The Truth About Rookie Wide Receivers

Wide receivers have one of the toughest jobs on the field - they have no blockers and make their living running precise routes in the middle of the secondary. They need to establish chemistry with their quarterback who in turn must know exactly where his receiver is at all time. At the same time, there are perhaps a half dozen defensive backs running around looking to make an ESPN highlight tackle. It would seem a stretch to expect these NFL freshman to matter much.

The truth? They only get better and better.

How many relevant rookie wide receivers were there each year?

  WR1 WR2 WR3 WR4 BENCH BUST
Pts 160+ 125+ 100+ 90+ 50+ <50
2000     1   2 30
2001   1   1 4 33
2002     2   6 27
2003 1   1   3 44
2004 1 3 1   1 33
2005         6 52
2006   1   1 3 40
2007   1   1 5 31
2008   1 1   2 34
2009     2   7 29
2010 1     1 7 39
2011   3 1 2 1 30

We'll consider all rookies here - those who were drafted and even the undrafted wideouts that had at least one catch. It varies from year to year but generally speaking there are around 40 rookie wideouts who are drafted and/or makes a team and records a catch in his first year.

The columns relate to the fantasy points scored by the player in their first season and without reception points. They fall out almost every year with the scoring used. The first ten to twelve wideouts will turn in over 160 points while the 13th to 24th will usually end up between 160 and 125 points. The next 12 drop only 25 points and then the fourth tier still are gaining 90 points. This doesn't accommodate when players miss games due to injury - just their year end totals for an idea of what they did.

The results have been probably much better than most realize. I did a similar study perhaps ten years ago that showed how infrequently that rookie wide receivers mattered. This update comes with a nice surprise - they not only matter but are helping fantasy teams make their playoffs and win championships.

Consider that in most leagues, at least two and likely three wideouts are used. In some leagues, as many as four may be employed and considering injury and bye weeks, those tier four players are all owned and likely used at least on occasion. We'll break down where these receivers are coming from but for now most years have at least one rookie wideout with 125 fantasy points or more and last year witnessed three. Taken from the 90+ point level upwards, there were an unprecedented six rookie wideouts definitely worth owning in a year where they never even practiced until training camp. With the exception of 2005, there are always at least a couple of rookie receivers that need to be on fantasy teams.

How many top rookie wideouts came out of the first three rounds of every draft?

First Round
  WR1 WR2 WR3 WR4    
Pts 160+ 125+ 100+ 90+ 50+ <50
2000         2 3
2001       1 2 3
2002     1   1 1
2003     1     2
2004 1 3       3
2005         4 2
2006       1    
2007   1   1 2 2
2008            
2009     3   1 1
2010       1   1
2011   2       1

First Round - The first round has almost always served up at least one decent fantasy player other than in 2008 when there were no first round wideouts drafted. Since 2004, there have been seven wide receivers that have turned in very respectable first seasons. Working back from current, both A.J. Green and Julio Jones turned in great first years and Jonathan Baldwin might had were it not for his broken hand. In 2010, there were only two first rounds and both were taken deep into that round. Dez Bryant had a decent showing and DeMaryius Thomas was injured. 2009 was an interesting year wince the first two wideouts - Darrius Heyward-Bey and Michael Crabtree both disappointed but the rest of that round was golden - Jeremy Maclin, Percy Harvin, Hakeem Nicks and Kenny Britt. Quite a difference form 2008 when there were no receivers. 2007 had six wideouts drafted but only Calvin Johnson and Dwayne Bowe managed to turn in fantasy relevant numbers. Still - nice showing from the first round overall. 31 players came in with less than 90 points but 16 were definitely fantasy stars. That's about a 33% success rate and really it is higher than that since we all knew to avoid at least some of those players.

Second Round
  WR1 WR2 WR3 WR4    
Pts 160+ 125+ 100+ 90+ 50+ <50
2000           3
2001   1     1 2
2002       1 4 3
2003 1       2 3
2004     1     2
2005         1 4
2006         1 3
2007         1 2
2008   1 1   1 7
2009         1 1
2010         1 2
2011   1   1 1 1

Second Round - While this round served up fewer than the first round - understandably - but there have been a few nice finds. Last year saw Torrey Smith turn in decent stats though much did come from his one monster game. In 2008 when there were not supposed to be any decent receivers, the second round served up DeSean Jackson and Eddie Royal who both had nice rookie seasons. Jordy Nelson also came from that class and round but had a quiet first season. Two of the last four seasons had notable second rounders but last season was as good as it gets with players from this round. Back in 2003, Anquan Boldin was selected with the 2.22 pick (after first round flop Bryant Johnson) but he's been the extreme exception.

Third Round
  WR1 WR2 WR3 WR4    
Pts 160+ 125+ 100+ 90+ 50+ <50
2000     1     6
2001           2
2002           3
2003         2 2
2004           2
2005         1 2
2006           5
2007         1 7
2008           5
2009     1     6
2010         2 6
2011           4

Third Round - By the third round, there has not been a lot of help. Darrell Jackson had a nice first year and yet was the 15th receiver drafted that year and even the seventh taken in that round. Other than him, 2009 saw Mike Wallace shine but otherwise this round has been about five or six players drafted and yet none starting out with much success.

How many top rookie wideouts came out of the last four rounds of the draft or were undrafted?

4th Thru 7th Round
  WR1 WR2 WR3 WR4    
Pts 160+ 125+ 100+ 90+ 50+ <50
2000           18
2001           22
2002           20
2003           25
2004         1 17
2005           17
2006   1     1 22
2007           17
2008           20
2009     1   4 17
2010         2 14
2011       1   16

Undrafted Rookies
  WR1 WR2 WR3 WR4    
Pts 160+ 125+ 100+ 90+ 50+ <50
2000           9
2001         1 4
2002         1 7
2003           9
2004           6
2005           5
2006         1 9
2007         1 3
2008         1 1
2009           4
2010         2 14
2011       1   6

There are always about 15 to 20 receivers taken in the final four rounds of the NFL draft and safe to say most do not make the team let alone end up with any appreciable stats as a rookie (or ever). Historically, there was nothing that came from this deep in the draft other than Donald Driver in the seventh round back in 1999 and even he had a nothing rookie season. But as barren as it has been over the years, there has been at least a minor shift.

In 2006, perhaps the best 7th rounder of all time was Marquez Colston who shattered all the rules of thumb regarding the deeply drafted receivers. As always - it helps to play with one of the elite quarterbacks. In 2009, Austin Collie was a big surprise but again - thanks in no small part to playing with Peyton Manning.

Interesting too was that six players from these late rounds had between 50 and 90 fantasy points in 2010. But Johnny Knox, Austin Collie, Louis Murphy, Brian Hartline, Mike Thomas and Mike Williams all came early in the fourth round and may have peaked early in a mediocre career.

Undrafted players really never matter. They do make the team and will record a catch but considering that there are 32 NFL teams and normally fewer than 10 teams even bother with an undrafted wideout who catches at least one pass. Doug Baldwin was the lone player who managed to record a fantasy relevant season as a rookie who was never drafted but that's as much an indictment of the state of receivers in Seattle as anything.

What has been the fantasy payback for drafting a rookie wideout?

2006 Pick # WR Taken Year End Rank Pts
Jennings, Greg 15.04 60 43 126.2
Baskett, Hank 15.11 63 66 49.7
Colston, Marques na undrafted 14 221.8
Holmes, Santonio na undrafted 39 128.3
2007 Pick # WR Taken Year End Rank Pts
Johnson, Calvin 6.02 24 34 149.4
Jones, Jacoby 11.08 49 69 27.4
Gonzalez, Anthony 13.08 59 47 112.6
Jarrett, Dwayne 14.1 62 73 13.3
Jones, James 15.06 64 44 123.2
Ginn Jr., Ted 16.02 65 59 76
Bowe, Dwayne na undrafted 19 197.2
2008 Pick # WR Taken Year End Rank Pts
Hardy, James 11.06 45 66 29.7
Royal, Eddie 14.07 59 15 213.3
Thomas, Devin 15.01 60 61 38.3
Jackson, DeSean 15.07 64 24 180.2
Morgan, Josh 16.07 68 52 61.9
2009 Pick # WR Taken Year End Rank Pts
Harvin, Percy 10.05 44 23 185.4
Maclin, Jeremy 13.03 49 32 146.8
Crabtree, Michael 14.01 55 51 113.7
Heyward-Bey, Darrius 16.04 67 72 29.3
Britt, Kenny na undrafted 44 127.7
Nicks, Hakeem na undrafted 30 162.3
2010 Pick # WR Taken Year End Rank Pts
Bryant, Dez 10.03 41 37 149.1
McCluster, Dexter 10.09 44 65 58.5
Williams, Mike 12.06 51 16 213.4
Thomas, Demaryius 15.09 64 63 62.4
2011 Pick # WR Taken Year End Rank Pts
Jones, Julio 7.02 33 21 179
Little, Greg 9.01 39 34 145.4
Green, A.J. 9.02 40 13 213.4
Moore, Denarius 11.11 50 42 123.5
Smith, Torrey na undrafted 41 126.3

To give a dose of fantasy reality (?), let's take a look at the last six year of the SOFA Experts league and how they dratted rookie wideouts. This league is a good measuring stick since it is populated with heavy-hitter fantasy veterans. The point values are higher here since they do employ a point per reception unlike the scoring in the above tables. But this is plenty good enough to consider for some lessons.

In green I have highlighted those players that seemed to be a good value considering where they were drafted (Pick) and where they ended up in fantasy scoring that season (Year End Rank). I also listed how many wideouts have been selected when each player was drafted and there are 18 rounds to this league of twelve team owners.

One interesting trend was that each season there were half of the rookies drafted being good values and half were not. That's typical of what veterans will turn in but represents the wideouts holding their own since there is so little to go on for these players other than collegiate success and optimism. But 2011 was a magic year. Every rookie drafted was a good value and Julio Jones and A.J. Green ended up as top 20 wideouts.

Realize that when any wideout ends the year ranked in the top 40 for their position, they have been worthy of fantasy starts in most leagues. Last year there were five rookies that ended up in the top 42 players (in this scoring system).

Notable too have been how many rookie wideouts that were not drafted in this league ended up as fantasy relevant. Both Dwayne Bowe and Marques Colston ended as top 20 players as rookies but otherwise they have not been nearly so productive.

Look at the table to the right. Notice how most rookies were being drafted well after the 10th round if not near the end of that league's draft. But recent seasons have seen bigger hype coming out of colleges for players who are literally "hitting the ground running" in their NFL career. That three players were taken prior to the tenth round last season seemed wildly optimistic against past history and yet in each case - success!

The major success with the five rookie wideouts last year will certainly have an effect on drafts this summer. The previous year is always a major influence on drafters and the story was just all good for rookies last year.

Are the Good Times Really here to stay?

Probably.

The NFL is a passing league now and while it's easy to expect that it is just a cycle, that is probably wrong. The fundamentals in the NFL have changed and high scoring teams put fans in the stands. The passing stats are up each year and not just for these wide receivers - teams are using both tight ends and running backs in greater measure as receivers. For so long as the passing stats remain high, there will be a constant need for new talent from college and developing players happens little anymore. The NFL is looking for players to come in and contribute immediately if possible - even wide receivers.

But while there are rookie wide receivers with fantasy relevance every year, take the lessons of history to heart. The later the round, the less likely a player will have a decent rookie season (if not career) and that is not just incremental, it is more exponential. You have a far better chance of landing a good receiver from the first round than the second. And you have an even better chance of getting one in the second than in the third. Considering how many rookie wideouts there are every season, never leave the first round unless you have a very good feeling about the player.

There also needs to be one of two characteristics present to make the risk on a rookie worthwhile. Either he needs to play with an elite quarterback who makes everyone look better or it has to be a team situation where there just are no other reliable options in the passing game and the rookie becomes a primary wideout somewhat by default.

2012 using the recent past as a gauge

Last season was a huge year for rookie wideouts with an unprecedented six of them scoring 90+ fantasy points. There had never been more than two such players in any of the last five seasons. With no offseason training, there were reasons to expect fewer rookie stars, not a historical precedent to be set. But it was and it all points to the importance of passing in the NFL and the lack of development time given players now.

As shown above, the likelihood that a top rookie comes from the third round or later is so rare as to not being worth considering. But within the first two rounds of 2012, there were nine wideouts drafted and lots to consider about which ones are in the best mixture of talent, situation and opportunity.

Pick Team Player Ht Wt Talent Opportunity Situation  
1.05 JAC Blackmon, Justin 6'1" 207 #1 player to #32 passing team. Sorry.
1.13 ARI Floyd, Michael 6'3" 220 Fitzgerald both lifts and holds him down
1.20 TEN Wright, Kendall 5'10" 196 Likley slot guy in TEN
1.30 SF Jenkins, A.J. 6'0" 192 Rush first and lots of other hands there
2.01 STL Quick, Brian 6'3" 220 STL needs him NOW. Little competition.
2.11 NYJ Hill, Stephen 6'4" 215 Jets rookie wideout? Hard to buy into.
2.13 CHI Jeffery, Alshon 6'4" 230 Height may save him but CHI weather late?
2.22 DET Broyles, Ryan 5'10" 192 Slot guy in DET should catch a few bombs
2.31 NYG Randle, Rueben 6'4" 210 Nicks and Cruz won't share much