How To Value Rookies In Fantasy Football (Pre/Post-Draft)
I shared this last year, but it still remains true, so I’ll share it again. When looking at the new class of incoming rookies, it reminds me of my three-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 rookies are the new toys to fantasy owners. They crave the ability to snag a breakout player while nobody knows who they are. But most of the time, those rookies wind-up on the waiver wire in your redraft league.
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 A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf, and Terry McLaurin become staples in fantasy lineups last 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 certainly some draft classes that are better than others (specifically at one position), that sample size will blend together when we have seven years of data to analyze.
When starting this research, 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.
If you’ve noticed anything about the current state of the NFL, it’s that running backs rarely get massive contracts once their rookie deal expires. Teams are using and abusing running backs, then throwing them out to the wolves in free agency. Because of that, running back production is the easiest one to see the curve with. 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 in their rookie season.
As you can see, when a running back is drafted in the first-round of the NFL Draft, he almost always gets massive opportunity right out of the gate. You don’t have to pay much attention to the fantasy finish so much, but look at the 249.6 touches they’ve averaged. Opportunity is everything to running backs and NFL teams have proven they don’t care about easing them into the action. Six of the nine running backs who’ve been drafted in the first-round over the last seven years have finished as the RB18 or better. The only running back who completely flopped was Rashaad Penny, who finished with just 94 touches. He’s the only one who didn’t total at least 197 touches as a rookie.
Moving further down the chain, there’s a dramatic drop-off when running backs get drafted in the second- and third-round of the NFL Draft, as just 10-of-39 running backs drafted on Day 2 have finished as an RB2 or better in their first year. Meanwhile 23-of-39 finished outside the top-36 running backs their rookie season.
Once you get into Day 3 of the NFL Draft, good luck finding a worthwhile running back for fantasy football purposes. Since the 2014 NFL Draft, there’s been just two running backs who’ve finished inside the top-24 running backs while being drafted in-between rounds 4-6. They were Jordan Howard (2016) and Zac Stacy (2013). Neither of those running backs were drafted for fantasy football purposes in those years and were waiver wire adds.
The bottom line here is that running backs can absolutely produce as rookies and you should not hesitate to draft those who were taken in the first-round of the NFL Draft. 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. If a team spends equity on them, they’re going to use them during the prime of their career.
If a running back you really like falls into Day 2, you should be a bit more cautious, though you should feel okay to snag him if there’s clear opportunity on the roster. If it’s a questionable depth chart, exercise some caution. If a running back falls into Day 3 of the NFL Draft, feel free to ignore them in redraft leagues. Are there going to be exceptions? Sure, but you don’t actively try to find them.
When I started doing research for this article, I’ll be honest… wide receiver was the position I was most curious about. For a long time, it’d been accepted that wide receivers take a few years to develop, and eventually break-out in year three. Was that true? Does it mean we should ignore them in redraft leagues and let the hype get out of control? Having a seven-year sample size should be a good gauge. Below is the chart showing what round they were drafted, how many were drafted, the average targets received, and the average fantasy finish.
This chart looks a lot different than the running backs one, eh? You’re just as likely to get a top-24 running back who was drafted in the third-round than you are to get a top-24 receiver who was drafted in the first-round. If anything, this chart should explain why it’s wise to target dynasty wide receivers heading into their second year, as there are not many who produce right out of the gate.
Over the last seven years, there have been just two wide receivers who’ve finished as a top-12 option in their rookie season. Those receivers were Odell Beckham Jr. and Michael Thomas, two of the best wide receivers this generation. Even lowering the bar to the WR2 range, there have been just nine wide receivers who’ve been able to get into top-24 territory. It’s important to keep in mind that 182 wide receivers have been drafted in rounds 1-6 during that time.
If you’re looking for a rookie receiver to be simply “fantasy relevant,” the best place to look is the first three rounds, as there have been 19 rookie wide receivers who’ve finished inside the top-36 (WR3 territory) over the last seven years, and 17 of them were drafted inside the top three rounds of the NFL Draft. Now, of course, this doesn’t mean it’s guarantee, as there were 68-of-85 of them who finished outside the top-36, but that’s the cutoff.
When I say cutoff, I mean it. If a wide receiver falls into the fourth-round, you can forget about him producing his rookie year. Of the 86 wide receivers who’ve been drafted in rounds 4-6, just two of them finished inside the top-36. Those wide receivers were Tyreek Hill (WR25, who fell due to off-the-field issues) and Darius Slayton (WR35). None have finished inside the top-24.
Here’s a stat that’s extremely odd: There have been 33 wide receivers drafted in the fourth-round over the last seven years. Not a single one of them has finished as a top-50 wide receiver in their rookie year. Apparently, you don’t want your favorite prospect being drafted in the fourth-round.
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 65 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 near locks to be taken in the top two rounds this year include: Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb, Justin Jefferson, Henry Ruggs, and Tee Higgins.
We’ve all heard that tight ends take time to develop, right? With the way the NFL has evolved, maybe the perception is incorrect? Or should we just continue to ignore them in redraft leagues?
Putting it lightly, the perceived value of rookie tight ends is correct. The only rookie tight end who’s finished as a top-12 option over the last seven years is Evan Engram, who had extenuating circumstances when both Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandon Marshall went down with season-ending injuries, leading to a massive 115 targets and TE5 finish.
If you do want to bet on a tight end right away, the only logical explanation to do so would be on one who was drafted in the first-round of the NFL Draft, as they’ve averaged a respectable 58.6 targets per season. As for the remaining rounds, none of them have ever provided a TE1 and none of them have averaged more than 28.8 targets per season. In the 2020 draft class, there’s not a single tight end who’s expected to go in the first-round.