The NFL Rookie Salad Bar

I have been known to avoid rookies. Over time, I came to be labeled a rookie hater. I’m not completely against rookies – Honest.

The attention I give to them might be likened to a buffet table. I do thoroughly enjoy a hearty salad filled with an assortment of raw vegetables, cheese and egg, topped off with my favorite dressing. But when you see everything else available in the buffet that is NOT salad, it becomes difficult to intentionally mosey over to the salad part of the buffet.

This is how I view rookies in comparison to veterans. Rookies are like salad.

When I started fantasy football back in 2001, I was all in on rookies during my first couple of seasons. At that time, rookie value was elevated above existing NFL veterans. The media billed them as a significant piece for their new NFL franchise. Their ceiling was in the stratosphere. The new rookie was the focus of all the hype.

And back then (actually just 7 years ago) incoming rookies were rewarded with huge entry contracts. The largest entry-level contract, as well as the last of its kind – Sam Bradford signed a contract worth $76 million when he was drafted first overall by the St. Louis Rams in 2010. That’s a lot of salad.

The NFL finally came to their senses.

Would fantasy owners?

Putting College Standouts in Perspective

Remember when you were a kid and you played with your friends in the neighborhood? It probably didn’t take long for everyone to figure out who was more athletic. According to one source, there are approximately 10,700 NCAA Division 1 college football players. Imagine the NFL with 200 teams. This is essentially D1 college football.

The oversaturation would likely push standout players to the top, right? On top of that, not all situations and conferences will be equal creating deceptive or deluded statistical values. Perhaps a combine will help assess and measure skill?

The Trivial Combine

I’m sure the speed, running, jumping and benching has its place on an NFL scouting report. If you were to peruse the list of combine record holders, some very familiar names will jump out at you. But many others will not. The point is the fastest, strongest and most agile combine participants have not all transitioned to be the best professional athletes.

Critics of the combine will mock how these candidates will run and jump after being well-rested, and without pads. They’ll look agile around motionless cones. And will cleanly catch footballs without a DB hanging on them, or about to send them into concussion protocol.

Some players are not even invited to the combine. Current NFL players Antonio Gates, Doug Baldwin and Julian Edelman are a sampling of those who were snubbed from the combine.

Good results from the combine may move a player up an NFL draft board, but it will not improve his success rate in the NFL.

Statistics and Talent

I think it goes without saying that a standout in college has obvious natural ability, skill, and talent. Some have broken school records. Others have helped their team win conference titles and even national titles.

Yet each year the familiar box of clichés are opened and thrown about. Most gifted; Complete package; Can’t miss; NFL ready. Let’s not forget to incorporate some superhuman exaggerations. Characterizations such as “beast” or the ever-popular “freak” narratives.

The rookie groupies who perpetuate this must have the attention span of the goldfish, because EVERY single year, it is regurgitated all over again. Just who are these beasts and freaks being compared to?

If this kind of rookie hype is in comparison to the other 98% of the D1 college players that will go undrafted, then yeah, they’re better. If this hype is in comparison to the rookie disappointments from just 12 months earlier, again, goldfish can remember longer.

This hype couldn’t be compared directly to current NFL players, could it?

The 1,696 Elite

The NFL has 32 teams with 53-man rosters. Or 1,696 elite professionals.

A recent article courtesy of Baltimore Beatdown, answered the age-old question: Could a college team beat a NFL team? Even 53% of Ohio natives said that the Cleveland Browns would still beat the Ohio State Buckeyes. In part, the article said this:

The fact is that even the worst NFL roster is filled with former college superstars that are bigger, faster, stronger, and play in more complex schemes than their college counterparts that are unlikely to have any career in the NFL.

While many fans may disparagingly refer to certain professional players, the fact remains that these same professionals most likely had also set college records, went to the combine, ran fast enough, and were beastly talented freaks of their own.

College records and combine numbers can be amazingly impressive, but the fact is the NFL is not made up of college’s tallest, strongest and fastest. They are the best, though, otherwise they wouldn’t be holding a roster spot in a highly competitive NFL that sets a limit on employing only the top 1,696 athletes.

Are any of these reasoning points having any effect on how you view rookies? Either way, let’s check the math.

By the Numbers

I researched rookie RB and WR going back 10 seasons. I isolated these 2 positions in particular because

  1. They are usually earmarked to make an immediate impact and
  2. They are a significant part of the equation for fantasy football owners.

538 players were drafted from these positions. Another 393 undrafted players were signed. That’s a total of 931 rookie RB and WR.

Obviously there needs to be a line of demarcation since success can have varying facets. For my purposes, I chose a minimum of 900 yards of offense or more. Most relevant fantasy players were in that ballpark.

In 10 seasons only 49 of these 931 reached that milestone in their rookie season – 5.3%.

Maybe it’s unfair to lump all of them together? So let’s first break it down by draft round. Perhaps not surprising, first round rookie picks did the best.

62 rookie RB and WR were selected in the first round since 2007. A total of 18 had 900 yards of offense or more – that’s 29%. (Or maybe you’re the type that looks at the 44 players or 71% who did not.)

74 rookie RB and WR were taken in the second round since 2007. A diminishing 12 of them amassed 900 yards or more which factors to 16.2%.

The following rounds get much worse.

  • Only 7 of the 80 rookies selected in round 3 reach 900 yards or more – 8.8%
  • Two of the 84 in round 4 for 2.4%
  • Three of the 72 in round 5 – 4.2%
  • Two of the 83 in round 6 – 2.4%
  • Zero of the 84 in round 7 (0%)
  • And then 5 of the 393 undrafted rookies – 1.3%
Combined by Round
  Wide Receiver  Running Back  Totals
Rnd 900+ Rook % 900+ Rook % 900+ Rook %
1 8 40 20.0% 10 22 45.5% 18 62 29.0%
2 3 46 6.5% 9 28 32.1% 12 74 16.2%
3 1 51 2.0% 6 29 20.7% 7 80 8.8%
4 1 47 2.1% 1 37 2.7% 2 84 2.4%
5 0 35 0.0% 3 37 8.1% 3 72 4.2%
6 0 40 0.0% 2 43 4.7% 2 83 2.4%
7 0 47 0.0% 0 36 0.0% 0 83 0.0%
undftd 1 206 0.5% 4 187 2.1% 5 393 1.3%

If you break it down by position, picking up a rookie RB is a far greater payoff than a WR.

  • A first round RB has a 45% chance of success out of the gate compared to 20% for a first round WR.
  • A second round RB dips to 32% compared to the 6% cliff that a second round WR falls off.
  • Third round RB are still kicking at almost 21% (which is slightly better than a first round WR) while a third round WR is virtually comatose at 2%.
  • Both positions plummet in rounds 4 through 7.

A rookie optimist will look at the first and second rounders and say that your odds are better than 1 in 5 (22.6%) of landing a fantasy relevant rookie.

A rookie pessimist will say that you have nearly a 4 in 5 chance (77.4%) of drafting a bust.

Numbers by Years

Some will make the argument that the NFL is changing – that it may be safer to take risks on rookies now than was the case 10 seasons ago. They may point to the rookie “lock” that was 2016’s Ezekiel Elliott.

They reason that rookie success must be on the upswing, especially with the emergence of fellow rookies RB Jordan Howard (5th round) and WR Michael Thomas (2nd round) making significant fantasy contributions.

The truth is that 2016 was one of the worst rookie seasons of the last 10 years. Those three, Elliott, Howard and Thomas, were the only three to be relevant out of 92 rookies making NFL rosters. That’s 3.3% of the 2016 rookies.

That lack of relevancy for rookies hadn’t been that low since 2010.

Combined by Year
Year 900+ Rook %
2016 3 92 3.3%
2015 7 106 6.6%
2014 6 96 6.3%
2013 6 78 7.7%
2012 5 102 4.9%
2011 5 92 5.4%
2010 3 95 3.2%
2009 3 92 3.3%
2008 6 91 6.6%
2007 5 87 5.7%
Total 49 931 5.3%


Let’s do a quick recap.

  • There’s too many college D1 players which could make their notable contributions skewed.
  • The NFL combine does nothing to help fantasy owners.
  • Rookies are no longer overpaid, but they’re still over hyped.
  • All rookie positions (with the exception of RB) in redraft leagues are historically not a bankable option.
  • I avoid salad at buffet tables.

Now that we’ve established this, I want to add my two-cents about rookie intangibles.

Do you know who Gilmore Hodge is? He was a fictitious character in the movie Captain America: The First Avenger.

Gilmore Hodge was a natural “freak” of a soldier that was supposed to be the top candidate to participate in Dr. Abraham Erskine’s experiment. But Dr. Erskine said, “I’m looking for qualities beyond the physical.”

These “qualities” came to a head in the “Grenade” scene.

The Point?

In recent years – thanks in part to social media and stupidity – some of the high-profile rookies seem to come with character issues.

About a year ago I was listening to ESPN’s Mike and Mike and a guest on the show talked about how the NFL magnifies character – for good or bad.

The point that was being made was that the NFL will not fix character. It will only enhance, amplify, and expose it, because this is what fame and enormous amounts of money do.

Good college leaders will be great NFL leaders. Troubled college players that relied solely on their ability will be in for a rude awakening, and so will the fantasy owners who drafted them.

I remember hearing a story around the time linebacker Brian Bosworth was to be the top pick in the 1987 supplemental draft. Let me just say that in Bosworth’s case, the character flaw was “pride.”

It has been documented that prior to the draft, Bosworth sent letters to several NFL clubs informing them that if they drafted him, he would not play for them. He also wanted to wear his college number in the NFL which meant lobbying the NFL to change its rules on linebacker numbers. The NFL refused.

The way I heard the anecdote was that apparently, Bosworth was being compared to Hall of Fame linebacker Dick Butkus because of similar collegiate statistics. When Butkus was asked about these comparable measurements regarding Bosworth, Butkus responded by pointing to his chest and poetically and profoundly saying, “They can’t measure what’s in here!

Here we are 30 years later and there is still no measurement for “heart.”, and this one intangible is really the key to true rookie success.

Now, if you want to eat salad at a buffet then that is your prerogative. Likewise if you want to take a flier on a few rookies in your fantasy drafts, and ignore the historical improbabilities, then don’t be surprised if your fantasy appetite is affected.


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Written by 

Joe has been passionate about fantasy football since 2001. He has experience as an owner as well as a commissioner in H2H, auction, redraft and IDP leagues. He has written fantasy football columns since 2010. Submit any fantasy football questions you may have to me on twitter @averagejoem

4 thoughts on “The NFL Rookie Salad Bar”

  1. Wow, just wow, Joe – that was a VERY interesting read. …. the stats cannot be ignored !!!!

  2. Wow ill take this to the bank

    That is one of the best articles that i have ever read…

    Fantasy becomes Reality

    Thank You

    1. It’s comments like this that reaffirm my decision to designate Joe as our franchise football guy. He usually posts every few weeks.

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