Please STOP drafting wide receivers in the first round of dynasty rookie drafts

by Mark Leipold ·

Every year, we see the same mistake among dynasty league owners: using rookie picks to draft players who will lose value in their rookie season in the NFL. It’s really no secret, but maybe this analysis will show why the residual wideout thirst from the 2014 class hurts dynasty teams. To complete the true dynasty, a team should accrue value from year to year. Drafting players who are more likely to lose value adds uncertainty to an already uncertain game. Even an outstanding advanced stats, metrics and analytics player profile can’t insulate a player from losing value. The most important stats/metric/analytic is opportunity, and too often, opportunity is simply not readily available to rookie wide receivers.

The NFL is unpredictable — players get injured, players get traded, players enter free agency, etc. Even a great dynasty roster can lose value when players’ situations change, so there is no need to use early-round rookie draft picks on players who won’t accrue value immediately. Though ADP data availability limits this study to a small sample size, the results are stark. Running backs are the best investment early in rookie drafts, and wide receivers are sucker bets. While quarterbacks and tight ends are no lock to produce early, they can retain value entering year two and year three, even without producing a strong fantasy line in year one.

Dynasty and Rookie ADP is available courtesy of Fantasy Football Calculator (FFC) through the 2015 Rookie Class, which offers straightforward evaluation of ADP, which is a reasonable estimation of market value, shows which picks are most likely to increase in value and which are likely to lose value. Since the exceptional 2014 wide receiver class, dynasty leaguers have had a thirst for rookie wide receivers, but the top names in each class disappoint each year (e.g., DeVante Parker, Nelson Agholor, Dorial Green-Beckham, Corey Coleman, Laquon Treadwell, Tyler Boyd, Mike Williams, John Ross, etc.). There has been a seemingly large proportion of wideouts who do not return first-round rookie pick value. The data below indicate the average ADP change of each positional group over their first three years and the proportion of players in each group who accrued value after being drafted.

For reference, the FFC ADP covers the following drafts:

  • 2015 – 249 drafts from August 20 to September 9
  • 2016 – 1399 drafts from May 25 to September 2
  • 2017 – 772 drafts from August 5 to September 4
  • 2018 – 456 drafts from June 10 to July 10

First-Round Rookie Picks

The data on first-round rookie picks by ADP are shown in the table below, and wide receivers fared abysmally.

Pos. Count ADP Year 1 Accrued Value At  Year 1 ADP Year 2 Accrued Value At Year 2 ADP Year 3 Accrued Value At Year 3
RB 16 16.75 75.0% -9.00 66.7% -69.80 60.0%
WR 16 -8.06 37.5% -48.54 23.1% -101.80 0.0%

First Round RB vs. WR Dynasty Rookie Draft Picks Since 2015

Of the first-round rookie picks spent on running backs, none were major busts. Only a few lost value in their first year, including Melvin Gordon (37 spots), Tevin Coleman (14 spots), Ameer Abdullah (2 spots), and Samaje Perine (149 spots — using 240 as the “undrafted” mark for being off the ADP list). Gordon has gone on to maintain top 15 startup value since then, Coleman rebounded as well, and Abdullah held value for one more year before plummeting off the ADP list. Perine’s decline is pretty obvious to rationalize, as Washington had an abysmal offensive line in 2017 decimated by injuries, so Perine understandably struggled. In the 2018 NFL Draft, he was replaced by Derrius Guice and given no second chance. The others who lost value at some point include T.J. Yeldon (who accrued value in year one and was then vaporized by Leonard Fournette), and Ameer Abdullah who has essentially been a bust — oft-injured and never given a full chance even when healthy. Both Kenneth Dixon and C.J. Prosise appear on this list as well, drafted in 2016. However, they did not lose value by these metrics, as they were not in the 2015 startup ADP on FFC. Therefore, they were assigned a value of 240. Dixon’s value is still above that, though realistically it’s fair to say he’s lost value, and Prosise rose up to an ADP of 69 in 2017 and then returned to irrelevance this past season. Prosise is no longer on the ADP list on FFC. The samples get smaller for second- and third-year players, but it hints at running backs having short windows of productivity in the NFL.

Check out Michael Thomas & Will Fuller on PlayerProfiler’s Updated Dynasty Rankings:

Wide receivers, however, don’t look as rosy. The full sample of first-round wideouts since 2015 is below. This group is notably worse than running backs. While the running back cohort, on average, accrued value in their first year, wide receivers lost value each successive year, more so than the running backs. There are only two receivers on this list who actually gained value since being drafted — Michael Thomas, who plays in a high-powered offense without stiff competition at his position, and Will Fuller, who was still outside the top 100 players drafted in 2017 but shot up to 54th overall this off-season thanks in part to Deshaun Watson. Amari Cooper is the only other player close to retaining his original value, rising after his first season from an ADP of 18th to seventh, maintaining that exact value in 2017, and then dropping to 24th this year. However, it took a historic career start just to maintain value. Some of the younger players in this group cannot be considered busts yet, and even DeVante Parker, drafted in 2015, is still on the dynasty radar. Dynasty leaguers continue to hold out hope for wide receivers who have shown no signs of becoming productive NFL players. If you’re not convinced, just look below and feel the pain.

Year Pick Name
2015 2 Amari Cooper
2015 5 DeVante Parker
2015 8 Nelson Agholor
2015 9 Dorial Green-Beckham
2015 10 Breshad Perriman
2016 2 Corey Coleman
2016 3 Laquon Treadwell
2016 4 Josh Doctson
2016 5 Sterling Shepard
2016 7 Michael Thomas
2016 9 Tyler Boyd
2016 10 Will Fuller
2016 12 Leonte Carroo
2017 3 Corey Davis
2017 6 Mike Williams
2017 7 John Ross

NFL Draft first round dynasty WRs since 2015

Second-Round Rookie Picks

Sadly, the second round doesn’t get much better.

Pos. Count  ADP Year 1 Accrued Value At  Year 1  ADP Year 1 Accrued Value At  Year 2  ADP Year 1 Accrued Value At  Year 3
RB 17 38.65 47.1% 37.17 41.7% -19.14 28.6%
WR 13 -2.85 23.1% -32.89 11.1% -57.50 50.0%

Second Round RB vs. WR Dynasty Rookie Draft Picks Since 2015

Running backs look like the best bet in the first and second round. Nearly half the running backs drafted in the second round of rookie drafts accrued value in their rookie seasons. More than 40-percent of them had a higher value after two seasons than when they were drafted. While there are certainly more busts in the second round (e.g., David Cobb, Matt Jones, Cameron Artis-Payne, Paul Perkins, Keith Marshall), there are several big-time dynasty running backs in the second round of rookie drafts, including David Johnson, Jordan Howard and Kareem Hunt. The gems found in round two all have one thing in common – they went to small, non-power conference schools (Northern Iowa, UAB and Toledo, respectively, although Howard did transfer to Indiana after the shutdown of the UAB football program). The only back who plummeted after one year was David Cobb, while Johnson, Howard, and Hunt all rose up into the first round-and-a-half of startup drafts (16th, 14th and 11th, respectively). Johnson reached number one overall in 2017, and fellow second-round rookie pick from 2015 Jay Ajayi (also from a small school, Boise State), rocketed up to an ADP of 20th. Otherwise, most of the running backs in this range didn’t have significant changes.

The lesson to be learned is the second round features a much wider range of outcomes at the running back position than does the first round, and this is the time to target small-school backs with strong athletic profiles. Perhaps it’s a coincidence that the five biggest busts in this range (Cobb, Jones, Artis-Payne, Perkins and Marshall) all entered the NFL Draft from major conference schools (Minnesota, Florida, Auburn, UCLA and Georgia, respectively). Or, perhaps it indicates the second tier of major conference players is not as strong as the cream of the crop from smaller schools. Regardless, it appears the smaller school players are the better bet, albeit on a small sample.

Wide receiver looks poor compared to the other position groups, steadily losing value on average each year. The only names of much relevance today are Devin Funchess, Tyler Lockett, Zay Jones, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Cooper Kupp. Only three of thirteen second-round wideouts gained value in their first year – Malcolm Mitchell, Smith-Schuster and Kupp. Mitchell’s rise is possibly a data quality error, as he was not registered on the ADP list originally so I assigned the value of 240, after which he rose to 207 after his rookie season. Even if he did accrue value, it’s meaningless since he never rose past 207. Smith-Schuster and Kupp both turned in productive rookie seasons, contributing to their rise. The rest of the list includes players that quickly slipped into irrelevance, including Jaelen Strong, Phillip Dorsett, Braxton Miller, Pharoh Cooper, Mike Thomas, Tajae Sharpe and Curtis Samuel. Zay Jones is borderline irrelevant already, but both he and Samuel have a chance to rebound in 2018, so they can’t be written off yet. Again, wide receivers seem to be a poor investment relative to other positions. The full list of wideouts picked in the second round of rookie drafts since 2015 is below.

Year Pick Name
2015 13 Jaelen Strong
2015 18 Phillip Dorsett
2015 20 Devin Funchess
2015 22 Tyler Lockett
2016 15 Braxton Miller
2016 18 Pharoh Cooper
2016 20 Malcolm Mitchell
2016 22 Mike Thomas
2016 24 Tajae Sharpe
2017 13 Zay Jones
2017 14 JuJu Smith-Schuster
2017 20 Curtis Samuel
2017 21 Cooper Kupp

NFL Draft second round dynasty WRs since 2015

So I should never draft wide receivers?

Pretty much. It looks like the savvy dynasty player should be using early rookie picks on running backs primarily, with the occasional quarterback or tight end pick carefully sprinkled in. The best way to acquire wide receivers, then, is to take shots late on players with strong profiles (e.g., J’Mon Moore, Justin Watson from 2018) and use the taxi squad effectively, especially since wide receivers take time to develop in the NFL. Alternatively, dynasty leaguers should trade for wideouts when their value is in a valley. Target players in bad offenses who project significant target shares (e.g., Kelvin Benjamin now), players constantly undervalued by the dynasty community (e.g., Rishard Matthews) or players with strong profiles in unclear situations (e.g., Chester Rogers, Phillip Dorsett). Of course, it’s possible to buy studs on the cheap when circumstances allow it (e.g., Amari Cooper and T.Y. Hilton). Worst case, once your team has an abundance of valuable running backs, you can overpay for a proven wide receiver to anchor your team, sacrificing a bit of trade value to avoid the uncertainty of drafting rookie wideouts.