Does the Sophomore Slump Really Exist?

Does the Sophomore Slump Really Exist?

By John Paulsen (Senior Editor), last updated Jun 7, 2016

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John was named the Most Accurate Fantasy Football Expert by FantasyPros for the 2010 and 2014 seasons, finished as runner-up in 2011 and 4th in both 2012 and 2015 for a total of five Top 5 seasons in the last six years. Cumulatively, John was the most accurate expert from 2010-15 while also winning the 2011 Fantasy Sports Trade Association award for the most accurate draft 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 year two.

Below are four tables that show the top rookies at each position since the 2001 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

From 2001 to 2014, there were 18 quarterbacks who started at least 12 games as a rookie and finished in the top 24. Five of those finished in the top 12 (QB1). 

 

Rookie vs. Sophomore Performance: QBs
Player Year GS Rookie Rank Soph Rank Diff Rookie PPG Soph PPG % Diff
Cam Newton 2011 16 4 4 0 22.9 20.6 -10%
Robert Griffin III 2012 15 5 18 -13 21.4 16.7 -22%
Andrew Luck 2012 16 8 6 2 17.9 18.0 1%
Vince Young 2006 13 9 17 -8 13.8 10.8 -22%
Russell Wilson 2012 16 9 8 1 17.6 17.5 -1%
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%
Derek Carr 2014 16 20 14 6 12.5 17.2 38%
Geno Smith 2013 16 20 26 -6 12.5 11.2 -11%
Carson Palmer 2004 13 23 1 22 12.5 16.7 34%
Teddy Bridgewater 2014 12 23 23 0 13.5 12.8 -5%
David Carr 2002 16 24 26 -2 9.7 9.8 1%
Ryan Tannehill 2012 16 24 16 8 11.7 15.5 33%
Blake Bortles 2014 13 24 4 20 12.0 20.3 69%
Jameis Winston 2015 16 13 ?   17.3 ?  
Marcus Mariota 2015 12 22 ?   17.2 ?  
QB1 (1-12)     7 10.6 -3.6 18.7 16.7 -11%
QB2 (13-24)     20.6 17.3 3.3 12.0 14.1 18%
All     16.9 15.4 1.5 14.2 14.8 4%

 

For the QB1 group — quarterbacks with an end-of-season ranking in the top 12 — we only have a sample size of five players, so any conclusions we might draw won’t be too dependable. Cam Newton, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson maintained or improved their ranking as sophomores while RG3 and Vince Young fell off.

The 13 players in the QB2 group collectively increased their per game performance by 2.1 fantasy points, or 17.5%. This bodes pretty well for 2015 rookies Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, who as rookies averaged nearly as many fantasy points as Wilson did in 2012. Winston and Mariota look like solid QB2s heading into 2016.

 

RUNNING BACKS

Over the last 14 seasons, 55 rookie running backs finished in the top 36, so we have a larger sample size with which to work. Fifteen finished as RB1s, 17 as RB2s and 23 finished as RB3s.

 

Rookie vs. Sophomore Performance: RBs
Player Year Rookie Rank Soph Rank Diff Rookie PPG Soph PPG % Diff
Adrian Peterson 2007 3 3 0 17.1 15.5 -9%
Doug Martin 2012 3 54 -51 16.5 9.7 -41%
Matt Forte 2008 4 18 -14 15.2 10.3 -33%
Clinton Portis 2002 4 5 -1 18.1 21.1 17%
Alfred Morris 2012 5 14 -9 15.4 11.1 -28%
Steve Slaton 2008 6 32 -26 14.1 11.6 -18%
LaDainian Tomlinson 2001 7 3 4 13.8 19.2 39%
Eddie Lacy 2013 7 6 1 14.0 14.7 5%
Maurice Jones-Drew 2006 8 13 -5 14.2 11.4 -20%
Willis McGahee 2004 9 13 -4 13.0 10.8 -17%
Trent Richardson 2012 9 34 -25 13.6 7.0 -48%
Jeremy Hill 2014 10 14 -4 11.7 10.0 -15%
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%
Le'Veon Bell 2013 15 2 13 13.4 18.0 34%
Reggie Bush 2006 16 24 -8 11.2 11.3 1%
Knowshon Moreno 2009 16 18 -2 10.6 12.5 18%
Giovani Bernard 2013 16 18 -2 10.6 11.1 6%
Ryan Grant 2007 17 22 -5 10.5 10.1 -4%
Kevin Smith 2008 18 26 -8 10.9 11.2 3%
Zac Stacy 2013 18 68 -50 11.4 3.9 -66%
Cadillac Williams 2005 19 39 -20 11.6 7.5 -35%
Kevin Jones 2004 21 31 -10 11.2 8.3 -26%
Andre Williams 2014 21 83 -62 7.9 2.0 -75%
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%
Tre Mason 2014 24 80 -56 10.1 2.7 -73%
Andre Ellington 2013 25 20 5 8.4 11.3 34%
William Green 2002 27 47 -20 8.5 9.6 12%
Vick Ballard 2012 27 118 -91 7.2 5.8 -19%
Isaiah Crowell 2014 27 29 -2 7.3 7.4 1%
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%
Branden Oliver 2014 30 101 -71 7.8 2.8 -65%
Roy Helu 2011 31 131 -100 8.0 1.6 -80%
Ryan Mathews 2010 31 7 24 10.4 13.6 31%
Chris Wells 2009 31 56 -25 8.5 4.5 -46%
Steven Jackson 2004 32 11 21 7.9 13.1 67%
Terrance West 2014 32 93 -61 7.4 3.2 -57%
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%
Todd Gurley 2015 5 ?   14.6 ?  
David Johnson 2015 8 ?   11.0 ?  
Jeremy Langford 2015 25 ?   7.7 ?  
Thomas Rawls 2015 26 ?   9.3 ?  
T.J. Yeldon 2015 28 ?   10.0 ?  
Karlos Williams 2015 31 ?   10.5 ?  
Javorius Allen 2015 35 ?   6.5 ?  
Matt Jones 2015 36 ?   8.0 ?  
RB1 (1-12)   7.3 15.3 -8.0 14.4 13.5 -6%
RB2 (13-24)   18.9 32.6 -13.7 10.8 10.2 -5%
RB1 & RB2 (1-24)   13.5 24.5 -11.0 12.5 11.7 -6%
RB3 (25-36)   30.2 51.0 -20.8 8.8 8.0 -10%
All   20.5 35.6 -15.1 11.0 10.2 -7%

 

Of the 15 backs who finished as RB1s, only five managed to increase their points per game. However, 80% of the RB1 rookies finished in the top 18 as sophomores, so this is a relatively safe group.

The RB2 group (17 players) saw a similar decline in PPG (-5.3%). Of this group, only five (29%) managed to finish in the top 18 as sophomores, and four of those five finished in the top 16 as rookies, so there isn’t a lot of upward mobility in the RB2 ranks.

The RB3 group saw the biggest decline in PPG (-9.6%). Of the 23 rookie RB3s, only 12 managed to finish as an RB3 or higher in year two. Roughly one-third of the players were able to advance to an RB2 level or higher.

There are a number of 2015 rookies poised to do big things in 2016. Todd Gurley, David Johnson and Thomas Rawls are being drafted as RB1s, while Jeremy Langford, T.J. Yeldon and Matt Jones are being drafted as RB2s. Workload-wise, the only player of this group that I’m seriously worried about is Yeldon, who has to share the backfield with the recently signed Chris Ivory. The workload should be there for Gurley, Johnson, Rawls, Langford and Jones.

Karlos Williams is playing behind LeSean McCoy, so he’s not likely to progress significantly without an injury to McCoy. Javorius Allen will compete with Justin Forsett (and others) for touches in the Baltimore backfield.

 

WIDE RECEIVERS

 

There were 45 rookie receivers who finished WR4 or higher since the 2001 season. Four finished as WR1s, 11 finished as WR2s, 13 finished as WR3s while 17 finished as WR4s. Of the first group, only Odell Beckham was able to repeat his WR1 finish.

 

Rookie vs. Sophomore Performance: WRs
Player Year Rookie Rank Soph Rank Diff Rookie PPG Soph PPG % Diff
Anquan Boldin 2003 4 59 -55 11.9 6.9 -42%
Odell Beckham 2014 5 5 0 17.2 14.9 -13%
Mike A. Williams 2010 11 50 -39 10.2 6.0 -41%
Mike Evans 2014 11 26 -15 11.8 9.2 -22%
Michael Clayton 2004 13 94 -81 10.3 2.7 -74%
A.J. Green 2011 14 4 10 10.2 12.8 25%
Marques Colston 2006 14 8 6 10.8 11.6 7%
Kelvin Benjamin 2014 16 - - 9.7 - -
Julio Jones 2011 17 9 8 11.5 11.4 -1%
Keenan Allen 2013 17 46 -29 10.2 7.3 -28%
Eddie Royal 2008 20 101 -81 9.3 2.5 -73%
Torrey Smith 2011 23 23 0 8.1 8.4 3%
Dwayne Bowe 2007 24 16 8 8.1 9.0 11%
Lee Evans 2004 24 29 -5 9.2 7.5 -18%
Jordan Matthews 2014 24 19 5 8.5 9.2 9%
Percy Harvin 2009 25 20 5 8.6 9.5 11%
Sammy Watkins 2014 25 15 10 8.4 12.2 45%
T.Y. Hilton 2012 25 19 6 8.7 8.7 -1%
Mike Wallace 2009 28 5 23 7.3 11.9 63%
Justin Blackmon 2012 28 99 -71 7.4 11.9 60%
DeSean Jackson 2008 29 4 25 7.4 12.7 71%
Hakeem Nicks 2009 29 8 21 8.3 13.2 59%
Roy E. Williams 2004 29 30 -1 9.3 9.0 -3%
Larry Fitzgerald 2004 30 2 28 8.0 12.8 61%
Austin Collie 2009 31 32 -1 6.9 12.5 83%
Antonio Bryant 2002 32 67 -35 7.1 4.2 -41%
Calvin Johnson 2007 35 3 32 7.4 12.8 73%
Keary Colbert 2004 36 92 -56 7.0 2.6 -64%
Donte Stallworth 2002 38 69 -31 8.3 6.1 -27%
Josh Gordon 2012 38 1 37 6.9 16.2 135%
Cordarrelle Patterson 2013 38 76 -38 6.5 3.9 -41%
Rod Gardner 2001 39 17 22 6.2 9.3 49%
Donnie Avery 2008 39 47 -8 6.6 5.7 -12%
Denarius Moore 2011 39 32 7 8.0 7.7 -4%
Anthony Armstrong 2010 40 121 -81 7.0 1.7 -75%
Terrance Williams 2013 40 41 -1 6.5 6.9 6%
Santonio Holmes 2006 41 18 23 6.0 11.1 85%
Jarvis Landry 2014 42 17 25 6.6 9.8 49%
Martavis Bryant 2014 43 32 11 10.4 11.1 7%
Allen Hurns 2014 44 14 30 6.5 10.9 68%
Titus Young 2011 46 71 -25 6.1 6.4 4%
Dez Bryant 2010 47 19 28 7.7 9.8 28%
Kenny Stills 2013 47 39 8 5.9 7.4 24%
Reggie Brown 2005 48 21 27 5.1 8.6 69%
Marlon Brown 2013 48 116 -68 6.7 1.8 -73%
Amari Cooper 2015 23 ?   8.9 ?  
Tyler Lockett 2015 42 ?   6.5 ?  
Stefon Diggs 2015 46 ?   7.5 ?  
WR1 (1-12)   7.8 35.0 -27.3 12.7 9.2 -28%
WR2 (13-24)   18.7 34.9 -16.2 9.6 8.2 -14%
WR1 & WR2 (1-24)   15.8 34.9 -19.1 10.4 8.5 -18%
WR3 (25-36)   29.4 30.5 -1.1 7.8 10.3 32%
WR4 (37-48)   42.2 44.2 -2.0 6.9 7.9 15%
WR3 & WR 4 (25-48)   36.6 38.2 -1.6 7.3 8.9 23%
All   29.7 37.2 -7.5 8.3 8.8 6%

 

Six of the 11 WR2s (55%) finished as a WR2 or higher in year two, but we don’t know what Kelvin Benjamin would have done had he not torn his ACL prior to his second season.

Ten of the 13 WR3s (77%) managed a WR3 or higher finish in year two. Justin Blackmon did not, and that was largely due to his being suspended in 2013. As a group, the WR3s increased their PPG by 31.6% in year two.

Nine of the 17 WR4s (53%) managed to finish as WR3s or higher as sophomores. As a group, they increased their PPG by 14.9%.

The three 2015 rookies who qualify are Amari Cooper, Tyler Lockett and Stefon Diggs. The future is bright for both Cooper and Lockett, while Diggs should be the primary option in Minnesota’s below average passing game. Three other rookies — Dorial Green-Beckham, Devin Funchess and Jamison Crowder — nearly qualified. Of those three, Green-Beckham seems to have the biggest opportunity to make a leap as a sophomore.

 

TIGHT ENDS

Six rookies finished as TE1s, while 21 more finished as TE2s. 

 

Rookie vs. Sophomore Performance: TEs
Player Year Rookie Rank Soph 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%
Heath Miller 2005 11 13 -2 5.1 4.3 -15%
Aaron Hernandez 2010 11 3 8 6.9 9.8 42%
Owen Daniels 2006 14 8 6 4.7 5.9 27%
Dustin Keller 2008 14 20 -6 4.5 4.1 -9%
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%
Zach Ertz 2013 20 13 7 4.4 5.5 24%
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%
Jordan Reed 2013 22 29 -7 7.7 4.2 -45%
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%
Dwayne Allen 2012 23 66 -43 4.4 8.0 81%
Martellus Bennett 2008 24 55 -31 3.3 1.1 -65%
TE1 (1-12)   7.7 7.8 -0.2 6.1 7.9 30%
TE2 (13-24)   19.6 22.0 -2.4 4.0 5.3 32%
All   16.9 18.8 -1.9 4.5 5.9 31%

 

All six of the rookie TE1s finished #13 or higher as sophomores.

Twelve of the 21 TE2s (57%) finished as the #14 TE or higher in year two with an average PPG increase of 82.2%.

It’s notoriously difficult for rookie tight ends to transition to the NFL, so it’s not a big surprise that both the TE1 and TE2 groups advance significantly on a PPG basis as sophomores.

No rookie tight ends finished in the top 24 last year, but Will Tye finished #25 after taking over for the injured Larry Donnell in Week 8. Clive Walford finished #30 and the Raiders said this offseason that they’d like to expand his role. He averaged 5.2 targets per game over the final five weeks.

Maxx Williams finished #44 as a rookie and will have to contend with Benjamin Watson and possibly Crockett Gillmore, if his surgically-repaired shoulder is good to go.

 

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.

Save for tight ends, rookies who finish in the top 12 at their respective positions tend to take a step back (PPG-wise) in year two. Players who finish as QB2s, WR3s, WR4s, TE1s and TE2s tend to advance on a PPG basis. Every player should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, but this study should be kept in mind when setting expectations for players like Todd Gurley and David Johnson.

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

Filed Under: Preseason, 2013

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