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The Dream of Perpetual Motion: A Quick Reminder That Rookies Are Free in Startups

If Brian Malone’s 2018 article, Rookies Are Free Money, isn’t my favorite article on the site, it’s easily in my top five. Or at least the top 10. (I tend to receive a lot of grief from friends about my top 10 lists containing an almost unlimited number of items.) Regardless of where you rank it, Brian’s look at the profitability of rookies is a must read. Today, we’ll look at how that fits with a few other key RotoViz insights to help you dominate your startup.

Startup Drafts Should Include Rookies

All of my favorite startup drafts include rookies in the pool instead of splitting them off for a separate draft. The RDL Reboot is such a league. With superflex, TE premium, third round reversal, rookie inclusion, and even a draft for draft slot, the RDL 2.0 has been one of the fairest startups I’ve participated in.

In his piece, Brian demonstrates that from 2012-2017, if you selected a rookie in a startup, you’d be able to trade him away for more value the following year. This fits with my second recommendation of a top-five all-time RotoViz article, Patrick Kerrane’s deep dive into dynasty trade value. In it, he found that from 2008 to 2017, rookies were the only group to increase in trade value.

WR Trade Value by NFL Year

Rookie WRs are the only WR cohort that hasn’t lost value when measuring by NFL year. This is true even three years out. Put differently, if you drafted a rookie WR since 2008, on average you were able to sell him for more than you paid, regardless of whether you held him for one, two, or three years. On the other hand, if you drafted a WR before any year but their rookie season and held him for a substantial amount of time, you had to sell him for a lower trade value, on average.

RB Trade Value by NFL Year

Rookie RBs are the only cohort to have gained value in their N+1 season. Unlike at WR, rookie RBs have lost value for owners that held them 2-3 years. This suggests that from a pure trade value accumulation perspective, the optimal strategy at RB would be to buy rookie RBs and sell them off a year later for more rookie picks.

In terms of insight, those excerpts just scratch the surface. If you’re in a startup, you must read Pat’s article. It strongly reinforces what Brian has also demonstrated. You can make money by selecting rookies.

Can You Score Points?

I’ll have a longer piece out at some point this summer, but I follow a dynasty approach I call Perpetual Reloading. It’s the Win Now, Win Always strategy that continually cycles through rookies, selling some and keeping others. I almost always trade all of my future picks, but the upside in this approach is that you always have more valuable pieces to trade back into the next rookie draft. And because your team ends up so young and powerful, you can’t actually trade all of your young players. You simply don’t have the roster spots to turn multiple second-year players into multiple new rookie picks every year.

This goes back to the central question: If you’re targeting rookies, can you score enough to be competitive?

The short answer is yes.1

In his groundbreaking article, Age Curves, NFL Breakouts, and How to Build Dynasty Teams, Blair Andrews demonstrates that WR breakouts occur at younger ages than you might expect, especially for highly drafted players.

They score more than you might guess right away, but they’re also more valuable going forward than any other class of player.

In order to land these players, you have to either select them as rookies, or pay their extreme values in the startup or trade markets.

And WRs are actually less valuable than RBs, who are the key to even redraft titles.

If you’re thinking, okay, this image doesn’t make all that much sense out of context, you may be right.2 But you’ll never go wrong checking out a Wrong Read, in this case No. 39. Blair has an entire series of articles dedicated to the way in which rookie RBs will help you dominate in all formats.

This is great news for those drafting RBs, as Pat has convincingly argued that you should simply sell your rookie RBs every year. RBs help you win and then they help you build a juggernaut if you force yourself to sell a decent chunk of those players.

Tip of the Iceberg

Solid rookie scores are just the beginning. Year 2 is the only season where we should expect an increase in scoring from veteran players. You may have looked at the breakout visualizations and thought, well, I need high-end starter points, not just a roster full of flexes. The good news: big time scoring is on the immediate horizon. In breaking down my picks for all 20 Rounds of the MFL10 of Death, I detailed why targeting this class of player is the key to seasonal success.3 It’s also a big part of what makes Perpetual Reloading a dominant dynasty strategy.

Over my first 15 picks of the RDL reboot, I’ve selected 12 first- or second-year players. The others are Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, and Aaron Rodgers. I’ve also traded all of my picks from 2020, 2021, and 2022. Going young is not about tanking the initial season. I expect enough of these players to perform to fill out the 10 starting slots, and I also expect their values to be much higher a year from now.

Draft Productive Youngsters

These historical trends relate to all of the rookies, but you can boost your performance a great deal by focusing on productive players. Players who enter the league with an impressive resume of age- and experience-adjusted performance tend to beat draft slot expectation by a wide margin. The opposite is true for nonproductive players or those who generate interest based on senior-year performance. And while all rookies represent plenty of individual risk, underperformers make up a big swathe of the misses.

If you haven’t had a chance to peruse our rookie content this year, we help you with in-depth of analysis of the key advanced stats on every player. You can find some of these stats and learn what it means for player comps in the Box Score Scout.

Finally, make sure you understand the risk. Jacob Rickrode has once again penned a fantastic series on rookie hit rates, and his 5 Tips for a Successful Startup Draft will help you build a firm foundation through rostering dominant players.

Image Credit: Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: N’Keal Harry.

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  1. The long answer is also yes.  (back)
  2. We tend to think that only the star rookies have value, but it’s actually the middle-round rookies who provide a ton of excess value in redraft. Imagine how much they provide in dynasty, a format where you can keep them for the second-year scoring bounce or sell them at a profit.  (back)
  3. My high stakes titles over the years owe themselves largely to redraft teams that are younger than rebuilding dynasty squads.  (back)
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