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Can You Trust Rookie Wide Receivers in Re-draft?


This upcoming NFL Draft feels like it's very heavy on wide receivers and light on running backs. For dynasty owners, that leads to a pretty simple result: draft the receivers at the top of your rookie draft.

But in re-draft, there's long been this idea that rookie wide receivers aren't consistently useful in fantasy, that it takes them too much time to adjust and thus they have to be avoided when drafting your team. Sure, some will break out at some point, but it's better to wait for that and grab them off the waiver wire.

Is that true, though? Should you avoid rookie wide receivers in re-draft? I put on my investigation skills and dived into some numbers from the past five seasons to answer this pressing question.

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A Brief History of Rookie Wide Receivers

Let's take this year-by-year, back to the 2014 season, and see how rookie wide receivers fared.

2018

Our best fantasy rookie this past season was Calvin Ridley, who finished as WR22 in PPR. Ridley found himself in a great situation, playing across the field from Julio Jones, whose presence helped open things up for the rookie.

D.J. Moore finished as the WR36. He found himself finishing in the top-50 for a different reason; while Ridley did so because he had help across from him, Moore finished so well because the Panthers, with Greg Olsen and Devin Funchess dealing with injuries, needed Moore to step up.

Courtland Sutton was the only other rookie to finish in the top-50, and he just barely snuck in as the WR50. Sutton's path was blocked at the beginning of the year, but a mid-season trade that sent Demaryius Thomas to Houston gave Sutton the chance to shine.

So, three top-50 receivers, though a few guys -- Dante Pettis and Keke Coutee spring to mind -- put up strong performances when they were on the field, but they did struggle to stay on the field. Antonio Callaway and Christian Kirk had their moments. Overall, though, not a great year for the rookies.

2017

There were a ton of wide receivers drafted in 2017, plus undrafted rookies like Keelan Cole, but how much of an impact did they have?

JuJu Smith-Schuster was the WR23. Cooper Kupp was WR25. Cole was the WR48. In our look at the top 50, that's it. Smith-Schuster and Kupp fit the "playing with other good players" role. Cole fits the "they just really needed someone because of injuries" mold.

To me, 2017 is notable not for these successes, but for the failures. Three wide receivers were taken in the top 10: Corey Davis, Mike Williams, and John Ross. How'd they do? Uhh...

Davis, in a low-ceiling offense in Tennessee that relies heavily on the run game, finished as the WR87, and it wasn't until the end of the year and the playoffs that he really looked like a guy worth a high IRL draft pick. Williams, in a crowded Chargers passing attack, was the WR137, catching 11 passes for 95 yards. Ross, meanwhile, was a complete non-factor, and he finished the season as the lowest-scoring wide receiver with a -0.8.

2016

Another year of first rounders not living up to expectation. Four receivers were taken in round one:

  • Corey Coleman, who finished as the WR84 and is no longer part of the Browns
  • Will Fuller, who finished as the WR66 and flashed his big-play ability, though injuries have slowed him in the two years since
  • Josh Doctson, who was WR166 and is just finally starting to emerge
  • Laquon Treadwell, who was WR184 and...nah.

The first rounders definitely didn't fare well, and only one of them, Fuller, is still someone who fantasy owners are paying attention to. But there were other rookies in this draft class!

Michael Thomas, Tyreek Hill, and Sterling Shepard were all taken after the first and all had top-50 fantasy finishes. Like in a lot of other cases, situation matters. Thomas (WR7) joined a team that had Drew Brees, Hill (WR25) had incredible speed and also scored on special teams, and Shepard (WR36) was playing across that season's WR4, Odell Beckham Jr.

2015

Busy year for receivers going in the first round as six of them went. Of those first rounders, Amari Cooper finished as the WR21 and the others all finished WR77 or worse, with two of them (Kevin White and Breshad Perriman) missing the entire season with injuries.

Below that, there were some decent finishes. Tyler Lockett, who had a pair of return touchdowns, finished as the WR44. Stefon Diggs was the WR44.

Cooper had the luxury of playing with another good receiver, Michael Crabtree. Lockett was effective on special teams and had a top quarterback, Russell Wilson, throwing him the ball. Diggs is a bit of an outlier, playing on a team featured a young Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback and the duo of Mike Wallace and Jarius Wright as the team's other top wideouts. Diggs did have Adrian Peterson at running back, though, and that helped to take some pressure off of the Vikings pass game.

2014

The final year of our sample, 2014, which was a really interesting year when it comes to this investigation.

The first receiver taken in the NFL Draft was Sammy Watkins. He finished as the WR27. Next was Mike Evans, who finished as WR13. Then came the WR7, Odell Beckham Jr., followed by our first player to finish outside the top-50, with Brandin Cooks down at 56. Kelvin Benjamin boosted us back up the rankings, though, with his WR16 finish. That puts four of the top five receivers taken in 2014 in the top 27 spots for the wide receiver position.

That wasn't even everyone, though! Jordan Matthews was WR25. Jarvis Landry was WR31. Undrafted Allen Hurns snuck in at WR49. 2014 was a huge year for rookie receivers.

 

Identifying WR Trends

What were the individual circumstances that led to seven rookies finishing among the top 50?

  • Beckham Jr.: Missed the first four games with a hamstring injury, but was a monster once he hit the field. Having a still decent Eli Manning was a factor, but it's also worth noting that Odell is just...well, he's Odell. He's good. He's an immensely talented player who could have succeeded in most situations.
  • Evans: Another talent guy, Evans didn't find himself in the best spot with a Buccaneers team that went 2-14 and had Josh McCown at quarterback, but he had a decent player across from him in Vincent Jackson and the skill to step in from day one and be a team's top receiver. That's something both Beckham and Evans had that I'm not sure anyone in this year's class has.
  • Benjamin: Panthers are an interesting case because they're not a team that relies too heavily on the pass, but the wide receiver situation was such a mess that the top job there was Benjamin's right off the bat. He led the team in targets with 145; the next closest wide receiver to him on that team was Jerricho Cotchery, who was in the first of two largely disappointing years with Carolina.
  • Matthews: This was the year Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez each started eight games at quarterback, so strike out Matthews having an elite quarterback to help him. He had Jeremy Maclin back when Maclin was really good, though, and found himself in a pretty good situation because of that.
  • Watkins: Kyle Orton started 12 games. Robert Woods was the team's other top wideout, but this was before Woods broke out with the Rams. Honestly, chalk this one up to "Watkins was just really good as a rookie" and not to a situation.
  • Landry: Landry's a bit of a special case because he's your quintessential modern NFL slot guy, someone capable of piling up PPR points because he catches short passes. Those guys can be successful in the NFL earlier. (See Cooper Kupp above, or see Andy Isabella next year.)
  • Hurns: Huh. I'd honestly forgotten that Hurns was fine as a rookie because I was thinking more about his breakout campaign in his second season. Hurns outperformed fellow rookie Allen Robinson, and with Cecil Shorts being the top receiver in Jacksonville, the best explanation for how this happened is that anything can happen when you have multiple rookie receivers.

So, overall, 2014 is definitely an outlier. Usually, three or so rookies have strong campaigns, with others flashing breakout potential but not reaching it until a little later in their careers. But there does seem to be some ways to predict who will enter the league strong: a guy who joins a team with either a top quarterback or who can claim the second receiver role on a team with a strong receiver already in place.

 

So, Should We Trust Them in 2019?

I'll admit that I haven't done the most research on some of this year's rookie receivers. I tend to wait a little later and cram that research in closer to the NFL Draft, in part because I care a lot about the situation. A player can be productive as hell in college, but if he winds up as the number three guy in Baltimore? No way am I grabbing him.

So, instead of running down a list of guys who I do or do not trust this year, let's look at this a different way: Who are the NFL teams who could draft a rookie receiver into a situation that's good enough that I'd take them. There are 32 NFL teams, but none of them are equal in how they use their players. What would be the best situations for rookie wideouts?

Detroit Lions

Detroit moved on from Golden Tate last year and while they've got two good receivers in Marvin Jones Jr. and Kenny Golladay, I wouldn't be shocked to see Jones phased out for someone younger. If the Lions take a receiver in the first three rounds, I'd be really interested in seeing how that receiver fits into the offense.

Green Bay Packers

Quarterback? Check. Good WR1? Check. A young and unsettled group of guys behind him who've shown promise but could be jumped in the rotation by the right piece? Check. I like guys like Marquez Valdes-Scantling, but there's room for someone else here.

Kansas City Chiefs

Potential Tyreek Hill suspensions aside, the Chiefs are a pass-first team that could definitely use another receiver, especially with Chris Conley gone. The right rookie could push Sammy Watkins for playing time early and become a top-50 fantasy option.

New England Patriots

Rob Gronkowski retired. Josh Gordon has stepped away from football. Julian Edelman is a great slot guy, but there's room for a bigger, outside receiver from this draft class to come in and be one of Tom Brady's top targets.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Antonio Brown is gone, but you have a good quarterback and a good top receiver with JuJu Smith-Schuster, so a rookie making an impact here really just depends on if you think a rookie beats out second-year wideout James Washington for snaps. This is a spot where someone could come in and have a quick impact.

New Orleans Saints

Same story as a lot of the others here. Drew Brees at quarterback and a top option at receiver in Michael Thomas, plus some questions about how good the other guys on the roster can be. The right rookie could look a lot like 2018 Calvin Ridley with this team.

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