Talent AND Situation | 2023 Rookies Elevated by Their Offensive Environments

by Joel Ybarra · Analytics & Advanced Metrics
2023 NFL Rookies

Talent vs. Situation

We are on the precipice of Dynasty prospecting season. NFL Draft Analysts and fantasy nerds alike are going to produce massive amounts of content between now and the NFL Draft in late April, when we learn the landing spots for the incoming rookie class. It’s important to have a good process for looking at prospects. However, the offensive environments in which the rookies land are often a more immediate determinant of real-life and fantasy production. When it comes to compiling fantasy points, the offense elevates the player over and above their individual talent. Even the brightest talent cannot overcome a bad offense or team environment. Below we take a look at some of the 2023 NFL rookies and how they fared in their respective offenses.

It could play out differently long-term with these 2023 rookies, but Puka Nacua, Jahmyr Gibbs, C.J. Stroud and Sam LaPorta were Year 1 league-winners in 2023 largely due to their situations. Other highly touted rookies like Dalton Kincaid, Bijan Robinson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba were relative busts in their freshman seasons. They did not have the same opportunity or team environment to lift them. Below, we look at three rookies who were drafted later than their higher-pedigree counterparts, but were elevated by their situations. The offense plays a large part in what makes a rookie a difference-maker right off the bat.

Sam LaPorta vs. Dalton Kincaid

Dalton Kincaid was a higher-pedigree talent than Sam LaPorta. Kincaid was drafted at the end of the first round in the NFL Draft and Dynasty rookie drafts, and LaPorta went in the early second round in both. We know how it turned out year one: LaPorta stepped into an immediate role in the Lions offense. Kincaid had a significant role in the middle of the season when Dawson Knox was sidelined by injury, but otherwise was splitting time and usage with Knox and other Bills pass catchers.

There were signs in the preseason LaPorta was going to play a significant role in the Lions’ offense. He ascended the depth chart and was reportedly one of Jared Goff‘s favorite targets. Former tight ends coach Ben Johnson had the Lions offense vibing last season, and T.J. Hockenson was a top-four tight end before the Lions traded him to the Vikings. The Lions invested an early second round pick (2.03) on LaPorta and made minimal investments in other pass-catchers, save for Jameson Williams (drafted 1.12 in 2022), but he has had setbacks.

A Tight End Platoon

Kincaid entered a situation that produced the TE15 (Knox) in PPG in 2022. Kincaid was a better prospect than Knox, but the two were also battling it out for the same snaps and targets. Analysts were trying to jam Kincaid in as the best rookie tight end during the offseason, saying he was a wide receiver in a tight end’s body. It was also the consensus the Bills were going to be in 12-personnel for a high percentage of their plays, so Kincaid could get volume as the secondary target in the offense. That didn’t happen.

LaPorta had a clearer path to involvement and volume than Kincaid. The Lions TE1 was arguably in a better offense – at least for fantasy. In 2022, the Lions produced a top-10 WR in Amon-Ra St. Brown, a top-4 tight end (Hockenson) and two top-18 running backs (D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams). The Bills offense produced two top-40 fantasy receivers (Stefon Diggs and Gabriel Davis) and that was about it. The overall offensive system matters.

Jahmyr Gibbs vs. Bijan Robinson

Robinson was going ahead of Gibbs in nearly every fantasy draft preseason. Looking back, it’s easy to see how fantasy drafters vaulted Robinson over Gibbs. Robinson was a pristine prospect drafted in the top-10 of the NFL Draft and was entering a run-heavy scheme (the Falcons were No. 1 with 32.6 Team Run Plays Per Game in 2022). It was assumed Robinson would have a role superior to Gibbs, the former leading the Atlanta backfield over the aging Cordarrelle Patterson and fifth-round draft pick Tyler Allgeier.

Arthur Smith had other plans. Robinson and Gibbs both ended up sharing their backfields. Robinson received a 51.1-percent (No. 34) Opportunity Share. Gibbs had a 50.6-percent (No. 35) Opportunity Share. Bijan had more Weighted Opportunities (229, No. 6) than Gibbs (197.6, No. 15), and they were getting a similar number of targets (Bijan with 74, No. 4 and Gibbs with 67, No. 5). That means Bijan got more rushing work – 188 (No. 19) carries to Gibbs’ 154 (No. 34).

Individual Metrics vs. Offense-afforded Opportunity

Despite less usage, Gibbs was far more productive in fantasy: RB7 in scoring with 16.7 fantasy points per game to Robinson’s 13.8 (RB19) PPG. The two NFL first-round picks were similar in individual rushing metrics. Gibbs had a slight edge in Yards Created Per Touch with 3.62 (No. 14) to Robinson’s 3.53 (No. 19). Robinson had the edge in Evaded Tackles with 59 (No. 8) to Gibbs’ 53 (No. 11), but on more opportunities, as above. The two were also similar in Juke Rate – Robinson at 23.2-percent (No. 13) and Gibbs at 24.0-percent (No. 10).

The big difference in Gibbs’ production came on touchdowns and explosive plays. Both of these statistics are easily explained by the players’ respective offensive environments. Gibbs scored 10 total touchdowns to Robinson’s seven. That was largely because the Lions offense produced more scoring opportunities. The Lions’ back had 10 carries inside the five-yard line, for example, to Robinson’s three. Gibbs, in fact, had as many carries inside the five as all the Falcons RBs put together (10). The Lions running backs had a total of 31 rushes inside the five-yard line on the season.

Explosive Plays

The Lions offensive line also helped facilitate more explosive plays for Gibbs. His Run Blocking Rating was 58.3 (No. 7) while Robinson’s was 49.4 (No. 11). The line play and Gibbs’ athleticism helped him notch an Explosive Run Rate of 8.9-percent (No. 2). Robinson’s mark in that metric was 4.9-percent (No. 18).

Robinson and Gibbs are comparable talents, both with first-round draft pedigree. In fact, by all accounts, Robinson was the better prospect. They just landed in different offensive situations that had a huge impact on how they produced in their rookie seasons. We should have known Gibbs was going to produce in the Lions’ ascendant offense and that the Falcons offense was going to be flat with Desmond Ridder under center.

Zay Flowers vs. Jaxon Smith-Njigba

Jaxon Smith-Njigba was drafted ahead of Zay Flowers in nearly every draft in the offseason. And yet, Flowers has been the more productive wide receiver. He recorded seven top-25 fantasy finishes, finishing as the WR31 with 12.9 PPG. Smith-Njigba had just four top-25 finishes and finished as the WR53 with 9.1 PPG. Flowers was the WR1 in Baltimore, especially judging by his utilization. His Route Participation was 100.0-percent (No. 1). This was by far the most of any Ravens receiver. Flowers also had a 24.4-percent Target Share (No. 20). The next highest Target Share for a Raven was, of course, Mark Andrews at 22.2-percent (No. 4). Andrews was sidelined in Week 1 and then injured again early in Week 11, but in Weeks 2 through 10, when Flowers and Andrews both played their normal number of snaps, Andrews had 59 targets and Flowers drew 58.

By comparison, Jaxon Smith-Njigba was No. 3 on his team with an 81.7-percent (No. 61) Route Participation, behind D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, who both had closer to 95-percent Route Participation. Flowers was winning on routes at a higher rate (55.7-percent Route Win Rate, No. 6) than Smith-Njigba (53.7-percent, No. 12), but not by a significant amount. The rookie receiver was the beneficiary of Lamar Jackson‘s stellar season as a passer. Flowers’ QB Rating Per Target was 106.2 (No. 23), versus Smith-Njigba’s 93.7 (No. 46) from Geno Smith. Smith-Njigba may have been a better prospect, but Flowers entered a better situation in Baltimore. The Ravens’ depth chart was ripe for a WR1 to step forward, and Flowers was fortunate to be part of a souped-up Ravens offense helmed by an MVP-candidate.

Target the Right Offenses

When we are looking at rookies trying to identify which will have an immediate impact, it is important to look at their team situations. Individual talent can only take a player so far if the situation is bad. As we have outlined, there were multiple situations in 2023 when a higher-pedigree player was outdone by their lower-pedigree counterpart because they entered a better offense. This is to say nothing of late-round fantasy darlings Puka Nacua and Tank Dell who ended up in rich offensive situations themselves. We should continue to anticipate which offenses are going to be ascending and attempt to put all the pieces together in the coming seasons. Those are the offensive environments that will elevate the individual pieces over what they are capable of in a less ideal offensive situations.