuals who are asked to do drastically different things. We clustered players into position groups using our participation data. For receivers, these players clustered into outside receivers, slot receivers, tight ends and running backs. 130 of the 164 original players in our sample fell into the same position cluster in the pros as they did in college.

As with coverage, among players who played in the same position in college and as pro, most of the pertinent metrics became more predictive, specifically PFF receiving grade per route run (0.29), yards per route run (0.09), catch rate (0.57), yards per reception (0.49). The year-to-year correlation in PFF grade earned per route run is still substantially less than it is year-to-year for pro players, though, suggesting again that, even among players playing familiar roles, the learning curve is steep for receivers.

Interestingly, yards after the catch per reception stayed as predictive as when using the larger sample, suggesting that that is a trait that transcends positions (except running backs, where yards per catch and yards after the catch per catch are oddly uncorrelated from college to pro at 0.01 and -0.03, respectively).

About Running Backs…

As we discussed Tuesday on the PFF Forecast, pass-receiving prowess for running backs (at least as measured by PFF grades and per-route metrics) is more predictive than it is for other positions. PFF grade per route run correlates at a rate of 0.48 from college to pro, and yards per route run correlate at a rate of 0.28, which are far higher than for the group as…

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