<
>

Be wary of Watkins, rookie wideouts

7/22/2014

He was the fourth player selected overall, and the first wide receiver, in May's NFL draft. He cost his drafting team the No. 9 overall pick this season plus its first- and fourth-round selections in 2015 in trade. He set career records at Clemson with 240 receptions and 3,391 receiving yards and matched the school record with 27 touchdowns. He has earned many scouts' raves as the top wide receiver prospect since A.J. Green and Julio Jones in 2011.

His name is Sammy Watkins, and partly for the reasons cited above, he's likely to be one of the more overrated commodities in 2014 fantasy football drafts.

History represents the remaining reason.

The learning curve for a wide receiver at the NFL level is steep, and rookies far more often than not disappoint rather than make an immediate impact. Perhaps because we more often remember players for their career peaks, we tend to forget how quietly their careers typically began. Coupled with our interest in being first to own the "next big thing," we tend to get caught up in rookie hype.

The chart below could not serve any clearer evidence; only 19 NFL rookie wide receivers since 1960 (that's 54 seasons) and six since 2000 (that's 14 seasons) managed to score 140 or more fantasy points. To put that into perspective, consider that 17 wide receivers managed at least 140 fantasy points in 2013 alone. Raising the bar, only 12 NFL rookie wide receivers during that 54-year span averaged at least 10 fantasy points per game while appearing in at least half their teams' scheduled games; that's one fewer than the total number of wide receivers (any experience level) who did so in 2013.

Most Fantasy Points By Rookie Wide Receivers

The top 20 rookie wide receiver seasons in terms of fantasy points since 1960.
Rank is the player's ranking among wide receivers that year.

But the overall scope of rookie wide receivers doesn't provide an ideal outline for Watkins' rookie-year prospects; one could cite the rookie campaigns of Randy Moss, Anquan Boldin or Joey Galloway, from the past two decades alone, as supporting evidence of a breakout and that would be a legitimate claim. It's situational examples among historical rookie wide receivers that pinpoint Watkins' chances, three examples specifically.

Prospect stock: The higher the NFL pick, the safer the fantasy pick

Greater football talents tend to be selected with higher draft picks, and while that's not to say that every player picked early fares better than every player picked late (or undrafted), the odds of an early-round pick succeeding are significantly greater than that of a later-round pick. Extracting just the rookie wide receivers, here are the average outputs by pick in the draft:

First 32 picks: 4.6 FPTS/G (73.0 per 16)
Picks 33-64: 3.0 FPTS/G (47.9 per 16)
Picks 65-96: 2.5 FPTS/G (39.3 per 16)
Picks 97-draft's end: 1.5 FPTS/G (24.7 per 16)
Undrafted players: 1.4 FPTS/G (22.4 per 16)

Of the 174 wide receivers since 1960 to be one of the first 32 selections in the NFL draft -- the effective "first round" -- 24.7 percent scored at least 96 fantasy points, that number selected because it's an average of six points over a 16-game schedule. To compare: Only 9.1 percent of the next 32 picks managed at least that many; only 4.9 percent of the following 32 did; and only 1.7 percent of the players picked 97th or later managed at least 96 fantasy points.

As for the top five selections overall (21 wide receivers fell within this group since 1960), they averaged 6.1 fantasy points per game, with a seasonal average of 82.2 fantasy points, and 47.6 percent managed at least 96 fantasy points -- but only 14.7 percent managed at least 128 (or an eight-point average in a 16-game season). Watkins therefore has as good odds of success as any rookie wide receiver in history, but understand that still represents less than 50/50 odds using a 54-year history of top-five draft picks.

His quarterback: Matters, but doesn't have to be a stud

Watkins' critics most commonly will point to his quarterback, EJ Manuel, as rationale for expecting him to fall short of expectations. They have a point; Manuel's 12.4 fantasy points per game average in 2013 ranked 22nd out of 33 quarterbacks to start at least eight games. In addition, only two of Manuel's 10 games all year resulted in a top-10 fantasy point score among quarterbacks.

Breaking down historical wide receiver performance by the productivity of his quarterback, the following chart takes team fantasy point totals by all quarterbacks on the roster who started at least one game in the given season. To get the most comparative sample to Watkins, only wide receivers selected among the top 100 picks in the draft were part of the study.

As you can see, a sub-200 fantasy point total for a quarterback isn't a death sentence for a rookie wide receiver, but a sub-150 season certainly seems to be. Slicing that pie into smaller pieces -- say, 151-175 and 176-200 -- doesn't significantly alter the numbers either. That said, notice the significant advantage a rookie wide receiver experienced when his quarterback(s) ranked among the most productive in the league, both in terms of average fantasy points per game and number of 96-point performers.

Incidentally, analyzing rookie wide receiver performance depending on number of starting quarterbacks revealed minimal impact. Those who played with only one quarterback averaged 3.4 fantasy points per game, with 15.7 percent of them managing at least 96 points. Those who played with two or more quarterbacks averaged 3.3 fantasy points, with 10.7 percent of them totaling 96-plus. This is a significant point considering that, in addition to Manuel, Thad Lewis (5) and Jeff Tuel (1) also started games for the 2013 Buffalo Bills.

This, therefore, boils down to how much you believe in Manuel's sophomore-year progress. Do you believe he's due for another season in the 12.4 fantasy points per game range -- a total of 198 over 16 games -- or is he capable of stepping up his game to perhaps an average between 15 and 16 points (for 250 total)? Your answer has plenty to say about Watkins' probability of making an immediate, every-week impact.

Supporting cast: A good one helps

A rookie wide receiver's competition -- between both that and the tight end position -- also has an influence on his performance. For this, let's narrow the scope to only those first 32 picks in the draft. The chart below breaks rookie wide receivers down by the next-best fantasy point total by a wide receiver or tight end on the roster (whether that player was the team's leader or the next-highest scorer after the rookie in question).

The differences aren't major outside of the probability that the rookie performs at a historically good level; the rate of 128-point seasons was almost twice as high for players who had an elite, 150-plus-point pass-catcher elsewhere on the roster (15.8 percent) as it was for those who played on a team without another 100-point performer (8.0 percent). And that's a big deal for Watkins; the 16 current wide receivers and tight ends on the Bills' roster totaled 279 fantasy points in 2013, none exceeding 73 points (Robert Woods), and Mike Williams is the only one of the group to have ever had a 100-point fantasy season (151, 2010).

Again, does this mean that Watkins cannot thrive as a rookie, perhaps break the 160-point fantasy plateau to become a weekly lineup option and maybe even shatter some rookie records? No.

This is about playing the percentages, and considering the rookie class' history, Watkins' still-developing quarterback and his complete lack of supporting cast to help deflect defensive attention, his odds aren't outstanding. In the best-case scenario, he would make a run at a top-15 fantasy season at his position; for our purposes that's a low-end, matchup-conscious WR2. It's the primary reason we rank him 30th at his position; he's simply neither as proven nor in as favorable a situation as many ranked ahead of him. The smarter move is to give him flex-play treatment and enjoy it in the unlikely event he thrives in 2014. Thirtieth, frankly, is a smart place to pick him.

And here's the kicker: If Watkins faces that kind of challenge as a rookie, imagine what that means for fellow freshmen Mike Evans, Brandin Cooks, Marqise Lee, Odell Beckham and Jordan Matthews, all of whom were selected later in the draft and didn't enter with as outrageous expectations?

Be conservative with these rookies. It's the wise way to play.