How to Value Rookies in Fantasy Football (Pre/Post-Draft)
“How high should I be drafting rookies in best-ball formats prior to the NFL Draft?”
It’s a question that comes up quite a bit now that best-ball has gained momentum among the fantasy community. It’s a fair question, too, as we have no idea where these players will end up. Some will say they know, but did we really expect the Vikings to be the one to land Dalvin Cook in the second-round last year? Nah.
So, the question really comes down to, “what is the most likely of scenarios?” It’s really that simple. In order to find the answer, we have to go back through the last five years and look at the players drafted at each position. We’re doing five years because I feel it’s recent enough to be relevant, and it’s also not too small of a sample size.
Again, we are looking for the most likely of scenarios. While doing this exercise, you have to put all your preconceived notions about Player X away and focus on what history has shown us with rookies. This exercise will help you in all areas – best-ball, redraft, and heck, even dynasty (learning which positions will have more value after year one).
This is easily the most predictable position in fantasy football among rookies. While some of you likely knew that already, it’s interesting to know exactly how much more predictable. First things first, the chart below shows running backs drafted by each round, along with their average carries, receptions, total touches, and fantasy finish in their rookie years.
As you can see, a running back who’s expected to be drafted in the first-round has a great success rate. In fact, you can argue that those running backs are safer than veterans, simply because the team just invested prime capital at the position, and they’re going to get the most out of him. But where does that trend end? Well, over the last five years, it seems to end at the third-round of the NFL Draft.
Of the 34 running backs who’ve been drafted inside the top three rounds of the draft, 12 of them have gone on to produce top-24 numbers in their rookie season. Meanwhile, the 59 running backs drafted in the 4th-6th round have produced just two top-24 running backs. Since most are likely wondering, the two running backs were Jordan Howard in 2016 and Zac Stacy in 2013. It’s important to note that both stepped into the starters role due to injury, something that’s unpredictable.
The touches given to running backs drafted in the top two rounds is massive when you consider that they’ve averaged 201.6 carries in their rookie season, a number that only 18 running backs hit in 2017. There’s a decent gap when you get down into the third-round, though the fantasy performance has been relatively the same to those drafted in the second-round.
The takeaway here, is don’t be afraid to draft rookie running backs who are projected to go in the top three rounds of the NFL Draft, and particularly those who are expected to go in the first-round. Some of the running backs who fit the three-round criteria in 2018 are: Saquon Barkley, Derrius Guice, Sony Michel, Ronald Jones, and Rashaad Penny. While not all of them will pan out, there’s no obvious reason to avoid rookie running backs. Their bust percentages pretty much align with all non-elite running backs. Does this mean running backs drafted after the third-round are chopped liver? No, but understand that we’re shooting for high ceilings in best-ball, and if history shows us anything, it’s that they’ll need an injury in front of them to make that happen. Even then, their best outcome is likely in the RB2 range. Treat them as they are – handcuffs.
This is the position I was most curious about when I started my research, as I felt like rookie wide receivers may be better than most thought. Sure, there’s been a bad run over the last two years near the top of the draft, but surely, there were others who made up for that slack, right? The results were somewhat shocking.
And now, you’re starting to realize why many dynasty owners are taking running backs atop rookie drafts. It’s because you get immediate return at the running back position, while you can almost always aquire a wide receiver cheaper after his rookie year. While there are many debating which wide receivers will go inside the first-round, it doesn’t seem to matter all that much, as wide receivers drafted in the second-round tend to get just as much opportunity to shine.
Looking at the average targets, you can clearly see those who are drafted inside the top two rounds get a much larger opportunity in their rookie year than those taken in the third-round or later. Not that it’s amounted to much for those drafted in the top two rounds, as the average fantasy finish for them is the WR66. And keep in mind that I capped the yearly finish number at 100, so even if a player finished as the WR135, the number maxes out at WR100.
Over the last five years, there’ve been just two receivers who finished as a WR1 during their rookie season, Odell Beckham Jr. and Michael Thomas. Both were drafted inside the top two rounds, so if you’re looking to find your diamond in the rough, you’d better find him inside the top two rounds, because there wasn’t a single one outside that range. In fact, of the 92 wide receivers drafted in between the 3rd-6th round, just one of them (Keenan Allen) even produced a top-24 fantasy season, and just three of them (3.3 percent) finished as a top-36 receiver.
The primary takeaway here should be to avoid rookie wide receivers in best-ball, unless you’re able to get someone who’s going to go inside the top two rounds later in drafts. Because even if there have been a few occasions where they’ve flashed WR1 upside, it’s an extremely rare occurrence. In fact, there’s just a 27.5 percent chance that they finish as a WR3 in year one. Rookie wide receivers simply don’t have enough reward for the risk you’re taking. If you get down into the range of WR5’s being taken off the board, this is where I’d feel comfortable taking my chance on a receiver drafted in the top two rounds. The list of players expected to go inside the top two rounds include: Calvin Ridley, Courtland Sutton, James Washington, Christian Kirk, and D.J. Moore. There are a few others who can sneak in there (Michael Gallup), but those guys should be locks.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, I think we all know how to feel about rookie tight ends. But hey, the game is changing as we know it, so maybe we’ll be surprised by the numbers.
Our worst fears are realized, as rookie tight ends still don’t produce. The game is changing, so we have to keep our antennas up, but knowing that just one rookie tight end has finished top-18 in the last five years, it’s fair to say we haven’t experienced a shift just yet. The only tight end to produce that top-18 season was Evan Engram last year, and there were a lot of contributing factors that led to that, including both Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandon Marshall going down with season-ending injuries early in the season.
The 64.2 targets per season that first-round tight ends see isn’t bad, though. That number would’ve ranked 18th among tight ends last year. With the tight end position, especially in best-ball, weekly touchdown upside is the most important thing. This shows that they cannot be trusted for year-long production as your TE1, but if you want to draft a first-round tight end as your TE2, that’s perfectly fine. The issue is that everyone wants the shiny new toy and the reason we saw O.J. Howard and David Njoku being drafted as top-15 options at times in best-ball formats last year. The tight ends who have a chance to go in the first-round include: Dallas Goedert, Mike Gesicki, Hayden Hurst, and Mark Andrews. Not all of them will go in the first-round, but this is the list of tight ends I’d consider drafting if they fall outside the top-18 tight ends drafted.