Should We Expect a Sophomore Slump From 2014’s Breakout Rookie Receivers?

There's no way rookie sensation Odell Beckham can repeat his fantastic first year. Is there?

2014 was the year of the rookie receiver. No matter your team allegiances, no matter your thoughts about any of the specific players, you have to be in awe of what the receivers of last year’s rookie class achieved. We have already looked in retrospect at the historic production of the top wideouts in last year’s freshman orientation group, but -- on the cusp of a brand-new season -- it’s time to stop looking in the mirror at what was, and start thinking about what will be.

One thing I try to impress on people is that simple extrapolation of the past is not an appropriate way to project into the future. With our 2014 rookies, it’s not simply enough to say that because they were exceptional last year they will be absolutely exceptional again this year. Regression to the mean is an important thing to remember, especially when considering that players like Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans roped in 1,051 yards and 12 touchdowns in their first year. How much more can we expect a player to do in his sophomore season?

Is there a historical precedent for breakout rookies having sophomore slumps?

Too Big To Fail

Many of us have the perception that the benchmark a player sets in their first year is their production floor, that every year after will follow an arc that increases through their 20’s and declines in their 30’s. While in many cases this is true, today we are looking at the cream of the crop, the exception to the exceptions, the most supremely productive and talented rookie receivers to grace the league in the last 15 years. What should we expect for the sophomore encores to these debut blowouts?

To frame this study, we will be looking at our sample size of rookie receivers drafted since 2000 through the lens of our signature Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. NEP helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and assign them contextual value so they relate even closer to the game on the field. By adding down-and-distance value, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

Our sample size will be the top five percent of rookie receivers to come out in the last decade and a half -- the 95th percentile of production by Total NEP in a rookie season. 19 players seems a solid sample size to track the best and worst possible scenarios for our five breakout rookies from 2014. What should we expect in their second years in the league?

Coming Back to Earth

The table below shows our 19 super-stud rookie receivers and their first two years of Total NEP production in the league. How many of them sustained value over from their tremendous first years in the league, and how many regressed?

PlayerTeamClassYear 1Year 2+/-
Chris ChambersMIA200181.8367.78-14.05
Anquan BoldinARZ2003116.1153.04-63.07
Andre JohnsonHOU200386.9895.148.16
Lee EvansBUF200490.5074.22-16.28
Michael ClaytonTB2004103.2329.61-73.62
Marques ColstonNO2006111.67106.04-5.63
Santonio HolmesPIT200676.6092.1515.56
Dwayne BoweKC200797.3596.72-0.63
Eddie RoyalDEN200880.2224.96-55.26
DeSean JacksonPHI200881.22102.4121.19
Percy HarvinMIN200986.6875.44-11.24
Mike WallacePIT200972.29113.5441.25
Mike WilliamsTB201081.0259.55-21.48
Julio JonesATL201181.10105.5524.45
Torrey SmithBAL201175.3676.451.09
A.J. GreenCIN2011100.46111.1710.71
T.Y. HiltonIND201281.0089.048.04
Justin BlackmonJAX201287.5633.28-54.28
Keenan AllenSD201396.4256.72-39.70

We still aren’t sure how all of these players’ careers have finally turned out, as even the class of 2011 has just spent only its fourth year in the NFL. However, we can see big patterns across this data, and the most clear is that just eight out of 19 -- less than half -- of the players qualifying for this study increased their Total NEP mark in their second year. Of those, just five increased their sum significantly, and theirs were among the lower Year 1 Total NEP scores of the group.

This is fairly telling that, on average, the elite rookie wide receiver brings in 88.82 Total NEP, while the average second year for these players is just 76.99 Total NEP; this is an average change of -11.83 Total NEP. While this doesn’t seem like a drastic downturn, that’s a decline of 13.32%, more than one-eighth of the previous year’s production. Of the two players that improved the most into their second seasons -- Mike Wallace and Julio Jones -- two common factors between their increases were a 33% boost in targets from the first year to the next and an improved catch rate. Without those, not much in their surrounding environment would have altered their value.

The significant things to notice, too, are that the vast majority of these players didn’t become terrible or irrelevant and just have overinflated breakout rookie years. Among these players, every one of them drafted in 2010 or earlier has stayed in the league for at least five years, and the average career length for these players is just around seven years. They also have a 96.03% replacement-level rate (contributing at a rate among the top 128 rosterable wide receivers in any given season) and an 11.11% elite-level rate (a top-10 wide receiver in any given season).

Exceptional Is as Exceptional Does

So, what does this indicate for the futures of Evans, Sammy Watkins, Odell Beckham Jr., Kelvin Benjamin, and Jordan Matthews, who all also rank among the highest five percent of our historical rookie receivers?

Unfortunately for them, without a significant increase in targets available, there won’t be a significant boost in value and possibly even some natural regression. This is likely to affect Matthews the most, who will possibly inherit a large portion of the now-departed Jeremy Maclin’s targets in Philadelphia. Watkins too could finally get some solid work after struggling with injury for most of his rookie season. Beckham and Benjamin could actually see their production drop next year due to a return from injury from Victor Cruz in New York, and new competition in rookie Devin Funchess in Carolina.

The other way our sophomore stars could sustain value is by increasing their catch rate. Evans could actually see an increase in quality targets now that rookie quarterback Jameis Winston is in the fold in Tampa Bay, and Kelvin Benjamin could turn absolutely lethal if he figures out how to convert more than 50.34% of his targets into receptions. For Beckham and Matthews, however, I don’t see a ton of growth in this category either; after submitting 70.00% and 65.05% catch rate seasons, there’s not much of anywhere for them to go but down.

The smart play is to expect around a 10-percent natural regression from these players’ historic rookie years and hope for a couple of key factors to improve in their target situation and catching ability. For some players, though, the perfect storm occurred in their rookie years and they might never repeat that kind of production.