Remember last season when, in an effort to rebound from your Week 1 fantasy football loss, you picked up quarterback Chad Henne and running back Cadillac Williams off of the waiver wire? Henne torched the Patriots for 416 yards and two scores, while Cadillac ran all over Philadelphia on his way to 140 combined yards. You were back!
OK, so you finished the season with a 5-8 record. Henne ended up being your top quarterback, even though he finished just 37th in fantasy points at the position. Williams had only one more game with over 50 yards rushing.
It's easy to remember the astute waiver wire pickups you've made in your tenure as a fantasy owner, but the fact is that most waiver wire additions give you next to nothing. Your job as an owner isn't to find a "can't-miss" player, but rather to maximize your chances of hitting on the next big thing. I'm here to help you do that.
Like I said, most waiver wire pickups, even early in the season, turn out to be busts. I tracked the top 80 Week 1 fantasy performances since 2008 by players who were un-owned in at least two-thirds of ESPN fantasy football leagues. Over those past four seasons, 20 (25 percent) ended up posting starter-quality numbers for their owners (assuming you start 1 QB, 2 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE). Those aren't great odds.
Below, I've broken things down by position.
You can see that, historically, quarterbacks have been the best waiver wire additions, with 36.4 percent of the top performers in Week 1 turning into top 12 quarterbacks by season's end. I think the success of free agent quarterbacks is to be expected because 1) with 32 NFL starters, there is less competition, and 2) a lot of the pickups were the result of injuries to starters. Of the top quarterbacks picked up on waivers since 2008, only Cam Newton's addition really came as the result of a great performance in Week 1. Matt Cassel in 2008 and Michael Vick in 2010 were priority waiver wire acquisitions simply because of injuries to Tom Brady and Kevin Kolb, respectively.
The success of free agent tight ends (28.6 percent of the top Week 1 performers became fantasy starters), like that of the signal-callers, is likely due to an abundance of free agent options. Most owners draft just a single tight end, leaving players like Marcedes Lewis (fourth in 2010) and John Carlson (seventh in 2008) in the free agent pool. Still, the reasoning for quality free agents doesn't really matter – you can find respectable players at the tight end position.
Contrary to popular belief, running back and wide receiver additions haven't been as profitable for fantasy owners as the other two skill positions. Since 2008, just a single wide receiver that went undrafted in the majority of fantasy leagues (Brandon Lloyd in 2010) finished in the top 10 at the position.
Meanwhile, free agent running backs Steve Slaton (2008), Jamaal Charles (2009), and Peyton Hillis (2010) all finished in the top 12 among players at their position, making them No. 1 fantasy options. The running back pool isn't deep, but you have a greater chance of striking gold there than at wide receiver.
How do I know who to target?
It's one thing to know the percentages, but quite another to know which players at each position give you the best chance to claim that elusive fantasy football crown. You'd think that rookies possess the most upside and should thus be your primary waiver wire targets. A closer look shows that isn't really the case for most positions.
Outside of Cam Newton's historical 2011 season, it's extremely rare for a rookie quarterback to be relevant in the fantasy football world. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Matthew Stafford, Drew Brees, none of them came close to dominating the fantasy football rankings as a first-year player. The nature of the game is changing and rookie passers are certainly more prepared to play than ever before, but if you're looking to rookie free agents Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden to bolster you fantasy lineup, you might be in trouble.
- Wide Receiver
While uncovering a wide receiver gem on the waiver wire is rare, finding a rookie stud at the position is next to impossible. Since 2006, only six rookie wideouts have finished among the top 24 players at their position. Three of those – A.J. Green, Julio Jones and Torrey Smith – were rookies in 2011. And as first-round selections in the 2011 NFL Draft, you sure weren't claiming those guys off of waivers.
Further, only one rookie wide receiver (Mike Williams in 2010) finished in the top 12 over that time. One! Williams and Eddie Royal (2008) have been the only two rookie wide receivers who you could have legitimately picked up on waivers to provide you with decent fantasy numbers in the past six seasons. All of a sudden, Jets rookie receiver Stephen Hill doesn't look so enticing.
- Tight End
Rob Gronkowski finished fifth in fantasy points as a rookie in 2010, and John Carlson was seventh in 2008. No other tight ends since 2006 have finished in the top 12 at the position. That rookie tight end taken in the seventh round of the NFL Draft that you think could go nuts in 2012 isn't the next Gronkowski. Well, maybe he's the next *Chris *Gronkowski.
- Running Back
I saved this position for last because it's the only one where you can find legitimate rookie talent. Just in the last five years, nine rookie running backs have finished in the top 20 at their position. Almost all of them were either selected late in fantasy drafts or went undrafted completely. Chris Johnson, Steve Slaton and Maurice Jones-Drew are a few examples of rookie running backs that lit it up despite rarely getting drafted in fantasy football. All told, rookie running back free agent pickups are about four times as likely to be fantasy starters as compared to non-rookie runners.
*What's left now? *
Week 1 studs like Alfred Morris and our own Kevin Ogletree were likely scooped up earlier this week in your fantasy league, so you'll need to wait until after the Week 2 games to find quality options on the wire. With the above data in mind, here are a few favorites of mine who probably aren't owned in your league:
QB Blaine Gabbert
- Rookies who underachieved are perhaps the best value in all of fantasy football. Gabbert may or may not have been picked up in your league after a solid Week 1 outing.
QB Ryan Fitzpatrick
- Fitzpatrick played with two broken ribs in 2011 (hey, so did someone else I know). He was poor in Week 1, but he'll put up decent bulk stats with the Bills throwing a bunch.
RB Bernard Pierce
- Keep an eye on Pierce. If Ray Rice goes down, Pierce is all of a sudden looking at 15-plus touches a game. You can stash him in deep leagues.
RB Lamar Miller
- Backing up Reggie Bush in Miami, Miller is a poor man's Bernard Pierce.
WR Randall Cobb
- In shallow leagues, Cobb may still be on waivers. He lined up in the backfield 19 times in the Packers' loss to the Niners. He'll be Green Bay's version of Percy Harvin this year.
WR Harry Douglas
- The Falcons have clearly transitioned to an up-tempo, spread attack. Douglas already has value as a slot receiver, but it will soar if something happens to Julio Jones or Roddy White.
TE Tony Moeaki
- Moeaki showed promise as a rookie, but he missed the 2011 season with a torn knee. He has more upside than any of the rookie tight ends outside of Coby Fleener.
The key with any waiver wire pickup is noticing the potential for a breakout before the big game actually comes. If you can land a Cam Newton-like player before he's the apple of everyone's waiver wire eye, you'll be in a much better position to mimic the Cowboys' ability to find undrafted stars.