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How To Value Rookies in Fantasy Football (Pre/Post-Draft)

by Mike Tagliere | @MikeTagliereNFL | Featured Writer
Mar 22, 2021

Devonta Smith is expected to go in the first round of the NFL Draft

Raise your hand if you have a guy in your league who always drafts rookies thinking they’re going to be the next big thing. That guy is going to be puffing his chest out a little bit more after 2020 where we saw guys like Justin Jefferson and Jonathan Taylor have monster rookie seasons. There will also be the naysayers, saying they want proven production rather than the young, unproven rookies.

Where should you land? As is the case with most things in life, it’s not black and white. There are rules and there are outliers. What we want to find out is what’s the most likely scenario? How often do rookies hit in fantasy football? Does draft position matter?

Look, there are going to be some draft classes that are better than others. Every year, you’ll hear someone tell you that this is the year. What I’ve done is assembled an eight-year sample size to sift through and find out exactly what the results say. No, not my opinion, but rather cold-hard facts that can’t be disputed.

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.

RUNNING BACKS

The NFL continues to shift away from veteran running backs, as you don’t see many of them getting massive second contracts. Once a running back comes into the league, they have a timer, and for most of them, it’s their four-year rookie contract. Teams are using and abusing them, then throwing them out to the wolves in free agency. Because of that, running backs should technically have more value as rookies, right? 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.

Drafted # Car Rec Touch FF Finish RB1% RB2% RB3% RB4%
1st Round 10 209.8 36.5 246.3 21.3 50.0% 70.0% 80.0% 90.0%
2nd Round 22 143.8 25.0 168.8 38.4 13.6% 40.9% 54.5% 77.3%
3rd Round 26 100.8 19.8 120.6 55.5 15.4% 19.2% 30.8% 50.0%
4th Round 34 70.0 17.4 87.5 68.4 0.0% 0.0% 20.6% 32.4%
5th Round 25 54.2 8.4 62.6 78.0 4.0% 8.0% 8.0% 12.0%
6th Round 28 23.9 5.9 29.8 90.8 0.0% 0.0% 3.6% 7.1%

 

This chart tells us a lot. Running backs who are drafted in the first round have massive opportunity from the moment they step onto the field, as they’ve averaged 246.3 touches in their first year. Was Clyde Edwards-Helaire somewhat of a disappointment last year? Yes, but this chart tells you that you shouldn’t be scared to draft rookie running backs who were taken with first-round picks, as they have a 70 percent chance to finish as an RB2 or better. In fact, the only running back selected in the first round who was a complete bust was Rashaad Penny, who everyone thought was a reach when the Seahawks selected him there. He’s the only one who failed to touch the ball at least 197 times as a rookie.

Whether you like it or not, draft equity matters. If a team invests heavily in a running back, they’re going to play him. What does “invest heavily” mean? Well, by this chart, I’d say that a first- or second-round pick qualifies. The 168.8 touches that a second-round running back has averaged is nothing to scoff at, though you can see the RB2 or better hit-rate drops to 40.9 percent, so you’re taking on some additional risk. The sample size is also much bigger at 22 players, so it’s a bit more reliable. What you need to know is that 10-of-22 backs drafted in the second round finished outside the top-36 running backs, which is what you’d consider a bust in fantasy.

If you move into the third round, it gets a lot dicier. Of the 26 running backs who’ve been drafted in the third round over the last eight years, just five of them have finished as a top-24 running back in their rookie season, while 18 of them finished outside of the top-36 running backs. You’re starting to play with fire relying on those rookies.

Once you get to Day 3 of the NFL Draft (Rounds 4-7), you’re going to need a miracle to find a worthwhile running back for fantasy purposes. Since the 2013 NFL Draft, there have been 87 running backs drafted in-between the fourth and sixth round, and just two of them have finished as top-24 running backs (Jordan Howard in 2016 and Zac Stacy in 2013). Those years were also the highlights of each player’s career.

The bottom line here is that running backs can absolutely produce as rookie and you shouldn’t 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 a lot more 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. The running backs expected to go in the first two rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft are Najee Harris, Travis Etienne, and Javonte Williams.

WIDE RECEIVERS

I’ll be honest… When I started doing the research for this article, wide receivers were the ones that I was most curious about. For a long time, it was widely understood that wide receivers took time to develop. If you’ve been around for a while, you know the term “Year 3 breakout” was definitely a thing. Nowadays, if a receiver doesn’t perform well in the first two years, they’re completely written off. With the emergence of multiple rookie wide receivers last year, many will be looking for the next big thing to come from the NFL Draft. Should you be one of them, or do too many people simply forget those who didn’t pan out? We now have an eight-year sample size showing us what to expect. Below is the chart showing what round they were drafted, how many were drafted, the average targets they received, and their average fantasy finish.

Drafted # Targets FF Finish WR1% WR2% WR3% WR4%
1st Round 31 70.0 61.2 6.5% 22.6% 29.0% 41.9%
2nd Round 38 65.7 67.5 2.6% 10.5% 26.3% 28.9%
3rd Round 32 38.9 82.0 0.0% 3.1% 9.4% 18.8%
4th Round 35 22.9 92.9 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%
5th Round 36 26.5 88.2 0.0% 0.0% 5.6% 8.3%
6th Round 42 7.6 99.8 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%

 

As you can see, drafting rookie wide receivers doesn’t look nearly as good as drafting rookie running backs. Think about it this way: You’re almost as likely to get a top-24 running back who was drafted in the third round as 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 eight years, there have been 214 wide receivers drafted in the top-six rounds of the NFL Draft. Just three of them finished as top-12 options their rookie season. Those receivers were Odell Beckham Jr., Michael Thomas, and Justin Jefferson.

If you’re looking for a rookie receiver to be simply “fantasy relevant,” the best place to look is the first two rounds, as there have been 24 rookie wide receivers who’ve finished inside the top-36 (WR3 territory) over the last eight years, and 19 of them were drafted inside the top two rounds of the NFL Draft. Now, just because a receiver was drafted inside the top two rounds, it doesn’t guarantee success, as there were 45-of-69 who finished outside the top-48 wide receivers their rookie year.

There has been some success in the third round of the NFL Draft, though the odds are not in your favor, as just 3-of-32 wide receivers have finished top-36. But hey, at least that’s something. Cut it off after the third round, though. When I say cut it off, I mean it. If a wide receiver falls into the fourth round, you can forget about him producing his rookie year. Of the 113 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 35 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 fantasy draft; like after the eighth round. Once you get outside the top two rounds, where the wide receivers average 68 targets, the number drops significantly, as receivers drafted in the third-round average just 38.9 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: Ja’Marr Chase, Devonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle, Rashod Bateman, and Rondale Moore.

TIGHT ENDS

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?

Drafted # Targets FF Finish TE1% Top-18% TE2%
1st Round 8 58.6 26.6 12.5% 25.0% 50.0%
2nd Round 15 33.6 39.2 0.0% 0.0% 26.7%
3rd Round 21 19.0 44.1 0.0% 4.8% 9.5%
4th Round 17 19.3 45.2 0.0% 5.9% 5.9%
5th Round 15 10.8 47.8 0.0% 0.0% 6.7%
6th Round 17 11.4 46.5 0.0% 0.0% 5.9%

 

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 their first year. As for the remaining rounds, none of them have ever provided a TE1 and none of them have averaged more than 33.6 targets per season. In the 2021 draft class, there’s only one tight end expected to go in the first round, and that’s Kyle Pitts. Depending on where he lands and if he’s the clear-cut starter, he’s the only one worth considering.


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Mike Tagliere is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Mike, check out his archive and follow him @MikeTagliereNFL.

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