Research Update 3: Predicting Past and Present Hall of Famers

Part 1: The Next Players Inducted into the Hall of Fame

The chart below contains the 172 players since 1960 who appear in the top 250 all time in both total career receiving yards and average yards per game. The players are then divided into 5-year blocks based on when the middle of their career fell. For example, Raymond Berry played from 1955-1967, which means that the midpoint of his career was in 1961. Therefore, in my system, he falls in the 1960-1964 category. In these groups, the top 2-4 receivers made the Hall of Fame, or around 15% of the players in each group. Hall of Fame players are denoted with a + next to their names. I bolded the Hall of Fame wide receivers, and italicized the non-receivers, such as tight ends and flanker backs who appear on the list. Active players have their age in parentheses next to their names. No wide receivers who fall in a group after 1995 have been inducted into the Hall of Fame, so I bolded my predictions based on their statistics, and my reasoning is entirely predicated on their receiving data.

Over the course of my study, the importance of career length as a predictor for the Hall of Fame has become clearer. I feel that career yardage excellently combines the measures of longevity and productivity. Yards per game is still the most useful statistic for comparing receivers from different eras because it is not skewed by the number of games in a season in the same way that career yardage is (the league expanded its schedule from 12 to 14 games in 1961, and from 14 to 16 games in 1978).

When looking at the charts below, it is important to remember that these players are the best out of their peers to begin with, so standing out in this group is quite an accomplishment. I found that each group contains a player or two that are significantly better than the rest, along with another player or two who made the Hall of Fame ahead of others who, statistically, were equally deserving of a place in Canton. In this section I will examine what factors seemed to break these statistical “ties,” and then try and use this information to predict Hall of Fame players from the 3 groups of players who have completed a large part of their careers, but have yet to be considered for the Hall of Fame.

 

Years and Player Total Yards Yards/Game
1960-1964
Art Powell

8046

68.8

Bernie Casey

5444

51.8

Bobby Mitchell+

7954

53.7

Buddy Dial

5436

55.5

Charley Hennigan

6823

71.8

Chris Burford

5505

53.4

Del Shofner

6470

51.8

Elbert Dubenion

5294

51.4

Jimmy Orr

7914

53.1

Lionel Taylor

7195

59.5

Max McGee

6346

42.9

Pete Retzlaff

7412

56.2

Raymond Berry+

9275

60.2

Red Phillips

6044

50.8

Sonny Randle

5996

50

Tommy McDonald+

8410

55.3

 

 

 

1965-1969
Boyd Dowler

7270

44.9

Carroll Dale

8277

43.8

Dave Parks

5619

47.6

Don Maynard+

11834

63.6

Gail Cogdill

5696

44.9

Lance Alworth+

10266

75.5

 

 

 

1970-1974
Bob Hayes+

7414

56.2

Charley Taylor+

9110

55.2

Danny Abramowicz

5686

51.2

Fred Biletnikoff+

8974

47.2

Gary Garrison

7538

56.3

Gene Washington

6856

49

John Gilliam

7056

46.7

Otis Taylor

7306

56.2

Paul Warfield+

8565

54.6

Roy Jefferson

7539

46.5

1975-1979
Ahmad Rashad

6831

49.1

Alfred Jenkins

6267

57

Charlie Joiner+

12146

50.8

Cliff Branch

8685

47.5

Drew Pearson

7822

50.1

Frank Lewis

6724

43.4

Harold Carmichael

8985

49.4

Harold Jackson

10372

49.9

Ken Burrough

7102

45.5

Lynn Swann+

5462

47.1

Mel Gray

6644

45.8

Reggie Rucker

7065

44.4

Roger Carr

5071

44.1

1980-1984
Carlos Carson

6372

50.6

Cris Collinsworth

6698

62.6

Dwight Clark

6750

50.4

John Jefferson

5714

56

John Stallworth+

8723

52.9

Kellen Winslow+

6741

61.8

Kevin House

5169

45.3

Pat Tilley

7005

47.7

Sammy White

6400

50

Stanley Morgan

10716

54.7

Steve Largent+

13089

65.4

Steve Watson

6112

48.5

Todd Christensen

5872

42.9

Tony Hill

7988

56.7

Wes Chandler

8966

59.8

Wesley Walker

8306

53.9

1985-1989
Al Toon

6605

61.7

Art Monk+

12721

56.8

Drew Hill

9831

46.6

Eddie Brown

6134

60.1

Eric Martin

8161

53.3

James Lofton+

14004

60.1

Louis Lipps

6019

54.7

Mark Clayton

8974

56.8

Mark Duper

8869

60.7

Mike Quick

6464

64

Roy Green

8965

47.2

Stephone Paige

6341

50.7

1990-1994
Andre Reed+

13198

56.4

Andre Rison

10205

54.9

Anthony Carter

7733

55.2

Anthony Miller

9148

59

Bill Brooks

8001

47.3

Brett Perriman

6589

43.1

Brian Blades

7620

48.8

Cris Carter+

13899

59.4

Ernest Givins

8215

55.9

Flipper Anderson

5357

47

Fred Barnett

5362

55.9

Gary Clark

10856

65

Haywood Jeffires

6334

48

Henry Ellard

13777

60.4

Irving Fryar

12785

50.1

Jerry Rice+

22895

75.6

John Taylor

5598

46.3

Mark Carrier

8763

49.5

Michael Haynes

6588

44.8

Michael Irvin+

11904

74.9

Michael Jackson

5393

47.3

Ricky Sanders

6477

48.3

Rob Moore

9368

61.2

Sterling Sharpe

8134

72.6

Vance Johnson

5695

44.5

Webster Slaughter

8111

50.1

1995-1999
Antonio Freeman

7251

54.9

Carl Pickens

7129

55.3

Curtis Conway

8230

49.3

Darnay Scott

6193

49.9

Derrick Alexander

6971

55.3

Frank Sanders

6749

49.6

Herman Moore

9174

62.8

Jake Reed

6999

45.2

Jeff Graham

8172

51.1

Jimmy Smith

12287

69

Johnnie Morton

8719

47.9

Keenan McCardell

11373

54.4

O.J. McDuffie

5074

43.7

Sean Dawkins

6291

44.9

Shannon Sharpe+

10060

49.3

Terance Mathis

8809

42.8

Tim Brown

14934

58.6

Tony Martin

9065

51.2

Yancey Thigpen

5081

45.4

2000-2004
Amani Toomer

9497

50

Bobby Engram

7751

44

Darrell Jackson

7132

58

Derrick Mason

12061

52.4

Eddie Kennison

8345

46.6

Eric Moulds

9995

53.7

Hines Ward

12083

55.7

Isaac Bruce

15208

68.2

Joe Horn

8744

53.6

Joey Galloway

10950

55.3

Keyshawn Johnson

10571

63.3

Laveranues Coles

8609

56.3

Marvin Harrison

14580

76.7

Muhsin Muhammad

11438

56.6

Peerless Price

5281

42.9

Rod Smith

11389

62.2

Terrell Owens

15934

72.8

Terry Glenn

8823

64.4

Torry Holt

13382

77.4

Wayne Chrebet

7365

48.5

2005-2009
Andre Johnson (33)

12661

82.2

Anquan Boldin (34)

11344

72.7

Antonio Bryant

5685

53.6

Antonio Gates (34)

9193

56.4

Brandon Lloyd

5695

44.5

Braylon Edwards

5522

49.3

Chad Johnson

11059

66.6

Chris Chambers

7648

50

Deion Branch (35)

6644

47.5

Donald Driver

10137

49.4

Jeremy Shockey

6143

45.2

Lee Evans

6008

50.9

Plaxico Burress

8499

57.4

Randy Moss

15292

70.1

Reggie Wayne (36)

13566

69.2

Roy Williams

5715

49.7

Santana Moss (35)

10167

54.4

Steve Smith (35)

12197

67

T.J. Houshmandzadeh

7237

49.6

Tony Gonzalez

15127

56

Vernon Davis

5201

43.7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The last 3 groups have not been touched by the Hall of Fame voters yet, and I will discuss 1995-99, 2000-04, and 2005-09 in order. I also bolded on receiver who I believe has been passed over by the voters: Henry Ellard. Ellard falls in the 1990-1994 category with 4 other current Hall of Famers. He has more career receiving yards than Michael Irvin and Andre Reed, and a higher Yds/Gm mark than Reed or Cris Carter. Unlike those 3, however, he did not play a full season with a team with a winning record at any point in his last 10 seasons. Lack of big-game prominence probably explains why he was passed over in favor of players like Andre Reed and Michael Irvin, who together have 7 Super Bowl appearances. However, considering that only 1 player is likely to be voted in from 1995-1999, Ellard deserves a place in Canton.

The 1995-99 group features an unbelievable statistical drop in production from the previous group. There are only 3 wide receivers above 10,000 yards, compared to 7 from 1990-94. And, one of these players, Keenan McCardell, does not meet the Yds/Gm threshold I established. Of the 2 players that do break 10,000 yards and surpass the threshold, Tim Brown is certainly a Hall of Fame player, and is expected to be voted in this year. The Raider legend was an incredibly consistent player, and suffered, like many receivers of the previous group, from playing at the same time as Jerry Rice. Because of Rice, he was never considered the best receiver in football, but that should not distract from his nearly 15,000-yard career, better than any player before him other than Rice. The other player in the group, Jimmy Smith, is a less-certain candidate. He gained the most attention during his time with the Jaguars, and in the late 1990’s, helped the franchise to 2 AFC Championship game appearances in the franchise’s first 4 years of existence. But, he is currently serving a 6-year drug-related sentence under condition of house arrest, and it is unlikely the voters will celebrate his accomplishments in light of his drug problems when there are so many other deserving candidates.

The 2000-04 group features 6 players above 12,000 career yards, and 4 above 13,000. Because the other 2, Hines Ward and Derrick Mason, do not meet the Yds/Gm standard, I picked the 4 highest career receiving yard totals of the era. Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt both played for the Rams as a part of the “Greatest Show on Turf.” The fact that they played together for much of their careers and both still compiled Hall of Fame receiving numbers is mind-boggling, and should solidify their place in Canton. In fact, although unlikely, I think they should be voted in as members of the same Hall of Fame class, just to celebrate the Rams of the early 2000’s. Terrell Owens is 2nd all-time in career receiving yards, which is hard to ignore, just the way he likes it. The talented receiver was also one of the biggest attention-grabbers the league has ever seen. NFL Films ranked his feud with Donovan McNabb on the Eagles in 2004-05 as the 4th-grestest of all time. His reputation as a terrible teammate may keep him out for awhile, but eventually his statistics alone will get him into Canton. Finally, Marvin Harrison, owner of the 10th-greates hands of all time, according to NFL Films, was expected by some to be voted into the Hall this year (Andre Reed got in instead). He played his entire career with Peyton Manning, and the 2 teamed up to form the NFL Films’ greatest passing combination of all time. Some argue that his statistics are inflated because he played with the greatest stat-producing quarterback of all time, but Harrison would have been a great receiver in any offense. He had the work ethic and the precision routs of an all-time great, which he certainly was.

The 2005-2009 group is a bit harder to judge because some of the top players in the group are still playing. Regardless of what they do, Randy Moss is a Hall of Fame player. He matured during his time in the league from an annoyance that rivaled Terrell Owens to a respected team leader on the Patriots and 49ers late in his career. He is one of 4 players in history to break 15,000 receiving yards, which by itself puts him into the Hall of Fame. The next 4 players are a bit more complicate: Reggie Wayne, Andre Johnson, Steve Smith, and Anquan Boldin, and only 2-3 of them can get in. I projected Andre Johnson and Reggie Wayne to be in the Hall of Fame because Wayne already has broken 13,000 yards, and Johnson’s 82.2 Yds/Gm is truly incredible for a player going into his 13th season. However, it is very possible that Boldin could surpass even Moss in career receiving yards because he has a clean injury history, and does not rely heavily on speed. Only time will tell which of them will set themselves apart in the same manner as Randy Moss, and thus make the Hall of Fame.

 

Part 2: The Young Players who will make the Hall of Fame

In order to find the best players in the game today, I applied my Yards/Game threshold. Projecting forward, a player would need at least 65 yards per game over the course of his career if he falls in the 2010-2014 category or later. Because a player will need to play for at least 12 seasons in order to make the Hall of Fame, a player could finish his career with his middle season in this range, even if he began his career in the early 2000’s. But, for the purposes of this study, I will make the cutoff entry year 2004. Finally, for the sake of having enough data, I required that a player have played for at least 3 seasons, which, as it turns out, did not end up eliminating any players as the third filter. The chart below is the list of all current players who meet the criteria (over 65 career average Yards/Game; entered in 2004 or later; has played at least 3 seasons).

 

Player (age)

Y/G

Career Length

Projected Group

% Games Played

Calvin Johnson (29)

88

7

2010-2014

90%-100%

Brandon Marshall (30)

73.6

8

2010-2014

90%-100%

Larry Fitzgerald (31)

72.9

10

2010-2014

90%-100%

Marques Colston (31)

71.3

8

2010-2014

90%-100%

Roddy White (33)

66.9

9

2010-2014

90%-100%

Greg Jennings (31)

66.1

8

2010-2014

80%-90%

A.J. Green (26)

81.6

3

2015-2019

90%-100%

DeSean Jackson (28)

70.3

6

2015-2019

90%-100%

Dez Bryant (26)

69.6

4

2015-2019

90%-100%

Demaryius Thomas (27)

69.8

4

2015-2019

80%-90%

Hakeem Nicks (26)

66

5

2015-2019

80%-90%

Antonio Brown (26)

65.9

4

2015-2019

80%-90%

Julio Jones (25)

80.5

3

2015-2019

70%-80%

Victor Cruz (28)

74

4

2015-2019

70%-80%

Rob Gronkowski (25)

65.1

4

2015-2019

70%-80%

The chart above is essentially a list of a players who, according to my analysis, have a chance to make the Hall of Fame. They are divided into the 5-year groups that they would end up in if they played 14 seasons, which is the length of a typical Hall of Fame career in the modern era. The players are also ranked, within each 5 year group, by their chance of making the Hall of Fame. To create these rankings, the players are sorted by the largest values of (1) % of Games Played, and (2) Yards/Game. The % of Games Played is calculated by the number of games a player has appeared (G) in divided by the number of possible games he could have appeared in, or G/(Career length*16). I think that % of Games played is a great predictor for career length, especially for players who have played fewer than 5 seasons. Because longevity is the best predictor of enshrinement, and % of Games played is the best predictor of longevity, I weighted it the highest when organizing my list.

There are few surprises at the number 1 spot for either group. Calvin Johnson is widely considered the best wide receiver in the NFL, and AJ Green is the standard for today’s young receivers. In fact, there is a huge production gap between each of them, and the next player on the list. Behind Calvin Johnson in the 2010-2014 group, all grouped together, are Brandon Marshall, Larry Fitzgerald, and Marques Colston. All 3 have been dominant producers on the field, but under different circumstances. Marques Colston has played every game of his career with Drew Brees and the Saints. Brees is the most prolific quarterback the NFL has ever seen. There have been 8 5,000-yard passing seasons by a quarterback in NFL history. Drew Brees accounts for 4 of those. On the contrary, Brandon Marshall and Larry Fitzgerald have not played with the same consistently talented passer as Colston. Fitzgerald spent 3 seasons with Kurt Warner, who has produced the 3 highest passing yard totals in Super Bowl history, but has otherwise never had a Pro Bowl quarterback. Meanwhile, the best quarterback Marshall has teamed up with is Jay Cutler. Cutler is an established franchise quarterback, but has never been selected to a Pro Bowl. While these players once again demonstrate my assertion that great receivers will still produce, even without great talent around them, I think that it will break the tie between them in favor of Fitzgerald and Marshall because they produced more with less.

Players who are ranked lower than expected include Victor Cruz and Julio Jones, each of whom has played in fewer than 80% of their games since entering the league. This does not project well for their future longevity. I am not saying it is impossible for these players to turn it around and have a Hall of Fame career, I am only saying that the odds are against them. Joining them in this category is Rob Gronkowski, the only Tight End to qualify for the list. “Gronk” is the best tight end in football—when he’s on the field. As with Cruz and Jones, Gronkowski could still be a Hall of Fame player, but only time will tell if his career lasts long enough for him to realize his full potential.

 

Future Research

            One obvious direction to take the project is to expand it to other positions. I chose the wide receiver position because it is the easiest to quantify, but the quarterbacks are always the true superstars. They are measured not only by completions and yards like a receiver, but also by completion percentage, touchdowns, interceptions, rushing yards, and many other advanced metrics. The position is so complicated that statisticians have created a metric called the Quarterback Rating (QBR) to combine several statistics into 1 number. One future project could be to study and attempt to improve this metric. Another position to study is running back, which would a good in-between step between receiver and quarterback. Running backs from the 1980’s onward have been increasingly involved in the passing game, giving them 2 statistics, rushing and receiving, to look at, while wide receivers only have 1. After the offensive skill position players, however, the sport becomes more difficult to study. No other position routinely gains yards like receivers and backs do, which makes statistical analysis very difficult. However, these players are in the Hall of Fame too, and there must be some statistics that set them apart from their peers.

Future projects could also catalog the various reasons a player could miss games, such as injury and suspension, and determine which ones have the greatest impact on a player’s career. This would involve creating the average statistical career arc to compare the injured or suspended player to his peers. This would build on the predictive aspect of this project, and would improve my understanding of how young players are affected by missing playing time.

Finally, the project could be expanded to other sports. Baseball is famous for its numerous statistics, and in basketball, unlike football, everybody handles the ball. These sports have just as much, if not more data on past and present players available as football does. They also rival football in the amount of money being paid to the superstars in contracts and advertisements. The principles of this project could be used to study other sports as well.

 

Works Consulted

 

http://www.pro-football-reference.com

NFL Top 10, NFL Films

The Complete History of the Oakland Raiders, NFL Films

America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation, Michael MacCambridge