I came into this certain that I would find that all rookies were not worth starting in Week 1 and that even superstar players had humble beginnings. And, as so often life teaches, I was wrong and need to keep a more open mind.
We’ll consider the first three rounds of the last three NFL drafts, as there just isn’t any remotely reliable player taken after those rounds. A scant few will later develop but only the first three rounds have been initially productive, rare as even that was.
A few things pop out here. First – 2017 was an incredible year for running backs. Not a clunker in the first three rounds. 2018 was largely a waste beyond Saquon Barkley. Last year was a normal one where rookie backs were all limited in their first game other than Josh Jacobs. Devin Singletary had runs of 23, 20, 15, and 12 yards but only four carries.
This does not bode well for the current crop of rookie rushers who have all been allowed far less time with the team getting reps in the offense. Rushing the ball is one of the quickest to learn skills, but they still need to know how to read their blocks and how each play is called.
There is one interesting commonality and that is that the first running back drafted has done very well in Week 1, even if no one else does. And a highly drafted running back for the Chiefs has also been a winner on opening day. Certainly suggests that Clyde Edwards-Helaire is the safest fantasy start of any rookie back. None of the others are expected to start or play more than a committee role for Week 1. What they do may grant them more work in Week 2, but only the top of the class gets the keys to the car for the season opener.
Amazing how many wideouts did not play in Week 1. 2020 is considered a strong class for receivers though that is balanced with their lack of time to prepare for the season with their teams. While running the ball is one of the easier skillsets to pick up, catching the ball is one of the hardest. The position requires precision in route running, timing with the quarterback, and somehow holding on to the ball since no one is out there blocking for them.
The 2018 class, once again, was one of the weaker ones in recent history. What is notable is that of the players that had above-average showings in the season opener, most of them went on to have a good rookie year. 2019 saw big games from Marquise Brown, A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf, and Terry McLaurin while the rest did little. Only Deebo Samuel and Diontae Johnson would later emerge.
The only two notable performances in 2017 came from Cooper Kupp and Kenny Golladay who both became top receivers despite being third-round picks. That first wideout selected hasn’t meant nearly as much as it does with running backs. Most wideouts are quiet in their first game with only minor exceptions and it matters much less when they were drafted and more who they were drafted by.
If you need to start a rookie wideout, the best bet is to rely more on who their quarterback is than how earlier they were taken. That favors CeeDee Lamb the most with Dak Prescott but no other top quarterbacks are paired with a wideout for Week 1. This is a year when holding off on rookie wideouts until they turn in a good performance makes even more sense.