Does the Sophomore Slump Really Exist?

By John Paulsen (Senior Editor) on May 28, 2013

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John was named the Most Accurate Fantasy Football Expert by FantasyPros for the 2010 season, finished as runner-up in 2011 and 4th in 2012 for an unprecedented three straight top 5 finishes. Cumulatively, John was the most accurate expert from 2010-13 while also winning the 2011 Fantasy Sports Trade Association award for the most accurate preseason rankings. 

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I'm always skeptical of alliterations (which typically are phrases where two or more words start with the same sound) because sometimes it's just too tempting to force a theory to make a snappy saying work. I've always wondered if the sophomore slump fell into this category, so I decided to test the theory in the realm of fantasy football.

What is a sophomore slump? Simply put, it's the theory that successful rookie players will have a less successful second season. Many young players progress, but perhaps there is something about the better rookies that result in inferior second seasons.

Those who study year-to-year stats know that there is a general decline in average end-of-year ranking among the top players at each position. This is due to regression: competition, injury and the fact that the other factors that allowed a player to finish high in the year-end rankings will often change the following year. So don't be alarmed if it looks like the top rookies see a decline in average ranking year over year. That's normal. Due to the possibility of injury, a better gauge is how their per game production changes in their second year.

Below are four tables that show the top rookies at each position since the 2000 season and how those players have fared the following year. We're looking for trends that will better enable us to identify players who may regress in the future. Let's start with the...

 

QUARTERBACKS

At the QB position, there were 13 rookies from 2000-2011 who started at least 12 games. Only Cam Newton and Vince Young finished as bona fide fantasy starters (ranking in the top 12). Eight more finished as QB2s (ranking in the top 24), and Mark Sanchez just missed that honor, finishing #25.

 

Player Year GS Rookie EOY Rank Soph EOY Rank Diff Rookie PPG Soph PPG % Diff
Cam Newton 2011 16 4 4 0 22.9 20.6 -10%
Vince Young 2006 13 9 17 -8 13.8 10.8 -22%
Matt Ryan 2008 16 15 19 -4 12.3 13.4 9%
Andy Dalton 2011 16 17 12 5 13.2 16.2 23%
Byron Leftwich 2003 13 18 17 1 10.6 13.2 24%
Sam Bradford 2010 16 20 31 -11 12.2 10.1 -17%
Ben Roethlisberger 2004 13 20 19 1 12.2 14.2 16%
Joe Flacco 2008 16 20 17 3 11.3 13.1 16%
Carson Palmer 2004 13 23 1 22 12.5 16.7 34%
David Carr 2002 16 24 26 -2 9.7 9.8 1%
Mark Sanchez 2009 15 25 19 6 9.0 12.6 41%
Blaine Gabbert 2011 14 27 32 -5 8.3 9.6 16%
Joey Harrington 2002 12 30 21 9 7.7 9.2 20%
QB1 (1-12)     6.5 10.5 -4.0 18.4 15.7 -14.7%
QB2 (13-24)     19.6 17.8 1.9 11.8 13.3 13.5%
All     19.4 18.1 1.3 12.0 13.0 8.8%

 

Both Newton and Young saw a dip in their per game averages in their second season, but Newton managed to hold onto the #4 spot while Young slipped from #9 to #17. There's not much we can learn from this since the sample size is so small. We'll have a better idea how rookie QB1s perform in their sophomore seasons as we see how the 2012 class develops this season.

The eight players in the QB2 group averaged a 1.9-spot jump in the rankings to go along with a 14% increase in per game averages. Only Sam Bradford (who had to learn a new offense) didn't improve his per game production.

Now let's take a look at the 2012 rookies and discuss their chances of a sophomore slump in 2013:

 

Robert Griffin III, Redskins (#5 in 2102)
Griffin turned in a wonderful rookie season, racking up 27 total TDs (20 passing, seven rushing) to go along with 3,211 yards passing and 833 yards rushing. RG3 belongs in the top tier when he's playing, but like Michael Vick before him, his lack of bulk and propensity to take hits make him an injury risk. He's coming off of an ACL injury, but appears to be on track to start in Week 1. It's going to be interesting to see if he alters his game (i.e. reducing the number of runs) to keep himself healthy.
RISK OF SLUMP: MEDIUM

Andrew Luck, Colts (#8)
Luck broke Newton's rookie record for passing yardage and threw the third-most TDs of any rookie QB in the history of the league. One concern with Luck is his late-season swoon in yardage -- he averaged just 195 yards in his last four games, all against mediocre to bad pass defenses. He also played significantly better at home in terms of taking care of the ball. He threw 13 picks on the road versus just five at home. He should improve in this area as he progresses as an NFL QB, though the loss of interim HC Bruce Arians will sting.
RISK OF SLUMP: MEDIUM

Russell Wilson, Seahawks (#9)
Overshadowed by RG3 and Luck, Wilson had arguably the best season of any rookie QB (ever) not named Cam Newton. He accounted for 30 total TDs (26 pass, four rush) and rushed for the third-most yardage among all QBs in 2012. Wilson averaged 20.2 fantasy points in his final eight games after averaging 11.3 FP in the first half of the season. Even if we remove W15 (where he rushed for three TDs after not rushing for a score all year), he averaged 18.0 FP in the second half of the season. With the addition of WR Percy Harvin, Wilson is looking like a solid starting fantasy QB in 2013. Wilson's average passing yardage (195 per game) won't help his fantasy value weather a regression in touchdowns, but with Harvin in town, Wilson's arrow is pointing up.
RISK OF SLUMP: LOW

Ryan Tannehill, Dolphins (#24)
By most accounts, Tannehill looked like a starting NFL QB in his rookie season, even with one of the least talented receiving corps in the game. The addition of Mike Wallace and Dustin Keller should help, though the team replaced solid slot WR Davone Bess with Brandon Gibson. Tannehill's rookie season left a lot of room for growth.
RISK OF SLUMP: LOW

Brandon Weeden, Browns (#26)
Weeden showed promise early on, throwing nine TDs in his first seven games, but he only threw five more in his next eight games. It appears that he'll start for new HC Rob Chudzinski and OC Norv Turner, who like to push the ball downfield. The addition of Davone Bess should help, as will the continued maturation of Josh Gordon, who may be primed for a breakout season. As with Tannehill, Weeden didn't set a very high bar in his rookie season.
RISK OF SLUMP: LOW

 

RUNNING BACKS

The RB position has a larger sample size, with 10 backs finishing as fantasy RB1s (in the top 12) as rookies. Twelve more finished as RB2s (#13-#24) and 18 finished as fantasy RB3s (#25-#36).

 

Player Year Rookie EOY Rank Soph EOY Rank Diff Rookie PPG Soph PPG % Diff
Adrian Peterson 2007 3 3 0 17.1 15.5 -9%
Clinton Portis 2002 4 5 -1 18.1 21.1 17%
Matt Forte 2008 4 18 -14 15.2 10.3 -33%
Steve Slaton 2008 6 32 -26 14.1 11.6 -18%
LaDainian Tomlinson 2001 7 3 4 13.8 19.2 39%
Maurice Jones-Drew 2006 8 13 -5 14.2 11.4 -20%
Willis McGahee 2004 9 13 -4 13.0 10.8 -17%
Chris Johnson 2008 11 1 10 13.9 21.7 56%
Joseph Addai 2006 11 4 7 11.8 15.6 32%
Marshawn Lynch 2007 12 15 -3 13.2 12.5 -5%
Anthony Thomas 2001 13 33 -20 12.7 10.4 -19%
DomaNick Williams 2003 14 5 9 13.3 17.4 31%
Reggie Bush 2006 16 24 -8 11.2 11.3 1%
Knowshon Moreno 2009 16 18 -2 10.6 12.5 18%
Ryan Grant 2007 17 22 -5 10.5 10.1 -4%
Kevin Smith 2008 18 26 -8 10.9 11.2 3%
Carnell Williams 2005 19 39 -20 11.6 7.5 -35%
Kevin Jones 2004 21 31 -10 11.2 8.3 -26%
Ronnie Brown 2005 23 25 -2 9.6 12.2 27%
Jahvid Best 2010 23 41 -18 8.8 14.3 63%
LeGarrette Blount 2010 24 29 -5 10.6 8.8 -17%
Jonathan Stewart 2008 24 11 13 9.3 12.1 30%
William Green 2002 27 47 -20 8.5 9.6 12%
Ben Tate 2011 28 66 -38 8.5 4.1 -52%
Julius Jones 2004 28 21 7 16.9 11.6 -31%
Travis Henry 2001 28 8 20 8.8 16.2 83%
Laurence Maroney 2006 29 25 4 9.7 10.1 4%
Michael Bennett 2001 29 17 12 8.4 12.5 50%
DeMarco Murray 2011 30 26 4 9.2 11.5 25%
Mike Bell 2006 30 147 -117 8.8 0.2 -98%
Kevan Barlow 2001 30 35 -5 7.1 7.9 12%
Samkon Gado 2005 30 64 -34 13.5 3.9 -71%
Roy Helu 2011 31 131 -100 8.0 1.6 -80%
Beanie Wells 2009 31 56 -25 8.5 4.5 -46%
Ryan Mathews 2010 31 7 24 10.4 13.6 31%
Steven Jackson 2004 32 11 21 7.9 13.1 67%
Tim Hightower 2008 34 22 12 7.7 9.4 22%
Leon Washington 2006 35 48 -13 7.3 4.7 -36%
Marion Barber 2005 35 14 21 7.3 11.3 54%
Chris Ivory 2010 36 67 -31 8.6 7.2 -16%
RB1 (1-12)   7.5 10.7 -3.2 14.4 15.0 3.6%
RB2 (13-24)   19.0 25.3 -6.3 10.9 11.3 4.6%
RB1 & RB2 (1-24)   13.8 18.7 -4.9 12.5 13.0 4.1%
RB3 (25-36)   30.8 45.1 -14.3 9.2 8.5 -7.2%
All   21.4 30.6 -9.2 11.0 11.0 -0.2%

 

Notice that the rookie RB1s were fairly safe in their sophomore seasons. Nine of 10 finished #18 or higher the following year, with the only exceptions being Steve Slaton, who fell from #6 to #32. This group increased their PPG by an average of 4%, but slipped 3.2 spots in the end-of-year rankings. The overall stability of this group bodes well for Doug Martin, Alfred Morris and Trent Richardson, who all figure to see a ton of work after carrying the load as rookies.

The RB2 group similarly saw an increase in PPG (5% on average) and a drop in the end-of-year rankings (-6.3 spots). This is typically due to a reduction in games played -- Jahvid Best is a great example. Still, eight of the 12 rookie RB2s finished in the top 30 the following year.

Ten of the 18 rookie RB3s (finishing in the #25-#36 range) managed to finish in the top 36 in their sophomore seasons. However, averaged a 7% drop in per game production and a 14.3-spot drop in the rankings (thanks largely to guys like Mike Bell and Roy Helu who only played a few games in their second seasons).

Now for a look at the top rookie runners of 2012:

 

Doug Martin, Buccaneers (#2 in 2012)
Martin averaged 18.8 touches in his first six games, but in his final 10 games, he averaged 25.5 touches, becoming one of the few true workhorse backs in the league. He finished as the #2 RB in both total fantasy points and per game average and has a bright future ahead of him. Still, given the possibility of injury and his stiff competition, it's unlikely that he'll finish as one of the top two fantasy RBs in 2013.
RISK OF SLUMP: MEDIUM TO HIGH

Alfred Morris, Redskins (#5)
Heading into the season, it wasn't clear who was going to be the lead RB in Washington, but that question was answered quickly when Morris rushed 28 times for 96 yards and two TDs against the Saints in Week 1. He was barely involved in the passing game, but he did have five of his 11 catches in the final three games, which may bode well. The main concern with Morris is his head coach's history of RB shenanigans, but Morris seems as safe as any back can be under Mike Shanahan.
RISK OF SLUMP: MEDIUM

Trent Richardson, Browns (#9)
Richardson struggled with injuries for a good part of the season, and only averaged 3.3 YPC in his final six games. But his saving grace was that he managed to find the endzone six times in that same span. The Browns hired OC Norv Turner, who will surely use Richardson as the centerpiece of the offense. In Turner's 21 seasons running offenses in the NFL, his lead back failed to reach at least 313 touches just eight times, and that was typically because he didn't have a true feature back on the roster. In the other 13 seasons, his RB1 averaged 377 touches, so Richardson figures to be used early and often. His rookie performance, while solid, does leave room for improvement.
RISK OF SLUMP: LOW TO MEDIUM

Vick Ballard, Colts (#25)
The rookie only saw an average of 6.4 touches in his first five games, but once Donald Brown went down, Ballard's workload went up dramatically. In the final 11 games, Ballard averaged 17.8 touches for 80 total yards and 0.3 TDs. Those are top 20 numbers, so if Ballard is the lead dog, he should be a decent RB2 in 2013. Brown is healthy again, so a timeshare is possible.
RISK OF SLUMP: MEDIUM

Note: Those wondering if David Wilson (#47 in 2012) will make a leap in his sophomore season should be encouraged by Ray Rice (+51), Jamal Charles (+45), Frank Gore (+34), LeSean McCoy (+29), Mewelde Moore (+25), T.J. Duckett (+21) and Shonn Greene (+19), who all made a significant leap as sophomores after finishing outside the top 36 as rookies. This group increased their PPG by an average of 103.7%. (I have my reservations about Wilson, whom I believe will be in a serious timeshare with Andre Brown and currently has an inflated ADP.)

 

WIDE RECEIVERS

From 2000-2011, just two rookie wideouts have finished as fantasy WR1s (1-12), while eight have finished as WR2s (13-24). Ten rookies have finished as WR3s (25-36) and another nine have finished as WR4s.

 

Player Year Rookie EOY Rank Soph EOY Rank Diff Rookie PPG Soph PPG % Diff
Anquan Boldin 2003 4 59 -55.0 11.9 6.9 -42%
Mike Williams 2010 11 50 -39.0 10.2 6.0 -41%
Michael Clayton 2004 13 94 -81.0 10.3 2.7 -74%
A.J. Green 2011 14 4 10.0 10.2 12.8 25%
Marques Colston 2006 14 8 6.0 10.8 11.6 7%
Julio Jones 2011 17 9 8.0 11.5 11.4 -1%
Eddie Royal 2008 20 101 -81.0 9.3 2.5 -73%
Torrey Smith 2011 23 23 0.0 8.1 8.4 3%
Dwayne Bowe 2007 24 16 8.0 8.1 9.0 11%
Lee Evans 2004 24 29 -5.0 9.2 7.5 -18%
Percy Harvin 2009 25 20 5.0 8.6 9.5 11%
Mike Wallace 2009 28 5 23.0 7.3 11.9 63%
DeSean Jackson 2008 29 4 25.0 7.4 12.7 71%
Roy Williams 2004 29 30 -1.0 9.3 9.0 -3%
Hakeem Nicks 2009 29 8 21.0 8.3 13.2 59%
Larry Fitzgerald 2004 30 2 28.0 8.0 12.8 61%
Austin Collie 2009 31 32 -1.0 6.9 12.5 83%
Antonio Bryant 2002 32 67 -35.0 7.1 4.2 -41%
Calvin Johnson 2007 35 3 32.0 7.4 12.8 73%
Keary Colbert 2004 36 92 -56.0 7.0 2.6 -64%
Donte Stallworth 2002 38 69 -31.0 8.3 6.1 -27%
Rod Gardner 2001 39 17 22.0 6.2 9.3 49%
Donnie Avery 2008 39 47 -8.0 6.6 5.7 -12%
Denarius Moore 2011 39 32 7.0 8.0 7.7 -4%
Anthony Armstrong 2010 40 121 -81.0 7.0 1.7 -75%
Santonio Holmes 2006 41 18 23.0 6.0 11.1 85%
Titus Young 2011 46 71 -25.0 6.1 6.4 4%
Dez Bryant 2010 47 19 28.0 7.7 9.8 28%
Reggie Brown 2005 48 21 27.0 5.1 8.6 69%
WR1 (1-12)   7.5 54.5 -47.0 11.0 6.4 -41.7%
WR2 (13-24)   18.6 35.5 -16.9 9.7 8.2 -14.9%
WR1 & WR2 (1-24)   16.4 39.3 -22.9 9.9 7.9 -20.8%
WR3 (25-36)   30.4 26.3 4.1 7.7 10.1 31.1%
WR4 (37-48)   41.9 46.1 -4.2 7.7 9.8 27.1%
WR3 & WR 4 (25-48)   35.8 35.7 0.2 7.3 8.8 21.4%
All   29.1 36.9 -7.8 7.6 9.5 25.5%

 

It's interesting that the top three rookie WRs in recent years (Anquan Boldin, Mike A. Williams and Michael Clayton) have crashed and burned in their sophomore seasons (-42% in PPG). Boldin and Williams have since bounced back. Complicating matters, the next three wideouts (A.J. Green, Marques Colston and Julio Jones) all cracked the top 10 as sophomores. It didn't hurt that they all had very stable QB situations.

Outside of Eddie Royal's incredible regression (from #20 to #101), the #14 to #31 group is actually pretty solid. Most of these players show up as fantasy WR3s in the table, which is why that subset shows growth in both rank and PPG. Looking more closely at the biggest drops in rank, Boldin, Clayton and Royal all have something in common -- serious issues at QB.  All three WRs had different QBs throwing to them during their sophomore season and they were not upgrades.

On average, rookies that are fantasy starters drop 21% in PPG. Rookies who finish as fantasy WR3s or WR4s tend to increase their PPG averages by the same percentage.

Here's a look at each of the fantasy-relevant rookie WRs in 2012 and how they might fare this season:

 

T.Y. Hilton, Colts (#24 in 2012)
In the final nine games of his rookie season, Hilton averaged 3.6-68-.67 (#11 WR numbers) and that included a weird one-target goose egg against the Jaguars in Week 10. He should take over for Donnie Avery as the Colts' WR2, but the team signed Darrius Heyward-Bey, who has been productive in spurts during his career. Since he plays with a good QB in Andrew Luck, Hilton figures to improve, but the WR position is deep and the loss of OC/HC Bruce Arians is likely to hurt. New OC Pep Hamilton runs a West Coast offense that will focus more on the short passing game and may impact the impressive 17.2 YPC that Hilton posted as a rookie.
RISK OF SLUMP: MEDIUM

Justin Blackmon, Jaguars (#28)
Normally, we should expect Blackmon to progress, but he's been suspended for the first four games of the season, so he'll almost surely regress in his season-long statistics. He could still increase his per game production, but the Jaguars have serious QB issues so it seems unlikely.
RISK OF SLUMP: HIGH

Josh Gordon, Browns (#38)
There was a nine-game stretch from Week 5 to Week 14 where Gordon played like a fantasy WR2. He averaged 3.9-71-.56, which projects to #14 WR numbers over a full 16-game season. His speed is a good match for QB Brandon Weeden's big arm, and new OC Norv Turner likes to attack with the deep ball. Gordon is a definite breakout candidate in 2013.
RISK OF SLUMP: LOW

 

TIGHT ENDS

Six rookie tight ends have finished as fantasy TE1s from 2000-2011. Another 18 have finished as fantasy TE2s.

 

Player Year Rookie EOY Rank Soph EOY Rank Diff Rookie PPG Soph PPG % Diff
Jeremy Shockey 2002 3 11 -8 6.8 7.3 8%
Rob Gronkowski 2010 5 1 4 7.2 15.1 110%
John Carlson 2008 7 11 -4 5.8 6.2 7%
Randy McMichael 2002 9 8 1 4.6 4.5 -2%
Aaron Hernandez 2010 11 3 8 6.9 9.8 42%
Heath Miller 2005 11 13 -2 5.1 4.3 -15%
Dustin Keller 2008 14 20 -6 4.5 4.1 -9%
Owen Daniels 2006 14 8 6 4.7 5.9 27%
Chris Cooley 2004 14 4 10 4.2 7.5 77%
Eric Johnson 2001 15 33 -18 3.4 2.7 -21%
Zach Miller 2007 16 11 5 3.9 5.2 34%
Doug Jolley 2002 17 32 -15 3.3 2.1 -37%
Antonio Gates 2003 18 1 17 3.4 11.6 243%
Alge Crumpler 2001 18 8 10 3.2 4.7 48%
Alex Smith 2005 20 24 -4 3.0 3.1 1%
Tony Scheffler 2006 20 10 10 4.1 5.3 30%
Jermaine Gresham 2010 21 13 8 4.7 6.8 44%
Greg Olsen 2007 22 9 13 3.7 5.5 50%
Vernon Davis 2006 22 14 8 4.5 5.4 19%
Boo Williams 2001 22 35 -13 3.5 1.6 -53%
Jimmy Graham 2010 23 2 21 4.4 12.3 180%
Jason Witten 2003 23 3 20 2.7 8.4 209%
Jerramy Stevens 2002 23 71 -48 3.6 0.5 -88%
Martellus Bennett 2008 24 55 -31 3.3 1.1 -65%
TE1 (1-12)   7.7 7.8 -0.2 6.1 7.9 29.8%
TE2 (13-24)   19.2 19.6 -0.4 3.9 5.3 37.2%
All   16.3 16.7 -0.3 4.3 5.9 35.1%

 

All the rookie TEs that finished in the top 12 managed to finish somewhere in the top 13 the following year. Their average ranking as a group stayed pretty consistent year to year and their per game production jumped an average of 30% (thanks mostly to Rob Gronkowski's incredible jump in his second season).

The TE2 group improved (37%) on a per game basis but it didn't matter much ranking-wise. There were some notable jumps from rookie to sophomore, as Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham, Jason Witten, Chris Cooley, Owen Daniels, Alge Crumpler, Greg Olsen, Tony Scheffler and Zach Miller all made the leap to fantasy TE1 status in their second season.

 

Dwayne Allen, Colts
Allen was the only fantasy relevant rookie TE in 2012, and he is no sure bet to crack the top 25 again given the fact that Allen caught 29% of his passes during a four-game stretch that fellow rookie TE Coby Fleener missed due to injury.
RISK OF SLUMP: MEDIUM TO HIGH

 

BOTTOM LINE

So is there such a thing as a sophomore slump? While some sophomores do slump, many don't, so there's no reason to believe that a good rookie will regress just because he's entering his second year. Assuming they stay healthy, young quarterbacks, running backs and tight ends tend to progress, while the good rookie receivers should also improve provided they don't have a negative (or even lateral) change at QB.

And the moral of the story? Always be apprehensive around alliterations. They sound spectacular but are sometimes specious.

Filed Under: Preseason, 2013