What History Tells Us About The First Round Of Rookie Drafts: Part I (12-11)

By Alex Kurpeski, Bradley Stalder, & Angel Maldonado

There’s an overused saying that goes: ‘History is doomed to repeat itself’. You’ve definitely heard this phrase at least once in your lifetime; it is a cliche that the media, World History teachers, and parents love to use conversationally. In the context of fantasy football, this phrase often rings true as well. There are patterns that players and teams tend to follow and stick to, often enough that they become cyclical in nature. 

We know that the Patriots can’t draft a wide receiver to save their lives. We know that the Raiders, regardless of who is running the team, will often take the fastest guy on the board. We also know that, with the superstitious nature of the fantasy football fanatic, there is a certain association with the numbers on the board and what they represent. While not all players are created equal, there is a meaning to where they are drafted, which program they are drafted from, and where they are ranked on the draft board. 

At a certain point, these things become very arbitrary. However, if we’re basing our insight on the historical data, they do paint some rather vivid pictures of just what we can come to expect out of our prized rookie draft picks. Thus, we here at 3CoSports are prepared to bring to you an all-encompassing analysis from the last decade of dynasty league data, combining qualitative and quantitative elements to provide accurate profiles of the projected top-12 dynasty league rookies based on recent historical trends. 

Top 12 ADP as of May 27th, 2020:

  1. RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs
  2. RB Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts
  3. RB J.K Dobbins, Baltimore Ravens
  4. RB D’Andre Swift, Detroit Lions
  5. WR CeeDee Lamb, Dallas Cowboys
  6. WR Jerry Jeudy, Denver Broncos
  7. RB Cam Akers, Los Angeles Rams
  8. WR Jalen Reagor, Philadelphia Eagles
  9. WR Justin Jefferson, Minnesota Vikings
  10. WR Henry Ruggs, Las Vegas Raiders
  11. RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  12. WR Michael Pittman Jr., Indianapolis Colts

From the data we have collected for this piece, we have determined that the minimum amount of points scored by a player to deem them as having had a ‘fantasy relevant’ campaign is somewhere between 143 and 144 standard scoring points in a season, although there will be some contextual elements that will also help determine some of our findings (for instance Sammy Watkins has had a good career according to these metrics, but when compared to several of the receivers from his own class, he is verging on ‘bust’ territory). 

Here are just a few of our findings to provide a broader context of just how valuable and dependable 1st-round rookie draft picks have been this decade:

  • The average top-12 rookie pick has a relevance yield of 45%, meaning that a typical first-round rookie draft pick will only produce a fantasy relevant season about half of the time he’s in the league
  • Back end picks have not boded well, as slots 9-12 have some of the lowest relevance yields → Contending teams should definitely sell their picks for playoff runs
  • While there weren’t any TE’s or QB’s in this year’s top-12, tight ends have generally fared poorly with an extremely low yield rate, while QBs have generally fared pretty well (although 75% are no longer starting in the league)

So without further adieu, let’s take a look at this year’s top-12 and how they compare to their predecessors:

#12: WR Michael Pittman Jr., Indianapolis Colts

USC v California

With a relevance yield of just 13% this decade, the twelfth spot in dynasty drafts has been a sinkhole in general, not the most reassuring news for anyone who selected Pittman at that spot. Our all-decade player from this spot is former Panthers and Patriots wide receiver Brandon LaFell, who produced only two fantasy relevant campaigns during his eight year career. With notable washouts like Delone Carter (sorry, but who are you again?), Jonathan Franklin (I don’t remember him either), and Leonte Carroo (pretty sure I started this guy once, but I might be thinking of another Dolphins receiver from the Adam Gase era), the busts from this draft position have been generally disastrous. Recent history suggests that the curve will soon flatten, with young stars Courtland Sutton and Kyler Murray having gone in this range the last two seasons, a slightly more encouraging harbinger for owners of the younger Pittman. 

As a whole, receivers have been one of the more consistent investments in dynasty league drafts, with a relevance yield of 46% this decade, a figure weighed down by the period between 2014 and 2017 when receivers yielded a 35% rate. The average career length for wideouts has been 4.8 years, over a year longer than the average running back, a sign that receivers are a safer long-term investment. Recent history suggests that the receiver position is experiencing a renaissance, with a 64% yield rate between the 2018 and 2019 classes. 

The Colts have been in search of a consistent wideout to pair with Pro Bowler T.Y Hilton for almost a decade now, having spent premium draft capital on busts like Parris Campbell (although he will still have a shot at redemption), Philip Dorsett, and Donte Moncrief. Moreover, the Pac-12 conference has not been the place to find good NFL receivers in recent years, with disappointing early round picks like John Ross, N’Keal Harry, and J.J Arcega-Whiteside having been selected in the last few seasons. However, there is a silver lining here, as JuJu Smith-Schuster (fantasy relevant in his first two seasons, hampered by injuries last year) a fellow USC product has been able to carve out a major role in the league. Like Smith-Schuster, Pittman is a jumbo-sized slot receiver who can also make plays on intermediate and deep routes. At 6’5, 235 lbs, he looks like a tight end size wise but plays with nimble feet and flexible body control, two elements that many other receivers his size have lacked in their games (Dorial Green-Beckham is the prime example of this folly). 

 

Pittman Jr. exploded onto the scene in 2019, hauling in 101 passes for 1,275 yards and 11 touchdowns, leading the Pac-12 in the first two categories. While he will be used as a true X-receiver in the Colts offense, he appears to be in line for some work in the slot as well, assuming 2019 2nd-rounder Parris Campbell continues to struggle with health and technique. 

With veteran QB Philip Rivers taking the reins in Indy this season, it would appear as though the stagnant passing attack we saw last season may be a thing of the past, as the future Hall of Famer has thrown for 4,000+ yards in 11 of the last 12 seasons. Considering the mediocrity that was Zach Pascal and Marcus Johnson last year, Pittman will be essentially walking into a starting role with the team, truly a golden opportunity for a young player like himself. While some have failed when paired with legendary quarterbacks (N’Keal Harry, Cody Latimer), others have become some of the league’s best all-around receivers (JuJu Smith-Schuster, Michael Thomas, Calvin Ridley). As far as late first-round picks go, Pittman’s ceiling is one of the highest in recent memory, although his floor as a big-bodied Pac-12 product is equally variable. 

Pro Comparison:

Ceiling: JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh Steelers 

A true WR1 when healthy, consistent possession receiver who can make plays at all three levels while also being able to rack up yards after the catch. Pittman could blossom in Indy, as he (like Smith-Schuster during the Antonio Brown days) should avoid seeing a defense’s top cover corner thanks to the presence of Hilton, while also benefiting from the gunslinging tendencies of Rivers. 

Floor: Cody Latimer, Washington Redskins 

A WR3 at best, a big body without the ability to win on contested throws with consistency. Cast aside by multiple teams only to still be picked up in the hopes of redemption due to draft pedigree. A serviceable blocker and return man who can keep a spot on a team’s roster, even without contributing as a pass-catcher. Fails in Indianapolis like many of the team’s draft picks in recent years. 

Median: Mike Williams, Los Angeles Chargers 

A very low-end WR2 with touchdown dependent production. Operates as a red-zone weapon primarily, with some big plays on deep throws mixed in. Underneath receiving is limited, whether by scheme or ineffectiveness in that role. Rivers’ version of Williams as a member of the Colts.

#11: RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

NCAA Football: Middle Tennessee at Vanderbilt

The running back position has been a true coin flip for the first round of rookie drafts this decade, with a 49% yield of fantasy relevant campaigns, nearly a 50/50 shot at booming or busting. Last season we saw all three running backs from the top twelve ADP finish with fantasy relevant numbers, as Josh Jacobs, David Montgomery, and Miles Sanders all took over as the lead back for their respective teams, performing admirably in that role. The once dead investment in the position has rebounded in recent years, as the fantasy relevant yield rate had jumped from 30% between 2010 and 2013 to 60% (2014-2017) and eventually 61% (2018-2019), with productive running backs continuing to be churned out from various college programs. 

Unfortunately for Buccaneers rookie running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn, neither of the programs (Illinois and Vanderbilt) he has suited up for have produced any of these successful backs, with busts like Mikel LeShoure and Zac Stacy being prime examples of the mediocrity churned out by these schools. On the brighter side, the 11th spot in dynasty drafts has a fairly decent history of producing successful players, with a 39% yield rate that would be 46% without former Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham taking up real estate in this range. With names like Deebo Samuel, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Calvin Ridley, and Alshon Jeffery having been drafted at this spot on average, Vaughn finds himself on the right side of history. However, the running backs taken at this position have been less than stellar, with a couple of busts (C.J Prosise and Marcus Lattimore) and a pair of middling backs (Shane Vereen and Tevin Coleman), slightly troubling for any who believes Vaughn to be the next big thing in Tampa Bay. 

Far from the typical Vanderbilt back, Vaughn is a gritty runner with enough burst to pick up big gains in the open field. He ran for over 1,000 yards in his two seasons as the starter for the Commodores, impressive numbers when considering he was running behind the 128th ranked offensive line in the nation (out of 130) in 2019, a unit that garnered the worst run blocking grade of any Div-I school. Somehow, despite running against SEC (and previously Big 10) defensive fronts with little help from his blockers, Vaughn managed to average 5.8 yards per-carry for his career, a truly impressive feat. While he is a bit on the older side (already 23 years of age), that may not be such a bad thing for Vaughn as he joins the now Tom Brady led Buccaneers offense, which should favor his age and experience over younger players like Ronald Jones and Raymond Calais. 

Given Brady’s reliance on throwing to his running backs (the Patriots offense produced three top-20 PPR backs from 2017-2019, James White 2018-19 and Dion Lewis 2017), Vaughn will have a great opportunity to collect fantasy points if he can win the passing down role out of camp. A capable pass-catcher, Vaughn (who caught 41 passes these past two seasons) will be challenged by incumbent starter and 2018 second-rounder Jones (we’ll talk about him a lot in this piece) as well as veteran Dare Ogunbowale for these check down opportunities. 

While the Buccaneers appeared to have missed big on their last early round running back selection (Jones), the front office has been generally successful when it comes to finding capable fantasy contributors, having drafted Doug Martin (2011) and Charles Sims (2014), who each had fantasy relevant seasons during their tenures. As far as SEC running back products go, it’s unclear where Vaughn falls based on recent history, due to Vandy’s inability to produce any draft-worthy players this decade. While third round SEC backs like Alvin Kamara and Kenyan Drake have managed to scrape together solid NFL careers, others like Matt Jones and Tre Mason have been complete washouts. 

As the potential lead back on a high-powered offense, Vaughn’s situation compares more favorably to Kamara’s, as it’s unlikely that teams would choose to focus on stopping him in their gameplans with the various receiving threats that the Bucs offense boasts. 

Pro Comparison:

Ceiling: Doug Martin, N/A 

A RB1 upside on a loaded offense, middling option on his bad days. Contributes equally on the ground and in the passing game, big play upside keeps him around the league for a while. A guy in the right place at the right time, he takes lemons and turns them into lemonade. 

Floor: Montario Hardesty, N/A 

An early round pick who proves why he wasn’t taken before other guys. Limited upside leads to a brief, unspectacular NFL career. Should Vaughn lose out to Jones in a competition for the starting role, this could easily be him within a couple of years, given the sheer amount of running back talent in the 2021 draft and beyond. 

Median: Sony Michel, New England Patriots 

A RB2 on good days, the lead back for a productive offense who can be very touchdown dependent as the member of a RBBC. Lack of passing down work severely limits upside in comparison to other players, especially on an offense that appears to be as prolific as Tampa’s does on paper. 

 

 

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