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Fantasy Football: Don't expect much from players drafted outside the NFL draft's top-three rounds

Arlington, Texas, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) attempts a pass against the San Francisco 49ers during the second half of the NFC Wild Card playoff football game at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

We are in the thick of mock draft season. The diehards have been obsessing over the NFL draft’s incoming class for more than a year and others since the Los Angeles Rams’ Super Bowl victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. It’s always a joyous event in NFL circles because we don’t have much else to do between February and August every year.

Free agency and the draft are both marquee events that receive all sorts of media hype. However, we probably put too much stock into these occasions than we should when it comes to expected production. High-priced free agents have typically failed to return elite value when signing with a new team, and generally, only a handful of rookies at each position truly resemble a high-end producer in their debut campaign.

Don’t get it twisted, rookies will make severe impacts on offenses and defenses around the league for better and for worse. Things are just generally a bit unrealistic when it comes to Year 1 expectations from fans and fantasy football diehards alike.

The idea that rookies don’t usually function as high-end producers has been abundantly clear in fantasy land over the past 10 years. Yes, an average of 3.1 rookie running backs per season have finished as top-24 PPR scorers over the past decade. Also yes, things have been far less frequent for wide receivers (1.6) while cases of a top-12 quarterback (0.6) or tight end (0.2) have been even rarer.

The one similarity across each position is simple: the higher they are drafted, the better. At least 80% of top-performing rookie quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and tight ends were selected inside of the top-three rounds over the past 10 years. There’s a better than good chance your favorite prospect won’t be putting up too big of numbers in Year 1 should they fail to be drafted inside of the top-three rounds.

However, this trend doesn’t exactly disappear after one season. The numbers aren't quite as staggering, but 81% of high-performing fantasy quarterbacks, 68% of running backs, 78% of wide receivers and 73% of tight ends have been Day 1 or 2 picks regardless of experience.

Like anything, numbers don’t tell the entire story. What follows is a position-by-position breakdown of what the past victors have in common, who have been the exceptions to the rule, and what to expect from the 2022 class of rookies.

Quarterback

Only six rookie quarterbacks have finished as a top-12 fantasy football scorer over the past 10 years:

Each qualifier was their team’s starting quarterback by Week 2 at the latest and also possessed plenty of dual-threat ability. It was clear coming out of college that Luck (25 rushing yards per game), Griffin (55), Wilson (28), Prescott (51) and Murray (51) possessed the ability to hurt defenses with their legs while Herbert (13) did show enough at the combine to believe he was capable of bigger things on the ground.

Wilson and Prescott were the only qualifiers who were not drafted inside of the top-three rounds. The former won a quarterback competition with Matt Flynn and Tarvaris Jackson while the latter only saw the field so quickly because Tony Romo was injured in the preseason.

It's tough to see a depth chart around the league that could feature a late-round signal-caller getting the opportunity to compete in a true position battle. The Houston Texans, Detroit Lions, Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers certainly need to upgrade their respective quarterback rooms, but then again, each possesses enough at the position to seemingly keep a fantasy-friendly late-round signal-caller on the bench. Of course, the competition added on Day 1 or 2 of the draft is a different story.

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) throws a short pass in the fourth quarter at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., on Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019.
Indianapolis Colts Play The Kansas City Chiefs At Arrowhead Stadium In Afc Playoffs 2019
2022 rookie notes

The 2022 PFF NFL Draft Big Board has seven quarterbacks listed as top-100 prospects: Sam Howell, Malik Willis, Desmond Ridder, Matt Corral, Kenny Pickett, Carson Strong and Bailey Zappe.

  • There are a number of candidates who look capable of adding some fantasy-friendly rushing production to their future offense: Howell (27 rush yards per game), Willis (61), Ridder (44) and Corral (36) each demonstrated a rather solid rushing floor over the course of their collegiate careers, although the same can’t be said for Pickett (15.4), Strong (-9.5, lol) and Zappe (1.2).
  • Howell might have averaged the fewest rushing yards per game from our qualified quarterbacks, but he did break an asinine 63 tackles and totaled 1,072 yards on the ground in 2021. It wouldn’t be shocking if his passing ability gets back on track a season after losing the majority of his top skill-position talents to the NFL.
  • Willis has become the consensus fantasy QB1 from this class thanks, in large part, to his top-tier rushing ability. And why not, as the man is absolutely dynamic with the football in his hands.
  • Ridder mightily impressed at the combine (4.52-second 40-yard dash) and has been dubbed the most technical quarterback in the draft by resident PFF smart real-life football dude Seth Galina. The former attribute could certainly help ease his early-career transition to dealing with NFL speed.
  • Corral’s biggest negative seems to be the reality that he worked inside of a rather gimmicky RPO-heavy offense at Ole Miss under Lane Kiffen. Still, he posted rather awesome PFF passing grades when throwing deep (90.7), intermediate (91.3) and from clean pockets (91.5) so maybe the 23-year-old signal-caller is simply good regardless of the system.

Running Back

Intriguingly, there hasn't been much of a difference in rookie performance between first and second-round running backs, as both groups have produced 10 top-24 fantasy scorers over the last decade. There have even been six third-round talents that have put together big things in Year 1.

However, there are, once again, very few exceptions to the rule that earlier is better when it comes to discerning the difference in production between draft rounds. Only five rookie running backs went on to post top-24 production despite not being drafted inside of the top-three rounds:

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