Top 20 rookie fantasy WRs of the last decade: Nos. 11-20
We recently posted a tweet about where Saints’ receiver Michael Thomas ranks among all-time rookie WRs in fantasy. Since that tweet stirred quite a bit of interaction among the PFF faithful, and in the spirit of the NFL Combine kicking off this week (that was a long offseason, wasn’t it?), I thought I’d have some fun and take a look back at the top-20 fantasy seasons by a rookie receiver in the PFF era.
I went back and dug up not just the fantasy stats for each player, but also our proprietary metrics, which span the last 10 years. We’ll tackle this in two parts, beginning with Nos. 11-20 below.
For those new to the site… first of all, welcome. Second, here’s a quick glossary of some of the terms and acronyms:
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
20. Sterling Shepard, New York Giants (2016)
Our draft analysts had Shepard pegged as a pro-ready slot machine, and he wound up running 86.1 percent of his routes from the slot this past season. He also found pay dirt eight times, using his precision route running and sharp cutting ability to shake defenders loose. The touchdowns salvaged Shepard’s fantasy value, although he was still merely a WR4 among his fantasy peers. Of the receivers on this list, he posted the second-lowest points per opportunity (0.19) and was targeted at an average depth of just 10.1 yards. Also of note, his average yards per route run from the slot (1.21) dropped considerably from his final year at Oklahoma (3.17). While the Giants already have a dynamic downfield threat in Odell Beckham Jr., the next step in Shepard’s development is to become more of a factor at the intermediate level.
19. Justin Blackmon, Jacksonville Jaguars (2012)
The Justin Blackmon Show was abruptly canceled partway into its second season. The two-time Biletnikoff Award winner never even gave himself a chance to try and follow in the footsteps of former Oklahoma State legend Dez Bryant. Multiple violations of the NFL’s substance abuse policy have kept Blackmon off the field since 2013. His rookie year 0.18 PPO is the lowest of any player on this list, putting him in line with the 2016 version of, ironically enough, fellow Jaguar Allen Robinson (0.19). Ever the tantalizing prospect, during the four games Blackmon played in his second pro season, he was fantasy’s WR6 in PPR formats. Capitalizing on huge volume, he averaged seven catches (on 11.5 targets) and 104 receiving yards in that small sample. Frustratingly, we’ll never know what Blackmon could have been.
18. Percy Harvin, Minnesota Vikings (2009)
Like Blackmon, Percy Harvin saw his career end prematurely (a two-game return last season before a new injury notwithstanding), although it was due to health reasons and not poor life choices. Harvin won the Associated Press Offensive Rookie of the Year as a multi-threat weapon who often got the ball in his hands near the line of scrimmage (9.7 aDOT) but had a knack for maximizing his touches (0.36 PPO, 2.32 YPRR) into chunk yards. His early-career trajectory in Minnesota was quite promising, as he was a solid if inconsistent fantasy WR2 for his first two years before finishing as the No. 7 WR in Year 3. Unfortunately, that third year also marked the only time as a pro that Harvin played a full 16-game slate.
17. Torrey Smith, Baltimore Ravens (2011)
So much for the marriage of Smith and Chip Kelly in San Francisco. Smith made a name for himself as a field-stretcher in Baltimore; his rookie-year average depth of target (19.1) was easily tops among the 20 rookie receivers on this list. For his career, Smith has averaged a healthy 17.0 yards per catch, and for a few years his speed was an ideal complement to big-armed Joe Flacco. Still, despite never missing a game over his four years in Baltimore, his “heyday” ceiling was merely as a backend WR2, finishing between the No. 19 and No. 23 fantasy WR each season.
16. Dwayne Bowe, Kansas City Chiefs (2007)
Bowe established a name for himself as a playmaking rookie, and went on to serve as Kansas City’s de facto No. 1 wideout over his first five seasons. Bowe peaked in his fourth season, finishing second among receivers in both fantasy scoring (behind Denver’s Brandon Lloyd) and points per opportunity (behind Tennessee’s Kenny Britt). Excluding his suspension-shortened 2009 campaign, Bowe averaged 77 catches, 1,085 yards and 8 TDs over his first four full seasons. His career began to taper off beginning in 2012, though he wound up signing a five-year contract in 2013 to become the league’s third-highest-paid receiver. His final years were entirely forgettable: the 2014 season when no Chiefs’ WR caught a touchdown, and we won’t even get into his time in Cleveland.
15. T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis Colts (2012)
Over the course of his five pro seasons, Hilton has become a fairly reliable WR1, using his top-end speed and fluid route-running to earn the full trust of Andrew Luck. He flashed impressive rookie numbers back in 2012 despite technically “starting” only one game. Of his 88 targets that year, only 12.2 percent came from the slot. He upped that number to 21 percent this past season, when he posted a league-high 1,448 receiving yards (on 143 targets) and ranked fourth out of 96 qualifiers with 2.35 yards per route run. A healthy Donte Moncrief may siphon away some targets, although his presence should also keep defenses from being able to roll coverage Hilton’s way.
14. Sammy Watkins, Buffalo Bills (2014)
Watkins had a productive, albeit short of spectacular, debut season, mixing flashes of potential greatness with typical rookie growing pains. Watkins started all 16 games, racking up 124 targets and a healthy 13.6 aDOT. In Year 2, Watkins was limited to 13 games due to a calf injury (and later played through an ankle injury), though he came on strong late and wound up with 1,047 yards and 9 TDs on 60 catches (96 targets). Over his final six games of 2015, Watkins averaged 113 receiving yards and a touchdown per game, as he seemed ready to live up to his draft pedigree as the No. 4 overall pick a year earlier. However, injuries have proven to be perhaps his only kryptonite, as he made it through only eight games in 2016. Still, a Week 16 outburst against Miami (7-154-1) showed what Watkins remains capable of when healthy.
13. Jordan Matthews, Philadelphia Eagles (2014)
When putting this list together, it hadn’t occurred to me how similar Matthews’ rookie year fantasy production was to that of Watkins. After all, they were separated by only two fantasy points despite being drafted 38 spots apart. Matthews’ PPO (0.28) reflects how he actually did more for fantasy owners on 26 fewer targets. However, he was targeted at an average depth of four yards closer to the line of scrimmage than Watkins. And therein lies the ceiling for Matthews’ fantasy owners, as he followed that up with an aDOT of 9.1 in 2015 and then 10.4 this past season. Despite playing all but two games as a pro and being the clear lead dog of Philadelphia’s current WR corps (if you can even call it that), he has yet to crack 1,000 receiving yards in a season.
12. Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs (2016)
Did you know that Hill led all 128 qualified receivers in fantasy points per opportunity this past season? In fact, that mark is tops of any rookie on this list (including a certain Giants stud we’ll get to in Part 2), while his 81 targets are the fewest. Here’s another factoid that I was surprised to learn: if we extend the threshold to go back 20 years instead of 10, Hill’s 2016 campaign still ranks among the top-20 fantasy seasons by a rookie receiver. Hill accomplished this despite drawing only one start as an unheralded fifth-round selection. That’s partly because he managed 44.7 fantasy points on the ground alone (267 yards and three TDs on 24 carries), which is three times more rushing points than the next-closest rookie on our top-20 (Harvin: 15-135-0). Also among the top-20, Hill had the eighth-highest finish (WR15) among scoring leaders in his respective rookie season.
11. Eddie Royal, Denver Broncos (2008)
I honestly can’t recall ever rostering Royal, either in daily formats or even as a reserve in deep season-long leagues at any time during his nine-year career. While Royal enjoyed a semi-resurgence in San Diego, he has never been able to replicate his rookie-year production in terms of targets, catches, or yards. In fact, he was the WR15 that year with 229 PPR points, just a big play or two away from the top-10. Four different Broncos had at least 40 catches that year, although Royal and Brandon Marshall combined for a ridiculous 310 of Jay Cutler’s targets. You know what they say — “Mike Shanahan giveth and Mike Shanahan taketh away.”
Keep an eye out for Part 2, as we’ll finish it off later this week with the top-10 of our rookie countdown.