For the casual NFL fan, the NFL Draft may come and go without moving the needle. Maybe they check in on their local team’s first round pick or watch an episode of Path to the Draft if they can’t find anything else on, but for the most part Rookie NFL players are an afterthought. For those of us that play fantasy football, however, it’s a different story. NFL rookies are an oasis in the vast desert that is the NFL offseason. With very little in the way of substantial news, these new players get a disproportionate amount of coverage especially when you consider that they haven’t played a snap of NFL football and some of them aren’t even a lock to make the 53-man roster.
The danger with this over saturation of rookie news is that it carries over into fantasy football redraft leagues. People fall in love with the new hotness and these unproven players fly up draft boards. However, you would be best served by avoiding rookies altogether in redraft leagues as they are likely to underperform in relation to the price you paid. The worst offenders are the rookie pass catchers.
In the previous 10 NFL drafts, 39 WRs have been drafted in the first round. As you can tell by the draft capital their NFL team invested in them, these players are tagged to be the future of their new franchise. They are expected to carry the offense for the next 10+ seasons. The list includes names like Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant, Julio Jones, and Odell Beckham Jr fantasy football gods. The problem is that for every A.J. Green there’s an A.J. Jenkins lurking to ruin your draft. Additionally, the learning curve for rookie WRs is very steep. Often, they take several seasons to fully acclimate to the NFL game. Building chemistry with a QB, ascending depth charts and learning pro-style offenses are some of the reasons you may be familiar with the saying that year 3 is the breakout year for WRs.
Unfortunately, in redraft leagues, waiting a few years for a player to develop isn’t an option. But without fail, owners will take the plunge and draft a rookie WR like they are a sure thing ahead of established veterans. This is a huge mistake. The 39 WRs I mentioned, who were drafted in the first round have, for the most part, struggled to produce in their rookie campaign, saying nothing of WRs drafted outside of the first round of the NFL draft.
On Field Production
On average, first round rookie WRs have posted 42 receptions for 587 yards and 4 TDs, which is abysmal by fantasy football standards. The number is even more disappointing when you consider some of the outstanding rookie years of late, most notably AJ Green, Amari Cooper and basically the entire 2014 draft class. What this low average tells us is that successful rookie WRs are the outlier. And you can’t even justify taking a gamble that one of them hits it big because you are still making an inefficient use of your draft capital. Take Amari Cooper for example. He had one of the better rookie campaigns in NFL history with 72 receptions for 1,070 yards and 6 TDs, which was good for a finish as the 23rd best WR in 2015. A back-end WR2 is nothing to shake a stick at. However, this must be considered a disappointing season for his owners because though he finished as the WR #23, he was drafted, according to his ADP, as the WR #14. So even if you know who the best rookie performer in the class is going to be (you don’t) and they go completely gangbusters, you will still likely have overpaid and took an unnecessary risk.
If Cooper was a disappointment, the following should be of no surprise. 23 of the 39 1st round rookie WRs underperformed their ADP. On average, rookie WRs have been drafted 19.7 positional spots too high. Here are a few notable WRs who disappointed their first year, despite becoming elite WRs.
|Calvin Johnson||48||756||4||WR #20||WR #35|
|Demaryius Thomas||22||283||2||WR #53||WR #96|
|Dez Bryant||45||561||6||WR #29||WR #45|
|DeAndre Hopkins||52||802||2||WR #37||WR #82|
|Amari Cooper||72||1,070||6||WR #14||WR #23|
It’s not just on the field production, or lack thereof, that you have to worry about with rookie WRs. The life of an NFL WR is full of off the field distractions. If a player lacks the mental toughness and focus needed to learn their new playbook and adapt their style to fit their new offensive scheme, they are likely to fall behind and find themselves redshirted their rookie year (see Laquon Treadwell). The NFL season itself can pose a challenge for rookies as well. The training schedule and longer season put their bodies to the test sometimes resulting in injury. Many a promising young athlete has seen their first year derailed by injuries: Dez Bryant, Calvin Johnson, Kevin White, Breshad Perriman, DeVante Parker and Josh Doctson were all plagued by injuries in their first year. Not that veterans are free of injury risks, but at least many of them have track records of staying healthy through the gauntlet of a 16-game NFL season. You even have the bizarre instance of Michael Crabtree seemingly refusing to play football at all over a contract dispute.
So instead of taking that rookie WR, you are far better off taking a proven veteran. Let someone else in your league select Mike Williams, Corey Davis or John Ross (and don’t even think about selecting the likes of Juju Smith-Schuster or Matt Harmon’s man crush, Chris Godwin). It will just push other proven producers down the draft for you to scoop up in later rounds. This way you build a team of players you can trust without the risk of drafting a player who could become the next Tavon Austin (ADP 29, Finish 56) or Nelson Agholor (ADP 26, Finish 102).
Check out where Andy, Mike, and Jason have rookie WRs ranked in the Ultimate Draft Kit.