Over the spring and summer months there are many reports coming out from beat writers and those watching all the off-season NFL team activities. Twitter allows us the opportunity to follow the news easily, especially the rookies who have yet to play even a preseason NFL game to this point in their careers.
We have heard news like Ryan Broyles is looking great and A.J. Jenkins is struggling out of the gate. Those are just two generalities as examples. All this speculation got me thinking about NFL rookie receivers more lately than even around the time of the NFL draft when many dynasty owners go into their cones of silence and emerge with their rookie rankings based on talent, situation, and opportunity for the next few years of their professional careers.
Here are a few new mantras I wanted to throw out about rookie receivers to think about when valuing them as fantasy assets in a one year or long-term situation:
Talent and Draft Position
A receiver’s innate “talent” or skill at the position matters. It is the driving force behind where they are drafted in the NFL draft in April. Their fit in the offensive scheme of their destination is a consideration, but talent is the great equalizer. Coaches all believe they can coach these young receivers in their deficiencies – and rightfully so. As the saying goes – you cannot teach height, athleticism, and natural play-making and ball skills.
Where a receiver is drafted dictates how long their leash will be, at least initially, in the NFL. Rookies in the first 2-3 rounds will be multiple chances to rebound, improve, and show that they were worthy of their high selection. Lower round picks? Not so much. They could bounce around as back-end-of-the-roster players for a few seasons or be mired on a practice squad. Only the truly special ones can become successful from that situation in my opinion.
Practicing as the scout team, working as special teams player, changing teams, learning new offenses, all while working on their craft and hopefully staying healthy to get that one elusive chance to show their ability at the NFL level.
There is a reason most fantasy producers are top NFL draft picks.
A quintessential case of this is Darrius Heyward-Bey. Considered a reach by the majority as a top-10 draft pick, he has received many more chances than if he were, say, a fifth round NFL draft selection. Here are his rookie statistics for the Raiders: 38 targets, 9 receptions, 124 yards, 36% drop rate.How many rookies would get a long leash after a season like that? His second season was better, but not good enough if he were not a high draft pick: 60 targets, 26 receptions, 366 yards, 21% drop rate. Fantasy owners (and Raiders fans) had to wait all the way until year three when Heyward-Bey showed signs of life as a legitimate NFL and fantasy receiver. 106 targets, 64 receptions, 975 yards, 9% drop rate. Essentially he was a different receiver from years 1-2. Many are not given chances to progress as a player and adjust to the NFL game.
In dynasty, it is preached that talent trumps all. Take the most talented player and be as patient as necessary. That is certainly a valid approach if you are looking at an infinite window of production (not literally) and have your own elite level of patience. That is not the case for 99% of dynasty owners out there. We want to see some return from our investment in the first 1-2 years of drafting a rookie receiver. Even if it is not the level of say WR3 or flex consideration on a weekly basis, it is glimpses of that talent we projected and hope for the future in terms of their fantasy viability.
That segues to the main part of a rookie’s chance to give some return on investment: Opportunity.
Opportunity and Situation
Here is where the rubber meets the road for an NFL rookie receiver.
Talent is great and definitely impacts a player’s potential ceiling of production, but their opportunity and situation greatly impact the odds that they achieve those lofty results.
One specific player that got me thinking about this topic is Michael Floyd. He is very talented and a first round draft pick. As dynasty owners, we can check off the talent box of the equation. He has the size and athleticism to be a top fantasy producer at some point in his career. Moving on to the opportunity portion of the equation, Floyd’s case is a lot less favorable. While working side-by-side with Larry Fitzgerald is generally a good thing for a young receiver (see: his annual camp for receivers in the off-seasons), it could be less-than-ideal for fantasy. Larry Fitzgerald is one of the best receivers in the NFL, period. He has been remarkably consistent as a player over the seasons and considering his work ethic and non-reliance on overt speed/agility, I can see 4-5 more quality years as a fantasy producer. That is high regard as I typically decline projected player production as they age more than the average fantasy owner I would guess. So Michael Floyd as Larry Fitzgerald ahead of him on the depth chart and in terms of fantasy production for his entire rookie contract according to this projection. That leaves Floyd as the #2 receiver in Arizona for the reasonable future at best.
From my data about receiver fantasy distribution for an NFL team in an article earlier this off-season, the best chance for a receiver to shine is either one of two scenarios: Be the clear-cut #1 receiver on their team or be a strong #2 option on a team with an elite quarterback.
That leaves Michael Floyd in a precarious situation to achieve success. Larry Fitzgerald will make it very difficult (essentially impossible in my eyes) to be the No. 1 fantasy receiver on the team in the next few seasons. The other option is Arizona have one of the most dynamic passing attacks in the NFL. Right now, the offensive line needs repair and the quarterbacks are Kevin Kolb, John Skelton, and Ryan Lindley. While we saw a few flashes from Skelton in 2011 and Ryan Lindley is an intriguing prospect as a late-round quarterback, it does not look promising from the quarterback front either in my estimation. Could Arizona be in the market for a top rookie quarterback in 2013? Absolutely, but then you need to add on years to the progression for a rookie signal-caller for Floyd’s timeline to fantasy prominence. As a reference point for Floyd’s situation, here are the teams in the past four years that have supported two receivers in the top-24:
- Green Bay in 2008, 2009, 2010 – paging Aaron Rodgers
- New England in 2008, 20009 – some guy named Tom Brady
- New Orleans in 2008, 2010 – Drew Brees
- Arizona in 2008, 2009 – Kurt Warner
- Indianapolis in 2010 – Peyton Manning
- Minnesota in 2009 – Brett Favre
- Dallas in 2011 – Tony Romo
- Giants in 2011 – Eli Manning
- Pittsburgh in 2009 – Ben Roethlisberger
- Philadelphia in 2010 – Michael Vick
- Atlanta in 2011 – Matt Ryan
- Denver in 2008 – Kyle Orton
That is it. That’s the list.
Other than the random season by Kyle Orton with Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal monopolizing a ridiculous 51% of the team’s targets that season, those are darn good quarterbacks. The point is the deck is stacked against a guy like Michael Floyd from being a fantasy starter in the near-term, even as the No. 2 receiver on his team. While the talent is certainly there, something needs to change in his situation. Will Fitzgerald decline to the point where Floyd can take over the lead fantasy role? I would have my doubts about that in the next 2-3 years. That leaves the quarterback situation, which is unlikely to pull a 180-degree change in the next 1-2 years considering the average impact from even highly drafted rookie prospects.
All that means to me is that Michael Floyd is definitely a fantasy patience play that needs time to season on an owner’s bench.
The 2012 Receiver Class
After looking at the top-36 rookie receivers based on MyFantasyLeague.com’s rookie ADP, here are some undervalued players considering their situation:
Justin Blackmon‘s stock is down for a number of legitimate reasons: He is unsigned, he has significant off-field concerns, and Blaine Gabbert is hardly a vote of fantasy confidence at the quarterback position. However, Blackmon will get more chances based on his draft position (see: Darrius Heyward-Bey above) and has a clear line to the No.1 receiver spot on his team. He will get every chance for fantasy success. Not saying his peripheral concerns couldn’t easily derail his NFL career, but on the field, he will get plenty of chances. If Gabbert fails to improve in 2012, there will be a new quarterback in Jacksonville sooner than later. In the meantime, Blackmon will still have a decent shot to be fantasy-relevant (top-36) at his position, even with sub-par quarerback play.
Rueben Randle looks mired deep down the depth chart for the Giants out of the gate. Looking closer at the situation, Eli Manning has supported multiple fantasy receivers in the past and Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz have both missed time early in their NFL careers. In addition, is it possible that even with a 1,500-yard season in 2011 that Randle becomes a starter over Victor Cruz in the next two seasons? My answer is yes, it is possible.
Ryan Broyles has been a soapbox rookie for me this off-season. He is very talented (check the box) and joins Matthew Stafford and a Detroit offense that loves to throw the ball. Calvin Johnson is entrenched as the no.1 fantasy option in the passing game, but Broyles can definitely cement himself as the no.2 receiver. Titus Young is more of a deep threat, where Broyles could excel all over the field, especially over the middle. I wouldn’t be surprised if Detroit supported two top-25 receivers going forward in fantasy.
Nick Toon joins a New Orleans offense that has some opportunities available to younger players in the passing game. Jimmy Graham is entrenched as a dynamic fantasy option. Marques Colston is uber-efficient, but 29 years-old with long-term concerns with his knees. Lance Moore and Devery Henderson are both older options as well. Adrian Arrington and Nick Toon are the young options with the chance to develop with Drew Brees. That is a luxury most young NFL receivers do not get early in their careers.
LaVon Brazill is name that Matt Waldman, Footballguys.com and Rookie Scouting Porfolio writer, turned me on to early in the NFL draft season this year. I took an longer look at the sixth round pick by the Colts. He needs to be on the minds of dynasty owners. He is more than talented enough to be a fantasy contributor in the next 2-3 years. In addition to that, look at his situation: Andrew Luck under center, Reggie Wayne is 33 years old, Austin Collie has concussion concerns, and the rest of the receiver position is wide open going forward. Brazill has had some good camp buzz (better than negative news, right?) in addition to all the above factors. As a fifth round rookie draft pick, that is a very intriguing package.
Danny Coale had some buzz early in the post-draft season because of the rise of Laurent Robinson as Dallas’ no.3 receiver in 2011. Miles Austin is 28 years-old and played over 670 snaps just once in his NFL career (including six missed games in 2011) and Dez Bryant has missed one and four games in his two NFL seasons to-date. Even with both starters healthy, Coale is a dynasty receiver name to remember. Dallas is one of the dynamic passing offenses in the NFL, meeting the requirement to consistently support multiple fantasy receivers.
What this list highlights is that situation matters. While the top rounds of the NFL draft get all the attention in late April, fantasy owners’ ears need to perk up when a high-powered fantasy offense or talented quarterback gets a new toy.
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