The old adage about wide receivers is that their third year is when they “break out” and become the NFL player they were drafted to be. The stats actually backed this up for the most part; FootballDocs broke down the breakout years of all relevant wide receivers from 1998 to 2010 and found that the majority of them came in year 3. There were a few 1st year outliers (Randy Moss, Anquan Boldin, Marques Colston) and plenty of year twos as well but the stats back up the 3rd year as the most common year that receivers breakout.
While historical stats up to 2010 back-up the 3rd year breakout, the stats from 2011 to 2013 tell a different story. There are still third year breakouts like Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant and Eric Decker but more receivers are breaking out in their first and second years than ever before. With the NFL constantly changing the rules to open up the passing game, receivers are blossoming a year or two earlier than they used to. In the last two seasons, 2nd year players like Julio Jones, AJ Green, Randall Cobb, Josh Gordon, Alshon Jeffrey, TY Hilton, Kendal Wright and Michael Floyd all had huge years. Even rookie receivers are becoming more relevant in fantasy football than they used to be; Keenan Allen, Deandre Hopkins, Terrance Williams, Cordarrelle Patterson, Kenny Stills, Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins, and Marlon Brown were all owned in over 50% of Yahoo leagues at some point in the 2013 season.
My long-winded point is that the NFL has become a passing league and with receivers being more protected than ever before, the “3rd year” rule is becoming obsolete. Last year’s rookie class was considered a weak one and still 11 rookies had over 400 yards receiving. This year’s class is considered one of the best ever with a record-breaking 12 players selected in the first two rounds. I think it will also be a record-breaking year for rookie wide receivers in fantasy and I covered which ones you should draft below. With so many receivers being drafted this year, I’ve broken this into two parts.
For most of you in standard re-draft fantasy leagues, only part 1 will make any difference to you. For those of you in deep leagues (14+ teams), multi-year keeper leagues or long-term dynasty leagues, I’ve broken down the fantasy potential of every WR drafted and a few relevant UDFAs in part 2.
* Before you rip me in the comments section keep in mind that these aren’t rankings of long-term success, just their projected fantasy impact this season.
Rookie Fantasy Rankings
Rookie Wide Receivers
1.) Sammy Watkins, Bills:
Playing time - Watkins should start the season as the Bills #1 WR and could lead the team in targets.
Fantasy outlook - Watkins will get plenty of targets, but will they be catchable? As a rookie E.J. Manuel struggled to complete passes (58%, 11 TDs / 9 INTs) when he was healthy enough to play. If Manuel, the former 1st round pick, shows considerable improvement Watkins could be in for a big year. Most likely, Manuel will be a little better and Watkins will have a solid, but unspectacular season (70, 1000, 7) making him a solid #2 WR or flex play. Assuming a healthy year from Manuel I think Kennan Allen’s 2013 season is a reasonable projection. If Manuel gets hurt, either Thad Lewis or Jeff Tuel take over and Watkins numbers take a serious hit. Whoever is under center I expect Watkins to be the primary focus in the passing game after the high price the Bills paid to move up and draft him. It’s pretty rare for rookie wide outs to come in and dominate, but by year two he has the talent to be an all-pro. I expect Watkins to be a solid fantasy starter in 2014 with the potential to be a legit #1 in 2015 / 2016 for those in keeper leagues.
Auction value - Re-draft $12, Keeper $17
2013 Statistical comparison - Keenan Allen
Draft him ahead of - Hakeem Nicks, Dewayne Bowe
2.) Brandon Cooks, Saints:
Playing time - All Cooks has to do is beat out Robert Meachum and Chris Givens in order to get on the field as the Saints 3rd wide receiver. I wouldn’t rule out Cooks beating out Kenny Stills for the #2, but I think he is better suited for the slot position and Stills is better off on the outside where he can use his blazing speed to get deep. The Saints use the 3 WR set (11 personnel) over 50% of the time so Cooks will be on the field often. Marcus Colston showed signs of wearing down last year and Stills was a one-dimensional receiver last year, so Cooks could become Drew Brees’ #2 option after Jimmy Graham by the end of his rookie season. The Saints have averaged over 40 pass attempts per game the last four seasons, so despite a claim that they are going to run the ball more, I will believe it when I see it.
Fantasy outlook - The Saints have always had a prolific passing attack despite not having much talent at the receiver position. Outside of TE/WR Jimmy Graham, Cooks is already the most talented receiver on the roster. He’s short, but can fly (4.37), has great hands and perhaps just as importantly is dedicated to his craft. I expect Cooks to be ready to play week 1 and he should become a valuable fantasy contributor right away. I think an 85 catch, 1100 yard, 6 TD season is possible.
Auction value – Re-draft $10, Keeper $17
2013 Statistical comparison – T.Y. Hilton
Draft him ahead of – Greg Jennings, Aaron Dobson, Steve Smith
3.) Mike Evans, Buccaneers:
Playing time - The Bucs have very little talent at WR after Vincent Jackson, so it would be a disappointment if Evans isn’t starting week 1. Both Josh McCown and Mike Glennon have big time arms and throw a nice deep ball so either guy has the ability to take advantage of Evans’ skill-set and he should see plenty of targets despite HC Lovie Smith’s conservative nature.
Fantasy outlook - Evans excels at the deep routes and if you watched any Bears games last year Josh McCown likes to air out deep and let his receiver go get the ball. The McCown / Evans combo should be very similar to McCown / Jeffery last year and could result in a monster rookie season for Evans. Besides a handful of deep touchdowns, Evans should also be a red zone weapon and I could see him coming close 10 TDs this season. Evans will struggle with press coverage from stronger NFL CBs and I don’t think he’ll have as many catches as Watkins or Cooks, but his yards per catch should be higher as will his TD total. I think (50, 900, 9) is a reasonable projection with major upside the next few years as he gets stronger and improves his intermediate route running.
Auction value - Re-draft $8, Keeper: $15
2013 Statistical comparison - Riley Cooper
Draft him ahead of - Greg Jennings, Aaron Dobson, Steve Smith
4.) Odell Beckham, Giants:
Playing time - The slot receiver position is there for the taking for Beckham. If he can’t beat out Mario Manningham, than the Giants shouldn’t have used a high first round pick on him. I think Beckham will excel in that role. The Giants addressed their leaky O-line in the off-season so Eli should have a better year and by extension so should the Giants receiving core.
Fantasy outlook - Beckham has elite quickness, plenty of straight line speed (4.43) and sticky hands. He will need to get stronger to beat press coverage consistently but I think he is a polished enough route runner to get open at the NFL level. The Giants rebuilt O-line should give Eli more time to throw and I think Beckham will see enough targets to rack up 70-75 catches, 750 yards, and 5-7 touchdowns as a rookie.
Auction value - Re-draft $6, Keeper $11
2013 Statistical comparison - Emmanuel Sanders
Draft him ahead of - Reuben Randle, Stevie Johnson, Markus Wheaton