Drafting the Best Fantasy Football Rookie WRs

Targeting the right rookie receiver requires a little bit of evaluation and a little bit of luck. This is a team sport after all, and there is more to a player than his individual talent. Fantasy Football Expert Rusty Reeves covers the big-name rookies being selected in drafts this season. He wants to help you find the right one and most importantly, landing him without reaching.

There were a whopping 12 wide receivers selected in the first two rounds of this year’s NFL Draft, the most wide receiver-rich draft in recent memory. In fact, since the turn of the millennium, that’s the most wideouts taken in the first two rounds of any draft. Last season, there were only six receivers taken in the first two rounds.

Obviously, NFL executives must think these guys are good. But what can fantasy owners expect from this year’s crop of studs? In fantasy football, the best way to predict the future is to study the past. That sounds cliché, but it’s so true. So, what does the past tell us? The past says, “Temper your expectations, sunshine.”

Rookie wide receivers typically don’t produce much in their first year, no matter how talented they may be. In the past three seasons, the number of wide receivers taken in the first or second round of the NFL draft that eclipsed 1,000 yards in their rookie season is one: A.J. Green of the Cincinnati Bengals. Chargers rookie Keenan Allen put up 1,046 yards last year, but he was a third-round selection. So, there you have it. That’s the list of wide receivers in the past three years to top 1,000 yards as a rookie. In other words, it simply doesn’t happen.

What about receptions? If 1,000 yards is the standard for being considered a stud, 75 receptions could put a player in that same conversation. The only problem with that is no rookie has done that in the past three seasons. Allen has the most with 71. Outside of him, the only other rookie receivers in the past three years to exceed 60 receptions were Green (65 in 2011), Kendall Wright for the Titans (64 in 2012), Justin Blackmon for the Jaguars (64 in 2012), and Greg Little, who hauled in what will probably end up being his career best, 61 receptions in 2011. As far as touchdowns go, the chances of a rookie receiver scoring double-digit TDs are about the same as my chances of scoring a date with Kate Beckinsale. Allen’s eight scores last season were the most in the past three years. Green, Atlanta’s Julio Jones, and Baltimore’s Torrey Smith are the only others in the past three years to catch seven.

What does this mean for this year’s group? Everyone is touting Buffalo’s Sammy Watkins and Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans as two of the best WRs to come along in a long time. There is considerable hype surrounding Odell Beckham of the Giants and Brandin Cooks of the Saints. And for crying out loud, somebody has to catch some balls in Carolina, where the Panthers have undergone a complete overhaul of their receiving corps. Could Kelvin Benjamin be the beneficiary of the mass exodus of Panthers receivers? What can you expect from these guys, and if one or two of these guys can produce, which ones will it be? Let’s look at the first-rounders from this year’s draft.

Sammy Watkins

Watkins was the fourth player taken in the draft, and scouts are drooling over his potential. Just watching him play at Clemson, it was easy to tell his skill set projected very favorably to the next level. He made what seemed like four or five highlight-reel grabs every game. When looking at the potential for Watkins in 2014, the No. 1 thing you need to take note of is his situation.

Given a better scenario, Watkins could put up similar numbers to Green or Allen in their rookie seasons. However, E.J. Manuel, who hopes to play his first full season after struggling with injuries last year, will be his quarterback, and the Bills’ offense isn’t one that gets us too excited. Even with that, Watkins’ talent alone projects him as a WR3 with some upside. FFToolbox.com has him ranked as our No. 34 wide receiver. His current average draft position has him being the 26th receiver off draft boards. Expecting a 65-950-7 line is not unrealistic at all.

Mike Evans

In this author’s opinion, Evans would be the one rookie wide receiver to target in fantasy drafts. Whereas Watkins figures to be the No. 1 guy in Buffalo, drawing whatever double-teams there are and playing with an inexperienced quarterback, Evans will enjoy the freedom that comes with having Vincent Jackson lining up on the opposite side. Add the fact that Josh McCown is coming to town to be the Bucs’ new signal-caller, and running back Doug Martin figures to return healthy in 2014, Evans is in a prime position to be the top rookie wide receiver. The offense that the Bucs have assembled is akin to what McCown was so successful in engineering last season in Chicago.



Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Mike Evans


Evans boasts great size as well. At 6-foot-5 and with 35 1/8-inch arms, he is the kind of big target that quarterbacks love, especially in the red zone. Seven touchdowns should be a lock for Evans. We have him ranked as our No. 35 wide receiver, just below Watkins. However, the argument could be made that his upside is significantly better than Watkins’ in 2014. Evans’ current ADP shows him being the 38th receiver going in drafts, third among the rookie crop. Getting a stat line of 65-900-7 is very attainable for Evans this season.

Brandin Cooks

There may not be a rookie receiver picking up more steam heading into the peak of draft season than Cooks. He was the fourth receiver taken in this year’s draft, but Cooks was the second rookie receiver taken in two FFWC Draft-n-Go’s I participated in recently. Cooks has the quickness to shake defenders off the line and the speed to run right by them once he does. His 40-yard dash time of 4.33 seconds was the best among rookie receivers and second-best among all players at February’s NFL Combine. Oh, and he also has Drew Brees throwing him the ball. That is probably the biggest factor for people who are jumping on the Cooks hype train. His current ADP shows him as the 34th receiver coming off draft boards, second among rookies. We still have him ranked a bit below Evans, but not by much at all. A line of 60-850-6 is about where we have him projected for this season, but the potential upside playing in the Saints’ offense is what’s got the fantasy world abuzz on this rookie.

Kelvin Benjamin

While you probably don’t want too many Panthers on your fantasy team in 2014, Benjamin is a guy you may throw a little attention at come draft day. As stated earlier, somebody has to catch the ball in Carolina this year. While rookie receivers aren’t typically expected to step into a prominent full-time role right out of the gate, the Panthers may not have a choice but to lay that burden at Benjamin’s feet this season. The rookie is listed as a starting receiver on Carolina’s current depth chart, opposite 32-year-old Jerricho Cotchery. Their next best receiver is arguably 31-year-old Jason Avant. Avant’s career high in catches is 53 in 2012. He’s never tallied more than 700 yards in a season. While Cotchery has two 80-plus-catch seasons to his name, they were in 2006 and 2007. His 10 touchdown catches last season was somewhat of an anomaly since his previous career high was six in 2006.

The bottom line is that there was a reason why the Panthers selected Benjamin in the first round of the draft. His 6-foot-5 frame and long arms make him a sure-fire red-zone target for Cam Newton this season. While he may not get the catches or yards of the three previously listed receivers, Benjamin could very well lead all rookie receivers in touchdowns. A stat line of 60-700-8 is well within reach with a top-notch quarterback such as Newton throwing him the ball.

Odell Beckham Jr.

The 5-foot-11 Beckham was the third receiver taken in the NFL Draft, selected by the Giants with the 12th overall pick. He has been fighting through a hamstring injury during the preseason but is expected to compete with Rueben Randle to be the team’s No. 2 receiver behind Victor Cruz. Beckham is another small receiver, but his 38 1/2-inch vertical leap and excellent hands make him more than capable of climbing the ladder and plucking the ball out of the air to make the tough grabs.



New York Giants WR Odell Beckham Jr.


High-stakes regular Wayne Ellis (Coltsfan) loves Beckham as a late-round value with huge upside. In an FFWC Draft-n-Go I participated in before the NFL Draft in May, Ellis took Beckham in the 15th round. That was before even knowing where he’d call home professionally. In late July, I found myself in another draft and drafting two spots away from Coltsfan. I was primed to grab Beckham in the 14th round, but Ellis selected him two spots in front of me. You can see that draft here.

Beckham probably won’t see as many targets as the other four first-rounders, but given the opportunity to step into a starting role, he has the skill set to exceed expectations. As it currently stands, we have him projected for a 45-550-4 stat line. His current ADP has him as the seventh rookie receiver coming off draft boards.

Conclusion

Along with the first four receivers mentioned, the other two rookie receivers going ahead of Beckham in fantasy drafts were second-round selections in May. One of them could very well be this year’s Allen; Philadelphia’s Jordan Matthews and Jacksonville’s Marqise Lee are worth watching in the preseason. Matthews has been turning heads in Philadelphia and with DeSean Jackson gone, he could get every opportunity to shine in the Eagles’ high-flying offense. Lee may simply be the beneficiary of teammate stupidity and injury, as Blackmon can’t stay out of trouble and is expected to miss this season. Ace Sanders appears to be following in his footsteps as he’ll be facing a four-game suspension to start the season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Fellow rookie Allen Robinson and Cecil Shorts are struggling through injuries in the preseason. If Lee takes advantage of this situation, he could very well be a sleeper candidate. After missing out on Beckham in the 14th round of the draft above, I snagged Lee instead.

Hitting on a rookie wide receiver is never an easy thing to do. Based on history, the chances that one of these guys catches 80 passes for 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns are simply non-existent. Neither Jones nor Green could pull that off in their rookie years. However, there is definitely a value in all of these guys, as any of them could step up and establish themselves as fantasy-relevant. Due to the risk that comes with rookie receivers, savvy drafters will pass on taking Watkins, Cooks and Evans because their ADPs project them as fifth-to-seventh-round picks. You would be better served to grab a guy such as Marques Colston, Emmanuel Sanders, Jeremy Maclin or Reggie Wayne, who are all going around the same area in drafts. You know what you’re going to get from those guys. Then, grab a Matthews, Benjamin, Lee or Beckham between rounds 10 and 15 and hope they hit on their upside.

In summary, all rookie receivers are a risk. You would be better off if you waited until the late stages of your draft to assume such risk.

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