There was a time when the rookie wide receiver was a forbidden fruit on fantasy draft day — enticing, but deadly to bite into. The accepted rule has long been that wide receivers break out in Year 3. It could happen on occasion in Year 2, and almost never in Year 1.
It’s time to rescind that rule. We know now that wide receivers have much to offer fantasy owners from the get-go. Consider the following:
• Four rookie receivers (Austin Collie, Percy Harvin, Hakeem Nicks and Mike Wallace) ranked among the top 30 in the league in touchdown receptions last season. Another (Johnny Knox) was not far behind.
• Four rookies (Kenny Britt, Mohamed Massaquoi, Michael Crabtree and Louis Murphy) led their respective teams in receiving yards by wideouts last year. Brian Hartline led the Dolphins in receiving touchdowns.
• Eight rookie receivers recorded at least one 100-yard game last season (nine if you include Collie’s performance in the AFC Championship Game).
This list of names illustrates that last year wasn’t about one rookie skewing the statistics; even a little-known seventh-round pick (Julian Edelman) jumped onto the fantasy radar screen a couple of times. But more important to note is that this trend is not unique to 2009.
A few rookie highlights from the past decade:
• In 2008 — a year without a first-round wide receiver selection — DeSean Jackson and Eddie Royal were both targeted more than 120 times in the passing game.
• Calvin Johnson and Dwayne Bowe were both targeted 95-plus times in 2007, and Johnson ranked among the league’s top 10 receivers in yards per catch.
• In 2006, Marques Colston caught 70 passes in only 14 games.
• Anquan Boldin hauled in 101 balls in 2003.
Of course, the third-year rule came from somewhere — from years and years of rookie receivers proving it true. Outstanding first-year players such as John Jefferson (1978) and Bob Hayes (1965) used to be the exceptions, not the rule. Back in the day, rookies were given time to mature and develop with little expected from them. But as the NFL has evolved into more and more of a passing league, high-profile rookies — even low-round picks and street free agents — have gotten an opportunity to contribute in the league’s growing number of four- and five-wide receiver sets. And they’ve capitalized.
It also could be argued that a number of other factors have been at work:
THE ARRIVAL OF RANDY MOSS
Moss proved in 1998 that a receiver doesn’t need to develop chemistry with his quarterback or take two years to learn the playbook. All he must do is use his athleticism and make plays. Over time, NFL executives recognized that other receivers could do the same and started putting them in position to do so. Consider that the top two single-season rookie totals for receptions both occurred within the past seven seasons.
If there is one thing that the best passing teams have proven to the rest of the league in recent years, it’s that receivers can be viewed as almost interchangeable parts. At least that has seemed to ring true in Indianapolis and New England. So why invest top dollar in the free agent market on a position that can just as well be nurtured through a low-cost draft pick? The general consensus is to expect more from less — just sound capitalism, really.
A NEED FOR BALANCE
Yes, every team still identifies its “primary receiver,” but the concept of such a player has changed over the past decade. Teams understand they can ill afford to rely solely on one great weapon in the passing game (much like teams are starting to believe they need more than one capable running back). This has prompted offenses to spread the ball around more, creating opportunities for younger players to move up the depth chart.
These changes ensure that the trend of earlier wide receiver development will continue. Fantasy owners should identify the year’s best bets for success each summer, in years of both strong and weak rookie wide receiver crops, and target those individuals on draft day.
This article originally appeared in the Athlon Sports 2010 Fantasy Football magazine. Buy your copy now at newsstands and bookstores or by clicking here.