Be Like Belichick- Exploiting Market Bias, Part Two

By Alex McCarthy
Alex McCarthy

The Young and The Restless

While we can use expert rankings and ADP data to try and establish “market value” for players, at the end of the day every league (and therefore every trade market) is different. By identifying the bias within yours you can target undervalued players and gain a distinct competitive advantage. The patron saint of such shenanigans is uber-coach Bill Belichick, who makes a habit out of scouring the waiver wire and turning players nobody else wants into stars. In this series I advise you on how to embrace the ethos of the Hoodie and capitalize on trade market biases in your league, and in this edition I will be focusing on impatience with developing receivers.

The Inefficiency

Potential is all well and good, but at the end of the day many owners want to spend their fantasy capital on players that they have seen produce. This is understandable, especially among owners new to dynasty, but in some leagues it can lead to developing players being wildly undervalued. Rookie RBs tend to hit the ground running, so to speak, but wide receivers typically take a few years to reach their potential. This creates a fantastic investment opportunity for savvy managers such as yourself, and I’ve brought back spreadsheet magician and partner-in-crime Tan Ho to help break down exactly why that is the case.

The Data
To avoid comparing like with unlike, we decided to limit our dataset to players we considered career WR1s. Since there are numerous WRs who manage to sneak into the top-12 once by some fluke or other, we defined a career WR1 as one who achieves multiple top-12 finishes in their career. Going back to 2006, this yielded a total of thirty names. The first two charts below contain the raw data (red backdrop=WR1, blue=WR2, green/white= sub-WR2), while the third calculates what percentages of the group had achieved a WR1 finish by the end of years 1-5.

The Breakdown

As you can see, it is extraordinarily rare for a wide receiver to achieve a WR1 season in their rookie year- even among repeat WR1 performers only Anquan Boldin and Odell Beckham have managed to pull it off. Beyond that only four more players (AJ Green, Marques Colston, Andre Johnson, and Julio Jones) managed to finish within the top-24 their first season, which goes to show just how uncommon it is for a rookie to be immediately fantasy-relevant.

In year two we see a significant uptick in performance, with ten of the players breaking out and achieving their first WR1 season and another five reaching the top-24 (WR2) for the first time. While the “third-year breakout” is a popular trope among fantasy analysts, a full third of our career WR1s achieved their first WR1 season in year two.

In the fabled year three we see another big chunk of our dataset break out, with eleven additional players becoming WR1s for the first time and another two having their first WR2 season. By the end of year three roughly 77% of our receivers have already achieved a WR1 season and 90% have been at least a WR2.

In years four and five, six of the remaining seven career WR1s have their first top-12 year (four of them following earlier WR2 performances and two of them- Jordy Nelson in year four and Doug Baldwin in year five- basically out of nowhere). By the end of year five, 100% of the qualifying players had achieved at least a WR2 finish and only T.J. Houshmandzadeh had yet to become a WR1.

The Opportunity

Because the study is focused on players with WR1 ability, conclusions drawn from it are best applied to receivers who have high draft pedigree and are viewed as potential WR1s when they enter the NFL. Typically these players are highly prized around the time they are drafted and are priced as such, but after a season or two of sub-WR24 play (which the majority of them will experience) it is extremely common for owners to get impatient and want to cash out before their previously prized rookie is declared a “bust”. These situations are an excellent opportunity to get a potential stud at fire sale prices, and there are several players who are currently being faded that I believe will come back with a vengeance. Below are my favorites from each of the past three draft classes that have already played an NFL season.

Josh Doctson was one of the top receivers coming out of the most recent rookie draft but spent the season riding the bench after an unfortunate Achilles injury. Now with Terrelle Pryor looking like the WR1 in Washington and Jordan Reed and Jamison Crowder in line for touches, Doctson’s talent- and he is very talented- is buried beneath more established players. His injury has also set his development back a year, so between that and the depth chart issues he is basically anathema to the impatient. Consequently, a player who once cost an early first and has not shown us anything negative can be easily had in most leagues for a late first, and in many for a second round pick. Don’t expect Doctson to carry your team any time soon, but always buy his kind of upside this cheap when you can.

DeVante Parker was drafted in 2015 with high hopes and while he has yet to produce at a truly impactful level, he has grown steadily and could benefit from the Dolphins’ recent acquisition of Jay Cutler. While Cutler has his issues as a real-life quarterback, his “fuck it”-style gunslinging been the catalyst behind more than a few WR1 seasons. Parker is entering year three and while a lot of analysts still like him, there are definitely leagues in which he can be had for a bargain. All signs point to Parker having significantly more value at the end of this season than at the start, so swing a deal for him if at all possible.

Sammy Watkins was the crown jewel of the now-infamous 2014 receiver class, but has since fallen behind his historic peers. Few people have questions about Watkins’ ability- when has been on the field in the NFL he has shown everything he has needed to- but virtually everyone seems to believe that Watkins will never play a healthy season in his career. Sammy is being drafted ludicrously low for a player as explosively talented as he is, and as soon as he puts together one healthy season I see him being about as valuable as Mike Evans is now. He may not exactly be cheap but he’s definitely a lot cheaper than that, so invest while you can.

The Takeaway

There are several important things that this study can teach us. The first, which becomes apparent the second you look at the chart, is that you shouldn’t set much store by rookie performances. Unless there are very specific red flags to warn you away from a rising sophomore receiver, a lackluster rookie season can be almost completely disregarded. The “third year breakout” trope also proved to be only marginally true, as a second year breakout is actually just as common. Lastly and most importantly, if a player has not achieved at least a WR2 season by the end of year three it appears extremely unlikely that they will develop into a career WR1. A handful of diamonds in the rough will always sneak through, but betting on it happening after year three is statistically not in your favor.