With a stud prospect like N’Keal Harry struggling as a rookie, I began to wonder how often we see inefficient rookie wide receivers become WR1s.

After researching how successful efficient rookie receivers have been, I wanted to test the other side of the spectrum and see how inefficient rookie receivers fared in the future.

We know from the outset that the hit rate for this study will likely be low so I’m curious to see what characteristics the successes share. By studying the successful players in this group, our process for evaluating inefficient receivers will improve.

Let’s dive in. We’ll start by looking at all the WR1 seasons since 2000 that took place after an inefficient rookie season of averaging under eight yards per target.

All WR1 Seasons with a Rookie YPT Under Eight

PLAYERRookie YPTRookie TargetsWR1 SeasonPPRYear
Antonio Bryant7.99520082527
Darrell Jackson7.7932004250.95
Dez Bryant7.7732012303.73
Dez Bryant7.7732013294.44
Dez Bryant7.77320143165
Steve Smith7.72020092713
Steve Smith7.7202005340.65
Steve Smith7.7202006259.76
Steve Smith7.7202008260.18
Steve Smith7.720201126811
Alshon Jeffery7.6482013285.62
Alshon Jeffery7.6482014261.63
DeSean Jackson7.61202009251.32
DeSean Jackson7.61202013269.46
Emmanuel Sanders7.5502014301.85
Sidney Rice7.5532009262.23
Vincent Jackson7.482012260.48
Demaryius Thomas7.33920122973
Demaryius Thomas7.33920133194
Demaryius Thomas7.3392014340.95
Demaryius Thomas7.3392015271.46
Michael Crabtree7.3862012250.34
Steve Johnson7.3142010249.33
Drew Bennett7.2462004277.24
Tyreek Hill7.28320183283
Brandon Lloyd7.13020102868
Reggie Wayne7492004269.64
Reggie Wayne74920062736
Reggie Wayne7492007315.47
Reggie Wayne7492009284.49
Reggie Wayne7492010282.510
Reggie Wayne749201227112
Robert Woods6.9852018265.66
Roy Williams6.91152006255.23
Allen Robinson6.88120153042
Allen Robinson6.8812019254.96
Davante Adams6.8662016248.73
Davante Adams6.8662018329.65
Jarvis Landry6.81122015270.452
Jarvis Landry6.811220172644
Jordy Nelson6.8542011284.34
Jordy Nelson6.8542013264.46
Jordy Nelson6.8542014327.97
Jordy Nelson6.8542016306.79
Larry Fitzgerald6.811520053082
Larry Fitzgerald6.81152007300.94
Larry Fitzgerald6.81152008311.15
Larry Fitzgerald6.81152009284.26
Larry Fitzgerald6.81152011269.18
Larry Fitzgerald6.81152015284.512
Larry Fitzgerald6.81152016246.913
Larry Fitzgerald6.81152017263.6514
Julian Edelman6.6542013251.75
Julian Edelman6.6542019258.7511
Roddy White6.5682008268.84
Roddy White6.5682009266.55
Roddy White6.5682010318.26
Roddy White6.5682011277.67
Roddy White6.5682012269.18
Javon Walker6.4502004299.23
Greg Jennings6.31052008265.23
Greg Jennings6.31052010274.45
Golden Tate5.8392014259.15
Pierre Garcon5.842013279.56
Chad Johnson5.5602003285.53
Chad Johnson5.5602004280.34
Chad Johnson5.5602005297.55
Chad Johnson5.5602006268.36
Chad Johnson5.5602007289.77
T.J. Houshmandzadeh5.4422006252.76
T.J. Houshmandzadeh5.4422007299.77
Plaxico Burress4.4652002254.53
Santana Moss2.4172003251.23
Santana Moss2.41720052865
  • There are 527 rookie seasons that fit the criteria, only these 32 players were able to produce a WR1 season in their career (6%)
  • 17 of 527 players had multiple WR1 seasons (3%)
  • Of the 32 players with a WR1 season, we see a very strong 74 WR1 seasons (2.3 per player)
  • 17 of the 32 players had multiple WR1 seasons (53%)
  • The 17 players combined for 59 WR1 seasons (3.5 per player)

While we see the hit rate is surely low for these players, six percent are able to overcome the odds. Once a player achieves a WR1 season, he is likely to do it again.

Filtering for Volume

The hit rate is potentially skewed by including players that were barely targeted. If we create a minimum target threshold of 20 targets this cuts our sample size to 221 rookie seasons. This removes four players from our list of hits but overall helps us gain a clearer lens to examine the successes.

  • 28 of 221 players had a WR1 season (13%)
  • 16 of 221 players had multiple WR1 seasons (7%)

Let’s start to find some commonalities that these players share. If we filter the list down to all players who were drafted in the top three rounds of the NFL draft, we whittle the sample size down to 121 players.

Filtering for Draft Capital

Here are the hits that fit the criteria.

PLAYERRookie YPTRookie TGTsDraftWR1 Season
Antonio Bryant7.995632008
Darrell Jackson7.793802004
Dez Bryant7.773242012
Dez Bryant7.773242013
Dez Bryant7.773242014
Steve Smith7.720742009
Steve Smith7.720742005
Steve Smith7.720742006
Steve Smith7.720742008
Steve Smith7.720742011
Alshon Jeffery7.648452013
Alshon Jeffery7.648452014
DeSean Jackson7.6120492009
DeSean Jackson7.6120492013
Emmanuel Sanders7.550822014
Sidney Rice7.553442009
Demaryius Thomas7.339222012
Demaryius Thomas7.339222013
Demaryius Thomas7.339222014
Demaryius Thomas7.339222015
Michael Crabtree7.386102012
Reggie Wayne749302004
Reggie Wayne749302006
Reggie Wayne749302007
Reggie Wayne749302009
Reggie Wayne749302010
Reggie Wayne749302012
Robert Woods6.985412018
Roy Williams6.911572006
Allen Robinson6.881612015
Allen Robinson6.881612019
Davante Adams6.866532016
Davante Adams6.866532018
Jarvis Landry6.8112632015
Jarvis Landry6.8112632017
Jordy Nelson6.854362011
Jordy Nelson6.854362013
Jordy Nelson6.854362014
Jordy Nelson6.854362016
Larry Fitzgerald6.811532005
Larry Fitzgerald6.811532007
Larry Fitzgerald6.811532008
Larry Fitzgerald6.811532009
Larry Fitzgerald6.811532011
Larry Fitzgerald6.811532015
Larry Fitzgerald6.811532016
Larry Fitzgerald6.811532017
Roddy White6.568272008
Roddy White6.568272009
Roddy White6.568272010
Roddy White6.568272011
Roddy White6.568272012
Javon Walker6.450202004
Greg Jennings6.3105522008
Greg Jennings6.3105522010
Golden Tate5.839602014
Chad Johnson5.560362003
Chad Johnson5.560362004
Chad Johnson5.560362005
Chad Johnson5.560362006
Chad Johnson5.560362007
Plaxico Burress4.46582002
  • 24 of 121 players had a WR1 season (20%)
  • 14 of 121 players had multiple WR1 seasons (12%)
  • Of the 24 players, 14 had multiple WR1 seasons (58%)
  • Of the 24 players, they accounted for 62 WR1 seasons (2.6 per player)

Filtering Out Extremely Inefficient Rookie Seasons

Our hit rate is getting better, but it can still be improved. It’s easy to recognize that the vast majority of the hits are above six yards per target. If we remove all players who had under six YPT in their rookie season, we are left with 75 players left in our sample.

The hits are listed below.

PLAYERRookie YPTRookie TGTsDraftWR1 SeasonYear
Antonio Bryant7.9956320087
Darrell Jackson7.7938020045
Dez Bryant7.7732420123
Dez Bryant7.7732420134
Dez Bryant7.7732420145
Steve Smith7.7207420093
Steve Smith7.7207420055
Steve Smith7.7207420066
Steve Smith7.7207420088
Steve Smith7.72074201111
Alshon Jeffery7.6484520132
Alshon Jeffery7.6484520143
DeSean Jackson7.61204920092
DeSean Jackson7.61204920136
Emmanuel Sanders7.5508220145
Sidney Rice7.5534420093
Demaryius Thomas7.3392220128
Demaryius Thomas7.3392220133
Demaryius Thomas7.3392220144
Demaryius Thomas7.3392220155
Michael Crabtree7.3861020126
Reggie Wayne7493020044
Reggie Wayne7493020063
Reggie Wayne7493020074
Reggie Wayne7493020093
Reggie Wayne7493020108
Reggie Wayne7493020124
Robert Woods6.9854120186
Roy Williams6.9115720067
Allen Robinson6.8816120159
Allen Robinson6.88161201910
Davante Adams6.86653201612
Davante Adams6.8665320186
Jarvis Landry6.81126320153
Jarvis Landry6.81126320172
Jordy Nelson6.8543620116
Jordy Nelson6.8543620133
Jordy Nelson6.8543620145
Jordy Nelson6.8543620162
Larry Fitzgerald6.8115320054
Larry Fitzgerald6.8115320074
Larry Fitzgerald6.8115320086
Larry Fitzgerald6.8115320097
Larry Fitzgerald6.8115320119
Larry Fitzgerald6.8115320152
Larry Fitzgerald6.8115320164
Larry Fitzgerald6.8115320175
Roddy White6.5682720086
Roddy White6.5682720098
Roddy White6.56827201012
Roddy White6.56827201113
Roddy White6.56827201214
Javon Walker6.4502020045
Greg Jennings6.310552200811
Greg Jennings6.31055220104
  • 21 of 75 players had at least one WR1 season (28%)
  • 13 of the 75 players had multiple WR1 seasons (17%)
  • Of the 21 players, 13 had multiple WR1 seasons (62%)
  • The 21 players accounted for 55 WR1 seasons (2.6 per player)

This is an improvement and makes logical sense given the findings of how important rookie year efficiency is for wide receivers.

Filtering for Weight

What happens when we add weight as a variable and use 210 lbs. as a cutoff just like we did with the efficient receivers? The list is reduced to a sample of 31 players who meet all the criteria.

Below are the remaining hits.

PLAYERRookie YPTDraftWeightWR1 Season
Dez Bryant7.7242202012
Dez Bryant7.7242202013
Dez Bryant7.7242202014
Alshon Jeffery7.6452162013
Alshon Jeffery7.6452162014
Vincent Jackson7.4612302012
Demaryius Thomas7.3222292012
Demaryius Thomas7.3222292013
Demaryius Thomas7.3222292014
Demaryius Thomas7.3222292015
Michael Crabtree7.3102142012
Roy Williams6.972102006
Allen Robinson6.8612202015
Allen Robinson6.8612202019
Davante Adams6.8532122016
Davante Adams6.8532122018
Jordy Nelson6.8362172011
Jordy Nelson6.8362172013
Jordy Nelson6.8362172014
Jordy Nelson6.8362172016
Larry Fitzgerald6.832182005
Larry Fitzgerald6.832182007
Larry Fitzgerald6.832182008
Larry Fitzgerald6.832182009
Larry Fitzgerald6.832182011
Larry Fitzgerald6.832182015
Larry Fitzgerald6.832182016
Larry Fitzgerald6.832182017
Javon Walker6.4202202004
  • 11 of 31 players hit for at least one WR1 season (35%)
  • 7 of 31 players hit for multiple WR1 seasons (23%)
  • 7 of 11 players had multiple WR1 seasons (64%)
  • The 11 players combined for 29 WR1 seasons (2.6 per player)

Filtering for First or Second Round draft picks

If we look at similarities between these “hits” we see that every single one of them was drafted in either the first or second round. If we eliminate all players who weren’t drafted in the top two rounds, we’re left with a list of 24 players while keeping our list from above.

That means the following is true:

  • 11 of 24 players hit at least one WR1 season (46%)
  • 7 of 24 players hit multiple WR1 seasons (29%)

While our analysis has shown that we should probably stay away from inefficient rookie WRs, it isn’t a death sentence. It is interesting that over half of our hits in each of the lists went on to have multiple WR1 seasons.

Generally, after an inefficient rookie year, a wide receiver is unlikely to be successful. However, by filtering for important variables like volume, draft capital, and weight we can start to have better bets with these types of players.

Which Young Players Should We Target?

If we check to see which players in the last three draft classes (2017-2019) fit the criteria, we only see one name and it is an interesting one.

JJ Arcega-Whiteside is a name that has been pushed aside by many dynasty players after a rough rookie season. He wasn’t terrible but didn’t receive many opportunities on a team that needed wide receiver help.

He has the strong draft capital to his name, weighs 225 lbs., and is on a team that is still searching for receiver help. There are some positives in his profile that are not reflected in his current dynasty ADP.

His value right now is at an all-time low and he makes for an intriguing buy considering the price tag.

Let’s filter outward towards our cohort with a 28% WR1 hit rate, which has no requirement for weight and includes only players that were selected in the top three rounds. Here are the players that meet the criteria.

Anthony Miller improved in his second year but will be entering next season at age 26 and attached to Mitchell Trubisky. With Allen Robinson getting funneled a strong market share of targets in Chicago, it’s safe to say it’s unlikely that Anthony Miller becomes a fantasy WR1.

Michael Gallup vastly improved Year 2, scoring 212.7 PPR points in only 14 games while averaging 9.8 yards per target. He finished as the WR24 on the year and was WR18 in PPR points per game. Gallup will enter next season at only 24 years and by most standards, has already achieved his breakout. Out of everyone in this group, Gallup appears the most likely to make that jump into WR1 territory.

Diontae Johnson flashed as a rookie with some big games in his rookie season. He scored 160.3 PPR points as a rookie which is very impressive especially considering his quarterback situation most of the year. With a healthy Ben Roethlisberger, Johnson is an interesting name to keep an eye on next season and beyond.

Discoveries

Of the original 32 players on this list, only five of them broke out to become a WR1 in their second season. This is pretty astonishing considering we know that receivers most commonly break out in their second season. 12 of these players ended up breaking out in their third season in the league.

This may suggest that inefficient rookies tend to take a little longer to develop in the league. In my next article, I will start to break this down to see if we can better predict when these players will breakout into WR1 territory.

Conclusion

While our analysis has shown that we should probably stay away from inefficient rookie wide receivers, it is not a death sentence. It is interesting that over half of our hits in each of the lists went on to have multiple WR1 seasons. The takeaway is players who struggle as rookies can still become stars. By filtering for important variables like volume, draft capital, and weight we can start to have better bets as to who is likely to become a star.

Make sure to follow me on twitter @DaltonGuruFF and interact with me there. I love talking and engaging with all things fantasy-related.

A special thanks to RotoViz and Pro Football Reference for their awesome tools and data in which made this article possible!