Those pesky freshmen, they think they know everything.
Actually, considering the statistics, that might be because they do.
The 2011 season might, so far, be labeled the "Year of the Quarterback" -- not merely because we've declared it such but also because the actual returns confirm it -- but, so far, it also might be worthy of a second label: "Year of the Rookie."
And that's not said solely as an excuse to heap more love on Cam Newton, the star of the Week 3 Consistency Ratings, though Newton's performance, so far, certainly is the leading rookie storyline. Since Newton was profiled in this space three weeks ago, he has continued to pile on the statistical accomplishments:
• He is the first player in NFL history with at least five passing and five rushing touchdowns in the first five games of a career.
• He has the Nos. 1 and 2 single-game passing yardage performances by a rookie in NFL history (432, Week 2; and 422, Week 1).
• He has been a "Stud" by this column's definition four times, something only four players in the entire NFL -- Aaron Rodgers (5), Drew Brees and Calvin Johnson (4 each) being the others -- have done.
• He's ninth in the NFL in terms of VBD (value-based draft score), with 54, and second among quarterbacks, and his "Stack" score (32) is 20th-best in the NFL and third-best among quarterbacks, meaning he's hardly a matchups product.
But although Newton might be the poster boy for 2011 rookie breakouts, there are plenty of other freshmen off to meaningful starts. Consider this: As a whole, 20 rookies have managed 37 "Start"-worthy fantasy performances and 14 Stud-worthy efforts. And two of them are quarterbacks, six of them running backs, 10 of them wide receivers. Today, let's examine five -- besides Newton -- who are off to the most meaningful starts:
HOW CONSISTENCY RATINGS WORK
Using both the past 34 weeks -- Week 6 of 2009 through Week 5 of 2011 -- of data, as well as 2011 alone, and fantasy points determined by ESPN's standard scoring, the charts contained in this column rate players based upon how consistently reliable they are. To familiarize you with some of the terminology:
Start: The number of times the player's point total in a given week was worthy of having had him active in an ESPN standard league.
Stud: The number of times the player's point total ranked among the top at his position.
Stiff: The number of times the player's point total ranked among the worst at his position, making almost any waiver-wire option a smarter choice.
These are the benchmarks for what constitutes a "Start," "Stud" or "Stiff" performance:
Sat: The number of times the player missed a game. Players are not charged Stiff points for sitting out, but it hurts their overall Consistency Rating.
%: The player's overall Consistency Rating, calculated as number of Start performances divided by scheduled team games.
Stack: A formula designed to weigh how much of the player's 2011/past-34-weeks fantasy point total was driven by matchups, this compares his weekly point totals to the average weekly amount his opponent typically allows to a player at his position (RBs and WRs are weighted differently). Higher scores mean the player succeeded beyond the strength of his matchups; lower (or negative) scores mean the player might have been a matchups product.
VBD (value-based draft score): This compares the player's season fantasy point total to that of a replacement-level player at his position to demonstrate relative value across different positions. My methodology for "replacement level": No. 15 QB, No. 35 RB, No. 35 WR, No. 15 TE, No. 15 K, No. 15 D/ST.
A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals: He hasn't gotten nearly the press Newton has, but did you know that he has been worthy of your fantasy start every bit as often (4) as the Carolina Panthers quarterback? Green has been a sensation for the Cincinnati Bengals in spite of the preseason questions about the statistical limitations of a rookie-rookie quarterback-to-wideout connection, managing the 10th-most fantasy points (56), third-most Stud efforts (2) and 12th-best Stack score (21.6) among wide receivers. (Not rookie wide receivers, all wide receivers.) Green finds himself on pace to crack the 1,200-yard and 10-touchdown plateaus, benchmarks that only four players achieved in 2010. Best yet: His next two matchups -- Week 6 versus the Indianapolis Colts and Week 8 at the Seattle Seahawks -- come against defenses that have allowed the third- and 10th-most fantasy points per game to opposing wide receivers.
Of course, Green's schedule after that gets tougher: His Weeks 9-13 matchups come against teams among the stingiest 13 in terms of fantasy points allowed to wideouts.
Andy Dalton, Bengals: What of Green's rookie quarterback? Dalton might not strike you as a meaningful fantasy option in the slightest, and we annually caution you to tread carefully when it comes to rookie passers. But look closer: Twice in five games he turned in a Start-worthy performance, giving him the 17th-best Consistency Rating (40.0 percent) among quarterbacks -- meaning, at the bare minimum, value in two-quarterback leagues. He also has the 20th-most fantasy points among quarterbacks (61) yet ranks 42nd in Stack score (minus-21.1), which, though a negative in terms of evaluating his every-week potential, does demonstrate his propensity for exploiting matchups. (Remember, it's a sliding scale; the greater the fantasy points and lower the Stack, the more the player capitalizes on matchups.)
Sure enough, Dalton's two best fantasy efforts -- 21 points in Week 2 at the Denver Broncos and 18 in Week 4 versus the Buffalo Bills -- came against defenses that have allowed the most and seventh-most fantasy points per game to opposing quarterbacks. So here's this heads-up, if you play in a two-quarterback league or have a quarterback with a pending bye: In Week 6, Dalton faces the Colts, who have allowed the 13th-most fantasy points per game to quarterbacks.
Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons: I'll state up front, he's my favorite of the rookie class, and I say that primarily because I've been saying it since August, whereas I didn't feel quite as strongly about, say, Newton back then as I do today. Surprisingly, despite his solid start, Jones' Consistency Rating numbers are somewhat poor; he hasn't yet had a Stud performance, and has been a "Stiff" (2) as often as a Start (2). In his defense, he might have avoided Stiff territory in Week 5 if not for a hamstring injury that cut his night short, but, as always, my Consistency Rating formula does penalize for injuries. (The thinking: Injuries hurt fantasy teams' planning, so players shouldn't get a free pass simply because they missed games.)
Jones' hamstring injury could remain an issue come Week 6, so watch his practice reports closely, but remember that only 19 wide receivers have been Start-worthy more often than the rookie through five weeks.
Doug Baldwin, Seattle Seahawks: He is one of those 19 wide receivers, having on three occasions turned in a fantasy point total worthy of having had him in your lineup, yet, incredibly, remains available in 99.2 percent of ESPN leagues and was started in 0.2 percent in Week 5. Baldwin also ranks 26th in terms of Stack (7.1), remarkable for a player who ranks 47th among wide receivers in targets (27) and has yet to make his first career start. That his Seahawks are now on a bye might temper his pickup value this week, but this is a name to keep tucked away, tracking the potential expansion of his role in coming games. After all, he has two favorable matchups remaining, versus the St. Louis Rams (Weeks 11, 14), and other "plus" matchups against the Chicago Bears (Week 15) and Arizona Cardinals (Week 17).
Daniel Thomas, Miami Dolphins: He has played in only two of the Dolphins' four games, but is 2-for-2 in terms of Start-worthy fantasy efforts, with his 17-point Week 3 a true Stud performance, and he's 18th among running backs in terms of his Stack score (11.6). According to The Miami Herald, Thomas' hamstring should be healed coming out of the bye, in which case he might have a stronghold on the starting running back job for the next 12 weeks. Remember, the Dolphins don't seem to know what to do with Reggie Bush, awkwardly pushing him into the featured-back role at times and failing to roll him out wide at others, and Steve Slaton is even less equipped to be the team's featured back. This is a situation in which Thomas could get 15 carries a week assuming the Dolphins aren't so brutally bad that they're already 21 points behind and passing at the beginning of the second quarter.
Given that Thomas' team is fresh off the bye and a favorite pick in the "Suck for Luck" sweepstakes, this is the ideal time to pounce on a buy-low trade. If he comes as cheaply as a piece from your bench, there's every reason to act.
As always, exercise caution with rookies, who typically don't fit the description of "consistent" types. But in comparison to preseason expectations -- remember that fantasy owners as a whole have increasingly shied from rookies in recent years -- all six players above should be useful pieces in your playoff push.
Consistency Ratings charts
Each position has two charts below: one for 2011 statistics alone and one for the past 34 NFL weeks (Week 6 of 2009 through Week 5 of 2011). All categories are sortable both ascending and descending; just click on the headers to sort.
(Note: Because of the byes in Weeks 4-5 of 2009, and Week 5 of 2011, certain players could have appeared in as many as 33 games or as few as 31, instead of just 32. You can tell which teams had more or fewer than 32 scheduled games by looking at the defense/special teams chart for the past 34 weeks.)
Quarterbacks: Past 34 weeks
Something to think about: As much as I want to join the Matthew Stafford lovefest, the statistics above serve as my strongest caution. In the past 34 weeks, he has played 14 games and sat 18, or more than fellow injury risks Tony Romo and Michael Vick combined. I'll reiterate my advice: If I had a guarantee that Stafford would play all 16 games, there's little doubt he would make a strong push to finish among the top five quarterbacks in fantasy scoring, finishing absolutely no lower than sixth. But when he misses time, it tends to be of the multiple-game variety, and, if you sell off your contingency plan, you set yourself up for the incredible risk of waiver-wire management in the most important weeks of the fantasy season. So I'll ask: How lucky do you feel?
Running backs: 2011
Something to think about: Ahmad Bradshaw is as much of a sell-high as anyone in the game, partly thanks to the New York Giants' brutal remaining schedule, but thanks just as much to the statistics above. He's 14th among running backs in fantasy points but 21st in Stack (7.5), with much of that because of his 19-point hammering of the Philadelphia Eagles' struggling run defense in Week 3. Yes, there's another Eagles matchup on Bradshaw's schedule -- in Week 11 -- but six of his remaining 11 matchups come against teams that rank among the 10 best at preventing running backs from gaining many fantasy points. Five of those, incidentally, come in the final six weeks of the season, aka fantasy playoffs time.
Running backs: Past 34 weeks
Wide receivers: 2011
Something to think about: Mike Williams of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has been a Stiff on three occasions already this season; that's one shy of his entire rookie-year 2010 total (4). It's not yet time to cut him, but we're also not far off it.
Wide receivers: Past 34 weeks
Tight ends: 2011
Tight ends: Past 34 weeks
Kickers: Past 34 weeks
Defense/special teams: 2011
Something to think about: If there is any fact to support the notion that you should always mix and match your defenses -- even if you happen to have drafted one of the preseason "elite" -- it's this: The Pittsburgh Steelers' defense , selected No. 1 in the preseason, has been a Stiff twice; the New York Jets' defense, generally regarded as one of the best, also has done it twice; and the Baltimore Ravens' defense, No. 1 in terms of fantasy points, has been a Stiff once.