Breshad Perriman is a wide receiver from the University of Central Florida. He happens to be a very fast wide receiver. His current draft projection is no longer within range for the Seahawks, but I still find the case study fascinating.
Before I begin: I'll refer to pSPARQ, simScore, and other things that may be unfamiliar. Please refer to the FAQ posted at my blog if you have any questions. I've also posted extensively on the subject of SPARQ here at FieldGulls. If you're interested, all SPARQ rankings for the 2015 class can be found here.
The NFL Network broadcasts the NFL Combine every February, and the 40-yard-dash pretty much dominates the proceedings. It's the best drill for television, the easiest to directly apply to a football field, and has benchmarks familiar to the common viewer. A 4.4 is good and a 5.0 isn't good. Even casual viewers are at least vaguely aware of the general range of a 40.
Breshad Perriman didn't compete in Indianapolis due to a hamstring injury, but there were whispers that he'd blow people away at the UCF pro day. And, true to form, the assemblage of NFL personnel in attendance was sent into rapturous excitement when Perriman recorded a 4.26 in the 40. ESPN's Mel Kiper mocked Perriman to the pre-Graham-trade Seahawks at pick 31 on March 6th, a few weeks before the NFL descended upon Orlando. #31 was probably a little higher than the consensus, but he was generally ranked somewhere between the late 1st and late 2nd rounds.
Here's what happened shortly after Perriman ran a 4.26
Yes, that's Breshad Perriman at #9. Without even getting into Vic Beasley being somehow ranked behind both Dante Fowler (!) and Shane Ray (!!!), Breshad Perriman is ranked 9th (!!!!!). Whew.
It may seem off-brand for me to write a skeptical analysis of Perriman's athleticism, but the idea behind the SPARQ study isn't to blindly stump for faster athletes. The goal is to contextualize and understand what the results mean. While I'd certainly prefer to have a team built around plus-athletes, I don't espouse just picking the receiver with the best 40.
Kiper can be a bit of a strawman here as he's probably the only national analyst stamping a top-ten prediction on Perriman; however, Breshad's meteoric rise up the mock drafts is not confined to the well-coiffed at ESPN. Most analysts now place Mr. 4.26 in the first round, which begs the question: have we seen Breshad Perriman before, and, if so, what can we learn?
Let's first just look at the receivers who ran well enough to qualify as all-caps FAST. The following table lists the 10 best WR 40 times since 1999.
Sure, it's not a great list, but Perriman's bigger than most of those guys, so it's not really a fair comp. Let's look at all 6'2"+ receivers who ran below a 4.35, right around the benchmark for "elite" speed.
Well, it's nice to see Julio Jones, but no one else on that list is deserving of a first-round selection. Donte Moncrief still falls into the TBD category, so that may be another hit. Moncrief is actually a pretty interesting comp as he was drafted in the 3rd round last year and tested at a similar level to Perriman. Sure, the 40's a few ticks slower, but the overall athletic profile is right in line.
(Note that Perriman did not participate in the shuttle or 3-cone drills. This means that his ridiculous 40 is probably skewing the estimated values for the agility drills, and his SPARQ likely isn't quite at a 1.6 z-score.)
While the previous list is suitably terrifying, it's not quite playing fair to put late-round guys in with Perriman, who was regarded as a Day 2 prospect even before his athletic testing. Below is a list of his significant simScore comps. I'll even be nice and only include those drafted in the first 3 rounds, leaving out Ricardo Lockette & Friends. Note that simScore is structured such that larger numbers in the far-right column represent a closer match to the athlete in question (i.e., Breshad).
Javon Walker and Torrey Smith are nice players, but probably aren't receivers you'd ever take ninth overall. The rest of the list? Ehhhhhh.
The idea of player comparisons isn't to gain a definitive look at the value of a given prospect. The overall athletic profile doesn't at all measure the individual's football skill, so athletic comps should be approached with the right perspective. They allow for a broad measurement of the overall impact and draft value of a certain set of athletic traits; this information can then be used to form a historical precedent for the current prospect. Put simply, player comparisons should make us ask questions, to see what differentiates the current prospect from similarly-athletic successes or failures from the past.
Considering that, It's a bit discomfiting to see Darrius Heyward-Bey at the top of Perriman's comp list. Famously selected 7th largely on the basis of his 40 time, DHB is the worst-case scenario. It isn't just the athletic profile, either; PFF reports that Perriman had a 14% drop rate last season. That's an alarmingly high number and reminiscent of DHB at Maryland.
I don't know that Perriman won't be a good player, but I don't see a strong enough precedent in the data to support him going in the first round on the basis of his athletic potential. This is a player profile the NFL tends to miss on, as in the case of Heyward-Bey, Troy Williamson, and Stephen Hill. Athleticism has a definite correlation to success at receiver, but it's usually the ones who have ball skills who are able to utilize that athletic ability. Is it possible to have the requisite ball skills/hands to be a star after a 14% college drop rate? Probably, but that's not something I'd bet on in the first round.
You can also find me at 3sigmaathlete.com and on twitter at @zjwhitman.