Going Deep  

 

Finding rookie WRs who could make an impact

Remember your first day at a new school? Trying to figure out where your classroom was while getting to know your new classmates and teachers. And then there's the homework. All of these new concepts and new ways of doing things are quite a bit to take in. It makes perfect sense that it took a few weeks to get fully acclimated to the new surroundings.

Now imagine that on your way to and from class there are very large, aggressive men trying to thwart your progress and your every step is critiqued by a phalanx of reporters and analyzed (and over-analyzed) by the nation at large. Welcome to the life of an NFL rookie wide receiver.

The freshman season of an NFL player is never easy and it's part of the reason that such a relatively small percentage of them become impact players in their first season. If you've read anything from us this summer (or caught any episodes of NFL Fantasy LIVE), you've probably heard one or more of our analysts sing the refrain that rookie receivers struggle to make a fantasy impact. Michael Fabiano even wrote a column about it earlier this year.

In the grand scheme of things, that's correct. Since 2009, 154 wide receivers have been selected in the NFL Draft and scores more have been added to rosters as free agents. Only six have finished among the top 20 at their position in the first season. Looking deeper, just 13 have been in the top 40 -- those would be the guys who could be used as a WR4 in 10-team leagues.

So we've established that the percentage is bad. But of course it is. An NFL rookie season is akin to that 8 a.m. biology class in the 500-seat auditorium. It's designed to weed people out. With that in mind, not only will you have a small number of players be immediately successful, you'll have a small number of players who are even still in the league a couple of years after they've been drafted.

The point is ... there's another way to look at this. That's where your friends here at Going Deep come in. There has been so much talk about this year's class of rookie receivers that it's hard to ignore them in your fantasy drafts. Instead of dismissing the entire group while someone else in your league takes a successful flier on a first-year pass-catcher, why not try to figure out which ones are more likely to hit this season?

There are a few things that some of the more impactful fantasy freshman receivers have in common. The first one is fairly obvious -- play for a team that throws the ball a lot. Nine of the 13 receivers in the list to the right were on squads which called passing plays at a rate equal to or greater than the league average. Opportunity is a key watch word in fantasy football, but even more so for rookies, who are trying to prove themselves. More pass plays means more opportunity to catch the football.

The other commonality is a little less intuitive. All but three of the 13 wideouts (T.Y. Hilton, Justin Blackmon and Terrance Williams) played on teams with records of .500 or above. Perhaps the initial thought is that rookies would have a better chance to thrive on teams that aren't going anywhere and could be looking to see what the future holds for some young players. But the counter to that argument is that bad teams generally have bad quarterbacks. Bad quarterbacks beget unproductive fantasy receivers. In short, Philip Rivers is better for you than Blaine Gabbert.

With that criteria on the board, here are a few receivers that could fall into that category in 2014...

Brandin Cooks, New Orleans Saints: The list of reasons that Cooks is rocketing up draft boards continues to grow. The Saints rank among the pass-happiest teams in the league and could once again be a Super Bowl contender this season. With Lance Moore now in Pittsburgh and Darren Sproles in Philadelphia, there are a lot of targets for Drew Brees to spread around. Cooks is certain to see a lot of them.

Jarvis Landry, Miami Dolphins: Landry's name hasn't earned a lot of mentions among this class of receivers. But the young man from LSU has arguably been Miami's most consistent pass-catcher in training camp, according to reports. Mike Wallace is locked in as the team's No. 1 receiver, but the Dolphins plan to run plenty of three-receiver sets this season and Landry could push veteran Brandon Gibson for one of those spots on the field. If Ryan Tannehill can continue his progression, Miami's rookie wideout could be a deep sleeper.

Cody Latimer, Denver Broncos: Latimer's biggest issue will be getting on the field consistently in an offense that already features a plethora of productive pass catchers. But if he does, well ... Peyton Manning.

John Brown, Arizona Cardinals: The diminutive speedster from Pittsburgh State has tied the Cardinals' secondary in knots all throughout training camp. If that wasn't enough, Brown has drawn comparisons to Anquan Boldin because of his ability to quickly pick up the principles of the team's offense. Brown could face trouble seeing targets with Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd still taking up residence in the desert, but look for the rookie to be an occasional threat from the slot.

Ryan Grant, Washington Redskins: Grant is another rookie who could find his path to immediate success blocked by a loaded wide receiver corps. But should any of Washington's top options succumb to injury or poor performance, Grant has the tools to step in and succeed. So far he's earned an endorsement from veteran receiver Santana Moss. There's little reason to draft Grant but he's worth watching for the potential to have waiver wire value.

At this point, I'm sure you're wondering how Kelvin Benjamin, Mike Evans, Jordan Matthews and Sammy Watkins got left off this list. The main reason is that all four of their teams call pass plays at a lower percentage than the rest of the league. Carolina, Tampa Bay, Philadelphia and Buffalo were four of the more run-heavy teams in the league last year -- a fact that isn't likely to change this season.

That doesn't mean those three players can't succeed this year, there are always outliers, but the trends show that it's a much tougher road to fantasy prosperity. Then again, the first day at a new school is never easy. Why should this be any different?

Marcas Grant is a fantasy editor for NFL.com and a man who repeatedly sang "Don't Worry, Be Happy" to himself to help get through the first day of seventh grade. Tweet him about awkward school memories or fantasy football @MarcasG.

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