Breakout Age Is Nothing To Be Afraid Of

Photo: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

In a lot of ways, February is different than November on football Twitter. 

November hones in on the playoff picture and MVP favorites and discovers new edges in the sudden successes of young play-callers or reinvigorated schemes. With injuries abound and the trade deadline just passed, teams are morphing into their final forms, and star players are born before our eyes.

In February, even with the XFL started, focus shifts to the draft. We get a first glance at some of the top prospects at positions of key interest, leaked storylines and predictions.

But one thing always holds consistent: film twitter and analytic twitter are bickering.

Over the past couple of years, dynasty twitter and other fantasy branches have clashed with young scouts and film grinders over wide receiver evaluations and a relatively young metric called "breakout age." In that it belongs to analytics twitter — it's a number, so it must — it is generally rejected by those who believe the tape reveals all.

I incorporate statistical production into my grades for each of the prospects I evaluate at the WR position. But this year, I've changed my production metric to focus on breakout age as the sole predictor for NFL success.

Breakout age is not something we should fear when it comes to WR evaluations, and just because it isn't as familiar a term as yards after catch or depth of target, does not mean it is any more foreign, complex or obscure. Breakout age should be a household name when it comes to evaluating draft prospects at WR, and that's the effort I hope to lend my voice to today.

What is breakout age?

To understand what breakout age evaluates and predicts, it is necessary to construct it from the ground up. For film heads who may want to reject a new stat at face value, tracking the formative questions of breakout age allow us to demystify the data and better integrate it into our scouting processes.

Let's kick it off.

Is it good for receiver prospects to produce at the college level?

Yes. While there are certainly reasonable exceptions for poor production in college, if a receiver is to succeed in the NFL, it's likely they succeeded in college.

Is production generally equal across contexts?

No. It is more impressive to get 1,000 yards on 80 catches than on 120 catches. Two similar levels of production are not necessarily equal. How many opportunities each player received provides context for their production.

Already, We're brushing against the first half of breakout age: market share.

We know that opportunity is an important context for raw production. But what if Player A had 1,000 yards and 80 catches on a 6,000-yard, 600-attempt passing offense and Player B had 1,000 yards on 120 catches in a 3,000-yard, 400-attempt offense? Who is more impressive then?

There are several different ways we can understand production, opportunity, and efficiency, but the one that matters for breakout age is market share, which contextualizes a prospect's production relative to his teammates. Market share doesn't ingest any unique output, either: just touchdowns and yards. The market is the offense's output, and each pass-catcher has a certain share.

The corresponding percentage is called the "college dominator rating." Dominator rating measures the percentage of a team's total passing touchdowns and passing yards for which a WR prospect was responsible. Frank DuPont is the conjuror of dominator rating, which debuted in his 2012 book "Game Plan," to help identify WRs that would do well in any fantasy football league.

Is dominator rating enough?

Dominator rating is helpful, but it doesn't do the whole job. To understand the second half of the formula for breakout age, we again should construct the argument from the ground up.

Is it good for draft prospects to produce at the college level?

Yes. We know and accept this.

Is production generally equal across contexts?

No. As we already know, efficiency matters when comparing players of similar output, and market share matters when comparing players from two different offenses.

But age is an additional variable. Two players who produced at similar levels with similar market shares are not necessarily equal if one is significantly younger than the other. Which forces us to ask this question: Does age matter when considering college production?

Statistically, the evidence points to yes, but intuitively, this should make sense to evaluators from film backgrounds as well. Younger players are less experienced, less developed physically and have accumulated little to no tenured trust from their college coach or quarterback. We expect older players to produce better than younger ones on an even playing field. Accordingly, it should matter when a younger player produces uniquely well.

As such, breakout age looks to understand the dominator rating in the context of player age. Specifically, breakout age is defined as the age of a WR prospect in his first college season with at least a 20 percent dominator rating, per Player Profiler. Rotoviz, which was founded by DuPont and offers a ton of advanced fantasy metrics, defines the cut-off as a 30 percent dominator rating.

The exact details of the binning are unimportant, at least for our exercise here in demystifying breakout age. What matters are the results.

How does breakout age predict NFL success?

Peter Howard of Dynasty League Football has a large database of WR prospects and their college market shares, dominator ratings and breakout ages. In 2018, he published hit rates for drafted WRs as a function of breakout age at a 20 percent dominator rating:

  • 18-year-old breakouts: 38.5 percent
  • 19-year-old breakouts: 31.3 percent
  • 20-year-old breakouts: 20 percent
  • 21-year-old breakouts: 8.9 percent
  • 22-year-old breakouts: 16.3 percent
  • 23-year-old breakouts: 14.3 percent

Trend-wise, it's clear: The earlier a wide receiver broke out in college play, the more likely he was to be successful at the NFL level. If a prospect didn't break out until late in his career, he wasn't nearly as likely to succeed in the NFL. Howard defined a hit for his hit rates as "a top-24 PPR season," which is a fantasy football paradigm that helps control for different eras of passing offenses.

Again in 2018, Anthony Amico defined a WR as a hit when he posted at least 200 PPR points within his first three seasons. Amico focused on top-100 picks and found hit rates for prospects based on their breakout age, using a 30 dominator rating cutoff:

  • 18-19 years old: 46.2 percent
  • 20 years old: 35.3 percent
  • 21 years old: 19 percent
  • 22 years old: 6.7 percent

These numbers are nothing to sneeze at. Howard’s numbers tell us, without watching a second of film, that South Carolina's Bryan Edwards has a 38.5-percent chance of being successful at the NFL level, due to his 27.3 dominator rating in his age-18 freshman season. Amico's numbers tell us that, so long as he's drafted in the top-100 picks, Minnesota's Tyler Johnson has a 46-percent chance of succeeding in the NFL, following an astounding 61.3 dominator rating in his age-19 sophomore year.

From the vantage point of a traditional scout, it can be easy to feel strongly suspicious of such bold statements as the Edwards and Johnson predictions above. But breakout age is based on logical statements of relative production that are generally agreed upon -- we just did the exercise above! If anything, it's how success is defined that introduces doubt.

Defining a draft prospect hit without using some statistical measure is essentially impossible, and for the skill positions, fantasy measures are some of the best that we have at our disposal. In that a productive fantasy WR in his early years is likely a talented and successful NFL WR, we can call that draft pick a hit.

But while PPR points work as general buckets, close scrutiny raises red flags. In 2019, Chris Godwin was the second-best WR in the league; Cooper Kupp, the sixth-best; John Brown, the 15th-best, as measured by PPR points per game. Fantasy output is affected by opportunity, depth of target, QB talent, offensive philosophy and a slew of other extraneous factors just as it is affected by individual player talent. Is fantasy output enough of a signal of draft success for us to feel comfortable with breakout age as a valuable metric?

Does draft capital explain everything?

There's another question we have to ask, to investigate breakout age honestly. That question concerns draft capital.

Amico focused exclusively on top-100 picks. Under his conditions — at least 200 PPR points across the first three seasons — 42 WRs hit and only four of them were selected outside of the top 100.

The greatest predictor of hitting was just getting drafted in the top 100.

From the DL Football study, 38.5 percent of the age-18 breakouts hit for Howard, but 59.6 percent of the Round 1 draft picks hit, independent of their breakout age. Among those age-18 breakouts who hit 38.5 percent of the time, those drafted in the first round hit 73.3 percent of the time; in the second and third round, only about 27 percent of the time. After the third round, not one of 10 WRs hit.

Draft capital was a better predictor of NFL success in both studies than breakout age was.

For fantasy purposes, this is excellent news. A WR with a good breakout age and a high draft pick will almost certainly be productive and accordingly is a great fantasy selection. But for draft purposes, this could confound our utility for breakout age.

We're forced now to ask the question: Are WRs drafted highly because their film is good? Because if good film is the primary predictor of high draft capital, and high draft capital is a stronger predictor of fantasy success (and NFL success in general) than breakout age, then breakout age is just along for the ride. All breakout age is telling us is the good players produce a lot and do it younger. They're then drafted higher and get volume and put up good stats in the NFL. It's nothing we didn't already know.

The harsh reality is that we cannot quantify or prove that good film is the primary predictor of high draft capital. It sure seems that way, but again, a slew of unquantifiables like injury, off-field concerns, scheme fit and subjective differences in evaluations make that claim generally weak.

What we know for sure, however, is that the good players produce a lot, and do it younger. They go on to put up good stats in the NFL, and if they're drafted highly, all the better.

So what do we do now?

Breakout age is the single best stat we have for WR prospects pre-draft, and our goal as scouts is to rank the WRs pre-draft. So should we rank them by breakout age alone? That's a very slippery slope. How much does being 18 and 2 months versus 18 and 4 months matter? How much better, really, is 31 percent dominator rating than a 29 percent dominator rating? 

Fundamentally, WR film must be consumed and evaluated to initially place prospects on a big board. If the WRs with good film generally get drafted before the WRs with bad film, the highly-drafted WRs generally go on to be productive in the NFL. We simply must rank these players based on the quality of their film; as team owners, we need scouts who can do so; and as scouts, we must get as good at evaluating as possible.

But after that, it is a narrow-minded and fearful exercise to ossify our rankings without considering breakout age. To what degree should we incorporate breakout age into our final grades? I'm not yet sure. I've taken my first swing this year, and the results clearly shake up my rankings. I had Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III both graded above Colorado’s Laviska Shenault on film alone, but Shenault's 32.7 percent dominator rating at 19 propelled him over both players and into my WR2 spot. Is that too aggressive? I didn't like Edwards on film that much, but at 18 a 27.3 dominator rating propelled him up into a Round 3 grade for me right next to Arizona State's Brandon Aiyuk, who didn't gain anything for breakout age measurements as a junior college product. 

Breakout age is young and doesn't have all the answers. But it clearly matters, and I'm not in the business of ignoring items of matter and import. Breakout age endeavors to capture context that I would miss in simple film evaluations, and gives me detail on the early-career film of juniors and seniors that I would otherwise be unlikely to watch. Breakout age helps, and for as long as you're on the other side of that fence, your WR evaluations will get left behind with you.