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Reverse Box Score Scouting to Find Rookie Breakout Candidates

I’ve heard smart people say, when asked about the 2017 class of prospects, “there’s no Amari Cooper here.”1 In other words, there’s no can’t-miss prospect who checks every box and is the consensus No. 1 pick in dynasty rookie drafts.

Even though these smart people mean that in a figurative sense, I want to take it slightly more seriously. Is there a player in the 2017 class who comps well with Amari Cooper, or perhaps with some other young NFL players? Are there any rookies who could offer a sort of arbitrage situation on a trendy and possibly overpriced veteran?2 Specifically, are there any rookies who look enough like 2016’s breakout players that we could reasonably call them this year’s rookie breakout candidates?

In what follows I’m going to use the Arbitrage Setting on the Box Score Scout to investigate whether any members of the 2017 class might offer some of the things we’ve been expecting or hoping for from current NFL players, only at a discounted price. Some of the findings here might surprise you.

So, Is There an Amari Cooper in This Class?

When Cooper came out of Alabama in 2015, he had almost everything going for him—both elite athleticism and elite production. Are there any players in the current rookie class who can say the same?

cooper compsChris Godwin is the closest comp, particularly from an athletic standpoint. He was one of our favorite receiver prospects before the draft. But after landing in what is widely perceived to be a crowded Tampa Bay receiver depth chart, he fell in our rankings to 19th overall, and I was the only ranker to have him inside the top ten. I really like the value he presents at the end of the second round, but I admit he’s not quite on Cooper’s level. His collegiate production and draft position fall well short of Cooper’s. It would seem there truly is no Amari Cooper in this class.

It Always Comes Back to Corey Davis

On the other hand, there is a 2017 rookie who was drafted only one spot lower than Cooper and who meets and even exceeds Cooper’s production. Maybe you’ve heard of him?


Corey Davis isn’t exactly the Cooper of this class, because we don’t know about his athleticism. He’s certainly the closest in terms of production and draft position, but unlike Cooper he comes with a fairly big question mark. So, it may be the case that we can’t find a good comp for Cooper among the 2017 rookies. But perhaps this class contains some comps for the most impressive 2016 rookie breakouts.

Is There Another Breakout WR?

The biggest success story at WR among the 2016 class was Michael Thomas. The Saints’ second-round pick out of Ohio State ended the season as the WR7. And one 2017 receiver prospect actually does a halfway decent impression:

thomas heatmap

Josh Reynolds

Josh Reynolds matches Thomas as a prospect in almost every respect, except for his weight, where he is nearly 20 pounds lighter.3 Due to Thomas’s size advantage, Reynold’s edge in speed is basically a wash. But Reynolds was more productive than Thomas over his career, which Kevin Cole has found to be the most important predictor of NFL success.

Yet, before we get too excited, we need to point out a crucial difference between Thomas and Reynolds—namely, their situations. Thomas’ QB for his rookie season was Drew Brees, one of the best QBs ever. Reynolds’ QB? Jared Goff. Thomas played for a Saints team that threw 673 passes in 2016. Reynolds’ Rams? Only 533 passes in 2016. Thomas entered a depth chart with only two WRs in front of him. Reynolds must compete with two veterans and a rookie in Cooper Kupp who was drafted a round earlier than Reynolds and was even more productive over his college career.

Unless Sean McVay really is a difference maker as a coach (not very likely), and Goff is secretly a Brees-caliber QB (very not likely), and Reynolds can leapfrog the other receivers on his team (this one’s actually somewhat plausible), he is not going to have a 2016-Michael-Thomas-like season. Still, he’s an interesting sleeper who is being drafted in the mid-to-late-third round of rookie drafts. His ADP probably deserves to be closer to Kupp’s, as it’s not clear that Kupp’s edge in the depth chart battle is secure.

Is There Another Breakout RB?

If Thomas was the biggest 2016 success story at WR, then the biggest success story at RB was Jordan Howard.4 Howard’s ADP in dynasty startups at this time last year was RB45. Now it’s RB7. But do we have to pay these prices to get a player with Howard’s skillset and collegiate profile? Maybe not.

howard heatmap

Samaje Perine

Samaje Perine was one of the most productive college RBs prior to the ascendance of Joe Mixon. He holds the FBS record for the most rushing yards in a single game, and he never failed to reach 1,000 rushing yards in a season. Mixon’s presence lowered his final season market share of rushing yards, but his career rushing production is still fairly impressive:

perine career

Player Profiler agrees that Howard and Perine are similar players.

Screenshot 2017-05-22 22.08.37

RotoViz rankers have him at 15th overall, and I actually ranked him inside my top five. That may be overly aggressive, but I believe he landed in an excellent situation. He’s arguably already the best RB on the Redskins’ roster, especially when we look at each back’s college career:

Samaje Perine5-112334.6519.0114.
Rob Kelley5-112264.71*6.525.
Matt Jones6-22314.6110.651.
Keith Marshall5-112194.317.741.
Chris Thompson5-71924.45*
Mack Brown5-112064.64*4.818.

*Pro-day time with a +0.03 adjustment.

Besides Perine, Matt Jones is the only current Redskins RB to average double-digit carries and more than 50 rushing yards per game. Recent reports indicate that Jones’s career with the Redskins is quickly nearing its end.

Perine is the tenth player off the board in rookie drafts, which is too rich for most RotoViz writers, but I happen to think it’s a decent value for a Jordan Howard lookalike with a good shot at early opportunity.

Elijah Hood

John Lapinski has already pointed out how similar Elijah Hood looks to Howard, especially when we focus on Hood’s sophomore production:


Hood didn’t get much pre-draft attention, and he ended up falling to the seventh round before the Oakland Raiders drafted him. The nice thing about the Raiders RB depth chart is that they don’t exactly have an established lead back. Many expect Marshawn Lynch to lead the team in carries, but he’s been out of football for a year and he’s already 31 years old. We have good reason to be skeptical of his ability to perform in that role.

Last year two different Raiders’ rookie RBs — fifth-round pick DeAndre Washington and undrafted free agent Jalen Richard — finished the season with more than 100 touches. So there is precedent for rookies getting opportunity in Oakland, and not just early-round rookies. All that is to say, Elijah Hood has an easier path to opportunity than many people think, and if he can get some carries in his first year, he would get to run behind one of the better offensive lines in the NFL. His situation is probably more conducive to a fantasy-relevant season than it would seem at first glance.

Is There Another Breakout TE?

Everyone knows that TEs do not often break out in their rookie years. Ben Gretch showed this incontrovertibly to be the case. Even Hunter Henry, who was tied for the league lead in touchdowns among TEs in 2016, did not finish inside the top 10. Yet, in terms of PPR points, Henry’s 2016 was the fifth best ever for a rookie TE. If we’re hoping a 2017 rookie TE might help us win some fantasy matchups this year, Henry’s is the mold to follow. Does any rookie TE look like Henry?

Player Profiler delivers some sobering news: no player in the league looks like Henry. Hunter Henry’s best comparable is . . . Hunter Henry.

playerprofiler hunter henry

Even so, maybe we can find someone who’s close enough to give us some hope for a fantasy-relevant rookie TE season.

henry heatmap

Jonnu Smith

Jonnu Smith gives up more than two inches in height to Henry, but he makes up for it with superior speed and explosiveness.5 He was also a more prolific touchdown scorer than Henry in his final year at Florida International. Smith excelled in Phil Watkins’ model, in which he was the most likely of any 2017 TE to become a long-term starter. This model also found that Henry was the most likely TE to succeed of any rookie over the previous five years.

What makes Smith’s path to Year 1 relevance more difficult is the presence of Delanie Walker, along with the 2017 selections by the Titans of Davis and Taywan Taylor, not to mention 2016 selection of Tajae Sharpe and the emergence of Rishard MatthewsDeMarco Murray also demands passing targets, and Derrick Henry should be more involved in the offense as well. There just are not many extra targets that could be funneled Smith’s way, even if the Titans implement a more pass-heavy offense in Marcus Mariota‘s third season. That said, much of what I’ve just written would have applied in almost equal measure to Henry’s Chargers before the start of the 2016 season. As we saw, just a few injuries could be enough to turn the situation in Smith’s favor.


The Arbitrage Setting on the Box Score Scout reveals some interesting results. I encourage you to play around with it to see what turns up. Ultimately, depending on the veteran on which you’re looking for an arbitrage play, it’s likely to give the best-case scenario for the 2017 class of rookies. Players like Thomas, Howard, and Henry who have a major impact right away in their rookie years are the exceptions, not the rules, so it would generally be wrong to expect a rookie to have a season like this.

On the other hand, none of these 2016 breakouts have yet played even 16 games in the NFL, yet all three are being drafted as if their 2016 performances are what we should expect from them going forward. We’ve seen enough players bust after a good rookie season to know that the ability to maintain such a level of performance is far from certain.

Considering the cost to acquire players like Thomas, Howard, and Henry, who were exceptional on a small sample, the smart choice may be to skip these expensive talents for their much cheaper rookie counterparts.

  1. Okay, I’ve only heard one person say that. But I’m pretty sure it was Evan Silva, and he’s smarter than a lot of other fantasy analysts put together.  (back)
  2. I’m not saying Cooper is necessarily overpriced, but he does have a redraft ADP of WR9, despite finishing 2016 outside the top 15 WRs.  (back)
  3. which is kind of a big deal  (back)
  4. No, I didn’t forget about Ezekiel Elliot. But we all expected him to be really good, so his success doesn’t make for as good a story.  (back)
  5. And note that Henry’s athletic measurements listed here are from his pro day.  (back)

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