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According to the Data: Checking in With Rookie Running Backs and Wide Receivers

Jonathan Bales

Jonathan Bales

Jonathan Bales is the author of the Fantasy Football for Smart People book series. In addition to RotoWire, Jonathan also provides content to the New York Times, Dallas Morning News, DallasCowboys.com, and NBC.

Rookies are intriguing because so much mystery surrounds their first year in the NFL. Generally viewed as high-risk/high-reward options, I showed in the preseason that you should view rookies differently based on their positions. Specifically, I showed that rookie running backs are often quite undervalued because owners are generally risk-averse, fearing the unknown.

Few late-round picks have provided the upside of rookie running backs over the past half-decade. Despite only three rookie runners getting selected in the top-20 running backs over that time, nine (Chris Johnson, Matt Forte, Kevin Smith, Steve Slaton, Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, Reggie Bush, Joseph Addai and Maurice Jones-Drew) have finished in the top 20 by season's end. Seven of those nine have actually finished in the top 12 running backs, making them legitimate No. 1 players at the position.

How about the value of some of these picks:

Chris Johnson: ADP 36, Final Rank 11
Matt Forte: ADP 28, Final Rank 4
Kevin Smith: ADP 30, Final Rank 18
Steve Slaton: ADP 47, Final Rank 6
Adrian Peterson: ADP 25, Final Rank 3
Marshawn Lynch: ADP 24, Final Rank 12
Joseph Addai: ADP 27, Final Rank 11
Maurice Jones-Drew: ADP 62, Final Rank 8

The reason rookie runners are undervalued is they possess outstanding upside relative to their draft slots. On the other hand, rookie wide receivers are only rarely able to cash in on their ADPs. Last year was an aberration, as three rookie receivers - Torrey Smith, Julio Jones, and A.J. Green - all finished in the top 24 at the position. But since 2000, only two other rookie wideouts - Eddie Royal and Mike Williams - were able to finish that high.

Wide receivers, even those selected very high in the NFL Draft, typically take at least a year to develop. Larry Fitgerald (26th) and even the great Calvin Johnson (35th) are two recent examples of highly-touted receivers who failed to finish as WR2's in their rookie seasons. And how about this list of the highest-drafted rookie receivers from 2006 to 2010 (with their final fantasy rank among receivers in parentheses):

2010: Dez Bryant (49th)
2009: Percy Harvin (25th)
2008: Eddie Royal (20th)
2007: Dwayne Bowe (24th)
2006: Santonio Holmes (41st)

Sitting here in Week 12, we have a pretty good sense of where the rookies will wind up in the fantasy rankings. The results are only mildly surprising.
At running back, Doug Martin is currently the top overall running back in PPR formats. Trent Richardson is seventh. Those players aren't really shockers; sure, no one could have expected Martin to be fantasy football's best player, but some owners noticed the value offered by rookie running backs and had Martin ranked well ahead of his ADP. Those owners are likely in line for the playoffs right about now.

Other than Martin and Richardson, though, it's strange no other rookie running back has showed up. There weren't any can't-miss options out there, but who would have thought the third-highest rookie running back at this point in the season would be Daryl Richardson (41st)? We all had high hopes for at least one of the Ronnie Hillman/David Wilson/Isaiah Pead/LaMichael James group, but they haven't delivered in the same way as past late-round rookie runners. The only saving grace is that they hardly cost you a pretty penny on draft day.

At wide receiver, the results have been exactly as expected. Even with his Week 11 explosion, Justin Blackmon ranks 55th at wide receiver. The highest-ranked rookie receiver - Kendall Wright - is in the same position as the "other" Richardson rookie running back—41st.

If you jumped on a late-round rookie running back or wide receiver, they haven't panned out for you. Don't give up on them just yet, however. Perhaps the greatest value in all of fantasy football is the second-year player who underachieved in his rookie season. Based on the results so far this year, there will be plenty of those guys available in 2013.