Forecasting 2017 NFL Rookie Wide Receiver Success: 3-Year Model

Forecasting 2017 NFL Rookie Wide Receiver Success: 3-Year Model

By Kevin Zatloukal (4for4 Contributor), last update Aug 14, 2017

Kevin Zatloukal's picture

Kevin is a Ph.D. computer scientist. His doctoral work at MIT was focused on quantum algorithms. During the fantasy offseason, he teaches computer science at the University of Washington, his alma mater.

Follow Kevin Zatloukal on Twitter: @kczat.

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 2017 season.

For readers in standard (redraft) leagues, we can keep this short: none of these rookies are likely to be important during your 2017 draft.

Click Here to Read Forecasting 2017 Rookie Running Backs

Per John's rankings, only Corey Davis (WR53) and John Ross (WR62) have an outside chance of being fantasy-relevant this year, and even those two are going far too early in the draft. Corey Davis is being drafted before Cameron Meredith, for example, who we have projected 20 spots higher (WR32). Similarly, John Ross is being drafted before Quincy Enunwa, who is also projected 20 spots higher (WR40).

Readers in dynasty or keeper leagues, on the other hand, need to consider the prospects for these receivers not only in 2017, but also in future years. Furthermore, such leagues often have rookie-only drafts, where fantasy managers are forced to pick rookies rather than cheaper veterans like those mentioned above.

Corey Davis looks like the "can't miss" prospect in this year's rookie receiver class, but he is priced as such in all formats (i.e., too high). Below, we will take a look at some of the key rookie receivers to target based on their low price relative to their odds of future success. As we will see, there other receivers that match Davis in some highly predictive statistics but are available at a fraction of the cost.

By the way, if you’re in a dynasty league, you should definitely check out all the content from our friends over at Dynasty League Football. They have much more information on all of the rookies I talk about below.

Forecasting Wide Receiver Success

Last year, I built a statistical model that predicted the odds of a rookie receiver having a top-36 season in one of their first three years in the NFL. That model needed only draft position and career market share of team yards from scrimmage in order to achieve high accuracy over past seasons.

This year, I've added a more sophisticated machine learning (ML) model (specifically, a support vector machine model). Combining different models with similar individual accuracy typically leads to more accurate forecasts due to a wisdom-of-crowds effect. All odds I give below are a weighted average of these two different models.

WRs To Target (2017 NFL Draft)
Draft Pos Player Team Success Odds
3.08 Kenny Golladay DET 65%
2.05 Zay Jones BUF 61%
2.11 Cooper Kupp LAR 56%
2.12 ? ? 46%
3.09 ? ? 32%

Kenny Golladay, Lions

Golladay is the top bargain on my list. His overall ranking by the two models mentioned above is second overall, behind only Corey Davis, yet he is typically available in the third round of rookie drafts.

Golladay's career market share of team receiving yards was an astonishing 41 percent, topping even that of Davis. His career market share of team yards from scrimmage was only slightly behind Davis's. Golladay was taken in the third round of the NFL draft, making him the twelfth receiver off the board, but that was still good enough for the statistical model to give him a 56 percent chance of success. Golladay is loved even more by the ML model, finishing with the highest score of the group, at an 83 percent chance of success.

As the presumptive third receiver on the Lions' depth chart, Golladay should see targets this year. At 6-foot-4 and 218 pounds, he has the requisite size of a No. 1 receiver, and his 84th percentile SPARQ score suggests he has the athleticism as well. As we saw early last season, the Lions would like to have an offense that throws downfield more, rather than living off of short passes to Golden Tate. If Golladay can demonstrate that he can succeed on the outside, he has high upside in the Lions offense that passes more than most NFL teams.

Zay Jones, Bills

In one respect, Jones has the best opportunity of any of the rookie receivers: he currently sits second on the receiver depth chart of his team. That may change if Anquan Boldin signs with Bills, but Boldin is 37 years old and (at this point) a possession receiver. Jones should still have considerable opportunity.

Of course, Jones is still behind Sammy Watkins, a supremely talented receiver. However, the Bills declined the fifth-year option on Watkins's contract, creating a strong possibility that he will not be in Buffalo next year. Plus, Watkins's inability to stay on the field means that even if he is signed, Jones could still end up being the No. 1 receiver for a good portion of the season.

Jones is the most expensive of the targets discussed here, but he checks all the boxes. He is just 22 years old. He was taken 37th overall in the NFL draft. He has good size at 6-foot-2 and 201 pounds, and great athleticism, with an 88th percentile SPARQ score. He also scores well in both the statistical and ML models, receiving a 66 percent chance of success from both.

While Jones doesn't seem to be getting a huge amount of hype, I like him as a safe investment with a strong chance of being fantasy relevant in the near future.

Cooper Kupp, Rams 

Cooper Kupp is likely the most polarizing player on this list. On the positive side, he holds the record for career receiving yards across all levels of college football. On the negative side, he's old and "slow."

While there is no question that, at 24, Kupp is old for an NFL rookie, the usual concern about old NFL rookies is that their college production was boosted by being older than their competition. That does not seem like a reasonable complaint about Kupp, though, given that he dominated at a young age. After redshirting, Kupp broke the FCS record for receiving yards by a freshman receiver with 1,691. At 20 years old, Kupp was already a dominant college receiver. He simply stayed in college longer than average (five years total including his redshirt year). While that does mean Kupp has fewer years to be productive in the NFL, it does not suggest to me that he is unlikely to be successful.

Given that Kupp put in a record-breaking performance as a freshman, it will come as no surprise that his career market share numbers are off the charts. In fact, he comes in at top overall in this receiver class, ahead of Davis. Taken in the third round of the NFL draft, Kupp ends up with a 72 percent chance of success, according to the statistical model, which ranks him second behind Davis. The ML model is less impressed, giving him only a 25 percent chance of success, but the combined model gives Kupp a 56 percent chance of success, which is the fourth-highest of this class.

Kupp is considered "slow" because of his 4.62 40-yard dash. In reality, he is an elite athlete. To see why, let's compare him to Christian McCaffrey, whose elite agility left scouts drooling at the combine. McCaffrey's 10-yard split was 1.55 seconds; Kupp's, at his pro day, was 1.57. McCaffrey's 20-yard short shuttle took 4.22 seconds; Kupp's took only 4.12. McCaffrey's most impressive drill was the 3-cone, which he completed in an incredible 6.57 seconds. Kupp did it in 6.53 seconds.

Kupp is an elite athlete for 10–20 yards. After that, he is average or below average for an NFL receiver. That said, the vast majority of receiver routes are 15 yards or less. Furthermore, Kupp will be mainly playing out of the slot, where his average depth of target should be even shorter—well within his zone of elite athleticism.

Despite a proclivity for running routes out of the slot, it is worth noting that Kupp is not a small receiver. At 6-foot-2 and 204 pounds, he is the same size as Zay Jones.

From my perspective, the only negative for Kupp is his landing spot on the sputtering Rams offense. That said, despite Jared Goff's poor performance thus far, his low average depth of target actually favors Kupp. Unfortunately, Kupp will also be competing with Tavon Austin for those short targets. However, if Kupp is the great receiver he appears to be, then he could see the lion's share of those targets, resulting in a high target volume and a surprisingly short path to fantasy relevance.

Continue reading for two more WRs, which are available a round later and are better values...

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