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Fantasy Football 2012: The Rules for Picking Rookies


Fantasy owners are often tempted by the unlimited potential rookies offer. But history shows us that they rarely satisfy the demands of the roster spots they occupy.

You’re four rounds into your fantasy football draft, and already the temptation is killing you. Is it time to consider Justin Blackmon? He could be huge for Jacksonville, same as he was for Oklahoma State. He could be the game’s next elite wide receiver. He could fill my need at the No. 2 wide receiver spot.

He could … he could … but chances are, he won’t.

Rookies rarely live up to the hype. Most NFL quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and tight ends take time to mature. Success doesn’t happen in Year 1. But, because of a few well-documented exceptions, fantasy owners — even seasoned ones — ignore hard evidence and fall under the trance rookie prospects project.

Last season will only fuel the problem. Cam Newton had arguably the greatest debut of any player in league history, and fellow rookie quarterback Andy Dalton lit up the sky in Cincinnati. A.J. Green and Julio Jones each put up some of the best numbers ever posted by a rookie receiver. That success will have fantasy owners pondering whether Blackmon and others can duplicate that success in 2012.

History tells us probably not. By analyzing rookie data dating back to 1978 when the league went to a 16-game format (and in some cases dating back before that), the evidence suggests that rookies don’t meet the expectations fantasy owners have for starters (or even front-line backups).

Here is a look at some of the rookie pitfalls, broken down by key statistical categories, for each of the four primary fantasy positions:

NFL teams invest a lot in a rookie quarterback. More than the money, that player represents the team’s future, so the conventional wisdom is to bring him along slowly. Teams remind themselves of the beating Troy Aikman took in 1989, and of how some careers never got going because the player’s confidence was shattered early on. There’s another reason fantasy rookie passers fail to meet expectations: Chances are, if a team picks a quarterback in the early rounds of the draft, the rest of the team isn’t very good.

Rule 1: Quarterbacks don’t find the end zone enough
Newton is one of only four rookie quarterbacks from the Super Bowl era (1966-present) to throw for 20-plus touchdowns in a season. Peyton Manning’s 26-touchdown debut in 1998 ranks atop the leaderboard for this category and may be the only acceptable touchdown total among rookie fantasy passers. Most alarming is the fact that over the past decade — the most friendly passing era in the history of the game — only five rookie quarterbacks have logged 15 or more touchdown passes.

Rule 2: The 3,000-yard “norm” is rarely reached
Fantasy owners expect starting quarterbacks to throw for at least 3,000 yards, and recent numbers suggest that this is reasonable to expect of backups as well. At least 18 quarterbacks have reached that total in each of the past four seasons, so it’s a bit surprising that only a handful of rookie signal-callers over the past 35 years have passed for 3,000 or more yards. Four of the five have come in recent years (Matt Ryan, Sam Bradford, Andy Dalton and Cam Newton).

Rule 3: Rookie QBs don’t start enough games to matter
Perhaps the reason rookie quarterbacks do not perform well for fantasy owners is because they do not get enough snaps. Since 1978, only eight quarterbacks have started every game in their debut seasons. And to take it a step further, a total of 25 have started 12 or more games (who could forget Jeff Komlo’s 1979 campaign?) — that’s less than one per season, on average.

2012 Potential Rule-Breaker
Four quarterbacks (Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden) will have a chance to start all 16 games, but of the three, Griffin may have the best chance to produce for fantasy owners. Washington’s receiving corps gives Griffin the edge.

Running Backs
Through the years a number of rookie running backs have found success — perhaps more so than any other fantasy position. The transition from college to the NFL is easier on backs, and teams take advantage of their rookies’ fresh legs. But recent trends should give fantasy owners reason for pause.

Rule 1: The biggest names are not always the ones to shine
A total of 27 running backs have scored 10 or more rushing touchdowns in their rookie seasons — an encouraging stat. But many of these players were middle- or even late-round picks. Next to Eric Dickerson’s 18 touchdowns (1983) in the record book is sixth-round pick Mike Anderson’s 15 scores from 2000. Five backs were selected ahead of Maurice Jones-Drew, who scored 13 touchdowns in 2006. Tim Hightower (10 touchdowns) was a fifth-round pick in 2008, Ron Davenport (11) was a sixth-round pick in 1985, and Billy Jackson (10) was a seventh-round pick in 1981. Sometimes you just can’t tell where rookie running back production will come from.

Rule 2: Rookie workloads are declining with the times
Running backs have not been putting up huge numbers in recent years, and in 2011 only two backs logged 300 or more carries (in 2006, 10 backs reached the mark). Rookie backs have followed this trend. Whereas there have been 15 rookie backs to carry 300 or more times since 1978, only one has come in the past decade (Matt Forté, 2008). In fact, in this last decade, only 16 rookies have carried 200 times or more.

2012 Potential Rule-Breaker
The Browns invested in Trent Richardson to be the workhorse for their rebuilding offense. Unfortunately, that offense has no passing game to speak of, suggesting that opponents will be able to stack the box to stop Richardson. This may be another year in which rookie running back success comes from someone fantasy owners don’t suspect.

Wide Receivers
It takes time for a wide receiver to blossom. That’s why fantasy owners long ago invented the “three-year rule,” which is used to predict when a receiver will have a breakout season. Receivers must learn all of the routes (and variances for each route) and develop chemistry (timing, trust) with their quarterbacks. Rarely does success happen overnight.

Rule 1: Receivers catch fewer than 70 balls
To crack a starting lineup, a fantasy receiver should approach the 70-reception mark (24 wide receivers reached the mark in 2011). Few rookies get there, though — only six since 1978, most recently Eddie Royal (91 catches in 2008). Over the past decade, 21 rookie wide receivers have reached the 50-catch mark, including undrafted free agents Davone Bess and Doug Baldwin. If there is a silver lining, it’s that that figure is a 50 percent increase from the decade prior (14 rookie receivers caught 50-plus balls from 1992-2001).

Rule 2: Don’t expect 1,000 or more yards
Eleven rookie receivers have topped the 1,000-yard mark since 1978, but the important thing to note here is that only six of the 11 were first-round picks, suggesting that many went unnoticed by fantasy owners on draft day. Indianapolis’ Bill Brooks was a fourth-round pick in 1986, and, of course, Marques Colston lasted until the seventh round in 2006. In terms of consistency, only 10 receivers over that same period have averaged 70 or more yards per game in their first seasons (min. of 11 starts).

Rule 3: Double-digit touchdown totals are out of the question
Here is a trivia question your friends will never get the answer to: Name the five rookie receivers of the Super Bowl era to catch 10 or more touchdowns in a season. Most know Randy Moss set a record in 1998 with 17, and some will remember that only a few years ago Tampa Bay’s Mike Williams had 11. The others? San Diego’s John Jefferson caught 13 touchdowns in 1978, and Minnesota’s Sammy White (1976) and Seattle’s Daryl Turner (1984) each caught 10. Consider that in 2010 alone there were 10 wide receivers with 10 or more touchdown catches.

2012 Potential Rule-Breaker
The Jaguars were one of the weakest teams at the position last year, so hopes are high that Blackmon can fill the void for second-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert. Of course, this only means opposing teams will be able to key on Blackmon.

Tight Ends
Obviously, the tight end position has only emerged as a fantasy force in recent years. Prior to the Tony Gonzalez era, there were few seasons of note (Mike Ditka’s rookie season of 1961 among them). Today, however, fantasy owners expect a great deal of production out of their tight ends, which is why they should evaluate rookies with caution.

Rule 1: First-year TEs don’t offer big catch totals
If 70 is the benchmark for wide receivers, 50 is the equivalent for tight ends (17 reached the total last season). Since 1978, only five rookie tight ends have caught that many passes, and only two have caught 60 or more balls (Philadelphia’s Keith Jackson has the high mark with 81 in 1988). Recent history suggests that rookies are making progress in this category, however. Half of the top 20 catch seasons among rookie tight ends have been recorded since 2001, and the 2010 NFL season was the most successful of any, as four rookie tight ends had 40 or more catches, including New England’s Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.

Rule 2: Count on a low touchdown total
Gronkowski is the only rookie tight end of the Super Bowl era to catch 10 or more touchdowns, but fantasy owners shouldn’t expect that from a first-year player (10 touchdowns is a respectable total for an elite tight end). However, what is troubling is that only a dozen rookie tight ends have caught six or more scores in the same period, and surprisingly, only four from the past decade — Gronkowski, Hernandez and Pittsburgh’s Heath Miller (2005) and Washington’s Chris Cooley (2004).

Rule 3: Tight ends don’t crack the starting lineup
Same as quarterbacks, rookie tight ends do not see enough action. Only nine have started a full season since 1978, and over the past decade, only nine have started 12 or more games. Only one rookie tight end from the period has reached all of the above milestones (16 starts, 50 receptions and six or more touchdowns) – New Orleans’ Cam Cleeland, 1998.

2012 Potential Rule-Breaker
Coby Fleener knows his new quarterback (Luck) well from having played together at Stanford, but fantasy owners should be scared at the thought of a rookie throwing to a rookie.

— By Mike Beacom, originally published in the 2012 Athlon Sports NFL Fantasy Football preview magazine

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