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When Should You Draft Breakout WRs? WR ADP and Draft Age – The Wrong Read, No. 42

Welcome to the 42nd installment of the “The Wrong Read.” This article series started as one that reflected on recent podcast episodes and extended the ideas discussed there to logical conclusions with broader applications. Since then it’s become a space for me to write about whatever I want, with irregular references to various podcast episodes. Nevertheless, I’ll link to the episode that started my train of thought if applicable.

I’ve been examining some ways to exploit typical inefficiencies in ADP over the last few weeks. Rookie running backs appear to be undervalued in almost every round, but especially in the middle rounds. And despite common narratives to the contrary, early-round rookie RBs are actually safer investments than their veteran counterparts. Looking at rookies and veterans together, however, reveals that early-round RBs tend to underperform ADP-based expectations more than any other position.

Does this last discovery mean that we should focus on early wide receivers? Perhaps, but the reason may have as much to do with how poorly WRs tend to do in the later rounds:

WR is the only position that does not outperform ADP-based expectations in Rounds 9-12. In other words, although players at every other position tend to be slightly undervalued in the middle rounds, middle-round WRs still tend to be overvalued. When you can find players in the middle rounds at all other position that you can expect to outperform expectations, it makes sense to get more exposure to WRs in the earlier rounds.

The Necessity of Late-Round WRs

However, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get all your WRs in the early rounds. And even if you could, that wouldn’t necessarily be advisable. If you spent all your early picks on WRs and avoided all receivers in Round 9 or later, you would have missed out on breakouts like Adam Thielen and Robby Anderson last season, or Davante Adams the year before and Doug Baldwin the year before that. All four of these players were drafted in the ninth round or later in redraft leagues and all four scored 200 or more PPR points. And these aren’t the only WRs to have accomplished this feat in the last three seasons.1 So avoiding middle- and late-round WRs altogether might not be the best strategy.

Unlike at the RB position though, rookie WRs do not appear to be undervalued in any portion of the draft:

Whereas veteran WRs, like all positions, tend to outperform expectations in the later rounds, rookie WRs do not outperform expectations in any round. This isn’t necessarily surprising. In previous work we found that, agnostic of draft position, WRs break out far more frequently in Year 2 than they do in Year 1. For WRs taken outside the top-100 picks of the NFL draft (which is most WRs), Year 3 breakouts are more common than rookie breakouts. So the fact that veterans appear to be much wiser investments than rookies at WR is not necessarily surprising.

However, this doesn’t mean we can just draft any veteran WR in the later rounds and expect a breakout. For every Robby Anderson, there’s a Breshad Perriman. Actually, that’s not true; there are a lot more Perrimans than Andersons. There were 11 WRs drafted in rounds 13-20 who failed to meet even the ADP-based expectations of a WR taken with the last pick of the draft in an MFL10, or pick 20.12. Meanwhile Anderson was the only WR in this range to score 200 or more points. In other words, you’re far more likely to draft a bust than a breakout in this range. For every Anderson, there are 11 Perrimans.

How to Find Late-Round Veteran WR Targets

However, we can use some previous research to give us an advantage in this range. We already know that draft age is a meaningful predictor of NFL success. What if we leverage this information when looking for late-round veteran breakouts?

Veteran WRs who were 21-year-old rookies appear to be undervalued in the later rounds, specifically Rounds 13-16.

What’s even more interesting is that dividing by draft age negates the veteran advantage:2

Here we find an exploitable edge in ADP. WRs in the later rounds who are or were 21-year-old rookies look like good late-round values, especially as the last few picks in MFL10s before you start picking D/STs. Limiting your late-round WR picks to only those were drafted at age 21 should theoretically increase your success rate fairly dramatically. If we allow a one-round margin of error on either side — so looking at Rounds 12-17 — in 2017 this strategy would have rightly picked out late-round studs such as JuJu Smith-Schuster, Robert Woods, Devin Funchess, and Kenny Stills.

Late-Round WR Targets for 2018

In 2018, only two veteran WRs meet these criteria: Chris Godwin and Donte Moncrief. Both are arguably facing uphill battles for fantasy relevance in crowded WR groups. But both could emerge in case of key injuries on the depth chart ahead of them. Based on previous work, I’m much more inclined to believe that Godwin is in store for a breakout than Moncrief.

Two 21-year-old rookies also show up in this range: D.J. Moore and Christian Kirk. Both were RotoViz favorites coming into the NFL Draft and both find themselves in situations where early opportunity could be plentiful. Although both are currently probably the third or fourth receiving option on their respective teams, both could easily find themselves with increased opportunity.

  1. Eight different WRs did it in 2016 alone. In 2014, both Odell Beckham and DeAndre Hopkins made this list.  (back)
  2. And furthermore, WRs who were 21-year-old rookies now slightly outperform expectations in Rounds 5-8, meaning this new outperformance is due entirely to rookie WRs who are or will turn 21 during the season in question. In other words, although rookie WRs are generally bad values in every round, rookie WRs who are or will turn 21 can be good values in the early to middle rounds.  (back)

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