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Sophomore Slump - Breakout Rookies Who Will Underperform in Year Two

2018 was an exceptionally strong year for rookies, especially at the running back position, where players like Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, and Leonard Fournette put up strong numbers. There's been some talk in the fantasy football Twittersphere that some of those players could decline in their second years, and I get that. Kamara and Hunt have to contend with Mark Ingram (minus the four games that Ingram will miss due to suspension) and Spencer Ware taking away snaps, while Fournette has injury concerns.

Again, I get those concerns, but there's also a lot to like about those guys and they still have fairly high ceilings. Instead, I want to focus on three wide receivers who aren't in great situations and don't have those same high ceilings, guys who are probably going to go off the board a lot earlier than they should.

Let's look at why Juju Smith-Schuster, Cooper Kupp, and Keelan Cole are maybe not the right guys for you to draft at their current ADP.

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Second-Year Players Due to Slump

JuJu Smith-Schuster (WR, PIT)

I KNOW. I feel bad suggesting that Smith-Schuster might have a disappointing 2018 season, but I have reasons. RotoBaller's Addison Hayes published this piece on why dynasty owners should sell high on JuJu which covers a lot of the reasons I had for not betting on Smith-Schuster in 2018. Here's a quick summary of the points Hayes made that I agree with:

  • Inflated numbers due to an increase in playing time with Antonio Brown out.
  • Historical trends of other rookies who had Smith-Schuster's level of production, including Eddie Royal and Dwayne Bowe.
  • The history of Ben Roethlisberger not being able to sustain two quality fantasy wide receivers in one season.

Those are good reasons! Here's another: After moving on from Martavis Bryant, the Smith-Schuster era as the clear number two receiver in Pittsburgh lasted a very short amount of time as the team selected James Washington at the end of the second round.

There's also the idea of regression. PlayerProfiler has Smith-Schuster with the highest production premium in the league last year. Football Outsiders has him sixth in DYAR and first in DVOA. He had the most yards per target in 2017 and ranked third in contested catch rate. Are these numbers sustainable for a player who won't be his team's top target? He's a good, young receiver, but the addition of Washington, whose college career suggests that he can be a top receiving option at the next level, muddies things up. Notably, we get the issue of who will play where. Will Smith-Schuster, who was useful in the slot last season, stay there? Will the Steelers opt to get the rookie involved and let Smith-Schuster fight on the outside? We'll see, but those concerns make me wary of taking Smith-Schuster.

Cooper Kupp (WR, LAR)

Kupp is a safe pick in 2018, but I'm not sure that his ultimate ceiling is much higher than his rookie year performance, when he finished as the WR25 in PPR. His 2017 production is almost an illusion in a sense: Robert Woods missed three games during the 2017 season. Both of Kupp's 100 yard games came during that three game stretch. The other game--a 68 yard game against the Cardinals--was his fourth-highest yardage total of the season. It's difficult to rely on Kupp as a fantasy option if his best games rely on a teammate to be injured. It's also difficult when you factor in the addition of Brandin Cooks. I was all in on Kupp after Sammy Watkins left for Kansas City, but Cooks will see a ton of targets in this offense. Todd Gurley will see a lot of usage as well, and in the Seattle game and the Tennessee game, when Gurley made his case for the fantasy MVP and Woods was back, Kupp had nine total targets. His usage went down as the Rams available weapons increased.

There's also the question of what we do with Jared Goff, who looked very bad as a rookie and very good in his second season? If we project him to either maintain his current level of play or continue to improve, great! But what if Goff regresses in his third year back closer to what he did as a rookie? His numbers rose so dramatically across the board that it's impossible to know for sure how sustainable they are

Now, there are reasons to trust Kupp. This decade, six rookie wide receivers have a catch percentage of at least 65 and at least 90 targets. They are: Kupp, Keenan Allen, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry, Jordan Matthews, and Michael Thomas. That's a good group (minus Matthews), but Allen, Beckham, and Thomas all had over 1000 yards and significantly more targets. Matthews is, sadly, the best comparison on that list for Kupp's rookie season.

Keelan Cole (WR, JAX)

While the previous two players still have some good upside going into next season, I hate the position that Keelan Cole is in for the Jaguars. Cole was a great story last year, an undrafted free agent who made the Jaguars roster and ended up finishing as the second best fantasy numbers of any Jaguars wide receiver. Cole was targeted 83 times and turned those targets into 42 catch, 748 yards, and three touchdown campaign. Cole did this despite having just 47 yards on six receptions in Jacksonville's first six games. His campaign was buoyed by two strong games near the end of the year: seven catches for 186 and a score against Houston and six catches for 108 against the 49ers, but his disappearance in the playoffs, when he was targeted just six times in three games. Jacksonville made the bet that that version of Cole was more likely to show up in 2018 than the version that existed at the end of the regular season, and the team went out and signed Donte Moncrief and drafted D.J. Chark. The Moncrief addition wasn't a killer since the team let Allen Hurns go, but with Chark in the fold things get murkier. Cole could end up spending all his time in the slot and producing solid numbers, but the Jaguars wide receiver is one that I'm steering very far away from in most formats.

Also, look, I own Blake Bortles in some leagues, but I'm not sure he can sustain multiple fantasy-relevant wide receivers. I know he did it in 2015 with Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, but that was also a team that played from behind a lot and didn't have a great running game. With one of the league's top defenses, Blake Bortles doesn't get the advantage of garbage time to pad his fantasy stats and, by extension, his receiver's fantasy stats.


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