NFL Best Ball: The Rookie Approach

With the NFL Draft in the rearview mirror, ADP has stabilized on best ball platforms. Outside of major news and injuries, a player’s role can be predicted with more certainty this time of year.

Josh Jacobs, the Alabama running back, already has a third round ADP (35.3 overall). While it is probably safe to say that Jacobs belongs within the first five rounds, figuring out when to draft the other rookies can be difficult.

Drafting Rookies by Position

Some positions develop and contribute faster than others. The tables below show how the top prospects from 2016-2018 fared relative to their best ball ADPs. “Win Rate” represents the percentage of teams drafting the player that went on to win their best ball league, and the average win rate is 1-in-12 (roughly 8.3 percent).

Rookie Quarterbacks and Tight Ends – Stay Away

Rookie quarterbacks and tight ends don’t typically get much attention in fantasy leagues, especially prior to the NFL Draft. There have been between 10 quarterbacks to garner a material number of picks in best ball leagues from 2016-17.

Quarterback Year Positional ADP Final Pos. Rank Win Rate
Watson, Deshaun 2017 31 24 7.4%
Kizer, DeShone 2017 34 26 6.0%
Mahomes, Patrick 2017 46 58 4.9%
Trubisky, Mitch 2017 48 28 4.6%
Prescott, Dak 2016 28 6 8.7%
Hackenberg, Christian 2016 35 62 2.5%
Lynch, Paxton 2016 36 39 4.0%
Wentz, Carson 2016 38 24 5.1%
Goff, Jared 2016 40 35 5.1%
Jones, Cardale 2016 41 63 2.8%

Only one out of 10 rookie quarterbacks generated an above average win rate over the past three seasons, and the majority of them were complete non-factors in fantasy leagues.

Last season, even with Baker Mayfield, Lamar Jackson, and Sam Darnold all emerging as quality starters, none were relevant at draft time, being selected outside the first 195 picks.

Things do not look much better at tight end, where only one in nine players generated an above average win rate. Last season, Mike Gesicki and Hayden Hurst returned win rates of 7.0% and 7.2%, respectively.

Tight End Year Positional ADP Final Pos. Rank Win Rate
Gesicki, Mike 2018 25 56 7.0%
Hurst, Hayden 2018 26 58 7.2%
Howard, O.J. 2017 14 19 5.8%
Engram, Evan 2017 21 4 10.2%
Njoku, David 2017 22 24 5.8%
Adams, Jerell 2016 30 49 1.9%
Higbee, Tyler 2016 34 59 5.5%
Henry, Hunter 2016 38 19 8.0%
Hooper, Austin 2016 41 37 5.2%

Rookie Wide Receivers – Be Careful

Rookie wide receiver classes vary, but around six to eight usually get drafted in fantasy leagues.

Wide Receiver Year Positional ADP Final Pos. Rank Win Rate
Coleman, Corey 2016 39 88 5.9%
Shepard, Sterling 2016 41 35 9.7%
Treadwell, Laquon 2016 47 151 5.0%
Thomas, Michael (NO) 2016 52 11 13.5%
Doctson, Josh 2016 60 144 5.1%
Boyd, Tyler 2016 63 62 6.9%
Fuller, Will 2016 65 61 7.6%
Carroo, Leonte 2016 92 140 4.8%
Wide Receiver Year Positional ADP Final Pos. Rank Win Rate
Davis, Corey 2017 43 84 4.7%
Ross, John 2017 65 199 5.1%
Jones, Zay 2017 66 86 6.5%
Williams, Mike 2017 67 126 4.7%
Kupp, Cooper 2017 83 24 11.1%
Samuel, Curtis 2017 89 119 6.3%
Smith-Schuster, JuJu 2017 91 30 7.9%
Godwin, Chris 2017 118 85 5.0%
Wide Receiver Year Positional ADP Final Pos. Rank Win Rate
Moore, D.J. 2018 52 37 11.1%
Ridley, Calvin 2018 48 19 11.2%
Miller, Anthony 2018 56 55 8.5%
Gallup, Michael 2018 51 76 7.0%
Sutton, Courtland 2018 64 50 8.6%
Kirk, Christian 2018 64 122 9.8%

While six out of 22 players generating win rates above 9% is better than our quarterback and tight-end results, that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement. There’s a bit of upside though, with Michael Thomas in 2016, finishing the season as a WR1, Cooper Kupp returning a top-24 finish and Calvin Ridley coming in as a WR2 last season.

Rookie Running Backs – Yes Please

Drafters often scurry for the new backfield members each season, and grabbing youngsters at the position usually pays off.

Running Back Year Positional ADP Final Pos. Rank Win Rate
Elliott, Ezekiel 2016 4 2 12.0%
Henry, Derrick 2016 37 45 6.2%
Prosise, C.J. 2016 45 63 5.9%
Dixon, Kenneth 2016 47 47 6.5%
Washington, DeAndre 2016 50 52 5.9%
Booker, Devontae 2016 51 39 6.7%
Howard, Jordan 2016 58 10 15.0%
Perkins, Paul 2016 64 60 6.5%
Drake, Kenyan 2016 65 72 6.2%
Marshall, Keith 2016 83 136 5.4%
Running Back Year Positional ADP Final Pos. Rank Win Rate
Fournette, Leonard 2017 11 9 9.1%
McCaffrey, Christian 2017 13 8 8.4%
Mixon, Joe 2017 15 34 4.7%
Cook, Dalvin 2017 17 69 5.3%
Hunt, Kareem 2017 38 4 18.5%
Perine, Semaje 2017 39 43 6.7%
Kamara, Alvin 2017 47 3 20.9%
Williams, Jamaal 2017 52 37 11.0%
Foreman, D’Onta 2017 62 73 7.0%
Mack, Marlon 2017 63 51 6.4%
Running Back Year Positional ADP Final Pos. Rank Win Rate
Barkley, Saquon 2018 6 2 18.2%
Guice, Derrius 2018 56 151 3.7%
Penny, Rashaad 2018 37 64 6.3%
Michel, Sony 2018 32 35 7.8%
Freeman, Royce 2018 15 45 6.2%
Jones, Ronald 2018 43 43 5.5%
Chubb, Nick 2018 49 16 11.8%
Johnson, Kerryon 2018 28 33 10.2%
Hines, Nyheim 2018 57 32 9.0%
Wilkins, Jordan 2018 53 76 7.4%

No position compares with running back, as 11 out of 30 rushers finished with above average win rates, including nine in double-digits. Saquon Barkley led all first round selections at first round at 18.8%.

When to Draft

So rookie quarterbacks and tight ends are to be avoided, wide receivers can be worth a shot and running backs are solid targets, though price tag remains key. Perception is important, and ADPs can shift drastically following the NFL Draft.

Tracking a player’s ADP can provide insight on when to buy and when to move on, as even the best prospects can become too expensive and not worth the draft capital. Here’s a quick look at rookie ADPs from the past few offseasons.

Wide Receivers – Wait and See

The following charts track the offseason ADPs of the top six rookie wide receivers from each of the past two seasons. The red dotted-line represents the date of the NFL Draft.

2016

2017

In just five of these 12 cases, the wide receiver became more expensive following the draft, which would suggest not targeting the position early on in the draft season. It’s probably best to wait and see where a player lands and wait for a cheaper price.

Running Backs – Grab them Early

The following charts track the offseason ADPs of the top nine rookie running backs from each of the past two seasons. The red dotted-line represents the date of the NFL Draft.

2016

2017

In 14 of 18 cases, rookie running back prices jumped up or steadily rose in the months following the NFL Draft. Given that rookie running backs have the highest hit rates among all positions, they should be prioritized, and the best time to get them appears to be early in the draft season, well before the NFL Draft.

Conclusion

Here are the main points we went over about handling rookies in fantasy drafts.

  • Stay away from rookie quarterbacks and tight ends, they struggle to produce early on.
  • Rookie wide receivers occasionally pan out, though their price tags typically drop off as the draft season progresses, so be patient.
  • Rookie running backs are the best investment, but watch out, they tend to get more expensive after the NFL Draft. Snag them earlier, then look in another direction near the end of draft season.

About the Author

  • Matthew Gajewski (mgajewski)

  • Matt Gajewski graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in Economics. Matt has been playing fantasy football, DFS, and in best ball leagues for over four years. In season, he enjoys the pain that comes from following Chicago Bears and Notre Dame football.

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