The Rookie draft is the Super Bowl for dynasty leaguers. All that time watching film, calibrating your spread sheets, and bickering with your league-mates leads up to this moment.
Sharp players know far more goes into a successful rookie draft than evaluating players. To make the most of it, you need to be dialled in not just on the players – but the market. This two-part cheat-sheet walks you through the players to target in each tier, and the types of trades to explore.
As Sonny Weaver Jr. immortalized, “every year someone comes out of this looking like a donkey. Tomorrow I got a feeling it could be you (if you don’t keep reading)…”
(i) This guide is for a super-flex rookie draft. In standard formats, move the quarterbacks down per your rankings and re-tier as needed. I focused my analysis on the skill position players to keep the guide universal.
(iii) Statistics unless otherwise specified are sourced from PlayerProfiler.com.
Tier 1: The Blue Chippers
At each tier in the draft I’ll present the best value target, the biggest fade, and the optimal strategy.
Best Value: Ja’Marr Chase – WR – (CIN)
You’re not pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes: these folks are studs. But the best value pick is the one going last. If you’re set at quarterback, trade back to 1.05/ 1.06 and scoop up a building block wide receiver: Ja’Marr Chase.
Wide receivers with the age-adjusted production of Chase – 1780 yards as a sophomore – are virtual locks to succeed. Chase becomes just the sixth wideout since 2003 to be selected in the top five as an early declare, who broke out younger than 20, or as a freshman, and have a dominator rating (percentage of receiving yards and touchdowns) above 30-percent. On top of this, he brings elite athleticism and sufficient size.
Wide receiver production is more replaceable than running back. But Chase will be an exception if able to put up perennial WR1 seasons. At worst, you’re likely getting a high-end WR2 in the mid first.
You should fade: Najee Harris – RB – (PIT)
I think Harris is a very good running back who is walking into immediate volume with the Steelers. So why the fade? Of the three non-quarterbacks in this tier, Harris is the most flawed prospect. He’s an over-aged senior declare with no athletic testing who did not have meaningful production until junior year. Does this mean he’s bad? No. But there is a reason he did not declare in 2020, a class that featured a handful of rushers with superior profiles.
Selecting Harris over Chase is too risky, especially with Harris rushing behind one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL. Take the elite stud. If you need a running back, don’t reach for Harris. Instead, trade back for Travis Etienne or Javonte Williams – both of whom have more complete profiles – or move the pick for a veteran.
Best Strategy: Let others choose for you
My favourite spot in rookie drafts is 1.05, to secure an elite stud at the most cost-effective value. If you can, position yourself with trades pre-draft to rid yourself of positional need. If you come into your draft with flexibility, you can take whatever value falls, or consider a trade back from the 1.02 / 1.03. You may be able to land a 2022 or 2023 first rounder from a quarterback needy team to move back just a couple spots. I have also seen Atlanta Tight End Kyle Pitts go as highly as the 1.01 in all formats. Pitts is an elite prospect, but do not do this. Instead, help others make this thin bet via trade. 2021 is a top heavy draft, so I grant permission to part with a late second to close a good deal.
Tier 2: Positional Scarcity vs. Stud Wide Receivers
I’m including Baltimore’s Rashod Bateman in round one because he’s just as worthy as his fellow tier two wide receivers.
Best Value: Travis Etienne – RB – (JAC)
Step 1: Etienne rushes for 1658 yards and 26 touchdowns in the ACC at 19
Step 2: Etienne becomes a high-end pass game weapon totalling 48 catches in a 12 game senior year
Step 3: Etienne is drafted first round, paired with his college quarterback and a spread offence coach who pledges to use him as both a running back and receiver in year one
Step 4: The dynasty community fades Etienne because they got emotionally attached to an un-drafted free agent
Etienne hits every meaningful athletic and size threshold, and projects as the pass-catching running back we covet in fantasy football. His only competition, James Robinson was a revelation last year as a solid volume rusher (13th in juke rate). However, he is not a special player: ranking 48th in breakaway run rate and 32nd in true yards per carry despite seeing predominantly light fronts.
The new regime likes Robinson so much they immediately replaced him at pick 25, not even waiting until 33rd overall. Expect Etienne to bring immediate value in the pass game, and eventually become the lead rusher this year. This tier asks you to choose between lower ceiling prospects at scarce positions or defaulting to wide receiver. Etienne is the exception. Drafted after Harris and Zach Wilson – and occasionally after Williams – Etienne is the best bet to accrue immediate value in the draft. Snatch a 22 year old dynasty RB1 in the late first of your rookie draft.
You Should Fade: The 1.10 Pick Slot
Every draft is different. Maybe your league-mates make bad decisions and you can snatch Etienne or Zach Wilson at the 1.10 slot. Even Javonte Williams – the North Carolina Tar Heel – is a prudent play addressing a position of scarcity and closing out the big three rushers of this class. In most cases, you’re taking a limited upside quarterback in Mac Jones, or staring down a trio of similarly valued wide receivers.
There’s DeVonta Smith – the reigning heisman winner who went scorched earth in 2020, but who has a troubling analytical profile due to his poor early-college production, senior declaration for the draft and weight of just 166 pounds.
Finally there’s Rashod Bateman. This is my preferred option of the three due to a superior analytical profile and clear path to the WR1 role for the Ravens.
The chart below is a full list of wide receivers under the same thresholds as referred to with Chase – but drafted anywhere in the first round between 2003-2018. Once again, this is a very strong group of players to associate with.
Because people are worried about the Baltimore landing spot, you’re likely to get a player just as talented or better than the Alabama wideouts in the early second with Bateman. Fade that narrative.
Lamar Jackson is a far more capable passer than given credit for – ranking in the top ten in depth adjusted accuracy.
The Ravens signalled their intent to pass frequently this season with their additions of Bateman, Tylan Wallace and Sammy Watkins. No matter which wideout in this tier you prefer, they project similarly enough you should trade back if someone else is willing to go get their guy.
Overall Strategy: Trade Back or Trade Out
I’ve outlined the incentive to trade back. If you’re sitting on a late first, I would move back two to three slots and add a second rounder in any class. If that deal is not available, my recommendation is trade out.
Dynasty managers are often over-confident in their rosters, thus undervaluing future picks they expect to be late. Target a manager whose roster is fragile and ask for their 2022 or 2023 first rounder for your selection. The odds the player you draft in this range becomes an immediate difference maker are low. You’re better off forgoing the pick, and acquiring a future draft choice which may convey higher than expected. Take your shot at a top tier asset next year such as Iowa State rusher Breece Hall or Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler. Worst case – the top of the 2022 wide receiver class is strong: headlined by Purdue’s David Bell, Arkansas’s Treylon Burks, and Ohio State’s Garret Wilson.
If you’re patient enough to wait until 2023, it is expected to be an elite draft class headlined by running backs Bijan Robinson of Texas and Auburn’s Tank Bigsby, and Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei. Give me a 25-percent chance at one of those three over any of 2021’s tier two players. For reference, I was able to trade my 1.10 for a 2022 first in one league, and my 1.10 for a 2023 first and 2021 third in another.
Your round one rookie draft cheat sheet is now complete and you’re ready for round two. I hope you secured a stud in the mid first such as Chase or Etienne, while adding future draft capital to accrue value on your roster. My rule of thumb in rookie drafts is to leave with no less than half the picks in my arsenal I had coming in. In other words – If I have two firsts in 2021 – I either want to add a future first in a trade out, and/or secure an additional later pick in a trade back giving me more flexibility later in the draft.
See you in Round Two!
If you want more rookie draft content from Jakob, there is no better place than his Twitter page: @FF_RTDB. You can also find Jakob on the Full Tilt Dynasty Podcast every Friday, and on Tuesdays hosting Dynasty Intervention with @ShaneIsTheWorst and @FF_Intervention on the Join Our Circle Youtube and Twitter page – alongside the rest of our great content!