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MFL10 Primer: Poaching Rookies in Your Too-Early Drafts

MFL10 drafting offers rookie discounts so big you really can't help but find value

This May and June, we’ll all get together and analyze every NFL rookie, weighing his expected skillset against the NFL team he lands with. But right now, all we have is potential. We can work to quantify it in some way, we can dissect what we see on tape to help set expectation parameters, but we’re ultimately working with incomplete data. Even the most attentive fantasy analysts and players are missing information, so early MFL10s allow us to take advantage of promising guys nobody knows what to do with.

Rookies, however, tend to present the juiciest values*. Since none of us know where Player X or Y will be playing, most of your MFL10 opponents will be shying away from them. In my most recent mock, I scooped up Derrick Henry in Round 7 and Laquon Treadwell in Round 11. That’s a likely two-down workhorse and a wideout who figures to land as some team’s No. 2 at worst. Barring the unforeseen, there’s no way either will be available anywhere near those rounds in August drafts.

* I'm really only discussing rookie running backs and wide receivers here. Rookie tight ends rarely make an impact, and fantasy-relevant rookie quarterbacks don't exist with much volume.
 

The Rookie ADP Leap

Rookie running backs are probably the most valuable from this angle. After pro days and the NFL Draft, several backs will find themselves in favorable situations – great combines, earlier-than-expected draft slots – and at least 2-4 will be vying for major workloads come August. Their fantasy values will soar over the summer on the backs of gushing minicamp reports. Even if their outlooks stay murky, you’re still creating value by stocking up on guys in Rounds 12-20 that will soon carry ADPs in the first 10.

Last year, rookie RBs saw, on average, a 2.37-round leap between April and September (with unusual outlier Jay Ajayi removed from the data). Those who bought in on the likes of David Johnson at April’s price tag (Round 16 as the RB63) wound up in even better shape than those who took him in the 10th (RB43) months later.

(This ADP soar will happen with veterans too, of course, but not to nearly the same degree. A veteran generally won’t see nearly the same upgrade in situation as a rookie being drafted highly in April.)

Receivers see a slightly larger jump by the numbers, but that rings a little hollow when we look closer. Most of those leaps came from fliers who weren’t being taken at all before the NFL Draft, but generated enough offseason buzz to crack the top 100 among WRs. Phillip Dorsett and Tyler Lockett, for example, were absolute afterthoughts in MFL10s before the NFL Draft and just late-round fliers after. There were mid-to-late-round dice rolls like Ty Montgomery, who landed in a great offense that lost Jordy Nelson in August, and Darren Waller, a thrilling size/speed project who prompted a lot of offseason “updates.” But the success rate for late-round rookie WRs is very low, and these sexy summer fliers rarely work their way into an offense, let alone produce real fantasy value. Not even the truly relevant rookies – Treadwell, Corey Coleman, Will Fuller, and perhaps Leonte Carroo – are all that likely to step into dominant roles in an NFL offense and greatly exceed their August/September ADPs. That’s why it’s much more sensible to snatch them up in these ultra-early drafts, where their mystery brings a hefty discount.

Here’s the list of MFL10 draft jumps among 2015 rookies from the pre-draft season (early February to late April) and just before the regular season (August and September):

Player

Pos

EarlyPosADP

LatePosADP

Jump/Fall

EarlyADP

LateADP

Jump/Fall

RdsJumped

Abdullah, Ameer

RB

39

23

16

111.10

43.55

67.56

5.6

Artis-Payne, Cameron

RB

 

59

49

 

175.90

65.10

5.4

Johnson, David

RB

63

43

20

180.90

116.51

64.41

5.4

Cobb, David

RB

58

44

14

173.10

117.93

55.20

4.6

Yeldon, T.J.

RB

36

25

11

91.70

48.78

42.93

3.6

Zenner, Zach

RB

 

76

32

 

202.31

38.69

3.2

Coleman, Tevin

RB

38

32

6

110.80

72.73

38.02

3.2

Rawls, Thomas

RB

 

80

28

 

205.07

35.93

3.0

Johnson, Gus

RB

 

94

14

 

214.32

26.68

2.2

Allen, Javorius

RB

85

65

20

210.30

192.49

17.82

1.5

Gordon, Melvin

RB

23

15

8

45.80

33.65

12.14

1.0

Robinson, Josh

RB

94

83

11

220.10

208.01

12.07

1.0

Johnson, Duke

RB

37

38

-1

99.60

90.75

8.86

0.7

Langford, Jeremy

RB

79

82

-3

202.90

207.30

-4.39

-0.4

Gurley, Todd

RB

18

24

-6

39.90

46.43

-6.53

-0.5

Davis, Mike

RB

70

96

-26

197.00

216.09

-19.14

-1.6

Ajayi, Jay

RB

31

53

-22

77.30

163.63

-86.38

-7.2

Agholor, Nelson

WR

74

30

44

197.32

68.39

128.93

10.7

Perriman, Breshad

WR

67

45

22

182.94

107.28

75.66

6.3

Funchess, Devin

WR

71

51

20

194.99

122.09

72.90

6.1

Montgomery, Ty

WR

 

67

58

 

173.86

67.14

5.6

Dorsett, Phillip

WR

100

63

37

216.10

159.92

56.18

4.7

McBride, Tre

WR

 

75

50

 

193.58

47.42

4.0

Waller, Darren

WR

 

80

45

 

199.73

41.27

3.4

Bell, Kenny

WR

 

81

44

 

204.09

36.91

3.1

Lockett, Tyler

WR

96

72

24

213.82

182.57

31.25

2.6

Hardy, Justin

WR

 

95

30

 

214.15

26.85

2.2

Diggs, Stefon

WR

 

101

24

 

216.90

24.10

2.0

Conley, Chris

WR

 

106

19

 

218.80

22.20

1.9

Cooper, Amari

WR

27

18

9

60.94

46.51

14.43

1.2

Smith, Devin

WR

99

112

-13

215.15

219.66

-4.51

-0.4

Parker, DeVante

WR

45

49

-4

109.03

113.54

-4.51

-0.4

Coates, Sammie

WR

81

109

-28

203.09

219.28

-16.19

-1.3

White, Kevin

WR

38

50

-12

81.59

116.52

-34.93

-2.9

Strong, Jaelen

WR

63

83

-20

163.86

203.29

-39.43

-3.3

some takeaways

- On average, in 2015 you were able to snag a rookie 2.2 rounds earlier before the NFL Draft than after. That’s a truly large boon.

- Of the 35 rookies-to-be, 25 (71%) climbed in ADP after the NFL Draft. And of the 10 that didn’t climb in ADP, four (Gurley, Ajayi, Parker, White) were hampered by serious injury concerns; they almost certainly wouldn’t have tumbled otherwise. So it’s fair to expect roughly 80% or more to swell in ADP once they’re on NFL teams.

- More WRs top the list than do RBs, but let’s look a little closer into the data – and the outliers. Overall, WRs averaged a leap of 2.53 rounds, but much of that came from Nelson Agholor’s wild leap after landing with Chip Kelly’s Eagles. Take him out, and the other wideouts jumped an average of 2.04 rounds.

- On the other side, Ajayi dramatically weighed down the RBs’ 1.81-round jump when news of his knee injury – a fairly mysterious one that the public struggled to grasp and project – broke in April. He wound up a fifth-round pick, which excited no one and torpedoed his fantasy stock. That’s an atypical situation; take Ajayi off that list, and the RBs jumped 2.37 rounds.

In Summary

Rookie types we’re looking to underdraft (snag later than expected) include:

Running backs with great receiving outlooks. These are the backs who often climb an NFL round or two and immediately carve out some role within an offense. Last year we saw David Johnson, Duke Johnson, Jeremy Langford, and Javorius Allen work their way onto the field early through the passing game, and all four excelled there at some point. The same happened in 2014, when Devonta Freeman and Charles Sims soared up their depth charts as reliable dual-threat options. Guys like this carry a little less upside in terms of carrying an offense, but that’s theoretical – how many non-rookie studs really carry an offense, anyway? They also project to see the field earlier than their ADP costs suggest thanks to their diverse skillsets and the pass-happy nature of the NFL. So we’re looking for backs that posted noticeable receiving production in college – at least 8-10% of their team’s targets, roughly, serves as a decent benchmark.

Receivers with less-than-optimal Combine/pro day hype. After the combine wraps up and pro days play out, the fantasy community is abuzz with certain players. Exciting measurables, fast 40-yard dashes, and strong positional drills will cause the values of several guys to soar. (see: Ameer Abdullah, David Johnson, and Breshad Perriman of 2015.) As a result, several receivers will see a drop in their hype – perhaps they disappointed at the Combine themselves, or were just overshadowed by the Abdullahs. But some of these guys carry skillsets that a) transcend measurables (sometimes), and/or b) transcend NFL situation. Two years ago, Jarvis Landry bombed his workouts epically while too many receivers to list shined brightly. So Landry was left for dead by most MFL10ers, while shrewd drafters realized Landry’s game was built on dependable slot routes and punt return value – skills that would get him onto the field no matter where he was drafted.

Rookie profiles we should perhaps value less would be:

Backs with poor receiving resumes. Unlike receiving backs, guys like this are typically overvalued; the public tends to overrate their abilities to seize a huge workload right away. They’re mostly reliant on immediately digesting a complex running game and succeeding physically on a higher level of football. We saw this last offseason, as Melvin Gordon’s stock soared despite indicators that he’d be limited to an early-down timeshare as a rookie. He was drafted as the RB15 from August 1 on, but never fully grasped the position and saw little time in the passing game or the red zone. He’s promising as-is, but his fantasy upside will always be capped while he fails to figure into the pass game. (note: This should apply to Derrick Henry and Jordan Howard, both two-down prospects who don’t project well into an NFL passing game, and it does – to a degree. Two-down backs are to be approached with caution, but the great talents aren’t to be taken off your board. It’s just something to consider when setting your rookie expectations.)

Workout warriors. This is obvious – beware the prospects who workout significantly better than their college production suggests. I’m certainly not afraid of blazing running times – but if they never broke long gains in school, I wonder why. I have room in my heart for great bench press numbers, but I’m skeptical if a guy lifts 225 pounds 45 times to go with a horrible goal line track record. In fact, in these super-early MFL10s, I tend to go a step further and generally avoid top-notch prospects who dominate the Combine. Ultimately, you’ll lose the value battle on these guys – they excite fantasy drafters, so their ADPs quickly exceed their value. Think Breshad Perriman in 2015: I liked Perriman as a prospect (and still do), but after his fantastic workouts and drills, MFL10ers began drafting him at suboptimal levels. There’s just too much that can happen between April and September – injuries, off-field concerns, the potential to be drafted into a poor situation – to make such a leap of faith on a rookie. Especially when you could have had him several rounds earlier a month ago.