Jaylen Waddle is a hot-button prospect for the analytics community. Registering an official breakout year of NULL. He is generally an avoid with numbers-savvy folks and with an interesting profile, is a suspect case to tackle for analytics. While his production is suspect, a popular dismissal of the concern regarding Alabama wide receiver production is the sheer amount of talent that is always on the team. I think it’s foolish to totally dismiss production. But I do think it means looking at rate stats and comparing wide receivers in this offense to each other. In this article, I’ll tackle the numbers case for Jaylen Waddle.
Although Waddle fails to register a breakout age, that doesn’t make his production during his freshman season any less impressive. As a true freshman, Waddle posted 848 yards and 7 touchdowns, good for second on the team despite sharing the field with three other 1st round wide receivers, a 2nd round tight end and a 1st round pass-catching running back. In the context of Alabama’s crowded offense, earning a feature role as a true freshman is impressive.
Hoping to build off his debut, Waddle’s 2019 production left much to be desired. Alabama, a team returning multiple 1st-round wide receivers, failed to get Waddle more involved in the receiving game, registering only 33 receptions for 560 yards. Although it’s impossible to explain Waddle’s usage without interviewing Nick Saban himself, we can acknowledge that a year slump is not uncommon for wide receivers. A notable example, JuJu Smith-Schuster failed to produce his junior season, drawing questions in his draft year.
While falling behind in the receiving pecking order, Waddle excelled in the return game. His 24.4 yards per punt return ranked as the 6th highest return average of all time. This was enough to earn him First-Team All-American and the SEC Special Teams Player of the Year. These ancillary metrics allow Waddle to immediately make contributions in the NFL and point to a higher ceiling, something lacking in this draft class.
Following an underwhelming season, Waddle came out of the gate in 2020 on fire. In his 4 games with DeVonta Smith, he had 557 yards to Smith’s 483. Outproducing the Heisman winner head-to-head, even in four games, should not be taken lightly. Waddle was on pace for a tremendous season that was cut short by injury. It’s hard to overstate how good Waddle’s junior year season started off.
In 2020, Waddle led the SEC in Yards Per Target with 18.47 and Yards per Catch with 21.11. Both other-worldly marks. Winning at all levels of the field, Waddle also led the SEC with a 71.88% success rate versus coverage. Factoring in his success all over the field, Waddle got open more than any wide receiver in the conference, including Heisman-winning teammate DeVonta Smith.
Although an underwhelming producer when looking at market-share data, Waddle pops in multiple efficiency metrics. Even though I prefer pushing back against the crowded WR room narrative, it’s hard to ignore the context of Alabama. There are questions about the eventual upside of Henry Ruggs, Jerry Jeudy and DeVonta Smith, they are still much better than the average wide receiver room for any Power 5 college team. In his career, Waddle never ran more than 250 routes in a season given the seniority of players in the wide receiver room and their tendency to split reps. Knowing this, it’s important to look into the efficiency metrics like Yards Per Route Run (YPRR) and Receiving Yards Per Team Pass Attempt (YPTPA).
Receiving Yards Per Team Pass Attempt (YPTPA)
Receiving yards per team pass attempt (YPTPA) is a metric recently gaining traction within the analytics community. The advantage of YPTPA is that it tries to adjust for things standard dominator and market share does not. In sum, it speaks to a player’s efficiency while accounting for volume. In crowded offenses like Alabama, this metric is particularly important because it points to production even in the context of the offense.
When looking at YPTPA, Waddle’s freshman season stands out. Although he failed to secure a market share to qualify for a breakout, he managed an impressive YPTPA, above the 1.43 needed for a year 1 ‘breakout’. Waddle’s true freshman year YPTPA was the highest among the Alabama “Big Four“ by a substantial margin at 1.96 (in comparison to their freshman seasons). His junior season, though consisting of only five full games, would have smashed expectations for YPTPA.
In the context of the 2021 receiving class, Waddle’s freshman 1.96 YPTPA ranked third behind Rondale Moore and Rashod Bateman. Although he didn’t secure the 20% weighted dominator we look for in a breakout, his YPTPA points to his freshman year success, especially within the context of the Alabama offense. Additionally, his YPTPA per game was 3.50, good for 5th among Power 5 players in the class and 3rd among early declares. Considering his subpar sophomore season, that number highlights his dominance in both his first and third years.
In Alabama’s offense, Waddle was the most impressive using age-adjusted production. His first season YPTPA was better than all three other Alabama wide receivers and better than Smith and Ruggs’ second seasons.
The concern with Waddle comes in during his sophomore season. As discussed above, his sophomore season left much to be desired. That is not up for debate. My argument however is that not only does a slump happen, but the freshman year and junior year production were so impressive that it dwarfs the sophomore season.
Receiving Yards Per Route Run (YPRR)
Efficiency is king when evaluating crowded wide receiver rooms. As mentioned above, Waddle has never run more than 250 routes per season. Knowing the competition for targets in the Alabama offense, it’s important to look into efficiency and production when players are on the field. While on the field, Waddle is one of the best in earning yards over the last eight years (as far as data goes back).
Although this data is not easily accessible or publicly available, we do have some insight into it. As a true freshman, Waddle’s YPRR was 3.58, which is flat-out dominant. Some may say this is a product of the Alabama offense. However, his RYPRR was 1.57 yards over the team average. In the context of the Tuscaloosa powerhouse, that significant difference above team average sticks out.
In 2020 during his junior season, Waddle smashed expectations. Although he missed a good chunk of the year, his 4.38 yards per route run stands out. In fact, his career 3.6 yards per route run is the best among Alabama wide receivers since 2015. To put his efficiency dominance in context for the country since 2013 his 3.61 yards per route run ranks 9th overall among all Power 5 players.
A contentious prospect for the analytics community, Waddle’s efficiency metrics combined with his early production paint a better picture than some would lead you to believe. Potentially the first wide receiver off the board, Waddle checks a lot of boxes. He was productive and efficient in his true freshman season. Check. He was the most efficient wide receiver in Alabama’s offense. Check. Top 5 in this class in YPTPA per game, with the third-best freshman season. Check. High-end draft capital. Check. Elite speed with the SEC’s highest success rate. Check. Early-declare. Check. Jaylen Waddle could be the best wide receiver to come out of Alabama in the last three years and if his underlying metrics are any indication, he could have a higher ceiling than any player in this draft class.