As fantasy football analysts, we are always looking for edges by using new data sets. Sometimes, some of the best findings are right under our noses. And as I was scrolling through Twitter last week, I came across this pearl:
Every Rookie WR drafted Round 3 or later with an 80+ PFF receiving grade:
Amon-Ra St Brown
— Jakob Sanderson (RTDB) (@FF_RTDB) February 25, 2022
Really? How do I work at PFF and not know this!?!
I have incorporated PFF grades into research before, but for whatever reason, I hadn't thought to look at them through this lens. That is the beauty of social media, where we can all spark new thoughts and ideas and build off one another.
Not knowing where it would lead but highly intrigued, I decided to dig into PFF rookie receiving grades. Of course, these research projects don't always yield actionable material, but this exercise didn't disappoint.
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This analysis uses data from 2011-2021 but is limited to wide receivers who entered the league between 2011 and 2019. That provides a minimum of three seasons to evaluate each player — drafted and undrafted players with at least 200 snaps in each of their first three seasons qualified for inclusion.
Players are grouped into three bands based on their rookie receiving grade and are contrasted against top-12, top-24 and top-36 finishes over seasons two and three.
From 2011 to 2019, 73 receivers qualified for inclusion. Those with higher rookie receiving grades demonstrated more substantial results in their second and third seasons.
Fantasy finishes for Year 2 and Year 3 WRs by rookie receiving grade
GROUP ONE (75-100)
Those with a 75.0-plus receiving grade enjoyed a 27 percentage point advantage in top-12 finishes over the second group and secured the most top-24 and top-36 finishes. The players in this group read like a who's-who list of fantasy receivers.
Rookie receiving grade of 75.0-plus | 2011 to 2019
|Player||Draft Year||Draft Round||Rookie PPR||Year 2 PPR||Year 3 PPR||Rookie Receiving Grade|
|Odell Beckham Jr.||2014||1||297||319||299||91.2|
This group of receivers performed well regardless of draft capital. For example, an equal amount of fifth- and first-round selections qualified. Interestingly, the PFF receiving grade picked up on several receivers who didn't post a top-36 finish in their rookie season.
Chris Godwin was only on the field for 38% of dropbacks in 2017 and finished 72nd in fantasy points, yet this exercise identifies him as a breakout candidate for Year 2. The rookie also flashed a 2.03 YPRR figure on 259 routes.
Hunter Renfrow didn't breakout until Year 3, but his 76.5 receiving grade and YPRR prowess (2.09) on only 290 routes as a rookie were signs of things to come. This season, Renfrow could see a career-high in routes with Josh McDaniels taking over the offense.
Josh McDaniels finds a way to keep guys that might just play slot WR on many teams on the field.
Jakobi Meyers, Julian Edelman and Wes Welker all eclipsed 90% routes per dropback under McDaniel. ✅
Hunter Renfrow will set a new career-high in 2022 (78% in 2021). ????
5th ADP ✅ pic.twitter.com/leQVyKc3uY
— Dwain McFarland (@dwainmcfarland) February 25, 2022
Tyler Lockett and Stefon Diggs were both fifth-round picks who surprised in 2015 with fantasy finishes of 43rd and 45th, respectively. Both missed the 2.00 YPRR threshold (1.57 and 1.81) but eclipsed the 75.0 receiving grade threshold.
Even undrafted free agent Doug Baldwin popped after making the most of his 61% routes per dropback rate as a rookie by posting an 80.4 grade.
Utilizing rookie receiving grades to recalibrate our thoughts on receivers who played limited roles appears to be a promising application. Baldwin, Renfrow, Tyreek Hill and Godwin participated in 61% of routes or less.
GROUP TWO (65-74.9)
These players didn't start as fast, with only 9% of the candidates posting a top-24 finish in their rookie season versus 50% for group one. However, they picked up in Year 2 with a 42% hit rate and finished Years 2 and 3 with a 28% mark.
Rookie receiving grade between 65.0 and 74.9 | 2011 to 2019
|Player||Draft Year||Draft Round||Rookie PPR||Year 2 PPR||Year 3 PPR||Rookie Receiving Grade|
|Allen Robinson II||2014||2||115||304||197||68.2|
None of the receivers drafted after the third round from this group connected on a top-24 finish, but Jamison Crowder snuck in two top-36 seasons and Jakobi Meyers finished 30th in Year 3. Denarius Moore just missed in Year 2 (37th).
Four out of 10 first-rounders — Julio Jones, Brandin Cooks, DeAndre Hopkins and Calvin Ridley — found top-12 success in Years 2 or 3. In addition, Amari Cooper, D.J. Moore, Kendall Wright, Sammy Watkins and Marquise Brown had one outing ranked between 13 and 24. So ultimately, nine out of 10 guys found their way inside the top 24.
Three out of 10 second-rounders made their way inside the top 12, and Alshon Jeffery did it back-to-back. In total, six of 10 found their way inside the top 24.
GROUP THREE (Below 65)
|Player||Team||Draft Year||Draft Round||Rookie PPR||Year 2 PPR||Year 3 PPR||Rec Grade|
|Will Fuller V||HST||2016||1||122||113||106||63.4|
By excluding seasons with less than 200 routes, this group ended up smaller than it should have been — somewhat skewing hit rates. The threshold is for injuries, but the by-product is losing some Year 3 players who didn't play or make the team due to performance.
Davante Adams is the biggest hit from this group, but the misses dominate most of the action, with only a 13% top-24 hit rate. No player from this group finished inside the top 36 more than once in Years 2 and 3. Robert Woods and Will Fuller V didn't find fantasy success until after Year 3.
Draft capital played a more significant factor than it did with group one. Seven of 10 players to find a top-36 finish were Round 3 or higher selections.
TAKEAWAYS FOR THE 2020 AND 2021 ROOKIES
Now that we have a backdrop utilizing rookie data from 2011 to 2019, we can take a closer look at the past two classes.
Receiving grades for 2020 & 2021 classes
|Player||Team||Draft Year||Round||Rookie PPR||Year 2 PPR||Rec Grade|
|Amon-Ra St. Brown||DET||2021||4||223||–||80.0|
|Laviska Shenault Jr.||JAX||2020||2||157||129||71.8|
|Lynn Bowden Jr.||MIA||2020||3||52||–||65.1|
|Michael Pittman Jr.||IND||2020||2||99||237||62.6|
|Henry Ruggs III||LV||2020||1||88||85||55.6|
|Terrace Marshall Jr.||CAR||2021||2||31||–||52.9|
Group One Highlights
Last spring, Amon-Ra St. Brown created some buzz in the film community that carried over into the summer, but his role was limited to begin the NFL season. However, as the campaign wore on and injuries to the Lions' receiving corps mounted, St. Brown made the most of his opportunities. The rookie lit up PPR scoring formats from Week 13 with WR6, WR26, WR6, WR6, WR2 and WR9 finishes.
The doubters point to the additional target opportunities as a reason to fade the second-year receiver in 2022, but his 80.0 receiving grade says otherwise. That is the third-highest mark since 2011 for a player drafted outside of the first three rounds. One of those was undrafted-free agent Doug Baldwin, who worked primarily from the slot as a rookie (87%) like St. Brown (77%).
St. Brown is currently a fifth-round pick in most fantasy formats and a player I want exposure clicking yes on at or below ADP.
Brandon Aiyuk started slowly in 2021 in Kyle Shanahan's dog house, leading to fantasy finishes of WR122, WR108, WR26, WR98, WR78, WR82 and WR53. In addition, his points per game dipped from 15.4 as a rookie to 10.0 in 2021. That represents the most extensive dip for a Group 1 player since 2011. Still, Aiyuk salvaged a top-36 finish once returning to a full-time role in Week 8 and posted a 76.0 receiving grade.
The third-year receiver comes with multiple concerns: a) plays on a run-heavy offense, b) two other high-quality mouths to feed in the receiving game (Deebo Samuel and George Kittle) and c) questions at quarterback.
However, his late Round 7 ADP over at the FFPC is slightly higher than I thought it would be but provides a price where adding some exposure makes sense. When he falls past his ADP, he becomes more appealing.
Group Two Highlights
Kadarius Toney and Elijah Moore narrowly missed the Group 1 cutoff with 74.4 and 73.8 receiving grades, respectively. Both players were limited in routes per dropback (30% and 45%). D.J. Moore and Kelvin Benjamin are the closest grade comps with similar draft capital. Denarius Moore and Robert Foster were misses, but they had negligible draft stock.
Toney's ADP at the FFPC is only a ninth-round selection, while the draft community is all-in on Moore as a fourth-rounder. We could see Toney's ADP rise with departures via free agency, making now the time to pounce, but it is tough to see a scenario where Moore moves up much more.
Laviska Shenault Jr. could get a fresh start with the new coaching staff. His PPG dropped from 11.2 to 8.1, but we saw similar marks from Deebo Samuel (12.6 and 11.5) before a Year 3 boom. Unfortunately, Shenault's YPRR (1.36) in Year 2 pales compared to Samuel's (2.26).
Shenault seems like a player that could pick up steam as we move forward in the draft season, making now an excellent time to gain some exposure at the backend of drafts (Round 15 ADP on FFPC).
Rashod Bateman still has a shot to break out in a similar fashion to previous first-round Group 2 players who experienced a 90% top-24 hit rate in seasons two and three. The Ravens receiver costs only a 10th round pick in FFPC best ball drafts.
Gabriel Davis, Nico Collins and Quintez Cephus don't have strong comps as Group 2 wide receivers with a lack of draft capital. Now isn't the time to gain exposure to Davis with a Round 7 draft capital. If the Bills go receiver in the draft or free agency, that price tag will fall, and it may not go much higher even if he runs pure.
Group Three Highlights
Jerry Jeudy is a borderline Group 3 player (64.8 PFF receiving grade) and already has a 22% target share season to his name. The other first-round comps for Group 3 (Justin Blackmon, Will Fuller V, Michael Floyd, Corey Coleman, Corey Davis, Jonathan Baldwin and Nelson Agholor) ranked lower than Jeudy in receiving grade, YPRR, target share and TPRR.
I am treating Jeudy as a Group 2 player rather than punishing him for missing a threshold by 0.2, and the ADP isn't astronomical (eighth round).
Michael Pittman Jr. already has a 237-point season, so there is no need to fret.
Josh Palmer and Dyami Brown could receive new opportunities in 2022, but we shouldn't assume more routes will translate into future fantasy points, given the low hit rates for picks after the second round. They are assets worth moving sooner rather than later in dynasty, as their values will be sensitive to offseason roster changes.