Fantasy: The Rookie – QB and RB

| January 19, 2011

Remember Mr. Eko? He was my favorite LOST character. The conflicted false priest has got to be one of the all-time best additions to a cast, even though his stint was relatively short-lived. But for every Mr. Eko there is a Ana Lucia or Charlotte Lewis – characters that you want killed off or ultimately bring a show to its demise. Newcomers can be pleasant surprises or busts, and it is more difficult to decipher without a frame of reference. Predicting rookie success resembles a craps shoot at times.

What can we reasonably expect from a rookie? Every season a few are predicted for stardom only to fall completely flat on expectations, while others make unexpectedly significant contributions. Matt Waldman wrote an excellent article for the New York Times this past August about rookies in fantasy football, but he looks at a broader picture whereas we are concerned with more recent history (see below). In reality, rookies are difficult to predict, even when we know what their role will be with their team.

As such, in my quest to create better auction values, I was left with a glaring problem in my calculations: rookies. Because my calculations take into account past seasons in conjunction with future projections, I did not have any data to plug in for the next crop of greenhorns. I could just pick a rookie from the previous season and use his statistics, but that would not go far enough. My solution was to create one for each position. In that vein, I have compiled statistics for relevant rookies at the skill positions and offensive line over the past three seasons.

A few notes about the data I have compiled:

  • Data has been culled for the past three seasons, from 2008 to 2010. My main reasons for this are twofold:
    1. The game is constantly evolving. Four years ago, there was no doubt that RB was the most valuable fantasy position. Nowadays? It is certainly debatable. Thus, the data from the most recent seasons is far more relevant.
    2. PFF data only goes back to 2008, when the site was created. It is only fair that we do not speculate about years prior.
  • Each position has several arbitrary thresholds that must be met for data inclusion.Without these thresholds, The Rookie’s numbers are impacted significantly by less playing time or aberrations.
  • Once the irrelevant players are removed, we take the average of the remaining, relevant player data and create The Rookie for that position.
  • On the offensive line, the data is generalized (i.e. not position-specific) to minimize complexity. The Rookie Offensive Lineman can be inserted at any position. The offensive line rookie was important to create because my auction values take OL ratings into account. Plus it was just plain interesting to see how they performed as rookies.
  • For the purposes of this article, fantasy points are limited to standard scoring.

As always, let us look at the data:

Quarterback

Thresholds: 10 games, 600 snaps, 125 fantasy points

Year Name Team Snaps Rating Drop backs Points PPS Games
2010 Sam Bradford SL 1134 21.8 640 205.78 0.18 16
2009 Mark Sanchez NYJ 960 -5.2 406 152.36 0.16 15
Matthew Stafford DET 690 -11.8 416 145.48 0.21 10
2008 JaMarcus Russell OAK 865 2.1 409 145.62 0.17 15
Matt Ryan ATL 1073 43.2 472 207 0.19 16
Joe Flacco BLT 1119 21.5 474 195.14 0.17 16

The Rookie 974 11.9 470 175.2 0.18 15

Rookie quarterbacks are notoriously bad fantasy options. As evidenced above, even good inaugural seasons by NFL standards have not translated to the fantasy realm. The Rookie Quarterback’s fantasy season would rank him 21st, sandwiched between Donovan McNabb and  Chad Henne. Fittingly, Sam Bradford scored just 30 more points than The Rookie in 2010, despite dropping back to pass a whopping 640 times.

Quarterback and tight end were difficult positions for The Rookie because of a lack of qualified data. Alternatively, I explored using non-rookie, first-year starters – Aaron Rodgers in 2008, for example. However, including players below thresholds considerably and negatively impacted The Rookie’s numbers, and including non-rookies swayed the numbers much too positively. Thus, the number of quarterbacks and tight ends must stay low for now. Notably absent names include Josh Freeman, who barely missed the 2009 cut with 590 snaps, and, despite Tim Tebow’s big fantasy scores at the end of 2010, he was well below the cut line. Some notable names who missed the cut:

Year Name Team Snaps Rating Drop backs Points PPS Games
2010 Jimmy Clausen CAR 663 0.6 344 67 0.1 13
Tim Tebow DEN 213 13.3 99 101.9 0.48 9
2009 Josh Freeman TB 590 -2 331 112.5 0.19 10

So what is The Rookie QB worth in reality? A late-round backup slot at best, or a mid-season injury fill-in. Qualifying rookies performed the most consistently at quarterback, and the results are nothing spectacular.

Running Back

Thresholds: 12 games, 300 snaps, 100 points

Year Name Team Snaps Rating Points PPS Games
2010 Jahvid Best DET 574 -6 139 0.24 16
LeGarrette Blount TB 353 9.4 132.1 0.37 13
2009 Knowshon Moreno DEN 611 1.1 162 0.27 16
Beanie Wells ARZ 318 3 131.6 0.41 16
LeSean McCoy PHI 610 -6.3 118.5 0.19 16
2008 Jonathan Stewart CAR 364 5.4 146.3 0.4 16
Matt Forte CHI 874 5.6 241.5 0.28 16
Steve Slaton HST 768 10.1 221.9 0.29 16
Chris Johnson TEN 657 -0.3 206.8 0.31 15
Kevin Smith DET 735 -0.3 172.2 0.23 16

The Rookie 586 2.2 167.2 0.3 15

Wow, just look at that 2008 rookie class. It has got to be one of the historically great classes at the position when you consider Ray Rice, Rashard Mendenhall, Jamaal Charles, Michael Bush, and Darren McFadden did not even make the cut. On the whole, there are a couple of big fantasy seasons – from Slaton and Forte in particular – but rookie running backs tend to have pedestrian fantasy numbers. It is interesting to note that the worst 2008 performer by these standards is better than everyone from 2009 and 2010 except Moreno. This also highlights the downward trend in fantasy running back production over the past few years – or, it could just be the RB classes of ’09 and ’10 were weak.

Part of The Rookie’s numbers is due to limited snap counts, whether due to injury (Best & Wells) or a time share (Johnson & Stewart). To put the 586 snap average into perspective, that would rank 22nd amongst RBs in 2010, just behind the woefully snap-limited Jamaal Charles. Where The Rookie shines is his points-per-snap metric; scoring 0.3 PPS puts him in the top 20 running backs. Now if only The Rookie could see the field more often.

It baffles me that Ryan Mathews was considered top-round fantasy talent as a noob; rarely does a rookie not named Adrian Peterson create so much fantasy buzz, which is why Mathews was overpriced. Maybe folks still had 2008 in their minds, but even then, Darren McFadden was highly touted before having a pedestrian season. Incidentally, Mathews barely missed the cut for The Rookie with 291 snaps, the lone bright spot in his fantasy season being that he averaged 0.41 PPS when he did get on the field.

Here is where we diverge from simply attaching value to The Rookie. His statistics actually put him in top-20 territory, so a back-end RB2 is not out of the question. However, the goal of this research is to create a viable rookie that we can plug into formulas that include projections. Translation: wait and see how much playing time the rookie might get. Ryan Mathews was highly projected in large part because he was inheriting the starting role as a rookie; LeGarrette Blount’s projections, in contrast, were nil because he barely latched onto a team before the season began. In the case of Mathews, using this data in conjunction with his pre-season projections, his auction value would have likely been diminished.

Here are the notable omissions with significant playing time:

Year Name Team Snaps Rating Points PPS Games
2010 Ryan Mathews SD 291 -2.3 118 0.41 12
2009 Shonn Greene NYJ 172 -2.9 60 0.35 14
2008 Darren McFadden OAK 297 -1.9 100.4 0.34 13
Michael Bush OAK 299 -1.1 74.62 0.25 15
Jamaal Charles KC 393 1.4 64.9 0.17 16
Ray Rice BLT 350 -4.3 70.7 0.2 13

Like I said, that 2008 class was pretty good. Look for more rookie data next week, when we will examine receivers, tight ends, and offensive linemen.

Questions and comments are always welcome via Twitter – @PFF_Alex

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