[Pod+] That Receiver?? With a ROOKIE Quarterback!?
Updated: Jul 12, 2020
Now and then I'll put out a long article with analytics - this is one of them. In this article, I'm going to explain what the data suggests about Rookie QBs and their impact on sustaining top WRs. If you just want the synopsis, get scrolling to the Takeaways section.
Mark J. Rebilas - USA TODAY Sports
We've all been sitting in a draft room full of reactions when a Wide Receiver with a rookie play-caller gets drafted. Last season it may have been Christian Kirk in the 8th or Golden Tate in the 11th. A few days ago, I was told Jameis Winston was the last rookie Quarterback to support a top 24 WR. It turns out that's correct if you live in a world where you only look at full-season finishes.
The Boring, but Important Reading
Here are the criteria and process of my research. While this might feel like spewing numbers, it's essential to understand the criteria of the study. Context is vital, especially in an ever-evolving league such as the NFL. If you still don't care about this, then jump on down to the next section. Maybe enjoy this picture of one of the most boring, but relevant, Quarterbacks, Cody Kessler.
Ken Blaze - USA TODAY Sports
The population of my study includes Rookie QBs from 2010-2019, who started at least 6 games. For those QBs, I'm looking at their top pacing receiver, only in the games the rookie QB started. I've then extrapolated their per-game PPR fantasy points across a 16 game season. In the end, I take those fantasy points and compare them to the 16 game pace of the other Wide Receivers in the same year. The total number of QBs in the population is 35. The smallest sample is 6 games of the receiver and the rookie QB both playing.
The first person we need to talk about may have broken all of the stats and concerns surrounding rookie QBs. Deshaun Watson's rookie season started on an absolute tear, but it also ended with one. Before suffering a torn ACL, Watson and Hopkins were connecting on all levels. Over the 6 games Watson started, Hopkins was pacing for 337 points, which would've finished as the WR2 in 2017. On the other side of the field, Will Fuller only played 4 games with Watson but was on pace for 335 points. It's a small sample size, but Watson looked like an animal his rookie year, and his top 2 WRs were both pacing for historic seasons.
Outside of Watson, 3 other quarterbacks in the last 10 seasons were supporting top 12 WR. Christian Ponder with Percy Harvin (10 games), Cam Newton with Steve Smith (16 games), and Cody Kessler with Terrelle Pryor (8 games). That's 4 total WRs pacing for a top 12 finish in 20 years (excluding Will Fuller's small sample size).
In the next tier, 7 Quarterbacks supported Wide Receivers in the top 24. This group includes Baker Mayfield with Jarvis Landry (13 games), Daniel Jones with Golden Tate (12 games), and Jameis Winston with Mike Evans (16 games). It feels like 2 of these 3 receivers didn't get a lot of respect in their respective seasons, but they were delivering quietly for your fantasy team.
Finally, 9 Quarterbacks did enough for their pass catchers to finish in the top 36. Gardner Minshew jumped into the 2019 scene with DJ Chark (11 games). We also see Larry Fitzgerald overcome the performance of Josh Rosen (13 games). Some of the names that didn't support a top 36 Wide Receiver are surprising. The list is long, but the note-worthies include Russell Wilson, Carson Wentz, Josh Allen, Jared Goff, and Lamar Jackson.
Since 2010, 20 pass catchers had a pace that would have allowed them to finish as a top 36 Wide Receiver. That's only 2 per season, but those are the players we're trying find. I'll do the math for you - that's 57% of rookie QBs supported a WR3 or better, 31% with a WR2 or better, and 11% with a top 12 WR.
WR Paces Over The Last 10 Years
I wanted to take a step back to establish a small control group. In 2019 81% of teams had a WR3 or better, 62.5% had a WR2 or better, and 37.5% recorded a WR1. This is a reflection of teams like Tampa Bay that had Chris Godwin and Mike Evans finishing as top 24 receivers. 24 receivers finished as a WR2 or better, but not 24 teams met that criteria.
This means that Wide Receivers with a rookie QB are 24% less likely to finish as a WR3 or better. They're 31% less likely to finish as a WR2 or better, and they're 26% less likely to finish as a top 12 WR.
My next thought was if there's a relation to draft capital invested in the Quarterback. Here are two views when only looking at QBs in the first round, then reducing to QBs that were a top 10 overall pick.
Only First Round Quarterbacks
Only Top 10 Pick Quarterbacks
What I noticed when comparing the 3 of these is the increase in the top 36 WRs. While there are fewer top 24 WRs, the drop isn't nearly as significant as the increase in the third bracket. Some quick math, while excluding top 10 from the pool, lets us know that a QB drafted in the top 10 is about 13% more likely to produce a top 36 receiver than the rest of the pool.
Plain and simple, Wide Receivers are a lot less likely to finish in the top 36 if they have a rookie at the helm. We want to find the few guys flying under the radar but can still be a stellar flex play like 2019 Golden Tate. When we apply this to the 2020 season, we have 3 Quarterbacks drafted in the top 10 overall that have some talented receivers around them. This scenario will likely impact Keenan Allen (ADP WR21), AJ Green (WR28), Devante Parker, (WR29), Tyler Boyd (WR36), Preston Williams (WR50), and Mike Williams (WR58).
But here's the flip - all 6 of these receivers have seen a decrease in cost. The theory isn't a secret, and it logically makes sense for rookie QBs to struggle to get the ball downfield. Odds are at least one of these QBs will support a top 36 receiver, and if it's Boyd, Preston, or Mike, you'll recognize a good value compared to ADP. The other 3 will have to perform as a top 24 receiver to return value, and historically that's not probable.
Rich Barnes - USA TODAY Sports
If I'm investing my picks in any of these guys, it's the two Williams receivers or Boyd. There's an outlook where any of these three could be the most productive receiver on the team, and at their cost, I'm in on them over their counterparts. Disclaimer: I've been a Preston truther since he signed in Miami. Check the Twitter Header.
We need to keep this in mind every year: Rookie Quarterbacks will likely stunt fantasy performance for their Wide Receivers. 2020 won't be any different, even if Joe Burrow is one of the best rookies the NFL has seen. If somebody drafts AJ Green in the 6th round, you'll hear me from across the bar, "THAT RECEIVER?? With a rookie Quarterback!?"