The Sophomore Bump & Breaking Down the Door of ADP (Fantasy Football)

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Sophomore year of high school.

I don’t remember much of the details. In fact, I have such a terrible grasp of holding long-term memories it’s downright embarrassing sometimes. Chalk it up to the churros, I guess.

But what feels clear as day is the horrible, ungodly amount of acne that lived rent-free on my face beginning that year. It sprung up out of nowhere. And honestly, I’m not sure I could’ve prepared for the immense facial breakout that ensued. Luckily, my dashingly good looks could be rescued by throwing on a bit of charm and wit in high school as I bided my time.

Sometimes life hits you faster than you realize. The transition from one season of your life to the next feels expedited. 

In fantasy football, we would all love to take a “wait-and-see” approach. “Prove it to me!” we scream as we watch the year go by often too slow to react. Passivity kills us in fantasy football whether you’re talking about going hard in the paint for waiver wire moves or actively trading. We preach all the time on the podcast to “stay water” and be willing to adapt. I’m beginning to acquire some new thoughts and theories to integrate stronger empirical convictions in my process.

We all want to find the next big fantasy star. The glory in calling your shot! We used to talk about Year 3 Breakouts for WRs. “Just wait until then…” was the prevailing theory in fantasy circles. My natural inclination was to grab on to the first plausible explanation and happily gather supportive evidence without testing and checking its reliability. It sounded great.

Behind the scenes here at the Fantasy Footballers, we’ve been laser-focused on looking at 2nd-year players breaking out for fantasy which has led us to incredible conclusions… true shortcuts for fantasy football. A genuine edge in your drafts. 

I’ll lay out the method to some of our recent madness with a little help from our Editor-in-Chief Kyle Borgognoni and one of our writers Matt DiSorbo, a Harvard PhD student in Data Science¹. This has been a true passion of mine over the last couple of months zeroing in a group of players we as a fantasy community are often behind the times with. If you want to see the TLDR version (which I certainly do sometimes), click here.

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The Method to our Madness

We started out looking at every rookie WR over the last decade. 

All 574 of them.  Yes, I’m talking from Junior Hemingway and Marvin McNutt to Justin Jefferson and even the Lizard King himself, Sammy Watkins. Man, I was in love with Sammy early in his career!

We compiled all of their production to see who stood out as a rookie, where their fantasy finish was, and how did the fantasy community perceive their value heading into the next year. 

What was their average draft position? Where did a consensus group of people that drafted and those that talk about fantasy football for a living project these sophomores in drafts?

That is the key piece of information that needs to be added to the process.

Average Draft Position matters because it establishes an “outside view” and allows us some measure of value and perception for these players. The wisdom of the crowds should neither be outrightly dismissed nor overly relied upon. It is an average draft position and one we can use as a key data point in finding breakout players. 

Defining a Breakout with Charts That Make Me Look Like I Have a PhD¹

The guys had a good time on the 10 Tips & Tricks episode trying to convince me that I somehow do not have this degree nor should I be recognized as Dr. J. 

Nevertheless, we needed to not only define but quantify what we mean by breakout. Looking back over the last decade, we chose to define a ‘high-end breakout’ as a player moving into the top-15 (RBs/WRs) or top-8 (QBs/TEs) at their position. A breakout can only happen one time: once an RB breaks out in his 1st season, for example, he doesn’t break out again. Jonathan Taylor can’t break out again in 2021. Justin Jefferson literally rewrote the rookie WR record book. Their current draft prices reflect the fact they have broken out.

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Here is the main chart, with ‘season’ (how many seasons the player has played) on the x-axis and ‘breakout probability’ on the y-axis:

Right off the bat, we can tell there is a lot of credence for the 2nd year breakout! QBs and WRs have the highest chance of breaking out in their second year, while RBs follow right behind them.

The difficult career path of an RB is evident: the chance of a breakout steadily declines with time spent in the NFL. Even though a second-year breakout here is slightly less likely than a first-year breakout, there’s a bit of nuance: remember that players can only break out once. Even if they perform better in year two, they technically already broke out. As we will see below, RBs actually perform better in year two on average.

WRs are as expected: a second-year breakout is, by a decent chunk, the most likely breakout year (about twice as likely as year one). These probabilities are generally lower across a career because it’s such a crowded position with 40-50 guys on a given season that are fantasy viable. In addition, there is a lot of staying power with the top WR fantasy stars like Julio Jones, Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, or DeAndre Hopkins.

Let’s get a bit more detailed and look at the ‘change in points’ over time for the positions. As mentioned above, a player can only break out once, and this definition obscures patterns after the original breakout year (not to mention the ‘breakout’ cutoff is a bit arbitrary). This chart has the same set-up but the y-axis is the change in points year over year (naturally, in the first season, there is no year over year change in points!)

This chart tells us the more nuanced story that was missing earlier: all of the positions get a decent bump in points scored in the second year!

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Specifically, if we look at RBs that break out as rookies, on average (removing a few injury-riddled sophomore seasons, like Leonard Fournette) their second season is nearly the same (just four points lower overall). This is important: the second-year ‘bump’ effect is so strong that it appears to prevent significant regression in running backs that already broke out as rookies. Basically, they had a repeated great performance in year two, we just don’t classify it as a breakout because they already broke out.

Historical Data & What ADP Tells Us

Perhaps you need to zero in a bit further on specific breakout candidates and the year two bump. Beyond getting a 10,000-foot view, how has this actually worked out on a player-by-player basis in fantasy football drafts over the last decade?

Glad you asked.

After looking at all of those rookie WRs over the last decade, we narrowed our field to sophomore WRs and their ADP² heading into Year 2.

The hit of these players is downright staggering especially in rounds with immense draft capital for fantasy:

  • Of the sophomore WRs with an ADP of Rounds 4-8, ALL of them beat their rookie fantasy points per game. They may not sound impressive but we’re moving in the right direction.
  • That core group consisted of 20 different sophomore WRs and 14 of them beat their ADP. That’s a 70 percent hit rate and that cohort isn’t even including three names whose seasons were cut short to injury but played at least half the season. On a points-per-game basis, Calvin Ridley (WR17), Cooper Kupp (WR11), and Martavis Bryant (WR19) all vastly outperformed their ADPs. That bumps our hit rate to 85 percent! Now we’re cooking with gas, my friends!
  • The lone stains were DeVante Parker, Corey Davis, and Marquise ‘Hollywood’ Brown, the latter of which I feel major personal pain with as one of my favorite players in the 2020 drafts. (I ease the pain knowing he was the WR11 over the final six weeks of the season)

So, who were those breakout WRs? They likely were guys who won managers fantasy championships

  • Josh Gordon set the league on fire with 1,646 receiving yards as a sophomore.
  • Allen Robinson decided to morph into the target monster with a ridiculous 1400/14 season.
  • Jarvis Landry began his run of hyper-effective PPR seasons.
  • Tyreek Hill shrugged off doubters and ended up as a top-5 guy.
  • Juju Smith-Schuster saw an insane 166 targets… as his team’s WR2!
  • D.J. Moore was a WR1 before bowing out the final two games of the season.
  • Former college teammates A.J. Brown & DK Metcalf were among the most intimidating players on the real football field and for fantasy.

Those guys are the breakout highlights but sort through the other guys in Rounds 4-8 and you’ll see the fantasy community nailed it on these sophomores… but still wasn’t high enough.

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But beyond the monster production, it was the value gained on swinging for the fences with a sophomore player in your drafts. You weren’t drafting these players at their ceilings because they had yet to reach them in a given season.

However, the opportunity cost of passing on players like this due to the “I haven’t seen it yet” was massive. The ADPs the following year skyrocketed many of these players into the 1st or 2nd round of drafts to the point where you likely missed on getting aboard the train for redraft and keeper leagues. By Year 3, the value and discounts for these WRs were gone

Takeaways for 2021

So, what do we do with this info?

Swing away with the sophomores! 

We’re already seeing Ceedee Lamb crowned as a breakout star with his ADP surpassing our Rounds 4-8 sweet spot. And rightfully so, the fantasy community is saying with their rankings and drafting: this guy is going to breakout! Some would even go so far as to say he was drafted to be great!

But the rest of the sophomore WRs need to be at the forefront of our drafting minds this year. I’ve even included a couple of guys going later gaining some steam as popular 2nd-year breakout picks.

I recently gushed about Brandon Aiyuk on the Fire & Ice episode.

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Mike has supported Chase Claypool before it was cool to do so… typical Mike. Tee Higgins was an early favorite of mine in the off-season and I’m more bullish on him than Ja’Marr Chase for 2021. I loved Jerry Jeudy coming into the 2020 draft process. Andy is over the moon for Darnell… Mooney. Not Darnell Anderson. You get my point.

These WRs aren’t just dynasty plays. Let’s take a shot on these players in redraft now and not wait another year to hope that maybe we see it with our eyes. Their ADP suggests they are likely being thought of as WR3/FLEX plays but you can foresee a WR2 outcome or better is clearly in the cards. The draft capital teams spent also is a solid indicator that greatness is lurking just around the corner.

While reaching in a draft is never optimal, I would advise taking a shot on multiple sophomore WRs this year knowing their draft costs are spaced out enough. Take multiple shots on finding a player with the pedigree to breakout in 2021. After all, they were drafted to be great!


¹Are you as impressed as I am that I used footnotes for this thing? As a fellow PhD student, it’s just part of the deal.

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² For this study, we used combined historical ADP from FantasyData, FantasyFootballCalculator.com, and Sleeper to form an aggregate over the past decade.

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