How to Value Rookies in Fantasy Football (Pre-Draft 2022)
The calendar flipping towards April indicates that the 2022 NFL Draft and rookie hype season has officially reached all-new heights, especially for those invested in dynasty and pre-draft best ball fantasy football formats.
The first-year talent that has entered the league the past few seasons warrants excitement because guys are hitting the ground running for fantasy football. The list is impressive: Justin Jefferson (WR – MIN), Ja’Marr Chase (WR – CIN), Tee Higgins (WR – CIN), Jonathan Taylor (RB – IND), Antonio Gibson (RB – WAS), Kyle Pitts (TE – ATL), Jaylen Waddle (WR – MIA), Najee Harris (RB – PIT), Javonte Williams (RB – DEV), Elijah Moore (WR – NYJ), Amon Ra St. Brown (WR – DET), and Elijah Mitchell (RB – SF).
But there’s still some ambiguity with every prospect entering the league that should be considered when generating their fantasy value. And how the NFL thinks about that player based on their projected draft capital – and real draft capital post-draft – should be factored in.
Leveraging projected draft capital provided by Grindingthemocks.com and using the historical rookie track record data from the late great Mike Tagliere to devise a value strategy is the best way to approach the 2022 rookie class. It will prepare you for dynasty rookie drafts and season-long leagues after each newcomer finds their NFL landing spot, and it will also provide you an edge against early pre-draft ADP on Underdog Fantasy.
Again, S/O to Tags for the 2021 version of this article that I will be referring to ad nauseam.
The data suggest a strong correlation between draft capital and running back production in fantasy football. This correlation isn’t too surprising because we know that draft capital is a better indicator of opportunity versus talent/skill, and the running back position in fantasy football is heavily-dependent on volume.
NFL teams are wising up to drafting a running back at the back-end of Round 1 or in the middle of Day 2 just to run them into the ground through the extent of their rookie contract.
Rookie Running Backs since 2013
|Drafted||#||Carries (Avg)||Receptions (Avg)||Touches (Avg)||FF Finish||RB1%||RB2%||RB3%||RB4%|
First-round rookie running backs, on average, see 237 touches per season – a number that ranked 15th at the position last season. The benchmark at 15 is slightly inflated from last season due to the extra game, so I’d estimate the average is closer to top-12 based on the previous 16-game season sample size.
Najee Harris – 381 touches in 2021, No. 1 in the NFL – is the best-case scenario for a first-round rookie but still showcases the impact a first-year runner can make despite zero professional experience.
There’s no guarantee that any running back will be selected in the first round of this year’s draft, but it seems clear that early Day 2 is in play for either Iowa State’s Breece Hall or Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III.
Hall has the proven three-down skill set and college production profile to carry a Harris-esque workload at the NFL, so he’s probably slightly undervalued at an RB22 best ball ADP. The average running back finish for a first-round running back is RB18, so that’s perhaps the precise ranking for the highly-touted prospect.
And keep in mind that you shouldn’t downgrade Hall too substantially if he doesn’t end up being drafted by the Buffalo Bills or another team on Day 1, as NFL rosters are keen on the lack of value gained from drafting a running back so high in real life.
Simply put: Running backs drafted early on Day 2 are the first-round running backs from five years ago.
And that’s why you should be heavily drafting the likes of Hall and Walker (RB30 ADP) because their best ball ADPs don’t reflect their projected draft capital. Obviously, anything can happen on draft day, but it seems inevitable neither Hall nor Walker will last long into Round 2. Round 2 running backs finishing as RB3s more than half the time (55%) highlights Walker being priced at his floor.
Expect their prices to increase and jump on the early value. Both Clyde Edwards-Helaire (RB – KC) and Harris saw massive booms to their ADPs after draft night.
The other intriguing nugget to call out is the drop-off in running back production from Round 2 to Round 3. Most analysts and draft pundits cluster “Day 2 running backs” together because the draft is set up in that fashion, but the facts advocate we should view them separately.
The volume and fantasy finish margin from Round 2 to Round 3 running backs is more significant (42%) than Round 3 to Round 4 running backs (16%). Trey Sermon (RB – SF) is the example from last season of a Round 3 running back that failed to fire, and Tags warned us about this in last year’s version of this article.
“Of the 27 running backs who’ve been drafted in the third round over the last nine 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.”
Isaiah Spiller (ADP RB34), James Cook (ADP RB65), and Zamir White (ADP RB67) all own Round 3 projected draft capital per Grindingthemocks.com, but it is crystal clear the two Georgia backs are the value targets. Spiller’s facing a historic 50/50 battle just to hit his ADP.
Rounds 4-7 are where things become a crapshoot, but there is some semblance to viewing the running backs selected in the first round of Day 3 in a separate tier from Rounds 5-plus.
And it’s because Round 4 running backs look much more like Round 3 running backs from a post-draft production standpoint than their Round 5-plus counterparts. In the past three seasons, 34 running backs have been selected in Rounds 5-7. Elijah Mitchell and Kenneth Gainwell (RB – PHI) were the best of the bunch from last season.
Over the same period, the big-hitting rookie running backs who significantly contributed to fantasy rosters were Phillip Lindsay (RB – MIA) and James Robinson (RB – JAC) – and they both went undrafted.
There’s a slightly higher hit rate in the fourth round than in Rounds 5-7. Players like Chase Edmonds (RB – MIA), Nyheim Hines (RB – IND), Tony Pollard (RB – DAL), Joshua Kelley (RB – LAC), DeeJay Dallas (RB – SEA) in years past enjoyed fantasy-relevant weeks as rookies. The 2021 crop of fourth-rounders was also encouraging with guys like Rhamondre Stevenson (RB – NE), Michael Carter (NYJ), and Chuba Hubbard (RB – CAR).
However, it’s still a massive uphill battle to wait until even early Day 3 to hear a running back’s name called.
From 2013 to 2021, just two running backs finished as top-24 running backs (Jordan Howard (RB – PHI) in 2016 and Zac Stacy in 2013).
A few guys came seriously close in 2021 – Elijah Mitchell (RB25), Michael Carter (RB29), and Chuba Hubbard (RB33) – but ultimately fell short of cresting fantasy RB2 status. We should not value any running back drafted on Day 3 with a top-24 price tag.
Part of this stems from these later round backs having to earn touches and work their way up a depth chart. After all, the draft capital constitutes that teams don’t have to play them.
Because they can only gain opportunity by showing out their talent in practices or preseason, I would highly recommend a lean towards the talent/athleticism of Day 3 running backs.
If they land on a team that boasts a weak running back depth chart, then that should be added to the equation. But if all else is equal, go with the best player you think can deliver when called upon.
Khalil Herbert (RB – CHI) was that guy for me last season. I loved him coming out as a prospect but faltered after falling to the sixth round and landing on the Chicago Bears firmly behind David Montgomery (RB – CHI). But lo and behold, when Herbert got his chance due to a Montgomery injury, he balled out. The rookie had the same number of games with at least 72 rushing yards (four) that Montgomery did in 2021.
Rachaad White (RB46), Dameon Pierce (RB68), Brian Robinson (RB51), Tyler Allgeier (RB55), and Jerome Ford (RB69) round out the 2022 rookie running backs that project to come off the board before Round 5.
I’d opt to take shots on guys like Robinson, Pierce, and Allgeier at their suppressed costs because chances are their ADPs only go up after they are drafted. White’s a little pricey, considering he’s got a slim chance to be a top-100 real-life pick.
There’s a real possibility that he becomes much more attainable post-draft when the market softens on him after getting selected in Round 4 or 5. That might be the optimal time to buy low.
Kyren Williams (RB42) also owns a steep price tag despite being projected as the RB11 in the expected draft position (144th overall). He’s way overvalued.
Ask anybody a few years ago how long it takes for a wide receiver to break out, and the typical response would usually be three seasons. But the way the college game has evolved in recent years has influenced how impactful wide receivers can be right from the get-go. LSU standouts Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson are the peak examples of the phenomenon, shattering records as first-year players.
Rookie Wide Receivers since 2013
|Drafted||#||Targets (Avg)||FF Finish||WR1%||WR2%||WR3%||WR4%|
If a receiver hasn’t hit by “Year 3” nowadays, the panic button goes off.
However, compared to running backs, you can see a stark contrast in hit rates based on draft capital. 25% of first-round wide receivers finishing as top-24 options is slightly more probable than a third-round running back ending as a top-24 option (19%).
The most fantasy-relevant rookie wide receivers are certainly drafted in the first two rounds. There have been 28 rookie wide receivers who’ve finished inside the top-36 (WR3 territory) over the last nine years, and 22 of them were drafted inside the top two rounds of the NFL Draft (79%).
Round 2 or higher rookie wide receivers have combined for fantasy WR3 seasons at a 55% clip.
But similar to the running back position – there’s another drastic fall from Round 2 to Round 3. Just 3-of-35 wide receivers have finished top-36 since 2013, including zero hits in 2021. Come on, Dyami Brown (WR – WAS).
Tags would also not be pleased if I didn’t bring up this mind-blowing stat regarding wide receivers taking in the fourth round.
“There have been 35 wide receivers drafted in the fourth round over the last seven years (2013-2020). Not one of them has finished as a top-50 wide receiver in their rookie year.”
Amon Ra St. Brown: Hold my beer.
The Lions’ rookie wide receiver was the extreme outlier in this category in 2021, as he not only finished top-50 but 21st overall.
The primary takeaway is to go aggressively after wide receivers with Round 1 or 2 draft capital, but be extremely wary of those that go Round 3 or later. ASB’s blazing 2021 season is not the norm; fantasy managers should not chase the possibility because it will not be easily replicated.
This year’s class is filled with first-round locks like Garrett Wilson (WR40), Drake London (WR44), Chris Olave (WR49), Jameson Williams (WR54,) and Treylon Burks (WR34), who look prime to return at least fantasy WR3 value. The ADP between London and Olave (80th-100th overall) is the same pre-draft ADP that Jaylen Waddle, Ja’Marr Chase, and DeVonta Smith (WR – PHI) owned the last offseason.
Williams is the best value in early best-ball drafts because he is going so much later than the others. It’s probably due to his torn ACL, but his big-play upside is what you want in the best-ball format, especially in a tournament setting during the playoff weeks at the end of the regular season. Chances are he will be 100% healthy by then and help differentiate your roster from others vying for a big payout.
Despite his impressive combine testing, Pierce looks like the most forgotten and overlooked player in drafts. A 4.41 40-yard dash and the No. 1 vertical jump (40.5, 93rd percentile) in the class imply that Pierce has the requisite athleticism to be a factor at the NFL level.
He’s a big-play threat, evidenced by his 17.1 aDOT – the highest aDOT of any player in his class with at least 80 targets. Pierce averaged just over 100 air yards per game in his final season at Cincinnati.
You can almost always look the other way in redraft leagues when it comes to rookie tight ends – Kyle Pitts from last season being the one exception to the general rule of thumb. He’s used more like a wide receiver in the Atlanta Falcons offense, which is why he was able to find success as the TE7 overall in his first season. The dude is also just a unicorn, and no standard rookie tight ends should be compared to him.
Rookie Tight Ends since 2013
|Drafted||#||Targets (Avg)||FF Finish||TE1%||Top-18%||TE2%|
Pitts joins Evan Engram (TE – JAC) as the only rookie tight end who’s finished as a top-12 option over the last eight years.
Although there was another rookie tight end – not-named Pitts – in last year’s class that came close to finishing top-12: Pat Freiermuth (TE – PIT). The Pittsburgh Steelers tight end finished 2021 as the TE13 thanks to seven receiving touchdowns.
The Penn State product is also the first rookie tight end selected in the second round to finish as a top-18 option since 2013.
A rookie tight end almost always needs to be drafted in Round 1 for hopes of fantasy relevance in Year 1 with a respectable 64.3 target average – TE20 last season.
Round 2 is much tougher to get behind for any tight end historically, so this year’s class will be tough to trust for instant production of a TE1. The best – and most probable – case scenario for potential second-rounders like Trey McBride, Greg Dulcich, and Isaiah Likely is one hits fantasy TE2 range.
But I’m not overly bullish on drafting any of these guys in best ball pre-draft formats because there aren’t many great landing spots for tight ends. The New York Giants and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -if Rob Gronkowski (TE – TB) does not return – are the two tight end rooms where I could envision a rookie ascending atop the depth chart.
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Andrew Erickson is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Andrew, check him out on Twitter @AndrewErickson_.