What to Expect from the 2016 Rookie WR Class Over the Next 3 Seasons

May 25, 2016
What to Expect from the 2016 Rookie WR Class Over the Next 3 Seasons

A new season means a new class of rookie wide receivers attempting to break into the league and into our fantasy lineups. In this article, we will discuss some of the key names to know going into the 2016 season.

For those readers in standard (re-draft) leagues, we can keep this short: none of these rookies are likely to be relevant during your 2016 draft. Per John's rankings, only a few of them (Corey Coleman, Laquon Treadwell, and Sterling Shepard) are likely to be fantasy-relevant this year, and even those three are likely to go far too early in the draft. For example, why take Coleman (WR37) in the eighth round when Donte Moncrief (WR24) and Michael Crabtree (WR28) are available or when Willie Snead (WR38) is available in the 10th round? (There seems to be a general tendency for drafters to take rookies too early. Psychology may have an explanation for why that is.)

On the other hand, the names below will be important to those readers in dynasty or keeper leagues. Such leagues can have rookie-only drafts, where the tendency to over-draft rookies compared to veterans does not come into play. In those drafts, the players mentioned below can be taken at fair or even bargain prices.

That last issue, price, will be a key theme for us below. As always, building a winning team requires not only choosing players that will be successful but also acquiring those players at a discount relative to their true value. With one exception, we will target only players that are available at a discount price.

Forecasting Wide Receiver Success

As usual, John's rankings give you the best possible forecasts of how these rookies will fare in 2016. However, for those of us in dynasty or keeper leagues where we can hold a player for multiple seasons, we need to look ahead to the future as well. Below, my aim is to find receivers that will be startable (say, top 36) in one of their first three seasons in the league. I'll call those receivers "successes".

Forecasting wide receiver success is particularly unintuitive because it is not about finding obscure information that others don't know about — finding that "one weird trick" to predict success — it's actually about ignoring information that doesn't matter. Let me explain in more detail what I mean.

The best predictor of wide receiver success is where they are taken in the NFL draft. In fact, a simple model that says receivers will be successful if and only if they are first round draft picks is over 83% accurate on my data set [1].

We can improve upon this model by including some information about college production. My preferred metric is a receiver's percentage of the team's yards from scrimmage, that is, their total rushing and receiving yards divided by the team's total rushing and receiving yards during the years that they played. Including that metric only improves the bare prediction accuracy to just over 84%, bit it improves more sophisticated accuracy measures [2] by significant amounts.

Beyond those two metrics, no others make a significant difference in the model. What about 40 time? Doesn't help. What about vertical? Nope. College TDs? Nope. None of those things make a significant difference.

To be clear, I'm not saying that 40 time and catch radius are irrelevant to determining which are the best wide receivers. I'm saying that they don't add any predictive value beyond what you get from where they were drafted and their college production. Presumably, being faster helps you in college and it may get you drafted earlier, but there is no benefit to upgrading faster receivers beyond what the model says based on where they were drafted and their college production.

Your league mates likely do not know this. As a result, they may overreact to that sort of information. They'll pass on Treadwell because his 40-time was slow or pass on Will Fuller because he "had a lot of drops" (which probably isn't even true let alone predictive). You can gain an advantage over them by ignoring the information that is not predictive and focusing on just draft pick and college production.

There is actually one other dimension that we will consider below: opportunity. I haven't included these in my forecasts so far because I don't (yet) have a good way to quantify opportunity. However, it makes sense to me to take this into account. That said, we should follow the advice of the world's best forecasters (like John) and not overreact to opportunity either. After all, there are some dynasty rankers that purposefully ignore opportunity and "always bet on talent". I will give receivers a small bump up or down based on opportunity, but mainly I will follow the model described above.

WR Draft Class 3 Year Odds of Success
ADP (5/25) Player Team Draft Pick Production Odds Opportunity Tier
1.09 Tyler Boyd CIN 55 0.252 82% A 1st
1.02 Laquon Treadwell MIN 23 0.129 51% A- 2nd
1.03 Corey Coleman CLE 15 0.134 57% B 2nd
1.04 Josh Doctson WAS 22 0.135 54% B 2nd
1.06 Sterling Shepard* NYG 40 0.134 45% A- 2nd
1.11 Will Fuller HOU 21 0.146 59% B+ 2nd
2.02 Leonte Carroo MIA 86 0.165 37% C 3rd
1.07 Michael Thomas NO 47 0.086 24% B+ 4th
2.11 Pharoh Cooper LA 117 0.167 25% B 4th
3.12 Tajae Sharpe TEN 140 0.200 27% F 4th
2.08 Braxton Miller HOU 85 0.106 18% B- 5th
3.08 Rashard Higgins CLE 172 0.199 17% D+ 5th
5.01 Demarcus Robinson KC 126 0.147 16% C+ 5th
2.07 Malcolm Mitchell NE 112 0.104 11% D 6th
4.06 Moritz Boehringer MIN 180 0.166 9% D+ 6th
4.10 Chris Moore BAL 107 0.093 10% C- 6th
5.02 Ricardo Louis CLE 114 0.087 8% C+ 6th
3.02 Mike Thomas LA 206 0.171 6% C+ 7th
4.02 Jordan Payton CLE 154 0.106 6% C- 7th
3.10 Keyarris Garrett CAR - 0.131 1% D 8th
4.08 Charone Peake NYJ 241 0.041 1% D 8th
5.04 Daniel Braverman CHI 230 0.146 3% D+ 8th
5.05 Devin Lucien NE 225 0.073 1% D+ 8th
5.07 Aaron Burbridge SF 213 0.104 2% C+ 8th
6.01 Demarcus Ayers PIT 229 0.103 1% D 8th
6.02 Cody Core CIN 199 0.057 1% C+ 8th
6.05 Kenny Lawler SEA 243 0.094 1% D+ 8th
7.03 Kolby Listenbee BUF 192 0.073 2% C 8th
7.04 Trevor Davis GB 163 0.077 3% D+ 8th
- Devin Fuller ATL 238 0.052 1% D+ 8th

Players to Target

Draft Pos Player Team
1.02 Corey Coleman CLE
1.05 Josh Doctson* WAS
1.09 Tyler Boyd CIN
1.09 Will Fuller HOU
3.01 Tajae Sharpe TEN

Corey Coleman, Browns

Coleman is not undervalued; he's the consensus top rookie wide receiver. I include him here to answer the question of whom you should take with the second pick in a rookie draft: 1.01 is Ezekiel Elliot, and 1.02 is Coleman.

The model I described above gives the top four receivers taken in rookie drafts similar odds of success (around 50%). However, Coleman's opportunity is a little better than the others, especially after the news that Brian Hartline has been cut. He's now the clear WR1 on a team that many expect to improve. In fact, John's rankings suggest he has about 50% odds of being a top 36 receiver this season alone.

Of course, I'm not selling the farm to get Coleman. Being the WR1 on bad team doesn't guarantee fantasy success — just ask Tavon Austin (and now Torrey Smith). Coleman, though, is the best of the options available at 1.02. However, I'd still gladly trade that pick for an early rookie pick in 2017.

Josh Doctson, Redskins

*[Update 6/2/16: In more recent ADP, Sterling Shepard has slipped below Doctson, making Shepard the cheapest receiver in this tier and the one to target at 1.05.]

As I mentioned above, the model using draft pick and college production gives similar success probabilities for the first four receivers being taken in the draft. Doctson's numbers are not substantially different from Coleman's or Treadwell's and they are a bit better than Shepard's, yet all three of those receivers are being taken before Josh Doctson.

Part of the reason for this is likely that Doctson's opportunity is clearly worse than some of the others: he is currently behind DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, and even Jamison Crowder (who had a good rookie season and is another overlooked dynasty target). However, there is a good chance that either Jackson or Garcon will be gone next season, so Doctson will have opportunity next year even if he has to split time with Crowder this season.

I'm probably not trading up to get Doctson, but if I have the 1.03 pick in a rookie draft, I would strongly consider trading back to 1.05 (or even 1.06 if someone takes Derrick Henry early, as happened in one of my rookie drafts) and taking Doctson there. And if Doctson is already taken, then one of Coleman, Treadwell, or Shepard will be available, which would be even better value.

Tyler Boyd, Bengals

Tyler Boyd is my top WR in this draft class. Per the metrics above, draft pick and college production, Boyd is number one by a large margin. My model gives him an 82% chance of having a top-36 season, and even a 40% chance of having a top-12 season, in one of his first three years in the league.

I certainly wouldn't bet on Boyd finishing in the top 12 when he's competing with A.J. Green for targets (something the model is not considering), but Boyd's college numbers are extremely encouraging. His top-36 odds are higher than both Amari Cooper and Kevin White from last season, and his top-12 odds are also close.

In my first two rookie drafts, I focused on getting Boyd, either trading up or back to get into the 1.09 spot, where I took him both times. He is currently the seventh rookie receiver being taken in drafts, so if at least two running backs go earlier, he should be available at 1.09. (And if he isn't available there, then our next target probably is.)

Will Fuller, Texans

Will Fuller may be the biggest steal in the current rookie draft. While he is currently the sixth rookie receiver being taken, some have seen him slip into the second round in rookie drafts. That represents incredible value for the receiver with the second highest success probability (after Boyd).

Most analysts did not project Fuller to be drafted as early as he was (the second receiver off the board in the NFL Draft). However, as we discussed above, draft pick is the most predictive statistic available for rookie receivers. Even if we knew nothing else about Fuller beyond his pick, we would expect him to be a success based on where he was taken.

As the FF Engineer pointed out, some writers have responded to Fuller being taken earlier than they expected by lowering him in their rankings, which is exactly the opposite of what a rational person would do. If your league mates follow such rankings, you could get Fuller at a huge discount.

While I wouldn't bet on Fuller falling into the second round in a draft, it is likely that he'll be available late in the first round. I'd be happy to get Fuller at 1.09 if Boyd is already taken. (In one draft, I traded into both 1.08 and 1.09 and took Boyd and Fuller back-to-back.)

Tajae Sharpe, Titans

After the receivers mentioned above, the next tier of receivers per my model are Leonte Carroo, Pharoh Cooper, and Tajae Sharpe. Each has a success probability between 25% and 35%. Carroo is the highest at 35%, but he and Cooper are both being taken in the late first/early second round. Sharpe on the other hand is likely available in the late second/early third round. That represents significant value.

Cooper and Sharpe are both Day 3 draft picks with great college production, yet Sharpe is available much later than the Cooper. One reason for that may be the perceived lack of opportunity in a crowded receiver corps with Kendall Wright, Harry Douglas, Rishard Matthews, and Dorial Green-Beckham. To me, none of those first three are the clear WR1. Indeed, none of them is even a top 50 WR in John's rankings. Others (including John) are a bit higher on Green-Beckham. While he was a slightly better prospect after the draft than Sharpe, a different model that includes first year NFL production gives him only a 30% chance of success in the next three seasons, barely better than Sharpe's 27%. So I think there is opportunity here for Sharpe.

While 25-30% is still not great odds of success, that looks pretty good considering the price. No other receiver available in the late second/early third round will provide similar odds.

The 3.01 pick might be a good place to target Sharpe. If Sharpe is taken at that point, then Rashard Higgins is a reasonable backup option. I put Higgins's odds of success at 17% and, as mentioned above with Coleman, there will be opportunity in Cleveland.


As we discussed above, you can gain an advantage over your league mates when drafting receivers by focusing on where they were taken in the draft and college production and ignoring everything else. Let the others overreact to information about 40-times, drops, and age. It's reasonable to take opportunity at their landing spot into account, but only a bit — overreaction is the cardinal sin to avoid here.

The names above give you some key receivers to target at various points in the first round as well as one (Sharpe) later in rookie drafts. Overall, my preferred first round strategy is to trade back (or up) into the 1.09 spot and take either Boyd or Fuller. Likewise, if you need another receiver in the second round, I'd prefer to trade back to the end of the round and grab Sharpe instead. By trading back, you can pick up extra 2017 picks that are likely to be extremely valuable next year.

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1. This includes about 360 receivers drafted in the last 16 years.

2. These measures weigh misses differently: if I say the receiver has a 45% chances of success and he succeeds, that is still a miss (because it's below 50%) but it's close, whereas, if I say the receiver has a 5% chance of success and he succeeds, that is a miss that is not close — it's a bad miss that should be penalized more.

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