Fantasy Football

How to avoid overpaying for rookie RB, WR in fantasy football

Between the 2020 rookie class and the upcoming 2021 class of prospects, rookies are all the rage in fantasy football right now!

If it is anything like last year, the hype that has already started for many of these young players will carry from the NFL Draft, to dynasty and rookie drafts, all the way into August and September when people are drafting their fantasy football teams. The online hype for some of these players will be deserved, but it led me to question if targeting rookies in fantasy was a worthwhile approach or not.

I decided to dive into the numbers and really put these rookies to the test. I used the last 10 NFL seasons to find an average number of fantasy points a player needs to finish Top-12 or 24 at their position, in terms of total points and fantasy PPG. I then put the rookies to the test to see how many in that span reached those benchmarks. The results may surprise you!

Rookie RBs

The necessary fantasy points to finish as a Top-12 or 24 running back varies from year to year. But using the fantasy finishes from the last decade helps us find a target that we should have in mind when evaluating the rookies. Over the course of that span, to finish as a Top-12 overall fantasy running back, a player needs to score an average of 214.9 fantasy points -- but 200 is the bare minimum needed. As for points per game, a back should strive to average 15.1. In the last decade, there have been 18 rookie RBs to reach that total points number and 17 that put up at least 15.1 fantasy PPG. To finish as a Top-24 RB in the last 10 seasons, a player must put up about 164.6 fantasy points and 12.2 fantasy PPG.

In this 10-year span, there have been 30 rookie RBs to top that number of total points and 31 to average 12.2-plus fantasy PPG. That means each year there is an average of one to two rookie RBs that meet the necessary points to be an RB1, while there are about three top 24 RBs on average in a given season. But of course, not all seasons are built equally. In 2020, there were two rookie backs that met the criteria to be an RB1 (Jonathan Taylor, James Robinson), while five met the fantasy PPG criteria to be a RB2, and six met the total points needed. That number is clearly higher than what you can expect in an average season, meaning that in other years there have been less than three rookies to meet these thresholds. But, if there are only a select number of rookie RBs that you should expect to finish this highly in their first season, the next question becomes: how can you better identify which rookie RBs to target?

There is no perfect science to this, but using the data from the last 10 seasons, there are certainly benchmarks that you can use to help you figure it out. For instance, of the 18 RB that scored enough fantasy points to finish as an RB1 as a rookie, they averaged 281 touches, but they basically all had at least 225 touches. So, knowing this, we can determine that landing spot very much so matters for a rookie RB. You may have thought A.J. Dillon was a tremendous talent heading into the 2021 draft, but after he landed in Green Bay, it was obvious that he would not come close to 225 touches. Meaning, that there is no chance you should ever have considered him an RB1. This is where projections can help, because if a player is projected short of these benchmarks, it can help us determine if they are worth taking a gamble on. Projections also tend to be on the conservative side when it comes to rookies, so any that surpass these benchmarks landed in a great spot with lots of opportunity and is likely worthy of taking a shot on in fantasy. If there is a back that is projected close to these benchmarks and you think he can exceed those expectations, then you have a real value on your hands.

Here are the benchmarks you should target when projecting if a rookie RB can finish in the Top-12 or Top-24 at the position:

Table inside Article
Stat Touches Scrimmage Yards Receptions Touchdowns
Top-12 RB Benchmark 281 (225 minimum) 1,455 (all topped 1,000) 47.5 10.8 (minimum 7)
Top-24 RB Benchmark 252 (150 minimum) 1,320 (3 had less than 1,000) 41.3 9.4

This shows that volume is a key ingredient in a rookie RB having instant fantasy success. If you are drafting a rookie RB in the Top 12, you better be sure he will see at least 225 touches, but likely want to be closer to that 281 mark. To draft them in the Top 24 at the position, you should feel confident they can at least approach the 1,300-scrimmage yard and nine touchdown mark. If not, you are likely drafting a player that is not going to live up to the draft day cost. Again, this is not a perfect science but having benchmark stats like this to target can help you avoid potential pitfalls that we see every year when a rookie is being overhyped.

Rookie WRs

Over the last 10 years, rookie wide receivers have not faired as well as rookie RBs. That could be explained by the fact that receivers rely more on chemistry and timing with their QB, as well as needing opportunity to go there way, in order for them to have success out the gate. It's not like we've never seen a rookie WR take the league by storm. Just last season Justin Jefferson did so. There was the great rookie class led by Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans and others who were all fantasy relevant as rookies. But, knowing that it is harder to find immediate success as the position, we need to know about how many fantasy points a WR needs to finish Top 12 or 24 at the position.

In order for a receiver to finish Top 12 at the position in the last 10 years, they needed to score an average of 249.6 fantasy points or average 16.2 fantasy PPG. To finish as a Top-24 WR in an average season, a wide receiver will need to score 200.57 fantasy points, or 13.8 fantasy PPG. It is very tough for a rookie WR to reach those WR1 numbers. In fact, over the last 10 years, there have been just three rookie WRs to top the 249.6 fantasy point mark, while four reached the 16.2 fantasy PPG. As for WR2s, there were 15 rookie WRs who topped those necessary points, while 11 topped the 13.8 fantasy PPG needed. In 2020, there was just one rookie receiver to meet those thresholds (Jefferson). He and Brandon Aiyuk were the only two to meet the fantasy PPG numbers as a WR2, while Jefferson, CeeDee Lamb and Chase Claypool scored enough total points to surpass the needed number as a WR2. As you can see, it is tough for a rookie WR to put up these big numbers in their first season in the league.

But, just like with RBs, it's not just enough to know how many fantasy points a player needs to score to finish as such. But, it's important to know statistical benchmarks that we can target to help us find which rookies have the best chance of having an immediate impact. Much like with the RBs, the most important thing is volume. Here are the average numbers of the rookie WRs that met the WR1 and WR2 thresholds.

Table inside Article
Stat Targets Receptions Receiving Yards Receiving TDs
Top-12 WR Benchmarks 125 (need 120+) 90 (lowest was 88) 1,281 (all over 1,100) 9.3 (minimum 7)
Top-24 WR Benchmarks 111 (4 lower than 100) 70 1,011 9 (no less than 7)

As you can see with the minimums needed, there is less room for error with the receivers than with the running backs. Additionally, the WR2 receiving yards number may be a little low because Tyreek Hill skews the numbers. As a rookie, he scored enough fantasy points to be a WR2, but he did so with just 593 receiving yards to go with 267 rushing yards.

But, you may be looking at those and wondering what to do with those numbers? It's much like with the RBs, but you can use projections to help you find the rookies to target. Jefferson may not have been the most hyped rookie receiver in fantasy drafts last year, but there was clearly a lot of targets up for grabs in Minnesota. Some rookies that had hype but did not live up to the expectations were players like Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, Jalen Reagor and Laviska Shenault Jr.. What do they all have in common? Most, besides Ruggs, had questionable QBs but more importantly, all had proven talent around them that would clearly see a high volume of targets.

When trying to identify the rookie receivers that can break out, you should look first at the path to consistent targets. The more obstacles in the way of targets, the less likely the player is to breakout in his first year. But it's not just targets that are needed, as you can see by the rest of those benchmarks. The next step should be looking at their QB and the offense they play in. Obviously, the more passing opportunities, the better, but the higher level of play from the QB, the better the opportunity is to put up big numbers.

Final Takeaways

In doing this research, I kept going back to one big thing. We rely too much on stuff like draft capital and our perception of a player's talent when trying to project rookies. I am not saying that stuff doesn't matter, but using draft capital as an example – the first running back drafted last year was Clyde Edwards-Helaire and the receiver was Ruggs. Both flopped in fantasy as a rookie. Talent certainly matters, but then someone like Robinson goes undrafted, comes out of nowhere and reminds us that no one's evaluation process is perfect, even NFL front offices. But what did Robinson have in Jackonsville last season? Opportunity. In fact, he had more opportunity than any rookie RB and to no surprise, he was the cream of the rookie RB crop until he suffered a late-season injury. The biggest thing we have to identify when evaluating which rookie RB and WR can breakout and be immediate fantasy contributors is opportunity. Volume does not guarantee fantasy success, but in my opinion, it is the biggest key ingredient.

Additionally, when it comes to rookies we have seen in recent years, they can be slow out the gate, but then go on a tear down the stretch and help teams win fantasy championships. Some rookies who did this last year include Taylor, Cam Akers, Aiyuk and I'll even throw in Justin Herbert. Mid-to-late season runs by a rookie make sense as they adjust to the league and typically have to earn their larger role in the offense. They all can't be Jefferson or Robinson and hit the ground running. In fact, we now have data that shows just how hard it is for a rookie to finish Top 12 or Top 24 at their position. With all of this in mind, I came away with one big takeaway: Do not pay full price for a potential rookie breakout!

Rather than drafting Edwards-Helaire in the first round, it would have been better to draft Taylor as a Top-20 back, or D'Andre Swift as an RB3. Drafting a rookie inside the Top 12 at these positions is basically playing the lotto (there's always exceptions like rookie year Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley who had guaranteed 250+ touches).

You are hoping to have that one rookie that on average finishes that highly at their position - even less than one yearly for receivers. Drafting a rookie inside the Top 24 at their position gives you better odds and I am okay with taking a rookie there if you feel strongly about it. But just know, that only a handful each year return that value. Taking gambles on rookies often deliver mixed results, just look at the split here:

If you wait, not only are getting similar odds at finding the breakout rookie, but you are risking a lot less. Just ask those who drafted CEH in the middle of the first-round last year! Additionally, with rookies typically getting off to slower starts, it creates a buying opportunity whether it be off the waiver wire after someone cuts bait, or trading for them for less than the price that it cost to draft them. Just last year there were people who dropped Akers, some were asking about dropping Taylor, and other rookies like Tee Higgins, Claypool and Swift could be had off the waiver wire. Rookies come with upside and are a ton of fun in fantasy football, which is why people tend to reach for them. But knowing what benchmarks to look for will help you greatly reduce the risk of paying a high draft price, just to be a year too early on a player.

Hit me up on Twitter and Instagram, @MichaelFFlorio, and let me know how you feel about drafting rookies now!

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