With dynasty leagues and film grinding really blowing up in recent years in the fantasy football community, a larger emphasis and more hype in general has been placed upon the rookies in fantasy football each season. The mindset has changed from the consensus being to wait on rookies, not pull them up draft boards and practice patience to one of targeting their upside as more and more rookies make an immediate impact. But is it worth taking gambles on the incoming rookies?
What I found with the running backs and wide receivers last week is that its worthwhile to take a shot on the rookies… just not in the early rounds. Even with the great 2020 rookie class really helping the case to pull the new players up, history just shows that it is rare for a rookie to finish Top-12 or even Top-24 at those positions. And then there's figuring out which rookies will be the one to breakout, which is a whole other conversation.
With each position's value being different, I wanted to dive into rookie quarterbacks and tight ends over the last decade and see if we can learn whether or not we should be targeting them in fantasy drafts and, if so, just how early we should be doing so.
The NFL has become more of a passing league over the last decade so it should come as no surprise that QB fantasy scoring has greatly been on the rise.
In 2011, the QB12 put up 222.78 fantasy points, but in 2020 that same spot finished with 282.44 fantasy points. The necessary fantasy points needed to be a Top-12 fantasy QB has never dipped below 250 since 2011, but three times in the last six seasons it has taken over 280 fantasy points. So right there, you must be very confident in a rookie QBs ability to put up fantasy points to draft them that highly. Using the last 10 years, a QB must score an average of 262.74 fantasy points in a season to finish inside the Top-12 QBs, or the very valued QB1 group in fantasy.
How many rookies have topped 262 fantasy points in their first season since 2011? Just eight. That number surprised me as it was lower than expected, but there are takeaways we can learn from this to help us identify the rookie's worth taking a gamble on in fantasy. The eight QBs that reached this threshold were: Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III, Jameis Winston, Dak Prescott, Kyler Murray and Justin Herbert. All of them played 16 games, except for Herbert who sat Week 1 last season. But, more so than that, six of the eight QBs to do so were selected within the first six picks of the NFL Draft.
Newton, Winston, Luck, and Murray were all first overall picks, with RG3 going second overall and Herbert going sixth. Wilson (third round) and Prescott (fourth round) were the only exceptions, but both won the starting job prior to the start of the season and played a full season as a rookie. So right there, the big takeaway could be that draft capital absolutely matters as teams that draft a QB early tend to let him start from day one. Additionally, if you are drafting a rookie QB as one of the first 12 off the board, you better be sure they are going to be the Week 1 starter. Otherwise, you likely reached. And before you say who will take a rookie QB that early – we had not one, but two rookie QBs go off the board as Top-10 QBs in our fantasy football mock draft this week.
So, now that we know draft capital and mainly being the starter from Week 1 greatly matters, the next question we need to ask is: What does an average season look like among those eight rookie QBs who were able to be QB1s from the start?
Well, they averaged 3,814 passing yards per season, with 23.25 passing touchdowns and 11.4 interceptions. They also averaged 442 rushing yards and 6.4 rushing TDs per season. All eight of them rushed for over 200 yards, with all but two topping 250 and half of them rushing for over 400 yards. They all rushed for at least four TDs in their rookie season, with oddly enough, Wilson and Murray being the only two with less than five rushing TDs. My clear takeaway was that any young QB worth taking this early must be able to add valuable fantasy points with their legs.
Now that we know the two biggest takeaways are that the QB needs to likely be drafted early and has to have a chance at starting from Week 1, while also being able to run, we can apply it to the 2021 crop of QBs and see who is worth targeting. Trevor Lawrence seems like a lock to go off the board first overall and start Week 1. He also can add those valuable points with his legs as he has rushed for 563 and 203 yards his last two seasons at Clemson. He has scored at least eight rushing TDs in each of those seasons, as well, and he is one of the best QBs at selling the handoff near the goal line and just rolling out for an easy score himself. I expect that to translate at the NFL level and would be fine with him going off the board as a Top-12 fantasy QB (although the later the better!).
Zach Wilson is in play to go off the board as high as second overall and he showed he can do some damage with his legs at BYU, rushing for 254 yards and 10 scores this past year. Both were career highs; he had five rushing TDs in his first two seasons combined. Justin Fields also is in play to go off the board early, which could lead to being the Week 1 starter. He can also add points with his legs, rushing for 266, 484, and then 383 rush yards in a reduced 2020 season while adding at least four rushing TDs each season, topping out with 10 in 2019.
We will have better answers on these rookies after the NFL Draft and throughout the summer, but now we know the requirements they must meet to warrant being a Top-12 fantasy QB pick.
Rookie Tight Ends
Whether you have played fantasy football for a decade or a season, you have likely heard someone say do not draft a rookie tight end. We say and hear it all the time, but I wanted to really put that line of thinking to the test. Are rookie tight ends as bad for fantasy as we make them out to be – or could they even be worse? These were the questions I was wondering when I jumped into the data and I was more surprised than expected.
Over the last 10 years, a tight end needs to score 144.9 fantasy points to finish Top-12 at the position and 113.1 points to finish in the Top-20. First, to put that into perspective, it takes about 215 fantasy points for running backs, 250 for a wide receiver and 263 points for a QB to finish in the top 12 at their positions. So, the bar is significantly lower for tight ends. But it hasn't led to rookies being able to make a Year 1 impact. In fact, only one tight end in the last decade has topped 144 fantasy points as a rookie – Evan Engram. There have been just six TEs in the past 10 years that topped that 113-point threshold to reach Top 20 status in their first season. The group is Engram, Timothy Wright, Hunter Henry, Dwayne Allen, Jordan Reed and Chris Herndon.
The six players combined to average 71 targets, with each seeing at least 53. They put up an average of 47 catches and 549 yards, but you need about 500 yards and five TDs. The lone TE to finish as a TE1 as a rookie (Engram) saw 115 targets with 64 catches, 722 yards and six TDs.
What we learned is that the adage is true: "You should never draft a rookie tight end." Whatever you do, do not take one as one of the first 12 to get drafted. Well, that is unless you can draft Kyle Pitts this season. Pitts is the lone exception to the rule. He is built like Darren Waller and some say he plays more like a receiver than a tight end, which was also said about Engram coming out.
The expectation is that Pitts will go in the top half of the first round, perhaps even going inside the Top-10 picks in the NFL Draft. If a team is going to invest a pick like that into a TE, I expect them to get him involved right out of the gate. Besides Pitts, do not draft a rookie tight end this season or really ever.
Let me know what you think on Twitter and Instagram, @MichaelFFlorio.