Let’s talk about rookies. It has long been an accepted theory that rookie running backs contribute to your fantasy team quicker than wide receivers. It has also been an accepted theory that wide receivers take two to three years to create a weekly impact. I think things are changing in a hurry.
Let’s start off with running backs. As I alluded to in the ‘Beauty Contest’, running backs on average have two (2.3 to be exact) top twenty-four performers in their rookie year. The trend has been slowly creeping up the last three years. Starting with the 2017 rookie class, we have had four (Kamara, Hunt, McCaffery, Fournette), three in 2018 (Barkley, Lindsay, Chubb) and three in 2019 (Jacobs, Sanders, Montgomery). Three years may not be enough to establish a trend, but it is enough to draw attention to this development. Prior to digging into what this may mean going forward, I’d like to point out what these running backs all have in common. First, all but one excels as a pass catcher and second, they all saw a large workload as a rookie. This is how Montgomery was able to make up for not being used as a pass catcher. It is not a difficult concept to grasp, a high volume of touches per game (tpg) can lead to fantasy success for any running back.
We have a few outliers in Kamara and Lindsay but what they missed in touch opportunity they made up for in efficiency. The potential blossoming trend is showing that you want a running back that is projected for 20 opportunities a game, and if they aren’t you need them to be very efficient and heavily involved in the passing game. Efficiency is near impossible to forecast for incoming rookies, which leaves receiving as the main desired skill. So, let’s look into an average of receptions for an incoming running back.
Kamara, Lindsay, McCaffery all saw 29 or more targets per season for their collegiate career. While that does not seem like a gaudy number, taking into consideration that not every player was a redshirt freshman starter that is very impressive. These numbers are important for many reasons. You can establish a baseline of collegiate receptions for future incoming rookies that may not fit the workhorse role on their new team. Using this to help address a future trend let’s next go and address the 2020 rookie running back class to see how they are faring through five weeks.
We have three running backs through five weeks on the cusp of twenty touches per game, with only one meeting the classifications for college receptions. This would keep extending the blossoming trend we are seeing. You then have three other running backs battling injuries, poor team performance or lacking practice reps. From the information that we have, the year of 2020, we are going to see three rookie running backs cresting the top-24. The outlier here is Antonio Gibson, hanging on the edge of at #24. His end of season rank is a complete guessing game, as his per game usage has yet to dictate any trend other than being involved.
After four years I feel comfortable calling this a trend assuming this holds steady, and not a few years of incredible athletic talent. Part 1, of our rookie bonanza holds true, running backs are trending to become more impactful jumping from an average of 2 to an average of 3.
What about wide receivers? We will use a similar approach using past data as our guidance through this investigation. I am not going to pinpoint factors into a rookie wide receiver breaking the top-24 because that position is much more complex to forecast. Most of that lies between the variety of positions a wide receiver can play and the type of receiver that player is. That is just a role the running back position does not entertain.
From ten years of data there has been a trend of wide receivers and top-24 finishes. It has been well established that traditionally wide receivers take longer to develop into usable fantasy assets. In fact, over the past ten years a rookie wide receiver finished top-24 at a rate of 1.2 and finished top-24 as a sophomore at a rate of 3.3.
As the trend lines indicate, there is an infinitesimal decline in a rookie top-24 finishes and an incline in a second year top-24 finishes. The decline for a rookie year finish was because of 2012, over eight years ago. What is more impressive is that since 2013 one rookie has delivered a top 24 finish. For second year wide receivers there was a massive jump from 2018 to 2019 (3 to 5). What we are going to explore is how this is forecasting this year and what may be the driving impact to this blossoming trend. Unlike the running backs it is too early to call this a trend, but it is something we need to get in front of for dynasty. Given the massive jump to 5 let’s talk about the 2019 receiving class.
So far, we have two sophomore wide receivers in the top 24 and two rookie wide receivers in the top 24. We also have 2 more sophomore wide receivers knocking on the door with players like Diontae Johnson and A.J. Brown trailing behind due to missing games from injury. The current point difference between WR 16 and WR30 is 19 points. It is hard to extrapolate from only five weeks into the season.
With eight players all within ‘striking distance’ I still feel encouraged that this new trend is going to be developing as the year goes on. What is most encouraging is that so far four rookie wide receivers are already in the top-32 wide receivers, with Lamb being top-12. For this to be considered an established trend we are going to want to see more rookies making an impact sooner and sooner. I find it very promising that there are also some big-name rookie players that have yet to make an impact. Denzel Mims, Jalen Reagor, Brandon Aiyuk, Jerry Jeudy, Bryan Edwards and Henry Ruggs are all talented enough to vault themselves into the top-24. More likely than not, you will see those names become more relevant their sophomore year.
What do we make of this? We see a promising trend for rookie running backs and an interesting development for the rookie and sophomore wide receivers. When it comes to rookie drafts, not much will change initially. You are still going to be prioritizing running backs at the beginning of your draft (unless superflex then quarterbacks are mixed in). With another running back ‘returning value’ sooner you may even start to see the first four to five picks of a rookie draft be all running backs. Similar to this year with CEH, JT, Akers, and Swift all being chosen in different spots from draft positions 1.01- 1.04. After that is when the potentially new trend of wide receivers are going to really come into play here. If the blossoming trend continues and you see the average for rookie receivers jump to two players in the top-24 and the sophomore players jump to 4.5+. People are going to be more willing to take the risk and try to find which two wide receivers will be top-24.
Beyond the draft, this is going to change the valuation of future rookie draft picks and also how long a team takes to rebuild. With more players returning a faster return of points, people are going to value rookie picks more and more under the possibility they can cash in on a fast return. For rebuilding teams, a three-year full rebuild may be achievable in two years. Which, in return will incentivize managers to be more willing to take the rebuild route.
A lot of those possible scenarios come down to if a wide receiver can become impactful in one to two year instead of two to three. What may be driving this sudden influx in competent rookie receivers is the college’s national acceptance of the air raid variations of offense. For decades most college football programs ran a pro-style offense or a west coast offense. A change happened the last three to five years. More and more teams have adopted an air raid style of offense. Which in layman terms is essentially having your offense throw forty to fifty times a game, which compared to twenty to thirty times a game is massive. By having wide receivers see an extra emphasis in the passing game and more live reps. Players are coming to the NFL better equipped to make a quicker impact. Coincidentally the NFL is trending more and more towards three wide receiver sets which is giving those young players more opportunity. More opportunity to adjust to the NFL and more opportunity to continue building upon their newly raised foundation thanks to the air raid college offenses.
The bell is still too early to ring to bring the cows’ home. When it comes down to it, more rookies or sophomores producing quicker is going to give managers an initial edge over their league; until the masses get in line. This is not a siren song to dump your solid veterans, but instead it appears time to reevaluate those third-year wide receivers that are flirting with breaking out but ultimately failing to do so.