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 theyused to. In the last two seasons, 2nd year players like Julio Jones, AJ Green, Randall Cobb, Josh Gordon, Alshon Jeffrey, TY Hilton, Kendall 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 (Part 2)
17.) Devin Street, Cowboys:
Playing time - After Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams, the Cowboys depth chart is wide open. Guys like Beasley and Harris have shown flashes, but not consistently enough that they have earned playing time this season. Street was one of my favorite mid round targets and fits the Cowboys receiver profile perfectly (6’3,199). The Cowboys have made no secret of their preference for receivers that measure at least 6′, 200. Street has a 3 inch height advantage over his competition for playing time and I think he’ll get plenty of it as either the 3rd or 4th receiver for the Cowboys.
Fantasy Outlook - He was very productive in college (202 receptions), showed better than advertised speed at his pro day (4.48), and has great hands. I had a late 3rd-early 4th round grade on Street and was surprised to see him drop to the 5th. I think that had more to do with a very deep WR draft than any issues with Street’s skills. He needs to get stronger to beat press coverage but I think he’s talented enough to make an impact as a rookie. Maybe not enough of an impact to be worthy of a spot on your fantasy roster with all the other options in Dallas, but he’s a guy to keep an eye on if any of the Cowboy receivers go down or he wins the #3 WR job.
18.) Bruce Ellington, 49ers:
Playing time - Everything broke the Niners way in the draft and it seemed they got steals with every pick, but Ellington might have been the best value. I’m still shocked that the Cardinals passed on Ellington (and Bryant) for John Brown. The trade for Stevie Johnson should push Ellington to the bench for 2014 which might not be a bad thing. He is raw due to getting a late start on his football career, but Ellington has the strength, speed, and agility to be an elite slot receiver once his route-running and technique get a little polish. I don’t expect much playing time for Ellington this year, but it won’t be long before he is an important contributor for the Niners.
Fantasy outlook - With Boldin, Crabtree and now Stevie Johnson ahead of him on the depth chart I don’t expect much fantasy value from Ellington this season as the Niners 4th WR. For keeper leagues he could be a good stash for 2015 with Crabtree a free agent and $12 M of non-guaranteed money left on Johnson’s contract after this year, they both could be playing elsewhere as soon as next season which would open up a spot for Ellington. Once he hits the field, he is dynamic enough to be an impact fantasy player.
19.) Chandler Jones, Browns:
Playing time - Like everyone else I was shocked when the Browns passed on multiple NFL ready receivers in this year’s draft. Maybe they know something about Josh Gordon’s situation that we don’t, but I thought they needed a receiver even if Gordon is playing. It doesn’t make a ton of sense to draft a franchise QB and not give him any weapons. The Browns have some decent receivers besides Gordon in Andrew Hawkins and Earl Bennett but both of those guys are better off as #3 WRs. If Bennett and Hawkins are forced into the starting lineup, the next best slot receiver on the roster is Chandler Jones. If Gordon is out, I think Jones could be a big part of the Browns offense this year.
Fantasy outlook - Jones is not big (5’11) or exceptionally fast (4.5 40), but he just kept getting open and catching the ball last year. Jones had 79 catches for 1,356 yards and 15 TDs in his senior year as David Fales go-to guy. Jones runs crisp routes and has shown an instinctive ability to find holes in zone defenses. He is a classic slot guy and could be the player the Browns thought they had when they signed Davone Bess last year. If Gordon is out, I think Jones could conceivably win the slot receiver job and have a productive rookie year along the lines of 50 catches, 600 yards, and a couple of TDs.
20.) Kevin Norwood, Seahawks:
Playing time - Norwood is already 24 so he should be ready to contribute more than most rookies. He doesn’t have a high ceiling but should develop into a solid possession receiver as soon as 2014. If the Seahawks weren’t so deep at receiver he’d be in play this year as a fantasy option, but most likely will be the 4th or 5th receiver on the depth chart and will get limited playing time unless someone gets hurt.
Fantasy outlook - Limited unless someones gets hurt. Could put up PPR worthy reception numbers if he gets consistent playing time.
21.) TJ Jones, Lions:
Playing time - The Lions upgraded their receiving weapons with the additions of Golden Tate and Eric Ebron but the depth chart is still pretty open. Kris Durham and Ryan Broyles currently hold the 3rd & 4th receiver jobs, but both players are flawed and could lose their jobs if Jones plays up to his potential. The Lions throw the ball a lot and if Jones were to earn the 3rd or even 4th WR job he could see a handful of targets per game.
Fantasy outlook - Jones managed to put up a solid senior season (70, 1108, 9) despite lackluster QB play and could excel in the Lions offense as an ancillary target. He won’t see any of the attention he saw in college and should be able to win enough 1-1 match-ups to contribute as a bye week replacement or an end of the bench player with upside.
22.) Jalen Saunders, Jets:
Playing time - The Jets had the least amount of talent at receiver in the NFL last year and it wasn’t even close. They added Eric Decker in free agency and drafted Jalen Saunders, Shaq Evans and Quincy Enunwa this year. Saunders is the fastest of that group and should complement tall outside receivers Decker and Hill nicely as an underneath slot receiver. Saunders is by far the quickest receiver on the depth chart and if he can stay healthy he’ll contribute decent numbers catching short passes and making things happen.
Fantasy outlook - The fact that Saunders works best as a short underneath receivers bodes well for his chances to catch the ball since both Jets QBs struggle with accuracy. They should at least be able to hit Saunders on short over-the-middle routes where he can use his speed and agility to gain yards after the catch. My biggest worry about Saunders is if he can avoid big hits on his diminutive frame (5’9, 165). If so, he could put up surprising numbers and give the Jets two fantasy viable receivers (Decker) which hasn’t happened since I started playing fantasy football. . Saunders should also return kicks and punts if that means anything in your league.