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The Importance of Rookie Year Efficiency – The Wrong Read, No. 49

Welcome to the 49th installment of the The Wrong Read. It’s Week 1, which means I’ve now been up to this for a full year. Seeing as this is No. 49, that also means I’m a few weeks behind. But considering that time itself is a contradiction, we can move on without making a big deal of it. What I’m about to say has little to do with Week 1 anyway, so pretend I wrote it three weeks ago.

In previous installments I discovered that, despite the fact that receiving efficiency is not sticky year-over-year, it is nonetheless predictive of WR bouncebacks. WRs who suffer a decline but who are able to maintain a positive receiving fantasy points over expectation (FPOE) have a much better chance to bounce back than their counterparts who are unable to maintain efficiency. In other words, even though efficiency does not appear to be predictive of itself, it does nevertheless signal some sort of skill that we should be paying attention to.

Given this insight, I wondered what other things positive efficiency might be able to predict. Naturally my first thought went to WR breakouts. Even though second-year breakouts are the most common, obviously not every WR breaks out in Year 2. Is there anything that can help us distinguish the successful Year 2 breakouts from those who fail to break out?

Does Rookie Year Efficiency Matter?

The following chart shows the average PPR points in Years 2 and 3 distinguished by whether a WR had positive or negative FPOE in his rookie year.1

Does Rookie Year Efficiency Matter_

Whereas WRs who outperform opportunity-based expectations in their rookie years average almost 150 PPR points in Year 2, those who fail to do so average less than 90 PPR points. The difference is not as stark in Year 3, but it’s still significant, with plus-efficiency WRs averaging about 134 PPR points, and minus-efficiency WRs still failing to reach 90. This is a pretty big difference, considering the only thing that distinguishes one group from another is whether or not they score more fantasy points than we would expect based on their opportunities.

Opportunity and Efficiency in Subsequent Seasons

Now, one could argue that there is a simple reason for this: WRs who are efficient in their rookie seasons are given much more opportunity in subsequent seasons than those who are inefficient. This is true.

Does Rookie Efficiency Lead to Increased Opportunity_

But it’s also kind of the point. Players who show in their rookie seasons that they are able to convert their opportunities into excess yards and touchdowns are typically rewarded with more opportunities in Year 2 and Year 3, so we should be chasing these efficient rookie seasons.

However, increased opportunity does not explain all of the Year 2 and Year 3 performance differences between efficient and inefficient rookies. Perhaps the most interesting finding is that positive rookie year FPOE tends to lead to more efficiency in subsequent years.

Does Rookie Year Efficiency Persist_

WRs who outperform expectations in their rookie seasons tend to continue to do so in Year 2 and Year 3. But negative rookie year FPOE persists into Year 2, and doesn’t cross into positive territory until Year 3. Many other studies have indicated that efficiency is not predictive of itself year-over-year. But based on my findings, it would appear that if a WR has positive efficiency in his rookie season, we can expect him to maintain that positive efficiency for at least the next two years.

Does Draft Position Make a Difference?

Now, it’s possible there are other factors making an impact here — notably, draft position. Draft position is a significant predictor for both fantasy points and opportunity, even into Year 3.

The Impact of Draft Position on Fantasy Scoring

The Impact of Draft Position on Opportunity

Interestingly, however, draft position does not have the same relation with efficiency. In fact, first- and second-round WRs have averaged negative efficiency over the last several years.

The Impact of Draft Position on Efficiency

Early draft picks are just as likely to have positive or negative FPOE as late draft picks or undrafted free agents. And since positive or negative FPOE is the only distinguishing factor between players in the first three charts, we can be pretty confident that draft position is not having a significant effect.

What Does This Mean for 2018?

Five 2017 rookies had more than 50 expected points and scored more fantasy points than expected:

  • Cooper Kupp
  • JuJu Smith-Schuster
  • Keelan Cole
  • Trent Taylor
  • Kenny Golladay

Most of these guys are expected to take leaps forward in 2018. Kupp, Smith-Schuster, and Cole (since Marqise Lee’s season-ending injury) were all drafted in the first 10 rounds in redraft leagues. Golladay was selected in the early double-digit rounds. All four are excellent breakout candidates.2 Taylor is the forgotten man here. His 98 PPR points in 2017 rank fourth among rookies, behind only Smith-Schuster, Kupp, and Cole. Depending on whether Pierre Garcon is the same player following his injury, and whether Dante Pettis will be worked into the offense immediately, Taylor may be in line for a larger role than many anticipate.3

This is also bad news for some trendy breakout candidates who did not live up to opportunity-based expectations in 2017. Corey Davis was one of five rookies with over 100 expected points, but his 71.5 PPR points meant that he underperformed expectations by almost 30 points. He was less efficient than any rookie besides Zay Jones, who underperformed expectations by more than 50 points. Some may be assuming Dede Westbrook will take a step forward in Lee’s absence, and although he very well may, his 2017 receiving FPOE of -12.1 suggests Cole is a better bet for a 2018 breakout.

Chris Godwin just missed breaking even, underperforming his opportunity-based expectations by 0.4 points. I’m still hopeful for a breakout, given other elements of his profile. Mike Williams and John Ross both underperformed expectations in 2017, but neither saw even 40 expected points, so it’s difficult to draw confident conclusions from their rookie seasons. While none of these three had rookie seasons that would predict 2018 breakouts according to this analysis, all are intriguing breakout candidates for a variety of other reasons. In general however, when it comes to finding second-year breakout candidates, here’s one key bit of advice: chase efficiency.

  1. For WRs who had at least 50 expected points in their rookie seasons.  (back)
  2. Smith-Schuster barely missed 200 PPR points, though he did finish 2017 as a WR2. He may be in store for a true breakout, or a secondary breakout, depending on how you view his 2017.  (back)
  3. Honorable mention goes to Taywan Taylor and Mack Hollins, both of whom outperformed expectations but failed to meet the 50 expected point threshold, with 42.3 and 34.2 expected points, respectively.  (back)

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