Commentary

Rookies make for risky fantasy options

Recent history not on side of first-year players making immediate impact

Updated: August 15, 2011, 4:30 PM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

Back in early May, I gave you an in-depth look at rookies for the upcoming NFL season who were selected on Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3 of the NFL draft. And now I'll tell you why you probably shouldn't draft any of them.

[+] EnlargeIngram
Jerry Lai/US PresswireRookie running backs used to better fantasy options, but the rise of committees makes guys like the Saints' Mark Ingram shakier options now.

I think most experienced fantasy football players know that it's rare for a rookie NFL player to live up to his pre-draft hype in his first season. After all, in redraft leagues, you aren't drafting a potential-laden prospect's entire career. As high as you think his ceiling might be, that ceiling probably won't come in Year 1. Ah, but then your fantasy draft arrives and you see those bright and shiny new names and something happens in your stomach. The butterflies tell you about "upside" and "opportunity," and you begin to dream big. What if you get the biggest steal of your life! So you hear yourself say the name "Ryan Mathews" circa 2010. Or "Donald Brown" circa 2009. Or "Darren McFadden" circa 2008. And you take your fantasy team's life into your hands.

Six quarterbacks were selected in the first 36 picks of this April's draft, which in a way is good news, because rookie passers rarely fool us these days. As laudable as Sam Bradford's rookie campaign was in '10 (he set the record for pass attempts and completions by a first-year player), he still only finished as fantasy's No. 20 quarterback. In the past five seasons, Bradford ('10), Matt Ryan ('08) and Vince Young ('06) were clearly the best-performing rookie fantasy signal-callers but were barely worth owning -- and certainly weren't worth starting -- in 10-team leagues. None of them finished higher than 12th among fantasy quarterbacks. (Young was 12th in '06, while Ryan was 15th in '08.) So while you might believe in the fantasy futures of Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick, you shouldn't be planning on drafting them this summer.

But there are other temptations. A.J. Green, Julio Jones and Jonathan Baldwin are all first-round wideouts. Mark Ingram is a first-round runner. Ryan Williams, Kyle Rudolph, Titus Young, Lance Kendricks, Shane Vereen, Mikel Leshoure, Torrey Smith, Greg Little, Daniel Thomas and Randall Cobb are all skill-position players taken in the second round. These 14 men have basically unlimited talent. Some of them will eventually be stars. But I'll be entering my drafts in August planning on not owning any of them. Here's why.

First- and second-round disappointments

By season's end last year, exactly six rookies wound up with positive values in terms of value-based drafting. (Note that throughout this column, when I refer to "VBD points," I'm referring to standard 10-team ESPN.com leagues.) An examination of those players hints at an overall performance problem for the most highly drafted NFL rookies in recent years:

Notice anything odd? Two of these skill-position players were drafted in the first round of the '10 NFL draft. One was drafted in the second. But last year's best rookie was a fourth-rounder, and two others were completely undrafted. Meanwhile, as a group the skill players who were taken in the first round of last year's NFL draft performed, shall we say, inconsistently:

Zoinks. Injuries, depth-chart issues and flat-out bad play zapped six out of last year's eight skill-position first-rounders. Plus, Mathews and Best owners can attest that watching those two guys hobble around during their rookie seasons wasn't always much fun. Look over the past five years, and you see a woeful record of first- and second-round picks striking it rich for their fantasy owners in their first campaigns:

That is a mournful and bedraggled 32 percent hit rate on first-round rookies and a 12 percent hit rate on second-rounders. Even if we remove quarterbacks and tight ends from the equation out of pure charity (based on the notion that they rarely strike it big right away), the remaining running backs and wide receivers hit only 44 percent in the first round and 14 percent in the second.

Translation: Even if you stick to selecting only super highly drafted rushers and receivers, you're likelier to draft a guy who won't help you at all.

Rookie studs ain't what they used to be

Maybe it would be easier to take this risk -- to select a highly touted rookie running back or wideout early in your fantasy draft -- if the reward were higher. But '09 and '10 were fairly terrible seasons for top-end rookie production. Here are the top 10 VBD rookie seasons of the past five years; note that only one hails from '09 or '10:

I find it fairly amazing that not a single rookie rusher over the past two seasons has finished higher than 18th in fantasy points, especially when guys like Peterson and Forte recently submitted such landscape-altering first campaigns.

Is this a trend? I don't think we can say for sure. On the one hand, it's a small sample size. High-profile first-year busts like C.J. Spiller and Donald Brown skew the results in a major way. By the same token, the continued rise of committees may be taking the steam out of potential rookie breakouts. Were the Chargers really willing to give Ryan Mathews their lead role last year, or was Mike Tolbert always going to be a fantasy drain? (The point became moot when Mathews hurt an ankle early in the season.) When the Bills drafted Spiller, it was fairly obvious they had a committee in mind at least at first, considering both Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch were still on the roster. No question, potential committees have to be taken on a case-by-case basis, but they're an obvious factor.

A couple of other points about rookie studs. First, as the above list illustrates, wideouts rarely make a huge fantasy difference in their first seasons. Yes, it's possible for a rookie wideout to notch positive-VBD seasons (nine have done so in the past five years: Mike Williams (TB), Marques Colston, Percy Harvin, Eddie Royal, Dwayne Bowe, DeSean Jackson, Hakeem Nicks, Mike Wallace and Austin Collie), but even then the rewards are middling: Only three of these guys finished among the top 20 WRs overall (Williams, Colston and Royal). This is sobering news. When ESPN Fantasy did its rankings summit in early May, we held a corresponding chat event, and perhaps the most asked-about player that entire day was Falcons rookie WR Julio Jones. The man has backers galore among the public. They're almost certainly going to be disappointed.

Also, while we all love stories about Tom Brady getting drafted in the sixth round or Ahmad Bradshaw getting drafted in the seventh, those future fantasy stars didn't do much in their first seasons, and lightly-drafted (or undrafted) NFL rookies rarely do. Here's the sum total of rookies from '06 to '10 who were taken outside the first two rounds of the NFL draft and posted a positive VBD total:

Translation: The returns on reaching for rookies have been exceptionally meager the past two years. If you must reach, don't do it for QBs, WRs or TEs. And forget about dipping out of the first round or two. Let those guys come to you as fantasy free agents.

Rookies often lose platoons

Finally, a word about a "crutch argument" you often hear when it comes to rookies: "He's going to play. They wouldn't have drafted him that high if they weren't going to use him." Sometimes this is true, but absolutely not always. If you're falling prey to this argument on a generic basis, you're simply looking for reasons to draft a player higher than you probably should.

We already know quarterbacks don't subscribe to this logic. Only three rookie QBs the past five years have played 16 games (Bradford, Ryan and Flacco), while two others have played 15 (Sanchez and Young). For WRs it's a bit less clear; you sometimes see players like Mike Williams, Royal or Colston, who number among the league leaders in targets right away, but then you get guys like Calvin Johnson (rookie stats: 15 games, 48 catches, 4 TDs), Kenny Britt (16 games, 42 catches, 2 TDs) or -- heaven forfend! -- Darrius Heyward-Bey (11 games, 9 catches, 1 TD), who have a hard time breaking into the rotation.

However, this crutch argument is most frequently used to address running backs. These days, it seems it's no longer taboo for NFL teams who already have quasi-serviceable rushers to draft another man at the same position, and it's for these rookie RBs we often reach. "Well, if they liked the incumbent so much," we reason, "they wouldn't have spent a first-round pick on his potential replacement!" That logic probably is true if you imagine a two- or three-year window. But when you're considering only a rusher's rookie year, it's often not. Here are 13 situations over the past five years where an incoming first-round running back had to battle at least one veteran for touches:

Peterson and Johnson did exceedingly well here, which is unsurprising considering what we know about them now. Bush basically lost his rushing battle to McAllister but caught 88 passes and thus submitted a strong first season. Best won his battle by default, as Kevin Smith was injured. Jones and Mendenhall got hurt early. But boy, there sure are some mediocre seasons mixed in here, aren't there? And some shockingly low usage. Even removing Jones and Mendenhall, this group averaged 189 total touches in its first campaign. Last season, 189 touches would've ranked 31st among NFL RBs. Truly, that's not a recipe for fantasy studhood.

Translation: No rookie is guaranteed playing time just because he gets drafted early.

Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy.

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