Could Kenny Golladay Be the Best Rookie Wide Receiver in Fantasy Football This Year?
The 2014 season ruined rookie wide receivers for everyone.
Sure, the 2014 season gave us some of the best first-year performances from wide receivers in NFL history. But bear with me.
Between 2000 and 2013, only five rookies eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving in their first season. Of the five, two were fairly recent -- A.J. Green finished 2011, his first year in the league, with 1,057 yards, and Keenan Allen finished his 2013 rookie campaign with 1,046 yards for the Chargers.
Then, along comes 2014, with Odell Beckham, Mike Evans, and Kelvin Benjamin all topping the 1,000-yard plateau. Sammy Watkins fell just short with 982 yards, while Jordan Matthews racked up 872. But the 2014 wide receiver class didn’t buck the trend with only yardage. Just 10 players scored at least eight receiving touchdowns in their first season from 2000 to 2013. The number of rookies who managed that many touchdowns in 2014? Five. Beckham, Evans, Benjamin, and Matthews were joined by Martavis Bryant.
From this point on, realistic expectations of rookie wide receivers were no more. Players who didn't perform right away were unfairly marked busts, not worthy of our time or respect. But we, as a community, need to remember that the NFL is a big jump for most players. Cool your jets, everyone.
The 2017 rookie wide receiver crop, on paper at least, has some talent, with three wideouts coming off the board in the first round of this offseason's NFL Draft. But expecting Beckham-like production from any of these rookies is a fool's errand.
Looking at 2017's Rookie Receivers
In our projections, Golladay is ranked as WR65. That's behind fellow rookie receivers Corey Davis, Mike Williams and Zay Jones. But Golladay's peers face some particularly tough circumstances, fantasy-wise, heading into the 2017 season.
Davis is on a team with a lot of quality pass-catching options. Rishard Matthews, despite seeing just 108 targets (31st among wide receivers), finished 24th in Receiving Net Expected Points (NEP) last season. Only three wide receivers have scored more touchdowns since the start of the 2011 campaign than new signee Eric Decker has. There's also tight end Delanie Walker, who, since joining the team in 2013, is fourth among tight ends with 282 receptions and fourth in receiving yards with 3,316 in that timeframe.
Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota was really good last year, but he dropped back just 475 times, which ranked 25th in the NFL last season. And the Titans passed the ball just 53% of the time in 2016, the third lowest percentage in the NFL. A lot of competition for targets on a ground-based offense isn't an ideal situation.
With the Los Angeles Chargers, Williams' career has gotten off to a rocky start. Depending on which NFL insider you believe -- Adam Schefter or Ian Rappaport -- or if you believe the man himself, Williams may not be fit enough to contribute at all in 2017. A "mild" herniated disc is not a real thing -- it’s like having a "slightly" broken leg. (Either it is, or it isn't; there's no gray area.) Even if and when he's healthy, he too finds himself in a crowded situation with the Chargers.
His new teammate Tyrell Williams had one of the more underrated 1,000-yard seasons in recent memory in 2016. His 92.62 Receiving NEP was good for 12th among wide receivers, while his Reception NEP per target mark of 0.78 was far ahead of the league average (0.66). The Chargers also welcome back Keenan Allen. In 2015, before injury brought his season to a premature end after seven full games, he was on pace for a 178-target, 134-catch season, with 1,450 yards coming his way. Also, Dontrelle Inman managed to chip in with 58 receptions for 810 yards in 2016.
A couple of other early-round wide receiver draft picks, John Ross of the Cincinnati Bengals and Curtis Samuel of the Carolina Panthers, have been battling injuries since they arrived in the NFL. Ross has been hampered by a shoulder injury, while Samuel pulled a hamstring last week.
Like Davis and Williams, both Ross and Samuel face stiff competition for snaps on their respective offenses. Ross is behind not only the great A.J. Green on Cincy's depth chart, but also Brandon LaFell and Tyler Boyd. For his part, Samuel's path to playing time is hampered by Benjamin and Devin Funchess as the main outside receivers for the Panthers, while off-season addition Russell Shepard will be competing for time in the slot. Ross and Samuel have their work cut out for them to see the field consistently in their first seasons as professionals.
Who Is Kenny Golladay?
Emerging from the college powerhouse that is Northern Illinois (after two seasons with the North Dakota Fighting Hawks), the last two years of college football were fruitful for Golladay -- he racked up 160 receptions for 2,285 yards and 18 touchdowns through the air across his final two seasons. While the level of competition he faced wasn't top-notch, his 6'4" frame and long arms give him prototypical wide receiver size.
According to PlayerProfiler.com, the closest pro comparison to Golladay is Quincy Enunwa of the New York Jets. While this isn't necessarily a comparison that will get you super excited, it should be noted that Enunwa is a popular sleeper pick for many in the fantasy world this season (he's projected as WR33, per our models) who doesn't have nearly the level of quality quarterback play on his team that Golladay does.
After impressing during OTAs and Minicamp, Golladay has a leg up on the third wide receiver role for the Lions, according to reports. This is a spot that offers ample opportunity to make plays. And, in fantasy football, volume is king.
The Lions were in 11 personnel (three wide receivers) on 75% of their offensive snaps last season, good for the fifth-most in the NFL. They passed on 65% of their plays (third-most in the league last season), and while they continue to preach the gospel of wanting to run the ball more and better, this team loves the forward pass. Matthew Stafford has the seventh-most drop backs in each of the last two seasons, and he was really good last season. Stafford's passing NEP mark of 113.64 in 2016 was the 15th-highest among quarterbacks with at least 550 drop backs since 2010, and his 0.18 NEP per passing attempt mark was 0.06 points higher than the league average.
The Lions' receiving corps is in for a bit of a rough start to the 2017. We recently ranked all 32 NFL Schedules, noting that the Lions face the third-most difficult first half to the season according to numberFire's own nERD metric. This may hamper Golladay, given the expected rookie difficulties in adapting to the pros -- unless you were a Class of 2014 draftee, of course.
However, the Lions face the 10th-friendliest schedule over the second half of the season. So while Golladay may be someone to use only in an emergency early on, he could be stashed in deeper leagues with an eye on the second half, or he could be a solid waiver claim after the first few weeks.
It should also be noted that Golladay will turn 24 during the upcoming season -- which is to say, he's an older rookie. That means he will have to buck the odds to be a big-time producer as a first-year player. Since 2000, only three 24-year-old rookie wide receivers have managed at least 50 receptions.
He could get a lot of opportunity, though. Last season, the Lions' third wide receiver was Anquan Boldin, and he garnered a 16.52% market share, including a 26.19% market share of the team's red zone targets. Golladay is not Boldin, of course, but being Stafford's third wideout is a significant role for fantasy purposes.
All of this to say: Golladay could fade into obscurity or he could take some time to develop -- making his 2017 outlook a volatile one, at best, which is why he is going undrafted in standard leagues, according to Fantasy Football Calculator.
However, given his pedigree, college production, opportunity and comparables, Golladay may offer just as much 2017 upside as any of his rookie wide receiver peers, and he comes at a much lower cost of investment.