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Can You Trust Rookie Wide Receivers in Fantasy Football Redraft Leagues?

Drake London fantasy football rankings rookies draft sleepers NFL draft

Every year, the NFL Draft introduces a new crop of players into the league. These first-year players are often alluring for fantasy managers. While they are unproven, they also could turn out to overperform expectations. The risk-reward nature of rookie options can make them quite desired in fantasy drafts.

After the massive success of Ja'Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson as rookie wideouts, wide receivers in particular have been garnering significant fantasy attention as rookies. Every manager is hoping to land the next breakout receiver on their team at a valuable draft slot.

Is this a good strategy, though? Should redraft managers target rookie WRs in order to win their championships, or should these young stars be left for others to take a chance on? Let's consider how rookie wideouts have performed in recent seasons before jumping to conclusions.

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A Brief History of Rookie Wide Receivers

By studying how rookie WRs have produced from 2017-2021, we can determine what the proper strategy for these mysterious players is.

2021

Bengals WR Ja'Marr Chase was the top rookie receiver last season by a wide margin. Chase was reunited with his college quarterback, Joe Burrow, and his numbers reflected both that chemistry and the suddenly high-powered Cincinnati offense he landed in. Chase finished as the WR5 in PPR leagues.

While Chase was the headliner of the class, Dolphins wideout Jaylen Waddle had an excellent season in his own right. Like Chase, Waddle played with his quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, in college. Waddle broke the rookie record for single-season receptions with 104, a testament to his dependability. He finished with 245.8 PPR points en route to a WR13 finish.

The third-best rookie WR was Detroit's Amon-Ra St. Brown. A fourth-round pick, St. Brown was not expected to make a large impact as a first-year player, but he did to the tune of a finish as the WR21. The USC product was particularly productive in the second half of the season.

A fourth wideout, DeVonta Smith, also made a large impact last season as a rookie. The 2020 Heisman Trophy winner, Smith made 64 catches for 916 yards and five touchdowns for the Eagles, finishing as the WR30.

One more rookie wide receiver finished inside the top-50 at the position. That was Elijah Moore, who was a second-round pick by the Jets. Moore was hindered by poor quarterback play, yet still managed to score 138.2 PPR points and finish as the WR50.

Other highly-drafted wideouts like Rashod Bateman and Kadarius Toney spent much of the year hampered by injuries, and Arizona's Rondale Moore had a standout performance in Week 2 but disappeared in some other games. Still, with four top-30 wideouts and five in the top 50, the 2021 rookie class was very strong at the position.

2020

Like its 2021 counterpart, the 2020 draft class also featured a dominant performance by a first-year receiver. Justin Jefferson of Minnesota finished as the WR6 with 88 receptions, 1,400 yards, and seven touchdowns. Between him and Chase, we now have seen two rookie receivers finish in the top six wideouts within the last two years.

Two more rookies finished in the top 25 receivers. The Cowboys' CeeDee Lamb and the Steelers' Chase Claypool were the WR22 and WR23, respectively. Another finished in the top 30: Cincinnati's Tee Higgins at WR28.

An additional four rookie wideouts were in the top 50 at the position, making a stunning total of eight for the year. These four were Brandon Aiyuk (WR35), Jerry Jeudy (WR45), Laviska Shenault Jr. (WR46), and Darnell Mooney (WR50).

There were some notable disappointments, though. Chief among them was Las Vegas WR Henry Ruggs III, who was merely the WR94 in 2020. Ruggs is now out of the league after being charged with DUI resulting in death in connection with a 2021 fatal car crash. The other lackluster first-rounder from 2020 was Philadelphia's Jalen Reagor; Reagor was just the WR89 in PPR leagues.

2019

Only two wide receivers were drafted in the first round in 2019. One was Marquise Brown, who stacked up as the WR46 in his rookie campaign for Baltimore. The other was N'Keal Harry; Harry was the WR123 and is now on the Chicago Bears after two frustrating seasons in New England.

The best performers came from the second round onward. A.J. Brown finished as the WR21 after a strong season for the Titans. Terry McLaurin emerged out of the third round to be a gem for Washington, finishing as the WR29. Deebo Samuel, the third receiver drafted in 2019, was also the third-best rookie performer at the position (WR31).

Three more members of the 2019 rookie WR crop finished in the top 50. Seattle's DK Metcalf was the WR33, the Giants' Darius Slayton was the WR37, and Pittsburgh's Diontae Johnson was the WR39.

The draft capital spent on the seven top-performing rookie receivers this season varied wildly. While Brown was a first-round selection, Samuel, Brown, and Metcalf all went in the second. Moreover, Johnson and McLaurin were third-round choices, and Slayton was taken all the way down in the fifth round.

2018

Compared to the phenomenal output of the past three rookie WR classes, the 2018 group of rookie wideouts was underwhelming. Only three of its members finished in the top 50 receivers as rookies.

The top performer was Calvin Ridley, who had a strong season for the Atlanta Falcons. Ridley was the WR22 after being selected with a first-round pick that April. The presence of Julio Jones on the Falcons certainly helped Ridley; as the WR4 that season, Jones drew a lot of defensive attention toward himself.

The other two noteworthy rookie WR performances were DJ Moore (WR36) and Courtland Sutton (WR50), who played well for Carolina and Denver, respectively. All three of these wideouts were taken inside the top 40 picks in that year's NFL draft. Other wideouts taken in the top-two rounds (Dante Pettis, Christian Kirk, Anthony Miller, James Washington, and D.J. Chark) had smaller impacts in their first years, although Kirk came close to the top 50 at WR58.

2017

Only three wide receivers were taken in the first round in 2017: Corey Davis, Mike Williams, and John Ross. If you combined the rookie production of that trio into one player, they still would have only finished as the WR76. While Williams has since become an excellent fantasy option, he played just 10 games as a rookie and started just once. Davis did the bulk of the work out of these three, although even he was just the WR86. Ross had an abysmal rookie season, finishing with negative fantasy points.

On the other hand, though, three receivers at lower draft spots finished in the top 50 wideouts. JuJu Smith-Schuster went 62nd overall to the Steelers, and he ended his rookie campaign as the WR22 with 79 catches, 917 yards, and seven touchdowns. Cooper Kupp was a third-round pick and the WR25 as a rookie; he is now one of the top players in all of fantasy football. Finally, undrafted rookie Keelan Cole was the WR48, coming out of nowhere to have solid production for Jacksonville.

There was certainly some value among rookie receivers in 2017, but if you tried to guess in the offseason where that value would be found, you probably would have been incorrect.

 

Identifying WR Trends

In the past five seasons, a total of 26 receivers have finished inside the top 50 wideouts as rookies. Let's identify some patterns among these 26.

  • Of the 26 top performers, only 10 were taken in the first round. A rookie wideout doesn't need to be a top draft pick in order to be a valuable fantasy asset immediately. However, 22 of the 26 (85%) were selected within the first three rounds, so don't bet on a Day 3 draft pick to be productive early in his career.
  • 10 of 18 receivers (56%) taken in the first round of the NFL draft in the past five years have finished as top-50 WRs as rookies. However, that rate falls to nine of 28 (32%) for second-round picks and three of 21 (14%) for third-round picks. While Day 2 selections do often find success as rookies, they do so at a lower rate than first-round picks. Draft position, as expected, seems to correlate with rookie success rates.
  • Only three rookies have been top-20 wideouts recently: Ja'Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle, and Justin Jefferson. Chase and Waddle were top-6 picks in the 2021 NFL Draft, and Jefferson went 22nd in 2020. Moreover, Chase and Waddle had pre-existing relationships with their QBs from their time in college. The best of the best rookies will be fairly predictable.
  • Just six of the 26 top-50 finishers had a top-10 QB for their rookie season. Only 13 had a top-20 producer under center. Clearly, rookie receivers can overcome struggles at quarterback in order to still be productive. This is an interesting finding, and it may dispel some misconceptions fantasy managers have about what constitutes a favorable situation for a rookie wideout.
  • 16 of the 26 (62%) had a WR teammate who also finished in the top 50 wideouts. Considering the mean number of top-50 receivers on each NFL team is about 1.6, this is approximately what would be expected. The added benefit of having defensive attention drawn away from a receiver seems to be offset by the lower target share.
  • Eight of the 26 did not have a quarterback inside the top 15 but did have a top-50 WR teammate. Seven of the 26 had neither a top-15 QB nor a top-50 WR teammate. It seems that regardless of the situation a receiver is placed in, they can find early success depending on their own talent level.
  • 20 of the 26 have been in the last three seasons. Before 2019, you'd have to go back to 2014 to find a season where at least four rookie receivers finished in the top 50. Rookie receivers are finding success more quickly than they used to.

The key finding here is that the situation a receiver is drafted into has had less of an effect on their production as a rookie than might be expected. Rather, their draft position is much more important when predicting which rookies will succeed early. If a receiver is good enough, they can overcome any difficulties with their landing spot.

 

Outlook for 2022

With our findings in mind, let's look at a group of receivers that have been highly touted in fantasy drafts this season. There are seven rookies with an average ADP inside the top 60 wide receivers according to FantasyPros. With the number of successful rookie receivers trending up recently, it seems likely that many of these guys will be productive this season.

Drake London (ATL)

The big-bodied Drake London was taken eighth overall by the Falcons this spring. At 6'5" and 210 pounds, London is probably the best possession receiver in this draft class. The former USC Trojan has received comparisons to Mike Evans. He looks to be a strong option for your WR4 on your fantasy team given his dominance at the college level (1,084 yards in eight games last season) and high draft position.

Chris Olave (NO)

Chris Olave will bring his great speed to New Orleans after being selected with the 11th pick this year. Olave not only ran a 4.39 40-yard dash at the scouting combine, but he also brings elite route-running ability to the Bayou. Considering he is not completely buried on the depth chart, Olave is another viable choice as a WR4/5.

Treylon Burks (TEN)

Drafted 18th overall out of Arkansas, Treylon Burks will be viewed in Tennessee as a replacement for A.J. Brown. His speed isn't great (4.55 40-dash), but his 6'3", 225-pound frame will be difficult for defensive backs to handle. Burks also has very large hands, making him a contested catch nightmare for defenses. Burks should be relevant this year as well and is certainly worth drafting in your fantasy drafts.

Garrett Wilson (NYJ)

Garrett Wilson was the second receiver off the board in April, going 10th overall to the New York Jets. Wilson brings superb speed and acceleration to the Big Apple, providing traits that a struggling offense can desperately use. Wilson is too good of a receiving prospect to be the fourth rookie coming off the board. The main knock against him is Zach Wilson's unreliability as a passer, but as we've seen, that can be overcome. Wilson should be going before Burks in fantasy drafts.

Skyy Moore (KC)

The Kansas City Chiefs took Skyy Moore in the second round of the draft this offseason. Moore brings versatility to the Chiefs' offense, something that they will need more of with Tyreek Hill departing for Miami. With that said, betting on second-round rookies to succeed immediately is a little riskier than with first-rounders. He is within the range of viability as a fantasy option, but with Kansas City adding both JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling as well this offseason, perhaps some hesitancy is in order regarding Moore.

George Pickens (PIT)

Like Moore, George Pickens was drafted in the second round this year. The Steelers have an excellent track record with receivers taken on Day 2 of the draft; Smith-Schuster, Claypool, and Diontae Johnson all went in the second or third round. For that reason, Pickens may be a stronger bet to be a quality fantasy option this season than Moore. Nonetheless, the hype train for Pickens is heating up a lot due to his preseason performances, and he may go earlier in your draft than he should. Feel free to draft Pickens, but don't overdraft him.

Jahan Dotson (WAS)

Jahan Dotson went to the Commanders with the 16th selection in the 2022 NFL draft. He is known for his deep threat capabilities, but he is a bit smaller at 5'11" and 185 pounds. Without a logjam in Washington at the receiver position, I'm not sure why Dotson is going as low as he is in drafts. While other fantasy managers buy into the hype that absorbs everyone in Kansas City, pursuing Dotson as a value option is worthwhile.

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