Top 20 rookie fantasy WRs of the last decade: Nos. 1-10
There has been a surge in rookie receiver performance in the last 10 years. Mike Castiglione looks at some of the top seasons.
Top 20 rookie fantasy WRs of the last decade: Nos. 1-10
Earlier this week, I dug through the top fantasy seasons by a rookie receiver in the PFF era, an era that now spans the last 10 years with continuous industry-leading data. In case you missed Part 1, you can catch up here with a recap of Nos. 11-20. Picking up with Part 2 of our countdown, today we’ll reveal the top-10.
Here’s a quick glossary of some of the PFF terms and acronyms you’ll see below:
Season Rank: where each player ranked among all WRs in fantasy scoring during his rookie season
Draft: where each player was selected. Ex. Sterling Shepard: 2.40 = Round 2, Overall pick 40
Pts: standard fantasy scoring
PPG: fantasy scoring per-game average
PPO: points per opportunity, defined as carries + pass routes
YPRR: yards per route run, i.e. a more useful metric than the standard yards per reception
aDOT: depth per aimed throw, or average depth of target
10.Amari Cooper, Oakland Raiders (2015)
Coming in at No. 10, Amari Cooper is the first rookie on our top 20 to crack the 1,000-yard plateau. As the No. 4 overall pick out of Alabama in 2015, Cooper saw healthy volume off the bat in Oakland, averaging eight targets per game during his rookie year. After finishing as the WR23 that year, Cooper moved up to the WR14 this past season, cutting his drops from 18 down to four. But did he really improve leaps and bounds? His average depth of target actually dropped (to 10.0), and he produced almost the exact amount of fantasy points (144) on a similar amount of targets (127). Just the other day, our fantasy editor editor outlined how Cooper’s value is held in check by Michael Crabtree, who has actually been the Raiders’ top fantasy receiver each of the last two seasons.
9. Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons (2011)
The Atlanta Falcons traded away five picks to move up and select Jones (another Alabama alum) with the No. 6 pick of the 2011 NFL Draft. In fact, the former Biletnikoff Award winner was targeted a whopping 17 times in just his fourth pro game. Of course, Jones would reward the Falcons’ faith (and fantasy owners), as he put up the eighth-most fantasy points per game among all wideouts his rookie year. His average of 0.35 fantasy points per opportunity is topped by only three rookies on this 20-man list. Jones has since put his name into the “best out there” conversation, averaging 109 receiving yards per game since 2013. If you’ve been fortunate enough to own Jones in dynasty the last three years, you’ve had the WR6, WR2 and WR6 in PPR scoring. This year, he led all receivers with 3.12 yards per route run.
8. Keenan Allen, San Diego Chargers (2013)
Early in his rookie season, Allen actually considered quitting football and returning to Berkeley to finish his degree. He had battled back from a knee injury late in his final collegiate season only to find himself buried on the Chargers’ depth chart. And even after Danario Alexander blew out his knee, Allen never saw the field in the season opener, then he totaled only 29 receiving yards over the next two games. But something clicked, and over the next nine games Allen averaged 90 receiving yards and went on to set the team’s rookie record for 100-yard receiving games. Unfortunately, Allen has been bitten by the injury bug for much of the last two seasons. Along with his number of games played, Allen’s receiving yards have decreased each year since that sensational rookie campaign.
7. Marques Colston, New Orleans Saints (2006)
As a rookie in 2006, 47.1 percent of Colston’s routes were run from the slot, where he ranked fifth among 49 qualified receivers in yards per route run (2.30). In subsequent seasons, Colston became more and more of a slot weapon for quarterback Drew Brees and coach Sean Payton. With his 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame, the seventh-round Hofstra product helped pioneer the big-bodied slot weapon in today’s NFL. An all-around talent, Colston perennially graded out as one of PFF’s top receivers throughout his career. Excluding his final injury-shortened season in 2015, Colston averaged an impressive 1,027 receiving yards over nine pro seasons and holds a litany of Saints’ records.
6. A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals (2011)
Green went off the board two picks before Julio Jones in 2011, and it has been a lot of fun watching those two battle for bragging rights ever since. Green earned a Pro Bowl nod right out of the chute (the first rookie receiver to do that since 2003) and went on to set a league record for the most catches through three seasons (260). He was targeted 111 times as a rookie, and at an average depth of 14.8 yards. This past season marked the first time in five seasons Green failed to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards, although he came just 36 yards shy despite playing only 10 games. He sat fourth among receivers in fantasy scoring at the time of his injury.
5. Kelvin Benjamin, Carolina Panthers (2014)
Standing at 6-5 and 240-plus pounds, Benjamin at the very least has a role as a red-zone weapon for as long as he remains in the NFL. From the outset in Carolina, Benjamin developed a tight rapport with quarterback Cam Newton, who took the rookie under his wings. In fact, Benjamin’s 142 targets were easily the most of any rookie of the 20 on this list. He was also targeted at an average depth of 15.1 yards downfield. To the Panthers’ credit, they were not scared off by Benjamin’s “raw” label and the fact that he barely had two years’ worth of game tape at Florida State. Then again, the team did enter that season having to replace the likes of Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn. Luckily for them, 2014 was the draft of all drafts to find a receiver.
4. Mike Williams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2010)
The Curious Case of Mike Williams will long be a part of fantasy lore. Drafted out of Syracuse in the fourth round, he set a Buccaneers single-season record with 11 receiving touchdowns as a rookie (and the second-highest TD total on this list). However, Williams would never crack 1,000 receiving yards as a pro and fizzled out of the league after just five seasons. In fact, he never had more targets, catches or touchdowns than his rookie year, although from 2010 to 2012 he averaged a healthy 126 targets per year. He finished his second season as fantasy’s WR49 before a brief resurgence as the WR18 in 2012. But after battling injuries, a suspension and a trade, he was ultimately released by the Bills and then the Chiefs.
3. Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints (2016)
As a Brandin Cooks owner in multiple dynasty leagues, admittedly I didn’t want to believe the Thomas hype. Silly me. All Thomas did was set franchise rookie records for receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns, while posting WR1 fantasy numbers. I should’ve paid more attention to our own scouting report, which proved pretty spot-on. As our draft analysts noted, 670 of Thomas’ 711 snaps at Ohio State were spent on the outside. As a rookie in New Orleans, he lined up outside for 87.1 percent of his routes. So, Marques Colston he is not, although the two are not far apart in size. If there is one area to root for an improvement, it would be in the downfield passing game, considering Thomas’ aDOT of only 8.2 yards. There is also the matter of Drew Brees not getting any younger. Still, keep an eye on those Brandin Cooks trade rumors, because Thomas could be even busier in 2017.
2. Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2014)
Anyone still remember those 15 drops last season? All Evans has done is seamlessly transfer his
dynamic playmaking ability from playing alongside Johnny Manziel in College Station, where he set Texas A&M records for receptions (69) and receiving yards (1,394). As a rookie in 2014, he produced 0.35 fantasy points per opportunity and 11.8 per game, making plays downfield (16.3-yard aDOT) and in the red zone (12 TDs). Just three years into his pro career, Evans already looks like a perennial top-tier fantasy WR, having improved his receptions and yardage totals each season. In 2016, he finished second only to Jordy Nelson in fantasy scoring among receivers.
1. Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants (2014)
That Beckham put up such video-game numbers in just 12 games as a rookie is absurd. Undrafted in most fantasy leagues because of a hamstring injury that kept him sidelined throughout training camp and then the first four regular-season games, Beckham went on to set an all-time NFL rookie record for most receiving yards per game (108.8). He also helped win many fantasy championships by averaging a ridiculous 0.43 fantasy points per opportunity (0.61 in PPR) and 17.2 per game. No other receiver on this list came close to Beckham’s rookie-year average of 2.75 yards per route run, which would have placed him third overall this season behind Julio Jones and A.J. Green, who happen to be in their primes.
- Nine of the top-20 rookie fantasy WR seasons of the PFF era have come in the last three years alone, including eight of the top 14. Special thanks to the historic 2014 draft class.
- If we were to expand the list for the top-20 rookie WR seasons of the millennium, all but three occurred during the 10 years of the PFF era, 2006-16. The exceptions are Anquan Boldin (2003), Michael Clayton (2004) and Lee Evans (2004).
- In terms of draft position, 15 of the 20 on our list were selected in the first two rounds, including six top-10 picks.
- In terms of age, five of the top seven were 23 years old during their rookie season, and Beckham was 22.
- You probably already know, but Randy Moss is the most prolific rookie fantasy receiver of all time. Could Beckham have earned that nod by scoring 30 fantasy points in his first four games? We’ll never know.
- Had Reggie Bush been classified as a receiver during his rookie year in 2006, he would have placed third on this list, between Evans and Thomas. It seems like forever ago, but Bush ran for 565 yards and six touchdowns to go with 88 catches for 742 yards and another two scores, finishing eighth among RBs in PPR scoring that year.
Feel free to leave your feedback in the comments. Any surprises on the list? Perhaps some names you expected to see higher or lower, or perhaps didn’t make the cut?
As we move into our NFL Draft prep over the next couple weeks, I’ll be compiling more lists. So keep an eye out for the top rookie RBs, QBs and TEs.
Mike is a member of the FSWA and a staff writer for PFF Fantasy who focuses on both redraft and dynasty content, having spent several years covering FBS for a number of publications.