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Young Targets
An Examination of Rookie WRs

The conventional wisdom in the fantasy football community has long been to stay away from rookie wide receivers in redraft leagues. All informed owners “know” that it takes two to three years for pass catchers to become successful at the NFL level so they avoided drafting rookie wide receivers and for the most part with a few notable exceptions they were right. In the past, there were occasional rookies that were major contributors in the passing game during their first NFL season like Bill Brooks (65-1,131-8), Chris Collinsworth (67-1,009-8), and John Jefferson (56-1,001-13) and more recently Joey Galloway (1995), Terry Glenn (1996) and Marvin Harrison (1996) all had excellent rookie seasons. However, in most years, pre-1995, even the top-performing rookie wide out was a non-contributor from a fantasy football perspective (or at least would have been if there was such a thing as fantasy football during many of those years).

I theorized last off-season the college game has changed in a way during the 1990s that may have better prepared some young quarterbacks to immediately succeed at the NFL level. I believe the same has happened for wide receivers. As college offenses increasingly become more complex and pro style systems outnumber old school run-dominated systems, the traditional way of thinking about the performance of first year starters at wide receiver should have started to go the way of the wishbone offense. But the old ways still persist.

Rookie wide receivers are now more equipped to transition from the college ranks to the NFL without the extended learning curves that were the norm in the past. Wide receivers are more accustomed to reading complex playbooks, developing precise route running skills, and have now developed more overall skills than just blocking on running plays and occasionally running deep.

Let’s not go overboard, one still needs to be cautious when drafting a rookie wide receiver for a fantasy team. There is still a transition and a learning curve involved in going to the next level. A rookie wide receiver stepping in and producing a “dominant” season is still not a commonplace event in comparison to a running back or linebacker – although it does happen on occasion – so it’s still not worth spending an early draft pick on a “can’t-miss” rookie wideout hoping to catch lightning in a bottle. However, rookies shouldn’t be discounted as worthless roster additions altogether, either.

In each of the last 10 seasons at least one wide receiver that was capable of starting for your fantasy football team has emerged. In most of those seasons more than one was highly productive.¹ Below is a chart showing all rookie wide receivers from the past 10 years that amassed at least 700 receiving yards (with the exception of Chris Henry and Braylon Edwards who were the biggest impact rookies in 2005 but finished below 700 yards). While 700 yards could be considered an arbitrary total, it should fairly accurately reflect the yardage minimum one would expect from a fantasy football starter at the wide receiver position. The fantasy point totals below are based on six point touchdowns, a point per ten yards, and a point per reception.

¹2005 was an exception where Chris Henry and Braylon Edwards were the two highest performing rookie WRs and were spot starters at best, although Henry did manage 6 trips to the end zone.

 Rookie WRs: 700 Yds +
Player Year Rec Rec Yds Rec TDs FPts
Randy Moss 1998 69 1313 17 302.3
Anquan Boldin 2003 101 1377 8 286.7
Michael Clayton 2004 80 1193 7 241.3
Marques Colston 2006 70 1038 8 221.8
Kevin Johnson 1999 66 986 8 212.6
Dwayne Bowe 2007 70 995 5 199.5
Lee Evans 2004 48 843 9 186.3
Larry Fitzgerald 2004 58 780 8 184.0
Roy Williams 2004 54 817 8 183.7
Chris Chambers 2001 48 883 7 178.3
Antonio Bryant 2002 48 883 7 178.3
Torry Holt 1999 52 788 6 166.8
Troy Edwards 1999 61 714 5 162.4
Darrell Jackson 2000 53 713 6 160.3
Andre Johnson 2003 44 733 6 153.3
Keary Colbert 2004 47 754 5 152.4
Calvin Johnson 2007 48 756 4 147.6
Rod Gardner 2001 46 741 4 144.1
Chris Henry 2005 31 422 6 109.2
Braylon Edwards 2005 32 512 3 101.2

I don’t think the fact that Randy Moss sits atop this list would come as a surprise to anyone. His rookie year was legendary, but the fact that 18 rookie wide receivers have amassed over 700 yards – with many eclipsing or approaching 1,000 yards and 15 have grabbed at least six touchdowns - in the last ten seasons puts to rest the notion that rookie wide receivers have no rightful place on your fantasy football roster. Of course picking the right rookie is the key factor. Far and away, most rookies don’t even sniff these totals, so let’s look at some factors that may help one find a rookie gem on draft day.
  1. Opportunity: Obviously a rookie needs to receive significant time on the field as a prerequisite for putting up stats that lead to fantasy points. A young wide receiver that is going to sit behind veterans will not help your squad. There’s no need to really explore this factor much further, since it’s quite apparent all who appear on the list above must have received an opportunity to see playing time as first year players due to either superior talent or injury to a teammate.

  2. Size: There are virtually no mighty mites on this list with Lee Evans being the shortest player at 5’10” and Torry Holt being the lightest player at 190 pounds. In fact all but four of these successful rookies are at least six feet tall (and twelve are 6’2” or taller) and all but five are at least 200 pounds. Even more compelling is that three of the top four most successful rookie wide receivers of the last ten years - all of which had “stud” fantasy seasons - are 6’4” tall (Randy Moss, Marques Colston and Michael Clayton) and while Anquan Boldin is only 6’1” he weighs in at a sturdy 217 pounds. So it seems, contrary to what some of your girlfriends may say politely, size DOES matter (at least when it comes to evaluating successful rookie wide receivers).

  3. Draft Position: All but three wide receivers on the above list were drafted in the first two rounds of their respective NFL drafts with two of those remaining three, Darrell Jackson and Chris Henry, only falling to round three. Only Marques Colston was a second day pick (amazingly he lasted until round seven). Looking further, 12 of the 20 successful rookie wide receivers listed above were first round picks. One can assume draft position is an important determining factor for two reasons – really the two reasons that any player is a success – a combination of talent and opportunity. A first or second round draft pick should be more talented than a late round pick (in theory at least) and it logically follows that a player chosen with a premium pick will more likely be given an opportunity to play since they are talented, being paid well and in most cases likely chosen with a high pick because they were a need position for their new team.

  4. QB: These rookie producers must have all had Hall of Fame quarterbacks tossing the rock to them as young bucks right? Guess again. The following uninspiring QBs were behind most of these breakout rookie campaigns:

    • Jeff Blake
    • Josh McCown
    • Brian Griese
    • Tim Couch
    • Damon Huard/Brodie Croyle
    • Joey Harrington
    • Jay Fiedler
    • Kordell Stewart/Mike Tomczak
    • David Carr
    • Tony Banks
    • Trent Dilfer/Charlie Frye
    • Jon Kitna

The only better than average quarterbacks that were responsible for helping the wide receivers on the above list were Jake Delhomme, Carson Palmer, Drew Bledsoe, and Randall Cunningham and both Bledsoe and Cunningham were past their primes at the time. Does this mean that one should look for rookie wide receivers that are matched up with poor quarterbacks when attempting to guess which rookie wide receiver will be worth a spot on your redraft team? Of course not. However, it should tell you not to automatically dismiss a targeted rookie just because he will have a “no name” QB behind center.

By writing this article, I’m not advocating one drafts a bunch of rookie wide receivers for a fantasy team in a redraft league. But you may want to think twice about totally avoiding one in favor of an aging wide receiver with limited upside – like a Mushin Muhammad or a Marty Booker - in those later rounds when you can afford to take a chance at landing a potential breakout performance.

The above information shows there are only 1-2 quality rook receivers for a redraft league. The safest criteria to use in order to maximize your risk of spotting the first-year phenoms are the following:

  • Consider only the wide receivers drafted within the first three rounds last April
  • Choose receivers with above average size (height and weight taller than 6-0 and 190 lbs).
  • Look for receivers who are said to have an opportunity to receive playing time
  • Don’t allow a team’s below average quarterback to dissuade you.

So which rookie wide receivers fit into the above criteria? Who should a fantasy owner target in 2008? Bear in mind than not one wide receiver was deemed worthy enough to be drafted in round one, so this could be a down year, but there were certainly some talented wide receivers that went off the board in rounds two and three. Below are my top five rookie wide receivers that I feel are most likely to break-out and put up fantasy numbers worthy of starting in 2008.

Devin Thomas (6’2”, 215): Thomas was drafted in round two by the Washington Redskins, a team that will be converting to a West Coast Offense and started two undersized wide-outs (Santana Moss and Antwaan Randle El) last season. Randle El is better suited to play in the slot so Thomas is very likely to crack the starting line-up in his rookie season. Thomas has a nifty combination of size and speed and is a terrific runner after the catch – an important part of the WCO. It would not shock me if he ends up leading the Redskins in receptions, yards and touchdowns at season’s end.

James Hardy

Hardy has the opportunity, size and skill to make an impact in '08.

James Hardy (6’5”, 217): Another second round pick, Hardy just may be the answer to the question that has plagued the Buffalo Bills for years now: Who will successfully man the WR2 spot across from Lee Evans? The converted basketball prospect has a tremendous work ethic, good speed and at 6’5” should at the very least make a great red-zone target for young Trent Edwards. If Hardy is able to overcome his penchant for shying away from contact he could make a great underneath wide receiver while Evans stretches the field and in that case, could be the top performing rookie wide receiver of this class.

Limas Sweed (6’4”, 216) Sweed is another big wide receiver that should see the field immediately, albeit most likely only as WR3 for the Pittsburgh Steelers. This off-season Ben Roethlisberger famously complained about not having a big wide receiver that he could get the ball to in the red zone and the drafting of Sweed in the second round should keep Big Ben satisfied. The Steelers uncharacteristically from past seasons threw a lot in the red-zone last season so expecting 7-8 touchdowns from Sweed would not be unreasonable.

Earl Bennett (5’11”, 208) While Bennett may not quite fit the height requirement (though he’s not small) and lasted until the third round (the Bears say he was their highest rated WR), he definitely has the opportunity factor working in his favor. The Bears wide receiver core right now consists of Marty Booker, Brandon Llyod, a banged up Mark Bradley and an inexperienced Devin Hester. Don’t be surprised to see Bennett line up as a starter on opening day. Bennett is tough in traffic, in that he has sticky hands and can break tackles. He has enough burst to get open at the NFL level and is very polished in his route running. He could end up as the Bears top wide receiver in 2008 when all is said and done.

Dustin Keller (6’2”, 240) Ok, so technically Keller is a tight end. However, the player that the New York Jets traded back into round one to land has the skills of a wide receiver and will be used in the slot much like the Colts use Dallas Clark. Keller has receiving skills and after the catch abilities that rival most of the wide receivers in this draft class and will most likely not be called upon to do much blocking during his rookie season. As a middle of the field threat his speed will make him a difficult match-up for most line backers and his size will create a problem for most safeties or nickel backs. He has a lot of upside as a backup tight end for your fantasy squad and should be obtainable very late in redraft leagues.