Fantasy Football: Can Rookie QBs Sustain WR Production?
When evaluating 2018’s 1st round rookie QB crop, we are trying to find the right ingredients in mixing optimism with the reality placed in front of us.
Sam Darnold can put on display his youthful upside IF and WHEN veteran Josh McCown goes down with a kamikaze-style injury…
Josh Allen can shut everyone up about his lack of accuracy and bust potential IF he somehow jumps AJ McCarron and Nathan Peterman on the Bills’ depth chart…
Josh Rosen can give everyone who passed on him in the top 10 the finger IF and WHEN Sam Bradford‘s knee crumbles…
Lamar Jackson can showcase his insane athleticism IF Joe Flacco is replaced because management is kicking itself for dishing out $120 million for a post-Super Bowl IOU…
The tension we must face is that we don’t know how much playing time ANY of these guys will have this year. Are they the most talented guys on their depth charts? Sure. But rookie years are a fickle thing. The question I want to address is not so much predicting how much they will play but to look historically and see how effective rookie QBs can be in terms of supporting major WR production.
I researched every rookie QB since 2004, a season I chose to start with as 3 future Hall of Fame hopefuls were drafted. (Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger) There’s speculation that any of 2018’s 5 first rounders could be a starter at some point. It’s vital for us to see the fluidity and variance in play when deciding if rookie QBs can support major WR fantasy production when we are making our opinions. The fact is we do not know how much playing time each class of 2018 rookie QB will have at this point.
Besides the obvious top 5-selected franchise QBs (Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford, Cam Newton, Sam Bradford, Vince Young?!) who stepped into a starting role with little competition, I charted 31 total rookie QBs that participated in 10 games or at least had 200 pass attempts. We call this Tier 1.
I found that this was the best starting place to begin diving into what type of WR production these rookie gunslingers could sustain. 10 games gave us enough of a sample size to see that these QBs made a dent in affecting the fantasy landscape while acknowledging that incumbent veteran starters also helped prop up some of the WR statistics. For instance, in 2011, a 35-year old, washed-up Donovan McNabb began the season as the Vikings’ (yes remember he was a Viking?!) starting QB with an atrocious 1-5 record before giving way to 12th overall selection Christian Ponder. In a dreadful 3-13 year for Minnesota, Percy Harvin ended the year as WR8 in PPR scoring although it’s clear Ponder wasn’t responsible for all of those points.
The scatter plot below shows where the top WRs finished for each of those 31 rookie QBs fitting into our 10-game/200 pass attempt criteria. What the data below isn’t showing you is the 12 other rookie QBs during this time frame that appeared in at least 6 games as rookies. We call this Tier 2. This includes lower drafted players such as 2005 3rd rounder Charlie Frye or 2014 6th rounder Zach Mettenberger, who both had significant playing time which impacted their fantasy pass-catching counterparts.
We’ll add in 10 more QBs selected in the first round which we call Tier 3. Although many expected them to take over the starting role based on their franchise investing significant draft capital, these 1st round rookies such as Jay Cutler in 2006, Tim Tebow in 2010, or Paxton Lynch in 2016 all appeared in 5 or fewer games. Wait a second….those are all Bronco 1st round QB selections…
Nevertheless, this gives us even greater context when we consider there have been 53 total rookie QBs who were either drafted in the 1st round or appeared in 6+ games in their rookie season since 2004.
WR Production from Rookie QBs
When we look at all 53 of those situations, here’s where their WR teammates finished.
WR1s– We have 5 rookie QBs which supported a top 12 PPR WR. A common denominator with these elites was that all of them started 16 games besides the previously mentioned Ponder.
- 2008- Matt Ryan with Roddy White (WR4)
- 2011- Cam Newton with Steve Smith (WR7)
- 2011- Christian Ponder with Percy Harvin (WR8)
- 2011- Andy Dalton with A.J. Green (WR11)
- 2012- Andrew Luck with Reggie Wayne (WR8)
In other words, a rookie QB appearing in 10+ games has sustained a top 12 WR just 16% of the time. However, when we add in every QB who either hit our 6+ game minimum (Tier 2) or those drafted in the 1st round (Tier 3) to the equation, the WR1 hit rate is only 9.4%. In other words, 9-out-10 times, a rookie QB will not give you top-flight return. This damages any hope for a Path to WR1-ville for Josh Gordon, a return to the top 12 for Jarvis Landry, or tapping into the upside of veterans Michael Crabtree or Larry Fitzgerald.
WR2s- There were another 7 rookie QBs in our sample that supported top 24 PPR WRs. As you can see, not all of them appeared in all 16 games.
- 2004- Ben Roethlisberger (14 games) with Hines Ward (WR23)
- 2006- Matt Leinart (12 games) with Anquan Boldin (WR15) AND Larry Fitzgerald (WR24)
- 2008- Joe Flacco (16 games) with Derrick Mason (WR20)
- 2009- Matthew Stafford (10 games) with Calvin Johnson (WR22)
- 2013- Mike Glennon (13 games) with Vincent Jackson (WR16)
- 2015- Jameis Winston (16 games) with Mike Evans (WR22)
Based on the 53 qualified QBs in our analysis, a rookie QB produced a top 24 WR only 22.6% of the time.
WR3s– Shockingly, the number of top 36 WRs actually drops as we add only 5 more QBs to this list.
- 2009- Mark Sanchez (15 games) with Jerricho Cotchery (WR32)
- 2010- Sam Bradford (16 games…how?!) with Danny Amendola (WR30)
- 2012- Ryan Tannehill (16 games) with Brian Hartline (WR27)
- 2012- Russell Wilson (16 games) with Sidney Rice (WR36)
- 2016- Dak Prescott (16 games) with Cole Beasley (WR32)
Based on the 53 qualified QBs in our analysis, a rookie QB produced a top 36 WR only 32.1% of the time.
WR4 and beyond– We could continue to go through the list but the fact of the matter is that WRs beyond this point begin to creep into fantasy irrelevance. They will have some usable weeks but the majority of us aren’t starting 3+ WRs in our leagues. Here are a couple well-known QBs who either had exciting rookie years, were drafted highly or who started a majority of games.
- 2006- Vince Young (15 games) with Drew Bennett (WR47)
- 2010- Tim Tebow (only attempted 82 passes)
- 2011- Blaine Gabbert (15 games) with Michael Thomas (WR80)
- 2012- Robert Griffin III (15 games) with Santana Moss (WR48)
- 2012- Brandon Weeden (15 games) with Josh Gordon (WR40)
- 2013- Blake Bortles (14 games) with Allen Hurns (WR49)
- 2013- Derek Carr (16 games) with James Jones (WR37)
- 2014- Marcus Mariota (12 games) with Dorial Green-Beckham(DGB lives!… WR60)
- 2015- Carson Wentz (16 games) with Jordan Matthews (WR48)
- 2016- Deshone Kizer (15 games) with Rishard Higgins (WR86)
If you’re banking on Baker Mayfield to win his starting job AND bolster the fantasy prospects of Jarvis Landry and Josh Gordon, it’s time now to have a reality check. The lists above might lend you to think that there’s fantasy gold available with rookies as they often allow their fellow WRs to come at a discount in drafts. However, when we remove the glare of the NFL Draft lights and the hype columns from this offseason, we see that over 67% of the time, a rookie QB failed to produce even a top 36 WR. The majority of the standouts in this analysis were rookies working with top-end WR talents who had produced a fantasy elite season the previous year.
Baker Mayfield. Sam Darnold. Josh Allen. Josh Rosen. Lamar Jackson.
If you’re high on the future prospects of these QBs, I can’t argue with you. (Ok, maybe with Josh Allen I can) They were scouted and drafted by their organizations to be the cornerstone and face of their franchise. However, when it comes to fantasy, we need to rein in our expectations despite the gaudy college completion numbers or the freakish combine metrics. Rookie QBs rarely support top-end fantasy production because they often do not receive significant enough playing time, they begin their careers with muddled situations, and most often, they are on crappy teams with sub-optimal WR corps.