How to Value Rookies in a Fantasy Auction
By Brad Kruse
The most reliable way to forecast the future is to try to understand the present. – John Naisbitt
It is always difficult to project a rookie’s performance as there is no history of him having performed in the NFL. But that doesn’t stop the fantasy football owner from needing to determine if rookies can be assets on his or her team.
In this article, I’m going to look at each of the skill positions and provide recommendations based on historic information where rookies may be values in fantasy drafts or auctions. I’m not focused on finding this year’s Zac Stacy or Keenan Allen. Each of those players was available in the last half of your draft in 2013 and/or on waiver wires when they finally got their opportunity. Instead, I’m trying to determine which players that you should target as potential starters, players that represent a good risk/reward proposition for your fantasy team.
It’s early so Average Draft Positions (ADPs) aren’t fully formed yet, but I suspect guys like Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans will find themselves as opening day starters for their teams. They are highly touted rookies whose performance ceilings aren’t well defined. Because of this, there will be a high variance in people’s expectations for them. Therefore, I like to look back and see how players with similar ADPs performed and determine if they represent a good risk/reward option in an auction.
With the approach I’m taking, the fantasy community will evaluate the skills and opportunities for success of each player which will result in an ADP or auction value for the player. So, we won’t compare the first-round receivers taken in the 2014 NFL draft with first-round receivers taken in the past. Instead, we will look at receivers whose fantasy ADPs line up with other rookies from previous years. We’ll let the fantasy community do the hard work and use their previous results to determine how successful they are in ranking rookies.
The bottom line is: we want to determine if the rookie is a better pick than a veteran player with a similar ADP.
I think they were reading a rookie quarterback’s eyes, and a few times I gave myself away. I’ve got to learn when to force some things, and when to throw things away. I talked to Peyton (afterward), and he says it’s going to get better. – Alex Smith
The quarterback position is one of the toughest for a rookie to make a contribution in the NFL as well as in fantasy. In 2008 we saw two rookie quarterbacks lead their teams to the playoffs (Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco). Despite this fact, neither was a weekly starter in fantasy. We saw similar performances in previous years from players like Ben Roethlisberger and Kyle Orton. In each of these cases, the rookie came in and managed a conservative offense as the team leaned on their defense and/or running game to keep the score close and hopefully win at the end. That isn’t the recipe for fantasy greatness at the quarterback position.
Things started to change in 2011. Cam Newton came on the scene and due to his record-setting passing yards performances and rushing ability (including being the goal line option for Carolina), he instantly became a fantasy starter in leagues. Andy Dalton, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder and Jake Locker were also rookies that year. None of those quarterbacks, however, provided significant contributions to fantasy teams in their rookie season. Cam Newton’s ADP in drafts that year was QB24. He finished the season as QB4 providing several difference making-performances for his fantasy owners.
2012 was also a banner year for quarterbacks. Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson took the league and fantasy owners by surprise with their ability to score fantasy points. Each of these three finished as QB1s, ranking seventh, 11th and 12th respectively at the quarterback position. All were typically drafted later in drafts and became contributors to fantasy teams.
In each of Newton’s, Griffin’s, Luck’s and Wilson’s cases, a significant part of their fantasy impact was their ability to run with the football. Astute fantasy owners recognized their possibilities and drafted them as QB24, QB14, QB17 and QB18 respectively.
In 2013, the rookie class failed to continue the short-term trend for rookie quarterbacks becoming fantasy relevant. EJ Manuel, Geno Smith and Mike Glennon emerged as starters for their teams, but two of their teams brought in veterans this year to either compete with them or as an outright replacement.
Over the last four years, only four quarterbacks (Newton, Griffin, Luck and Wilson) were actually drafted in most fantasy drafts as rookies. So we’ll look at how those with expectations of being draftable compared to their veteran peers.
Each of the four rookies that the fantasy community deemed as draftable delivered fantasy starter numbers. The sample size is small, but this leads us to the conclusion that rookie quarterbacks who have a draftable ADP provide a good risk/ reward ratio for a late-round draft pick.
This also tells you how important filtering the rookies by ADP instead of NFL draft rank is. A lot of rookies were filtered out in this study due to their perceived skill set, the talent around them, the starting opportunity or a combination of those parameters that determined their ADP in drafts.
To handle rookie quarterbacks in an auction, if there is one you like, I’d propose you budget a small amount for them. Usually $1-$2 can acquire the player. The most expensive rookie quarterback I’ve seen over the last six years or so was Robert Griffin III. Griffin typically was around the 14th quarterback in the ADP list at that time, and it would only take about $5-$6 to acquire him at auction.
Rookie to watch: Pre-NFL draft, Johnny Manziel’s ranking in April and early May was QB24 in high stakes satellite drafts per FFToolbox.com. It will be interesting to see how that changes now that he’s with Cleveland and potentially losing No. 1 receiver Josh Gordon to suspension. Or, will other rookies rise now that they are associated with NFL teams?
The Running Backs
I want to be remembered as the guy who gave his all whenever he was on the field. – Walter Payton
Running backs have proven they can adapt quickly to an NFL offense from the college game. A lot of the running back’s work is instinctual. The biggest hurdles tend to be their ability to understand pass protection assignments. This is something to look for in the offseason to see if a rookie is able to pick up his responsibilities in this area. If he can, he can earn more playing time.
Looking back over the last five years, eight running backs have been drafted at the high stakes Main Events with a rank of RB24 or better. Five of those running backs were drafted between RB17 and RB24 (essentially drafted to fulfill a low-end RB2 role).
Four of the five actually scored 198 points or more (Knowshon Moreno, 2009; Trent Richardson, 2012; Eddie Lacy, 2013 and Gio Bernard, 2013). Only Mark Ingram underperformed, scoring 93 points in 2011.
On average, all veteran running backs selected in fantasy drafts over the last five years in the same region of the draft (RB17 though RB24) have underperformed their rookie peers. This is demonstrated in the chart below.
Essentially, the rookie running backs drafted in the same range outperformed the veterans by ~ 2.5 points per game (ppg) with respect to their average performance. Rookie running backs delivered RB2 or better performance 73 percent of the time compared to 48 percent of the time for their veteran peers.
RB17-RB24 will typically cost you $15-25 at the auction table. The data tells us the rookies are worth the top end of the scale, but may only cost you the bottom of that scale in many drafts. As those who compete in auctions know, a $5-10 savings is significant.
Curiously, there were three rookie running backs drafted higher than this tier. They were drafted as RB8, RB12 and RB13 in their respective rookie years (Ryan Mathews, Jahvid Best and Doug Martin). On average, they scored 219.5 pts in their rookie seasons.
Those three elite running backs had similar performances to running backs drafted between RB8 and RB13 over the last four years, who averaged 221 points. Thus, the elite rookies seem to be fairly valued.
The message here is invest wisely; if rookie running backs present themselves with ADPs in the RB17-RB24 range, they are better bets than their veteran peers. For the more highly sought after rookies, you’ll tend to pay full price to secure their services.
Auctions make for a great place to apply this knowledge as you can target these players and still go get others that you may have to pass on in a draft to select the rookie running back.
Rookies to watch: Later this summer, as the ADPs for these rookies become clearer, watch to see if any rise into that RB17 to RB24 range where value can be exploited.
The Wide Receivers
I think if we’d been getting me the ball earlier, we’d probably have a Super Bowl ring now. ... Like I said earlier, if we’d have done this since my rookie year, we’d have some jewelry around here. ... I think by them getting me the ball, if we’re winning, I’m happy. If they are getting me the ball and we’re losing, then we’ve got to find a way to win. – Randy Moss
It’s generally thought that wide receivers take a few years to acclimate to the NFL. They need to read defenses well to be on the same page as their quarterbacks due to the fact there are many sight adjustments that are designed into routes these days. They need to pick up audibles, know their responsibilities when asked to block, and things in general are more complex at the NFL stage. However, colleges are developing more pass oriented systems, preparing wide receivers to integrate into the NFL faster.
In looking at the last four years of statistics, only seven wide receivers have been drafted higher than WR40 in fantasy drafts. One (Julio Jones) was drafted as WR26. The other six were drafted between WR31 and WR40. Let’s look at that group and compare them with their veteran peers.
Once again, rookies significantly outperform their veteran peers (by ~ 2 ppg). The data would have been even stronger in favor of the rookies if it weren’t for 2013. Last year, Tavon Austin and Kenbrell Thompkins were the rookies drafted in this range. They scored 127 and 103 points respectively, bringing down the overall rookie performance. However, even with that information, the odds seem to be in your favor prioritizing a rookie over a veteran when selecting a low-end WR3 or flex receiver. And, again, the auction is where this knowledge really helps you. You won’t have to time your investments; you’ll only need to budget for them. Interestingly, it seems to be around WR30 that typical projections fall off for wide receivers. Veterans drafted between WR24 and WR29 averaged 196 points over the last four years. Julio Jones (the rookie wide receiver drafted in that same range) scored 203 points. Once again, the elite rookie performed at par to his veteran peers.
Typical auction values for Wide Receivers of these ranks:
WR30-WR40 $ 5-13
As you can see, the auction values have a steep ramp for WR3/flex wide receivers. Picking a couple of rookies in that range may enhance your opportunity for finding a gem instead of investing in a veteran trying to make a comeback or hold on to starter-level performance.
Rookie to watch: 2014 may be a very interesting year for rookie wide receivers. There were five wide receivers drafted in the first round of the NFL draft and 12 in the first two rounds. There were some nice landing spots that could produce fantasy relevant players. Watkins was already being selected as WR38 in high stakes satellite drafts according to FFToolbox.com in April and early May. Others may rise now that we know their NFL teams. And, with Stevie Johnson traded to San Francisco it appears as though Watkins will be Buffalo’s WR1 this year. How high will the fantasy community move him up their boards given that knowledge?
The Tight Ends
Effort without talent is a depressing situation... but talent without effort is a tragedy.– Mike Ditka
Similar to the quarterbacks, fantasy owners typically steer away from the rookie tight ends when drafting their starters. Over the last four years there was only one rookie tight end drafted in the top 12 tight ends, Zach Sudfeld last year. Ouch! That was a big mistake. Six other rookie tight ends were drafted between TE17 and TE24. Let’s look how those tight ends stacked up against their veteran peers.
The data here is a little more nebulous and suggests that the rookies, on average, underperformed their veteran peers. Only one of the six rookies turned in a starter quality season, Rob Gronkowski in 2010.
Some highly-regarded tight ends have entered the league in the last four years. However, the data suggests staying away from rookie tight ends at the fantasy draft table. In 2010, new tight ends who came into the league included Jermaine Gresham, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham. In 2011, Kyle Rudolph joined the Vikings. Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen joined the Colts in 2012. These will be names on fantasy teams for some years to come. However, only Gronkowski’s rookie year (156 points) represented a top-12 finish at tight end in a player’s rookie season.
Because of this, I’d shy away from the rookies and look more for second- and third-year breakout candidates like these folks:
Rob Gronkowski (Year 2): 331 points drafted as TE10
Jimmy Graham (Year 2): 296 points drafted as TE6
Aaron Hernandez (Year 2): 217 points drafted as TE13
Jermaine Gresham (Year 2): 168 points drafted as TE12
Dennis Pitta (Year 3): 170 points drafted outside the top-24 TEs
Julius Thomas (Year 3): 216 points drafted as TE20
Jordan Cameron (Year 3): 214 points drafted as TE9
Will Tyler Eifert or Zach Ertz make a jump in performance this year? Perhaps looking at these players instead of Eric Ebron is where you should put your attention.
Rookie to watch: Eric Ebron is being drafted as TE19 in high stakes satellite contests in April and early May. Now that he’s landed with the Lions, who used the 10th overall pick on him, will that nudge him higher on draft boards? If it does, this study suggests you back away from drafting Ebron this year.
Rookies offer a unique opportunity for fantasy bargains. Let history be your guide, however, and select rookies in your fantasy auction where they’ve typically represented value.
Quarterback: If there is one who generates a consensus of interest amongst fantasy owners he might represent strong value in the QB2 range for a low-dollar investment.
Running back: It’s a young man’s game. If a team looks like they’re handing a feature role to a rookie running back, that will tend to push him up draft boards into the RB2 range. History says those are fairly safe auction targets.
Wide receiver: Typically rookies aren’t drafted much higher than WR3s or flex players, but they’ve tended to be better options than their veteran peers in that range. If a rookie gets selected in the WR2 range, you’re likely paying full price for that asset.
Tight ends: Tight ends, like quarterbacks, haven’t generated enough interest to merit selection as TE1s. Even when they get selected as TE2s they tend not to provide as much value as their veteran peers. Fantasy owners are better off looking for second and third year breakout candidates.
I hope you find this helpful, and I look forward to seeing you at an auction table in Vegas this year!