Hay in a needlestack: the search for productive rookie receivers

Most veteran fantasy footballers know that rookie wide receivers have a dismal success rate. How dismal? Consider this: from 1985 to 2000, 113 WRs were chosen in the first two rounds of the draft. Only 13 of them have been legitimate fantasy starters in their rookie season. (I'm defining a "legitimate fantasy starter" as a WR who was among the top 24 WRs of the year according to fantasy points, which I'm defining as yards/10 + TDs*6).

That's about a 12uccess rate.

So far so good, we all know this. But here's where, in my view, a lot of people make a wrong turn. A lot of fantasy GMs just write off rookie WRs altogether because of this. That's not the answer. The answer is to try to figure out who's going to be in that 12%.

First, recall that 2001 was The Year Of The WR [TM] in the NFL draft: six receivers in the first round and four more in the second. There was a similar run on receivers back in 1996 (five in round one and six more in round two), and 1996 turned out to be a banner year for rookie wideouts. Keyshawn Johnson, Eddie Kennison, Marvin Harrison, and Terry Glenn were all legitimate fantasy starters as rookies that year. Maybe we're in store for a similar treat this year.

To give us a clue, let's see if there's a relationship between the size of the rookie crop and the quality.

               WRs drafted        Rookie WRs in top 24
Year       in first two rounds     for fantasy points
2001              10                      ???
2000               8                       0
1999               5                       1
1998              10                       1
1997               7                       0
1996              11                       4
1995               5                       2
1994              11                       1
1993               7                       0
1992               5                       0
1991               7                       0
1990               3                       2
1989               6                       0
1988               9                       1
1987               6                       0
1986               5                       2
1985               8                       4
NOTE: all draft information was taken from drafthistory.com, a site with which I am in no way affiliated, but which I highly recommend.

No correlation at all. Several large rookie classes produced weak results and some of the smaller crops produced a fair amount of decent rookies. So I guess we shouldn't necessarily count on any rookie WRs to hit it big this year just based on the depth of draft class.

Now, if you tally up the right-hand column, you'll notice that a total of 18 rookie wide receivers have been legitimate fantasy starters since 1985. What I want to do for the remainder of this article is to take a systematic but subjective look at these 18 players and the situations they landed in. Maybe we can find some common threads that will help point us to the rookie successes of 2001 (if any).

So, for each of the 18 successful rookie WRs, I will ask a series of questions and give their answers as best as I can. At the end, we'll round up all the answers and see if anything grabs our attention.

  1. Kevin Johnson, ranked #17 in 1999, Browns

  2. Randy Moss, ranked #1 in 1998, Vikings

  3. Terry Glenn, ranked #13 in 1996, Patriots

  4. Eddie Kennison, ranked #17 in 1996, Rams

  5. Marvin Harrison, ranked #21 in 1996, Colts

  6. Keyshawn Johnson, ranked #22 in 1996, Jets

  7. Joey Galloway, ranked #14 in 1995, Seahawks

  8. Chris Sanders, ranked #22 in 1995, Oilers

  9. Darnay Scott, ranked #21 in 1994, Bengals

  10. Fred Barnett, ranked #19 in 1990, Eagles

  11. Calvin Williams, ranked #24 in 1990, Eagles

  12. Brian Blades, ranked #24 in 1988, Seahawks

  13. Billy Brooks, ranked #9 in 1986, Colts

  14. Ernest Givins, ranked #13 in 1986, Oilers

  15. Eddie Brown, ranked #7 in 1985, Bengals

  16. Anthony Carter, ranked #16 in 1985, Vikings

  17. Gary Clark, ranked #19 in 1985, Redskins

  18. Jerry Rice, ranked #22 in 1985, 49ers

Summing it up

Conclusions: So history has taught us that successful rookie wide receivers can come from the following kinds of teams: And the worst part is that, at least to my eye, all these kinds of teams appear equally likely to produce successful rookie WRs. What a mess. So have we accomplished anything here? I'm not sure. I guess what I'll take from this exercise is that perhaps that buzzword "situation" is overrated when it comes to considering rookie WRs. The successful rookies in the past 16 years have come from a bewilderingly diverse collection of different situations.

Of course, we could go deeper and look at factors other than the ones considered here. For instance, one thing that strikes me is that, at a glance, it appears that most of the above WRs are on the small side. This would appear to fit with bits of conventional wisdom I've heard to the effect that it takes a few years for big receivers to learn to use their size. Good news for Santana Moss? I'm not quite prepared to say that right now, but maybe worth considering.

In fact, at this point, I don't have any confidence that I can push my success rate with picking rookie WRs above the general 12%. And I don't like those odds. Maybe writing off all the rookie receivers (at least until the late rounds) isn't such a bad idea after all.