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Lab Test: The Rookie Wall

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The Rookie Wall is on a lot of minds and fingertips, as fantasy owners wonder if Matt Forte, Steve Slaton, Chris Johnson and other top fantasy rookies in their lineups can continue to produce. Can these fresh out of college bodies handle the beating of the grueling NFL season, or is your favorite young back about to hit The Rookie Wall? Read on to find out.

These are interesting times for NFL fans and fantasy footballers. As you may have read in my on-going series on the fallacious “Running Back by Committee,” we’re on the upswing of a 40-year-old cycle of the backfield guard. Every few years it’s out with the old and in with the new in large numbers, and there’s lots of new blood in your fantasy lineups this season. Concern from owners about the proverbial Rookie Wall has spilled into the forums here at FantasySharks.com, which never lets me down for news and discussion, and better yet, ideas for articles.

Summary:

  The Rookie Wall is real -- there may even be more than one

  Veterans have their own wall

  Lighter workloads and good offensive lines could prevent hitting The Rookie Wall

  Analysis of rookies on your lineup headed straight for The Rookie Wall

Building The Wall
The Rookie Wall is the idea that newbies come to the NFL, get worn down by the strength and pace of the game, at some point “hit the wall” and suddenly stop producing. To test this, we’ll measure performance in yards per touch, rushing and receiving, which is the best measure for effectiveness we’ve got in the data. We’ll look for our wall in the roughly 60 rookies since the 2000 season who’ve played 12 or more games in “significant roles” in their first season.

If they were the #1 or #2 rusher or receiver on the team, in touches, we considered them in a “significant role.” This rules out the benchwarmers and other guys we fantasy players don’t care about. We only look back to 2000 because this is mostly a question about endurance, and physical conditioning only continues to improve. Older data would likely drastically skew our results.

Ideally, we would include plays from scrimmage, but these data just aren’t available. Touches say one thing, but especially as fantasy players, it’s easy to overlook the blocking, decoy and other duties a running back has on the field. Slamming into 300+ pound guys is tough business whether you’re carrying a ball or not. This is a study for another day.

Hitting The Wall
Now I love debunking football myths like Jerry Jones loves hiring thugs (wagga, wagga, wagga), but The Rookie Wall seems to be real. In fact, there seems to be more than one wall! As a group, these rookies got hot early, then plummeted between W eeks 4 and 6. They worked their way back up, but fell again between Weeks 8 and 11. They went on to finish strong, in some cases stronger than they started. Out of the playoffs? -- Send in the rookies!

This is more than just the byes. We’re looking at a group average, with byes evenly distributed. There are also some rookies who don’t play much in the first few games, but even after excluding these, we see the same trend. There may be something to said about schedule, but like the byes, tough matchups over our group should be evenly distributed.

Veterans also seem to hit their own wall. Our veterans steadily worked their way up, peaked in mid-season, then bottomed out, below where they started, between Weeks 12 and 14. Like the rookies, they finished the season fairly strong. This trend was visible in the full group and in a random selection the same size of our rookie group.

Before moving on to what you might do about it, the chart below illustrates these trends as weekly averages (thin lines) and three-week moving averages (thick lines).



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