Investing in rookie wide receivers in fantasy football is like trying to run on vintage Ken Griffey Jr. in the outfield– dumb. Sure, at first, you think that you (or the rookie) are good enough, and there seem to be signs of hope, but nine times out of 10, you find yourself disappointed.
I’ve touched on the prospects of rookie wideouts before, but it’s worth mentioning again, as fantasy owners continue to become excited after strong reports from team OTAs. Since 2005, only two receivers have posted 1,000 yards during their rookie campaign, and one of which came last year. Keenan Allen was a bit of an anomaly, joining A.J. Green as the only ones to accomplish that feat over the last nine seasons. Targets rarely seem to be on rookies’ sides right away, which limits their fantasy upside. Below are some notable receivers to post strong fantasy numbers during their inaugural season.
Dating back to 2008, just eight wideouts finished as top-20 fantasy receivers during their rookie season. Current studs like Dez Bryant and Jordy Nelson, heck, even Calvin Johnson struggled in his rookie year. Whether it takes them a year or two to adjust to the NFL level, wide receivers typically don’t post gangbusters numbers in their first season. In fact, when ESPN looked at the 57 wide receivers to ever score 1,200 career fantasy points, they noticed that the largest jump in fantasy points happened in year two, as players saw a 65 percent increase in points from their rookie year (via Tristan Cockroft).
Enter Sammy Watkins.
The Buffalo Bills haven’t had a wide receiver this talented in quite a long time, so there is reason to be excited. Actually, the last time they even had a fantasy wideout to finish inside the top-10 was way back in 2006 when Lee Evans hauled in 82 balls for over 1,200 yards and eight scores. Now, after investing two first round picks, Buffalo is looking to unleash perhaps the most polished receiver to enter the league since 2011. Watkins can be a perennial Pro Bowl talent someday. He’s blazing fast, has underrated jump ball skills and is deadly after the catch. However, is he in the right situation for immediate fantasy success?
I’m not so sure.
Keep in mind that I’m a Bills fan, so this is especially difficult for me to admit. I hope Watkins proves me wrong and records 1,000 yards and dominates at the next level, but history suggests otherwise, and I’m not sold that this is the greatest fit for him to post those monster numbers– at least not yet.
No team in the NFL ran the football more than the Bills last year, who averaged a healthy 34.1 carries per contest. It helped both C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson eclipse 200 carries, a feat only 19 other backs accomplished last year. Head coach Doug Marrone wants to, and is going to run the football. During his his time at Syracuse, his teams averaged over 36 rushing attempts per game. He’s always been a run-oriented coach, and that won’t suddenly change, even with the presence of Watkins. As a result, this unit ranked just 23rd in passing attempts per game. Watkins will see volume strictly because he is instantly the team’s number one wide receiver, but it may not be great volume, considering how much Buffalo runs the football.
And while Watkins isn’t only a big play guy, it’s a large part of what he does. Last year at Clemson, 57 percent of his receptions came at or behind the line of scrimmage. He was a monster in the screen game, and made a ton of huge plays. However, Buffalo, for whatever reason, doesn’t incorporate the wide receiver screen much. In fact, last year, they ran a screen to a wideout just 0.7 percent of the time, according to Pro Football Focus, which tied them for the third-lowest percentage in football. Maybe it’s because they lacked that explosive wideout to get into space, or maybe that’s just not what Nathaniel Hackett and company have in mind for this offense. Still, I would 100 percent expect that number to rise in 2014.
Let’s hope it does, because when Watkins goes deep, I’m not sure how efficient quarterback EJ Manuel will be getting him the football.
Last year, according to PFF, the Bills rookie signal caller completed just 41 passes of 20 yards or more, ranking 23rd among qualified quarterbacks. Watkins only ran routes of such length 9.90 percent of the time last year (via Greg Pishek), but that’s because the Clemson offense was a fast, intermediate offense. Also, Doug Farrar of Sports Illustrated points out that over 50 percent of Buffalo’s receivers’ routes were hitches and or go routes (another hat tip to PFF, too).
So where are we at?
Watkins is going to be a spectacular player in this league for years to come. There’s no doubt. He has all the physical tools, the work ethic and commitment to be great. But, for fantasy purposes, at least for this year, I wouldn’t invest too much. I do, however, think that if any rookie wideout is going to record 1,000 yards, it’s going to be Watkins because he is incredible after the catch, and, even in a run-heavy offense, should see the most targets among his rookie class. I’m very excited for Watkins, but from a fantasy perspective, I’ll be patient this year.
In 2015, however…