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The New Reality No.87: Rookie Class Recap

Examining rookie probabilities and historical odds for the 2017 rookie class

With NFL training camp and preseason action upon us, the rookie crop is set to hit the field in live action for the first time. Most dynasty leagues have already executed their start-up and rookie drafts, but some are ahead in the final weeks before the season. Plus existing owners of the new shiny rookies are excited to see their additions in action. Here are some final thoughts on the 2017 rookie class:

Know the Odds

Historically, few rookies have legitimate rookie season fantasy impact. The prudent approach is having a drafted rookie viewed as a farm system-type acquisition, an asset to season on a dynasty bench and grow into a key piece of a winning franchise in Year 2 or beyond. After digging into historical data, I looked at rookie probabilities of hitting a modest baseline of 50 yards (rushing for running backs, receiving for pass-catchers) or more in games during their rookie season. As one would expect, the odds plummet beyond Round 2 NFL Draft picks in Year 1. Here are some highlights from my study:

Top-5 running backs (read Leonard Fournette for 2017) have a much better probability of being a sustaining fantasy presence as a rookie than even other Round 1 running backs. 73% of top-5 backs produced 5+ games of 50+ rushing yards (this is the baseline when referencing this going forward in the post), while the rest of Round 1 is down closer to 50%. By Round 3 pedigree, the odds of finding a 5+ game impact player are down to 21%. And Day 3 running backs are a long-shot (looking at you, Joe Williams) at less than 10% for 5+ games and more than 75% produce two games or fewer of 50+ yards.

Receivers, even Round 1 and top-10 draft picks, are less than 50-50 bets to hit the 5+ games of impact threshold in Year 1. 44% meet the mark, while more than 35% produce two or fewer games. More than 10% are complete busts (zero such games). Matching the running backs, but even more ominous, are the receivers beyond Round 2. The average number of impact games from Round 3 and beyond is only 1.5 per player and less than 10% hit the 5+ games threshold.

Tight ends are the slowest starters of the trio of positions. Even Round 1 picks, who are close to bullet-proof bets to be a fantasy starter at some point in their career, are around 5% bets to produce 5+ games as a rookie, with 25% producing zero games of impact. Day 3 tight ends bust (zero games) nearly 90% of the time as rookies.

What does this mean for dynasty owners?

If you draft a tight end as a rookie, be prepared to let them simmer. They are unlikely to offer profit potential during their rookie season or even come January.

Even later Day 2 wide receivers are a dicey bet for early impact. This aligns with the historical data I have shown in the past on the few available WR1 jobs around the NFL and the effects of quarterback play on the limited upside of WR2 (and beyond) options on a depth chart.

Running backs offer quick profit (and impact) potential, even from later Day 2 (and occasionally early Day 3). One injury is more likely to vault a rookie back into the auto-start weekly projection zone than a wide receiver or tight end. 

The 'one injury away' running backs from Day 2 include Kareem Hunt, D'Onta Foreman, James Conner. Hunt is by far the most expensive of the three in rookie drafts, commonly a Round 1 pick, which shrinks his profit potential compared to Foreman and Cooner regularly in mid-Round 2.

Samaje Perine, like Hunt, is being drafted beyond what his pedigree would recommend - again, commonly in Round 1 of late. As a Day 3 pick, Perine's odds historically are low for impact and especially for his sticker price, the profit potential is minimal.

Joe Williams is another rising name based on the buzz of his hand-selection by Kyle Shanahan. As a Day 3 back with low pedigree and a lacking production profile compared to many backs in the 2017 class, Williams is a high-risk Round 2 rookie draft investment. When combining his draft position odds and adjusting for metric strength of his profile (Adjusted Draft Tier or ADT as I refer to it), Williams has the No.17 ADT of this year's running back class - far lower than his typical selection in rookie drafts. Likewise with Samaje Perine, who has the No.9 overall ADT among running backs, but is being pushed up by situational factors.

At wide receiver, be wary of investing in late Day 2 or Day 3 draft picks, especially those with blocked depth charts. The odds are high these options turn into roster-clogging dynasty assets where as an owner you have limited information about them still after Year 1. Chris Godwin and Taywan Taylor fit this category well with crowded depth charts and limited chance to emerge for even marginal impact in Year 1.

The tight end class in 2017 is a historic one with three first round NFL Draft picks and two more in the top-50. By comparison, the past two draft classes had a single tight end (Hunter Henry) in the top-50 combined. Reserve rookie expectations for O.J. Howard (two strong receivers in Tampa Bay and Cameron Brate will have a significant role), David Njoku (raw coming out, quarterback question mark), and Evan Engram (multiple strong receivers). The odds plummet beyond Round 2, even in Year 3 and beyond. Trend lightly with options like Jake Butt and George Kittle (both players have their pockets of dynasty supporters) as they are in a draft range where the odds are south of 5% to be an impact option in Year 1 or Year 2 historically.