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The Most Valuable Kinds of Rookies and Prospects (2020 Fantasy Football)

Jun 5, 2020

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The 2020 NFL Draft gave sports fans a much needed live event. Although the draft was held remotely, 15.6M viewers tuned in to the first round of the NFL event. I even hopped on a Zoom call with some of my friends as we watched in anticipation of where these rookies would fall.

There are many great players already in the NFL. However, the incoming rookie class each year is full of hope and wonder. Fantasy football players always want to be the first on a rookie, to acquire the player before he breaks out. However, evaluating rookie prospects is a challenge. Even NFL front offices struggle with their player evaluations, and they are paid to do this for a living!

In this article, we will explore the types of rookie prospects that pan out for fantasy purposes. Generally, a good real-life player will return fantasy production, but we also know that opportunity is a key component of fantasy value as well. Therefore, we will be approaching this from a numbers-based, statistical fantasy standpoint.

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NFL Draft Capital

This one is pretty simple. Players drafted higher in the NFL Draft are typically better players. They have more significant investments from their NFL team, and they are often given more opportunities to succeed at the next level.

David Zach incorporates Draft Capital into his Fantasy Z-Score, a predictive model for projecting fantasy success of rookie RBs and WRs entering the NFL. David analyzes RBs and WRs who are selected within the first four rounds of the NFL Draft. This is important to keep in mind, as players drafted on the third day of the NFL draft rarely pan out for fantasy purposes.

Here are the rookies since 2017 drafted on Day Three:

2019 Kelvin Harmon  WAS WR 5.34
2017 Dede Westbrook  JAC WR 4.03
2019 Hakeem Butler  ARI WR 4.01
2018 Justin Jackson  LAC RB 7.33
2019 Benny Snell  PIT RB 4.2
2018 Kalen Ballage  MIA RB 4.31
2017 Samaje Perine  WAS RB 4.07
2018 Deon Cain  IND WR 6.11
2018 Jaylen Samuels  PIT RB 5.28
2019 Justice Hill  BAL RB 4.11
2019 Bryce Love  WAS RB 4.1
2017 Josh Reynolds  LAR WR 4.1
2017 Jake Butt  DEN TE 5.01
2017 Jamaal Williams  GBP RB 4.26
2018 Keke Coutee  HOU WR 4.03
2018 Nyheim Hines  IND RB 4.04
2019 Ryquell Armstead  JAC RB 5.02
2018 DaeSean Hamilton  DEN WR 4.13
2018 Antonio Callaway  CLE WR 4.05
2018 Jordan Wilkins  IND RB 5.32
2018 Ito Smith  ATL RB 4.26
2019 Hunter Renfrow  OAK WR 5.11

 
That is not exactly a list of fantasy superstars and it is why we typically focus on players who were a priority in the draft for their NFL teams.

Changes in Rookie ADP Following NFL Draft

Throughout this piece, I will be referencing Rookie Draft ADP and Dynasty Startup ADP, courtesy of Dynasty League Football.

Rookie mock drafts are conducted shortly after the conclusion of the NCAA football season all the way up until the NFL Draft. Following the draft, mocks are still conducted along with most rookie drafts for dynasty leagues. Before the NFL draft, rookie draft ADP is based on player evaluations, the perceived draft capital for players, and the players’ college production profiles.

Following the NFL draft, rookie draft ADP is shaken up based on the landing spots of the players, their path for opportunities, and the actual draft capital that was invested in them by NFL teams. Right or wrong, we see dramatic shifts in rookie ADP, and I felt it worth investigating.

For each rookie class dating back to 2017, I compared March rookie ADP to May ADP. March serves as a good representation of pre-draft ADP, while May is the ADP of players following the NFL draft.

Fallers

Here are the rookies who saw the biggest drop in ADP following the NFL Draft.

Year Player Team Position NFL Draft (Rd.Pick) May ADP March ADP Rookie ADP Change
2019 Kelvin Harmon  WAS WR 5.34 23.1 6.8 -16.3
2017 Dede Westbrook  JAC WR 4.03 42.5 30.5 -12.0
2018 Mark Andrews  BAL TE 3.22 35.5 25.6 -9.9
2019 Darrell Henderson  LAR RB 3.06 18.1 9.1 -9.0
2019 Damien Harris  NEP RB 3.24 20.1 11.4 -8.7
2019 Hakeem Butler  ARI WR 4.01 11.6 4.0 -7.6
2018 Dallas Goedert  PHI TE 2.17 27.0 21.3 -5.7
2018 Justin Jackson  LAC RB 7.33 43.4 38.1 -5.3
2019 Devin Singletary  BUF RB 3.11 22.7 17.6 -5.1
2017 Carlos Henderson  DEN WR 3.18 21.3 16.7 -4.6
2019 D.K. Metcalf  SEA WR 2.32 6.4 2.0 -4.4
2018 James Washington  PIT WR 2.28 14.1 9.8 -4.3
2017 Alvin Kamara  NOS RB 3.03 13.3 9.3 -4.0
2019 Benny Snell  PIT RB 4.2 30.7 26.7 -4.0
2018 Courtland Sutton  DEN WR 2.08 10.2 6.2 -4.0
2017 Dalvin Cook  MIN RB 2.09 5.2 2.0 -3.2
2018 Kalen Ballage  MIA RB 4.31 22.0 19.0 -3.0
2017 Samaje Perine  WAS RB 4.07 14.2 11.4 -2.8

 
There is a clear distinction to make on this list. Remember that list of players who were drafted on Day Three of the NFL Draft? You will see a lot of those names here as well. Those are players who rightfully fell in rookie ADP following poor draft capital in the NFL Draft.

However, there are some really good NFL players on this list as well. Those are players who could have been had at a discount in rookie drafts following the NFL Draft.

Dalvin Cook is only listed near the bottom of the list because his change in rookie draft ADP is not a large number. However, when we take a closer look, we see that Cook was being selected as the second player in the class in March and fell to the fifth slot following the NFL Draft. Three slots in the top half of the first round of a rookie draft is significant, and Cook has benefited fantasy owners who were able to scoop him up.

Courtland Sutton, D.K. Metcalf, and Alvin Kamara are other players who had a first-round rookie draft ADP in March, but fell several spots following the NFL Draft. Sutton landed in Denver, and his value took a dip because of the presence of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Thomas is out of the league, and Sanders is on his second team since leaving the Broncos. Metcalf fell in rookie drafts after landing in a perceived low passing volume offense that already featured Tyler Lockett at WR. Similarly, Kamara was a first-round rookie pick who slipped into the second round of rookie ADP after joining Mark Ingram in the Saints backfield.

In all of these cases, a talented player who was a consensus first-round pick in Rookie Draft ADP fell following the NFL Draft due to perceived competition or a less than ideal offensive situation. This is an important reminder to allow talent to prevail. If a player is consistently being selected highly in rookie drafts and then gets the NFL Draft Capital to go along with it, that is a player we want to target, especially if the player is falling in rookie ADP and presenting an even greater value.

Rookie Year Fantasy Finish

I know what you’re thinking. How can where a player finishes in fantasy during his rookie season be a predictor for success when he’s a prospect? Well, NFL teams and fantasy owners alike struggle at evaluating rookie prospects. Where we have more success is ranking fantasy players and predicting where players will finish positionally.

Therefore, if we can determine how a rookie’s fantasy finish will affect his dynasty value, then we can use redraft rankings to impact our rookie draft decisions.

I utilized Dynasty League Football’s startup ADP for these comparisons. I looked at a player’s startup ADP for May of his rookie year and compared it to the startup ADP of May for the year following his rookie season. In other words, this difference in ADP shows if the player gained value or lost value after his first year in the NFL.

Reviewing all rookie classes going back to 2015, RBs who averaged at least 8.1 fantasy points per game (PPG) in 0.5 PPR in their first season saw an increase in their startup ADP the following year. On average, these players saw a 37% increase in startup positional ADP and a 45% increase in overall startup ADP. This is extremely significant.

Remember, the second ADP in the comparison is in May of the year following the rookie’s first season in the NFL. This means that the ADP is following the next NFL Draft, which brought a new influx of rookie RBs into the league. Rookie year production for a RB is vital to the player’s dynasty value.

Switching over to the WR position, players who averaged at least 7.3 0.5 PPR PPG in their rookie season saw on average a 42% increase in overall startup ADP and a 40% increase in positional startup ADP. In the entire data set, there are no cases of a RB averaging 8.1 PPG or a WR averaging 7.3 PPG and seeing anything besides an improvement on positional and overall startup ADP. Every player who hit these fantasy points per game thresholds saw an increase in their dynasty value immediately following their rookie season.

The data set for rookies to hit these thresholds includes obvious studs at the RB position like Saquon Barkley and Ezekiel Elliott, but also players like David Johnson, Nick Chubb, Joe Mixon, and Miles Sanders who were not all immediately given the keys to the backfield. At the WR position, players who hit this rookie threshold include Kenny Golladay, Tyler Lockett, D.J. Moore, Stefon Diggs, D.K. Metcalf, Calvin Ridley, and Michael Thomas.

Some of these players were already valued extremely highly entering their rookie season. Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley were already being selected as top three RBs when entering the NFL, but even they experienced increases in their overall startup ADP after strong rookie campaigns. Therefore, even if a player has high expectations when entering the league, hitting these points per game thresholds will increase the player’s dynasty value.

Players to Target in the 2020 Rookie Class

Now that we have found some key statistics that can help project a rookie prospect’s fantasy production and dynasty value, let’s examine which rookies from the 2020 class can be targets.

Draft Capital

There are too many to list, but we will focus on players who were selected within the first three rounds of the NFL Draft.

Fallers in Rookie ADP Following NFL Draft

Here are players who fell in Rookie ADP despite receiving solid NFL Draft Capital.

Player Team Position NFL Draft (Rd.Pick) May ADP March ADP Rookie ADP Change
Jordan Love  GBP QB 1.26 40.6 34.5 -6.1
Laviska Shenault  JAC WR 2.42 18.7 12.8 -5.9
Tee Higgins  CIN WR 2.01 14 9.8 -4.2
Zack Moss  BUF RB 3.22 18.5 15.2 -3.3
Jerry Jeudy  DEN WR 1.15 7 3.8 -3.2
Justin Herbert  LAC QB 1.06 27.8 25.7 -2.1
CeeDee Lamb  DAL WR 1.17 5.7 4 -1.7
Denzel Mims  NYJ WR 2.27 14.3 13 -1.3

 
Zack Moss dropped in ADP because dynasty players were hoping that he would land in an ideal running back landing spot like Tampa Bay or Kansas City. However, he was valued as an early second-round pick before the NFL draft, and he could return value for fantasy owners.

This is an incredibly strong WR class, which led to Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb, Tee Higgins, Laviska Shenault, and Denzel Mims all dropping in rookie ADP after landing in less than ideal landing spots in the eyes of fantasy owners. I’m urging you to not make the same mistake that owners made in the past with the likes of Courtland Sutton and D.K. Metcalf. Talented WRs will command targets in an NFL offense. Players like Jeudy and Lamb, in particular, are values after dropping a few spots from the top of the first round of rookie drafts.

Rookie Fantasy Points Per Game Threshold

Of course, the 2020 rookies have not played a down in the NFL yet. However, we can look at redraft fantasy rankings and projections to see which rookies have the best chance to reach these thresholds.

In 2019, 8.1 PPG for a RB extrapolated over 16 games would be the RB28 in half PPR formats. Using that as a cutoff, there are three rookie RBs who fit the mold in our expert consensus rankings.

2020 Rookie RBs in our Expert Consensus Rankings

Rank Player Name Team
RB15 Clyde Edwards-Helaire KC
RB19 Jonathan Taylor IND
RB26 D’Andre Swift DET
RB29 Cam Akers LAR
RB33 Ke’Shawn Vaughn TB
RB39 J.K. Dobbins BAL
RB47 Zack Moss BUF
RB57 A.J. Dillon GB
RB59 Darrynton Evans TEN
RB63 Anthony McFarland Jr. PIT
RB64 Joshua Kelley LAC

 
Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Jonathan Taylor find themselves in strong offenses and should both have an early opportunity to produce. D’Andre Swift has to deal with the oft-injured Kerryon Johnson, but he too just meets the cutoff. Cam Akers, Ke’Shawn Vaughn, and J.K. Dobbins have question marks about their usage in their rookie years, but they could also meet the 8.1 PPG if things break right.

At the WR position, 7.3 PPG extrapolated over 16 games would have finished as the WR49 in half PPR formats. This may seem like a low bar, but dynasty owners are typically willing to be patient with young WRs. As long as the rookie can flash and just show something in his first NFL season, owners will often get excited about his future in the league.

Consulting our expert consensus rankings, we actually do not have any rookie WRs ranked within this threshold.

Rank Player Name Team
WR51 CeeDee Lamb DAL
WR52 Jerry Jeudy DEN
WR55 Justin Jefferson MIN
WR58 Henry Ruggs III LV
WR68 Jalen Reagor PHI
WR71 Michael Pittman IND
WR74 Denzel Mims NYJ
WR76 Tee Higgins CIN
WR77 Laviska Shenault Jr. JAC
WR80 Brandon Aiyuk SF

 
As I mentioned, we generally expect very little from rookie WRs. It tends to take time for players at the position to transition to the NFL. That being said, every year we have rookies who surprise us and burst onto the scene. This would include guys like Terry McLaurin, A.J. Brown, and D.K. Metcalf from last season.

From a redraft perspective, it makes sense to not project any rookie WRs to make a fantasy impact in their first season. CeeDee Lamb, Jerry Jeudy, Justin Jefferson, and Henry Ruggs III all have the best chance to produce in their rookie seasons.

Final Thoughts

There are many methods for evaluating rookie prospects. The more information we have, the better. This analysis and research that I have shared is not comprehensive and should not be the only tool used in evaluating incoming players.

Plenty of rookies have had fantasy success who did not drop in rookie ADP following the NFL draft and who were not projected to score many fantasy points their rookie year. However, if we can identify players who meet these thresholds, then statistical history suggests that they will see an increase in their dynasty value.

Complete early mock drafts using our free draft simulator >>


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