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How to Handle NFL Rookies
in your Fantasy Football Draft

Fantasy football draft strategy

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Updated: July 15, 2014
Original Release: April 28, 2003


Rookie WR Sammy Watkins is one of several headline NFL rookies making their debut in 2014. As a high profile college wide receiver joining a team in need of help at the WR position, many think Watkins has a great shot at making a big splash in 2014 (For a complete list of NFL rookies for the upcoming season, check out our article, NFL Rookies & Commentary). What do the numbers say? What NFL rookies should you target in your fantasy football draft? In this article, the Docs answer these questions to help stack the fantasy football odds in your favor on your fantasy football draft day.

Like clockwork, every year folks get geeked on the rookie prospects when it comes to evaluating talent and compiling player rankings for their fantasy football draft, and every year a lot of these same folks are eating a big mud pie in early December when their team is watching the fantasy playoffs from the sideline. Although it is true that at least one rookie will emerge and contribute meaningful fantasy points during the course of the season, don't just go buying rookie lottery tickets without the proper NFL rookie draft strategy. The high points of what should be considered when developing such a draft strategy is discussed below, and this is reflected in our fantasy football projections.

When should I take the "best" available rookie?
There is no easy answer to this question as it varies from person to person; however, there are few things in this world that will make you look as foolish as taking a rookie when there are still solid, perennial fantasy players available for the taking. While there can be exceptions, as a general rule of thumb, avoid a rookie of any kind until you have at least three players in the stable, preferably four. Let someone else take that gamble as you accumulate more reliable players for your team. Similar to an investment portfolio, the idea here is to balance solid performance with calculated risk. When selecting a rookie, you are hoping that they will be an x-factor that will out perform all other available players with respect to fantasy team need; however, with that hope comes substantial risk, and selecting a rookie too early in your fantasy football draft could prove rather costly to your overall team success.

When the time comes, what rookie should I take?
When it comes to rookies, the question you really should ask yourself is the following: "Is the rookie a Running Back?" If the answer is yes, then probe a little further to see if that particular player is a good fit with respect to calculated risk for your fantasy team. If the answer is no, then you should proceed with extreme caution. Sure, every now and then a big label rookie player other than a RB will actually deliver, ala WR Randy Moss and QB Peyton Manning in 1998, but then again every now and then someone wins the megabucks lottery, and every now and then the sun shines on a... well, we won't go there. Since 1997, there have been a grand total of (5) QBs, (7) WRs, (2) TE, and (27) RBs that have had breakout rookie seasons. Notice that last number: Twenty-seven NFL rookie RBs have had breakout seasons since 1997. In fact, since 1997, there has only been one year (2011) that at least one rookie RB did not have a breakout season.

To help drive that point home, let's reflect on the past 16 years with respect to NFL rookie hype (draft pick), position, and end of year performance in their rookie season. To make this list manageable (useful), we were sure to capture any NFL rookie that did have a big year regardless of when they were taken in the NFL draft, and then we showed players taken in either the 1st or 2nd round or came into the league with a lot of hype outside of those rounds. Naturally there are MANY more players that were drafted that had poor rookie seasons and not included on this list, but adding those players would serve as more of a distraction than benefit to driving this point home as those players did not have much hype and would not have been drafted in fantasy drafts in their rookie season. Without further ado, take a look at the numbers:

Breakout rookie seasons are denoted in red text.

NFL Rookie Seasons Passing/Receiving Rushing
Pos Year Pick Player Team Yards TD INT Yards TD
QB
1997 26
  Jim Druckenmiller
SFO
239
1
4
-6
0
QB
1998 1
  Peyton Manning
IND
3739
26
28
62
0
QB
1998 2
  Ryan Leaf
SDG
1289
2
15
80
0
QB
1999 1
  Tim Couch
CLE
2447
15
13
278
1
QB
1999 2
  Donovan McNabb
PHI
948
8
7
313
0
QB
1999 3
  Akili Smith
CIN
805
2
6
114
1
QB
1999 11
  Daunte Culpepper
MIN
0
0
0
6
0
QB
2000 18
  Chad Pennington
NYJ
67
1
0
0
0
QB
2001 1
  Michael Vick
ATL
785
2
3
300
1
QB
2002 1
  David Carr
HOU
2592
9
15
279
3
QB
2002 3
  Joey Harrington
DET
2294
12
16
4
0
QB
2003 1
  Carson Palmer
CIN
2897
18
18
47
1
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QB
2003 7
  Byron Leftwich
JAX
2819
14
16
108
2
QB
2004 1
  Eli Manning
NYG
1043
6
9
35
0
QB
2004 4
  Philip Rivers
SDG
33
1
0
-5
0
QB
2004 11
  Ben Roethlisberger
PIT
2621
17
11
144
1
QB
2005 1
  Alex Smith
SFO
875
1
11
103
0
QB
2005 24
  Aaron Rodgers
GRB
65
0
1
7
0
QB
2006 3
  Vince Young
TEN
2199
12
13
552
7
QB
2006 10
  Matt Leinart
ARI
377
11
12
49
2
QB
2006 11
  Jay Cutler
DEN
1001
9
5
18
0
QB
2007 1
  JaMarcus Russell
OAK
373
2
4
4
0
QB
2007 22
  Brady Quinn
CLE
45
0
0
21
0
QB
2008 3
  Matt Ryan
ATL
3440
16
11
104
1
QB
2008 18
  Joe Flacco
BAL
2971
14
12
180
2
QB
2009 1
  Matthew Stafford
DET
2267
13
20
108
2
QB
2009 5
  Mark Sanchez
NYJ
2444
12
20
106
3
QB
2010 1
  Sam Bradford
STL
3512
18
15
63
1
QB
2010 25
  Tim Tebow
DEN
654
5
3
227
6
QB
2010 48
  Jimmy Clausen
CAR
1558
3
9
57
0
QB
2011 1
  Cam Newton
CAR
4051
21
17
706
14
QB
2011 8
  Jake Locker
TEN
542
4
0
56
1
QB
2011 10
  Blaine Gabbert
JAX
2214
12
11
98
0
QB
2011 12
  Christian Ponder
MIN
1853
13
13
219
0
QB
2011 35
  Andy Dalton
CIN
3398
20
13
152
1
QB
2012 1
  Andrew Luck
IND
4374
23
18
225
5
QB
2012 2
  Robert Griffin III
WAS
3200
20
5
815
7
QB
2012 8
  Ryan Tannehill
MIA
3294
12
13
211
2
QB
2012 22
  Brandon Weeden
CLE
3385
14
17
111
0
QB
2012 75
  Russell Wilson
SEA
3118
26
10
489
4
QB
2013 16
  E.J. Manuel
BUF
1972
11
9
186
2
QB
2013 39
  Geno Smith
NYJ
3046
12
21
366
6
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
WR
1997 7
  Ike Hilliard
NYG
42
0
--
0
0
WR
1997 15
  Yatil Green
MIA
0
0
--
0
0
WR
1998 16
  Kevin Dyson
TEN
263
2
--
4
0
WR
1998 21
  Randy Moss
MIN
1313
17
--
4
0
WR
1998 30
  Marcus Nash
DEN
76
0
--
0
0
WR
1999 6
  Tory Holt
STL
788
6
--
25
0
WR
1999 8
  David Boston
ARI
473
2
--
0
0
WR
1999 13
  Troy Edwards
PIT
714
5
--
0
0
WR
1999 32
  Kevin Johnson
CLE
986
8
--
-6
0
WR
2000 3
  Peter Warrick
CIN
592
4
--
148
2
WR
2000 10
  Travis Taylor
BAL
276
3
--
11
0
WR
2001 8
  David Terrell
CHI
415
4
--
0
0
WR
2001 9
  Koren Robinson
SEA
536
1
--
13
0
WR
2002 13
  Donte Stallworth
NOR
594
8
--
2
0
WR
2002 19
  Ashlie Lelie
DEN
525
2
--
40
0
WR
2003 2
  Charles Rogers
DET
243
3
--
17
0
WR
2003 3
  Andre Johnson
HOU
976
4
--
-10
0
WR
2003 17
  Bryant Johnson
ARI
438
1
--
0
0
WR
2003 44
  Taylor Jacobs
WAS
37
1
--
0
0
WR
2003 45
  Bethel Johnson
NWE
209
2
--
-12
0
WR
2003 54
  Anquan Boldin
ARI
1377
8
--
40
0
WR
2004 3
  Larry Fitzgerald
ARI
780
8
--
14
0
WR
2004 7
  Roy Williams
DET
817
8
--
1
0
WR
2004 9
  Reggie Williams
JAX
268
1
--
0
0
WR
2004 13
  Lee Evans
BUF
843
9
--
85
0
WR
2004 15
  Michael Clayton
TAM
1193
7
--
30
0
WR
2005 3
  Braylon Edwards
CLE
512
3
--
0
0
WR
2005 7
  Troy Williamson
MIN
372
2
--
28
0
WR
2005 10
  Mike Williams
DET
350
1
--
0
0
WR
2006 25
  Santonio Holmes
PIT
824
2
--
13
0
WR
2006 252
  Marques Colston
NOR
1038
8
--
0
0
WR
2007 2
  Calvin Johnson
DET
756
4
--
52
1
WR
2007 9
  Ted Ginn Jr.
MIA
420
2
--
3
0
WR
2007 23
  Dwayne Bowe
KC
995
5
--
0
0
WR
2008 33
  Donnie Avery
STL
674
3
--
69
1
WR
2008 42
  Eddie Royal
DEN
980
5
--
109
0
WR
2008 49
  DeSean Jackson
PHI
912
2
--
96
1
WR
2009 7
  Darrius Heyward-Bey
OAK
124
1
--
19
0
WR
2009 10
  Michael Crabtree
SFO
625
2
--
0
0
WR
2009 19
  Jeremy Maclin
PHI
762
4
--
-7
0
WR
2010 22
  Demaryius Thomas
DEN
283
2
--
0
0
WR
2010 24
  Dez Bryant
DAL
561
6
--
0
0
WR
2010 36
  Dexter McCluster
KC
209
1
--
71
0
WR
2010 39
  Arrelious Benn
TAM
395
2
--
35
0
WR
2010 60
  Golden Tate
SEA
227
0
--
4
0
WR
2010 101
  Mike Williams
TAM
964
11
--
0
0
WR
2011 4
  A.J. Green
CIN
1057
7
--
53
0
WR
2011 6
  Julio Jones
ATL
959
8
--
56
0
WR
2011 26
  Jonathan Baldwin
KC
254
1
--
0
0
WR
2011 44
  Titus Young
DET
607
6
--
15
0
WR
2011 58
  Torrey Smith
BAL
841
7
--
39
0
WR
2011 59
  Greg Little
CLE
709
2
--
15
0
WR
2012 5
  Justin Blackmon
JAX
865
5
--
23
0
WR
2012 13
  Michael Floyd
ARI
562
2
--
0
0
WR
2012 20
  Kendall Wright
TEN
626
4
--
4
0
WR
2012 33
  A.J. Jenkins
SFO
0
0
--
0
0
WR
2012 33
  Brian Quick
STL
156
2
--
0
0
WR
2012 43
  Stephen Hill
NYJ
252
3
--
0
0
WR
2012 45
  Alshon Jeffery
CHI
367
3
--
0
0
WR
2012 54
  Ryan Broyles
DET
310
2
--
0
0
WR
2012 63
  Rueben Randle
NYG
298
3
--
0
0
WR
2013 8
  Tavon Austin
STL
418
4
--
151
1
WR
2013 27
  DeAndre Hopkins
HOU
802
2
--
0
0
WR
2013 29
  Cordarrelle Patterson
MIN
469
4
--
158
3
WR
2013 76
  Keenan Allen
SDG
1046
8
--
0
0
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
TE
1997 13
  Tony Gonzalez
KC
368
2
--
0
0
TE
1998 40
  Cam Cleeland
NOR
684
6
--
0
0
TE
1999 42
  Reggie Kelley
ATL
146
0
--
0
0
TE
2000 14
  Bubba Franks
GRB
363
1
--
0
0
TE
2001 31
  Todd Heap
BAL
206
1
--
0
0
TE
2002 13
  Jeremy Shockey
NYG
894
2
--
0
0
TE
2003 24
  Dallas Clark
IND
340
1
--
0
0
TE
2004 6
  Kellen Winslow Jr.
CLE
50
0
--
0
0
TE
2005 30
  Heath Miller
PIT
459
6
--
0
0
TE
2006 6
  Vernon Davis
SFO
265
3
--
5
0
TE
2007 31
  Greg Olsen
CHI
391
2
--
0
0
TE
2008 30
  Dustin Keller
NYJ
535
3
--
0
0
TE
2009 20
  Brandon Pettigrew
DET
346
2
--
0
0
TE
2010 21
  Jermaine Greshman
CIN
471
4
--
0
0
TE
2010 42
  Rob Gronkowski
NWE
546
10
--
0
0
TE
2010 95
  Jimmy Graham
NOR
356
5
--
3
0
TE
2010 113
  Aaron Hernandez
NWE
563
6
--
47
0
TE
2011 43
  Kyle Rudolph
MIN
249
3
--
0
0
TE
2012 34
  Coby Fleener
IND
281
2
--
0
0
TE
2013 21
  Tyler Eifert
CIN
445
2
--
0
0
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
RB
1997 12
  Warrick Dunn
TAM
462
3
--
978
4
RB
1997 23
  Antowain Smith
BUF
177
0
--
840
8
RB
1997 36
  Tiki Barber
NYG
299
1
--
511
3
RB
1997 5
  Corey Dillon
CIN
259
0
--
1129
10
RB
1998 5
  Curtis Enis
CHI
20
0
--
497
0
RB
1998 9
  Fred Taylor
JAX
421
3
--
1223
14
RB
1998 18
  Robert Edwards
NWE
331
3
--
1115
9
RB
1999 4
  Edgerrin James
IND
586
4
--
1553
13
RB
1999 5
  Ricky Williams
MIA
172
0
--
884
2
RB
1999 127
  Olandis Gary
DEN
159
0
--
1159
7
RB
2000 5
  Jamal Lewis
BAL
296
0
--
1364
6
RB
2000 7
  Thomas Jones
ARI
208
0
--
373
2
RB
2000 11
  Ron Dayne
NYG
11
0
--
770
5
RB
2000 19
  Shaun Alexander
SEA
41
0
--
313
2
RB
2000 189
  Mike Anderson
DEN
169
0
--
1487
15
RB
2001 5
  LaDainian Tomlinson
SDG
367
0
--
1236
10
RB
2001 23
  Deuce McAllister
NOR
166
1
--
91
1
RB
2001 27
  Michael Bennett
MIN
226
1
--
682
2
RB
2001 38
  Anthony Thomas
CHI
178
0
--
1183
7
RB
2001 UFA
  Dominic Rhodes
IND
224
0
--
1104
9
RB
2002 16
  William Green
CLE
113
0
--
887
6
RB
2002 18
  T.J. Duckett
ATL
61
0
--
507
4
RB
2002 34
  DeShaun Foster
CAR
0
0
--
0
0
RB
2002 51
  Clinton Portis
DEN
364
2
--
1508
15
RB
2003 23
  Willis McGahee
BUF
169*
0*
--
1128*
13*
RB
2003 27
  Larry Johnson
KC
2
0
--
85
1
RB
2003 101
  Domanick Williams (Davis)
HOU
351
0
--
1031
8
RB
2004 24
  Steven Jackson
STL
189
0
--
673
4
RB
2004 26
  Chris Perry
CIN
33
0
--
1
0
RB
2004 30
  Kevin Jones
DET
180
1
--
1133
5
RB
2005 2
  Ronnie Brown
MIA
232
1
--
907
4
RB
2005 4
  Cedric Benson
CHI
3
0
--
272
0
RB
2005 5
  Cadillac Williams
TAM
81
0
--
1178
6
RB
2006 2
  Reggie Bush
NOR
742
2
--
565
6
RB
2006 21
  Laurence Maroney
NWE
194
1
--
745
6
RB
2006 27
  DeAngelo Williams
CAR
313
1
--
501
1
RB
2006 30
  Joseph Addai
IND
325
1
--
1081
7
RB
2006 45
  LenDale White
TEN
60
0
--
244
0
RB
2006 60
  Maurice Jones-Drew
JAX
436
2
--
941
13
RB
2007 7
  Adrian Peterson
MIN
268
1
--
1341
12
RB
2007 12
  Marshawn Lynch
BUF
184
0
--
1115
7
RB
2008 4
  Darren McFadden
OAK
285
0
--
499
4
RB
2008 13
  Jonathan Stewart
CAR
47
0
--
836
10
RB
2008 22
  Felix Jones
DAL
10
0
--
266
3
RB
2008 23
  Rashard Mendenhall
PIT
17
0
--
58
0
RB
2008 24
  Chris Johnson
TEN
260
1
--
1228
9
RB
2008 44
  Matt Forte
CHI
477
4
--
1238
8
RB
2008 55
  Ray Rice
BAL
273
0
--
454
0
RB
2008 64
  Kevin Smith
DET
286
0
--
976
8
RB
2008 89
  Steve Slaton
HOU
377
1
--
1282
9
RB
2009 12
  Knowshon Moreno
DEN
213
2
--
947
7
RB
2009 27
  Donald Brown
IND
169
0
--
281
3
RB
2009 31
  Chris Wells
ARI
143
0
--
793
7
RB
2009 53
  LeSean McCoy
PHI
308
0
--
637
4
RB
2010 9
  C.J. Spiller
BUF
157
1
--
283
0
RB
2010 12
  Ryan Mathews
SDG
145
0
--
678
7
RB
2010 30
  Jahvid Best
DET
487
2
--
555
4
RB
2010 51
  Toby Gerhart
MIN
167
0
--
322
1
RB
2010 FA
  LeGarrette Blount
TAM
14
0
--
1007
6
RB
2011 28
  Mark Ingram
NOR
46
0
--
474
5
RB
2011 38
  Ryan Williams**
ARI
INJ
INJ
INJ
INJ
INJ
RB
2011 71
  DeMarco Murray
DAL
183
0
--
897
2
RB
2012 3
  Trent Richardson
CLE
367
1
--
950
11
RB
2012 31
  Doug Martin
TAM
472
1
--
1454
11
RB
2012 32
  David Wilson
NYG
34
1
--
358
4
RB
2012 173
  Alfred Morris
WAS
77
0
--
1613
13
RB
2013 37
  Giovani Bernard
CIN
514
3
--
695
5
RB
2013 48
  Le'Veon Bell
PIT
399
0
--
860
8
RB
2013 58
  Montee Ball
DEN
145
0
--
559
4
RB
2013 61
  Eddie Lacy
GRB
257
0
--
1178
11
* Willis McGahee was drafted knowing he was injured in 2003 and unable to play until 2004. These stats are from 2004.
** Ryan Williams suffered a season ending injury in the 2011 NFL Preseason


Why do rookie RBs seemingly have a fantasy advantage in their first year?
In a word: transition. The transition from a top notch college running back to a good NFL running back is not as demanding as for the quarterback, wide receiver, and tight end positions. For a QB and WR in particular, timing is everything. A player must install confidence in his respective QB or WR that he will be able to deliver for a particular play. It is not good enough for a rookie QB or WR to be able throw a good ball or have good hands; they must be able to execute, run crisp routes, and hit their spots with precision. NFL secondaries are very unforgiving. A slight mistake either way and a WR is either blowing snot bubbles or the QB is watching a defensive back take it for six the other way. Quite to the contrary, in many instances it is good enough for a rookie RB to just rely heavily on God-given athletic ability alone. The handoff from QB to RB isn't exactly rocket science, although it does take a little work to get the timing down. Secondly, the hogs up front control the line of scrimmage and at times can will a rookie RB into the endzone. The only real problems with rookie RBs are fumbles and blocking responsibility. The former can be the Achilles heal of rookie RBs and earn them some quality time on the pine, whereas the latter can be addressed relatively easily by just replacing the rookie with a savvy veteran on passing downs and long yardage conversions. Although the speed of the NFL will make the transition from the college level difficult for any position, the probability of a stellar college player immediately having a significant impact on the NFL is easiest for the RB position.

After looking at the above statistics, it becomes painfully obvious that drafting rookies is a very risky business (even for RBs - while there are some very tempting morsels out there looking at the data after the fact, there are also plenty of duds that cost high fantasy football draft picks and had horrendous fantasy football seasons in their rookie year... like Curtis Enis, Ricky Williams, Thomas Jones, Shaun Alexander, Larry Johnson, DeAngelo Williams, C.J. Spiller, and others). The earlier you take a chance on a NFL rookie in your fantasy football draft, the bigger the hit your team will take if you are wrong and they don't pan out - which they can do in a very big, crush-your-season way. However, when it does time to draft a rookie, it needs to be a RB. It is very clear that rookie RBs have a distinct fantasy advantage for success in their first year in the NFL. Since 1997, there has only been one year (2011) that at least one rookie RB did not emerge to be a fantasy force, although Dallas rookie RB DeMarco Murray was well on his way until suffering a season ending injury. For a complete list of rookies for the upcoming season, check out our article, NFL Rookies & Commentary.

There is a time and a place to take a chance on a rookie in your fantasy football draft, but it is important to use some discretion, stick to your rookie draft strategy, and above all else: Don't fall prey to media hype.

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