The 2014 NFL season was amazing for a lot of reasons, maybe none more than the rise of rookie wide receivers.
If you have played fantasy football for awhile, then you know that most first-year wideouts don't put up huge numbers. Since 2010, there have been 153 wide receivers drafted ... just four of them have put up top-20 fantasy totals at the position. Even current superstars like Calvin Johnson and Demaryius Thomas (among countless others) were mediocre in the stat sheets in their first NFL season. However, this past year suggests that a new trend could be developing.
Three rookies finished among the top 20 in fantasy points at the position in 2014, including Odell Beckham Jr. (5th), Mike Evans (10th) and Kelvin Benjamin (17th). Two others, Jordan Matthews (24th) and Sammy Watkins (25th), ranked among the top 25. Let's also not forget about Brandin Cooks, who was on pace to be a top-25 wideout before getting injured. That's one heck of a statistical statement, as those first five wideouts helped a huge percentage of fantasy fans win their league's championship.
So the big question heading into 2015 is simple ... how will these rookies produce in their second NFL campaign?
Well, sometimes we need to look back at the past to learn about the future. That's exactly what we did, unearthing the fantasy numbers from almost 50 years of NFL action to put together a definitive look at how often top-20 rookie wideouts produce better or similar totals as NFL sophomores. Let's go on a little trip to the past and look at how things have changed for rookie wideouts through the decades.
It was a different NFL in the first 15 years of the Super Bowl era. During that time, a total of 11 rookie wideouts (of 563 drafted) ranked in the top 20 at the position. Of those 11 players, 10 duplicated at least 72 percent of their rookie totals. That includes the likes of Steve Largent (1977), Wesley Walker (1978) and John Jefferson (1979). What's more, nine of those wideouts duplicated 87 percent or more of their previous year's numbers. The lone wide receiver to falter was New England's Randy Vataha (1972), who experienced a 65 percent decline in production.
A total of seven rookies (among 390 drafted) ranked among the 20-best players at the wide receiver position during this decade. Two of those wideouts, Louis Lipps (1985) and Daryl Turner (1985), scored more fantasy points as NFL sophomores. Two others, Ernest Givens (1987) and Eddie Brown (1986), remained in the top 20 in their second season. The remaining three experienced declines in production of at least 30 percent, with Cris Collinsworth seeing the biggest drop off. Of course, that's due in large part to the fact that he missed seven games. Based on his numbers from the nine contests he did play, Collinsworth would have scored a mere 14.5 fewer fantasy points than he did as a rookie.
During the decade of the 1990s, eight rookies (among 332 drafted) reached our mark of finishing among the 20-best wideouts in fantasy football. An astonishing five of them recorded at least 87 percent of the previous season's totals. That list includes Fred Barnett (1991), Darnay Scott (1995), Joey Galloway (1996), Keyshawn Johnson (1997) and one of the best fantasy receivers ever, Randy Moss (1999). Terry Glenn (1997) was one of the wideouts who saw a major decline in production (65 percent), but he missed seven games as an NFL sophomore. If you project the numbers he posted over a full 16 games, however, Glenn would have still seen a decline of 47 percent.
Once we hit the 2000s, the number of rookie wideouts who made a major impact took an enormous nose dive. In fact, a total of four rookie receivers (among 334 drafted) finished as a top-20 fantasy option. That list includes Anquan Boldin, Marques Colston, Michael Clayton and Eddie Royal. Think about that ... the 2014 season alone had three receivers finish in the top 17 at the position. That's just one fewer than had reached that plateau over a 10-year span in the 2000s! Of those four, Colston was the lone receiver not to experience a major decline. In fact, he scored almost 35 more points than he did as a rookie. Boldin missed six games as a sophomore, which was part of the reason for his decline. However, he still was on pace to return disappointing totals compared to his rookie campaign.
Let's look at the first four years of this time period, excluding rookies from the 2014 campaign (for obvious reasons). In that time, four rookie receivers ranked among the 20-best fantasy players at the position. That list includes Mike Williams, A.J. Green, Julio Jones and Keenan Allen. Green and Jones went on to produce better numbers as NFL sophomores, as both ranked in the top 10 based on fantasy points. On the flip side, Williams (2011) and Allen (2014) both failed to duplicate more than 67 percent of their rookie totals. In fact, each of them finished 49th in their respective seasons.
So, what have we learned about wide receivers in their first two NFL seasons? Well the first lesson is simple ... the vast majority of first-year wideouts don't make a fantasy impact. For each Moss, Boldin or Beckham, there are hundreds of utter statistical failures at the position. And while last season appeared to be a step in the right direction with the fantasy emergence of six rookie receivers, it's not as impressive when you consider that 33 were drafted in 2014.
That's not even a 20 percent success rate.
Now let's look at the sophomore wideouts who reached our parameters since 1990 (24 seasons). Of the 16 rookie wide receivers who ranked among the top 20 in that time, eight of them either duplicated at least 87 percent of their production or surpassed it in their second campaign. The other eight all failed to duplicate more than 66 percent of their rookie numbers. And of those eight, six experienced declines of 55 percent or more.
If these more recent trends continue (remember, wideouts were more dependable as sophomores in the earlier part of the Super Bowl era), then fantasy fans can expect at least one and likely up to three of Beckham, Evans, Benjamin, Watkins, Matthews and Cooks to disappoint in 2015. I would be surprised if one of them were Beckham, who seems destined to be a fantasy superstar for years to come, but the past has shown us that even the most talented sophomore receivers are not locks to duplicate their rookie success.
The proof is in the percentages.