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Rookie performance history lesson

8/30/2013

If I've been asked one question this summer more than any other, it's this: "So, Harris, who's this year's Doug Martin?"

I have an intertwined relationship with Martin as a fantasy force, because on the Fantasy Underground podcast last year, I said how much I loved Martin on film, and that even though the results were moderate, I expected him to break out. And he did, in a major way. That projection earned me some acclaim, and I believe that's why folks are asking me to find the next Muscle Hamster.

My standard answer to this question is, "If I could tell you that, I wouldn't be doing this for a living. I'd be in Vegas."

It shouldn't shock you that it's very difficult to foresee massive rookie breakouts before the season begins. There are dozens of factors that go into such unexpected greatness, including raw skill, health, depth-chart shenanigans, offensive line, quarterback, play calling, momentum, weather, what's on the buffet table, etc. Once I can start watching game film, I'm sure I'll have some thoughts on who looks good and who looks not so good.

For the moment, though, I thought I'd take subjectivity out of it, and simply try to address how strong we are as a fantasy football community at predicting how good rookies will be. Do the rookies we project as first-year fantasy contributors regularly pan out? Or do we get carried away with the devils we don't know? Is the fantasy football echo chamber growing ever louder, reinforcing opinions we first formulated in April, until we can't see rookie busts coming until it's too late?

To assess this, I looked at the past eight seasons. I analyzed all rookies' Average Draft Position from '05 to '12, and quantified how successfully these players' first seasons went via Value-Based Drafting. Essentially, I wanted to assess how many highly drafted (and not-so-highly drafted) rookies were able to contribute to your fantasy team. My goal was to uncover whether this year's top rookies will on average tend to live up to the hype, as well as whether it's likely that undrafted fantasy players will lunge from obscurity into the spotlight.

Are Eddie Lacy and Montee Ball sure things?

In the past eight seasons, on average exactly eight running backs have been selected in the top 60 overall picks (or the first six rounds of a standard ESPN.com league):

Of these eight rushers, four outperformed their average draft slot in VBD terms, while four underperformed. (For example, on average Richardson was drafted 36th overall last year, but in VBD terms, his performance was so good that if you could go back in time and redo your '12 draft, Richardson should go 12th.) Perhaps more significantly, however, five of these eight players finished in the VBD top 22 of their first season, while only two -- Spiller and McFadden -- truly busted. While this is nothing close to a statistically significant sample size, it's a good early indication that Eddie Lacy (current ADP: 41) and Montee Ball (current ADP: 53) have decent shots at strong rookie seasons.

How likely is a breakout season from RBs like Giovani Bernard, who'll be drafted between the sixth and 10th rounds?

My draft-day advice tends to involve eschewing QBs and TEs in the early/middle rounds, and instead grabbing lottery-ticket RBs and WRs who have a chance to break out. But when those lottery tickets are running backs, how frequently do they pop?

Last year was incredible, with Doug Martin and Alfred Morris jumping into the elites and posting two of the greatest rookie RB seasons in NFL history. Before that, however, you'll see an entirely mixed bag:

Of the 20 RBs drafted between Rounds 6 and 10 over the past eight years, eight (40 percent) didn't even provide replacement-level value. Yikes. Only three (Martin, Morris and Matt Forte: 15 percent) became true fantasy difference-makers, i.e., the winning lottery tickets we hope we're grabbing in these middle rounds. And in all, only around half of these RBs even outperformed their draft positions in VBD terms.

These are sobering numbers, indeed. I'm not saying that Bernard is doomed to fail; in fact, I planted a flag on him as one of the best values of 2013. But I have to admit that history hasn't been kind to rookies who've enjoyed roughly his level of regard to begin the year.

How frequently do strong rookie RB performers come from outside the top 100 ADP, as Le'Veon Bell, Christine Michael and Johnathan Franklin will try to do this year?

The fondest dream of all fantasy owners is to spend a late-round lottery pick on an RB and have him explode into superstardom right away. Here's a look at all the RBs drafted on average between 101 and 160 over the past eight years:

Well, yuck. In the past 10 years, only Chris Johnson was taken on average in the 11th round or later and produced a superstar rookie year. Helu's 2011 numbers were OK, though he really didn't contribute much during the first 10 weeks of that season. And the other six men on this list were unable to even perform at replacement level. CJ?K's experience shows us it's not impossible, but in sum, this probably indicates we're better off looking at slightly more experienced NFL RBs in these later rounds.

To put a fine point on this RB discussion, there also have been a few RBs who were undrafted in fantasy leagues as rookies, but went on to produce top-50 VBD seasons: LeGarrette Blount in '10 (finished 50th in VBD), Steve Slaton in '08 (finished eighth) and Maurice Jones-Drew in '07 (finished ninth). When you happen upon one of these guys it's spectacular, but all these rookie RB numbers should throw a little cold water on excitement over first-year rushers in general. It seems hard to believe, but exactly six rookie RBs in the past eight years have performed like fantasy first-rounders: Martin, Morris, Forte, Slaton, Peterson and Jones-Drew. And two of those were undrafted in fantasy leagues!

Are highly-regarded WRs like Tavon Austin better bets?

Tavon Austin's current ADP is 78, which is pretty incredible considering he's 5-foot-8 and 174 pounds. Would you believe that on average only four rookie WRs have been drafted in the top 100 over the past eight years?

This cannot be overstated: Tavon Austin is currently on pace to be drafted higher than any rookie WR over the past eight seasons. If you want one reason why I'm staying away from this young player, despite his incredible open-field skills, there it is. I'm not ready to proclaim that a 2-for-4 recent record among highly drafted rookie wideouts (with Green and Harvin hitting, Bryant and Megatron missing) dooms Austin to failure. In fact, perhaps Austin can be Harvin. But it's sobering to think that if you're drafting him at his ADP this year, you're essentially putting more faith in him than any other wideout since at least '05.

How frequently do later-round WRs like Kenbrell Thompkins, DeAndre Hopkins and Cordarrelle Patterson hit?

The problem with rookie wideouts is that "hitting" is entirely relative. You just don't see first-year WRs dominate in fantasy football. The best rookie WR season over the past eight seasons came from Mike Williams in '10, when he played like a fourth- or fifth-rounder despite being drafted in the 15th round on average:

Heck, in the period from '05 to '12, only 13 rookie WRs total have posted seasons where they outperformed the baseline wideout, and most of those did so only barely. Undrafted fantasy rookie wideouts such as T.Y. Hilton, Torrey Smith, Hakeem Nicks, Mike Wallace and Austin Collie were intriguing stories who were better than replacement level, but they probably weren't starters on very many championship fantasy teams.

Finally, it seems like a down year for QBs, but will someone like EJ Manuel become fantasy-relevant?

Until Cam Newton, it was bad business to draft a rookie QB. Period. The big pile of awfulness that resulted from taking rookie quarterbacks from '05 to '10 is frankly ridiculous; only the mercurial Vince Young posted a first season that was even close to being starter-worthy. But all that has changed over the past two years:

Griffin, Luck and Newton were raging success stories; Luck and Newton were drafted to be fantasy backups, and went loopy. And Wilson, thoroughly undrafted in '12 fantasy drafts, went on to dominate the NFL in the second half of last year.

EJ Manuel and Geno Smith are the two rookie QBs with shots to start early in the season (I'm not counting undrafted free agent Jeff Tuel just yet), and evaluating them on the same level as RG III, Newton, Luck and Wilson probably isn't fair. I dismiss Smith's shot at being a fantasy factor both because he's on what looks like a bad New York Jets team, and because his preseason action has been shaky. As for Manuel? As nervous as I am about the Florida State rookie as a passer, I admit that he shares some qualities with Newton. He's the same height, only 10 pounds lighter, and almost exactly the same speed as a runner. Of course, while Newton was a Heisman winner and national champion at Auburn, Manuel had bouts of head-clutching mechanics and disappointment during his collegiate years for the Seminoles. But as a dangerous open-field runner who may deliver more punishment than he receives, Manuel may already be there. The brave new world begun by Newton, Griffin and the others makes me less afraid to take a late-round shot on a rookie QB, and this year, that rookie QB would be Manuel. His current ADP is 141, and I think it maybe should be a little higher. I'm considering taking him with a late-round pick in leagues of any size.