Five Rookie Values in Early Underdog Drafts


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Five Rookie Values in Early Underdog Drafts

Risk and uncertainty are the defining characteristics of an early off-season best ball fantasy football draft. Following free agency and then the NFL Draft, we know almost everything we need to about the offense each player will operate in – most notably the level of direct competition he faces on the depth chart and the approximate skill of his quarterback.

In contrast, we currently do not know which team Austin Ekeler (the current RB3 overall by ADP) will play for this year. And then, even if he remains with the Chargers, they could sign a veteran like Kareem Hunt or add a rookie like UCLA bruiser Zach Charbonnet in Round 3 of the NFL Draft to threaten his red zone touches. Apply the same logic up and down an Underdog draft board, and you’ll realize any player’s projected role could change dramatically over the next several weeks.

Of all players, we know the least about the situations of rookies. Is it wise to draft them before they even have a team or an NFL Draft slot? While landing spot and draft capital will do a lot to determine the destiny of a player, the ADP market likely overestimates the uncertainty associated with rookies, especially relative to the level of risk inherent to veterans.

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When examining Underdog ADP from March of last year, 10 rookie RBs and 14 rookie WRs were being drafted before the final round. (Many players with final-round ADPs are not selected in most drafts, so I excluded them from this exercise.) I also used a log scale for the graphic below to give greater visual weight to players who moved across the early rounds of the draft compared to the late rounds. Anyone under the dotted line was drafted earlier in September than in March.

Drafting Rookies in Underdog Fantasy

Seven of the 10 RBs were ultimately selected earlier in drafts at the beginning of September (after the entire NFL Draft and preseason had played out) than at the beginning of March. Eight of the 14 receivers improved on their pre-NFL Draft ADP, with injured players like Justyn Ross and John Metchie weighing down the hit rates.

The average rookie RB was selected 19.4 picks earlier in September than he was in March. In other words, you could expect to arbitrage about a round and a half of ADP just by selecting a random rookie with an ADP before the final round!

The average rookie WR was selected about 2.0 picks later in September than in March, but again, this figure is skewed by Ross, who suffered a season-ending injury. The median receiver was selected 17.8 picks earlier in September than in March, much more in line with what we observed at RB. Even a couple of the rookies who fell after the Draft (Kenneth Walker, Garrett Wilson) ended up crushing their ADP-based expectation regardless.

This is only one year of data, but it illustrates that Underdog drafters last March were (incorrectly!) more worried over rookie risk than they were about veterans getting additional competition or suffering a downgrade to their offensive environment. Scott Barrett and Mike Beers have made similar points using data from previous years. Beers found that rookie RBs often have above-average win rates and often rise in ADP following the Draft, while Barrett found a strong upward ADP trend for both rookie RBs and WRs. When will drafters start listening?

To some extent, it is understandable that drafters may fall into the trap of underestimating rookies; it can be unsettling seeing the letters “FA” next to a player’s name. But the reality is that veterans are just as vulnerable to disruption as rookies. This common mistake results in the 1.5-round average ADP increase for rookies that we should happily take the discount on now.

Does the quality of a draft class affect this? Probably. But as of writing, Dane Brugler currently ranks 10 RBs and 13 receivers within the Top 100 of his big board, compared to two RBs and 13 WRs before the Draft last year. It is reasonable to expect the class as a whole to be competent.

We can get rookies at values in drafts right now that will not be possible in a few weeks. This allows us to drive down the average cost of those players in our large portfolio of best ball teams.

To ignore rookies in early best ball drafts is to wilfully cede the edge to your opponents. Not drafting a player is just as much of a decision and just as much of a risk as drafting one. While the numbers show that any random rookie is a good bet, let’s be even more discerning. Here are the five rookie profiles I currently believe to be the best values by ADP.

Jahmyr Gibbs, RB, Alabama Crimson Tide

Underdog ADP: Round 6, RB16

NFL Mock Draft Consensus: Pick 34, RB2

Running backs who catch passes are fantasy football gold. You’ve heard it before (or, if you haven’t, listen up): a target is worth about twice as many fantasy points as a carry in .5 PPR leagues. Uncoincidentally, nine of the top 12 RBs last year had over 50 targets and averaged at least 3.0 targets per game. And when it comes to predicting high-end fantasy seasons, yards per route run (YPRR) is one of the best stats we have, especially at the extremes. So, where did Jahmyr Gibbs rank by this important metric?

That’s right. He ranks top-5 on a list that includes three fantasy football studs, a player that successfully converted to WR, and himself.

Last year, among 185 qualifying FBS RBs, Gibbs also ranked top-10 in targets per route run (.21). But he offers more than just receiving efficiency. Over half (52.7%) of the rushing yards Gibbs gained came on attempts of 15 or more yards, an indicator of his explosiveness and penchant for big plays, which is backed up further by his 4.36-second forty-yard dash time.

A 5’9”, 199-pound frame makes it far from guaranteed a team will make Gibbs their main goal-line back, but plenty of efficient receivers have succeeded at similar weights and BMIs, including LeSean McCoy, Ray Rice, Jamaal Charles, and Christian McCaffrey:

Josh Downs, WR, North Carolina Tar Heels

Underdog ADP: Round 11, WR60

NFL Mock Draft Consensus: Pick 43, WR6

It is difficult to find upside at the WR position later in best ball drafts. To illustrate, Josh Downs is currently being selected after Donovan Peoples-Jones, K.J. Osborn, and Zay Jones. No shade to those three, but all of them failed to average even double-digit fantasy points per game using Underdog’s .5 PPR scoring. Needless to say, they aren’t exactly mainstays in best ball starting lineups.

In contrast, as a sophomore, Downs ranked second among all Power 5 WRs in receiving yardage market share (40.2% YMS). As a junior, and with a brand new QB, he returned a 32.2% YMS and a 39.3% TDMS in games active. That was good for a 35.8% Dominator Rating, which would have ranked 6th-best among all Power 5 WRs, beating out players like Quentin Johnston, Jalin Hyatt, and Marvin Harrison Jr. Downs also leads the class in career receiving yards per team pass attempt — one of our best and most predictive metrics for WR prospects.

This is a highly productive predominant-slot receiver – an archetype fantasy drafters tend to underrateprojected with Round 2 draft capital in a year lacking quality free-agent options at the position. Downs is precisely the type of bet to make before the NFL Draft, as a quality landing spot or better-than-expected draft capital bestowed by a needy team will send him rocketing up boards.

Roschon Johnson, RB, Texas Longhorns

Underdog ADP: Round 15, RB52

NFL Mock Draft Consensus: Pick 112, RB10

To get a large opportunity share in today’s NFL, an RB needs to do two things: be big and catch passes. Here is the complete list of RBs at the Combine who weighed in over 210 pounds and averaged at least 1.0 YPRR (min 100 routes) in their final year of college:

  • Bijan Robinson (current Underdog ADP: RB4)

  • Zach Charbonnet (RB33)

  • Roschon Johnson (RB52)

Before the NFL Draft, draft capital and landing spot are unknown variables. We can make educated guesses, but better or worse-than-expected draft capital explains much of the ADP movement from pre-Draft to post-Draft. Which RB would benefit most from unexpectedly sneaking into Day 2?

For my money, it’s the guy whose production was muted by being stuck behind one of the best RB prospects we’ve seen in years. Not being better than Bijan Robinson is a fairly unimpeachable excuse. Is anyone better than Bijan Robinson? Well, by some metrics, Johnson actually was.

For starters, Johnson led all Power 5 RBs in his draft class in yards after contact per attempt last year (4.28, to Bijan’s 4.17). Johnson was also better than Robinson (and literally everyone else) in missed tackles forced per touch:

Roschon Johnson just might be the best tackle-breaker of the generation. And remember, his combination of size and per-touch efficiency in both the running and passing games can’t be matched by any rookie going outside the top 100 picks on Underdog.

Marvin Mims, WR, Oklahoma Sooners

Underdog ADP: Round 17, WR84

NFL Mock Draft Consensus: Pick 87, WR12

As a high school senior, Marvin Mims gained 2,629 receiving yards, the most by any player in measured high school football history. And he ended his high school career with a Texas state record 5,485 receiving yards. It’s hard to decide which feat is more impressive when you remember Texas is roughly double the size of most European countries, and its chief export is NFL-caliber athletes.

Okay, so what happened next?

Mims found immediate success at the college level. But that’s still just putting it mildly.

Per PFF, he posted 4.07 YPRR in 2020, the 7th-highest mark by any Power 5 WR since 2015. In other words, Mims had one of the best age-adjusted seasons in college football history.

More recently, Mims boasted 8.1 yards after catch per reception in 2022, the 5th-most by any Power 5 WR in this class (min. 50 targets). Quentin Johnston (3rd) is the only rookie WR with an Underdog ADP inside the top 200 who beats him in that statistic.

Unlike much of this small-in-stature rookie WR class, Mims has at least a few semi-successful comps for a downfield role at his size. Garrett Wilson and Tyler Lockett are two recent players with similar height, weight, and speed measurables.

Finally worth noting is Mims’ 17.0 average depth of target, which is tied for 6th among the sample and ranks 1st among rookie WRs with an Underdog ADP inside the top 200. He’s a big-play threat often deployed on deep routes – the classic “better in best ball” archetype – who stands to gain multiple rounds of ADP simply by being drafted on Day 2 to a depth chart that isn’t completely stacked.

Evan Hull, RB, Northwestern Wildcats

Underdog ADP: Round 20, RB349

NFL Mock Draft Consensus: Pick 187, RB18

Every year, I find a Day 3 RB prospect who dominated touches on a bad team. Every year, I get irrationally excited about him. This year, his name is Evan Hull.

Hull recorded a 22.4% reception share in 2022, up from an already impressive 15.9% the year prior. For perspective, this was the sixth-best mark by a Power 5 RB since 2010. For further comparison, Christian McCaffrey’s two best seasonal reception shares were 21.1% and 20.7%.

So Hull was among college football’s elite when it came to earning receiving work. But he didn’t just compile volume – he was efficient as well. Hull was third in YPRR (1.85) among Power 5 RBs in his draft class last year (min. 100 routes), edging out players like Jahmyr Gibbs and Bijan Robinson.

Hull is one of only seven Power 5 RBs to post over 1.5 yards from scrimmage per team play in each of the last two seasons – the others are Robinson, Gibbs, Zach Charbonnet, Sean Tucker, Deuce Vaughn (the pint-sized, hyper-efficient version of Hull), and Braelon Allen (not 2023 Draft eligible). Notice that Hull and Vaughn are the only ones on the list available in the final round of Underdog drafts.

Hull measured at 5’10’’, 209 pounds, and rung up an 85th-percentile SPORQ score, Scott Barrett’s all-encompassing athleticism metric that you can read about here. That ranked 4th among all Combine-eligible RBs this year and better than every player mentioned in this blurb save for Bijan.

Hull likely won’t get the draft capital of the players I’m comparing him to, but he’s still one of my favorite final-round flyers who offers a great way to get different in The Big Board tournament.

Ryan is a young marketing professional who takes a data-based approach to every one of his interests. He uses the skills gained from his economics degree and liberal arts education to weave and contextualize the stories the numbers indicate. At Fantasy Points, Ryan hopes to play a part in pushing analysis in the fantasy football industry forward.