First-Year Failings: The Struggles of Rookie Wide Receivers

I won’t draft a single rookie wide receiver this redraft season. It’s nothing personal against the likes of Hollywood Brown or Andy Isabella.  I just don’t expect them to produce, and I have evidence to support this belief. The odds are stacked against them, and if they do manage to buck the trend and outperform their ADP, I will sleep soundly knowing that I trusted the process over results. Read on to find out why.

Playing wide receiver in the National Football League is hard. Like really hard. Shocking, I know. Some incredibly gifted talents at the position flame out in the pros, despite dominating their peers in college. Others make an impact in their rookie season, but those that do usually have a combination of both generational talent and immediate opportunity. But sometimes, receivers just need some time to get used to playing in the NFL. One of the commonly quoted theories in fantasy football is that wide receivers take up to three years to break out. Working off the assumption that this is generally true, then drafting rookie wide receivers in redraft leagues would be, by and large, a waste of draft picks. So are rookie wideouts worth drafting? I decided to find out.

The hypothesis was simple – rookie wide receivers rarely match or exceed their positional ADP.

While this may seem like a relatively logical, and inoffensive statement, I wanted to check the data to see if my suspicions were correct.

Five seasons seemed like reasonable sample size, so my research spans from the lauded 2014 rookie class to the 2018 class and examines the fantasy football performance of the first 24 wide receivers selected in the NFL draft each year. Just in case you can’t remember those 120 names, they are listed out below. And don’t worry. You aren’t alone if you find yourself asking “who?”

I took the positional redraft ADP for each of the players listed above using information from Fantasy Pros (which aggregates ADP from 5 major fantasy football platform providers) for 2016 – 2018. Unfortunately, their ADP doesn’t date back to 2014 and 2015, so the remaining ADP was obtained using Fantasy Football Calculator

I then used the end of season ranks for WRs based on total PPR points scored (using Pro Football Reference), to calculate the variance between preseason ADP and end of season positional finish. 

For example, in 2018 D.J. Moore was drafted as the WR50, and finished as the WR36 with 157 PPR points. This gives him a differential of +14. Conversely, James Washington was drafted as the WR77 and finished as the WR120 with 43.7 PPR points. This gives him a differential of -43. 

This exercise was repeated for every wide receiver listed in the table above, and an average success rate calculated for each season. 

A successful season was defined as a player’s end of season positional rank either equalling or exceeding their preseason positional ADP. Importantly, players who went undrafted in a standard 12 team league (according to ADP), did not receive a positive differential since these players could be acquired off the waiver wire for free. The purpose of this exercise is to guide your draft strategy. 

Odell Beckham Jr. is a prime example of this, and yet he went on to finish at the WR7. A truly remarkable season. I have not classified him as having a successful season in my calculation as the purpose of this analysis is to determine if it is worth drafting rookie WRs. OBJ was a waiver wire king, who helped those who picked him up to win a championship. The same can be said of Michael Thomas in 2016. Overall, the success rate for rookie wide receivers is pretty bleak.

Their success rates over the past five seasons are set out below, and it shows that rookie wide receivers have hit in their rookie season at a rate just above 1 in 5. The 2015 draft was a particularly brutal class with only Tyler Lockett exceeding his ADP. Amari Cooper barely missed out on returning value, finishing as the WR21 with an ADP of WR20.

Success is a broad term. Some rookies are far more successful than others. Tyreek Hill was drafted as the WR155 in 2016 (and really only drafted in the deepest of leagues). However, he finished as the WR25, with a differential of +130. On the other hand, Sterling Shepard returned a differential of +3. For the purposes of this exercise, both qualify as a success despite Hill clearly returning the greater value. Again, this exercise is to simply examine whether the rookie WR was worth their average draft position. 

So what can this information tell us? As a broad rule, don’t draft rookie wide receivers unless they are late, late fliers in redraft leagues! The odds of them hitting and returning value is not worth the opportunity cost of drafting an established veteran at the position – even if the rookies were drafted in the First Round of the NFL draft!

Keep an eye on the rookies’ target share over the first few weeks of the season, and make waiver moves where necessary, but let your league mates burn up roster spots while they are waiting for the breakout that more than likely won’t come this season!

Of course, whilst this information is directed at redraft leagues, it can certainly be used to your advantage in dynasty leagues. Team owners may get impatient with their rookie picks not panning out after a year. Especially if they are a contender. If you believe in the talent, a rookie collecting dust on someone’s bench or taxi squad could be acquired at a discount in the middle of the season. Alternatively, you could buy them just before the next year’s rookie draft when the value of your picks is at a premium. That receiver who was drafted in the first round just 12 months ago, could be available a second-round pick when rookie fever is in full force. You know who the owners who love chasing picks are. Target them at the right time and you might be able to make a huge profit.

Thank you for reading. Let me know your thoughts on this class of rookie wideouts on Twitter @FF_DownUnder.

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English Australia-based writer for @DFF_Dynasty & ADP Specialist for @DFF_ADP. #DFFArmy #DynastyFootball #ADP Find me on Twitter @FF_DownUnder Patriots and Seminoles fan. Lover of beer, scotch, and red wine.

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