- Tristan H. Cockcroft, Fantasy
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Thirty-two teams, 32 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each NFL team. Be sure to check out all 32 questions.
Can Calvin Johnson be a fantasy asset in his rookie season?
Can he? Sure, if there's anything fantasy owners have learned from rookies over the years, it's to expect the unexpected.
Take Randy Moss, for instance. Flash back nine years, when the Minnesota Vikings tabbed the talented-yet-troubled Marshall wideout with the 21st pick in the draft. In addition to silencing his critics, Moss set a rookie record for touchdown receptions (17), and managed 69 catches for 1,313 yards, incredible numbers for a first-year player.
The fact that scouts call Johnson a Moss- or Terrell Owens-caliber talent suggests a similar impact can't be entirely ruled out. In addition, Johnson can claim one thing neither of those two can: He doesn't bring much baggage.
So, I suppose the better question might be, will Johnson be a fantasy asset in 2007?
For all his upside, all his potential and all the excitement Johnson might generate leading into the season, the odds are stacked heavily against it. The history books alone demonstrate enough that a Moss-like debut ranks in the "highly unlikely" category.
Rookie struggles: The all-time greats
The best case against Johnson: Even the greatest receivers in NFL history needed time to get acclimated to the highest level of competition. Taking a look at the top 50 players in career receiving yards -- a list that includes 10 Hall of Famers -- only three managed 1,000 yards or better in their rookie seasons: Joey Galloway (1995, 1,039), Terry Glenn (1996, 1,132) and Moss. Only eight more had as many as 800 yards, or an average of only 50 yards per game in a 16-game season. In addition, just three managed eight touchdowns or more: Marvin Harrison (1996, 8), Keyshawn Johnson (1996, 8) and Moss.
If you combine the statistics accrued by all 50 wide receivers and scale them down to 16 games -- the length of a typical season -- what would you get?
Only 35.8 receptions, 538.9 receiving yards and 3.5 touchdowns.
Incidentally, of the 50 receivers in the study, only 18 managed more receiving yards than that 538.9 average; only 17 managed as many as four touchdowns. In other words, those Galloway/Glenn/Moss-type seasons clearly skew the average; the bulk of the group couldn't even muster 539 yards or four touchdowns, which are mediocre fantasy numbers.
Rookie struggles: Recent first-rounders
Of course, not all of the top 50 receivers all time entered the league as highly-touted rookies. Turning our focus to first-round picks, the group that annually provides us with our most appealing choices on the fantasy market, the news doesn't get much better.
In the past 10 years, 39 wide receivers were selected in the first round of the NFL draft. Of those, only two managed 1,000 yards: Michael Clayton (2004, 1,193) and Moss. Four more managed 800 yards, which is still a poor success rate. Five managed eight touchdowns: Lee Evans (2004, 9), Larry Fitzgerald (2004, 8), Donte' Stallworth (2002, 8), Roy Williams (2004, 8) and Moss. Plus, no receiver picked among the top 10 in the draft from 1997-2006 -- Johnson went second overall this year -- managed better than Andre Johnson's 976 receiving yards in 2003 or the eight touchdowns that Fitzgerald and Williams had in their rookie years.
Combined, the 39 rookies accrued 41.2 receptions, 577.8 receiving yards and 3.9 touchdowns when their numbers are scaled to a 16-game NFL season.
Those are pretty damning facts, before even examining the circumstances under which Johnson will play out his rookie season.
The Furrey factor
What about those circumstances? There's little denying Johnson is a franchise-caliber receiver, perhaps better than Williams, but "franchise" can be a misleading tag. It could just as easily apply to three years down the road as today, and it has a way of tricking fantasy owners into foolishly plunking down a hefty investment at the draft table.
Sure, these Lions had the second-most pass attempts (596) and seventh-most receiving yards (3,820) of any team in 2006. It's a Mike Martz offense, and from his days in St. Louis to last season in Detroit, Martz has quite the reputation as a pass-first coach. Still, while Johnson probably couldn't have asked for a better situation to land in, don't be too hasty to assume he'll be the leader of the pack.
Williams remains on the roster, and he's a 25-year-old talent coming off a breakthrough, 82-catch, 1,310-yard, 7-TD campaign. In addition, 30-year-old rising star Mike Furrey stepped up with a 98-catch, 1,086-yard, 6-TD season of his own, giving the team a one-two punch that could rival most any other team in the game. Remember, there's a limit to the number of passes that can go around, and having a solid No. 2 in Furrey might tempt the Lions to break Johnson in more slowly than you'd expect. When is the last time you can remember a receiver going from second in the league in receptions to a bench player to start the following season?
Let's not overlook the man throwing Johnson the ball, either. Jon Kitna's fantasy numbers might look good on the surface, but they're more a result of quantity than quality. He finished last year with more interceptions (22) than touchdown passes (21) and has only three more touchdowns (129) than interceptions (126) in his career. Kitna might be asked to throw close to 600 times again in 2007, but that doesn't ensure he'll get the ball into Johnson's hands enough for him to make a substantial impact. And let's not even get into what might happen if the Lions have to turn the ball over to rookie Drew Stanton.
Ultimately, there's fantasy value in Johnson, but not necessarily as a starter on your team. He's an exceptional keeper-league pick with a bright future ahead, but beware of falling prey to the hype. Someone will look at his talent, his upside and Detroit's offense, and call Johnson a top-25 receiver, a fifth- or sixth-round pick. That's probably going to be the price tag.
One thing is for sure: I won't pay it.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
Tristan H. Cockcroft preaches caution on Lions rookie Calvin Johnson.