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Every year, the arrival of new star players from college in the NFL gets us fantasy football enthusiasts excited about new potential sources for fantasy production. But how much do rookies really help your team in their first pro football season? For wide receivers, the answer is "not that much." But over the last two years, more rookies have recorded productive fantasy seasons than before.
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In order to measure the impact of rookie wide receivers in fantasy football, I looked at all wideouts drafted in the Top 100 over the last five years. These players were the household names of their respective draft classes and probably carried the highest name recognition value among rookie wide receivers on draft day (both in the real world and fantasy football).
Overall, 68 wide receivers were drafted in the Top 100 over the past five years. In 2008 and 2012, 15 wide receivers were drafted, whereas only 11 wideouts heard their name called in the first one hundred picks in 2011. I recorded the fantasy points each of these players scored during his rookie season and then averaged them for the respective draft classes. The following table illustrates the results:
As you can see, 2011 was the best year for rookie wide receivers, despite or because of the small size, with A.J. Green, Julio Jones, and Torrey Smith being very solid fantasy wideouts. Last year comes in second in terms of fantasy production despite mostly underwhelming production from players like Justin Blackmon and Michael Floyd who were both drafted in the top half of the first round. Both draft classes rank ahead of those from the years 2008-2010 despite a strong 2009 draft classes with three 100+ fantasy-point producers (Percy Harvin, Mike Wallace, and Hakeem Nicks).
After calculating the average fantasy production for each draft class, I looked at how many players from each class finished in the Top 25, Top 50, and Top 75 among wide receivers in fantasy points scored during their rookie season. The results were designed to put the averages into a bit more perspective and give you an idea where to rank rookie wide receivers in your fantasy rankings.
Interestingly, the differences between the draft classes from 2008-2009 and those from 2011-2012 aren't as big in this analysis as they were in the comparison of average fantasy production. The main difference is that the last two years produced four Top 25 fantasy wideouts, whereas the first two years in our analysis only produced two - despite having three more players drafted in the Top 100.
So what does that mean? The increase in average production suggests that the increased use of pass heavy offenses also directly impacts the fantasy production of rookie wide receivers and/or that college wide receivers are more pro-ready (or considered more pro-ready by their coaches) than ever before and therefore collect more playing time. Of course there may be a correlation between these two factors themselves as well.
And it could be that the sport becomes increasingly dependent on athleticism, a field where young players may have a slight advantage over seasoned veterans which helps equalize their lack of experience. The theory on athleticism is supported by the increase of top-talent fantasy production from rookie wide receivers in recent years as most players who outperformed expectations excelled in overall athleticism and/or speed (e.g. T.Y. Hilton).
Overall, of course, only a handful rookie wide receivers really make an impact in fantasy football during their first year in the league. But in recent years, a few rookies have produced at such a high level during their inaugural campaign that expectations for first-year wideouts are on the rise. This year, there are three players I would consider potential high-impact rookies: Aaron Dobson of the New England Patriots and Cordarrelle Patterson of the Minnesota Vikings because of athleticism and opportunity as well as Tavon Austin of the St. Louis Rams because of excellent speed and explosiveness.
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