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By the Numbers

Rookie Wide Receivers are Winning Best Ball Leagues

by Pat Kerrane
Updated On: June 28, 2021, 12:23 pm ET

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Rookie wide receivers aren’t usually viewed as strong bets in best ball, and it’s easy to see why. Justin Jefferson just had one of the best rookie seasons of all time and still finished shy of 17 PPR points per game. It’s understandable then why rookies are generally very cheap in best ball drafts. But although some kind of rookie discount is necessary, drafters appear to have gone overboard, to the point where recent best ball win rates highlight rookie wide receivers as the clearest path to league winning upside.

From 2017-2020, 18 rookie wide receivers finished top 20 at the position in best ball win rate, the most of any group. Second year WRs, which generally get the most buzz as potential league winners, have produced 14 top 20 finishes, tied with fifth year wide receivers for the second most. Rookie wide receivers also led all groups in top 30 finishes.

It’s always important to be careful with best ball win rates. Despite not delivering any usable fantasy value, Eno Benjamin had a 10% win rate last year. This kind of preposterous outcome can occur when a player fits an archetype that was successful overall (i.e., a dart throw running back in an ambiguous backfield), or if sharp drafters disproportionately targeted a specific player. In this research, Tyler Johnson showed up as a “league winner” when he very clearly was not. He serves as a reminder that these win rates need to be taken with a grain of salt. Still, the overall results are pretty clear: rookie wide receivers have been providing significant value above their best ball ADP.

Interestingly, despite a flood of new wide receivers joining the league every year, fewer rookie wide receivers were drafted over the last four years (59) than second year wide receivers (64). And nearly as many third year (53), 4th year (56) and fifth year (52) wide receivers have been drafted. So despite numerous top 20 finishes, rookie wide receiver win rates have not been driven by volume. Drafters have been firing pretty evenly at wide receivers entering their first five seasons and rookie wide receivers are the bets that have been paying off most frequently.

Moreover, rookie wide receivers aren’t just hitting more often. They’re providing elite outcomes. Four rookie wide receivers have finished top five in win rate since 2017. This ties second year wide receivers and is second only to fifth year wide receivers (5).

Ready for the best part? None of the four rookie sensations - Justin Jefferson, Brandon Aiyuk, Terry McLaurin and JuJu Smith-Schuster - were drafted in the top 50 WRs. Rookie wide receivers are almost always cheap, and they can win you your league.

How are rookie wide receivers hitting value?

In order to understand which rookies should be considered priority targets, it’s first helpful to understand how rookies have been delivering value to their best ball teams.

Since 2017, wide receivers drafted in the top 40 of best ball ADP have averaged 34 routes per game. However, 17 of the 18 rookies to finish top 20 in win rate ran less than 34 routes per game. Only Brandon Aiyuk had an above average role as a rookie. Rookies, even league winning rookies like Justin Jefferson (32 routes per game), Terry McLaurin (32) and JuJu Smith-Schuster (30), have not been high volume options over the course of their rookie seasons. Even the “high volume” Aiyuk only ran 36 routes per game, still well below 2020 veteran options with middling results like McLaurin (40), Smith-Schuster (40), Marvin Jones (39), and Michael Gallup (38). It seems clear that even elite rookie wide receiver seasons are not the result of elite volume.

Does rookie opportunity increase as the season goes on?

One of the best parts of doing fantasy football content is getting to talk to really smart people. And when discussing this research with Peter Overzet and Ben Gretch, they immediately pointed out that rookie wide receivers are generally expected to see their roles steadily increase over the season. Is this mid-late season volume surge ultimately responsible for high rookie win rates? The answer appears to be ... partially.

Take a look at the routes run trendlines from 2017-2018.
 

2017-18 Rookie routes by week

D.J. Moore is the best example of this phenomenon over the last four seasons. He ran fewer than 30 routes every week until Week 10. After that, he ran less than 30 routes just once, and finished his fantasy season with a ridiculous 59 routes in Week 16. JuJu Smith-Schuster is another example of this effect. He ran 40+ routes five times as a rookie, all of them coming after Week 8.

But notice that the other four league winners in 2017-18 actually tailed off as the season went on, and that Antonio Callaway and Calvin Ridley peaked early in the season.

This effect repeated over 2019 and 2020.

2019 rookie routes by week
2020 rookie routes by week

The 2019 season was a strong one for the expanding role trend. All five wide receivers who stayed healthy saw their usage tick up and even Preston Williams was seeing his role increase before tearing his ACL. But in 2020, only Justin Jefferson continually benefitted from increasing routes. Brandon Aiyuk and Chase Claypool saw their routes increase substantially from early to mid-season, but then their routes tailed off. And CeeDee Lamb and Tee Higgins saw their roles decline throughout the entire season. So increased volume over the season is definitely part of the picture here, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

There’s something else driving these win rates as well.

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Per Route Efficiency

When looking at the per route efficiency of rookie league winners, the results are striking. Every league winner in the top 90 of ADP had a yards per route run of at least 1.7. In other words, the only wide receivers who were able to produce strong win rates without being highly efficient were also extremely cheap.

Moreover, over the last four years, the top 40 wide receivers in ADP have averaged a YPRR of 1.8. The 18 rookie league winners averaged a YPRR of 1.81, with an average ADP of WR79. The league winners drafted in the top 90 averaged a YPRR of 1.93, with an average ADP of WR66. Rookie league winners have been providing elite efficiency for a fraction of the cost of elite veteran wide receivers.

Furthermore, when thoroughly considering the argument that we draft rookies as a bet on increasing roles, these efficiency numbers make perfect sense. Which wide receivers are more likely to see their usage spike - the ones who are playing well or the ones who are playing poorly?

Simply put, projected volume is not our top priority when targeting rookie wide receivers. Even to the extent that volume is driving rookie win rates, it is largely because these players are earning more and more volume throughout the season due to stronger than expected play. 

Think about it, Justin Jefferson just had one of the best rookie rookie seasons ever, and it still wasn’t accompanied by even above average volume. If Jefferson, Smith-Schuster, and D.J. Moore all failed to secure full time roles out of the gate, then paying a premium for projected rookie volume is likely a bad bet.

The way I see it, a projectable early-season role is helpful, but it cannot be the sole reason to draft a rookie wide receiver (outside of the final rounds). League winning ceiling instead comes from efficiency. Efficient play drives role growth throughout the season; efficient play also generates spike weeks, on what is likely to be a smaller than average season-long role. 

Avoiding Take Lock

Guess what’s a lot harder to predict than volume? Efficiency.

And that’s true for players who we’ve seen play in the NFL before. So, given that we’re looking for immediate high-end efficiency, it’s important to avoid going all in on your favorite rookies. I’ll admit that I struggle with this myself. As someone who puts a lot of time into evaluating prospects, and as someone who has already made multi-year bets on these players in dynasty, I want my guys. But if there’s ever a place to mix up your rookie wide receiver targets, it’s best ball.

Not only do we not know how good these players will ultimately be (even if we have fairly strong priors), we definitely do not know in which order they’ll start delivering elite efficiency. 2nd year league winners like Kenny Golladay, Chris Godwin, D.J. Chark, Michael Gallup and DK Metcalf all had below average win rates as rookies. Even players who will ultimately become stars can tank seasons for fantasy managers that excessively draft them as rookies.

When you have identified a macro edge, it is important not to waste that edge by becoming overly specific in player selection. There appears to be a structural advantage in targeting rookies more than the field. That is our edge. We do not want to burn that edge by being overly confident about which rookies will immediately deliver value.

But of course, we cannot simply fire blindly at every rookie to enter the league. Luckily, there is a target profile that can help increase our hit rate. 

What do league winning rookie wide receivers look like as prospects?

I looked at NFL draft position, early declare status, college breakout and career yardage share to create a best ball target profile for rookie wide receivers.

  • 14 of the 18 league winners were selected in rounds 1-3 of the NFL draft.
    • The four that were not all had ADPs outside of the top 90 WRs.
  • 57% of the rounds 1-3 league winners and 50% of all league winners spent just three years in college. 
    • Since 2005, only 36% of rounds 1-3 WRs and 21% of all drafted WRs spent just three years in college. 
  • 83% of league winners had a breakout college season with a dominator rating (combined yardage share and TD share) of 30% or higher.
    • The three that did not breakout all had ADPs outside of the top 90 WRs.
  • 89% had at least a 22% career yardage share.
    • The two with lower career yardage shares had ADPs outside of the top 90 WRs. 
       

Target Profile

Outside of final round dart throws, the target profile for rookies in best ball looks like this: 

  • Selected in the first 3 rounds of the NFL draft.
  • Preferably declared early.
  • Had a breakout season.
  • Career yardage share of at least 22%.
     

In my next article I’ll apply the best ball rookie target profile to this year’s class and provide drafting recommendations.