The Sports Daily > Redskins Hog Heaven
Malcolm Kelly, Devin Thomas, and the Replacement Level Concept

Talking about young players today.  See, that wasn’t such a terrible wait, was it?

I have some encouraging rate stats for our young receivers Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas.

  • Kelly YPA = 8.5 (NFL WR Ave. = 8.0), Catch Rate = 61%
  • Thomas TD Rate = 6.3%

Both built on weak rookie seasons with respectible campaigns as they shared the second receiver role.  Any worry about mental makeup issues was likely alleviated by the improvements made here.  Also, the improvements match the improvement in Jason Campbell’s raw statistics, so while Santana Moss continues to have no discernable effect on his quarterback’s well being, there’s some evidence to suggest that if Jason Campbell can grow into a franchise quarterback, Kelly and Thomas will be part of the reason he was able to get to the next level.

There’s still a lot of questions here, however.  Kelly and Thomas have played identical roles in the same offense for two consecutive years with nearly identical levels of performance.  Kelly has been pretty steady throughout each of the two seasons, while Thomas has that New Orleans game that boosts his numbers to look a lot like Malcolm Kelly’s.  Uneven performance tends to be a negative indicator of future success.  Kelly, conversely, was drafted in part to be a red zone threat, but he’s without a touchdown in two NFL seasons, and has actually been proportionally better between the 20’s than in the red zone.  Thomas, on the other hand, has four NFL touchdowns (one rushing).  It’s safe to say Kelly hasn’t gotten it done in the red zone yet.

My goal: to look through receiving tables from the 2009 and 2008 NFL seasons, and to see if I can find a receiver that produced a really strong third or fourth year breakout after putting in basically a replacement level performance through the first two developmental seasons.  I want to see if an expectation of strong play is still reasonable for Thomas and Kelly, or if it’s unreasonable to expect anything more than incremental development.

The Promising Comparable Cases

Chargers No. 2 WR Malcom Floyd produced back to back seasons of replacement level performance (according to Football Outsiders) in both 2006, and 2007, then broke out at a very old 27 in 2008.  It’s pretty rare to get the prime portion of one’s career started so late.  Thomas will be 24 in the middle of next season, and Kelly will be 24 near the end of next season.  Floyd is a comparable case, but not all that close in reality to what we are looking for.  Let’s keep searching.

Falcons WR Roddy White didn’t have much by way of stats until his third year in 2007, but he’s a poor comparable because, in hindsight, it sure looks like he was held back by lack of a competent quarterback.  We can’t say the same thing about either Kelly or Thomas, because White’s first 1,000 yard season came when he finally found competency in the form of…Joey Harrington and Chris Redman.

Jacksonville No. 1 WR Mike-Sims Walker is an excellent example of a third year breakout for a player who didn’t do anything notable in his first two seasons.  He was drafted by Jacksonville in the third round, and was on the practice squad then the waiver wire.  The Jags gave him another chance to come back and try to make the team his second year, and this time he did, and posted a season very comparable to Devin Thomas’ 2009 in 2008.  One year later, he became an established go-to WR with 7 TD catches.

Chicago’s nominal No. 1 WR is Devin Hester, who was well established as a punt returner before he was ever even tried on offense.  The fact that Hester was roughly replacement during his first two years as a reciever should surprise no one at all.  Hester did have his best year as a WR in 2009 with Jay Cutler as his quarterback, but this was a 3 receiving TD season, 63% catch rate for the UMiami product.  Those kind of numbers wouldn’t be a really huge breakout for either Thomas or Kelly.  750 receiving yards is more of an expectation than a breakout at this point.  It’s really not all that uncommon for a very successful receiver to have a really forgettable season at the beginning of his career, but when you post back to back seasons in the realm of the “meh”, it’s incredibly rare for their to be a breakout in the future.

Giants WR Dominik Hixon bounced around the league for two years not playing and then had a great third season.  He returned to the bench primarily in 2009 though.  And with Hixon, he didn’t play at all in 2006 and 2007 in part because he wasn’t really on one team exclusively.  Therefore, he really couldn’t show he could play.  Conversely, former Jags WR Reggie Williams really did have an odd career path.  He was virtually a bust for the first three seasons of his career (2004-2006).  Then in 2007, he had really impressive numbers in a 60 pass sample.  In the offseason he was released by Jacksonville and went unsigned.

The Lessons

The late breakout is not a foreign concept in professional football, and particularly regarding the third year of a high pick’s career, fan excitement reaches it’s climax.

The third year has a place among fantasy players as being the year where you can target young receivers and expect their best production to date, but in the truest sense of the term, the vast majority of third year fantasy studs aren’t breaking out.  Yes, the third year is an incredibly popular breakout year for receivers who haven’t already produced big in their first or second seasons.  But the great receivers tend to enjoy their breakouts prior to the third year.  Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Brandon Marshall and Greg Jennings all broke out in their second year.  There are great developmental prospects such as Miles Austin, Derrick Mason, Vincent Jackson, and Antwaan Randle El who break out as receivers much, much later on in their careers, but that tag really doesn’t apply to either Kelly or Thomas.  Perhaps it should have, but then they should have been drafted more in line with that designation.

For the vast majority of players who do not flash anything special in their first two years, there is nothing special about the third season.  Vikings WR Sidney Rice exploded with Brett Favre calling the signals this year, but Rice had enjoyed a strong rookie campaign as the Vikings third wide receiver, and was simply forgotten in the Gus Frerotte mess of 2008.  There was nothing magical about the third year for Rice except the opportunity to realize potential he had already flashed.

The lesson learned here is that for a guy like Marko Mitchell, who flashed in the preseason, but didn’t get on the field much and only made four catches: the 2010 season is critical for him.  He doesn’t really fit the developmental mode (he’s not returning punts or covering kicks or anything in the immediate), so if there’s something there, we will likely get a glimpse of it this season.  But for Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas, there are nice statistics that can be picked if you prod through their numbers enough.

Ultimately though, if both develop into playable starters at the professional level, the Redskins have made out alright.  The list of receivers drafted in the first three rounds who didn’t produce much in their first two seasons and then went on to have a great career is non-existant.  The top end term for these two at this point is adequacy.  They can still develop and fufill their draft status as NFL starters on the Redskins, but the ceiling on Thomas and Kelly has come down considerably since draft day.  At this point, league-average performance for the next three or four years would be one of the better outcomes that Redskins fans could hope for.

They might be quite good after all, but anyone waiting on pro bowls is in for a lot of disappointment.