When the Chiefs traded up in the 2019 second round, the RotoViz draft room was abuzz. Kansas City was obviously moving up to select the replacement for Tyreek Hill. This was the pick that was going to make a fantasy hero. The Chiefs love athleticism in their draft picks, and they’re trying to replace the fastest man in the NFL, so it seemed obvious they would be going after a freak. Would it be combine destroyer D.K. Metcalf, he of the 90th percentile Freak Score, or would it be the only slightly less freaky and hyper-productive Hakeem Butler? Perhaps Kansas City would go small and select Andy Isabella or Parris Campbell.
The room exploded in laughter as Andy Reid and company chose Mecole Hardman, a man who accumulated fewer than 1,000 receiving yards in college. It’s probably no surprise then that he’s currently the 13th player selected in rookie drafts. And that looks to be a very glass-half-full ADP in and of itself. But a closer look reveals two key reasons why Hardman drafters may be getting a value.
Second-Round WR ADP
In looking at Hardman’s ADP, the contrast with Campbell, Isabella, and Deebo Samuel is especially interesting. Although Campbell and Samuel tick the scales over 200 pounds – well over in Samuel’s case – they’re all shorter receivers with big time athleticism and plus return skills.1
Last week, I argued that Isabella is the best rookie value in recent memory. Of course, if Isabella were drafted in the No. 6 overall range as most of our rankers recommend, then all three players would be going ahead of Hardman.
That One Weird Trick From the Wrong Read
The last couple of seasons I’ve been using “early declare” as one of the elements in my young WR model, and it’s one of the reasons that I recommended you load up on JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2018 even at his very healthy ADP.2
Perhaps the most shocking is his look at the difference between declaring early and staying in school.
Hardman is an early declare and one of the youngest players in the class. Twenty-one-year-old early declares average well over 200 fantasy points in their first two seasons. Using the Rookie Age Database, we can grab the rookie ages for Campbell (22), Isabella (23), and Samuel (23).3 Generic four-year players in these age groups have historically scored less than half that total.
Although this happens to be a comparison between second-rounders, we can also see how this relates to draft position. Perhaps if draft position tends to explain this away, we shouldn’t be overly worried.4
This again looks very good for Hardman and fairly unappetizing for the others. Second-round early declares score at the same level as four-year first-rounders, while second-round four-year players fall below early-declares from the third-round.
If we look at Hardman either as a 21-year-old early declare or a second-round early declare, he’s expected to average over 200 points. Of course, it’s still relevant that very few players in either of those groups have his flimsy production profile. That’s why the Chiefs were mocked for the selection.
Patrick Mahomes. He may be the biggest reason to get excited about Hardman. Kansas City’s young superstar authored one of the greatest seasons in NFL history in his first as a starter. But several of the other receivers also find themselves in intriguing locales. Campbell lands with Andrew Luck, Samuel with an aggressive, creative, and potentially high-scoring outfit in San Francisco, and Isabella gets in on the ground floor of Arizona’s Air Raid.
Two of these offenses were among the best for WRs in 2018.
The Chiefs were 10th in fantasy points to the WR position, and the Colts finished eighth in expected points (reEP). Both offenses were even more explosive if you include their high-scoring tight ends.
By contrast, the 49ers and Cardinals were in the bottom seven in both points and expected points. With the return of Jimmy Garoppolo, the drafting of Kyler Murray, and additions at the skill positions, these units should climb in 2019.
Although all four offenses will evolve going forward, we have a very general sense of the size of their respective pies. The next step is to look at how that pie will be split. There are a variety of ways to do this, but a simple one is to look at turnover among the three highest-scoring WRs on each roster.
The Cardinals and 49ers each return their top-three WRs. Arizona got very little from Chad Williams behind Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk. Meanwhile, Kendrick Bourne actually led the San Francisco in targets, yards, and points. But the return to health of Marquise Goodwin and the emergence of Dante Pettis push him well down the pecking order.
Available Volume Pre-Draft
This is only a shorthand method, and I always encourage users to be skeptical of volume projections for players in general and narrow-moat players in particular. Beyond this simple calculus, we have plenty of returning players who should see more volume if they remain healthy, perhaps especially Sammy Watkins. We then have to consider other rookies, particularly players like Butler and Jalen Hurd.7
But even once we admit to all of the uncertainties in projecting 2019 volume, it’s obvious that Hardman’s path to relevance is remarkably clear.
* Want to see which RBs have the best 2019 opportunity? Kyle Dvorchak goes in-depth at the RB position and provides 4 Sleepers to Target Based on Vacated Expected Points.
How to Play It
Hardman is the No. 7 rookie in our staff rankings, with Blair Andrews, Curtis Patrick, and I all having him even earlier.8 That may sound expensive, but he’s a good value in that range, especially in a weak draft. His rookie year opportunity, the Chiefs commitment in trading up, and the perception that he’s a “project” should insulate his trade value against negative moves while providing room for it to really run if he breaks out earlier than expected.
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- Return skills are a positive indicator for WR prospects and often help you locate values. (back)
- We know that younger players make a better transition to the NFL, and several years ago, Matthew Freedman piqued my interest on how much of this is experience-based. Football Outsiders has also long included “early declare” as part of their Playmaker model. (back)
- Draft age in Blair’s article references the player’s age on 12/31 of their rookie seasons and matches the rookie ages in the database. (back)
- On the other hand, if it doesn’t, then we might take a second look at where Butler fits in relationship to Isabella and Kelvin Harmon in relation to Terry McLaurin. (back)
- Cain returns from injury after a promising offseason prior to his aborted rookie year. The Colts do lose Ryan Grant and late-season target magnet Dontrelle Inman. (back)
- Barring a surprise development. (back)
- Extremely productive college players like KeeSean Johnson and Cody Thompson might also push for targets. (back)
- By contrast, Campbell and Samuel sit at No. 13 and No. 15 respectively. In addition to the red flags mentioned here, they lack the overall production that redeems much of Isabella’s profile. (back)