Times have changed around the National Football League, as the days of impact rookies being mostly limited to the running back position are over. No longer is it rare to see a rookie quarterback come out and help an owner reach their goal of a fantasy league championship.
Don't believe me?
The proof is in the numbers. Let's delve into the last five seasons at the four major fantasy positions and see where the arrow is pointing up ... and which rookie positions to avoid.
The NFL has become a passing league both for the veteran gunslingers and the youngsters. In 2009-2010, just one drafted quarterback (Sam Bradford - 2010) ranked in the top 20 based on fantasy points. While Geno Smith (20th) was the lone player at the position to finish in the top 20 this past season, we did see three different quarterbacks (Robert Griffin III - 5th, Andrew Luck - 9th, Russell Wilson - 10th) rank among the top 10 in 2012. That is very rare. The previous season (2011) saw Cam Newton, who wasn't drafted until the late fantasy rounds (if at all) during his rookie campaign, rank third in points among all players. Andy Dalton came in at No. 15 that season.
The signal-callers who are garnering the most media interest heading into the 2014 NFL Draft include Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater and Blake Bortles. If that trio lands with teams that plan to start them right away, it wouldn't be a shock to see all three picked in re-drafts. Manziel is the one who intrigues me most, based on his dual-threat skill set. During his two seasons at Texas A&M, Johnny Football rushed for 2,169 yards and a ridiculous 30 touchdowns.
Those are eye-popping numbers.
You can look far back into the history of the NFL and find tons of first-year runnings backs who have recorded monster numbers. Eric Dickerson and Clinton Portis, anyone? There was a short-lived dip in significant impact-makers at the position starting five years ago, though, as Knowshon Moreno (16th) was the lone drafted rookie running back to rank among the top 20 based on fantasy points. The following season, Jahvid Best (21st) was the highest-scoring rookie runner. Things got worse in 2011, as DeMarco Murray was the highest-scoring drafted rookie runner ... and he ranked 29th. The first back selected that season, Mark Ingram, failed to make an impact ... he finished 43rd.
Things started to look up in 2012, as the talented trio of Doug Martin (2nd), Alfred Morris (5th) and Trent Richardson (9th) all ranked among the top 10 players at their position in fantasy football. That's pretty impressive when you consider Moreno was the highest-ranking runner in the previous three years combined. This positive turn in the position's fortunes continued last season, as a total of five players ranked in the top 25 in fantasy points. That list of young upstarts included Eddie Lacy (6th), Le'Veon Bell (14th), Giovani Bernard (16th), Zac Stacy (18th) and Andre Ellington (24th).
The 2014 running back class might not have one first-rounder according to NFL Media draft analyst Mike Mayock, but fantasy owners still need to keep tabs on names like Bishop Sankey, Carlos Hyde, Jeremy Hill, Tre Mason and Andre Williams over the three-day draft process. You never know when the next Zac Stacy will emerge in the stat sheets.
The NFL's transition into a passing league hasn't significantly helped the value of rookie wide receivers in recent years, so expecting to land a player who'll post a Randy Moss or Anquan Boldin-level rookie campaign isn't likely at all. This isn't a new trend, either.
Just take a look at what current stars like Brandon Marshall, Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas did (or didn't do) as rookies. We have also seen a downward turn at the position over the last five seasons. In fact, the highest-ranking first-year wideout in that time finished 12th ... that was Mike Williams (12th) in 2010. The only other drafted wideouts who even finished in the top 20 in fantasy points during their rookie campaigns are A.J. Green (14th), Julio Jones (18th) in 2011, and Keenan Allen (17th) in 2013.
Outside of Allen, the 2013 campaign was not at all profitable for most wideouts. In fact, Cordarrelle Patterson (38th) and Terrance Williams (40th) were the only others to rank among the top 40 based on fantasy points. Marlon Brown (45th) was close, if you are including undrafted rookies. The top rookies in the class, Tavon Austin and DeAndre Hopkins, both failed to crack the top 50 wide receivers.
These stats are interesting and something to keep in mind before you fall in love with a wide receiver in this new rookie class. It's a deep class, too, as NFL Media draft analyst Mike Mayock believes as many as six receivers could come off the board in the first round alone. That list includes Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr., Brandin Cooks, Kelvin Benjamin and Marqise Lee.
If there's a position to avoid almost altogether when it comes to rookies, it's tight end. Aside from Rob Gronkowski, who finished fifth in fantasy points at the position in 2010, not a single drafted tight end has ranked among the top 10 in the past five years. The second-best rookie performance at the position came from Gronkowski's former teammate, Aaron Hernandez, who finished 11th that same season.
If you want more proof of how slow this position is to transition, consider this little nugget ... a total of 79 tight ends have been drafted since 2009. Of those 79, a mere four have finished in the top 20 as rookies.
That speaks volumes about first-year tight ends and is enough to avoid them until the very late rounds (at best). That includes some of the top prospects such as Eric Ebron (considered a surefire first-round selection), Jace Amaro, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Troy Niklas and C.J. Fiedorowicz.