Draft capital isn’t everything, but it certainly matters.
Example: Think about deciding which Halloween candy you wanted as a kid (or adult, no judgment here).
First choice (Reese’s) sure as hell has a much better chance of being your favorite, although occasionally you might stumble across a late-round gem (Almond Hershey’s Bar).
Of course, you’re far more likely to identify additional candy that is still very good (Snickers, Twix) closer to the top of the draft compared to what you’ll be grabbing on your sixth or seventh pick (Starbursts, Skittles).
Questionable Halloween candy analogy in April aside: It intuitively makes sense that experts in any field are more likely to pinpoint better assets with their first few choices in a fully stocked pool of options compared to their fifth, sixth, or whatever pick with far fewer overall options available.
TL;DR: History tells us the higher a player is drafted, the better chance they have of putting up big-time fantasy numbers relative to later-round picks. Cool? Cool.
Over 70% of top-performing fantasy scorers across all positions were originally drafted inside the top three rounds regardless of experience. Madness.
Rookies don’t usually put up top-performing fantasy numbers, but the ones who do are even more condensed into the first three rounds. Noted finishes reference PPR per-game scoring with a minimum of eight games.
Only three rookie QBs have finished as top-12 fantasy scorers over the past 10 years: 2016 Dak Prescott (QB9), 2019 Kyler Murray (QB11), and 2020 Justin Herbert (QB7). The latter two quarterbacks went first and sixth overall, while Prescott slipped to the fourth round and only started because Tony Romo suffered a back injury in the preseason.
Moving our timeline back just two years leads to 2012 Robert Griffin III, 2012 Andrew Luck (17.3), 2012 Russell Wilson (17.4), and 2011 Cam Newton also being included.
All but Herbert averaged at least 25 rushing yards per game in college and earned their starting job ahead of Week 1—it’s been awfully difficult for pure pocket passing rookies OR especially raw QBs forced to start the season on the bench to make a big-time difference in fantasy land.
There are a handful of landing spots with day-one starting opportunities, although some of the more luxurious offensive environments (Detroit, Washington, Atlanta) might not necessarily pull the trigger too early on the position come April 27.
2023 rookie notes: One man stands far above the rest when it comes to rushing ability at the position: Florida QB Anthony Richardson, who already finds himself near the top of my rushing QB tiers thanks to his galaxy-smashing combine performance and demonstrated ability to rack up yards in a hurry on the ground.
A whopping 32 rookies have posted top-24 PPR per-game production over the past 10 years (min. 8 games).
Still, 25 of 32 (78%) were selected inside the first three rounds.
The only exceptions:
- 2013 Zac Stacy (RB20)
- 2015 Karlos Williams (RB22)
- 2016 Jordan Howard (RB9)
- 2018 Phillip Lindsay (RB13)
- 2020 James Robinson (RB5)
- 2021 Elijah Mitchell (RB14)
- 2022 Dameon Pierce (RB20)
Each of these backs benefited from fantasy-friendly landing spots and managed to make the most out of their respective opportunities.
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Sep 25, 2022; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Houston Texans running back Dameon Pierce (31) runs the ball in the second quarter against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports
RB is the only position to demonstrate any sort of consistent supply of undrafted goodness: There have been 22 instances of formerly undrafted RBs putting up top-24 PPR per game numbers compared to 23 combined such seasons from top-24 WRs as well as top-12 QBs and TEs over the past 10 years.
There have certainly been more diamonds in the rough at RB than at other positions. And yet, phrases like “this year’s James Robinson” would probably be more accurate with “decade” as the denoted time span.
2023 rookie notes: The weights of those aforementioned exceptions: 224, 230, 230, 184, 219, 201, and 224. Credit to Lindsay and (to a lesser extent) Mitchell for balling out even without a bigger body to throw around, but generally the fantasy booms at the position have been the sort of backs who at least theoretically can take a beating and work across all three downs.
The following RBs weigh in at 210-plus pounds and have a consensus big board mock draft ranking inside the top-250 overall players:
- Texas RB Bijan Robinson (5’11, 215 pounds): Pick 13
- UCLA RB Zach Charbonnet (6’0, 214 pounds): Pick 55
- Texas RB Roschon Johnson (6’0, 219 pounds): Pick 100
- Auburn RB Tank Bigsby (6’0, 210 pounds): Pick 101
- Pittsburgh RB Israel Abanikanda (5’11”, 216 pounds): Pick 107
- TCU RB Kendre Miller (5’11, 215 pounds): Pick 114
- Kentucky RB Chris Rodriguez Jr. (6’0, 217 pounds): Pick 160
- Utah RB Tavion Thomas (6’0, 237 pounds): Pick 207
- Tulsa RB Deneric Prince (6'0, 216 pounds): Pick 216
- Appalachian State RB Camerun Peoples (6'1", 217 pounds): Pick 243
210 is indeed a bit of an arbitrary number; we might as well throw 209-pounders Chase Brown, DeWayne McBride, and Evan Hull in the mix too.
Moral of the story: It’s awfully difficult for undersized rookie RBs with low draft capital to earn major roles in both the run game AND in pass pro; be careful about falling in love with a late-round sleeper who might not have enough size to get on the field in the first place.
Just 12 rookie WRs have posted top-24 fantasy numbers over the past 10 years. That’s it!
Draft capital has seemingly mattered far more at WR than RB: 2016 Tyreek Hill was the only WR without day one or two draft capital, and he certainly would have gone higher without off-the-field concerns.
Overall, 8 of the 12 qualifiers were drafted in the first round:
- 2013 Keenan Allen (WR19)
- 2014 Odell Beckham Jr. (WR1)
- 2014 Mike Evans (WR13)
- 2014 Kelvin Benjamin (WR19)
- 2014 Brandin Cooks (WR21)
- 2016 Michael Thomas (WR8)
- 2016 Tyreek Hill (WR21)
- 2017 JuJu Smith-Schuster (WR13)
- 2020 Justin Jefferson (WR9)
- 2020 Brandon Aiyuk (WR18)
- 2021 Ja’Marr Chase (WR5)
- 2021 Jaylen Waddle (WR15)
While a solid landing spot helped matters, the likes of JuJu (Antonio Brown), Jefferson (Adam Thielen), Aiyuk (Deebo Samuel), and Chase (Tee Higgins) are four recent examples of rookies finding a way to ball the hell out despite the presence of an additional bona fide WR1 already on the roster.
Jan 14, 2023; Santa Clara, California, USA; San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk (11) is defended by Seattle Seahawks safety Quandre Diggs (6) in the first quarter during a wild card game at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
This isn’t to say WRs with low ADPs like Amon-Ra St. Brown, Chris Olave, and Garrett Wilson who posted WR3-level production were failures; it’s just been extra rare for rookie WRs to become that weekly upside WR2 staple in fantasy lineups straight out of the gate.
2023 rookie notes: Only six incoming WRs have an NFL mock draft consensus rank inside the top-63 overall players (first two rounds). They are listed below alongside Dwain McFarland’s rookie WR Super Model ranking:
- Ohio State WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba: Pick 12 (Super Model rank: WR1)
- TCU WR Quintin Johnston: Pick 19 (WR2)
- USC WR Jordan Addison: Pick 20 (WR3)
- Boston College WR Zay Flowers: Pick 26 (WR5)
- Tennessee WR Jalin Hyatt: Pick 38 (WR4)
- North Carolina WR Josh Downs: Pick 50 (WR6)
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The likes of Tennessee WR Cedric Tillman (pick 64), SMU WR Rashee Rice (73), Oklahoma WR Marvin Mims (74), Houston WR Nathaniel Dell (76), and Cincinnati WR Tyler Scott (78) are also within shouting distance of obtaining round two draft capital.
It’s not impossible for someone else to surprise—LSU WR Kayshon Boutte was considered a contender for overall WR1 status before a down 2022 campaign—but more times than not we should expect the top-performing rookies to be selected before the halfway point of round two.
Only three rookie TEs have finished as top-12 fantasy scorers over the past 10 years: 2013 Jordan Reed (TE7), 2017 Evan Engram (TE4), and 2021 Kyle Pitts (TE11). The latter two performers also greatly benefited from Odell Beckham Jr. and Calvin Ridley missing most of those seasons due to injury.
No position has been more difficult for rookies to crack. Such is life for young TEs who must either 1.) Master the nuances of both receiving AND blocking, or 2.) Land in an offense happy to let them work as a bona fide WR.
The likes of the Cowboys, Bengals, Dolphins, Lions, and Buccaneers stand out as the top five landing spots at the position when looking at a mix of available opportunities and good offensive environments, but even then it’s hardly a guarantee that any of these incoming rookies are already good enough to completely relegate incumbent backups to the bench.
2023 rookie notes: There are a fairly clear top-six options at TE based on Dwain McFarland’s award-winning (probably) rookie TE Super Model:
- Utah TE Dalton Kincaid (TE1: 0.9 Super Model score)
- Notre Dame TE Michael Mayer (TE2: 0.86)
- Georgia TE Darnell Washington (TE3: 0.74)
- Iowa TE Sam LaPorta (TE4: 0.72)
- South Dakota State TE Tucker Kraft (TE5, 0.68)
- Oregon State TE Luke Musgrave (TE6: 0.61)
Kincaid, Mayer, LaPorta, and Kraft all put together rather awesome numbers in career dominator and per-route efficiency, but Washington (shared a loaded Georgia offense with future first-round TE Brock Bowers) and Musgrave (injured after just two games in 2022) have the sort of relevant context to talk yourself into them as well.
This is objectively a loaded TE class; here’s to hoping they manage to fall into offenses willing to feature them as high-volume pass-game options from day one.