This is the fourth article in a multi-part series on how to attack the high-stakes Main Event, the flagship contest of the Fantasy Football Players Championship that pits 2,400 teams against each other in a race for the $500,000 grand prize. In the FFPC Strategy Sessions, we learn from one of the best, the 2017 regular season Main Event points champion, Monty Phan.
How to draft rookies, especially running backs, is an interesting issue in the Main Event. Because of the shortened regular season – each team plays the other 11 squads one time each, then the league playoffs are weeks 12 and 13 before the championship round in weeks 14-16 – it’s hard to trust rookies, who notoriously can take a while to find their groove. In the thick of bye weeks, it can be hard to hold on to that promising but unproductive rookie, especially if injuries have shortened your bench. Remember, you have only 11 weeks to qualify for your league’s playoffs, which is required before you can even start thinking about the championship round.
Should You Draft Rookie RBs?
Notable rookie RB exceptions are off-the-chart prospects who landed in great situations, such as Saquon Barkley last year and Ezekiel Elliott in 2016, both first-round picks their rookie years. Barkley finished the season as the overall RB2 in FFPC scoring and Elliott ended up the overall RB1. In 2017, the trio of Kareem Hunt, Christian McCaffrey, and Leonard Fournette were third-round picks who finished the season as top-nine RBs.
But Barkley and Elliott were practically can’t-miss prospects, and the 2017 RB class was one of the best in recent memory. Perhaps seizing on recency bias, drafters last year were high on Royce Freeman, whose hype carried him as high as the second round in some Main Event drafts and who was outplayed by Phillip Lindsay, an undrafted fellow rookie available on waivers to start the season. Or Rashaad Penny, a single-digit round pick thought to have an easy path to unseat starter Chris Carson but was nearly droppable by season’s end. Or Sony Michel, whose ADP was similar to Penny’s and had a mostly uneven season before erupting in the NFL playoffs.
In June, Dave Caban looked at rookies from 2008 to 2018 and examined how “usable” they are in fantasy. He found that rookies selected after the third round of the NFL Draft had low odds of week-to-week fantasy relevance. Setting a “usability” threshold of 10 points per game in PPR scoring (or 160 points for a 16-game season), his conclusion was that less than a third of RBs who were picked in the first three rounds of the real-life draft in that 10-year span were starter-worthy in their rookie seasons, as shown in the below chart.
However, as we’ve already stated, our needs are more specific. We care most about the first 11 weeks, and if it’s accepted that rookie RBs may take longer to find their footing, then it’s hard to justify taking one as a potential starter. But that doesn’t mean we should avoid them altogether.
A perfect example from 2018 is Nick Chubb. Last year, my ownership group took him at the end of the 12th round. We nearly cut him early on in favor of a waiver pickup, but we held on long enough. Beginning in Week 7, he notched double-digit points in all but one week (when he scored 9.5). Blair Andrews predicted this in The Wrong Read, explaining that rookie RBs in this range have historically been league-winners and picking Chubb in particular.
Chubb was being drafted in the seventh round at the end of July. Now, at the end of August, his ADP is solidly in the ninth round. Carlos Hyde has put together an impressive preseason, and his ADP rise represents the equal and opposite reaction to Chubb’s fall. Although three-way competitions are not usually the optimal situations when looking for Zero RB candidates, the recent discount makes Chubb an attractive target.
Alvin Kamara was going in the same range a year earlier and ended the 2017 season as the third-best RB and the top-scoring rookie.1
Two rookie RBs I’ll likely target fall outside of the range of the top three rounds in the NFL Draft, but their situations are such that they’re easy picks as upside flyers in the double-digit rounds. Justice Hill is in what should be one of the most run-heavy offenses in the league, behind a nearly 30-year-old starter, Mark Ingram, who’s in danger of falling off the age cliff. And although Darwin Thompson should start the year third on the Chiefs depth chart, the two guys ahead of him are Damien Williams, who’s never carried a full-season load, and Carlos Hyde, who’s on his third team in the past calendar year. Thompson in particular is (so far) an inexpensive way to get a piece of the vaunted Chiefs offense.
How About Wide Receivers and Tight Ends?
Rookie receivers have been less productive. Dave concluded that less than one-quarter of WRs taken in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft had “usable” rookie seasons in fantasy. Since nine WRs were taken in the first two rounds of the 2019 draft, the “usable” rate would suggest that only two of those rookie WRs would be considered hits this season. Good luck figuring which ones those might be. (Dave gives it a shot). We’ll be avoiding them.
Finally, we come to the tight ends. Dave again lays out his case against picking rookie TEs in redraft leagues, but even with the 1.5 point per reception premium in FFPC scoring, it’s simply not worth it. The odds of finding an Evan Engram – pretty much the only recent case of a rookie TE reaching every-week starter status – are extremely low, because the position is notoriously hard to learn. Let someone else take a chance on T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant.
Image Credit: David Dennis/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Josh Jacobs.
- Dave likes Darrell Henderson in this range in 2019. (back)