I missed on Odell Beckham Jr.

God, he’s really freaking good, isn’t he? I think you could actually make a case for Beckham already being one of the top wide receivers in the NFL. Take a look at Eli Manning’s splits when throwing to Beckham versus other players. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb in saying that Beckham was the MVWR—Most Valuable Wide Receiver—in the NFL in 2014.

I’m actually fine with missing on Beckham because I think being bullish on players like him—slightly undersized speedsters who didn’t dominate in college—comes with a massive cost; namely, you’re probably going to miss on a lot of other similar receivers such that it might not be worth it. Beckham is clearly the exception to the rule, but you can’t continually gamble on those exceptions without eventually losing out in the long run.

So yeah, I’m bitter about Beckham. He’s so ridiculously talented that it makes me sick, both in real life and from a fantasy perspective. In terms of the latter, one of the other reasons I wasn’t particularly high on Beckham was that rookie receivers in general haven’t really done crap. A few years ago, I had a cool stat that only five rookie wide receivers since 2000 finished in the top 24 at the position in fantasy football. Only five!

Well, things have shifted a bit. The 2014 wide receiver class has been compared to the 1983 quarterback class—one that included John Elway, Dan Marino, and Jim Kelly—in terms of quality. In addition to Beckham, receivers like Mike Evans, Sammy Watkins, Martavis Bryant, and Kelvin Benjamin also tore it up. Just take a look at the most touchdowns by a rookie wide receiver since 2000.

 

WR TD Rookie

 

Of the top 20 receivers, nine of them have come in the past four years and four in 2014. We see a similar effect with receptions…

WR Receptions Rookie

 

…and yards…

WR Yards Rookie

 

So yeah, most of the best first-year players at the wide receiver position have come in the past few seasons. Whereas it was always a risk to start a rookie pass-catcher in fantasy football, that might no longer be the case.

Is this a trend that is going to continue? Have we simply witnessed a couple awesome classes and things will soon regress toward the mean? I think the fact that rookies have gotten more playing time, especially early in the year, has contributed to their recent success—which should be sustainable if they continue to see the field.

Historically, rookies have improved throughout the course of their rookie seasons in terms of bulk production.

Rookie Receiving 1

 

Part of this is due to an increase in playing time, of course, but we’ve seen NFL teams more and more willing to throw their rookies into the starting lineup right out of the gate. As that happens, bulk fantasy stats will obviously improve.

 

Identifying Rookie Wide Receiver Talent

 

Rookies are clearly still going to be behind the curve compared to veterans, and many first-year receivers will be duds, so it’s important to do what’s necessary to increase the chances of hitting on the youngsters.

 

Weight

In 2014, many people were excited about Kelvin Benjamin because, in addition to immediately filling in as Carolina’s No. 1 wide receiver, he also had the body type that should allow him to score—something that we’d expect comes more naturally to rookie receivers than running smart routes and continually beating defenses for receptions and yards. Plus Benjamin was a scoring machine in his final collegiate season.

When all else is equal, the best way to predict touchdowns for receivers, rookie or not, is by looking at their weight. Most scores occur in the red zone, and heavier receivers score at a much higher rate in the red zone than lighter ones.

WR Weight and RZ 2

 

There are exceptions—Beckham being one—but for the most part, we should be favoring heavier receivers because they consistently score at a higher rate than light receivers.

 

Draft Slot

In regards to Beckham, there was a lot of talk that we should be bullish on him simply because he was a high draft pick. If an NFL team liked him that much, it might be a sign that he’s a high-level player who could see a lot of time on the field.

There’s indeed a correlation between draft slot and rookie wide receiver production.

Rookie WR Stats 1

 

Again, rookie wide receivers in general haven’t produced at an extremely high rate, but the ones who have are usually highly drafted. Looking at the top 20 seasons by rookie receivers in terms of yards, we see that there 11 from first-rounders and four from second-rounders. There are exceptions like Marques Colston, but wide receiver isn’t a position like running back where you can sort of plug-and-play guys and the draft slot doesn’t mean as much; wide receivers are easier to evaluate because their production is more dependent on their actual skill level than for running backs, so they don’t get mis-drafted so often.

Here’s another look at rookie production by draft slot.

Rookie Finishes WR

 

College Production

And finally, it’s also important to consider a wide receiver’s college production—something that is basically irrelevant for running backs. Specifically, I like to look at market share stats from a wide receiver’s final college season. Market share is the percentage of team yards/touchdowns for which a single receiver is responsible.

Market share stats, which were popularized over at rotoViz, are really useful because they help put a receiver’s production into context. When he has huge numbers on a really prolific offense, his market share stats will be down and it could suggest he overachieved because of the quarterback, system, or whatever (a la Tavon Austin at West Virginia). On the flip side, it’s a really good sign when a receiver dominates in terms of bulk stats on otherwise poor passing offenses (a la Demaryius Thomas at Georgia Tech).

Here’s a look at how market share stats predict NFL fantasy success.

WR Market Share Correlation

 

In the season before getting drafted, a receiver’s college stats are highly predictive of his NFL future, particularly in terms of touchdowns; the players who consistently score touchdowns in college also tend to do it in the pros.

Along with his weight, these numbers are why I (and many other stat geeks) were down on Beckham. He’s not that big and, although explosive, his athleticism didn’t really translate onto the field; Beckham had only 12 touchdowns in three seasons at LSU. We missed on him in a big way, but the hope is that we won’t miss on the next player who looks similar but fizzles out in the NFL.

Either way, there’s little doubt that rookie receivers are indeed improving in the big leagues. Schemes are shifting to incorporate more college concepts with which they’re familiar, and coaches seem to be trusting them more to get them on the field early in their careers.

I swapped away from Keenan Allen in his rookie year (because he was a rookie), and the move cost me $100,000. I didn’t play Beckham much in his rookie season (because I’m stubborn), and the move cost me lots of doll-hairs. The numbers suggest that, as long as certain criteria are met, I should be a little more bullish on rookie receivers moving forward.