Draft Capital & Its Correlation To Early-Career Fantasy Production

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We did it, Footclan! We made it through the NFL hiatus and are hours away from the NFL draft. After months of analyzing this 2021 class, we will finally have landing spots for these prospects. With draft capital heavily influencing dynasty outlook, I set out to quantify just how much draft capital will affect a player’s early-career fantasy production. What is the likelihood a player returns top 12 value at their position to start their career? What is the historical fantasy average by draft round? But before we answer these questions, here are a few details on my analysis:

  • Sample Size: 2000 to 2018 Draft Classes (1,349 total players)
  • Fantasy Production: Since I am evaluating early-career fantasy production, I am using each player’s PPR average from their first three years in the league (ie. do they produce early for your fantasy teams?)
  • Hit Rates: Based on the last 21 seasons, I calculated the minimum PPR average needed to achieve top-12 or top-24 production at each position. For example, an RB1 (top-12 RB) has averaged a minimum of 15.64 PPR points in that timespan. Saquon Barkley would qualify as an “RB1 hit” because he averaged 20.82 PPR points in his first three seasons.

Editor’s Note: For more of the 2021 NFL Draft, check out our entire Rookie Profile series. Andy, Mike, and Jason’s exclusive rookie rankings and production profiles are found only in the Dynasty Pass, part of the brand-new UDK+ for 2021.

Running Backs: Opportunity is King

We will start things off with the running back position. As you can see in the graph below, there is a clear and sizable difference between a running back drafted in the first round compared to those drafted on day two or three. In their first three seasons, a first-round RB averages about 13.06 PPR points per game. This is roughly 34% higher than a day two RB, which has historically averaged about 8.59 PPR points per game. Interestingly, we saw the majority of running backs drafted in the 4th round, with about 73 players coming off the board to start off day three. However, being drafted that late has rarely led to fantasy relevance. In fact, RBs drafted on day three have only averaged about 4.33 PPR points per game. 

The overarching theme in my analysis on running backs is that higher draft capital generally leads to more opportunities. First round running backs drafted from 2000 to 2018 have averaged about 17.07 opportunities per game (targets and rush attempts) in their first three seasons. On the other hand, day two RBs average about 36.1% less at 10.91 opportunities per game. Furthermore, we see a significant dip in opportunity for day three RBs, as they only receive about 5.4 per game to start off their career. However, despite receiving more touches, first-round RBs are not necessarily the most efficient, averaging the third-lowest yards per opportunity (4.64) compared to the other six rounds.

Round 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
RB1 Hit Rate 25.53% 14.00% 6.00% 1.37% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00%
RB2 Hit Rate 55.32% 28.00% 12.00% 4.11% 3.70% 1.64% 1.72%
Opportunities per Game 17.07 12.31 9.50 6.80 5.27 4.51 4.10

Finally, when analyzing hit rates by round, it becomes increasingly evident that first-round RBs return immediate value at a much higher rate than any other position. From 2000 to 2018, 25.5% of RBs drafted on day one returned immediate RB1 value, averaging at least 15.6 PPR points in their first three seasons. In addition, 55.3% of RBs drafted in the 1st round performed as an RB2 or better (minimum 12.4 PPR per game) to start off their career. Those rates drop significantly for day two RBs with an RB1 rate of only 10% and an RB2 rate of 20%. As for RBs drafted after the third round, their likelihood of returning RB2 value at a minimum is only at 2.86%. In short, draft capital absolutely matters for running backs since the rate of return increases significantly the earlier they are drafted.

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Wide Receivers: Rounds 1 and 2 are the Sweet Spot

If we examine the wide receiver position, we see a similar trend relative to draft capital. First off, unlike the RB position, the majority of wide receivers are drafted within the first three rounds. Those drafted on day one have historically averaged 10.09 PPR points per game, which is quite a bit lower than the RB average. Interestingly, the gap in production between the first and second round is not as significant as one might expect. Round two receivers average about 8.16 PPR points per game in their first three seasons, which is only a 19.1% dip from the previous round. From an opportunity standpoint, first-round receivers average about 6.22 opportunities per game, with second-round WRs not too far behind at about 5.14. Where we see a significant change in fantasy output is with receivers drafted on day three, where players averaged only 4.10 PPR points and a measly 2.73 opportunities per game.

If we take a look at the likelihood of WR1 and WR2 production per round, players drafted in the first two rounds hold a significant advantage. Over the last 21 seasons, a WR1 and WR2 have averaged a minimum of 16.09 and 13.54 PPR points per game, respectively. Using those thresholds to calculate hit rates, a first-round receiver has a 5.26% chance of performing as a WR1 in their first three seasons. On the other hand, the rate of returning WR2 value is decently higher at 18.4%. While these hit rates are slightly lower than that of a first-round RB, keep in mind that we have seen 29 more WRs drafted in the first round from 2000 to 2018.

Round 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
WR1 Hit Rate 5.26% 2.38% 0.00% 0.00% 1.67% 0.00% 0.00%
WR2 Hit Rate 18.42% 10.71% 3.66% 0.00% 1.67% 0.00% 1.30%
Opportunities per Game 6.22 5.14 3.93 3.32 2.82 2.25 2.18

If we examine the hit rates of a second-round wide receiver, they once again trail slightly to those drafted on day one. However, their success rate is still higher than all the other rounds. In this sample size, second-round receivers return early-career WR1 and WR2 values at a 2.38% and 10.71% rate, respectively. Where the numbers get a little scarce is for all players drafted from round three onward. The early-career production hit rates for that group are less than 1% regardless of the threshold that you choose. In fact, we have only seen one receiver drafted outside of the first two rounds average WR1 numbers to start their career: fifth-rounder and ultimate outlier, Tyreek Hill.

In short, targeting receivers drafted from round three onward has rarely resulted in early-career fantasy production. But keep in mind, this analysis is centered on production within the first three seasons of a player’s career. It is always possible that a player meets those WR1 thresholds as their career progresses. My general advice is to remain patient with your rookie wide receivers. However, if you are looking for immediate return, round one and two receivers have a higher likelihood of being early difference-makers for your dynasty teams.

Tight Ends: Outliers Galore in Round 3

When evaluating the Tight End position, I was extremely surprised to find that most players are drafted after the second round. In addition, the average number of players drafted per round (1.87) is quite a bit lower than for RBs (2.95) and WRs (3.89), though that is understandable considering TE usage varies heavily from team to team. Regardless, we once again see that first-round players hold a significant edge in fantasy production. From 2000 to 2018, first-round TEs averaged about 7.49 PPR points in their first three seasons, receiving about 4.51 opportunities per game. Players drafted in the second round average about 5.67 PPR points, which is a 32% decline from the first round. In fact, among all skill position players, the tight end position holds the widest gap in production between players drafted in rounds one and two. 

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When evaluating hit rates for this position, I wanted to change the thresholds slightly. Because TEs outside of the top 12 are rarely useful for fantasy purposes, I wanted to look at the likelihood of a player averaging top 12 (TE1) and top 5 TE production based on their draft capital. For reference, since 2000, a top 5 TE has averaged a minimum of 11.91 PPR points per game, with the TE1 average only a few points behind at 9.16. Using those values as my threshold, the results once again heavily favor the first round. Around 8.7% of first-round TEs hit the top 5 TE threshold, while the top 12 (TE1) hit rate is quite a bit higher at 26.09%. We see a significant decline in our round two hit rate at only 3.23%, with Rob Gronkowski being the only TE to hit both threshold averages in his first three seasons. Because of a slower start to their career, second-round TEs Zach Ertz and Hunter Henry did not technically hit; however, they were not too far behind averaging 8.97 and 8.85 PPR points, respectively.

Round 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Top 5 TE Hit Rate 8.70% 3.23% 4.76% 2.50% 2.50% 0.00% 0.00%
Top 12 TE Hit Rate 26.09% 3.23% 14.29% 5.00% 2.50% 0.00% 0.00%
Opportunities per Game 4.51 3.25 2.72 2.21 1.59 1.45 1.06

In rounds four through seven, the hit rates remain relatively low with a 1.9% likelihood that those players return TE1 value. However, round three breaks the mold because of the numerous outliers in that group. Thanks to players like Jimmy Graham, Travis Kelce, Jason Witten, and Jordan “Rule 86” Reed, the round three-hit rates are slightly inflated. As a result, third-round TEs have a top 5 hit rate of 3.23%, and a top 12 hit rate of 14.29%. Regardless, outside of the outliers in round three, it is very evident that if you are looking for immediate production at the TE position, you need to invest in ones that receive first-round draft capital. Otherwise, similar to wide receivers, you may need to hold onto your TEs longer as they may take a few years to achieve TE1 status.

Quarterbacks: The Saturated 1st Round QB Market

Finally, we conclude with the Quarterback position. To no surprise, the number of quarterbacks drafted in the first round far outweighs any other round in my sample size. That is likely because of the premium that is placed on the quarterback position by NFL teams. And considering we saw four drafted last year, and likely a minimum of five in the 2021 draft, I expect that first-round trend to continue. It is evident, however, that quarterbacks drafted on day one generally receive the opportunity to start for their team, which is reflected in their volume averages. First-round QBs lead all rounds in attempts per game (29.48), total yards per game (219.45), and completions per game (17.6). They also lead all rounds in efficiency with a 9.00 adjusted yards per attempt. 

However, despite the ample opportunity, they have historically only averaged about 13.59 fantasy points per game. Those numbers fall below the QB12 average of 15.99 from the last 21 seasons. For reference, only 24.53% of first round QBs from 2000 to 2018 have exceeded that threshold average in their first three seasons. Outside of the first round, it was intriguing to find that ZERO quarterbacks have averaged early-career QB1 numbers in rounds two, five, and seven. In fact, the next highest QB1 hit rate can be found in round three at 9.09%, led by Russell Wilson and Nick Foles. And on day three, only two QBs have met the QB1 threshold outlined above: Dak Prescott and Marc Bulger. It is important to note, however, that the definition of a QB1 is slowly transforming. With high volume passing offenses and rushing QBs becoming more prominent, we saw a drastic change in QB1 numbers in 2020. Last season, the QB12 finished with 21.1 points per game, which is the highest average over the last 21 seasons.

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Round 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
QB1 Hit Rate 24.53% 0.00% 9.09% 4.55% 0.00% 3.57% 0.00%
Attempts per Game  29.48 24.51 22.64 18.53 16.20 21.47 13.85

To conclude, draft capital matters for Quarterbacks, though the hit rates are slightly diluted because of the sheer number of players drafted in the first round. If you are looking to bolster the QB position for your SuperFlex team, you are likely already eying players with first-round draft capital. And with five QBs set to be drafted early in 2021, it will be interesting to see if the 24.53% QB1 hit rate holds true for this highly touted rookie class.

How Should This Affect your Dynasty Draft Strategy?

Hopefully, this puts into perspective that only a fraction of rookies will return immediate, top-tier value. However, running back is the one position that will likely lead to immediate returns, especially if they receive first-round capital. Keep an eye on Travis Etienne and Najee Harris, two RBs who could be drafted in the first round. And with Kyle Pitts as the only TE projected to be picked early, combined with the higher TE1 hit rates, he should be considered a top-five pick in most rookie drafts. For wide receivers, target players who are drafted within the first two rounds as they average the highest hit rate at that position. And for quarterbacks, first-rounders will return the highest value. However, do not expect every one of them to produce QB1 numbers right out of the gate.

Happy draft week, and good luck in your rookie drafts!

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