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Trusting Rookie Wide Receivers in Redraft Leagues


If I had to list one mistake most commonly made by fantasy owners on draft day, it would be recency bias.

We've seen it time and time again - owners overreacting to what happened the previous year even when it was so clearly an outlier. The QB boom of 2011. The rookie WR boom of 2014. The RB collapse of 2015. In the wake of one of the worst rookie wide receiver seasons that I can remember, it's a great time to take a step back and put things in perspective.

Despite the relative failures and letdowns of last year's rookie receivers, it shouldn't make you instantly shy away from the position in this year's less-than-heralded crop of WR prospects in re-draft leagues.

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How Rookie Receivers Have Fared

The 2014 WR draft class is arguably the greatest of all time from a fantasy perspective. It has a whopping 17 receivers that, at some point in their careers, have been fantasy relevant: Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Odell Beckham, Brandin Cooks, Kelvin Benjamin, Marqise Lee, Jordan Matthews, Paul Richardson, Davante Adams, Allen Robinson, Jarvis Landry, Donte Moncrief, John Brown, Bruce Ellington, Martavis Bryant, T.J. Jones, Quincy Enunwa. Of those rookies, many of them weren't even drafted in fantasy leagues that season and the first one off the board was Cooks and not until the seventh round.

It's unsurprising that the fantasy community overreacted in 2015 with Amari Cooper being a fourth-round pick, Nelson Agholor a fifth-round pick, and Devin Funchess an eighth-round pick. The big name rookie WRs in 2014 all panned out, so the reaction was to assume the same would happen in 2015. It did not. In fact, outside of 2014, rookie WRs haven't been good. Usually, there's at least one first-round WR that has a strong, fantasy relevant rookie campaign. Since the famous 2014 draft, the only first-rounder to do anything of note was Amari Cooper in 2015.

Fantasy owners love rookies. There's this huge sense of accomplishment if you're the guy who gets out in front of a breakout and can say "I nailed it" on a player no one really had high expectations for. While it's awesome when it works out, you generally do not want to pass on a proven commodity for an unproven unknown.

In 2017, JuJu Smith-Schuster finished as the WR23. He went undrafted in fantasy leagues, dynasty not included. Cooper Kupp finished as the WR25. He was the 50th WR drafted. The next highest scoring rookie was Keelan Cole at WR48. What about the top WR prospects? Corey Davis, Mike Williams, and John Ross, the three first round WRs from the 2017 draft, all spent most of the year injured. Davis played enough down the stretch to get himself all the way to WR87. In 2017, fantasy owners mostly avoided rookie WRs and it was the correct decision, as just a single rookie WR that was consistently drafted in fantasy leagues was a weekly starter--Cooper Kupp.

As a quick aside - it is important to focus on the rookie WRs that were actually drafted as opposed to the ones, like JuJu, that were picked up during the season. There's no leap of faith needed to "trust" a WR off the waiver wire. You pickup a guy that gets hot or comes into opportunity and if it doesn't work out, you drop him at little to no cost to your team. But when you draft a player, you are making an investment in that player from the get go.

In 2016, there were four first round WRs taken in the NFL draft. Corey Coleman finished as the WR84. Will Fuller finished as the WR66. Sterling Shepard, who was the highest rookie WR drafted in fantasy leagues in the eighth round, finished as the WR36. Michael Thomas, a 10th-round fantasy pick, finished as the WR7. Tyreek Hill finished as the WR25, but he was undrafted in fantasy leagues and wasn't on the fantasy radar until about midseason. Josh Doctson and Laquon Treadwell literally finished with single-digit fantasy points on the season.

In 2015, for the first time since 2009, six WRs were drafted in the first round of the NFL draft. Amari Cooper finished as the WR21. Not a single other WR was fantasy relevant. Tyler Lockett, a third round pick, and Stefon Diggs, a fifth round pick, each had moments, but neither was ever a reliable weekly starter. The first round WRs were complete busts outside of Cooper. Diggs has become one of the league's better receivers, but for fantasy purposes, you didn't really care about him when he was a rookie.

Skipping 2014, since we've already gone through it and it's clearly the outlier season, we move to 2013, which is as far back as this exercise will go. There were three first round WRs drafted. Tavon Austin finished as the WR57, DeAndre Hopkins finished as the WR50, and Cordarrelle Patterson finished as the WR46. 2013 was an especially poor year for rookie WRs and fantasy owners knew it with Austin being the only rookie WR taken in the single digit rounds of fantasy drafts.

 

What Now?

For the most part, rookie WRs can be helpful in fantasy. However, as with many things in fantasy football drafting, opportunity cost is key. In the later rounds, it is certainly worth it to spend a pick on a low-floor, high-ceiling rookie. You definitely want to give yourself the chance to hit on the next Michael Thomas or even Cooper Kupp. Where you want to avoid rookies is the earlier rounds.

The 2015 ADPs of Amari Cooper, Nelson Agholor, and Devin Funchess should have screamed stay away. Cooper and Agholor were being drafted pretty close to their ceilings while Funchess just didn't have the upside. The reason the 2014 class was so special is not just because of how many of those WRs turned into fantastic players, but because they were all taken in the back half of fantasy drafts. Outside of Amari Cooper in 2015, you have to go all the way back to A.J. Green and Julio Jones in 2011 to find a year where the highest fantasy drafted rookie WRs were actually viable weekly starters.

So what does this mean for 2018? This year, we have a very weak WR class. There is no can't-miss prospect and every WR has flaws. This draft class consists of many bonafide NFL caliber wide receivers - just none of them are elite. We're looking at a medley of real-life WR2s and WR3s. Great for WR depth in the NFL; not so much for fantasy. That's not to say there won't be fantasy relevant rookie wideouts - there almost certainly will. There just may not be an obvious one after the NFL draft.

2018 fantasy drafts should provide an opportunity for fantasy owners to take a shot on rookie WRs that are drafted to advantageous situations because it is unlikely that any rookie WR will cost a single digit round pick. Perhaps Calvin Ridley or D.J. Moore could find their way into the eighth or ninth round, but even that might not be worth it depending on where they end up. It would not surprise me if the most fantasy relevant rookie receivers ended up being players undrafted in fantasy leagues.

 

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