How to Manage Rookies in Best-Ball Drafts

Mar 11, 2020
How to Manage Rookies in Best-Ball Drafts

The sun is shining, birds are chirping, and men in their underwear are running 120 feet as fast as they can. Spring is in the air. With spring comes a new season of fantasy football. Not traditional leagues, of course—those drafts won’t take place until August. Best-ball season, on the other hand, is in full bloom. As we sit between the combine and the NFL Draft, it's a good idea to dig into exactly how rookie picks impact best-ball scoring, or rather, if they do impact scoring.

Below I’ll be breaking down rookies by position to find 2019 contributors, trending factors when considering rookies, and what options we have to bolster our score in this, the 2020 season.

Running Backs

2019 Rookie RB Fantasy Points
Player Team Weeks 1-8 PPR Weeks 9-17 PPR Total PPR Points 2019 ADP
Miles Sanders Eagles 85.8 130.9 216.7 5.11
Josh Jacobs Raiders 107.2 84.4 191.6 3.09
David Montgomery Bears 77.3 93.1 170.4 3.07
Devin Singletary Bills 44.0 103.9 147.9 7.12
Alexander Mattison Vikings 41.2 27.2 68.4 11.07
Benny Snell Jr. Steelers 14.2 43.7 57.9 N/A
Ryquell Armstead Jaguars 15.3 35.9 51.2 N/A
Justice Hill Ravens 12.7 36.8 49.5 11.01
Darwin Thompson Chiefs 3.1 29.0 32.1 8.02
Darrell Henderson Rams 19.6 2.8 22.4 8.09
Damien Harris Patriots 1.2 0.0 1.2 13.07
Dexter Williams Packers 0.2 0.9 1.1 N/A
Average 35.2 49.1 84.2
Increase, First Half to Second Half 40%

Last season saw four rookie running backs score 140+ points, which puts them right at the threshold of an RB3 in these 12-team best-ball leagues. Miles Sanders finished as the overall RB15 (RB29 ADP) and Devin Singletary finished as the overall RB33 (RB39 ADP), each returning great value, while David Montgomery returned adequate value as the RB24 (RB21 ADP) and Josh Jacobs (RB16 ADP) was well on his way to end the season as an RB1 before having shoulder issues that kept him out of games and relegated him to an RB21 season.

As recently discussed by 4for4’s very own Andrew Fleischer in his recent article on player win rates, Sanders wasn’t just a good rookie pick, he was a great pick-up in general. Amongst winning best-ball teams, Sanders was owned on 13.9% of FanBall teams (fourth-highest mark) and 14.6% of FFPC teams (fourth-highest). His 1,229 total yards on 62 targets were quite literally league-winning numbers.

Singletary was another first-year player that ended up contributing solid fantasy production despite being selected in the eighth or ninth rounds of best-ball drafts. After a hamstring pull forced him out of action in Weeks 3-6, he came back to the Bills and was eased back into the offense until he began logging 80% of snaps by Week 13. On a team that sported Frank Gore, LeSean McCoy and T.J. Yeldon as their running back depth chart in August, it was only a matter of time before Singletary saw the field.

A trend that we see with these top scorers, the position in general, and really offensive positions across all rookies is that fantasy scoring in the second half of the season outweighs fantasy scoring in the first half of the season. Running backs, in particular, have scored 20.3% more fantasy points between Weeks 9-17 than they have in Weeks 1-8 over a three-year span. Even if every single rookie in the study had a bye week in the first half of the season (they didn’t), that would only account for 6.25% of their overall scoring to be in the second half of the season, meaning no matter how you break it down, rookie running backs simply get more run in Weeks 9-17.

How To Use This Information For 2020

2020 Rookie Running Backs
Name College Fanball ADP FFPC ADP
D'Andre Swift Georgia 4.12 5.05
Jonathan Taylor Wisconsin 3.06 3.08
J.K. Dobbins Ohio State 5.10 5.12
Clyde Edwards-Helaire LSU 3.05 3.06
Cam Akers Florida State 5.11 5.02
Zack Moss Utah 9.08 9.07
Ke'Shawn Vaughn Vanderbilt 8.08 8.04
Eno Benjamin Arizona State 18.07 19.01
A.J. Dillon Boston College 13.07 14.01
Anthony McFarland Maryland 15.11 16.03

At this point in the offseason, you can see that the market is not very bullish on the young bucks, with only 10 rookie running backs being selected with any consistency in either Fanball or FFPC drafts. If you’re going to fall in love with any back this season, right now is the best time to do it. Nearly every single one of these players’ average draft position will jump by leaps and bounds once an NFL team is associated with their name.

The two names up top —D’Andre Swift and Jonathan Taylor—are clear buys at their current ADPs, as they are much more likely to be late second/early third-round picks by this summer than they are to finish in the fourth and fifth rounds, even in FFPC where the TE premium scoring pushes back the price of all other skill positions. Even if you aren’t sure they will be drafted and slotted into a lead-back role right away, it’s a good idea to pad your best-ball portfolio with players who are assuredly going to cost your opponents more to obtain in July than it costs you to obtain right now. Get your exposure to names at the lowest possible price and accrue value.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire is an intriguing value here where his passing game prowess and elite explosiveness could translate to some big games, even though he is likely relegated to a Gio Bernard/Duke Johnson type role in the NFL. These are the types of players that are agonizing to own shares of in redraft and dynasty leagues, but are a pleasure in best-ball where you don’t have to predict when the big weeks will come.

In all, current 2020 rookie running back ADP isn’t much different from how 2019’s ADP wrapped up, with a couple of guys being a sure bet to take over as a lead-back eventually (think Miles Sanders, Josh Jacobs) and a large group likely looking to pick up scraps and work their way into an offense by season’s end. Your best bet is to pair these rookies with veterans, even the boring two-down backs, so they can help fill-in scoring towards the front half of the season when rookies are historically subpar. Think guys like Todd Gurley, Ronald Jones or Sony Michel. These are not sexy names anymore, but they can help bridge the gap until your rookies start producing.

Wide Receivers

2019 Rookie WR Fantasy Points
Player Team Weeks 1-8 PPR Weeks 9-17 PPR Total PPR Points 2019 ADP
A.J. Brown Titans 74.6 142.5 217.1 21.06
Terry McLaurin Redskins 103.8 88.1 191.9 23.02
Deebo Samuel 49ers 52.5 136.7 189.2 15.08
DK Metcalf Seahawks 85.6 99.5 185.1 13.05
Diontae Johnson Steelers 71.2 85.9 157.1 N/A
Marquise Brown Ravens 71.6 74.8 146.4 16.06
Mecole Hardman Chiefs 79.5 34.0 113.5 13.01
Kelvin Harmon Redskins 13.9 53.0 66.9 N/A
Miles Boykin Ravens 34.1 16.7 50.8 18.07
KeeSean Johnson Cardinals 32.4 11.6 44.0 20.01
N'Keal Harry Patriots 0.0 39.4 39.4 16.07
Parris Campbell Colts 20.9 17.2 38.1 16.1
J.J. Arcega-Whiteside Eagles 3.4 29.5 32.9 19.07
Riley Ridley Bears 0.0 12.9 12.9 N/A
Andy Isabella Cardinals 0.0 0.0 0.0 18.04
Hakeem Butler Cardinals 0.0 0.0 0.0 N/A
Average 40.2 52.6 92.8
Increase, First Half to Second Half 31%

Six wide receivers bested the 140-point threshold in 2019, finishing as a WR4 or better. In a fascinating development, exactly zero of these players were drafted before the start of the 13th round in best-ball. Perceived bad offenses (A.J. Brown, Titans), limited route trees (D.K. Metcalf), or questions about the quarterback’s ability to get the ball down the field (Marquise Brown) all littered the reasons we avoided these rookies until well into the double-digit rounds last season.

Deebo Samuel led the way for rookie wide receivers contributing to winning best-ball teams, landing on 11.8% of winning FanBall teams (12th-highest mark) and 13.4% of FFPC teams (fifth-highest mark). Kyle Shannahan used the versatility of Deebo throughout the year, lining him up all over the field, as an in-line tight end, in the backfield—everywhere. That adaptability eventually paid off, as his last eight games saw him accumulate 697 total yards on 44 touches and a couple of scores. Drafters with the foresight to see Deebo Samuel as a possible upside piece in one of the most creative offenses in the league were rewarded handsomely.

First-year wide receivers, as a whole, saw an increase of 31% in fantasy scoring in Weeks 9-17 from Weeks 1-8. This is actually much less than the three-year historical difference of 57%. As we’ve seen with running backs switching teams or being signed as a free agent and immediately contributing, (see: Kenyan Drake with the Cardinals or LeSean McCoy with the Chiefs in 2019, C.J. Anderson with the Rams in 2018) there are only so many blocking schemes in the football world and the B-gap in the SEC is the same B-gap on Lambeau Field. In contrast, wide receivers—even veterans—can have a hard time assimilating to new verbiage, option routes, and different competition at the pro level. It makes sense that a majority of rookie WRs take a moment to get their feet under them before they can contribute in a meaningful way to our fantasy teams.

How To Use This Information For 2020

2020 Rookie Wide Receivers
Name College Fanball ADP FFPC ADP
Jerry Jeudy Alabama 9.06 11.08
CeeDee Lamb Oklahoma 9.07 10.12
Jalen Reagor TCU 12.04 13.02
Tee Higgins Clemson 17.01 18.03
Henry Ruggs Alabama 11.05 12.04
Laviska Shenault Colorado 16.10 17.11
Justin Jefferson LSU 12.12 14.09
Tyler Johnson Minnesota N/A N/A
KJ Hamler Penn State 19.12 22.09
Brandon Aiyuk Arizona State 17.03 15.05

So much of a wide receiver’s rookie value will be dependent on his landing spot after the draft, but as we mentioned with the running back position, as soon as these guys officially become professionals, all of these ADPs are going to jump, some of them multiple rounds. If we’re able to identify some outliers now, it will continue to pad our portfolio with value.

Considering the above, the name that sticks out to me here is Jalen Reagor out of TCU, especially in FFPC, where his 13.02 ADP ranks him sixth out of the 10 rookie wideouts currently being drafted. Reagor is a dynamic player with explosive play ability who nearly broke the NFL Combine with a 42” vertical jump and an 11’ broad jump—both of which put him in the 99th-percentile. That is not a typo, you can check the source. Pair that with a breakout age of 18.7 (95th-percentile) and you have the makings of a polished route runner who could become an immediate deep threat at the next level. A possibility that should leave best-ball owners salivating, especially at this price.

At this position more than any other, the learning curve is likely going to prove frustrating for owners with shares of rookie wide receivers. You can’t go into your drafts planning on consistent WR2 or WR3 numbers from first-year players, no matter how much you like their draft profile and/or landing spot.

Once we know where these players will be calling home, the best way to go about aiming for their upside is to stack them with quarterbacks you already have. Make stacking a tiebreaker between late-round rookies you have ranked closely. If the stars align, you’ll have a wide receiver who sees snaps from week one, playing for your quarterback who you drafted for his top-five upside.

Tight Ends

2019 Rookie TE Fantasy Points
Player Team Weeks 1-8 PPR Weeks 9-17 PPR Total PPR Points 2019 ADP
Noah Fant Broncos 42.0 69.0 111.0 16.04
T.J. Hockenson Lions 55.0 25.7 80.7 13.03
Dawson Knox Bills 36.7 43.0 79.7 N/A
Irv Smith Jr. Vikings 32.4 46.7 79.1 21.03
Jace Sternberger Packers 0.0 0.0 0.0 N/A
Average 33.2 36.9 70.1
Increase, First Half to Second Half 11%

It has long been a maxim of the position that because tight ends are half offensive lineman, half receiver, it takes prospects longer to become an impact player in either realm. This is never truer than in fantasy where usable weeks from a rookie tight end feel heaven-sent. While we saw glimpses of what may turn out to be an impressive 2019 class of tight ends, the fact remains that the highest scorer of the group was Noah Fant, who finished as the overall TE14 and hit double-digit PPR points just three times. Those aren’t the types of numbers we’re looking for in best-ball.

Unlike the running back and wide receiver positions, tight ends are able to see the field consistently (albeit often consistently little) throughout the season, as evidenced by their minuscule 9% increase in fantasy scoring from the first half to the second half over the last three years. Instead, their improvements seem to grow year-to-year, making disappointing sophomores a better target than players assimilating to the position out of college.

That being said, there was one player who popped up on 8.1% of winning Fanball lineups with a site ADP of 14.08: T.J. Hockenson. It was clear the Detroit Lions had plans to use Hockenson as a major offensive piece from the start, as evidenced by the first-round (eighth overall pick) draft capital they spent on him. You almost have to wonder if this pick being so popular among winning teams was just happenstance, or if it simply meant that teams were smartly waiting on tight end and loading up on more important positions in the single-digit rounds. Hockenson scored 31% (25.1 PPR points) of his season’s total fantasy points in Week 1 and broke double-digit points in just one more game. It’s hard to believe that those kinds of numbers alone propelled his owners to championships.

How To Use This Information For 2020

2020 Rookie Tight Ends
Name College Fanball ADP FFPC ADP
Adam Trautman Dayton N/A 27.05
Cole Kmet Notre Dame N/A 25.06
Brycen Hopkins Purdue N/A N/A
Hunter Bryant Washington N/A N/A

This tight end section isn't a ringing endorsement of selecting rookies at the position, and that’s likely the correct path. No current prospect is being selected before the last four rounds of drafts, and although that will absolutely change when we know where they go, it’s very tough to know if these players are going to be 15% snap guys or 60% snap guys in their first season.

It’s hard to nitpick a 25th-round draft choice but there are not many signs pointing to Cole Kmet being a fantasy option in 2020. He is best left to dynasty drafts where owners can afford the patience to wait on a player who had only received 17 targets in the two seasons prior to 2019. If looking for a “what-the-hell” late-round pick to give your fantasy tight end room some insurance, choose unpolished but much more athletic Adam Trautman, who ranked third among draft-eligible tight ends with 2.71 yards per route run last year, while playing for the University of Dayton.

Quarterbacks

2019 Rookie QB Fantasy Points
Player Team Weeks 1-8 PPR Weeks 9-17 PPR Total PPR Points 2019 ADP
Kyler Murray Cardinals 141.4 139.9 281.3 9.08
Gardner Minshew Jaguars 137.1 90.1 227.2 N/A
Daniel Jones Giants 98.0 114.9 213.0 20.11
Dwayne Haskins Redskins 0.0 76.7 76.7 20.02
Average 94.1 105.4 199.6
Increase, First Half to Second Half 12%

As the most important piece of the puzzle when it comes to “real” team success, rookie quarterbacks typically get the most fanfare of any position; be it offensive or otherwise. For that reason, the success (or lack thereof) is the easiest position to track. The vast majority of football fans know that Kyler Murray was implementing Kliff Kingsbury’s new offense with the Cardinals, Daniel Jones usurped longtime starter Eli Manning in New York and Dwayne Haskins wasn’t given a shot in the offense until deep into the season.

With the quarterback position being the easiest to project in terms of usage, it should come as no surprise that Murray was the only reasonable option during fantasy drafts—he was the only one without any roadblocks in his way. No matter how much you may have loved Daniel Jones or hated Eli Manning, it would have been a waste of a pick to select either QB with the conviction that they would be the full year’s starter.

Those with trust in Kyler and Kingsbury were rewarded, as 10.1% of the teams that owned Murray went on to win their league in Fanball, the seventh-highest mark at the position.

Considering rookie quarterbacks typically end up winning the job from someone else, and rarely the other way around (yes, I remember DeShone Kizer), it’s very rare that a group of rookie signal-callers will ever score more as a whole in the first half of the season than the second half of the season. This could have something to do with more complex offensive gameplans as the season progresses but it would be very difficult to impossible to parse out that effect on fantasy points.

How To Use This Information For 2020

2020 Rookie Quarterbacks
Name College Fanball ADP FFPC ADP
Joe Burrow LSU 12.02 11.12
Tua Tagovailoa Alabama 19.04 16.12
Justin Herbert Oregon N/A 25.02
Jordan Love Utah State N/A N/A

If we could ever get confirmation that A.J. Green will actually play in Cincinnati next season, that would pack the cabinets for Joe Burrow to cook up an impactful rookie campaign with the likes of Tyler Boyd, John Ross, Auden Tate, Joe Mixon, and Green. AJG returning to the Bengals would make Burrow a bargain at his 12th-round price. It’s well worth the speculation.

After the NFL Draft saw most of the quarterback pieces fall into unfavorable landing spots, only Tua Tagovailoa is intriguing for this season. He will undoubtedly be behind Ryan Fitzpatrick for upwards of eight weeks, so he should likely only be selected when you are attempting to escape bye-week purgatory.

Bottom Line

Entirely ignoring rookie targets from your best-ball portfolio is not a good idea, even though I’m sure you’ve heard of people avoiding them altogether with varying degrees of success. Setting parameters around yourself before a draft even begins is a great way to limit your upside in the long run. Rather, know that rookies typically surge in the second half of the season and can still be league-winners without early-season production. Balance your rookie picks with these tactics:

  • Pair rookie running backs with unsexy bridge players like Todd Gurley, Ronald Jones or Sony Michel.
  • Stack late-round rookie wide receivers with quarterbacks you already have on your roster.
  • Restrict your rookie tight end ownership to roster fillers at the end of FFPC drafts.
  • Outside of Joe Burrow, it's not worth taking a rookie quarterback before we are assured of a starting position well past the NFL Draft.
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