We’re two weeks removed from the 2020 NFL Draft. The incoming rookie class has been fully ranked and mock-drafted and otherwise analyzed for fantasy purposes. It’s a well-hyped group, arguably one of the deepest and most talent-rich classes we’ve seen.
But if any of ‘em are going to produce an all-time rookie fantasy campaign … well, they’ve got serious work to do. The bar is set extremely high at all positions.
If we construct a fantasy roster from the greatest rookie performances of the past century, we encounter quite a few record-shattering seasons …
QB Cam Newton, 2011
Cam had plenty of doubters as he entered his first year as a pro, despite the fact that he’d just authored one of the all-time dual-threat seasons in college football history. He’d thrown 30 touchdown passes for undefeated Auburn and rushed for 20, winning the Heisman in a landslide. But rookie quarterbacks had almost no record of success in the NFL. At the time, Peyton Manning held the rookie single-season mark for passing yardage (3,739), but his first year in the league was mostly brutal (6.5 Y/A, 28 INTs). The consensus opinion among NFL observers was that Newton was going to struggle in 2011 because every untested young quarterback struggled.
And then he did this:
Newton threw for 422 yards in his NFL regular-season debut, passing for two scores and rushing for another. In his second start a week later, he passed for another 432 yards, rushed for 53, and produced two combined scores. If you added him in fantasy that September, there’s a decent chance you won a league title in December.
By the end of the season, Cam had destroyed the rookie passing record, finishing with 4,051 yards. He’d also obliterated the mark for rushing TDs by a quarterback in any season (14). He ranked 10th in the league in passing and second in rushing scores. Cam finished as a top-five fantasy QB in five of his first seven pro seasons.
RB Eric Dickerson, 1983
When you take an unnaturally talented back like Dickerson and let him work behind an offensive line loaded with Pro Bowlers, you get … well, you get the Rams of the mid-80s. That team’s run game was nearly unstoppable. Check the rushing stats from Dickerson’s first two NFL seasons:
1983 – 390 carries, 1,808 yards, 18 TDs
1984 – 379 carries, 2,105 yards, 14 TDs
We may not see anything like that ever again, at least not to open a career. Dickerson also caught 51 passes for 404 yards and two scores as a rookie. He still holds the records for rushing yards, attempts, and rushing scores by a first-year back, as well as the all-time single-season rushing mark. Dickerson averaged 111.5 rushing yards per game over his four-plus years with the Rams, which is just absurd.
RB Saquon Barkley, 2018
Only three backs in NFL history have reached 2,000 scrimmage yards as rookies, and, naturally, all three made this team. Saquon rushed for 1,307 yards in his first season and caught 91 passes for another 721 yards. He reached the end zone 15 times and led the league in total yards. Barkley also set the all-time record for receptions by a rookie running back, breaking Reggie Bush’s mark from 2006 (88). If you want to take him first overall in 2020 drafts, ahead of CMC, it’s certainly defensible.
WR Randy Moss, 1998
Moss wasted no time whatsoever establishing himself as the NFL’s premier playmaker. He detonated in the first game of his rookie season, catching four passes for 95 yards and two long scores in a win against Tampa. His national primetime breakout came four weeks later on Monday night at Lambeau Field, when he hauled in five balls for 190 yards. Randall Cunningham connected with him that night on a 52-yard touchdown in the second quarter, then a 44-yard TD in the fourth. The league had no answers for Moss’ combination of size, leaping ability, and blazing speed.
On Thanksgiving, No. 84 became an absolute legend:
Utterly unfair. Moss finished his first season with 1,313 receiving yards and a league-high 17 touchdown receptions. He averaged 10.6 yards per target and 19.0 per catch.
WR Odell Beckham, 2014
Perhaps the craziest thing about Beckham’s ridiculous rookie year is that he actually missed a quarter of it. His regular-season debut didn’t happen until October because he’d suffered a preseason hamstring injury. But somehow, Beckham still managed to deliver 91 catches, 1,305 receiving yards, and a dozen touchdowns in just 12 games. He finished the year with nine straight weeks in which he had at least 90 receiving yards. Not surprisingly, he led all NFL receivers in yards per game (108.8).
You might also recall that on a Sunday night in November, Beckham made the greatest catch in the history of humans catching things:
Like … how? All these years later, it still seems like CGI.
WR Anquan Boldin, 2003
The full list of players who’ve caught 100 or more passes as rookies is made up of only one guy: Boldin.
Back in ’03, he was one of only 30 players in NFL history who’d ever reached triple-digit receptions in any season. Moss may have been flashier as a rookie, but Boldin’s performance within the context of a terrible Cardinals passing offense was no less impressive. He finished with 101 catches for 1,377 yards and eight scores; Arizona, as a team, produced only 3,265 yards through the air and 18 passing touchdowns. Jeff Blake and Josh McCown combined to throw 21 picks, completing only 56.7 percent of their throws. Kurt Warner wouldn’t arrive in the desert for another two seasons.
Boldin is one of only 14 players with over 1,000 career receptions, just for the record, and one of 18 with over 13,000 career receiving yards. His monster ’03 season was the first of seven years in which he delivered at least 80 catches and 1,000 yards.
TE Mike Ditka, 1961
Most of you probably think of Ditka as a sort of caricature of a football coach from a distant era, but, in fact, he was a revolutionary player; a legend at his position.
When Ditka arrived in the league in 1961, defenses were helpless. He remains the only first-year tight end in league history to finish with over 1,000 receiving yards — 1,076, to be exact — and he managed to do it in a 14-game season. He also scored 12 touchdowns as a rookie. Ditka’s highlights basically look like a black-and-white version of Gronk’s finest work. He made the Pro Bowl in each of his first five seasons. He won an NFL championship with the Bears and a Super Bowl with the Cowboys. The man had a Hall of Fame resume long before he pulled on a sweater-vest to coach a game.
FLEX: Edgerrin James, 1999
Like Dickerson in ’83-’84, James began his career with back-to-back rushing crowns. Edge was a workhorse runner from the day he entered the league. He led the NFL in carries (369), touches (431), and touchdowns (17) in his first season, gaining 2,139 scrimmage yards and catching 62 passes. And then his second year was even better. In 2000, he rushed for 1,709 yards, caught 63 balls for another 594, and broke the plane 18 times. James went on to rush for over 1,000 yards in seven different seasons and he gained over 2,000 scrimmage yards three times.
K: Cookie Gilchrist, 1962
If you guys thought the Ty Montgomery position-eligibility fiasco of 2016 was bad, just be happy you weren’t playing AFL fantasy football in 1962. That year, Cookie Gilchrist would have ruined leagues.
Gilchrist had actually spent six seasons in the CFL as a star fullback and linebacker before joining the Buffalo Bills in ’62. From the moment he arrived in the AFL, he was dominant. Gilchrist was the league’s player of the year in his first season. He rushed for 1,096 yards, caught 24 passes for 319, and delivered 15 touchdowns — and after many of those TDs, he also kicked extra points. Gilchrist’s field goal accuracy did not exactly meet modern standards (40 percent), but he still served as his team’s kicker for a year. He managed to kick 14 XPs in ’62, along with eight field goals.
For our purposes here, we’re considering him a K/RB. Just imagine if you were allowed to start, say, Derrick Henry as your fantasy kicker. It’s probably the only scenario in which I could embrace the #bankickers movement.
DEF: Carolina Panthers, 1995
We can’t really have a complete fantasy lineup without a defense, so let’s give a nod to Carolina’s D in the team’s inaugural season. Expansion teams are generally horrible, but the ’95 Panthers finished with a respectable 7-9 record and the defense ranked top-eight in terms of both points and yards allowed. Sam Mills led the team in tackles (110) and Lamar Lathon led Carolina in sacks (8.0). Both would make the Pro Bowl the following season, as the Panthers went 12-4 and reached the NFC championship game.