Drafting Rookies Is a Losing Proposition - Intro
By Jeff Tefertiller
July 23rd, 2010

Each and every summer, fantasy owners get excited about the incoming crop of rookies. We do this each and every season. Maybe it is because we watched these players have monster games on Saturdays. Maybe it is because these newcomers play for our favorite NFL team. Whatever the reason, drafting rookies in redraft leagues is a losing proposition. Almost all of these rookies fail to live up to expectations, for one reason or another. Some are drafted into difficult situations while others need seasoning. It is not as though we are suggesting the players will not turn out to be good NFL producers, but the transition to the professional ranks is a difficult one ... and takes time. In this series of articles, we will look at the historical success, or lack thereof, of the rookie skill position players. The emphasis will be on value. Did the player outproduce his ADP? That is the only thing fantasy owners want to know. If I draft Player A, will he put up better numbers than Player B and Player C, the other choices with similar ADPs? We will find that rookies are not good investments for their fantasy owners. The study only includes rookies who had an ADP. If a fantasy owner would not have considered the player at the time of his draft, there is no reason to include him in the study. This is why you will not see the big rookie season of Marques Colston or even the solid production by Austin Collie and Mike Wallace last year.

The numbers speak for themselves. Over the eight years of the study, no rookie quarterback has ever finished the season as a fantasy starter. For this reason, fantasy owners should avoid the first-year passers like the plague. It is not as though you can find a fantasy backup off the waiver wire midseason if the need arises. The highest finish by a quarterback was by Vince Young in 2006. The former Texas Longhorn finished as QB13 that season. But, his strong rookie season is not the norm. There are plenty of less-than-stellar campaigns which serve as the average. Most quarterbacks who play their first year have several things working against them. They are drafted by poor teams, making fantasy success impossible in the near term. These same teams have few weapons for their young passer so a conservative gameplan is utilized. This is what the Jets did with Mark Sanchez last season. They kept him under wraps in a ball-control offense and relied on the strong running game. Also, few get the training camp reps or start early in the season so achieving success is that much more difficult.

So many rookies are drafted with high expectations. The position with highest relative rookie ADP is at running back. Over these eight seasons of the study, twenty-five rookie ball carriers were drafted as fantasy starters. Their collective ADP was RB28, but they finished with a net ranking of RB37. This was even with a handful first-year tailbacks having very strong seasons. There have been five Top 10 finishes by rookie backs over this span: Clinton Portis (RB4 finish in 2002), Maurice Jones-Drew (RB8 in 2006), Adrian Peterson (RB3 in 2007), Matt Forte (RB4 in 2008), and Steve Slaton (RB6 in 2008). Interestingly, all five of these players were drafted as a fantasy RB3 or later in fantasy drafts. Jones-Drew was an incredible bargain, drafted as RB63 off the board in fantasy drafts that season.

The Wide Receiver position is one that has few rookie success stories. Anquan Boldin is the only rookie wideout to finish in the fantasy Top 10 during the past eight years. With an ADP of WR88, Boldin shocked the football world with an impressive WR4 fantasy finish in 2003 ... the highest ranking of his career. The only other two wideouts with Top 20 finishes over this time span were Michael Clayton (WR13 in 2004) and Eddie Royal (WR20 in 2008). All three of these pass catchers had horrible sophomore seasons. The three situations were all different but it illustrates how difficult it is for the youngsters to be elite in less than ideal situations. The one thing these three had in common was the quarterback position. The Cardinals, Buccaneers, and Broncos all had change at the position after the rookie seasons of these wide receivers. Arizona was transitioning from Jeff Blake to Josh McCown. The selection of Larry Fitzgerald in the 2004 NFL Draft did not help matters any, either. Tampa Bay went from Brian Griese forcing Clayton the ball, with Joey Galloway injured for half the season, to Chris Simms splitting time with Griese in 2005. In Denver, the Broncos hired Josh McDaniels after Royal's first year. The new coach traded Jay Cutler away and brought in Kyle Orton. The new offensive system and downgrade at quarterback were huge stumbling blocks for Royal repeating his studly rookie season.

The Tight End position is one of the most difficult to make the transition to the professional level. Many top-ranked tight ends fail miserably in year one. There is so much to learn. These young tight ends are asked to learn how to block, read defenses, and learn the hot routes. But, the 2002 season had two strong rookie finishes. Jeremy Shockey (TE3 finish with an ADP of TE5) and Randy McMichael (TE9 finish with an ADP of TE23) were each strong fantasy options for their fantasy owners.

Most of these rookies come into the league with high expectations. With so few players having huge seasons in year one, it is best to avoid drafting rookies as fantasy starters or relying on them in any way. There are safer choices with similar upside available. One thing that is rarely talked about is the transition from a college football schedule, with 13 games the limit, to a NFL schedule with 20 games (4 preseason and 16 regular season) ... not including training camp.

Sure, taking a chance on an upside rookie late in your draft could pay off. At that point, the youngsters are usually the players left with the best potential. For this study, fantasy starters were defined as one quarterback, three running backs, three wide receivers, and one tight end. Most leagues use a flex position and the running backs have a higher ADP than pass receivers.

Below is an overview of the numbers broken down by position. Since it is impossible to differentiate between injuries and missed games for different players, all fantasy rankings are included just as they would be with veteran players. One thing to note is that since the NFL Draft has changed its schedule a couple of times to accommodate the television audience, the averages were adjusted to the 2010 draft schedule in order to best normalize the results.

Part Of Draft
QB ADP
QB Finish
RB ADP
RB Finish
WR ADP
WR Finish
TE ADP
TE Finish
Top 10
28
35
23
32
42
66
9
52
First Round
29
35
32
50
54
65
18
34
First Day
31
42
36
55
59
73
21
33
Second Day
44
50
62
77
79
104
30
34
Average
31
43
49
66
62
77
22
32

Not one group outplayed their respective ADP. The table above shows how rookies are overdrafted at every position, especially those selected the highest in the NFL Draft. The five great seasons by the rookie running backs detailed above influenced the numbers, or the average finish would be much worse. When looking at the second-day tight ends, it was McMichael's strong year in 2002 that makes the group even this close to their corresponding ADP.

We will break down each position in detail in future articles. All first-year players from each of the eight draft classes will be examined in full. Lastly, each article will look at the incoming rookies for each position to see which has the best chance to make an immediate impact. There will be an article covering each of the skill positions.

Please feel free to email me at tefertiller@footballguys.com with any questions or comments. Also, I am on Twitter, so feel free to ask me questions there.

© 2010 Footballguys - All Rights Reserved