The wide receiver position has become every bit as important as running back in this new age of fantasy football. The NFL is now a passing league after all, as more wideouts are putting up solid totals on a seasonal basis. A lot of the top receivers are relative youngsters too, at least based on what we have seen in the last two seasons.
Since 2014, a total of three rookies have finished in the top 20 among wideouts. That list includes Odell Beckham Jr. (fifth, 2014), Mike Evans (10th, 2014) and Kelvin Benjamin (17th, 2014). Jordan Matthews (24th, 2014), Sammy Watkins (25th, 2014) and Amari Cooper (25th, 2015) ranked in the top 25, and Brandin Cooks (2014) was on pace to be a top-25 wideout before getting injured as a rookie.
Cooper was the lone rookie wideout to make a real impact last season, but injuries kept Kevin White, DeVante Parker and Breshad Perriman from a chance at putting up good totals. Another rookie, Stefon Diggs, made a limited impact but started just nine games for Minnesota. Once we've seen what some of these players have done in their first pro campaigns, the natural tendencies of fantasy owners (and analysts) is to expect similar (or better totals) in their second pro campaign.
The question is ... is there a bigger threat of a rookie wideout turning into the dreaded "B" word (bust) in the following campaign than building on rookie success? I've covered that exact topic at the running back position, so let's take a look back and see what trends have emerged among sophomore receivers.
A lot has changed since the decade of the 1990s, when a mere eight rookies (among 332 drafted) finished among the 20 best wideouts in fantasy football in the entire decade. Once we hit the 2000s, the number of rookie wideouts who made a major fantasy impact declined. In fact, four rookie receivers (Anquan Boldin, Michael Clayton, Marques Colston, Eddie Royal) among 334 drafted finished in the top 20 in fantasy points at the position in their respective rookie years.
Think about that ... the 2014 season alone had three receivers (Beckham Jr., Evans, Benjamin) finish in the top 20 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 as a sophomore. 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. He was still on pace to return disappointing totals, however.
Here's where things get interesting for fantasy fans.
In the final four years of the decade (2006-2009), seven sophomore wideouts finished in the top 20 in fantasy points at the position. That's three more than had reach that level as rookies during the entire decade of the 2000s. It's at this point when we started to notice the second-year receivers on the same level as the third-year receivers, which had been considered the "trend" for wideouts who were projected to have breakout campaigns.
Now let's look at the first five years of the 2010s, excluding rookies from the 2015 campaign (for obvious reasons). In that time, four rookie receivers were among the 20-best fantasy players at the position. Those wideouts were Mike Williams, A.J. Green, Julio Jones and Keenan Allen. Green and Jones went on to produce better numbers as NFL sophomores, ranking in the top 10. On the flip side, Williams (2011) and Allen (2014) both finished a disappointing 49th among wideouts in their respective seasons.
During that same period of time, 13 sophomore wideouts finished in the top 20 in fantasy points. Furthermore, seven of those 13 receivers ranked in the top 10. For those of you who still hold firm to the third-season trend, 11 wideouts in their third NFL campaign ranked in the top 20 (including seven who finished in the top 10).
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 simply don't make a fantasy impact. For every Randy Moss, Boldin or Beckham, there are hundreds of statistical failures. And while we have seen three top-20 rookie receivers in the last two seasons (all in 2014), it's not as impressive when you consider that 68 were drafted in that time.
That's just over a 10 percent success rate.
Based on the numbers, it's the sophomore wideouts that fantasy fans should be looking as potential sleepers or breakout candidates. We saw that in 2015, when a total of six second-year wideouts ranked in the top 20 in fantasy points including two (Beckham Jr., Allen Robinson) who finished in the top 10. That number could have been even higher had Benjamin not missed the entire season with a torn ACL. Also, Martavis Bryant missed five games and could have otherwise finished in the top 20 based on his projected totals.
If nothing else, this research has proven a few realities. First, the 2014 campaign was an absolute fluke for rookie wideouts and is the exception to the rule at the position. Second, it's been the sophomore wideouts who have made a bigger impact in recent seasons. That's the reason fantasy owners should remember Cooper, Diggs, White, Parker, Perriman, Dorial Green-Beckham, Tyler Lockett, Phillip Dorsett, Nelson Agholor and Justin Hardy when it comes time for 2016 drafts.
Based on the numbers, a few of these receivers will emerge into more valuable fantasy options.