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4 Bargain Rookie WRs Models Say Could Be League Winners

The 2018 rookie wide receiver class is living in the shadow of the top-heavy running back class. With three straight WR classes underwhelming since 2014’s historic crop, fantasy players are ignoring the upside with this year’s picks, and it’s cheaper than ever to buy rookie WR sleepers in the late rounds.

Over the past five seasons, there have never been more than three WRs drafted in the second round of the NFL draft that have fallen to the second round of dynasty rookie drafts.

In 2018, there are six.

Over the past five seasons, the first rookie WR off the board has never had an ADP later than 2.5.

In 2018, that number is eight.

Though the 2018 class may not be weaker than other recent classes, it is disproportionately cheaper, and some of the value picks there have the potential for first-year breakouts.

Methodology

Quantifying the quality of a prospect is a tricky thing, but fortunately, we have some tools at our disposal. The first is the NFL draft. Draft position correlates well to NFL success and is a good starting point for any analysis.1

As fantasy players though, we’re always looking beyond the draft to find the value that’s lurking beneath the surface. That’s where predictive models come in. Anthony Amico published his WR model this offseason which uses factors such as age, breakout age, draft position, and dominator rating to estimate a prospect’s PPR scoring ceiling within his first 3 years.2

Since we’re looking at this in the context of fantasy, I took the top-20 WRs in positional ADP from each class. As you’ll see in the charts this also works out to a cutoff right around the end of the fourth round of rookie drafts.

Results

We’ll start with the NFL draft, looking at both the average draft position of the 20 prospects in the sample, as well as a visualization of the way players were distributed in each class:

WRADP-2018-4 WRADP-2018-5 WRADP-2018-6

D.J. Moore represents the latest the first WR has been picked in our six-year sample. The 2018 class easily has the latest picks through the top five players, but plenty of second round depth puts it middle of the pack through the first eight picks. From there though, it once again flirts with the least draft capital for any class, narrowly avoiding that distinction thanks to the shallow 2016 class.

And now, let’s look at the model results using the same visualizations we used for draft position:

WRADP-2018-3 WRADP-2018-7

 

With draft position as a key input to the model, it’s no surprise to see the model follow a similar trend. However where the 2018 class was in a virtual tie with the 2013 class when looking at draft position, it does create a bit of separation in the model results.

Application

So now let’s answer the next logical question: “Does it matter?” If a stronger draft class doesn’t actually translate to fantasy success, then these results, while interesting, won’t really help us when deciding how to approach our rookie drafts. To test this, I averaged the yearly PPR points from the same 20 players used above and compared how they performed in each season they’ve played so far.

WRADP-2018-10

The correlation here isn’t nearly as strong as it was for running backs and tight ends. Though the superior 2014 class has easily performed the best, the results for the other classes are all over the map.WRADP-2018-1

We’re working with a relatively small sample here, and WR is arguably the hardest position to predict. As positions with just one true starter, RB and TE are linked much more closely to opportunity, whereas every rookie WR is pretty much guaranteed to be sharing the field with an NFL veteran on every one of their snaps.

Still, this should serve as a good reminder that when there’s a lot of uncertainty, taking multiple shots at cheaper players can ultimately pay off.

The next step is to see if fantasy drafters are accounting for this in ADP. There are a lot of factors that go into rookie ADP. Perceived opportunity plays a huge role, and rightfully so. Overall ADP will also be affected by the relative strength of other positions. With this in mind, here’s how drafters have approached these WR draft classes: WRADP-2018-9 WRADP-2018-8

The 2018 class is extremely inexpensive relative to past years. This year’s rookies appear better than the 2016 rookie class in both draft position and the model results, and yet they are significantly cheaper in rookie drafts.

Who To Target And Who To Fade In DynastyWRADP-2018-13

These are the projected point totals for a prospect’s best season within his first three campaigns.3 If you’ve been reading RotoViz at all this offseason, you’ll know that we’re pretty high on Moore. Thanks to RB fever, he’s easily the cheapest you can get a rookie WR projected for 200+ points over the past six years. His ADP may also be depressed by his landing spot though, as the Panthers do not have a large number of WR targets to go around. If Moore can play up to his potential, the Panthers will find a way to get him the ball sooner rather than later.

Players in the middle of the draft, D.J. Chark, Dante Pettis, James Washington, and Tre’Quan Smith, all appear to be undervalued. While all four of them project to start the season as no better than the third WR on their respective depth charts, things change fast in the NFL and there’s a path for targets to open up for all of them either this year or next.

It may be difficult to hold these guys in shallower leagues if they don’t produce right away, but in deeper leagues you can buy the talent and then wait on the opportunity to manifest. Blair Andrews has noted that WRs who break out as rookies typically go on to have the most success, but that second-year breakouts are the most common.

There aren’t too many major fades in the class, but the most-hyped Packers rookies were already projected poorly, and Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Jake Kumerow have stepped up during the preseason. The Packers have a crowded WR depth chart, so unless J’Mon Moore or Equanimeous St. Brown shows signs of winning a valuable role, it might be best to let someone else draft them and focus on players with more immediate upside.

Who To Target And Who To Fade In Redraft

WRADP-2018-14

While I typically like to focus on dynasty here, the value of the rookie WRs in redraft leagues really stood out to me. Note that the model attempts to predict a WR’s best season within his first three years in the league, so we shouldn’t necessarily expect to see enormous numbers this year unless everything breaks right, but it’s within their range of outcomes. Moore is obviously still a value, but players like Christian Kirk, who may lock up the WR2 role on the Cardinals also look like a value here relative to years past.

It’s true that rookie WRs can often take time to adjust, but Kirk, Pettis, and Smith all are reasonably good prospects entering depth charts where there’s room to play their way into larger than anticipated roles. Recent years have not been kind to rookie WRs, but with a price at the very end of drafts, they have a chance to easily outperform their ADPs. First year breakouts from rookie WRs typically come from the first round, but the second round is the next most common place to find them.

We need look back no further than last year to find a rookie being drafted after the 200th pick who made a huge impact in his rookie year. JuJu Smith-Schuster had a projection of 130 points and an ADP of 203 but finished with a WR2 season. Kirk has a projection of 136 and an ADP of 198. Other late picks like Stefon Diggs and Tyler Lockett have had solid rookie years and both were drafted in the final rounds like Smith and Pettis.

There are obviously plenty of busts in this range too, but Washington, Smith, and Pettis have all made strong cases in the preseason to have a role once the season starts. In leagues with deeper benches where you can afford to shoot for upside, there have never been more second-round WRs available in the bottom quarter of the draft.4

Conclusion

The 2018 WR class isn’t particularly strong, but the top guy and middle of the class have fallen into bargain prices in both dynasty and redraft. Take advantage of the price and throw some darts at your preferred targets.

  1. In large part because the army of professionals evaluating a player’s talent usually get it right, but also because teams are likely to provide opportunity to higher draft picks.  (back)
  2. Make sure you check out Anthony’s process developing the model to understand where the results are coming from.  (back)
  3. Rookie season projections would be lower, but keep in mind that elite prospects break out earlier than you think.  (back)
  4. I also don’t mind taking shots on players with more perceived opportunity like Anthony Miller and Michael Gallup, but a lot of that is already priced in.  (back)
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