Beginning a new job is always a unique experience. Whether you’re a seasoned veteran or fledgling starter in each field, there’s always a learning curve when applying yourself to new conditions. That application dial is turned all the way up when you’re talking about being a player in the NFL. More specifically, being a first-year player at the toughest position to play in the NFL. Not only does quarterbacking require the mastery of immensely difficult tasks, but many rookie signal callers enter their jobs tasked with turning around failing franchises or maintaining current levels of success.
Rookies Play Sooner Than Later
Rookie quarterbacks are finding the field faster than ever before. Since 2010, 5.9 different rookie quarterbacks per year have started multiple games. That number has risen from 4.9 in the 2000s, 3.5 in the 1990s, and 3.8 in the 1980s (removing the 1987 strike-shortened season).
Today’s NFL has shorter windows for coaching and organizational turnover, and with how the game is accessible and marketed, teams are coerced into playing younger players to satiate fans. Quarterbacks that were selected with higher-end draft capital are accelerated into starting. Over the past five seasons, there have been 18 quarterbacks selected in the opening two rounds. 15 of those players started multiple games in their rookie campaigns, with Brock Osweiler and Jimmy Garoppolo being two of those three that did not. Those guys just happened to be on rosters behind two of the greatest quarterbacks ever, while the other one is Christian Hackenberg, who has the early writing on the wall of being one of the most egregious second-round picks in recent memory. Of those 15 quarterbacks to start multiple games in their first season, 12 of them started 10 or more. The last first-round rookie quarterback that did not start a single game was Jake Locker in 2011 after we had six different first-round selections go without a start in their inaugural season from 2000 up until then.
As that dovetails into this 2017 quarterback class, the only selection taken in the opening two rounds that is heavily insulated to sit behind an incumbent quarterback while the team is successful is Patrick Mahomes. The Chiefs have won nine or more games and have been to the playoffs in three of the past four seasons with Alex Smith. Mahomes still very well may find the field more than we assume because everything in the NFL is fragile – Smith has started 16 games in just four of his 11 NFL seasons – but Kansas City is set up properly to have this be a season where they truly bring Mahomes along slowly.
The Texans could be in the conversation if Tom Savage plays better than expected and Houston is winning games, but it’s more than reasonable to project Deshaun Watson for the bulk of playing time. Throughout all the expected early word of mouth of OTAs and minicamp, Savage is being talked up, but I’m of the belief that he is indeed not very much competition to keep Houston from turning to Watson. I doubt the team tries to fight through another Osweilian campaign, and Savage couldn’t keep them from turning back to Brock Osweiler a year ago. If you go back watch Bill O’Brien’s face at halftime of Savage’s Christmas Eve start, it’s a picture that says a thousand words.
The Bears, Browns and 49ers can give you the token lines of summer as to where their wishful quarterback desires are heading into 2017, but the fact is that it will be unlikely that any of those teams will be successful enough to start one quarterback for the entirety of the season. I’d more than anticipate we see Mitchell Trubisky and DeShone Kizer starting multiples games in 2017. I would even suggest that there are very low odds that the 49ers are effective enough to keep third-round pick C.J. Beathard off the field. Beathard is in a very similar spot that Cody Kessler was in a year ago, playing for a team with minute expectations behind a veteran starter who has had trouble completing a full season on his own merit.
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Teams Playing Rookie Quarterbacks Are Unproductive for Fantasy Measures
Suggesting that rookie quarterbacks struggle and the teams that are playing them aren’t a hotbed for fantasy production is hardly a groundbreaking notion by any means, but that potential struggle is one that isn’t overly dissected as it pertains to impacting fantasy football. There have been 54 teams since the start of 2000 to have a rookie quarterback start at least five games – roughly a third of the season – and just nine of those 54 teams have finished in the top half of the league in total points scored. Just 10 have finished in the top half of either total yards or touchdowns produced, the primary contributors for housing fantasy points. Not only have those teams struggled to find mediocrity at best, 30 of those teams have finished 25th in the league or lower in points scored as well as total yardage with 29 teams ranking 25th or lower in touchdowns generated. We’re talking some of the worst offenses the league has had in those years.
Those Teams Don’t Produce Fantasy Stars
Now we can get into some finer details of the specific fantasy production these teams are creating. Here are those 54 quarterbacks and the highest positional finishes (PPR Scoring) the offensive skill players attached to that climate produced. Just nine of those 54 quarterbacks were selected after pick 93 in their rookie season with just two as undrafted free agents, so fishing for the next Dak Prescott is not a normality. Draft capital still holds many of the cards that lead to early playing time at the position.
|Year||QB||High WR Rank||High PPG Rank||High RB Rank||High PPG Rank||High TE Rank||High PPG Rank|
In many cases, the same player occupies both seasonal and per-game rankings spots, but note that all the rankings above aren’t the same player to account for players that were injured. For example, Cole Beasley was the WR33 for seasonal scoring for Dak Prescott, but Dez Bryant was the WR20 in points per game.
Just five top-12 scoring wide receivers were attached to those 54 rookie quarterbacks with just 16 teams able to produce a climate that could induce a top-24 scorer at the position for the season. Just under half (26) could even produce a top-36 scoring receiver in points per game.
Of the five wide receivers to achieve WR1 status with rookie quarterbacks, two came in exceptional conditions. In 2011, Percy Harvin was the overall WR8 with Christian Ponder of all quarterbacks, but Harvin had 17 percent of his fantasy scoring come from rushing production, adding 345 yards and two scores on the ground. Perhaps the only player from the teams with potential rookie starters capable of sprinkling production like that would be Tyreek Hill. Reggie Wayne in 2012 benefitted from being in the possession stage of his career and being attached to Andrew Luck, who attempted an NFL-record 627 passes for a rookie. Although not impossible, it’s hard to forecast that volume for one these rookie passers. The remaining three top-12 scorers were Steve Smith in 2011, Roddy White in 2008 and Javon Walker in 2006.
Running backs have fared much better than receivers when forced to play significant time with rookie quarterbacks, but still have struggled in bulk. Just one third of those teams (18) produced a top-12 scoring running back with 35 producing a top-24 scorer at the position, though only 31 of those were top-24 in points per game. The difference here is that there have been some monster running back campaigns that were able to overcome offensive environment, led by Tiki Barber’s 2004 season and Peyton Hillis’ 2010 season, which earned the cover of a video game.
As for tight ends, there have been just 10 top-12 scorers from that group with just nine in the top-12 in points per game output. Many of those were forged from dire wide receiving circumstances such as Delanie Walker in 2015 and Zach Ertz’s strong finish a season ago, but not many of those rookie quarterbacks inherited competent tight end play, which leads us to our next question.
The issue you are assuredly raising from everything so far is that most of, or at least many of rookie quarterbacks that are selected highly are taken by awful teams, with those teams in a position to draft those players in the first place. Is it simply that players playing with rookie quarterbacks aren’t often going to find success because those players aren’t successful to begin with?
There’s credence to that thought process for many of the situations, but what happens to the inverse? When a productive player is now playing with a rookie? Of the same group of cohorts, here are wide receivers that produced a top-36 scoring season prior to playing with that rookie passer and how their points per game output was impacted the following season.
|Year||WR||Rank||PPG||N+ Rank||N+PPG||PPG +/-%|
Just 30 of the 54 quarterbacks from our group inherited a top-36 scorer from the previous season, but of those 30 receivers, all but four lost production per game. The other thing that sticks out here is that If you’re looking to make exceptions based on wide receiver talent alone, you’re going to have trouble. There are many Hall of Fame talents that were affected, not just run of the mill types. Calvin Johnson, Hines Ward, Jimmy Smith, Andre Johnson, Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald are just a few of the names here that saw their per-game output shaved by playing with first-year quarterbacks. In most cases, we're talking about these players seeing a 20 percent decrease or more off their previous season output. Of previous season scorers, just 8-of-10 receivers that were in the top-12 the year prior went on to have a season above WR20 the next year with none finishing as WR1s for fantasy.
In 2017, that is what makes buying a bounce back for DeAndre Hopkins at his current cost so troubling. Hopkins is the WR11 in terms of ADP in MFL10 formats and in PPR leagues at Fantasy Football Calculator. Hopkins was the WR26 in scoring last season (34th in points per game) after a WR4 finish in 2015, so those owners are hoping those seasons can meet towards the middle and be alright. The thought process is simple. How can Hopkins possibly have worse quarterback play than he did last year?
That’s faulty logic for many reasons. First, it is possible. Ask Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders and those fantasy owners who rostered each player. Second, even if the Houston quarterbacks are better in 2017 than last, there are still unknown degrees of how much better they will be and how those levels of performance pertain to the 2017 football landscape. They can be better and Hopkins still be a similar or worse fantasy asset. Houston ran 40 fewer pass plays in 2016 than they did in 2015 and Hopkins accounted for 22.5 percent of the team receptions in 2016 as opposed to 31 percent in 2015. Those numbers could each still decrease pending the success of the team and run game as well as further development from the multiple receivers Houston invested into as rookies a year ago. I’m still easily holding onto Hopkins in Dynasty formats, but drafting him at WR1 cost in a vacuum for 2017 is ignoring the very present downside of his situation and potential offensive climate while not leaving yourself a cushion to be incorrect.
Other receivers from last season that were inside of the top-36 that could stand to be effected are Kenny Britt and Pierre Garcon. Both come relatively cheaply – and Britt survived with relevance playing alongside Jared Goff - but neither may present the bargains some are penciling them in for if their respective teams turn to rookie quarterback play.
Tyreek Hill could also be included based on the strength of your belief that Alex Smith doesn’t not completely bridge Mahomes to 2018, but I’ll be making the case that Hill is potentially already being overvalued in the upcoming weeks based on things outside of the potential of Kansas City falling apart in season to encourage a quarterback change.
|Year||Prev Top 24||Rank||PPG||N+ Rank||N+PPG||PPG +/-%|
We all just lived through Todd Gurley’s fantasy drop off under these circumstances a year ago, but just 23 of the 54 quarterbacks inherited a top-24 scoring running back the season prior. I made two caveats to this list for full disclosure, leaving off 2013 Adrian Peterson, who played just one game (which wasn’t even with Teddy Bridgewater) in 2014 and Darren McFadden of last season, who by all accounts, was never the starter heading into the season.
17 of those 23 top-24 backs lost fantasy output in their following season with the fingerprint of rookie quarterback play. A third of the group still turned in top-12 scoring seasons, with 10 of the 23 falling outside of the top-24 altogether.
Players that stand to have their production impacted at some point in 2017 under the same criteria are Jordan Howard, Lamar Miller, Isaiah Crowell, Carlos Hyde and Spencer Ware. Miller’s situation ties into a similar scenario that we touched on with Hopkins. Crowell was the RB14 in similar surroundings a year ago, so I’m going to focus on the others with the allotted space I have available.
Ware and Hyde already have red on their ledger as being “iffy” fantasy picks for their current cost. Even when on the field, fantasy results have been a mixed bag for Hyde. In his 20 games started over the past two years, he has been a top-12 scorer just six times and has been the RB24 or lower in 11 of those weeks.
Ware’s 247 touches in 2016 were the first time since high school that he eclipsed 200 touches in a season and that newfound workload showed as Ware faded as the season wore on. He was a top-20 scorer in just one of his final eight games, failing to hit 100 total yards in any of those games. His lack of involvement in the passing game was a big culprit as he caught more than three passes in just one game (which was Week 1) and caught two or fewer passes in 10 of his 14 games played. Ware should hold a role on the ground and in short yardage/goal line spots even in a time split with Kareem Hunt, as the hope is that Ware becomes a more effective rusher with a role that is like the one he closed 2015 with.
Howard was just one of 24 backs since the 1970 merger to be a top-12 scoring back on a team with three wins or less, so he’s no stranger to overcoming a climate that has historically failed to aid fantasy production. There’s a lot to suggest that Howard overachieved, which could mean he’s just that good or perhaps he was just fortunate? His 5.2 yards per carry ranked fourth in the NFL of all backs with at least 100 carries, but was aided by many long runs. 17.1 percent of Howard’s runs went for 10 or more yards, which ranked second in the league, but he ranked 17th in percentage of runs that gained five or more yards. Although his touches and yardage remained intact weekly, his team attachment did hurt him in some areas. Evan Silva highlighted Howard’s dip in production against stacked fronts, something Chicago is surely to see an increase of this season, and Howard may lose some of the playing time he had in situations in which the defense is preparing for the pass. Howard caught just 29-of-50 targets on the season and the Bears brought in Benny Cunningham in free agency and drafted Tarik Cohen to challenge passing-down work. Howard also scored just seven total touchdowns – the fewest of all top-12 scoring backs - and three of those came in one game, leaving him with 10 games without a touchdown. I’d anticipate Howard’s yards per carry to return to league normality a bit and the Bears still project to be a team on the wrong end of game script, making Howard a strong candidate to decline in year two, even without factoring in the potential of the team turning to Trubisky at some stage. While Howard certainly may not be the Gurley of this season, I do believe the gap to him and someone such as Crowell is larger than it should be.
The bottom line with all the backs in question here is that we shouldn’t pay for or anticipate an increase in output over their 2016 seasons, even if they each hold onto their starting running back titles for fantasy.
|Year||TE||Rank||PPG||N+ Rank||N+PPG||PPG +/-%|
Hardly any strong tight end performances were then followed by play alongside a rookie quarterback, but the same patterns of declination in per-game output holds true. Just two of the top-12 scorers form the previous season managed to increase their scoring output.
There's not a lot to dissect at the tight end position under this light as it pertains to 2017, either. Only Travis Kelce is someone being drafted high enough to consider any potential impact, and Mahomes has the longest odds of finding the field of the passers in question. Houston funneled 179 targets into their tight ends a year ago - which was second in the league - but C.J. Fiedorowicz is still being drafted cheaply. He tallied seven or more targets in nine games, which was tied for the fourth-best mark at the position. All that opportunity still didn’t net him major upside, however, as he reached 50 yards receiving just three times, which was 24th for all tight ends.
The one thing this abbreviated player sample does suggest sticking a pin in, however, is that production at the tight end position is typically tied to established quarterback play since not many top-12 scorers are finding themselves placed in a position with quarterback turnover since rarely are quarterbacks brought on as starters in free agency. That alone has some value when making choices at the position.
To put a bow on this, by no means am I suggesting that you write off any player strictly based on them playing with a rookie quarterback. Variance happens yearly in the NFL and those are often the most lucrative pockets of fantasy production. Nailing that variance in the preseason is so hard to do, though. We're just highlighting that it’s something to consider when rationalizing a range of outcomes for a player, which you will directly tie into the market value of that player. In many cases, that attachment to a rookie passer places probability on expecting the lower end of projected outcomes and point decrease per game for a player.