The NFL’s Obsession with Rookie Wide Receivers
One of the most effective ways for NFL teams to inject their passing games with some juice is to draft an elite rookie wide receiver prospect. Rookie receiver fever has been heating up the last few seasons. See below the number of rookie receivers drafted in the top 50 of the NFL draft in the last six seasons:
- 2017 – 5
- 2018 – 5
- 2019 – 3
- 2020 – 11
- 2021 – 7
- 2022 – 9
As you can see, there is an uptick in rookie receivers being drafted highly by teams looking to assemble a powerful passing unit. We are assessing the top 50 draft picks here because they have far higher hit rates than receivers drafted outside the top 50. Only two out of 192 players (one-percent) drafted outside the top 50 the last six seasons have hit 16-plus PPR points per game in at least 30-percent of their games during their rookie seasons.
Terry McLaurin did it 42.7-percent of his games in 2019, and Juju Smith-Schuster did it 30.8-percent of the time in his rookie season (2017). By contrast, there have been nine out of 38 players (23.7-percent) drafted in the top 50 of the NFL draft who have scored 16-plus PPR points in at least 30-percent of their games during their rookie seasons. That is a very high hit rate compared with receivers drafted after pick 50.
A Market Inefficiency
Top 50 rookie wide receivers hit at these rates because they are elite talents. Additionally, they hit because they are filling a need on the drafting team. The team needs an Alpha wide receiver, or they are looking to upgrade their receiver room and give their quarterback an additional elite option. Still, fantasy drafters are slow to catch up to these trends. Most of these rookie wide receivers continue to be drafted behind incumbent wide receivers, often after pick 100 in fantasy drafts. Most of these rookies then also outperform the incumbent receiver. That means fantasy gamers can leverage some deep discounts by taking late-round flyers on rookie wide receivers, especially those drafted in the top 50 of the NFL draft. More and more, rookies are stepping in and making a difference in their teams’ passing games.
“I understand there’s somewhat of an obsession with the receiver position.” Joe Schoen gets it. That does not guarantee he will take a wide receiver in the first round of the NFL Draft. https://t.co/3plchHmJAl
— Paul Schwartz (@NYPost_Schwartz) March 5, 2023
A Rise in Rookie Wide Receiver Involvement
As you can see in the draft trends above, there has been a significant uptick in the NFL’s demand for rookie wide receivers. From 2020 to 2022, there have been 27 rookie receivers taken in the top 50 of the NFL Draft versus 13 from 2017 to 2019. That’s more than twice as many. Not only are they being drafted more aggressively, but rookie wide receivers are also more immediately involved in their offenses than they were in previous years. Rookie wide receivers drafted in the top 50 from 2020 to 2022 have nearly doubled the production of rookie receivers from 2017 to 2019. See below.
Rookies WRs drafted in the top fifty of the NFL Draft 2020-2022 versus 2017-2019:
- Most 16-plus PPR point games on the team:
- 2020-2022 – 52.0-percent*
- 2017-2019 – 30.8-percent
- Scored 16-plus points in 20-percent of games or more:
- 2020-2022 – 40.0-percent
- 2017-2019 – 23.1-percent
- Scored 16-plus points in 30-percent of games or more (Alpha status):
- 2020-2022 – 32.0-percent
- 2017-2019 – 7.7-percent
*This does not include John Metchie and Jameson Williams who were out most or all of the 2022 season.
Huge Rookie Hits 2019-2021
To give this more detail, let’s look at some specific rookie wide receivers who hit big over the last three seasons. Most rookie receivers, even top-10 NFL draft picks, are drafted later than their same-team receiver counterparts by fantasy ADP. 22 of 27 rookies drafted in the top 50 of the NFL draft the last three seasons were drafted later in fantasy than at least one other receiver on the same team by ADP. Some were drafted behind multiple other receivers on the same team.
This has resulted in some tremendous rookie receiver values in the last three seasons. Here are some rookie wide receivers you could have drafted in round eight or later over the last three seasons.
- Garrett Wilson, New York Jets
- Round 13 ADP (Elijah Moore round eight)
- Scored 16-plus PPR points in 31.3-percent of games, most on team
- Chris Olave, New Orleans Saints
- Round 10 ADP (Michael Thomas round five)
- Scored 16-plus PPR points in 28.6-percent of games, most on team
- Jahan Dotson, Washington Commanders
- Round 13 ADP (Terry McLaurin round four)
- Scored 16-plus PPR points in 36.4-percent of games, to McLaurin’s 37.5-percent
- Christian Watson, Green Bay Packers
- Round 16 ADP (three Packers WRs drafted before him by ADP)
- Scored 16-plus PPR points in 23.1-percent of games, most on team
- Ja’Marr Chase, Cincinnati Bengals
- Round eight ADP (Tee Higgins round three)
- Scored 16-plus PPR points 43.8-percent of games, most on team
- Elijah Moore, New York Jets
- Round 11 ADP (Corey Davis round eight)
- Scored 16-plus PPR points 27.3-percent of games, most on team
- Ceedee Lamb
- Round eight ADP (Amari Cooper round four)
- Scored 16-plus PPR points 26.7-percent of games, to Cooper’s 33.3-percent
- Justin Jefferson
- Round 11 ADP (Adam Thielen round three)
- Scored 16-plus PPR points 46.7-percent of games, to Thielen’s 50.0-percent
- Brandon Aiyuk
- Round eight ADP (Deebo Samuel round two)
- Scored 16-plus PPR points 50.0-percent of games, most on team
- Tee Higgins
- Round 17 ADP (A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd were drafted before him by ADP)
- Scored 16-plus PPR points 35.7% of games, to Boyd’s 42.9-percent
It would be foolish not to take some rookie receivers in the late rounds of fantasy drafts, especially those drafted in the top 50 of the NFL draft. There have been some massive values. These rookie wide receiver surges are trending in the last few seasons. We detailed ten examples from 2020 to 2022 above. From 2017 to 2019, there were only two rookie wide receivers who recorded 16-plus PPR points in 30-percent of their games or more when they were not the top WR drafted from their team. Calvin Ridley reached that mark in 2018 and Juju Smith-Schuster did it in 2017.
More WR Ambiguity: Get the Rookies Paired with Established Alphas
Fantasy drafters shy away from rookie wide receivers because they are unknown commodities. Imagine now passing up on Ja’Marr Chase because Tee Higgins was already in Cincinnati, or Justin Jefferson because Adam Thielen was the already-established Alpha in Minnesota. Many fantasy gamers remember making those mistakes. There’s something we can learn, though, and apply.
Over these past three seasons, top 50 NFL rookie receivers performed better when added to an already-established Alpha (an incumbent WR drafted in the top 50 by fantasy ADP) than when they joined a weaker incumbent receiver (drafted after pick 50 by ADP). 50-percent of top 50 NFL rookie receivers who joined a teammate drafted in the top 50 by fantasy ADP reached Alpha status (16-plus points at least 30-percent of their games). By contrast, top 50 NFL rookies who joined another WR being drafted outside the top 50 by ADP hit that mark just 29.7-percent of the time.
GOT YOUR BACK: Adam Thielen thinks his Minnesota #Vikings teammate Justin Jefferson is the best WR in the NFL. 🤝💜 #SKOL pic.twitter.com/A82ym7whKT
— SKOR North (@SKORNorth) February 27, 2023
Target Rookie Wide Receivers in Late Rounds
This is just more evidence that we are looking for passing units pairing two top receiver options with a competent quarterback. These are the ascending passing attacks. The NFL Draft is coming. Once the NFL draft is complete and landing spots are determined, go get those top 50 rookie receivers, especially those joining an established Alpha. Exploiting the ambiguity inherent in these situations is a way to gain leverage in drafting.
And we can still add them inexpensively – at the end of drafts. Rookie wide receivers have been some of the greatest revelations in recent years, in fantasy and in the NFL.