Fantasy Football: Kyler Murray, Rookie QBs, & What History Can Tell Us

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It’s been pretty hype around Fantasy Footballers HQ this off-season as the Ballers’ beloved Arizona Cardinals took the plunge on their future franchise QB, Kyler Murray. Here’s the live reaction when the Heisman trophy winner was chosen 1st overall on draft night.

Kyler Murray presents a number of wow! factors that are causing fantasy owners to take notice and consider whether taking a rookie QB in their re-draft leagues presents a real possibility. We all know about his eye-popping numbers from Oklahoma. Kyle Yates, in his Rookie Profile article on Murray, goes into detail about Murray’s athletic skill set and where fantasy owners might draft him in dynasty leagues. But what raw production can we actually foresee from a rookie QB in Year One?

Let’s look at the historical data of rookie QBs, their fantasy output, recent rushing QB success and provide a range of projections to see what type of season we could expect from Mr. Murray.

Rookie QBs and Their Pass-Catchers

Last year I took an extensive look at a question that can help us begin to rightly assess Murray’s 2019 potential, Can Rookie QBs Sustain WR Production? In short, here were some of the major findings that I’ve now updated to include the 2018 season:

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  • Since 2004, 35 total rookie QBs participated in 10+ games or at least had 200 pass attempts including four of the five 1st round picks from last year (Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, and Josh Rosen)
  • Since 2004, there have been 59 total rookie QBs who were either drafted in the 1st round or appeared in 6+ games in their rookie season including all five 2018 1st rounders AND… the 49ers’ Nick Mullens.
  • Of those 59 rookies, only five have sustained a WR1 in fantasy, eight others supported a top-24 WR, and another eight more top-36 WRs. The bottom line: over 64% of the time, a rookie QB has failed to produce even a top-36 WR.

Murray has a number of weapons at his disposal in a pass-first offense highlighted by new coach Kliff Kingsbury’s Air-Raid system. Christian Kirk flashed in 2018 and he possesses some major fantasy upside as noted in his recent Path to WR1 profile. Larry Fitzgerald suffered through a tough year as detailed in his What Went Wrong in 2018. He might be at the end of his career but as a crafty slot WR with trustworthy hands, he is exactly what a rookie QB needs to transition. Rookie WRs Andy Isabella and my person man-crush, Hakeem Butler, will give the Cardinals a 4-wide threat they’ve never had. Butler was highlighted exclusively in one of Matt Harmon’s pre-draft Reception Perception articles. I haven’t even mentioned the team’s best receiver, RB David Johnson, who once again has his sights set on 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving.

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Murray can easily support a top-36 WR but the way the passing pie is distributed in 2019 is basically a guessing game at this point. Fitzgerald and Kirk should both see north of 100+ targets especially if the pace of play increases. Cardinals QBs threw only 473 adjusted pass attempts in 2018, which takes away throwaways, spikes, and attempts to non-fantasy relevant players (O-Lineman, linebackers, etc.) That amount was the fourth lowest in football and seriously hindered the pass-catching options from having a significant chance of producing. However, over the last five years, the Cardinals have on average the 8th highest WR market share in football and that number should remain steady in Kingsbury’s system.

Rookie QBs On the Run

One of the reasons for the utmost optimism from a Murray enthusiast is his dual-threat ability. As noted in Kyle Yates’ Rookie Profile on Murray, “Kyler [can] hit another gear and take off with insane straight line speed for a quarterback, but his quickness and agility within the pocket is unparalleled in the NFL“. In other words, we’re dealing with a rookie QB prospect who’s running ability must be carefully calculated so that we rightly assess his 2019 draft price.

Here is a list of the top rushing rookie QBs since 2004. You’ll notice that last year produced two insane performances from Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen, both of which weren’t even full-time starters for much of the season.

There are also a few names on this list that perhaps you’d rather forget: Deshone Kizer, Geno Smith, Christian Ponder… Yes, they might produce an inward cringe but in terms of fantasy, they were all more than serviceable. Although the Browns went 0-16 in 2017, Kizer had 7 top-12 performances on the year, as many as the more heralded Kirk Cousins and Ben Roethlisberger. Smith had six rushing TDs, tied for sixth-most all-time among rookie QBs, and Ponder took over for an aging Donovan McNabb (remember he was a Viking!?) and supported the WR8 (Percy Harvin) in PPR formats.

That walk down memory lane was simply meant to show us that rushing in fantasy can be a cure-all, especially for rookie QBs learning how to adjust to the NFL.

The template for Murray is to surpass 80 rushing attempts. Since 1990, every rookie QB that has crossed that threshold has not only been a fantasy force but maintained a top-10 QB per game pace. Lamar Jackson showed us that being a steady fantasy performer can happen solely on the basis of one’s legs. To give perspective, 80 rushing attempts is five per game, a massive step down from the ten per game Murray averaged during his Heisman trophy breakout campaign.

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Keep in mind that Murray is more of a “smart”, baseball-style runner than a reckless vagabond out on the field. He has the quickness to make up his mind and take-off but is more than willing to slide to protect himself from contact than perhaps Jackson was in his rookie year.

Projecting for 2019

What are the outcomes for Murray in 2019? Let’s look at a couple projections from the low to high-end in order to give us real, raw numbers to work with and some recent rookie QB comparisons to give context.

Low-End Projection: 3,183 Passing Yards/18 Passing TDs/11 INTs, 58 Rushing Attempts for 236 yards/2 Rushing TDs
Rookie QB Projection Comp: Marcus Mariota, 2015 (QB22)

If you remember, Mariota’s calling card his rookie year was efficiency in the red-zone as it took him more than a year to commit a turnover inside the 20. He only played 12 games but showcased some budding virtues that fantasy owners probably are still waiting on to come to fruition. Mariota threw for less than 235 passing yards per game which seems weak but Murray’s low-end 16-game pace actually sits at less than 200. Regardless, Murray could face some challenges facing pro edge rushers and secondaries bent on shutting down the deep ball.

Median Projection: 3,485 Passing Yards/24 Passing TDs/8 INTs, 74 Rushing Attempts for 484 yards/3.5 Rushing TDs
Rookie QB Projection Comp: Russell Wilson, 2012 (QB11)

This is easily the comp that comes up the most with Murray. As a rookie, Wilson won the Seahawks job camp in camp over free-agent acquisition Matt Flynn (remember him?) and didn’t stop producing. He was more steady than fantasy great despite only 393 pass attempts and an offense bent on feeding Marshawn Lynch. The Cardinals have their bell-cow RB (David Johnson) but Murray should have more trustworthy passing options in Fitzgerald and Kirk to push for more yards via the air.

High-End Projection: 3,892 Passing Yards/29 Passing TDs/9 INTs, 126 Rushing Attempts for 706 yards/6 Rushing TDs
Rookie QB Projection Comp: Robert Griffin III, 2012 (QB6)

If everything were to hit just right, we’re looking at a QB with close to top-5 upside. For reference, RG3 was the QB6 on the season despite throwing for only 3,200 yards and being 25th in the league in pass attempts, the same exact number (393) as fellow rookie Russell Wilson. His efficiency in the running game (over seven yards per attempt) allowed him to vault into a weekly high-floor option as he led the league in rushing with 833 yards. Murray should have more upside in the passing game in Kingsbury’s system with the Cardinals receivers but will be hard-pressed to match that rushing mark. Man, what RG3 could’ve been…

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Murray’s range of outcomes could include a historic fantasy ceiling to an enigmatic, tantalizing preview of what is to come. The rushing floor is obviously a nice tool to have in your back pocket when the passing game isn’t working, and Murray is something like 15-for-32 for 188 yards with the offensive gameplan in stifled. Currently, Murray is ranked as the Ballers QB15 in the Ultimate Draft Kit and he’s going at the 8.09 in drafts. If you think he possesses top-10 upside, he could be worth taking a stab at knowing that if the adjustment takes awhile you can cut him and stream the position. When we compare him to recent rushing QBs, a little bit of running goes a long way to securing himself as a weekly fantasy force.

For more Kyler Murray hype + Rookie QB context: check out Episode #729 of The Fantasy Footballers Podcast: ‘Early Breakouts & Busts – LIVE from Chicago’

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