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By the Numbers

Draft Capital is Best for Projecting Rookies

by Ian Hartitz
Updated On: March 16, 2020, 5:08 pm ET

Confession: I haven't spent a single minute breaking down 2020 draft prospects aside from memories of the 2019 collegiate season as well as drunkenly watching highlight tapes from time to time.

Sure, it's fun to both make and consume mock drafts. Having a more in-depth knowledge of any football player is a good thing. The divide between team analytics and team #WatchTheTape has never made sense to me; simply ignoring data in any wake of life is generally a bad idea.

And yet, the yearly over-reaction to how rookies will perform during their first season at the NFL level generally begins around this time every year. It's easy to see why – just look at the way the NFL calendar lays out.

  • August: Preseason
  • September-January: Regular season and playoffs
  • February-April: Combine, free agency, draft
  • May-July: OTAs and training camp

The regular season is only a month longer than the amount of time that we spend gushing over college kids during the combine and lead up to the draft. No real football (other than the XFL, RIP) is being played during this time, while more beta sports like basketball are still (usually) in the middle of the regular season.

Essentially, we spend at least 12 weeks as a fantasy football community pouring our hearts and souls into evaluating players ... that ultimately are already being evaluated by people that actually matter the entire time.

Yes, I'm talking about NFL coaches and front offices. The same group that we regularly mock online for pretty much anything. Many of us like to think we know a good amount about the game of football. I'm not here to disagree with that. Still, what's the one age-old adage we've grown to trust in fantasy football?

Follow opportunity, not talent.

This ideology is why we chart snap counts and routes run every week. It's why we focus on drafting three-down RBs at the top of fantasy drafts every August. It's why there are clear tiers of top WRs and TEs every year that consist of players that have consistently been overwhelmed with targets.

So why do we suddenly change course when it comes to rookies? Obviously there are exceptions to everything in life, but simply following draft capital has easily been the most-predictive metric for evaluating rookie production.

Rookies by draft round

There's next-to-no chance that your favorite prospect will be a top-producing rookie if they're drafted after the third round. Specifically, at least 80% of every position's top-rookie performers were drafted in the first three rounds since 2010.

  • QB: 83%
  • RB: 80%
  • WR: 85%
  • TE: 100%

Let's quickly go through each position to see just how important draft capital has been to rookie-year production.

Quarterback

The QB position has produced six rookies that finished their debut season as a top-12 fantasy performer. Among those, only Dak Prescott (Round 4) and Russell Wilson (Round 3) weren't first-round selections. The larger trends from this group was both being a Week 1 starter as well as the existence of a rushing floor, as each of Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin, Prescott, Wilson and Kyler Murray displayed fantasy-friendly rushing ability as rookies.

Rushing QBs of all shapes and sizes are generally a bit of a cheat code in fantasy football, and this skill appears to be especially vital for rookies who are still learning the ins-and-outs of leading an NFL scheme.

Running Back

There's been a bit more parody in draft round between top-performing rookie RBs, Still, it's still been heavily weighted by players that were top selections: only Roy Helu (Round 4), Zac Stacy (Round 5), Jordan Howard (Round 5), Alfred Morris (Round 6) and Phillip Lindsay (UDFA) finished their rookie seasons among their position's top-24 PPR scorers after being drafted outside of the top-three rounds of their respective drafts. However, there isn't necessarily a large difference between going in the first, second or third round. The likes of Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt and David Johnson are each recent examples of top-performing rookies that were drafted in the third round.

The idea that RBs don't matter is true in the sense that there are far more than 32 high-end backs on planet earth. Still, RBs still need to matter enough to win their team's respective job, and players that have received the backing from the front office via draft capital have typically performed better as rookies than those that have had to fight to even keep a roster spot. For every Phillip Lindsay there have been dozens of unheralded backs with rookie seasons that more-closely resembled Darwin Thompson or Justice Hill

Wide Receiver

There have only been two rookie WRs drafted outside of the first three rounds that finished as a top-24 PPR performer since 2010: Mike Williams (the Tampa Bay one) and Tyreek Hill. The latter player undoubtedly would've been a day one selection if it wasn't for off-the-field issues.

Keenan Allen is the only third-round WR to thrive as a rookie. The rest were top-two round selections.

The one thing the group (generally) has in common is the reality that each WR is extremely talented and went on to post multiple great seasons.

The biggest takeaway for me is the general lack of top-performing rookie WRs. Literally twice as many rookie RBs (26) have finished as top-24 performers than WRs (13) since 2010.

The 2020 WR class is supposed to be incredible. Still, be careful about projecting amazing debut seasons for too many rookies, especially if they slide a bit in the draft and/or find their way onto depth charts that already have multiple proven pass-game options.

Tight End

TEs simply don't provide solid fantasy production during their NFL debut: Evan Engram and Rob Gronkowski are the only rookie TEs to finish as top-12 PPR performers since 2010.

There are several reasons to potentially explain this:

  1. Teams have slowly gotten the TE more involved in the passing game over the years, but generally the WR and RB positions still receive more targets. Engram benefited from both Odell Beckham (played 4 games) and Sterling Shepard (11) missing extended time during his rookie season. 
  2. It's likely harder for rookie TEs to gain a starting role due to the need to be a polished receiver *and* blocker. Obviously Gronk, the best TE ever, qualifies as a reasonable exception.
  3. Usually offenses only have one TE on the field per play. The existence of multiple talented TEs on the same team can lead to rookies like Dallas Goedert and Irv Smith playing reduced roles despite having the talent to theoretically achieve so much more.

It's already tough for this position as a whole to earn featured pass-game roles, so you best be sure you're dealing with a barren depth chart and an extremely talented player if you want to stick your neck on the line for a rookie TE. Generally, just stay away.

Conclusion

Of course, some rookies experience late-season surges that lead to strong production during the fantasy playoffs. Others might've had a solid start to the season, only to suffer an unfortunate injury. Plenty have rebounded after a poor or middling debut season and went on to have a productive career.

Alas, these situations are also a reality for veterans and pretty much any NFL player. It's a random and cruel game at times.

The NFL obviously does their best to select players that they believe will give them the best chance to win. This is how they make money and keep their jobs. Their process in deciding this utilizes many of the same data point indicators that #DraftTwitter makes a habit of leaning on. Still, we're ultimately slaves to who the NFL decides to give playing time to, and draft capital has been the strongest indicator for rookie opportunity. The idea that teams give extra chances and potentially more snaps to players they have heavily invested draft capital in makes sense.

Those participating in dynasty fantasy leagues must attempt to project a player's full career when evaluating a rookie. The idea that we should generally only focus on rookie QBs, RBs and WRs drafted within the top-three rounds while fading TEs as a whole doesn't hold as much weight here.

As for re-draft season-long leagues and DFS? Strongly consider fading day three prospects as a whole, regardless of how you may have felt about them during these trying offseason times.

Ian Hartitz

All things NFL. Great day to be great. You can follow Ian on Twitter @Ihartitz.