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The Reality of Rookie Wide Receivers
David M. Dorey
2004

The general rule of thumb was that rookie receivers never amount to much in their first season and should be avoided on a fantasy team. And then along came Randy Moss in 1998 turning in 1313 yards and 17 touchdowns. That was 232 fantasy points in the standard performance scoring of 1/10 yardage plus touchdowns. After four years, everyone finally was buying back into the "ignore rookies" once again and along came Anquan Boldin. After that Arizona miracle happened, we witnessed the 2004 draft which was considered the richest for wideouts in years. were seven wide receivers drafted in the first round alone which was an abnormally high amount..

In the past five seasons, have been three that had only three receivers go in the first round and oddly enough those were the best years for finding an actual rookie wideout with fantasy relevance. The other two years - considered much better with talent depth - were 2000 (5) and 2001 (6). Those two seasons had no first rounders worth owning and the only players at all in those years that did much were Darrell Jackson (3.18 in 2000) and Chris Chambers (2.21 in 2001). Given the history of first round flops (or more fairly slow starters), this season the big seven are not only coveted in most drafts, but even the next six from the 2nd and 3rd draft rounds are getting fair mention.

Before we look at their situations, let's explore what has really happened in the past five years with the 60 rookie wideouts that were drafted in the first three rounds during their rookie season. In yellow I have highlighted the ones that I would consider of fantasy relevance in their first season.

Year Pick Team Name FF Pts Catches Yards TD's
1999 1.06 STL Torry Holt 114.8 52 788 6
1999 1.08 ARI David Boston 59.3 40 473 2
1999 1.13 PIT Troy Edwards 101.4 61 714 5
1999 2.01 CLE Kevin Johnson 146.6 66 986 8
1999 2.22 BUF Peerless Price 57.3 31 393 3
1999 3.10 CHI D'Wayne Bates 1.9 2 19 0
1999 3.17 CHI Marty Booker 39.9 19 219 3
1999 3.21 SEA Karsten Bailey 0 0 0 0
1999 3.32 DEN Travis McGriff 3.7 3 37 0
2000 1.04 CIN Peter Warrick 83.2 51 592 4
2000 1.08 PIT Plaxico Burress 27.3 22 273 0
2000 1.10 BAL Travis Taylor 45.6 28 276 3
2000 1.21 KC Sylvester Morris 85.8 48 678 3
2000 1.29 JAC R. Jay Soward 21.4 14 154 1
2000 2.01 CLE Dennis Northcutt 42.2 39 422 0
2000 2.05 PHI Todd Pinkston 18.1 10 181 0
2000 2.16 OAK Jerry Porter 0.6 1 6 0
2000 3.04 CIN Ron Dugans 18.5 14 125 1
2000 3.07 CHI Dez White 14.7 10 87 1
2000 3.08 DEN Chris Cole 0 0 0 0
2000 3.11 NYG Ron Dixon 15.2 6 92 1
2000 3.16 NYJ Laveranues Coles 43 22 370 1
2000 3.17 CLE JaJuan Dawson 15.7 9 97 1
2000 3.18 SEA Darrell Jackson 107.3 53 713 6
2001 1.08 CHI David Terrell 65.5 34 415 4
2001 1.09 SEA Koren Robinson 59.6 39 536 1
2001 1.15 WAS Rod Gardner 98.1 46 741 4
2001 1.16 NYJ Santana Moss 4 2 40 0
2001 1.25 PHI Freddie Mitchell 34.3 21 283 1
2001 1.30 IND Reggie Wayne 34.5 27 345 0
2001 2.02 CLE Quincy Morgan 55.2 30 432 2
2001 2.05 CIN Chad Johnson 38.9 28 329 1
2001 2.10 GB Robert Ferguson 0 0 0 0
2001 2.21 MIA Chris Chambers 130.3 48 883 7
2001 3.12 CAR Steve Smith 15.4 10 154 0
2001 3.15 KC Marvin Minnis 57.1 33 511 1
2002 1.13 NO Donte Stallworth 107.4 42 594 8
2002 1.19 DEN Ashley Lelie 64.5 35 525 2
2002 1.20 GB Javon Walker 37.9 23 319 1
2002 2.01 HOU Jabar Gaffney 54.3 41 483 1
2002 2.04 BUF Josh Reed 62.9 37 509 2
2002 2.14 NYG Tim Carter 3.7 2 37 0
2002 2.15 CLE Andre Davis 78 37 420 6
2002 2.16 SD Reche Caldwell 38.8 22 208 3
2002 2.30 PIT Antwaan Randle El 60.9 47 489 2
2002 2.31 DAL Antonio Bryant 109.3 44 733 6
2002 2.33 NE Deion Branch 60.9 43 489 2
2002 3.21 TB Marquise Walker 0 0 0 0
2002 3.22 WAS Cliff Russell 0 0 0 0
2003 1.02 DET Charles Rogers 42.3 22 243 3
2003 1.03 HOU Andre Johnson 121.6 66 976 4
2003 1.17 ARI Bryant Johnson 49.8 35 438 1
2003 2.12 WAS Taylor Jacobs 3.7 3 37 0
2003 2.13 NE Bethel Johnson 32.9 16 209 2
2003 2.22 ARI Anquan Boldin 185.7 101 1377 8
2003 2.28 TEN Tyrone Calico 53.7 18 297 4
2003 3.01 CIN Kelley Washington 53.9 22 299 4
2003 3.07 MIN Nate Burleson 57.5 29 455 2
2003 3.10 STL Kevin Curtis 1.3 4 13 0
2003 3.31 PHI Wilbur Mcmullen Jr. 0.2 1 2 0

Overall, there were normally two receivers that scored well enough that they would be fantasy starters by the end of the year. Oddly enough, being that #1 receiver taken was productive only for Holt and Stallworth. Even more surprising was that the second rounds produced as well as the first in the sense that they had a viable rookie step forward though it was almost always just one. Overall, it has been pretty consistent with the 1:6 chance that a rookie wideout becomes a fantasy starter for the season.

What kind of starter did they make?

Using last season as a baseline with the standard performance scoring, the 12th best receiver scored 158 points (tie - Owens and McCardell) and so any fantasy score higher means the receiver should have been a #1 receiver for a fantasy team. The 24th best score was 110 points (Kennison) and between 110 and 158 points means the receiver was worthy of being a #2 receiver on a fantasy team. Lastly, the 36th best score was 92 points (tie - Rice and Engram) and shows that wideouts with between 92 and 110 points were posting #3 fantasy receiver points on the average team. It is notable also to notice the small gap of only 18 points between the 24th and 36th best - right at a point a game.

So we want to see how first year receivers compare to average scores given the above comparison marks. Since so many leagues use three receivers, we'll even consider the 48th best score as the first line back-up receiver level with 76 points (Galloway last year). Using those numbers compared to rookie receivers taken in the first three rounds of the NFL draft in the past five seasons yields this:

Value/Pts #1 (158+) #2 (110-158) #3 (92-110) #4 (76-92) < 92 points
1999 0 2 1 0 6
2000 0 0 1 0 14
2001 0 1 1 0 10
2002 0 0 2 0 11
2003 1 1 0 0 9

Let's take a closer look at those ten rookie receivers that finished the season as worth owning in leagues that start three wideouts.

Year Pick Starter Value Team Name FF PTs
1999 1.06 2 STL Torry Holt 114.8
1999 1.13 3 PIT Troy Edwards 101.4
1999 2.01 2 CLE Kevin Johnson 146.6
2000 3.18 3 SEA Darrell Jackson 107.3
2001 1.15 3 WAS Rod Gardner 98.1
2001 2.21 2 MIA Chris Chambers 130.3
2002 1.13 3 NO Donte Stallworth 107.4
2002 2.31 3 DAL Antonio Bryant 109.3
2003 1.03 2 HOU Andre Johnson 121.6
2003 2.22 1 ARI Anquan Boldin 185.7

Interesting was that only Boldin became a #1 option and yet he was a second rounder and selected as the second receiver on his own team. Those always coveted first round picks accounted for only half of the top performances for rookies and yet the second round had four. What appears likely is that many years see the fluke happen - Darrell Jackson from the mid-third round was the only 2000 rookie worth owning.

Of 20 first round receivers in the past five years, only five of them made any real difference to a fantasy team as a rookie. The two years with the most first round receivers (2000 and 2001) only produced one #2 and two #3 fantasy receivers. Had the Cardinals not experienced so many receiver injuries and were forced to use Boldin, we may have only had Andre Johnson as the lone rookie from last year.

History suggests that there should be at least one or two receivers from this "bumper crop" of 2004 that will actually produce fantasy relevant numbers. With thirteen from the first three rounds to chose from, that makes long odds on getting it right. The good news in this is that rookie receivers are still, relatively speaking, devalued in drafts since most people draft by last year's stats and hey - these guys aren't there!

In keeper leagues, rookie receivers take a major step up in importance which is reasonable given the time most require to hit their stride and the fact most play longer careers with less injuries than most other positions. No doubt by the time your drafts occur, most team owners in your league will have their eye on one or two or more and the NFL/media spin machine will make many seem very valuable in the coming weeks. That's not to say none are worth having because at least one always is. The hard part is finding "the one" (or two or even three).

All these wideouts come into the league as stud-boys from college. By virtue of their draft slot, they will all get at least a decent shot at playing time eventually. But what we want to determine is who is best suited for a good first year? Let's review the receivers not by talent so much (since that has yet to be proven) and instead by their opportunity and situation - a key component of a big first year.

2004 Rookie Receivers from the first three rounds

1.03 Larry Fitzgerald (ARZ) - The first wideout taken always gets his shot at producing this year and with Boldin now gone for a couple of months or more, his role has taken even bigger dimensions. Considering #2 Bryant Johnson is recovering from a stress fracture and was less than effective last year, Fitzgerald's role in the game plan should be very significant. With a new offense installed by Denny Green, is a learning curve for the entire team. Oh yes, and is that lack of any threat of rushing thanks to Shipp's departure. The line looks bad. Brand new quarterback. The only way this will turn into gold for Fitzgerald is if his sheer volume of passes grants his good numbers. And it just might. Worked wonders for Boldin last year.

Chances of top rookie year: A- ( has opportunity and talent and need. Maybe no other offense though).

1.07 Roy Williams (DET) - Williams enters a pretty good situation. The offense is in its second year under Mariucci, Harrington has some experience under his belt and the drafting of Kevin Jones at least hints at the potential of a decent running game. Charles Rogers is healthy, again, for now, and would take attention from Roy by the secondary. At 6'2, 214 pounds, Roy is only slightly smaller than Terrell Owens was in that offense. To William's credit too was staying in college for all four years and coming out mature (which is maybe not like Owens now). Good situation to be sure, but unless Rogers is injured, again, it's unlikely Williams turns in a really big 2004. Pretty good chance here that Roy brings the right mix to the offense and is ready to play the #2 role he already was handed.

Chances of top rookie year: B (great chance for that #3 fantasy level)

1.09 Reggie Williams (JAX) - Taken by the Jaguars as heir apparent to the aging Jimmy Smith, Williams was initially penciled in as the #2 receiver but so far that is still being held by Troy Edwards. is zero doubt that Williams will become the #1 and make the Byron-Reggie connection for years, but so far he is having a problem getting past Troy Edwards. He has not been good enough from the start to warrant that change even though everyone knows it will be made eventually. Additionally, the Jaguars do not prefer to throw much with a sounds defense and Fred Taylor. This looks more "iffy" for a big rookie campaign and a longer term prospect.

Chances of top rookie year: C+ (They want him to and he has the ability but it has not shown up yet, plus offense not likely to throw a lot to him).

1.13 Lee Evans (BUF) - The next attempt at rekindling Peerless Price was Evans and a true speedster he is. What he is not is a possession receiver. That means, best case, big games and then very small games. In the worst case, too few big games while you wait for a reason to use him. Consider this - in that spot across from Eric Moulds last year, Josh Reed only had 509 yards and two scores. He was selected almost a full round before Evans was but Peerless Price himself only had 393 yards and three scores in his rookie year. Evans was an earlier draft pick than either, but history does not indicate that usually means much. In his deep role, chances are best he follows the path of progress of Price which would still make the Bills happy and Moulds a better receiver this year.

Chances of top rookie year: C+(Even if he does, likely will be inconsistent - not a possession guy).

1.15 Mark Clayton (TB) - The Bucs needed someone "Keyshawn-ish" less the mouth and attitude. What appears to be developing is a nasty situation where Keenan McCardell has lost his mind decided to hold out and force the Bucs to reward him richly for being 34 years-old and in the twilight of his career. With Keyshawn gone, the end game to this appears to reward Clayton with a chance to be a #1 receiver this year for Brad Johnson. And so far in camp, he has looked up to the task. This is a very good situation for at least yards and at 6'3", Clayton could figure into the endzone passes as well. While Clayton does not get the press of Roy Williams or Larry Fitzgerald, he might get as many passes or more.

Chances of top rookie year: B+ (Might be even higher if McCardell never figures in)

1.29 Michael Jenkins (ATL) - Jenkins was acquired by the Falcons to provide a Brian Finneran possession role with a touch more speed than Finneran. What compounds this situation is that the offense is new to everyone, Peerless Price is the expensive receiver needing the ball and Michael Vick's ability to throw accurately for an entire season has yet to be seen. Dez White is ahead of him on the depth chart as well. This looks more like a project receiver that will eventually become the possession role for Vick but this season appears less likely to be fantasy significant.

Chances of top rookie year: D+ (Hard to figure but might not play a lot this year)

1.31 Rashaun Woods (SF) - Woods was wildly productive in college and comes to a team that seems to cry out for a receiver - any receiver - to step up and take the lead. Problem is so far Cedrick Wilson and Brandon Lloyd are entrenched as the starters. And the starting quarterback is coming back from a groin injury. And the line is not looking very good. And the offense is changing. This season looks like a "lost year" for the 49ers and Woods may have a future , but it seems unlikely almost any player is going to have much of a "present" this season.

Chances of top rookie year: C+ (His biggest selling point is the 49ers will have to throw and only has relative unknowns in Wilson and Lloyd to beat out. But the offense is not looking very formidable)

2.18 Devery Henderson (NO) - Henderson is another speedster and looks potentially like a great #3 this year and with good production he could move up whenever Horn leaves. But a #3 receiver rarely equates to fantasy success as a rookie. About the last one was Chris Sanders when Houston had the Oilers and he was pretty much never heard from again anyway. Henderson is a longer term pick but if he shows something, might not be a bad bye week filler if your options are few since he has the potential of a big game from the long ball. Not likely to offer any consistency this year and not "fantasy draftable" for this year's purposes.

Chances of top rookie year: D (With Horn, Stallworth and Boo Williams , current situation does not look great)

2.22 Darius Watts (DEN) - The Broncos wanted Clayton this year but when they could not trade up to get him, they settled for Watts and so far all the reports on him have been relatively glowing. The Broncos will feature Rod Smith and Ashley Lelie this season, so the best Watts can hope for (barring injury) is a #3 role. Longer term - Rod Smith is 34-years old and the Broncos took Watts with an eye for the future. Might be an interesting this year if anyone is injured, but chances are best that his value will grow in the future from more humble beginnings in 2004.

Chances of top rookie year: C+ (With Rod Smith and Lelie in the way, his best potential is that they like him a lot)

2.30 Keary Colbert (CAR) - This is the player that many have deemed the next Anquan Boldin mainly because everyone wants to be another Boldin. He has looked nothing but impressive in camp and stepped into the offense like he had been for years. His limitation is Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad. And with the lesser passing of the Panthers, you know Smith is going to take his share off the top. Colbert furthered his case with a big three catch, 131 yard game with two touchdowns in the preseason opener. Those came in the third quarter from Chris Weinke so take them with a grain of salt but by the same token, what more could Colbert had done with the opportunity?

Chances of top rookie year: B- (Has been very impressive but still behind Steve Smith and Muhammad. Since Muhammad likely will be gone next year, Colbert has a shot... at next year. But how many passes will be for the Panther receivers after Steve Smith? If Mushie gets hurt, this could improve a lot.

The rule of thumb is true - most rookie receivers do not have fantasy relevance their first season. Even being the first one taken in the draft is little guarantee. But the average drafter pays attention to mainly only the first two or three rookies and history shows they come deeper than that. are pure upside since they are unknown and yet they have a 1:6 chance of being really good for you. None should be considered an immediate starter for you and it is reasonable to take other backups that offer greater safety even if lower upside. But at the end when you are picking your last receiver, knowing that he's first man out in free agency anyway, take the gamble on a rookie receiver. They may not turn into the next Boldin. They may not even be fantasy relevant.

But then again... they might.