Every offseason, we hear about teams searching for, or somehow needing, the "stud" wide receiver, a "go up and get it" guy who is tall, strong, and nearly impossible to defend. The question, however, is this: does having a stud wide receiver on one's team help the team at all?
Here are the two primary arguments/theories as to why a team would benefit from having this type of wide receiver:
1. The stud WR will be able to catch most passes sent his way.
If a team is struggling, the thinking goes, what better spark for an offense than to heave a deep pass versus double-coverage ... and have the WR catch it? We saw this happen in Atlanta when Julio Jones caught a pass over two Carolina Panthers and score a go-ahead touchdown, a score which would ultimately stay in Atlanta's favor. This is the metier of the stud WR: big catches at big times.
2. The presence of the stud WR forces opposing defenses to game plan for them.
In other words, if the stud WR is on the field, opposing defenses have to execute their game plan with precision, and a part of that game plan may often include double coverage, which theoretically, should open other opportunities for all of the other potential receivers on the offense.
But, here's my argument:
1. The stud WR has little impact on a team's overall success.
Yes, it is a team sport. But the amount of capital spent (we'll get to that in a moment) on a stud WR doesn't seem to translate into playoff wins, or, really, winning records. As we will see, our selection of stud WRs often start their careers on teams who are doing well, or who feel they need just that "extra boost" to get into the playoffs. For those teams that are struggling, the presence of a stud WR should be a centerpiece around which a team could build. I don't think either of these play out team wide, because ...
2. Teams have bought into, literally, the stud WR, and have lost money to devote elsewhere.
The stud WR commands ridiculous amounts of money. Calvin Johnson's most recent 7-year contract contained over $53 million guaranteed, according to Sportrac. Dez Bryant's contract has $45 million guaranteed (unless he gets cut, which probably won't happen). A.J. Green's contract comes down to over $32 million guaranteed, although the Bengals did benefit from the first few years of his capped rookie contract. The always-thrifty Packers (except for when spending money on Aaron Rodgers) guaranteed over 11 million to Jordy Nelson.
These guys, no doubt, all perform statistically well, but that's a lot of coin. Contracts such as these can absolutely destroy a salary cap at worst (remember Larry Fitzgerald's contract re-negotiations), and, at best, prevent teams from participating in free agency or keeping free agents in other positions.
3. The presence of a stud WR could actually be a detriment to offensive planning.
Note I said "offensive planning," not "the offense." Having one WR as the centerpiece of an offense can severely hinder overall game planning, especially if the opposing defense can execute well enough to shut down that individual. The result of Calvin Johnson's injury pushed Golden Tate into a more starring role, and his stats increased. When Johnson returned, Tate's decreased. That's not to say that Tate is a better or worse receiver than Johnson, but rather that, when one WR gets a lot of money or attention, then it is possible that the team's coaches may feel the pressure or perceived need to give the stud WR the damned ball.
In order to understand what impact a stud WR has on the team itself, I first chose ten stud WRs from the past ten years to come to mind. In no particular order, they are:
I chose these ten guys as representatives of the prototypical stud WR. I also put Moss and Owens in there specifically to try to skew the results in favor of the stud WR. You may notice a few people such as Plaxico Burruss missing from the list. Some of these guys I didn't put on the list because they may have had numerous seasons marred by injury or semi-retirements.
The Tale of the Tape
Let's confirm these guys are sizable.
Brandon Marshall 6.4, 230
Larry Fitzgerald 6.3, 218
Andre Johnson 6.3, 229
AJ Green 6.4, 207
Dez Bryant 6.2, 225
Terrell Owens 6.3, 225
Randy Moss 6.4, 210
Calvin Johnson 6.5, 239
Julio Jones 6.3, 220
Jordy Nelson 6.3, 217
Of these ten stud WRs, we end up with an average of around 6.3 and 222 pounds.
Teams not only invest significant financial capital in these WRs (or they soon will), they also invest significant draft capital as well. In order to snag Julio Jones, for example, the Falcons gave up a fool's ransom in draft picks to the Browns. Here's the number each of these guys were drafted at.
Brandon Marshall 119
Larry Fitzgerald 3
Andre Johnson 3
AJ Green 4
Dez Bryant 24
Terrell Owens 89
Randy Moss 21
Calvin Johnson 2
Julio Jones 6
Jordy Nelson 36
Of our group of ten, the average overall draft position is around 20th.
Team Records in Year Prior to Drafting
Thanks to debauchedandroid for pointing this out. The thought is that the stud WRs are often drafted high because the team stinks, and because they stink, one person won't provide the turnaround, no matter how studly they are. But if we take a look at the records of the teams when they drafted these ten receivers, we end up in interesting territory.
Brandon Marshall Broncos 13-3
Larry Fitzgerald Cardinals 5-11
Andre Johnson Texans 4-12
AJ Green Bengals 4-12
Dez Bryant Cowboys 11-5
Terrell Owens 49ers 11-5
Randy Moss Vikings 9-7
Calvin Johnson Lions 3-13
Julio Jones Falcons, 13-3
Jordy Nelson Packers, 13-3
Averages: Overall Record: 86-74 (.538)
Of the ten teams, only four had losing records before drafting their stud WR. Many of the teams had enjoyed some decent success, including deep playoff runs or "just missed it" final weeks. This may show that GMs will view the stud WR as the last cog in the wheel, the guy who will push the team over the top.
Let's take a look, then, at the immediate results of their presence on the field.
Team Records in First Year
Brandon Marshall Broncos 7-9
Larry Fitzgerald Cardinals 6-10
Andre Johnson Texans 7-9
AJ Green Bengals 9-7
Dez Bryant Cowboys 6-10
Terrell Owens 49ers 13-3
Randy Moss Vikings 15-1
Calvin Johnson Lions 7-9
Julio Jones Falcons, 10-6
Jordy Nelson Packers, 6-10
As you can see, some teams slipped, and others improved, especially the Vikings, who went from "almost" to a different kind of "almost" when losing in the NFC Championship.
So, the average of the teams in the first year? 86-74, or .538. That's right. The exact same record, overall, as pre-draft.
Naturally, there are a lot of moving pieces in the NFL -- free agency, drafts, injuries, but there's little doubt that, for these ten guys, their impact proved to be, in the end, negligible.
If one goes back and examines the team's win percentage for the stud WR, we get the following results.
Average Team Win Percentage With Stud WR
Brandon Marshall .488
Larry Fitzgerald .495
Andre Johnson .442
AJ Green .658
Dez Bryant .479
Terrell Owens .567
Randy Moss .570*
Calvin Johnson .375
Julio Jones .513
Jordy Nelson .654
*I excised the weird Randy Moss season where he ended up on three teams, just because it would have been difficult to tally wins/losses when he was bouncing around, getting benched, missing games, and so on.
So, of these ten stud WRs, their teams are pulling just above a .500 average. Just for reference, a 9-7 record is .563
Total Playoff Games Played (Total Seasons Played is 97)
Brandon Marshall 0
Larry Fitzgerald 9
Andre Johnson 4
AJ Green 5
Dez Bryant 2
Terrell Owens 14
Randy Moss 15
Calvin Johnson 2
Julio Jones 3
Jordy Nelson 11
In other words, every 1.5 seasons, someone goes to the playoffs. If we remove Moss and Owens from the equation, we see that number increase dramatically to around 3 seasons in between playoff appearances.
Super Bowl Appearances
Given the previous column, this will be anti-climactic.
Brandon Marshall 0
Larry Fitzgerald 1
Andre Johnson 0
AJ Green 0
Dez Bryant 0
Terrell Owens 1
Randy Moss 1
Calvin Johnson 0
Julio Jones 0
Jordy Nelson 1
Super Bowl Victories: 1 (Jordy Nelson, XLV)
Okay, so you're thinking to yourself about those moving cogs. That every season is completely randomized and that stud WRs are just one part of the machine. That's the point. The stud WR is great for fantasy footballers, but, in general, their impact on their team success has been minimal. Sure, a bump here or a bump there, but there's little to show that investing draft capital (and/or salary cap money) to one big WR is a surefire way to improve a team's odds of achieving winning records, going to the playoffs, or capturing a Super Bowl.
Another argument is that the stud WR benefits most from a QB. I would argue, however, that each of these WRs have had QBs during their careers that would be considered good or great: Stafford, Cutler, Ryan, Rogers, McNabb, Young, Brady, Warner, Romo, and so on, with really only poor Andre Johnson not getting much QB love. Although one can debate the ins and outs of these QBs, the fact is that they are all NFL-caliber starting QBs. It would be hard to prove that these QBs are actually a hindrance to their WRs success.
If I get the opportunity to put together a second part to this, I'm going to pick the top WRs from the past ten Super Bowls and essentially do the same thing. I would suspect that the Edelmans (5.10, 198) and Holmeses (5.11, 192) have enjoyed more overall team success -- quite possibly as a result of not as many contract dollars and the lack of need to create an offense around one individual.