StrategyJune 3, 2009

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Drafting First-Year and Second-Year WRs

By Tom Docherty

When it comes to drafting fantasy receivers, the common wisdom holds that wide receivers don’t “break out” until their third pro season. While many players follow this trend, some young receivers generate useful fantasy numbers right away. Some even post career numbers in their first two seasons. This makes such players immediately valuable to the savvy fantasy owner, especially in keeper or dynasty leagues. If you monitor their progress in camp, you’ll have a good idea which of these young receivers are likely candidates. Take advantage of your opponents’ hesitation to draft them and roll the dice on a player that could contribute significantly to your fantasy team.

Immediate impact by rookie receivers was very uncommon in the seventies and eighties, but around the mid-nineties many young receivers started breaking out in their first and second seasons. Looking back to 1995, sophomores Isaac Bruce and Bert Emmanuel, as well as rookie Joey Galloway all had huge fantasy years despite their inexperience. Bruce posted a whopping 1,781 yards and 13 TDs — an incredible 250+ fantasy points. Emmanuel and Galloway both recorded over 1,000 yards receiving, averaging more than eight fantasy points per game. The trend has continued. Every season, there are a handful of first and second year receivers who rack up significant numbers.

Frankly, even star receivers can be hit-or-miss (Braylon Edwards for example). The trick is to know which young wide receivers are hot going into the fantasy draft. Using a draft pick on a receiver with little or no track record as a pro is, admittedly, a risk — but a calculated one. If you pick a Bethel Johnson instead of an Anquan Boldin, you can always pick up another WR off the waiver wire. On the other hand, if you threw a 12th-round pick at rookie Boldin in your keeper league in 2003 — well, not only did you lock up a stud for your last six seasons, those 185 fantasy points in his rookie year surely made your opponents grind their teeth. Isn’t the possibility of that kind of payoff better than a backup tight end or defense?

I credit the West-coast spread offense for this recent trend. More college teams are employing this NFL-style attack, and rookie receivers are better prepared. NFL coaches are learning to count more heavily on young wide receivers, and there are more multiple receiver formations. The NFL is becoming a more pass-happy league. Most experienced fantasy owners will agree that there is more passing than ever, often justifying the increased draft position of quarterbacks. Yet, somehow, the value of rookie and sophomore WRs has remained flat. In many leagues, most go undrafted unless they are hyped nationally, like Calvin Johnson in 2007.

Gone are the days when Hall-of-Famers like Lynn Swann, Steve Largent and Art Monk had to wait until their fourth or even fifth seasons before they were completely trusted and became fantasy relevant. Nowadays, if a young WR is going to follow the path to greatness, great production starts early in his career. Randy Moss is a perfect example. His 1,313 receiving yards and 17 TDs in 1998 were nothing but stunning for a raw rookie. Oh sure, he exceeded that in his “breakout” third NFL season, but only barely (124 more receiving yards and two less TDs — in fantasy terms, less than half a point on the season).

Primarily, though, it has been the second-year guys to watch for. Since 1995, 28 sophomore NFL receivers have recorded at least 120 fantasy points. That averages out to two breakout wide receivers each year, and the trend is rising recently. Some of those guys were easy to identify. Larry Fitzgerald went third overall in the NFL Draft in 2004 and recorded 780 yards and 8 TDs as a rookie. He followed that up with 1,409 yards and 10 TDs in his second season, a 40% increase in fantasy points. More impressive was Brandon Marshall’s improvement. A fourth-round pick, 119th overall in 2006, he had 309 yards and 2 TDs his rookie year. The following season, Marshall soared to 1,325 yards and 7 TDs. That’s an increase of over 400% in fantasy points! So, don’t get caught up in where a wide receiver was drafted — as long as his situation is likely to give him playing time, he can turn that into something (2006 seventh round pick Marques Colston comes to mind). There are usually three wide receivers on the field at a time, as opposed to one or two running backs. It’s much easier for a WR to go from virtual unknown to fantasy star in a matter of weeks.

Do all of these young WRs remain superstars? Sadly, they don’t. Not all quick-starters go on to become perennial fantasy studs like Moss, Boldin or Fitzgerald. Many of the 28 players I referred to above fell off the pace for various reasons — to wit: super-sophomore Marcus Robinson (1,400 receiving yards and 9 TDs in 1999), Kevin Johnson (986 yards and 8 TDs as a rookie in 1999), and Michael Clayton (1,193 yards and 7 TDs as a rookie in 2004). Still, risking a late-round draft pick on a young “unknown” can pay huge dividends. These first and second year wide receivers are undervalued commodities that smart owners will pay close attention to in 2009 fantasy drafts. Besides, aren’t you sick of smacking your forehead every year as the last-place team in your league snaps up guys like Eddie Royal and DeSean Jackson off the waiver wire after the first game?

This year, there’s a huge crop of rookie wideouts in various situations. The ones I like best are the obvious: Michael Crabtree and Jeremy Maclin. Beyond those two, I really like Browns second rounder Brian Robiskie, as he looks to be NFL-ready and may move up to starter if Braylon Edwards is traded. I also like some later picks as great deep sleepers: Ramses Barden (NYG) could be a tall end-zone target to replace Plaxico Burress; Patrick Turner (MIA), a similar tall receiver; Austin Collie (IND) reminds me of Brandon Stokley, and has a shot at the third WR slot — a productive position with Peyton Manning slinging the ball.

That said, buyer beware when it comes to Percy Harvin, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Kenny Britt, and Hakeem Nicks. Harvin has a well-documented bonehead factor. Heyward-Bey is going to a terrible offense in Oakland. Nicks will have a lot of competition for catches (even though I like his teammate Barden as a sleeper, Nicks’ price in fantasy drafts would cause me to pass). Britt landed with the Titans — I just don’t like the fantasy-point potential of their passing game, especially for a newbie role-player.

Some of the sophomores I like (besides the proven trio of Royal, Jackson and Avery): Devin Thomas (WAS), Harry Douglas (ATL), and Earl Bennett (CHI). Both Thomas and Douglas have the chance to elevate themselves to solid #2 wideouts in camp. Bennett is more of a project. He didn’t play as a rookie in Chicago last year, but he was a Vanderbilt teammate of new Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, so there’s some chemistry there. Also, watch for James Hardy (BUF). The arrival of T.O. in Buffalo knocks him down a peg, but he could still have a fantasy impact as a red-zone target.

Tom is from Toronto, Ontario, Canada and attended Ryerson University's Journalism School. After two years working for Hockey Night in Canada after graduation, he decided to go into the private sector for employment. He still has a passion for sports, and he's completely hooked on Fantasy Football.
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