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This Rookie Receiver Checks All of the Same Boxes Michael Thomas Checked in 2016

Frequent readers are familiar with my wide receiver breakout obsession. We know second-year WRs are among the best buys in all of fantasy football, and we also have a quick hack for separating the breakouts from the busts. By contrast, rookie WRs have not been a good play in this regard.

FFPC champion and high-stakes expert Monty Phan avoids them in his team constructions, and Dave Caban recently demonstrated their lack of fantasy impact. His No. 1 takeaway: Only 32% of first-round rookies have scored 160 or more points in the last decade. The numbers are far worse for other rounds.

This is true, but it also might conceal some subtly positive trends. For example, when we pull them up in the RotoViz Screener we make some encouraging discoveries.

  • First-round, 21-year-old rookie WRs average 158 PPG over this span. And that includes Laquon Treadwell’s 1.2 total points in 2016.1
  • The numbers get better when we look at just the second half of seasons. From Weeks 9 to 17, the average score for 21- and 22-year-old, first-round WRs is almost 10.9 PPG. That equates to low-end WR3 scoring.

Moreover, the trends are getting better for rookie WRs. Thirteen have scored 200 points since 2010, with nine occurring in the last five years alone. Only twice in that time period have we not seen a rookie WR score at least 200 points. Eight of those were first-round picks, and only one was drafted outside the top 100. That gives us a good sense of where these breakouts are going to come from.

A 2019 Rookie Who Looks Eerily Similar to Michael Thomas and Calvin Ridley

Michael Thomas and Calvin Ridley were very good prospects who then outperformed their rookie projections. In order to buy a rookie WR in redraft, we want a candidate who combines the best qualities of both players. We’d also want that candidate to be inexpensive so that he doesn’t hurt us if he busts.

N’Keal Harry, our top-ranked rookie in dynasty, checks all of these boxes and more.

Elite Marks in the Key Collegiate Indicators

We’ll discuss the rookie projection model in more detail when we look at projections for the entire rookie class, but it includes a number of key indicators from our draft prospect research.2

We want to target prospects who command a large share of their team’s passing game, who break out early, and who declare early. When those prospects are early-round picks, they are more likely to see immediate opportunity.

Harry checks all of these boxes. He’s the second-youngest of the big-name receivers in this class, broke out as a sophomore with a 36% Dominator Rating (DR), and built on that for a 43% final-season DR. As a first-round draft pick, his model projection sits in the same range as D.J. Moore and Calvin Ridley from a season ago. Those two players combined to score over 370 points.

As a result, Harry earns a murderer’s row of comps from the Box Score Scout.

Treadwell and Cody Latimer, the two busts, finished with far inferior numbers in career market share, a good proxy for our above indicators and a metric that plays a key role in our regression tree research. In fact, Harry appears to be a souped up version of Michael Thomas, besting him in every category.3

Elite Quarterback Play

If you want a high-floor/high-ceiling combination from a receiver, quarterback play is key. Players like Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Patrick Mahomes create large total pies with their gaudy efficiency numbers. It doesn’t necessarily take huge volume for the TDs to come, and when the volume is there, the WR upside goes through the roof.

Brees had led the NFL in passing yards for four of the previous five seasons when Thomas arrived in 2016, and Brees did so again that season.

Matt Ryan is not the same type of talent, but his veteran consistency played a role in Ridley’s emergence last year. Ryan has been a virtual lock for 4,500 yards over the last seven seasons.

Brady hasn’t been quite as prolific as Brees, but his average pace since the arrival of Randy Moss in 2007 has been absurd.

It’s assumed that he’s slowed down as of late – especially with all of the missed games from Rob Gronkowski – but over the last four years his scoring average has remained the same and his yardage numbers have even jumped slightly.

Veteran Presence to Draw Coverage But Otherwise Plenty of Volume Opportunity

Thomas scored 260 fantasy points as a rookie, but he didn’t lead the team in receiving yardage. That title went to Brandin Cooks, who gained 1,173 yards and scored 8 TDs. The Saints also fielded Willie Snead as a solid possession threat, but they were still trying to replace the Jimmy Graham-sized hole that existed in their offense following his 2014 departure. Alvin Kamara’s arrival was still a year in the future, and New Orleans needed to address the vacuum that was no longer being filled at RB by players like Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas.

A similar dynamic was in play in Atlanta. The Falcons had Mohamed Sanu and Austin Hooper as role players behind Julio Jones, but they were operating an offense that had de-emphasized the RB in the passing game. Ridley’s 200-point season didn’t even leave him in second place in Falcons receiving yardage–that distinction went to Sanu–but the rookie’s breakout led to improved numbers for the rest of the trio with Jones and Hooper also improving on their 2017 results.

The situation in New England is more unsettled, especially if Josh Gordon does return, but Julian Edelman will be the focal point. Edelman’s annual numbers aren’t as gaudy as you might think,4 and the Patriots didn’t have a 1,000-yard receiver last year. With Gronkowski retiring, plenty of opportunity exists for the No. 2 receiver, even if James White reprises his 123-target season.5

Brady has not turned his peripheral options into TD machines a la Aaron Rodgers, nor have rookies succeeded in the Patriots scheme. These issues may come into play in 2019, but they can also be explained by the previous quality of secondary red zone threats and the quality of New England rookie selections.

Harry is a 228-pound monster with impressive body control. His circus catch in Week 1 of the preseason has knocked him out for a few practices, but it also illustrated his upside. He caught 17 TDs over his final two years at Arizona State, good for over 40% of their passing scores.

How to Play It

This would be less valuable intel if Harry’s ADP was a victim of Rookie Derangement Syndrome, but fortunately that’s not the case. He slides all the way to WR56, and we can use the Win the Flex tool to see how many points his ADP implies.

A receiver with Harry’s ADP would be expected to score 108 points. That’s well below the 136-point average for 21- and 22-year-old first-round rookies6 and is even further below his rookie model projection. Far from having to reach for Harry, he’s an easy value due to the narratives surrounding his start in New England.7

I own Harry in almost all of my dynasty leagues, but I’m also buying him in redraft with selections in both the Apex Experts and SFB9. There’s little risk at his ADP, but the reward could be the next 200-point rookie WR.

Image Credit: Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Michael Thomas.

  1. This fits with our research on the importance of rookie age and early declare, which I’ll get to in a moment.  (back)
  2. Click through these links for excellent research from Blair Andrews in The Wrong Read. He builds on years of RotoViz research and demonstrates how much difference these production/experience metrics can make even when you consider draft position.  (back)
  3. Ridley’s production numbers and draft slot were more in line with Harry’s resume.  (back)
  4. He has just two seasons over 1,000 yards, topping out at 1,106 in 2017.  (back)
  5. White’s 2018 target number bested his previous career high by 37.  (back)
  6. Harry’s birthday puts him right on the border of the two groups.  (back)
  7. Due to the depth chart uncertainty, it’s possible that Harry flirts with the same low snap percentages that D.J. Moore dealt with during the first half of last season. Even in that instance, Moore finished with 160 points and was a viable starter during the fantasy playoffs.  (back)

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