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Good Players Are Good, WR Edition: Why You Shouldn’t Fade Efficiency – The Wrong Read, No. 59

Welcome to the 59th installment of The Wrong Read. Last offseason we found that rookie year efficiency not only tends to persist for WRs, but also signals increased opportunity and fantasy scoring in subsequent seasons. And that’s not all. Efficiency is actually far more predictive than you’ve been told.

Volume is king, or so they say. It’s true — nearly a truism — that opportunity is more predictable than efficiency. The takeaway for those chasing fantasy championships is that you should be buying volume and fading efficiency, right?

Wrong.

A recent episode of RotoViz Overtime featured a rare appearance by a guest — former RotoViz writer and editor Ben Gretch. The whole episode is worth its weight in Bitcoin,1 but one moment in particular stands out. Ben recounts how when co-managing a team with Shawn Siegele, he noticed that Shawn’s favorite player targets were the exact players Ben wanted to fade — players who, despite appearing to be talented, did not project to get enough opportunity to have a fantasy impact.

Targeting talented players who may not look like they have roles in their offenses is often a winning strategy for a couple of reasons. One of the best reasons is that perceived opportunity is almost always overvalued in fantasy drafts. But another good reason is that talent tends to win out — talented players tend to break out more often. And it isn’t really as hard to recognize talent as many would have you believe.

Rookie Year Efficiency

To review what we found last year (and update the numbers with 2018 data), WRs who outperform their opportunity in their rookie seasons (in terms of receiving fantasy points over expectation) see massive advantages in subsequent seasons.

They score over 50 points more than their negative-efficiency counterparts. In large part this is due to increased opportunity.

But increased opportunity does not explain the entire difference. Efficient rookies continue to be efficient in their sophomore seasons, whereas inefficient rookies persist in inefficiency.

The Predictiveness of WR Efficiency

Shawn has already outlined what this research means for WRs going into their second years in the 2019 season. But we can go even further. Although rookie seasons are important for determining how a player’s career will unfold, players entering their second seasons aren’t the only ones to benefit from positive efficiency in subsequent seasons. All WRs see similar boosts:

Given these massive differences in performance based on prior-year efficiency, it would appear there’s an exploitable edge here. But it’s not as simple as just drafting efficient players.2 What we’re looking for when drafting in most rounds are players who have a chance to significantly outperform their ADP — in other words, breakout candidates. And given what we know about the predictiveness of efficiency, it would stand to reason that efficiency might act as a good breakout predictor for all players. As a matter of fact, it does:

It turns out it doesn’t matter that much whether you’re looking for second-year breakouts or fifth-year breakouts or anything in between. In every year, WRs who break out tend to have positive efficiency in the previous season, while those who failed to break out did not.

Predicting 2019 Breakouts

Efficiency isn’t the only thing separating successful breakouts from non-breakouts. Age still plays a role:

Interestingly its role is not always what you would expect. Early-career breakouts are younger than non-breakouts, but later-career breakouts are often older than their non-breakout counterparts.

Draft position also plays a role:

Again, what we’re looking for here changes depending on the potential breakout year. Early-career breakouts tend to be early draft picks, but by Year 4 breakouts and non-breakouts have nearly identical draft positions, and in Year 5 successful breakouts tend to actually be picked later. This fits perfectly with past research showing that Year 5 breakouts are almost entirely made up of late-round picks and undrafted free agents.

Players who break out tend to be more productive across the board in the seasons prior to a breakout, averaging about 140 PPR points compared to about 110 for non-breakouts, regardless of the potential breakout year. So overall production is something to consider as well. With all this in mind, here’s a table of every potential breakout in 2019 who had positive efficiency in 2018 and at least 50 receiving expected points (reEP).

PlayerSeasonAgeDraftreEPreFPOEPPRPotential Breakout YearNotes
D.J. Moore2018212413510.8160.22I'd honestly be surprised if Moore doesn't break out in 2019.
Courtland Sutton20182340136.20.2136.32Sutton was productive and his prospect profile suggests big things. It might be better if he were younger.
Christian Kirk20182247102.717.3123.52Kirk played in only 12 games, but his 16-game pace would have given him more PPR points than Moore.
Anthony Miller2018245193.324120.32Age is the only red flag for Miller
Dante Pettis2018234475.228.5103.52
Tre'Quan Smith2018229174.226.5100.72
Robert Foster20182432971.524.796.22Draft position is a major red flag for Foster. His age does him no favors, nor does the fact that he's fighting for a starting WR slot.
Chris Godwin20182284160.824.4185.23I'd honestly be surprised if Godwin doesn't break out in 2019.
Mike Williams2018247111.258.2178.23Williams was the most efficient WR on this list.
Dede Westbrook201825110166.61177.43Age still plays a role in Year 3, but Westbrook's QB upgrade might be all he needs to pass 200 PPR points.
Zay Jones20182337163.95.3169.23
Curtis Samuel20182240109.68.8138.83Samuel's only red flag is the fact that Moore is potentially blocking his path.
Cooper Kupp2018256994.937.7135.13Kupp's 16-game pace last year would have seen him score over 270 PPR points.
Kendrick Bourne201823329108.36.4114.73
David Moore20182322685.415.11013
Josh Reynolds20182311791.97.31003
Taywan Taylor2018237286.33.389.63
Sterling Shepard20182440176.70.5180.54Shepard's breakout chances may only be stifled by his offense and his QB.
Rashard Higgins20182417283.936.3120.24Year 4 is when later draft picks start to become really intriguing breakout candidates. Higgins might be the best example of a talented player without perceived opportunity, and is basically free.
Will Fuller2018242173.133.2106.34A healthy Fuller would have broken out already.
Demarcus Robinson2018241265816.874.84
Jakeem Grant20182618652.27.660.34
Adam Humphries20182532917017.6188.75Humphries looks like the best fifth-year breakout candidate from multiple perspectives.
Nelson Agholor20182520155.56.8166.255Agholor's first-round draft capital is actually a red flag at this point.
Chris Conley2018267693.81.695.45
Jamison Crowder20182510579.40.482.85
Phillip Dorsett2018252968.510.581.95Dorsett's first-round draft capital is actually a red flag at this point.
Image Credit: Steven King/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: D.J. Moore.

  1. Actually far more than that, even though it won’t cost you more than that to listen. Our podcasts are free!  (back)
  2. Well, maybe it is, but my focus here is slightly different.  (back)

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