Fantasy News & Analysis

Fantasy Football: Analyzing historical rookie PFF receiving grades to find breakout wide receivers

Detroit, Michigan, USA; Detroit Lions wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown (14) runs with the ball during the second quarter against the Minnesota Vikings at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

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:

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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APPROACH

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.

RESULTS

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
Terry McLaurin 2019 3 192 226 214 86.5
Michael Thomas 2016 2 260 259 320 86.3
Mike Evans 2014 1 245 213 300 84.0
Keenan Allen 2013 3 224 179 164 83.4
A.J. Brown 2019 2 217 244 181 83.0
Tyreek Hill 2016 5 201 241 328 80.6
Doug Baldwin 2011 UDFA 154 84 158 80.4
Chris Godwin 2017 3 93 185 274 80.3
Cooper Kupp 2017 3 179 135 271 78.5
Stefon Diggs 2015 5 149 193 198 78.5
JuJu Smith-Schuster 2017 2 192 297 115 77.6
Jarvis Landry 2014 2 189 269 233 77.2
Hunter Renfrow 2019 5 134 134 261 76.5
Tyler Lockett 2015 3 155 124 118 75.8
A.J. Green 2011 1 218 302 307 75.7

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.

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.

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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
D.J. Moore 2018 1 161 233 212 73.7
Denarius Moore 2011 5 137 167 146 73.5
Jordan Matthews 2014 2 203 233 171 72.8
Taylor Gabriel 2014 UDFA 107 52 140 72.6
Devin Funchess 2015 2 108 84 195 72.5
DeVante Parker 2015 1 93 154 130 71.3
Jamison Crowder 2015 4 132 194 166 71.3
Amari Cooper 2015 1 215 228 158 71.1
Donte Moncrief 2014 3 96 173 103 70.8
Marquise Brown 2019 1 146 183 228 70.6
Darius Slayton 2019 5 170 143 71 70.5
Calvin Ridley 2018 1 209 195 282 70.5
Keelan Cole 2017 UDFA 135 93 79 70.3
Christian Kirk 2018 2 124 166 146 70.1
John Brown 2014 3 147 210 104 69.9
Mecole Hardman 2019 2 118 124 145 69.6
D.K. Metcalf 2019 2 191 273 244 69.4
Sammy Watkins 2014 1 200 219 83 69.0
DeAndre Hopkins 2013 1 144 233 329 69.0
Julio Jones 2011 1 204 262 112 68.9
Diontae Johnson 2019 3 161 224 276 68.8
Tre'Quan Smith 2018 3 101 71 103 68.5
Allen Robinson II 2014 2 115 304 197 68.2
Kenny Golladay 2017 3 95 207 250 68.1
Brandin Cooks 2014 1 139 254 246 68.1
Jeremy Kerley 2011 5 69 152 114 67.9
Justin Hunter 2013 2 77 96 54 67.8
Kendall Wright 2012 1 151 214 170 67.7
Torrey Smith 2011 2 180 183 202 67.6
Jakobi Meyers 2019 UDFA 62 133 183 67.0
Sterling Shepard 2016 2 184 145 181 66.4
Alshon Jeffery 2012 2 79 284 262 66.4
T.Y. Hilton 2012 3 181 221 261 66.1

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.

Third-rounders T.Y. Hilton, Diontae Johnson and Kenny Golladay burgeoned to top-12 success in Year 3. All three players posted two top-24 finishes.

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GROUP THREE (Below 65)

Player Team Draft Year Draft Round Rookie PPR Year 2 PPR Year 3 PPR Rec Grade
Terrance Williams DAL 2013 3 148 147 154 64.9
Marlon Brown BLT 2013 UDFA 143 50 25 64.9
Tyler Boyd CIN 2016 2 126 57 221 64.4
Kenbrell Thompkins NE 2013 UDFA 103 48 34 64.1
Kendrick Bourne SF 2017 UDFA 42 115 96 63.8
Will Fuller V HST 2016 1 122 113 106 63.4
Robert Woods BUF 2013 2 118 164 120 62.3
Marquez Valdes-Scantling GB 2018 5 111 84 139 62.1
Michael Floyd ARZ 2012 1 113 199 168 62.0
Adam Humphries TB 2015 UDFA 59 131 131 61.9
Chester Rogers IND 2016 UDFA 46 58 113 61.8
Kenny Stills NO 2013 5 127 174 89 61.7
Anthony Miller CHI 2018 2 120 130 111 61.6
Corey Davis TEN 2017 1 72 184 115 61.5
Allen Hurns JAX 2014 UDFA 155 227 101 61.4
DaeSean Hamilton DEN 2018 4 66 64 64 60.4
Davante Adams GB 2014 2 101 104 247 60.3
Michael Gallup DAL 2018 3 96 213 173 60.0
Dede Westbrook JAX 2017 4 67 178 153 60.0
Greg Little CLV 2011 2 145 143 100 57.5
Robby Anderson NYJ 2016 UDFA 117 200 160 56.4
Zay Jones BUF 2017 2 71 163 49 52.9
James Washington PIT 2018 2 44 136 99 50.5
Nelson Agholor PHI 2015 1 57 86 188 48.5

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
GROUP 1
Justin Jefferson MIN 2020 1 270 331 90.5
Ja'Marr Chase CIN 2021 1 307 84.0
Brandon Aiyuk SF 2020 1 185 169 80.8
Amon-Ra St. Brown DET 2021 4 223 80.0
Tee Higgins CIN 2020 2 197 219 79.0
Jaylen Waddle MIA 2021 1 248 78.5
DeVonta Smith PHI 2021 1 186 76.8
Chase Claypool PIT 2020 2 217 167 76.1
GROUP 2
Kadarius Toney NYG 2021 1 82 74.4
Elijah Moore NYJ 2021 2 138 73.8
CeeDee Lamb DAL 2020 1 212 233 72.6
Laviska Shenault Jr. JAX 2020 2 157 129 71.8
Rondale Moore ARZ 2021 2 111 70.7
Denzel Mims NYJ 2020 2 59 21 70.4
Darnell Mooney CHI 2020 5 150 220 67.3
Gabriel Davis BUF 2020 4 137 126 66.4
Quintez Cephus DET 2020 5 67 47 66.0
Rashod Bateman BLT 2021 1 104 65.2
Nico Collins HST 2021 3 84 65.1
Lynn Bowden Jr. MIA 2020 3 52 65.1
GROUP 3
Jerry Jeudy DEN 2020 1 156 85 64.8
Jalen Reagor PHI 2020 1 79 78 64.2
Josh Palmer LAC 2021 3 93 63.6
Michael Pittman Jr. IND 2020 2 99 237 62.6
Isaiah Wright WAS 2020 UDFA 48 59.0
Dyami Brown WAS 2021 3 28 56.9
Henry Ruggs III LV 2020 1 88 85 55.6
K.J. Hamler DEN 2020 2 90 12 55.4
Freddie Swain SEA 2020 6 41 87 53.8
Terrace Marshall Jr. CAR 2021 2 31 52.9
John Hightower PHI 2020 5 27 52.4

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.

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