Wide Receiver Prospects, Part 1: Is there a “USC Curse”?

I’ve heard a lot of chatter about the “USC receiver curse” in recent years. how highly-regarded receivers from the school have struggled at the NFL level. With Nelson Agholor being talked about as though he was struggling to adapt, and JuJu Smith-Schuster potentially a high draft selection next year, I decided to do a little research to see if this idea had any merit.

However, as I was thinking about how to approach the project, something occurred to me. I looked over the highly-drafted receivers who had met or exceeded their draft expectations … and that not only were no USC receivers among their number, barely any Pac-10 or Pac-12 receivers were. Most of the recent receivers I could think of who were both highly-drafted and lived up to their draft position were from the SEC: A.J. Green. Julio Jones. Mike Evans. Odell Beckham. The ACC has its share, too: Sammy Watkins, DeAndre Hopkins, Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas. (Even the old Big East had some hits back when it was at the height of its powers. The Big Ten and Big XII were rather bereft, but let’s put a pin in that for now.)

So I started to wonder: Is there a general Pac-12 receiver curse? I decided to look over the history of Pac-12 receivers regarded as NFL players. To this end, I gathered a list of every Pac-12 receiver drafted in the first three rounds since 2000:

1st 2nd 3rd
2000 R. Jay Soward USC 29 2000 Dennis Northcutt Arizona 32 2004 Devard Darling Washington St. 82
2001 Freddie Mitchell UCLA 25 2001 Chad Johnson Oregon State 36 2006 Derek Hagan Arizona State 82
2004 Reggie Williams Washington 9 2004 Keary Colbert USC 62 2007 Jason Hill Washington St. 76
2005 Mike Williams USC 10 2007 Steve Smith USC 51 2009 Patrick Turner USC 87
2014 Brandin Cooks Oregon State 20 2007 Dwayne Jarrett USC 45 2010 Damian Williams USC 77
2015 Nelson Agholor USC 20 2008 DeSean Jackson California 49 2013 Keenan Allen California 76
2013 Robert Woods USC 41 2013 Markus Wheaton Oregon State 79
2014 Marqise Lee USC 39 2014 Josh Huff Oregon 86
2014 Paul Richardson Colorado 45 2015 Jaelen Strong Arizona State 70
2015 Ty Montgomery Stanford 94

This looks rough to me. Since expectations decline as we go deeper in the draft, let’s study that first round. I’d say all four of those first four picks are unqualified busts. Brandin Cooks’ 1138 receiving yards last season is the most in a season by any of the first-rounders on this list… by 387 yards. Mike Williams had 751 yards in 2010… as a reclamation project with Seattle after washing out with three teams in three years and then being out of the league for two more. (Reggie Williams had two seasons over 600 yards receiving, which automatically makes him the second-best of this group.) Cooks is the only one who can be considered a success, and I’m not ready to call him an unqualified one yet, given that he was selected after a trade up in a deep class where receivers in the second and third round like Allen Robinson and John Brown have arguably (in Robinson’s case, inarguably) been better pros than Cooks.

Soward washed out after one season. Mitchell had one moment of playoff greatness, a whole lot more stupidity, never topped 500 yards in a season, and never got a second contract. Reggie Williams had two consecutive seasons of 600 yards in years three and four, then fell off and didn’t get a second contact. Mike Williams we already discussed. And Agholor is apparently struggling to adapt, although of course it’s too early to tell.

The second round, indeed, has two unqualified successes in Chad Johnson and DeSean Jackson. The best career outside of those two was Dennis Northcutt, a journeyman who stuck around for ten years but never made much of an impact (averaging 494 yards and 1.8 TDs a season), and who would have to be considered a disappointment at the #32 overall selection in 2000. (If #32 were a first-rounder, as it is today, that would make him the second-best first round selection.)

In this round, the reason for the “USC Curse” perception becomes clear: Outside of 2014’s Paul Richardson, the five remaining second-round Pac-12 receivers were all from USC. (This is after three of the six were in the first round: Soward, Mike Williams, and Agholor.) Those five: Keary Colbert, Steve Smith, Dwayne Jarrett, Robert Woods, and Marqise Lee. It would be hard to say any of them wasn’t a disappointment.

Steve Smith, at least, had one great year– a 107/1220/7 in 2009– before a knee injury that required microfracture surgery destroyed his career. That one year is enough to boost him to third on the career receiving list, behind Johnson and Northcutt, with a total of 2,641 yards.

I still think Richardson and Lee have the talent to turn it around, but injuries have held them back, and who knows how much longer they have to get themselves healthy and on the field? Woods I thought had a chance to be a good pro, but he regressed in his potential breakout season, and I’ve tempered my expectations accordingly. I wouldn’t consider him a success unless he does something serious this year.

Expectations of course get lower the further you go in the draft, so we shouldn’t expect too much in the third round, but we’ve gotten very little. Keenan Allen is an unqualified success. The players who are still active have some case that they’ll get better, but Strong is the only one I really believe in in that regard. (I had Montgomery as a 5th-rounder and Huff as a 7th-rounder before the draft.) Markus Wheaton is a perennial breakout candidate for the Steelers, but he keeps getting overshadowed, first by Martavis Bryant and now arguably by Sammie Coates and Eli Rogers.

(If you include current Pac-12 schools, you get Steve Smith from Utah in 2001, but they were in the Mountain West at the time. That shouldn’t count.)

Even though it’s too soon to judge some of these players, I’d say that only four out of twenty-five have had real success. (Even if real success is defined is as little as “one 1000-yard season.”)

The reason for the “USC Curse” is that, of those other twenty-one receivers, ten of them were from USC. USC was churning out a lot of NFL talent relative to the rest of the league, but this study makes it look like it’s the league as a whole that’s producing NFL disappointments at wide receiver. (Outside of, apparently, California and Oregon State, the only two schools to produce any of the four successes we’ve identified.)

Of course, this kind of information isn’t very useful without a comparison to other conferences, to general success rates among receivers, etc., so next time we’ll be looking more at other conferences, to see how the Pac-12’s hit rate actually stacks up.

I can tell you that what I’ve found so far suggests that of the remaining Power 5 conferences, the Pac-12 has the fewest NFL prospects at receiver in general. (And that these days, the SEC seems to be the only conference consistently producing top talents at the position that live up to their draft billing. And they’ve produced far more picks at the position than any other conference.)

More on this soon. Stay tuned.

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