Why Odell Beckham Jr. Is a Potential First-Round Fantasy Football Pick in 2015
The first four names you just read are the only four receivers to play a 16-game season with a fantasy point per game average of 16 or more, resulting in a final score over 256 points. The final name, the 2014 rookie receiver for the Giants, will finish on pace to reach that milestone with only 12.5 points scored in his final game.
That puts Beckham alongside the greats listed above, Mark Clayton, Terrell Owens, and Josh Gordon as the only players since the full AFL/NFL merger to average that many fantasy points per game while playing at least 10 games.
Not rookies. Not first-round picks. No other qualifiers. Beckham has performed well en ough to be among the greatest fantasy football assets in NFL history. But now that the 2014 season is over, what can we expect moving forward from Beckham?
Rookie wide receivers are a tough bunch to figure out over recent NFL history, so let's take a look at some of the notable examples over the past couple of decades and consider if Beckham and his fellow first-year wideouts are worth investing in for 2014 and beyond.
The Harsh Reality for Rookie Receivers
Since 1990, 60 rookie wideouts have scored 100 fantasy points or more using standard scoring rules. Only 28 of those players repeated the feat the next season.
And that's only the 100-fantasy-point threshold, a less-than-stellar mark for a fantasy wideout, especially in the 2000's and 2010's with the eruption of passing games across the NFL. In fact, 39 receivers accomplished the feat over the NFL's first 16 games this season, meaning 100 points is only flex-worthy in most modern fantasy leagues.
But 2014's top rookie receivers aren't just scraping by with 100 points. Beckham, along with fellow SEC product Mike Evans, FSU's Kelvin Benjamin, and Clemson's Sammy Watkins, all caught more than 60 passes with more than 900 yards and 6 touchdowns. Only 14 other receivers accomplished those numbers over the past few months.
Since 1998, only eight other receivers met those three criteria during their rookie seasons. Year two didn't turn out perfectly for all of them, however.
- Randy Moss had one of the best seasons for a receiver in NFL history as a rookie and followed it up with another strong showing. He is, of course, the shining example for early-career success for a wideout.
- Kevin Johnson grabbed eight touchdowns for the Browns in 1999 but followed that up with no touchdowns in 2000 and was a total flop in his second season. He would find success in his third and fourth years in the league and then fade into obscurity.
- Anquan Boldin didn't get in a full 16 games during year two but was still on pace for a disappointing follow-up to his incredible rookie season. Boldin's yards per game dropped, and he managed only one score in his second season.
- Michael Clayton is one of three Buccaneers to appear on this list (along with fellow "Mikes" Williams and Evans), and his career is by far the most disappointing. The breakout star of 2004 quickly became unusable in fantasy football, scoring only three more times in his eight-year career after seven touchdowns as a rookie.
- Marques Colston joins Moss as a success story, as he stepped into the New Orleans offense seamlessly and provided a better second season than he did in year one, scoring nearly a full fantasy point per game more.
- Mike Williams is the second Buccaneer on the list, and his second season wasn't quite the same disappointment as the previous Tampa Mike's. Williams didn't find the end zone as often in year two but stayed relevant enough to be on fantasy radars and broke out again in 2012 with the resurgence of Josh Freeman.
- A.J. Green followed up his solid first season with an even better sophomore campaign, increasing his catches, yards, and touchdowns as the unquestioned leader of the Cincinnati offense. He and Moss join Clayton as the only first-rounders on this list from 1998-2013, and for the former duo, that pedigree showed early and often in their careers.
- Keenan Allen's season ended a bit abruptly in 2014 due to injury, but he was still well behind his 2013 pace in a disappointing second season. The San Diego receiver saw his yards per reception drop by 4.5, a sharp decline in per-opportunity production for the Chargers and fantasy owners alike.
In other words, if history has taught us anything, it's to expect some regression and random disappointment from these otherwise seemingly promising young wide receivers. So how do we figure out which ones will continue to perform at a high level, and which ones will flop?
Looking to the Future
We can start by comparing these rookies to their peers and consider which ones are the most efficient from a "real football" standpoint, which will show us the ones most likely to remain the focal point of their teams offenses and continue to perform at a high level.
Out of the 43 players in the NFL with 100 or more targets, here's where the top-four rookies rank in per-target Net Expected Points (NEP) after 16 weeks:
|Rank||Name||Age||Receptions||Rec NEP||Targets||Rec NEP/Target||Success Rate|
Beckham leads the entire league in per-target efficiency despite being very heavily targeted in the New York offense. Playing one month's worth of games fewer than the others on this list, Beckham still was thrown at 109 times and performed well once he was targeted. His Success Rate (the amount of his receptions which result in positive NEP for his team) is on par with his peers at the top of the NFL charts, showing consistency in production as well as efficiency.
It's a bit of a drop down the list before we find the next rookie, Mike Evans, whose per-target NEP production is hampered by his team's awful passing offense. The Bucs rank second-to-last in Adjusted Passing NEP as a team, while the next closest team on this list, Kelvin Benjamin's Panthers, are just outside the top-half of the league's passing rankings, according to our data. This further highlights Evans' outstanding rookie performance, and bodes well for him moving forward as his team hopefully improves the talent around him on offense.
Watkins and Benjamin round out the top-four in the middle of the pack among 100-plus target players with pedestrian per-target efficiency on two of the league's most average passing offenses (according to our numbers). This is where we should begin to worry about future performance from a rookie receiver -- when it's paired with less-than-stellar first-year metrics.
Colston and Green both had per-target NEPs over 0.85 as rookies, which led into strong sophomore campaigns. Allen had a strong first season according to our data, however, leaving him as a bit of an outlier. Regardless, this bodes well for Beckham, whose first-year NEP average is right up there with Colston, who was a rock solid fantasy asset in his second year in the league.
Boldin and Williams' second-year dropoffs could have been predicted by their first-year NEP, which fell in the same range as Watkins and Benjamin. Both would go on to future success (Williams more temporarily than Boldin), but they certainly outkicked their coverage as fantasy players during their first year in the league. Watkins and Benjamin are at risk of the same career progression, with middling second seasons before possibly working their way into solid NFL careers.
Evans is right in the middle, as his 0.78 average is sandwiched between Boldin's and Michael Clayton's, and he owns one of the lowest Success Rates of the bunch. The towering Bucs wideout should see a boost from a new quarterback in 2015, as it's tough to be worse than Josh McCown has been in 2014, but he seems to be dependent on touchdowns for fantasy and NEP success, which brings a lot of instability into the equation.
Let's Talk About Beckham A Bit More...
So Beckham is the only rookie wideout with the combination of unreal fantasy numbers and ridiculously good "real football" metrics, combined with tape that shows a special athlete that quickly took over an offense that would have likely been one of the most boring in the league without him. How do we value him moving forward from a fantasy standpoint?
The eventual return of Victor Cruz would theoretically balance out the Giants offense a bit, shifting focus away from the dynamic LSU product and bringing a more spread-out workload for the receivers. But Beckham's per-target fantasy production has been so good that even a drop in targets wouldn't dim his 2015 outlook much at all.
Beckham averaged over 1.6 fantasy points per target in 2014, better than any rookie wideout mentioned in this article apart from Moss. Even if both his points per target and targets per game dropped 20% in 2015, he'd still be a WR2 in standard scoring leagues.
But he's a talented young wideout who has shown no signs of slowing down as a rookie, and it would be a bit foolish to expect regression, especially when his top comparables are the likes of Colston, Green and Moss, who all lived up to the hype in year two. This means we're looking at a player with a reasonable floor in the top-20 at his position and upside to be the top player at the wide receiver spot next season.
To me, that sounds like a first- or second-round pick, along with names like Brown, Thomas, Bryant and Nelson. Dynasty owners should move Beckham to the very top of their boards, as Beckham's youth creates even more value in that format.
I was skeptical about Beckham for the longest time, but a look at the numbers makes it very clear. He's legitimately one of the best receivers in the NFL, has posted some of the best fantasy numbers in NFL history, and should be viewed as one of the top options in 2015 fantasy drafts as a result.