The Hit Rate of Rookie WRs in Fantasy Football & How You Can Adjust in 2022

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There are so many unknowns with rookie WRs: situation, adjustment to NFL game speed, talent, etc.

At this point in the off-season, it can be easy to apply what we’ve seen in the past with rookies that have rewritten the record books (Ja’Marr Chase, Justin Jefferson) and continue to assume that we can spot and draft the breakout rookie WR every year.

I decided to take a deep dive into where rookie WRs were being drafted, how they performed relative to their ADP, and what does their draft capital tell us about the hit rate of these players. Make sure you check out the recent Fantasy Footballers episode: 2021 Rookie Review Show.

How are we drafting Rookie WRs?

Before we see how rookies performed, it’s valuable to see how fantasy managers as a whole are drafting them.

Keep in mind that a final ADP number only tells a limited story. For example, here are the 2021 1st round rookie WRs and how their ADP changed from immediately after the NFL Draft (May 1st) up until kickoff of Week 1 (Sept 12) per RotoViz.

There is a myriad of reasons why ADP changes over time. Players get hurt (Rashod Bateman), situations change, and in the case of Ja’Marr Chase, there were some issues in pre-season that had drafters worried. But the key data point is May 1st. All of them had glowing sentiments from drafters early.

I compiled the ADP of each rookie WR taken in fantasy football drafts since 2014. In other words, these are WRs taken in the top 15 rounds of actual drafts according to FantasyFootballCalculator.com.

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You like colors? The visuals are meant to show the range of WRs given their draft capital in the NFL draft, their ADP in fantasy drafts, and the differences in their fantasy finishes.

39% of the rookies shown here outproduced their draft cost. If you want another way to look at it, 60% of rookie WRs were overdrafted. But overall, for players that are adjusting to life in the NFL and new offensive systems, that’s a solid hit rate in terms of ADP.

Zeroing in a bit further, let’s a look at these guys in terms of grouping them in rounds taken in fantasy drafts:

  • Rounds 4-9: Eight of the 12 rookie WRs drafted in this range outproduced their draft cost. A 67% hit rate is impressive. That group doesn’t include Amari Cooper (the highest draft rookie WR in fantasy leagues) who only finished one spot below his ADP. The consensus opinion on earlier-round rookies has been solid.
  • Rounds 10 & 11: Seven of the 15 rookies hit here. This is where you start finding WRs who could step in as the No. 2 option for their teams and have some meaningful contributions in Year 1. We find some absolute studs in this group including Michael Thomas, Cooper Kupp, and Justin Jefferson. Wow.
  • 12th Round or later: Only four WRs drafted in these later rounds (Brandon Aiyuk, Tyler Lockett, Deebo Samuel, Amon-Ra St. Brown) exceeded their late-round flier statuses. When you look at the group, it’s a bunch of dart throws including my guy Terrace Marshall that did not work out so well in 2021. Remember Dorial Green-Beckham?!?

Outliers Skew Our View

It’s helpful to give context for performance knowing rookie production doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Rookies compete with other rookies in our minds and not just in their specific seasons but we tend to take what we’ve seen in the past and apply it to the future. What Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson recently accomplished is downright unbelievable but as Mike shares in the most recent Fantasy Footballers podcast, everyone has value but the odds are stacked against rookie WR not only having truly great seasons but being major difference-makers period.

I went about this study with a few data sets in mind. The previous table above showed you only players with ADPs available in the first 15 rounds of drafts. But let’s expand that grouping even further since we often make up our minds about prospects in the time leading up to the NFL Draft. After that, we find their landing spots, and the takes can get even more cemented. I looked at the following groups of players:

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  • 1st Round Rookie WRs since 2002 (77)
  • 2nd Round Rookie WRs since 2002 (93)
  • All of the Rookie WRs taken in the NFL Draft since 2002 (648)

Here are some of the rough and raw numbers to start the conversation.

Of the 77 rookie WRs drafted in the 1st round of the NFL Draft:

  • Only 5% were top-12 WRs in their rookie year… just FOUR total: Ja’Marr Chase (2021), Justin Jefferson (2020), Odell Beckham Jr. & Mike Evans (2014). That’s it.
  • That means from 2002 to 2013, none of them did it. Zero. Zilch. None.
  • 19.5% ended up in the top-24. 
  • 32.5% were top-36.

Of the 93 2nd round WRs drafted in that span:

  • 2.6% were top-12 in their rookie year…. Michael Thomas (2016) & Anquan Boldin (2003)
  • 3.2% were top-24.
  • 16% were top-36.

Of the 648 rookie WRs drafted since 2002:

  • 0.9% were top-12 in their rookie year.
  • 3.9% were top-24.
  • 6.2% were top-36.

Keep in mind that top-36 isn’t always necessarily a viable FLEX option. Some guys get there simply by sheer volume or playing all 17 games. For example, DeVonta Smith finished the year as the WR29 in 2021. But he had only six weeks where he scored double-digit fantasy points. While he ranked 6th among all WRs in Air Yards Share, Smith saw only four total red-zone receptions which dragged down his weekly upside.

While Smith’s production seems encouraging, to say the least, there are certainly an overwhelming amount of Jalen Reagors, Darrius Heyward-Beys, and Troy Williamsons.

Conclusion

I’ll keep it simple. Here were my takeaways:

  • Expecting fantasy greatness from a rookie WR is asking way too much. 2014 was a fun year. It also wasn’t repeatable.
  • Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson make my brain hurt from the otherworldly production they put up as rookies. It’s wilder when you consider the fact their offenses supported other legit fantasy options (Tee Higgins, Joe Mixon, Dalvin Cook, & Adam Thielen).
  • If a consensus opinion develops about a rookie WR via their high-ish ADP (Rounds 5-9) and they have the draft pedigree (1st Round pick), it’s likely this investment is worth making.
  • Moving into the double-digit rounds of fantasy drafts is a coin flip at best. Anything beyond the 12th round is a dart throw… but you already knew that.
  • If I were a betting man, I will be fading the notion that rookies have significant weekly bankable production to be a top-24 WR.
  • Trade for rookies after the 1st month or scoop them up off of the waiver wire. Ride them in the 2nd half.

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