Every year a new class of rookies enters the NFL and every year fantasy football heads like myself get all kinds of excited for their possible production. With the NFL draft signaling the start of the offseason doldrums, it makes sense that much of the summer months are spent hyping up the latest class of NFL players who are nothing but potential and opportunity.
But how often do rookies actually offer solid fantasy production? How hyped should we realistically be about this year’s crop of incoming rookies?
Since we are in the throws of the aforementioned NFL doldrums—and I am 100% in the throws of hyping up the latest class of NFL rookies (have I mentioned I’m high on Ja’Marr Chase?)—I decided to see for myself just how much fantasy production rookies have brought in their first year.
I looked back over the last six years, dating back to the 2015 draft, and compiled a list of every running back and wide receiver drafted or signed as an undrafted free agent and where they finished that year in .5PPR fantasy. I then cut out any rookie who finished outside of the top 48 at their position (I’m choosing to make RB4/WR4 status the cutoff point for what constitutes a solid fantasy season).
Here’s what I found.
You might have expected it, but rookie running backs tend to be instant contributors to fantasy football. Of the 149 rookie running backs that have entered the league since 2015, 55 of them (37%) either finished top 48 in .5PPR total points or ranked top 48 in fantasy points per game. (I included FPPG as a way to capture either rookies who got injured or maybe didn’t have a role until later in the year.) That right off the bat is a pretty good start.
The more interesting numbers are when you break down the rookie backs by where they were selected in the draft.
Running backs who were selected in the first round over the last six years almost all finished as top-24 backs (70%). In fact, based on this data, there’s a 50% chance of a running back selected in the first round finishing as a RB1 their rookie year. That is top notch return.
From a top 24 perspective, the only year that really stands out is 2018. Saquon Barkley went second overall that year and he rightfully finished as the RB2. Sony Michel went at pick No. 31 and finished just outside the top 24, coming in as the RB28. The outlier to the group was Rashaad Penny who the Seattle Seahawks picked at No. 27 overall and barely did anything of note his rookie year.
If we expand our parameters and look at running backs taken in the first-100 picks, the odds still are in favor of those players being productive fantasy options. Of the backs taken in the last six years, roughly 55% of them finished top 36 their rookie year. The 2017 draft class is the highlight of the group with Leonard Fournette (RB8), Christian McCaffrey (RB11), Dalvin Cook (RB9 in FPPG), Joe Mixon (RB34), Alvin Kamara (RB3), and Kareem Hunt (RB4) all finishing top 36 that year.
There’s still fantasy value to be found among running backs taken outside of the first 100 picks. Twenty-four backs went outside the top 100 and still finished top-48 options over the last six years, roughly four backs per year, including a fair number of undrafted names like Thomas Rawls in 2015, Robert Kelley in 2016, Austin Ekeler in 2017, Phillip Lindsay finishing RB12 in 2018, and of course James Robinson finishing RB7 last year.
Looking over the last six drafts, it certainly seems like rookie running backs can come in and make an immediate impact in fantasy, especially if they have high draft pedigree.
While looking at the above running back table can make you feel warm and cuddly, the wide receiver table’s worrying shades of red doesn’t do a lot to instill confidence.
Of all the 230 receivers drafted or signed as an undrafted free agent over the last six years, only 27 of them (12%) finished a top-48 option in .5PPR or in FPPG. Not great Bob. 2018 was a particularly dark year with only D.J. Moore and Calvin Ridley returning top-48 fantasy value out of 40 receivers drafted. Forty.
While the hit rate among all rookie receivers does look bleak, you can see that in recent years the percentages have risen. Both 2019 and 2020 saw at least 20% of rookie receivers finish top 48 which makes sense when you think of the recent passing boom that’s hit the NFL.
That good feeling though goes away fast when you drill down into receiver draft pedigree.
Of the 23 first-round receivers drafted in the last 6 years, only 5 of them have managed to finish a WR24 or better: Amari Cooper in 2015 (WR22), Calvin Ridley in 2018 (WR20), and Justin Jefferson, CeeDee Lamb, and Brandon Aiyuk in 2020 (WR6, WR20, WR17 in FPPG respectively). It’s interesting to note that outside of Jefferson, all those receivers finished around the WR20 mark.
Even if you expand the parameters to include any first-round receiver who finished top 48 in total scoring or in FPPG their rookie year, that just adds DeVante Parker (WR48 in FPPG), D.J. Moore (WR38), Marquise Brown (WR46), and Jerry Jeudy (WR44). That means only 39% of all first-round receivers since 2015 have finished top 48 in .5PPR their rookie year. Compare that to first-round running backs where there’s a 50% chance a first-round back finishes a top-12 option their rookie year. Clearly being drafted in the first round as a receiver doesn’t carry the same fantasy potential that a running back does.
Hell, being a first-round receiver doesn’t really even carry much more fantasy potential than being a top-100 receiver. Twenty-two receivers drafted in the top-100 picks over the last 6 years finished top 48 their rookie season—a 30% hit rate. I just said being a first-round receiver had a 39% hit rate.
And if you’re a receiver taken outside of the top-100 picks, good luck! Since 2015, I counted only five times that a rookie receiver taken outside of the top-100 picks finished top 48 in total stats or in FPPG their first year: Stefon Diggs in 2015 (WR46), Tyreek Hill in 2016 (WR22), Keelan Cole in 2017 (WR45), and Darius Slayton and Preston Williams in 2019 (WR35 and WR45 in FPPG respectively).
The high hit rate on rookie running backs and low hit rate on rookie wide receivers helps explain why we frequently see first-year backs overvalued in fantasy drafts and first-year receivers undervalued. People are willing to pay up for a rookie back because there’s a higher chance they hit and return solid fantasy value. Meanwhile with wide receivers, the savvy move might actually be to ignore first-round receivers and their likely higher ADP and instead turn to other top-100 picks with a lower ADP as they have almost the same likelihood of returning top-48 fantasy value.
What Does This Mean for the 2021 Draft Class?
So now that we have all this data, how can we use it to make informed decisions when it comes to drafting rookies in fantasy football this year? Funny you should ask! Here are my initial thoughts looking at the 2021 draft class. (Note: I have not included any undrafted free agents in any of these 2021 projections since Wikipedia hasn’t built out their list yet and I’m too lazy to scour the interwebs to find every UDFA signed up to this point.)
- With 18 backs picked in the draft, 6 of them will likely return top 48 value.
- Two running backs were taken in the first round (Najee Harris and Travis Etienne), meaning likely one of them will finish a RB1 this year. All signs point to it being Harris and his early ADP of RB13 agrees.
- Harris, Etienne, Javonte Williams, and Trey Sermon were all taken within the top-100 picks, so likely only two of them will finish a top-36 back. Take that into consideration with Etienne (ADP RB22), Williams (RB27), and Sermon (RB28) all going as fringe RB2s. Personally, I’d go with Sermon in redrafts.
- Michael Carter of the New York Jets is my favorite for a back taken outside the top 100 to still return solid fantasy value. His current ADP of RB34 is right inline with where I’d be willing to take him.
- With 36 receivers picked in the draft, 7 of them will likely return top 48 value (using the 20% trend of the last 2 years). If we take the percentage from the last six years (12%), four receivers will likely return top 48 value.
- Of the five receivers taken in the first round, likely only one of them will return top 24 value. Everyone, including myself, is betting on that being Ja’Marr Chase (ADP WR20).
- Likely only two of the first-round WRs will return top 48 value. My money is on Chase and DeVonta Smith (ADP WR37).
- Here’s how the other first round receivers are being drafted: Jaylen Waddle (WR44), Rashod Bateman (WR56), and Kadarius Toney (WR74).
- Fifteen receivers were taken in the top-100 picks. Using the 30% hit rate, 4 to 5 of them will finish as top 48 options in fantasy.
- There’s value to be found in top-100 options going outside of the top 48 at their position like Terrace Marshall (65), Amari Rodgers (WR79), and Elijah Moore (WR144).