2014 Fantasy Football Rookies: Buyer Beware
It happens every year. We’re all watching the draft now, many educating themselves on college prospects long before they arrive to the league and are following progress through the offseason like never before. Whether for the purposes of determining fit with our ‘real world’ teams, or planning for the composition of our virtual rosters football fans are engaged with the rookie class. As such, there is a tendency to become enamored with them. To want a piece of the new action, to buy into the hype that comes with an early round selection and the presumption that they are the perfect fit for the franchise that selected them.
The truth is though, that that is rarely the case in year one. True impact Fantasy Football Rookies are hard to find, and relative to their draft day price value in selecting them may be even harder to find in the virtual game. By the time your draft rolls around at the end of August, everyone knows all about the incoming rookie class and most owners you are competing with want a piece of the action as bad as you do. That can have the effect of overinflating the market for a specific player and could have you over paying for his services. Is it fun to have shares in a guy like Cam Newton in 2011? Absolutely. The problem is that you are more likely to end up with the 2007 edition of Jamarcus Russell (at least in terms of fantasy value, not necessarily overall ineptitude… or affinity for Purple Drank) than you are Cam.
Perhaps Eagles’ HC Chip Kelly articulated the predicament surrounding our expectations of first year players best (via Pro Football Talk):
I think a lot of times the hype turns into really, really hard times for the individual who got picked, because there’s so many expectations of everyone building them up to be Superman because they had three months to write about them and talk about them. Then when they get picked, they’re a very, very good prospect, but there’s a learning curve when you go from any job out of college into a company. If you take a job at Wells Fargo when you get out of college, your first day of the job they don’t say, ‘He’s our first-round draft pick, he’s the savior to the company!’
Kelly is right. With the hype surrounding the process and the presumption that every player is a perfect fit, our expectations of rookies in both the real and virtual games are often too high. The data below will show us that.
This year, I’ll be more likely to invest in sophomore players who under-performed last year but find themselves in a position to succeed (and thus providing great draft value) than I will be a rookie who is being projected for statistics that are hard to achieve. To illustrate the point, I’ve put together a data set that includes every offensive rookie drafted in the first three rounds (lets call them the hype rounds… there were relevant players drafted thereafter, but you tend to get into names who are less likely to be sought after in fantasy drafts, and thus negatively skew the data) from 2011 to 2013.
I’ll admit that this review strips the analytic approach to player valuation from the process. You can make certain educated guesses about players – for example, you wouldn’t have drafted Vance McDonald as an impact fantasy player last year, but he made his way into the data all the same – that would rule them out of your personal draft strategy and thus have a better chance of getting it right when it comes to drafting rookies. Whether you think you’ve got it right or not, though (“Brandin Cooks is going to light it up in New Orleans, I just know it”) like any gambler, you’ve got to be careful not to talk yourself into something and/or to think you are smarter than the odds.
Before we get to the goods note that, in an effort to give some validity to the data without overly analyzing team/situational context, anyone who appeared in fewer than eight games during their rookie season was excluded from the data set – this led to the removal of 15 players across the three season’s worth of data, leaving 67 ‘skill position’ players for consideration out of a possible 82. Also, for the purposes of this piece lost fumbles were not included as part of the overall fantasy points tally; all other scoring is standard and lastly, let me be clear that we are making no representations about a player’s ability, or how their career has developed since their rookie season. The statement is simple: temper fantasy football rookie expectations.
Summary data is included (sorted by fantasy points per game) below with the full data set available for review (excel download). The position rank column is the item of interest. We’ll be looking at a number of assessments, all focusing on where a player ranked relative to his positional peers.
|2012||2||WAS||Robert Griffin III||QB||15||326.5||21.77||5|
Here is what the data tells us:
- 15 players delivered start worthy lines at their respective positions (top 12 QB, 24 RB, 36 WR, 12 TE). That’s just 22%, or roughly one of every five rookies. Expanding that to include fringe starters (20 QB, 36 RB, 48 WR, 20 TE) 35% of the pool delivered a fringe worthy result. Anyone else was relegated to a work or two of utility if at all.
- By position, here are the number of legitimate starters: 4/12 QBs; 5/15 RBs; 6/30WRs; 0/10 TEs. The pass catchers, then, seem to be the hardest of any group to get right. For example, consider a few of last year’s highly touted receivers that cost a pretty penny on draft day and their respective non-top-36 position ranks: Tavon Austin (56), DeAndre Hopkins (50); Robert Woods (57); Aaron Dobson (60). Cordarrelle Patterson topped the list at WR38 and much of his relevance came from bonus points earned in the return game.
- Put another way consider the average points across each position for all (included) players drafted in the top three rounds.
- QB: 227.59 (Last year: QB17)
- RB: 112.03 (Last year: RB33)
- WR: 73.90 (Last year: WR62)
- TE: 43.65 (Last year: TE38)
- Not into positional rankings? The highest output of any player at each position over the three year period is as follows. Remember, these are the absolute best rookie producers.
- QB: 383.64 (Last year: QB2, 27 points behind QB1)
- RB: 264.6 (Last year: RB3, 44 points behind R1). 1926 total yards, 12 TDs.
- WR: 153 (Last year: WR16, 74 points behind WR1). 1110 total yards, 7 TDs.
- TE: 70.9 (Last year: TE19, 146 points behind TE1). 469 receiving yards, 4 TDs.
So, this actually tells us that Quarterbacks and Running Backs are reasonable stable. We’ve seen some top flight producers through the years, and they have the highest likelihoods of producing start-worthy lines in their first seasons in the league. For running backs, I’d posit that it has to do with finding themselves in the right context (workload volume, team scoring, etc.) and the relative ease of transition when compared to receivers for example.
At QB, the high watermarks were set by an all time rookie season from Cam Newton, but the overall consistency has a lot to do with the way that the NFL draft values the position. Generally, teams that draft a QB in the top three rounds are either Quarterback needy, or finished the prior season with a poor record overall. In many instances, these teams trail and as such QBs find themselves in pass friendly contexts.
You’ll point out that round has an impact. Certainly the players drafted in the higher range of the draft have a greater impact on a team. That first round receiver is a lock, right?
- Over the last three years, just three of nine first round receivers delivered start worthy lines. They fared better than second rounders mind you, who were 1/11 in terms of fantasy viability and third rounders punched in at a 2/10 clip.
- We should note that seven of 10 offensive top 10 picks delivered start worthy lines. Those that missed: Ryan Tannehill, Blaine Gabbert and Tavon Austin. Top 10 QBs delivered start worthy lines at a 60% rate (3/5) while WRs operated at 75% (3/4).
- None of the other first round QBs (three candidates) finished inside the position’s top 12. The only non top 10 pick to make the cut was Russell Wilson whose success was generally viewed as a shock by league observers.
- Two of four first round RBs were start worthy, while four of seven top 50 picks (Trent Richardson, Doug Martin, Giovani Bernard and Le’Veon Bell) delivered RB1 or RB2 utility.
Again, what does it all mean? Perhaps not a great deal as team context, player aptitude and progression all play a role in an individual’s ability to contribute in his first season. With that said, there is reason for caution here. On average, a rookie at any position won’t be useful to your fantasy team this year. Knowing this, and the fact that each carries a ‘hype cost’ on draft day, I’m likely to look elsewhere unless the training camp reports, depth chart and other contextual factors are extremely compelling.
Your league mates are going to overvalue rookies, and more often than not the production simply won’t be there. Even a very good first year line tends not to register on the fantasy radar. NFL teams are drafting these players for their long term potential, and that’s great. You don’t get a four year contract though, in standard leagues you are often paying for year two and three production while holding rights only for year one. Be cautious, be wise, and avoid the rookie bidding war.
By way of an update, I ran a quick analysis of player’s final position rank against their ADP at their position and the numbers actually pan out pretty well. As long as you’re getting a rookie where he would naturally fall in a draft, there isn’t a great deal of risk according to My Fantasy League data. The point though, is that if you’re buying too strongly into hype or overpaying for services, you could be in trouble. In general, there is a cap on rookie production across all positions and at WR/TE in particular. Take a look at the full data set linked above to see the min/max production at each position in detail before making the jump on draft day.