What's in Store for Torry Holt and James Johnson?

I'm in a keeper (non-dynasty) league, and am currently in the process of deciding who to keep and who to drop. Two guys on the bubble right now are James Johnson of the Dolphins and Torry Holt of the Rams.

Both were rookies last year, and both enjoyed some success, but neither could claim his rookie year was anything terribly special. I thought it might be interesting to look at players whose rookie seasons were similar to Johnson's and Holt's, and see how they turned out. This might give us some clues about what to expect from these two youngsters.

We'll start with Johnson. He amassed 658 total yards and reached the end zone 4 times. That makes 90 fantasy points. I looked at the rookie season of every player active in 1998 or later, and came up with 19 running backs whose rookie season was between 70 and 110 fantasy points -- i.e. within 20 points of Johnson's. Here's the list:

LastName     FirstName   YEAR  TOTYD     TD    FPT
--------------------------------------------------
Barber       Tiki        1997    810      4    105
Bates        Mario       1994    641      6    100
Carter       Ki-Jana     1996    433      9     97
Hampton      Rodney      1990    729      4     97
Phillips     Lawrence    1996    660      5     96
Hicks        Skip        1998    456      8     94
Potts        Roosevelt   1993    900      0     90
Johnson      James       1999    658      4     90
Stewart      James       1995    715      3     90
Meggett      David       1989    648      4     89
Broussard    Steve       1990    614      4     85
Floyd        William     1994    450      6     81
Allen        Terry       1991    612      3     79
Williams     Harvey      1991    594      3     77
Harris       Raymont     1994    700      1     76
Avery        John        1998    570      3     75
Henley       June        1998    565      3     75
Hill         Greg        1994    666      1     73
Lee          Amp         1992    464      4     70
Hayden       Aaron       1995    523      3     70
This is not an encouraging list for Johnson fans. There are only a few guys here who could be said to have successful fantasy careers. Hampton and Terry Allen had a few good years each. Raymont Harris, James Stewart, and Harvey Williams each enjoyed one or two respectable years. The rest of the list consists of backs who never had much fantasy value and almost certainly never will.

Yes, Johnson was injured for part of the year. But he was also, when healthy, given a real shot to win the job as a featured back on a team that loved to run the ball, and I would guess that most of the backs on the above list were not.

Nobody knows for sure what's in store for Johnson, but it is a fact that the overwhelming majority of backs who have had rookie campaigns like his have not turned out well, at least from a fantasy perspective. Good running backs, much moreso than other positions, are generally good from the start. I predict Johnson will be in and out of a starting role for various teams for a few years, and then will fade out of the league. If he's smart, he'll be a rich man by then, and will be able to tell his grandkids he played in the NFL, but he will have been no friend to fantasy owners.

He's Harvey Williams at best -- probably more like Greg Hill.

What about Torry Holt? He was good for 117 fantasy points last year, making him the second-best rookie receiver, behind Kevin Johnson. Here's a list of rookie WRs within 20 points of Holt:

LastName     FirstName YEAR1    YD  TD   FPT1   FPT2   FPT3   FPT4
------------------------------------------------------------------
Sanders      Chris      1995   823   9    134    112     67     13
Harrison     Marvin     1996   836   8    133    122    120    239
Johnson      Keyshawn   1996   844   8    132    126    185    166
Scott        Darnay     1994   866   5    127    113    114    110
Barnett      Fred       1990   721   8    121    119    143     17
Rice         Jerry      1985   927   3    119    260    251    201
Blades       Brian      1988   682   8    119    137     72    114
Brown        Tim        1988   725   5    114      1     45     87
Rison        Andre      1989   820   4    108    181    169    178
Moore        Rob        1990   692   6    105    129     99     90
Green        Willie     1991   592   7    101     89     58     15
Sanders      Frank      1995   883   2    100    105    126    133
Alexander    Derrick    1994   828   2     99     25    164    155
I've also included three extra columns here, which list how each player did in his second, third, and fourth seasons.

With the exception of Chris Sanders, and maybe Willie Green, there's not a complete fantasy dud in the bunch. There are 13 receivers listed here. Let's split them into groups:

Rice         Jerry      1985   927   3    119    260    251    201
Harrison     Marvin     1996   836   8    133    122    120    239
Brown        Tim        1988   725   5    114      1     45     87
Rison        Andre      1989   820   4    108    181    169    178
Johnson      Keyshawn   1996   844   8    132    126    185    166
So five of the 13 turned out to be legitimate fantasy studs. But note that success was not immediate for all of them. Keyshawn took until his 3rd year to show his potential, Harrison until his 4th, and Tim Brown was fairly worthless until his 6th year.

Moore        Rob        1990   692   6    105    129     99     90
Barnett      Fred       1990   721   8    121    119    143     17
Alexander    Derrick    1994   828   2     99     25    164    155
Sanders      Frank      1995   883   2    100    105    126    133
Blades       Brian      1988   682   8    119    137     72    114
Scott        Darnay     1994   866   5    127    113    114    110
Six more who have been viable fantasy starters at some point. And I still think Frank Sanders has a chance to move into the top group. Note again that development was a slow process for some of these guys.

Sanders      Chris      1995   823   9    134    112     67     13
Green        Willie     1991   592   7    101     89     58     15
I suppose we shouldn't entirely give up on Sanders just yet, but time is certainly running out on him. Anyway, it's encouraging that only two of Holt's comps ended up busting.

The lesson: history is overwhelmingly on Holt's side. His upside is Marvin Harrison, and his downside is probably something like Darnay Scott. Looking at particulars, Holt is obviously in a great situation, and from everything I've heard he has a tremendous work ethic and attitude. I fully expect him to join the top group someday, and I wouldn't be surprised if it happened this year.