How to Value Rookies in Fantasy Football (Pre/Post-Draft)
When looking at the incoming class of rookies, it reminds me of my two-year-old. He has a plethora of toys around the house that he’s enjoyed for quite some time and some of them have gotten plenty of use. Then comes his birthday, where dozens of toys are placed in front of him and they’re all the stars of the show… for that day. Sure, he’ll find a few gems that stick around for a while, but for the most part, they wind up in his closet and he never plays with them again.
The incoming class of rookies may seem great when you head into draft season, but in the end, a lot of them are going to find their way to the waiver wire before you’ve even inserted them into your lineup. Why is that? Well, rookies just tend to disappoint more than most think. When I started writing about fantasy football, these were the questions that I always wanted answered, so I started researching them in order to justify my beliefs.
Where should rookies be drafted in redraft leagues? Is it really that rare for them to produce right from the get-go? I mean, we saw Calvin Ridley and D.J. Moore make pretty significant impacts in their rookie year, right? The best part about research is that it’s not subjective. It’s cold-hard facts about what’s taken place on the football field. While there are certain draft classes that were better than others (specifically at one position), that blends together when we take a sample size of six years.
I not only wanted to find out what the odds were of a player contributing to fantasy in year one, but I also wanted to find out if their actual draft position (in the NFL Draft) mattered. For instance, because a wide receiver is drafted in the second-round, is he more likely to succeed than one drafted in the fourth-round? Is that because he gets more opportunity or simply because he’s more talented? Let’s look at the history of players drafted by round in the NFL Draft.
This is by far the most predictable position when it comes to fantasy football production. This should be somewhat obvious due to the nature of the position, as running backs aren’t expected to last very long and they should be able to walk in and produce from day one, if needed. The chart below breaks down what round the running backs were drafted, how many of them have been drafted, and their average carries, receptions, total touches, and fantasy finish.
As you can see, a running back drafted in the first-round comes with massive potential. There’s only been seven running backs drafted in the first-round over the last six years, but if they are, it almost always means a big workload right out of the gate, as they averaged 283.4 touches per season. To give you an idea as to how much that is, there were just five running backs who totaled that many touches in 2018. I should also mention that Rashaad Penny severely dragged down the results, as the average fantasy finish for first-round running backs would have been 18.0 without him included.
Extending the sample size outside of the first-round does become a bit scarier, as the 33 running backs who’ve been drafted in the second- or third-round have averaged 147.1 touches their rookie year. There were 37 running backs who totaled at least that many touches in 2018. Think about that for a minute: even running backs who are drafted on Day 2 of the NFL Draft turn deliver RB2 production just 27.3 percent of the time.
Once you get into Day 3, your luck of finding a workhorse running back as a rookie is nearly impossible, as there’s been just 2-of-69 running backs drafted in the 4th through 6th round who’ve delivered top-24 numbers their rookie year. Jordan Howard and Zac Stacy were those players and each of them totaled at least 250 carries in those seasons. Stacy was never to be heard from again, while Howard appears to be on that same track moving forward.
You will get exceptions to the rule at times – like Phillip Lindsay in 2018 – but most of the time, it’s best to simply avoid rookie running backs who aren’t drafted in the first-round. There are many old-school fantasy players who’ll tell you not to overvalue a rookie running back, even if he was drafted in the first-round, but history tells us that first-round running backs likely have a higher hit-rate than the player(s) you’re deciding on, even in their rookie year. Second- and third-round running backs are fine to draft, just don’t pay a premium to draft them like you would with first-rounders. Remember, the average fantasy finish for a running back selected in the second-round is just RB41. This is known as a weak running back class and it seems unlikely that one is taken in the first-round. Some names who should hear their name called by the end of Day 2 include: Josh Jacobs, David Montgomery, and Damien Harris. There are others who can sneak into the top three rounds, but those are the only three I’d feel comfortable saying they will be.
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. There was a draught, as we know, over a few years, but the six-year sample size should help iron out some of the results. The common view on wide receivers is that they need time to catch-on in the NFL and that they usually breakout during their third NFL season. Does that mean you should ignore them completely? Below is the chart showing what round they were drafted, how many were drafted, the average targets received, and the average fantasy finish.
After looking at this chart, do you understand why it’s been extremely popular for dynasty owners to snag running backs towards the top of drafts? You’re more likely to get an top-24 running back who was drafted in the third-round than you are to get a top-24 wide receiver who was drafted in the first-round. Wide receivers can almost always be acquired cheaper after their rookie season and this chart explains why.
Over the last six years, there’s been just two wide receivers who’ve finished top-12 in their rookie season: Odell Beckham Jr. and Michael Thomas. Both were drafted inside the top two rounds. If you’re looking for the exception at wide receiver, you’d better look at one drafted in the top two rounds, as that’s where 9-of-10 top-24 wide receivers have come from. Still, you’re looking at just a 14.6 percent success rate, so you have a much better chance at hitting a dud than finding that diamond. That’s why the average finish for those receivers is the WR65.
When you look and see that just 3-of-111 wide receivers drafted in-between the third- and sixth-round have finished as top-36 wide receivers – and just one in the top-24 – it’s cause for concern. Essentially, if a wide receiver is drafted outside of the top two rounds, they have a 2.7 percent chance to become a WR3 or better in their rookie year. This stat is extremely odd, but one I must share: Of the 30 wide receivers who have been drafted in the fourth-round over the last six years, none of them finished inside the top-50 wide receivers.
The primary takeaway from this section would be to avoid rookie wide receivers, unless you’re getting a first- or second-round receiver extremely late in your draft, like the double-digit rounds. Once you get outside the top two rounds, where the wide receivers average 66 targets, the number drops significantly, as receivers drafted in the third-round average just 38.4 targets their rookie year and their average finish is the WR82. Some wide receivers who are expected to be taken in the top two rounds this year include: D.K. Metcalf, A.J. Brown, N’Keal Harry, Hakeem Butler, and maybe guys like Parris Campbell and Deebo Samuel. If they fall outside the top two rounds, you should just move on.
It’s pretty clear how the community feels about rookie tight ends, as they simply haven’t produced. With the game evolving, has that changed at all or can we continue ignoring them in redraft leagues?
The results… are what we thought they were. Rookie tight ends don’t produce. There’s always going to be someone that tempts you (ahem, Mike Gesicki truthers), but of the 70 tight ends who’ve been drafted inside the top six rounds of the draft, just one of them finished as a top-12 option, and that was Evan Engram in 2017 when both Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandon Marshall both went down with season-ending injuries, clearing out room for massive targets.
Now, this is expected to be one of the best tight end draft classes in quite some time, though it’s fair to say that just three tight ends will garner first-round consideration. Noah Fant, T.J. Hockenson, and Irv Smith Jr. are all guys who could be taken in the first-round, which is where you’d like them to be taken to even consider drafting them in redraft formats. I say that because first-rounders have averaged a very respectable 57.3 targets, while the second-round drops to 27.6 targets, and third-round down to a measly 24.0 targets. There were just 16 tight ends who saw at least 57 targets in 2018, so if you get someone like Fant in an above average offense with a void at the position (ahem, Saints), you might find yourself the exception to the rule. Follow the targets at tight end, but if you can’t clearly see them in a tight end’s future, do not draft him hoping for that to be that case, because it likely won’t work out.