Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The third-year wideout "myth"

Wide receivers need at least three years to be good. Running backs can excel right out of the gate. Quarterbacks need at least a year or two -- and often more -- to excel.

These are all known "facts," especially to fantasy football fanatics looking for that great draft pick in August. But how much of it is true? The "third-year wide receiver" opinion has been rebuffed by many in recent years, but it still persists, and why is that? Could there be a kernel of truth in the oft-stated belief that the third year is the year wide receivers "put it all together"? And just how good are first-year backs? And when does a quarterback start to show real, or at least fantasy-caliber, skill?

To answer this, I've gone back to the ever-popular Historical Data Dominator. I then searched for rookie wide receivers from 1978 (when the NFL adopted a 16-game schedule) to 2007 with 1,000 yards receiving, second-year WRs with 1,000 yards, third-year WRs with 1,000 yards, etc. I did the same for running backs, using rushing yards. For quarterbacks, I elected to go with 2,400 yards and 16 TDs, an average of 150 yards and 1 TD per game.

Before you think 3,000 passing yards would be a better total, note that even in the pass-happy 2007, the average team threw for 3,652 yards and ran for 1,775, a ratio of just over two to one. If anything, the yardage threshold should be lower, or the rush/receive threshold should be 1,200 yards, so as to be more in line with the 2,400 passing yards. I'll get to that later.

It's not a perfect comparison, but 1,000 yards rushing/receiving is generally considered to make a player "good," while a young QB who throws for 2,400 yards and 16 TDs is also considered to be relatively competent (provided he keeps his interceptions down). Here are the number of players, from 1978 to 2007, who meet these requirements:


Without a doubt, third-year wide receivers, as a whole, significantly out-perform their second-year counterparts. However, it should be noted that the difference between third-year WRs and second-year WRs (17) is less than the difference between second-year WRs and rookie WRs (25). So, yes, those third-year guys are might excel, but don't be afraid to take a flier on a good-looking second-year wideout in your draft.

As for running backs, the common wisdom -- that first-year running backs are perfectly valid draft picks -- also seems to hold true, though, as with wide receivers, their peak years seem to be seasons three through five. There's a significant drop-off after year six though, and another precipitous drop after year eight. Again, no surprise there; running backs don't have the greatest shelf life. (LaDainian Tomlinson, it should be noted, will be entering his eighth season in 2008.)

You probably don't need to know that drafting rookie quarterbacks is a risky proposition, and this chart supports that. After that rookie year, though, you get nearly the same number of 2,400-yard, 16-TD quarterbacks every season through year 10. That's probably due in large part to teams not being willing to give rookie QBs playing time (even though it might not be a bad idea, long term) and throwing them into the fire their second or third year.

That said, 1,000 yards isn't that great. That's only 62.5 yards per game. These days, 1,200 yards is probably a better indicator of stardom, or at least a good fantasy player. Here are the number of RBs and WRs who managed 1,200 yards in seasons from 1978 to 2007:


Those are some notably different results. For this level of production, first-year running backs are a relatively poor choice. There was only a difference of 6 (52 to 46) between first- and second-year RBs getting 1,000 yards, but the difference for 1,200 yards is 9 (28 to 19). And wide receivers? Only Randy Moss and Anquan Boldin have managed 1,200 yards as a rookie since 1978. (Bill Groman also did it in 1960.) But there's very little difference from season two on (until season seven, at least). I ran a similar study with QBs, using 3,000 yards and 24 TDs as a benchmark, but it didn't yield any notable results.

So what does it all mean? Yes, third-year wide receivers are actually a pretty good choice, but don't overlook promising second-year players, especially if you're looking for big (1,200+ yard) production. While you can get decent production from a first-year running back, you're not all that likely to find a #1-caliber guy among rookie runners (Adrian Peterson notwithstanding). And don't even think about drafting Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Brian Brohm, or John David Booty. Not this year, at least.

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