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Predicting Rookie Wide Receiver Success Post-NFL Draft (2020 Fantasy Football)

by David Zach | @DavidZach16 | Featured Writer
May 13, 2020

Justin Jefferson echoes many stat lines possessed by WR1 Ceedee Lamb.

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Welcome back to the Fantasy Z-Score! A statistical breakdown of what metrics matter most for predicting future fantasy production. Last week, we went over running backs which you can find here.

Parts of the model have changed from last year as I find stronger and stronger metrics that have been significantly tied to future fantasy points. Some changes included removing HaSS and landing spots, and adding Average Yards Per Team Pass Attempt, adjusting production for team strength, early declares, among others. In the end, it creates a final projected three-year PPG outlook for all rookie wide receivers selected in round 1-4 of the NFL draft.

One significant change that altered how the model behaved is switching from projecting years 1-3 of an NFL career to years 2-4. The reason for this being the typical learning curve that usually follows for wide receivers as opposed to immediate return that running backs provide to get a more accurate projection. The final Z-score projection incorporates every category with varying weights as it pertains to how strong the correlation to PPG are, but the following breakdown will let you choose which categories you care about most if you prefer to do so.

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Method Behind the Madness

Let’s get to it. This part may feel a bit long for some, so feel free to skip to the 2020 Wide Receiver Rankings down the article if the process doesn’t interest you.

While no one stat is perfect, the combination of all gives us a promising analytical chance at finding successful players. The following six categories were inspired by a combination of myself and some leading minds in the fantasy industry. Together they make up a player’s Z-score. 

Draft Capital

  • Pick placement.

Early Declare

  • Wide receivers who declare early have an increased rate of NFL success.

Team Adjusted Market Share

  • Market Share of Receiving Yards Per Game of final season, adjusted for team strength via SRS (Simple Rating System)

Career Production

  • Measure of Average Receiving Yards Per Team Pass Attempt (college career)
  • Dominator Rating per game of final two seasons

Breakout Age

  • The earlier they succeed in college, the earlier that success will typically translate to NFL

Physical Measurements (primarily hand size)

  • Hand Size Thresholds
  • Arm Length Thresholds
  • Height
  • Weight

Each final letter grade is representative of what echelon of PPG that player falls into. (E.g. an age 18 breakout age grades as an A). Please follow the resources mentioned below if you want a more detailed explanation of these categories.

Breaking down each category, we can understand their usefulness. As with any position, draft capital is self-explanatory. The higher the selection, the better the player likely is and the more investment from the team to ensure they succeed.

Early declare shows that the level of interest is strong for players considering a final year of college to enter the NFL draft early. It’s also a testament to a player’s talent, as better players are sought after more fervently by scouting departments. This was a metric @LordReebs broke down in further detail here:

Career production is the most meaningful category in the Z-Score next to draft capital. Average Yards Per Team Pass Attempt had the strongest single stat correlation to fantasy points in my database, essentially tying draft position. These were first brought to my attention through the work of Jesse Reeves, whom you can find on twitter @jessereevesFF, and the database of Peter Howard found @pahowdy. I have also found that dominator rating per game of the final two seasons shows more meaning than traditional dominator (final season and best season), but oftentimes, these naturally happen to be the same.

When looking for players that stood out most on their team, team adjusted market share was a critical variable to consider. This not only highlights players who dominated on their team, but how good that production was relative to the overall team strength. Obtaining a 40% market share on LSU is far more difficult than a 40% market share on Liberty. This metric was inspired and led by Rotoworld analyst Hayden Winks (found at @HaydenWinks) and compiled once again through the database of Peter Howard. 

Next up is breakout age. While breakout age is somewhat baked into early declares and early college production, it gives another perspective because some players enter college older/younger than others. It also tells us the exact year they excelled which may get lost in career arcs with hyper-efficient final seasons.

Last but not least are physical measurements. Physical measurements alone surprisingly carry more weight than combine athleticism for wide receivers, and hand size has mysteriously been at the forefront in relating to fantasy points. It doesn’t correlate to dropped targets, contested catches, or anything else I have found, but it has linked strongly to fantasy production. Height, weight, and arm size are not nearly as significant as anything else on this list, but they do carry some slight correlation when used in context.

As we did with running backs, let’s compare how well these metrics correlated to PPG over the last five years plus the top performers in fantasy in 2018 and 2019 regardless of the year they were drafted. Draft capital itself has a historical R-squared of 0.29 to three-year PPG, compared to an R-squared of 0.55 for the Z-Score.

To better visualize this difference, study the charts below. Check for line of fit, R-squared, and outliers. Which would you trust more to predict rookie success, draft capital alone or the Fantasy Z-Score?

From visual fit alone, the Z-Score correlation reduces your risk dramatically. While the range of outcomes are still fairly variable, it gives us a far better chance of finding future success.

Remember, these are three year projections for PPG, not solely rookie year success. Wide receivers that stood out last year still project higher in the model. Expect the likes of N’Keal Harry and JJ Arcega-Whiteside to bounce back dramatically after their down rookie years, and players like Terry McLaurin to come back down to Earth. Although if you want to take a chance, he might be the outlier worth the gamble. No one has ever shattered rookie projection models quite like he has.

Without any further ado, let’s dive into the 2020 rookie class.

2020 Dynasty WR Rankings and Predictions

In one of the greatest draft classes in recent memory for fantasy purposes, this wide receiver group does not disappoint. The depth of dynasty rookie drafts are finding high caliber players fall deep into the second round, a fantastic year to possess draft picks.

Below you will find each player’s Fantasy Z-Score rating, a snapshot of their profile grades, and their current FantasyPros Expert Consensus Ranking. A full summary of the 2020 class all in one chart is included here for your viewing pleasure:

Tier 1

1. CeeDee Lamb (DAL)
Projected PPG: 13.4
FantasyPros Rookie ECR: WR2

Widely regarded as the best receiver in the class (for good reason), Lamb surprisingly fell down as the third receiver off the board to Dallas. While he doesn’t score as elite as some of the years past, there is no major flaw to his resume. He checks all the boxes you want from a star wideout as shown above. 

While many believe it a poor landing spot given the immediate competition of Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup, targets are generally earned. Lamb has the ability to earn them as both the best statistical receiver in the class and as ranked as such by many scouting departments. Don’t let the threat of competition scare you off. After all, teams are able to support three receivers as shown in the past, and Lamb has the ability to eventually leapfrog the pecking order.

2. Justin Jefferson (MIN)
Projected PPG: 12.9
FantasyPros Rookie ECR: WR3

Jefferson echoes many stat lines possessed by WR1 Ceedee Lamb. They share similar breakout ages (19), average yards per team pass attempts (2.5), team adjusted market shares, yards per game (102), and identical dominator ratings per game (30%). While their gameplay is different, it’s quite astonishing when you compare the two through the eyes of metrics.

Jefferson has little to no competition for an immediate starting job alongside Adam Thielen, which should translate into significant snap shares right away. What he gains in snap share, he may lose in the Vikings offensive tendencies. The Vikings rushed at the fourth-highest rate in the NFL last year at 48.3% and targeted their receivers only 209 times, second-lowest only to the Ravens. These two contradictions of immediate snap share and low passing volume should relatively offset, and what’s leftover is that Jefferson is still a very good receiver.

3. Jerry Jeudy (DEN)
Projected PPG: 12.8
FantasyPros Rookie ECR: WR1

The poster child for route running greatness, Jeudy comes in as the models WR3 while being ranked WR1 by FantasyPros ECR. So what puts him below the other two mentioned previously? The glaring counterpoints were his subpar team adjusted market share and dominator ratings, yet his yards per team pass attempt was very respectable. 

The Broncos knew what they were doing in the draft. Pairing the large, contested-catch winner Sutton with a speedster like Hamler and a crisp route runner like a Jeudy, and you have three players that complement each other almost perfectly. The final question is if the passing volume will be there and if Drew Lock is up for the task.

He was my personal WR1 from a football perspective before the draft. I simply loved watching him play, his sharp cuts, and smooth routes and believe he will translate seamlessly to the NFL level.

Tier 2

4. Jalen Reagor (PHI)
Projected PPG: 11.8
FantasyPros Rookie ECR: WR5

Reagor is one of the most interesting prospects because of his unique circumstances. His quarterback play was quite poor at TCU, which was very effective at deflating his production numbers. In fact, he had one of the worst rates of “on target” throws of anybody in this article:

He goes from one of the least accurate passers in college to one of the more accurate deep passers in the NFL. Carson Wentz ranked 11th in on target passing percentage according to the SportsInfoSolutions.

With one of the best breakout ages in recent history and exciting athleticism, Reagor has some very attractive upside.

5. KJ Hamler (DEN)
Projected PPG: 11.5
FantasyPros Rookie ECR: WR13

Welcome to the sleeper of your rookie drafts that no one seems to care about. Coming at the rookie WR13 in ECR, Hamler is a smash hit relative to his current value. Compare his profile to that of Lamb and Jefferson, the top two receivers on this list. The biggest difference is draft capital, that’s about it. He is well above average in all categories and a production darling compared to receivers being taken ahead of him.

In his only two years playing college football, he easily led his team in receiving yards and it wasn’t close. Nearly 400 yards of difference between him and their second-best producer each year. Simply outstanding.

So why is he ranked so low? The expected competition from Sutton, Jeudy, Fant, and to lesser extents Gordon and Lindsay are the only things cramping his style. He would likely be selected much higher had he landed on almost any other team. While the risk of too many mouths to feed hangs over him, I still believe talent earns targets, and all Hamler has done his collegiate career is produce.

Tier 3

6. Henry Ruggs (LV)
Projected PPG: 10.8
FantasyPros Rookie ECR: WR4

The first receiver selected on draft night falls all the way down to WR6 in the model projections. Ruggs has the best draft capital and hand size in the class, but it’s not nearly enough to overcome his rather awful production profile. He never broke out, had the lowest career production profile of the top-10 wideouts, and performed below average relative to his teammates his final year. None of these are promising for his long term outlook.

The Raiders went back to their roots drafting the fastest receiver in the class, and Ruggs’ 4.28 40-time is elite speed. Knowing how the Raiders will utilize him is a different story. Derek Carr had one of the lowest intended air yards per pass in the league last year, so unless he regains his deep ball confidence in 2020, we will likely need to rely on yards after the catch or a high reception total to make them impactful from a fantasy standpoint. And Ruggs was very good after the catch.

In the end, when you place your chips on Ruggs, you are hoping the Raiders and Carr properly utilize his skills and speed to overcome the dim outlook portrayed by his collegiate production profile.

7. Tee Higgins (CIN)
Projected PPG: 10.4
FantasyPros Rookie ECR: WR8

Projected to go in the first round by many notorious mock drafters, Higgins barely fell out but was the very first pick in round two. Similar to Hamler ranked two spots higher, he scores above or slightly above average in most categories, making him a nice all-around prospect.

Landing with the Bengals and their new franchise quarterback in Joe Burrow, Higgins will have the chance to grow side by side with the young signal-caller throughout their careers. Immediate depth chart would have him coming in at WR3 at best considering the roles locked up by AJ Green and Tyler Boyd. However, how long Green remains with the team remains to be seen due to both his age and recent management conflict. Boyd spends a lot of time operating the slot, which means Higgins could step into a primary outside role as soon as 2021 if not sooner. 

8. Brandon Aiyuk (SF)
Projected PPG: 10.1
FantasyPros Rookie ECR: WR10

The first non-early declare on our list is also the last remaining first-round pick. In being such, he joins a very unfortunate list of receivers who were both:

Now every player on this list is inherently different, but it does mark an unsettling trend. Besides the non-early declare and poor breakout age, he scores a “B-” or better in all other categories. 

The most outstanding trait is his incredible final season per game market of 39%, leading the entire 2020 class in this mark. But context matters, and this is before adjusting for team strength. Arizona State marks an SRS of 4.72, the lowest we have seen so far on this list.

Also worth noting is that the 49ers had the second-highest rushing rate in the NFL under Kyle Shanahan in 2019. The trick here may be finding the relevant volume even if he does buck some concerning trends. He is still a first-round pick so there is no doubt he has some promise, but it seems his ECR of WR10 is around the right price for what you should pay for him. 

Tier 4

9. Denzel Mims (NYJ)
Projected PPG: 8.8
FantasyPros Rookie ECR: WR6

Another prospect touted as a first-rounder in mock drafts, Mims fell all the way to the late second and was selected by the wide receiver needy Jets. He should have no problem finding his way into the starting lineup as he competes with Breshad Perriman and Jamison Crowder for snaps.

Mims projects to be an athletic specimen, having one of the highest Height Adjusted SpeedScores after logging a 4.38 40-time at 6’3″, 207 pounds. He also holds one of the fastest 3-cone times in years of 6.66 seconds. While athletic testing hasn’t carried much weight for projections in the past, it’s hard to resist these top-tier marks.

The biggest knock that isn’t captured in his analytic profile is that he’ll plug into a lackluster Jets offense run by the fantasy-killer Adam Gase. They ranked second to last in points per game last year in what simply looked like a broken offense. Here’s hoping Sam Darnold can stay healthy, their offensive line gets rejuvenated, and that Mims provides them a much-needed spark.

The remaining receivers can be found in the overall chart listed above. They are all a solid tier below these top-9, and their projections can give you an idea of what to expect. Players like Michael Pittman and Laviska Shenault rank noticeably lower than ECR, while guys like Bryan Edwards and Antonio Gandy-Golden could be later values.

Conclusion

I hope this breakdown was helpful for you to find the stats that matter most when researching your rookie wide receivers for the upcoming season. Remember that projections are only a portion of what to consider when evaluating a prospect. Landing spot, coaching tendencies, and the supporting cast also play major roles.

Thanks for reading and stay golden! If you like what you learned, follow me @DavidZach16 for more interesting stats and tidbits throughout the year.

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David Zach is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from David, check out his archive and follow him @DavidZach16.

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