Fantasy Football History: Lessons learned from previous rookie WR classes to apply in 2024

In the early days of fantasy football, rookie receivers were an afterthought, almost a joke. You'd ignore them for their first seasons, barely look at them for their follow-up seasons, then maybe consider them for Year 3 breakouts. That was the playbook, and almost everyone followed it.

There were occasional exceptions. Randy Moss detonated with an amazing 1998 season. Anquan Boldin smashed in 2003, announcing his presence with 217 yards on opening day. There were some hits in the mid-'90s, Joey Galloway and Terry Glenn and Eddie Kennison, comets in the pre-internet era, back when fantasy football commissioners were still scoring by hand, fueled by caffeine and the morning newspaper.

The rookie rules changed in 2014. That's the year the freshmen crashed the party. Odell Beckham Jr. and Mike Evans were both top 10 fantasy wideouts. Kelvin Benjamin and Jordan Matthews were reliable WR2s. And some of the quieter rookies would turn into stars soon enough: Davante Adams, Brandin Cooks, Allen Robinson, Jarvis Landry. Sammy Watkins had some moments, too.

Let's examine the rookie classes since then and try to figure out what we've learned, if anything, and what trends might be emerging.

The market tried to correct the rookie WR rules after the 2014 explosion, but the adjustment year was a washout. Amari Cooper checked in as the WR25 (a mild disappointment given he was the fourth overall pick in the draft) and Tyler Lockett (WR35) and Stefon Diggs (WR46) were respectable, especially for players taken outside the first round of the NFL Draft.

Four other wideouts were joining Cooper in the first round of the draft that year, and they were all marginal contributors, finishing outside the top 60 at the position: DeVante Parker, Nelson Agholor and Phillip Dorsett at least got on the field. Kevin White and Breshad Perriman had to wait until 2016 but never became productive pros.

There weren't a lot of stealth hits down the board, either. Jamison Crowder (Pick 105) eventually became a quality NFL player.

This was another year where the first-round wideouts let us down: Corey Coleman (15th overall pick) was done after three seasons, Will Fuller (21st pick) was regularly injured during his six-year career, and Josh Doctson and Laquon Treadwell were busts. But this class did give us two superstars outside the first round: Michael Thomas (Pick 47; WR9 as a rookie) and Tyreek Hill (Pick 165, WR11 as a freshman). Sterling Shepard was a quality WR4 as a rookie. Tyler Boyd eventually became a good player, but didn't pop until Year 3.

Corey Davis (fifth overall pick) never became a star and Mike Williams (seventh overall pick) needed an adjustment year. John Ross (ninth overall pick) won the combine but flopped in the pros. But this draft class found plenty of hits outside the first round, and some of them popped right away (JuJu Smith-Schuster was WR15, Cooper Kupp was WR27). Kenny Golladay and Chris Godwin showed promise as rookies, then paid it off in Years 2-3.

[Venture into rookie fantasy history: QBs | RBs | WRs | TEs]

The NFL backed off receivers at the draft, with DJ Moore the first one selected with the 24th overall pick. Calvin Ridley landed two picks later, and that was it for the first round. Ridley was solid (WR18) as a rookie and Moore (WR39) is at least worth rostering. Good things would eventually happen for Christian Kirk and Courtland Sutton, a couple of second-round picks.

Ah, the famous 2019 draft, the year the non-first-rounders shocked the world, while the two long first-rounders disappointed.

Marquise Brown has been a passable if erratic pro; he was the first WR selected, pick 25. Hollywood Brown was merely the WR45 as a rookie. Maybe Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes will bring out his best this year.

The Patriots used the 32nd pick on N'Keal Harry, a departure from team strategy — Terry Glenn (1996) was the last first-round receiver picked by New England. Harry never figured out the pro game.

But the later rounds had so many superstars just waiting to be plucked, many of them landing in Rounds 2-3. A.J. Brown (WR9 despite modest volume), Terry McLaurin (WR24), Deebo Samuel (WR26) and DK Metcalf (WR30) were relevant right away, and Diontae Johnson (WR40) showed promise for later. Darius Slayton was a surprising fifth-round hit, a solid-if-unspectacular player who charted WR33 as a rookie.

After all those 2019 hits, you'd expect the NFL to attack the receiver position aggressively at the draft. That's exactly what happened, with six wideouts landing in Round 1. It's been a mixed bag, with CeeDee Lamb, Justin Jefferson and Brandon Aiyuk all spreading their wings, while Jalen Reagor and Jerry Jeudy have been disappointments. Henry Ruggs was a hit-and-miss player for two years before his life took a tragic turn.

There were some hits outside the first round, too: Chase Claypool (alas, a comet), Tee Higgins, Gabe Davis, Darnell Mooney, Michael Pittman Jr. Seven different rookie wideouts got to 100 points this year, headed by Jefferson (WR6), Claypool (WR14), Lamb (WR17), Higgins (WR28) and Aiyuk (WR33).

This is the class that most resembles the 2024 receiver class — we saw three wideouts land in the top 10 picks (Ja'Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith). They've all been hits as pros, even with occasional injuries and slumps slipped into the mix. Chase was WR3 as a freshman, Waddle WR21 and Smith WR30. Two other wideouts went in that first round, but they've been washouts: Kadarius Toney, Rashod Bateman. Hey, the future is unwritten.

Two eventual stars were unearthed in the later rounds: Amon-Ra St. Brown (Pick 112) and Nico Collins (Pick 89). "The Sun God" was WR23 as a rookie. Collins needed development time, but the 2023 breakout was worth the wait.

By this time the NFL had fully pivoted into receiver-heavy drafting, with four wideouts in the top 12 and six in the first round. Ohio State stars Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson have had the best of it through two years, though we wonder how much they've been hurt by spotty quarterback play. Drake London has the same complaint.

Jameson Williams is still waiting for one healthy and clean season; maybe that will come in 2024. Treylon Burks looks like a first-round bust.

Some wideouts outside the first round have been heard from, though Christian Watson and Jahan Dotson were better as rookies.

Wilson (WR21) nudged out Olave (WR23) in the freshman year, setting off a five-year period that will see me overpay for Wilson every summer. Watson charted WR25, Pickens was WR30, London finished WR38 and Dotson was the WR41. A solid year for the new kids.

Four wideouts landed in the first round, though the clubs took their time: Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Quentin Johnston, Zay Flowers and Jordan Addison went in a four-pack at Picks 20-23. Four more wideouts went in Round 2, spotlighted by Jayden Reed and Marvin Mims. And there were two enormous sleepers to come: Tank Dell in Round 3 and Puka Nacua in Round 5.

Nacua charted WR5 and was the waiver wire god of the season. Reed (WR18), Addison (WR19), Rice (WR27) and Flowers (WR30) justified their roster spots. Dell was the WR37 despite missing six games; man, Houston was a fun team last year.

On the downside, JSN was a disappointing rookie (WR51) and we're already wondering if Johnston (WR78) is a bust.

If we survey the rookie receiver production from 2014 through 2023, we see 44 years with 100 points or more. Here's how it breaks down by round:

Round 1: 20 players

Round 2: 13 players

Round 3: 5 players (John Brown missed by one point)

Round 4: 3 players

Round 5: 3 players

I can't say definitively that a Nacua or St. Brown isn't hiding in 2024, but that's certainly not the way to bet.

If we broadly define a rookie "hit" as 100 or more points, and a rookie "miss" as fewer than 100 points, here's the rookie hit rate by round.

Round 1: about 50%

Round 2: about 25%

Round 3: about 15%

After Round 3: you're playing the lotto

Although the first round has the highest hit rate, the 10 best rookie seasons over this survey have an interesting dispersion.

First Round: 4 players

Second Round: 4 players

Fifth Round: 2 players, Hill and Nacua

But perhaps that's a game of arbitrary endpoints. WRs 11-16 are all first-round picks.

Let's pivot to the present. Looking at the rookie class of 2024, here's how I'm initially viewing them for fantasy 2024, using the traffic-light grading system:

  • Marvin Harrison Jr. — Green Light (though his ADP has helium written all over it)

  • Malik Nabers — Yellow Light (can Brian Daboll coach up Daniel Jones again?)

  • Rome Odunze — Yellow Light (fantastic skills but lots of competition for the ball)

  • Brian Thomas Jr. — Yellow Light (open to it turning green this summer)

  • Xavier Worthy — Yellow Light (but he might be redundant with Hollywood Brown around, at least for one year)

  • Ricky Pearsall — Red Light (crowded room, will probably need a year)

  • Xavier Legette — Red Light (but maybe Dave Canales is a miracle worker)

  • Keon Coleman — Yellow Light (not a separator but has contested-catch skills and there's a target need)

  • Ladd McConkey — Yellow Light (could easily lead this team in targets)

  • Ja'Lynn Polk — Red Light (uncertain QB play and teammate Javon Baker might be more interesting)

Anyone I didn't mention? I'll try to be open-minded all summer. Puka Nacua says that's important.