Using height and BMI to predict successful wide receivers

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I mentioned last week that I'm a fan of Pro Football Prospectus, and this year's edition is definitely worthwhile.

One article that I find interesting is the study of how a wide receiver's height and BMI can be an indicator of success.

The way they predict success is by determining whether or not a player falls into one of four sections on a chart of height versus BMI. The study pooled data from the past ten years and compared players by looking at average yards per game.

Here is a rough sketch of their complete graph with some representative players shown:

The theory is that if a player falls into one of the four boxes, they have a decent chance of being a top wide receiver. Conversely, if a player doesn't have a body type that fits into one of the four boxes, then they have only a small chance of being an elite receiver.

If you're wondering how big these relative differences in body type are, below I added myself for comparison. At 6' 2" and 170 lbs, I fall just a bit on the light side of a successful NFL wide receiver:

This article is by far the most extensive study I've seen on how well body type can predict success. I am a little hesitant at the moment to take the results as fact though.

The main reason is that I don't think there is enough data to justify drawing four separate zones on this graph. The theory is probably overfitting the data. For example, the height difference between the top and bottom zones is only two inches.

Second, I'm not convinced there is a legitimate football-related reason why these narrow zones of body type would be successful and others wouldn't. Especially that dead zone in the middle. Is there a reason why a player with that height/BMI combination is less likely to be successful?

The article suggests that the reason for these zones is that they identify which body types are able to get separation from cornerbacks and which are useful as large targets for a quarterback. They also propose that looking at the body types of defensive backs could help determine if these wide receiver body types create favorable mismatches.

Although I'm skeptical, I'm always on the lookout for hidden trends and new ways to predict successful players. I'm going to watch this one for the next few years to see if these body type trends continue.

If a new successful player emerges with a body type that is right in the middle of those four zones, I think this theory is busted. If not, and the trends continue, this could be a real way to predict success within a group of players that is usually just a crap shoot.

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Categories: projections, stats