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Rookie Passing, Rushing, and Receiving

In the graph below, the blue line shows the number of passing yards by rookies in each year since 1970, while the red line shows the number of passing yards by non-rookies in the same season. Both are measured against the left Y-Axis; the green line shows the percentage of rookie passing yards to veteran passing yards. As you can see, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Ryan Tannehill, and Brandon Weeden were part of an extremely productive rookie class:

rk vet pass yds
(You can ignore the peak in 1987 — that’s due to the use of replacement players during the NFL strike.)

Historically, of course, running back was the offensive skill position where rookies were most likely to make an impact. This next graph shows the same information but using rushing yards. The blue line shows the number of rushing yards by rookies in each year and the red line shows the number of rushing yards by non-rookies. Both are measured against the left Y-Axis; the green line shows the percentage of rookie rushing yards to veteran rushing yards for each season since 1970. When it comes to passing yards, rookies have historically produced about 10% as many yards as veterans; for rushing yards, rookies are nearly twice as productive. And just like at quarterback, rookie running backs fared pretty well last year, including Alfred Morris, Doug Martin, and Trent Richardson (you can see read some thoughts I had on those three earlier this off-season here).

rk vet rush yds

But when we look at receiving yards, we see a different story. If anything, rookie receivers were more effective in the early ’70s than they are today. When Russell Wilson became the fifth rookie to be announced as his team’s starting quarterback, I discussed the NFL’s youth movement at the position. There, I mentioned Chris Brown’s article on how the younger levels of football have become significantly better at developing quarterbacks and making them ready for the pro game sooner than ever. But you would think an emphasis on the passing game at younger levels would benefit receivers, too. That doesn’t appear to be the case. This next graph shows the same information as the first two graphs, but using receiving yards:

rk vet rec yds

So, I open this question up to the crowd: as more and more college teams do a better job of preparing receivers for the NFL, and more NFL teams are placing more receivers on the field (which I would think would help out rookies generally), why aren’t rookies seeing an increase in the total pie? The graphs above don’t break things down by position, but it’s not like rookie wide receivers can blame the running backs and tight ends for these results. Of the twenty-five wide receivers with the most receiving yards in 2012, none of them were rookies. To be fair, Justin Blackmon and T.Y. Hilton finished 26th and 27th, but the lack of high-end success is a bit surprising. I’ll close with a table showing the top rookie receiver in each season since the merger, as measured by receiving yards, and his rank in that statistic among wide receivers.

YearTop Rookie WRTeamYardsRank
2012Justin BlackmonJAX86526
2011A.J. GreenCIN105715
2010Mike WilliamsTAM96418
2009Percy HarvinMIN79031
2008Eddie RoyalDEN98022
2007Dwayne BoweKAN99521
2006Marques ColstonNOR103819
2005Reggie BrownPHI57149
2004Michael ClaytonTAM119312
2003Anquan BoldinARI13773
2002Antonio BryantDAL73341
2001Chris ChambersMIA88329
2000Darrell JacksonSEA71341
1999Kevin JohnsonCLE98629
1998Randy MossMIN13133
1997Rae CarruthCAR54553
1996Terry GlennNWE113211
1995Joey GallowaySEA103917
1994Darnay ScottCIN86625
1993James JettRAI77128
1992Arthur MarshallDEN49357
1991Lawrence DawseyTAM81830
1990Ricky ProehlPHO80226
1989Shawn CollinsATL86224
1988Sterling SharpeGNB79125
1987Ricky NattielDEN63027
1986Bill BrooksIND11317
1985Eddie BrownCIN94213
1984Louis LippsPIT86019
1983Willie GaultCHI83618
1982Charlie BrownWAS6905
1981Cris CollinsworthCIN100915
1980Art MonkWAS79723
1979Jerry ButlerBUF83423
1978John JeffersonSDG10014
1977Wesley WalkerNYJ74011
1976Sammy WhiteMIN9065
1975Alfred JenkinsATL76711
1974Charlie WadeCHI6837
1973Isaac CurtisCIN8434
1972Ahmad RashadSTL50027
1971Randy VatahaNWE8726
1970Ron ShanklinPIT69118

And, of course, the ability of the top rookie wide receiver to hold his value is another issue entirely.

  • Brian

    Interesting article (as well as the running back feature linked at the end of the second paragraph). One mistake, or oversight, for the running backs is receiving yards. Most people seem to make this mistake and maybe thats because most running backs just don’t have many receiving yards. But it’s hard to ignore what Doug Martin brings to the table in the passing game. I think when evaluating running backs and predicting future success (as your linked feature did) you should take receiving yards and yards per catch in to account. After just one season it’s too early to tell, but with the assumption that from this point out things remain status quo (as set forth in the 2012 season), which back would you rather have, Trent Richardson, Alfred Morris or Doug Martin?

  • sn0mm1s

    I think a couple of things factor into it (with the caveat that these are guesses and I have done no formal research).
    1) A rookie WR is generally not the #1 option on the team when it comes to receiving targets (usually #2 or #3). This inherently limits their production. This is different than a rookie RB or QB that gets the majority of the snaps/rushes by default when they are on the field.
    2) I think that great college WRs can skate by almost solely on their athleticism since they primarily operate on an island leaving them the most ill prepared when they reach the NFL.
    3) Related to #2, on that island they are generally paired against veteran CB/S, who is likely far beyond the rookie WR’s skill when it comes to technique (and likely not at a serious advantage or disadvantage physically). This is a different situation than a QB or RB which neither really have a *direct* counterpart or foil on the defensive side of the ball that they must beat every down.

    I am not sure how you would do the research, but this pattern of not making a huge impact (on increasing impacts) might also apply to rookie edge rushers, rookie offensive tackles, and rookie CBs since these are also often 1 v 1 battles against veteran players.

  • Richie

    A theory: There has traditionally been a thought that it is difficult for QBs and WRs to learn their positions at the pro level. But RB is a more instinctual position, so coaches have been willing to play rookie RBs.

    Recently (basically since 2005 with few exceptions before) coaches have been more willing to throw a rookie QB into the fire. I think that’s partially because colleges are running more pro-like offenses, and partially because QB has seemed to become a slightly more important position than it was, so coaches are more desperate to replace mediocre QBs with hot new rookies. And they let them play even if the results aren’t great.

    But at WR, coaches just haven’t had the pressure to force the ball to them. And maybe there is truth that learning WR is tougher at the pro level, so the rookies are only able to play as well as they can separate themselves from the guy on the other side of the field.