Drafting Rookies Smart Investments

Is Drafting a Rookie an Intelligent Fantasy Football Investment?

The rookie draft is perhaps the most exciting portion of the offseason for your long-running dynasty fantasy football leagues. However, managing how rookies fit into the puzzle can be tricky. The curiosity prompts the question: Is drafting a rookie a smart investment, or should you trade it for a veteran?

2022 was an interesting season for rookies. We saw great performances from Kenneth Walker III, Chris Olave, and Garrett Wilson. Breece Hall looked like the Offensive Rookie of the Year favorite before he ruptured his ACL, and many other players showed promise while also looking like rookies

Drake London, Treylon Burks, and George Pickens were key pieces to their offense. Then you have Skyy Moore, Jalen Tolbert, and others who sometimes looked lost. Some might know where they value these players, but finding a universal value could be critical to winning leagues.

Framing the Question

To start, I pulled up the DLF ADP tool for superflex dynasty leagues and started looking at average draft positions (ADPs). I decided to look at each player’s ADP in May, when rookie drafts typically happen, and in December, when fantasy leagues are wrapping up. 

DLF charts about 60 rookie players ADP each year. Over the past four years, the data gives us a sample size of 232 players. Compiling the ADP while laying out the fantasy points scored began to tell the story of fluctuating player values.

What does the data look like?

The 232 rookies were grouped by position to see if each position’s ADP behaved the same. I decided to filter out the players that did not have an ADP in May or December rather than assign them an arbitrary value (sorry, James Robinson and Brock Purdy). The filter reduced the number of players being analyzed to 162 — still a good sample size. Looking at the group, I ran some correlation calculations to see if anything stood out.

The correlation matrix (above) shows how much each data point impacts the other. The bright green and red cells have values close to 1 or -1. This means the variables influence each other very strongly, either positively (green) or negatively (red). You can ignore the 1 values because it indicates each value has a perfect correlation when compared to itself. The closer the value is to 0 (white), the less impact each variable has on the others.

The chart showed draft capital and fantasy points scored had very little correlation to the change in ADP or positional ADP that each player experienced.

It also showed there was very little correlation between the May ADP and December ADP. While I was hoping that some numbers would jump off the screen to give me an obvious answer to my question, none did. Since I was most interested in how rookies’ values changed, I decided to focus on the positional ADP change to look for answers. The most obvious thing to do was plot it against the average fantasy points per game scored.

In the plot above and the ones to follow, the positional ADP change will be on the vertical y-axis, and the fantasy points per game each player scored will be on the horizontal x-axis. A trend line will accompany the displayed data to show how the rookie’s positional ADP will change as their fantasy points per game change. Pay special attention to where the trend line crosses the x-axis. This shows how many points per game a rookie is expected to score in order to not lose value.

You can thank Preston Williams, Hunter Renfrow, Isiah Pacheco, Elijah Mitchell, Terry McLaurin, and Chase Claypool for the crazy outliers in the data. While there isn’t a great correlation in the data, there definitely is a trend. As expected, rookies who score more fantasy points see an increase in value. The trendline shows for the average rookie to not lose value, he needs to score over three fantasy points per game. Point for rookies being safe investments. A closer look shows many rookies scored fewer than three points per game and gained value. Simultaneously, many who scored more than three points per game lost value. 

The initial look produced more questions. Why are some rookies losing value even if they are scoring more fantasy points? Why would drafting some weaker rookies gain value even if they don’t perform well? 

Drafting Rookie Quarterbacks

Aside from tight end, quarterbacks had the fewest rookies in the data (25). I ran a correlation calculation to see if there were any apparent findings, and, just like with the overall data, there was nothing that jumped out. Similarly, I plotted positional ADP change against fantasy points per game.

The first thing that jumped out was there appeared to be more quarterbacks who gained value than lost it. 13 quarterbacks gained value and five more neither gained nor lost it. That is a whopping 72-percent. A great point for rookies being good fantasy football investments. 

Another fascinating point is only three players had a fall of more than three spots in positional ADP (Kellen Mond, Sam Howell, and Matt Corral). None of those quarterbacks were first-round selections and only one saw the field for any action during their rookie season—Sam Howell in Week 18. The first-round selections who fell in ADP averaged around 11 PPG (Trey Lance, Justin Fields, and Zach Wilson). Overall, this showed drafting rookie quarterbacks is an extremely safe fantasy football investment.

Drafting Rookie Running Backs

Of the 56 running backs analyzed, Isiah Pacheco saw the biggest value increase, jumping 54 spots. Also, poor Ke’Shawn Vaughn and his fall from grace of 32 spots during his rookie season. The running back data was much more jumbled than the quarterback data. 


While there are still more running backs who gained value during their rookie seasons than lost it, there are far more running backs who lost value. It also looks like the running backs who produced great seasons for fantasy football were not immune to losing value. A closer dive into the data shows this is not necessarily the case. 

Johnathan Taylor averaged 16 fantasy points per game during his rookie season and finished the year as the RB15, according to ADP. People were turned away by the strength of schedule for his opponents to end the season. He was, still, in the same tier of running backs that he was drafted into in May. 

In fact, out of the 56 analyzed running backs, 36 finished with a higher ADP, and 11 others only saw a positional ADP slide of five or fewer spots. Every running back who averaged more than four fantasy points per game saw a stable to rising ADP, no matter the draft capital.

The generated trend line from the data shows running backs who averaged over one fantasy point per game should see an increase in positional ADP.

Just like with quarterbacks, draft capital did shield running backs who underperformed. However, the running back had to have top two-round draft capital. Every running back with top two round draft capital saw at least a stable positional ADP change no matter their production. AJ Dillion averaged less than four points per game and dropped only six spots in positional ADP. Draft capital did help injured running backs. Drafting Travis Etienne proved to be a solid choice, as he did not see a steep drop in value even though he missed all his rookie season, and Breece Hall did not see a drop after he tore his ACL midway through the season. 

Poor outings affected Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Trey Sermon, Tyrion Davis-Price, and Darrynton Evans as they all had third-round draft capital. This rang true for running backs with round four and later draft capital, too. Every running back with top two round draft capital saw at least a stable positional ADP change no matter their production. AJ Dillion averaged less than four points per game and dropped only six spots in positional ADP. Draft capital did help injured running backs. Travis Etienne did not see a steep drop in value even though he missed all his rookie season, and Breece Hall did not see a drop after he tore his ACL midway through the season. 

There was a very apparent threshold for running backs not drafted in the first two rounds to gain value. Every running back averaging more than three points per game earned value (except for Sermon). Any running back with a path to a workload should see an increase in value. This showed that running backs (especially those with top two-round draft capital) are also safe fantasy football investments.

Drafting Rookie Wide Receivers

Rookie wide receivers gave us the most data to look at, with 65 rookies over the past four years. Amari Rodgers saw the most significant loss in positional ADP value, while Preston Williams saw the biggest gain. The initial trends were apparent: rookie wide receivers who performed poorly saw a drop in ADP, and those who did well saw a jump. The data looked nice in comparison to its linear trend line, too.

Drafting a rookie wide receiver

Rookie wide receivers saw 38 out of the 65 players analyzed to have a gain in positional ADP value and another ten players who only lost five or fewer spots of ADP. Every wide receiver who scored fewer than four fantasy points per game except for one, Jalen Hurd, lost ADP value.

The trend line for the data saw wide receivers needing to average at least five fantasy points per game before they saw a jump in ADP value. 

Draft capital did not shield rookie wide receivers. Jameson Williams did not see many meaningful snaps during his rookie season as he returned from injury, but his first-round draft capital was not enough to protect from even a mini slide. Due to an increase in expectations, wide receivers with draft capital in the first two rounds needed to score more than six fantasy points per game to see an increase in positional ADP value.

Positional Changes

I decided to look at the wide receivers with an ADP in May higher than 36. Wide receivers expected to contribute immediately to your fantasy teams had a greater impact on their ADP based on performance. Even rookie wide receivers who performed better than average could see a drop in positional ADP if their performance was not on par with what fantasy managers were expecting when drafting. Sleeper projected Drake London to hit 219 fantasy points. After failing to hit double digits in eight of nine consecutive weeks, he fell 39 points short of the projection. As a result, he saw a drop in positional ADP. 

All but two receivers (Treylon Burks and Denzel Mims) who averaged under ten fantasy points per game saw a drop in positional ADP value. Burks, Mims, and Jameson Williams are the wide receivers who finished above the trend line and had under ten fantasy points per game. The only thing that sets these players apart from the rest of those who lost ADP value is these players received a lot of hype before the draft for being athletic freaks. As testing occurred, Burks did not live up to the hype, but, for more casual players, the athletic freak tag remained.

Drafting rookie wide receivers showed to be generally safe fantasy football investment. The higher the initial May ADP, the more the rookie wide receiver’s value depends on performance. When in doubt, the rookie wide receiver with more “potential” (or athletic upside) was usually a safer investment to retain value if underperforming.

Drafting Rookie Tight Ends

Rookie tight ends were the smallest dataset analyzed, drafting only 16 players over the past four seasons. Greg Dulcich experienced the largest value gain by jumping up 23 spots in positional ADP. Jelani Woods saw the largest fall in positional ADP with a loss of eight spots. Gathering any real insights with the limited number of rookies was tough. However, there was an obvious trend from the tight ends. 

Drafting a rookie tight end

Every tight end drafted in the top 24 as a rookie in May lost value after drafting, except one (Kyle Pitts). Every tight end drafted outside the top 24 gained value, except one (Devin Asiasi). This equated to 56.25-percent of the tight ends gained value, regardless of points scored. The only true correlation was the expectations coming into the season. 

The common thought for tight ends coming into the league is that the position takes the longest to adjust. Those rookies who experience any sort of expectation for contributing to fantasy teams seem to take the brunt of the disappointment when that rings true. If you are interested in rostering a rookie tight end, look for those not expected to contribute immediately.

Application for Drafting in the 2023 Rookie Class

With rookie right around the corner, it is important to note how to apply the research to this year’s draft class. I will use DLF’s 2023 rookie rankings as a proxy for ADP data.

2023 Rookie Quarterbacks

There are projected to be four quarterbacks drafted in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft: Bryce Young, CJ Stroud, Will Levis, and Anthony Richardson. Success is not guaranteed for any rookie, but all should be safe investments to gain or maintain value. This time last year, Zach Wilson was going for a first round rookie pick. 

While it is debatable whether the rookies coming in are better prospects, their value is insulated. Don’t expect any of the rookie quarterbacks to drop below a 2024 first.

Hendon Hooker is the most prominent name after the first four are off the board. Without the ability to see the field due to his torn ACL, it will be tough for him to see an increase in value. If the medical reports come back positive for him to be ready for the 2023 NFL season, and he lands in a position that allows for him to see the field during his rookie season, then he will be worth a late round rookie pick. Every QB that did not see first-round draft capital and saw playing time gained value after their rookie season.  Any quarterback without top three round draft capital should not be considered.

2023 Rookie Running Backs

By the time the season rolls around, Bijan Robinson will be the top rookie, if not the RB1 overall. If he is the RB1, expect him to fall from that spot but stay in tier one regardless of how his rookie season goes. If the other running backs in the class can see the field, chances are they will see an increase in value. Jahmyr Gibbs poses the most risk of not seeing a value increase due to his perceived future role (see James Cook). Gibbs appears to be a better prospect, but the sooner he can solidify this workload, the better. 

Zach Evans, Zach Charbonnet, Sean Tucker, Tank Bigsby, Devon Achane, and Kendre Miller represent the best chance of having Day 2 draft capital. Landing spots will be important for them, but all should be viewed as good investments for next season and worth their draft pick. This is especially true for those who slip into the second round of rookie drafts. Achane carries the biggest risk unless he proves capable of being on the field for large portions of the game. A steady diet of passing down work will be his best chance to pay dividends later. 

The later rounds should present plenty of running backs with paths to a workload. Israel Abanikanda, Roschon Johnson, Tyjae Spears, and Eric Gray should be able to solidify a spot in whatever running back room they are drafted into. Landing spots will be essential, though. No opportunity means no value at the running back position.

2023 Rookie Wide Receivers

Out of the wide receivers expected to be in the top 36, Quentin Johnston is perhaps the safest pick. His prototypical size will shield him if his production is inconsistent with his draft selection. I am not saying he is the best wide receiver in the class. However, he is likely to retain value throughout his rookie season. Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Jordan Addison carry the same amount of risk, and you should be drafting whichever one you believe to be the better prospect. Zay Flower’s size immediately makes him the riskiest pick out of the top four wide receivers. If you aren’t sold on his potential, trading that pick makes the most sense.

Outside of the top four, look for wide receivers who present the best opportunity for early production or paths to assigned roles. Cedric Tillman and Jalin Hyatt each have compelling arguments for being safe picks because of their experience (Tillman) and perceived assigned role (Hyatt). Kayshon Boutte should see no problem establishing an early role due to his YAC ability.

2023 Rookie Tight Ends

Michael Mayer and Dalton Kincaid appear to have separated themselves from the rest of the rookie class at tight end, but they are not a safe investment. They do not carry the same profile or excitement that Kyle Pitts had during his rookie season. They may be a better option to pick up mid-way through the season after a slow start. Luke Musgrave, Sam LaPorta, Zack Kuntz, and Darnell Washington are intriguing options late in rookie drafts or on the waiver wire after the draft. Each should be facing lower expectations than the top options and have the receiving and athletic profile to win you a fantasy championship if given the routes. 

What’s the Big Picture?

Looking at the past four years of player data, rookies are generally safe investments. They must meet meager fantasy points per game thresholds to gain value. There are ways of picking out the better investment: 

  • Look for quarterbacks with first round draft capital. It is extremely tough for them to lose a tier worth of value. 
  • Rookie running backs need a role in order to gain value. The higher the ADP for them, the tougher it is for them to gain value. 
  • Rookie wide receivers need to produce to gain value. Those with prototypical size and athleticism have a safer chance of maintaining value when they are not producing. 
  • Lastly, rookie tight ends with any expectations are bad investments. Those without will almost always gain value.

To find more content regarding rookie landing spots, follow @TheCuteHurts on Twitter.

Check out more articles from Fantasy Intervention here.

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