News & Analysis

Fantasy football drafts: Picking rookies in best ball

Nov 24, 2018; Tucson, AZ, USA; Arizona State Sun Devils wide receiver N'Keal Harry (1) against the Arizona Wildcats during the Territorial Cup at Arizona Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

I’m hopelessly addicted to best ball fantasy football leagues, and if you’ve never played in a best ball league, soon you will be too. If you’re new to best ball, check out this article, explaining the format and offering my best strategy tips.

Because I’m so addicted to best ball leagues (over 300 throughout my fantasy career), I’m constantly looking to gain an edge over my opponents. One easy edge, it seems, is loading up on rookie running backs and wide receivers in March and April.

(Special thanks to best ball guru Mike Beers for his help on this project.)

Best ball ADP and the stock market

During college, I briefly worked at a hedge fund analyzing stocks and pitching buy-or-sell recommendations to the owners and senior analysts. This experience no doubt has put me at an advantage over many of my peers when it comes to analyzing NFL players from a fantasy perspective. One important lesson, specific to investing, that I learned during my time there was how the market seemed to follow specific seasonal patterns year over year.

My employment there began as a four-week intern in June but continued into the fall. During September, I remember tensions being high. One of the senior analysts pulled me aside after one of the owners had another Odell Beckham Jr.-like meltdown. He said, “Don’t worry about him. He’s like this every September. Historically a terrible month for the markets.” I asked why, and he replied, “I’m not really sure. It’s an old adage, ‘sell in May and go away.’ Something to do with everyone coming back from vacation? I have no idea, but it’s true.”

Indeed, that claim is supported by the data.

I’m no longer as skilled with stocks as I am with fantasy football, but this experience did lead me to start imagining ADP in a similar way as to one might look at the stock market. Is it possible that BestBall10 ADP follows specific seasonal trends each year? Looking at ADP data from 2017 to 2018, my findings have concluded that this does appear to be the case in several specific instances.

Rookie running backs

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Over the past two years, rookie running backs climbed an average of 23.6 spots in BestBall10 ADP when contrasting March ADP with ADP from August.

Over this span, of 37 running backs, only 10 declined in value, while 21 running backs (57%) made an ADP jump of a full round (12 spots) or more. Nick Chubb was the biggest loser (dropping 29.1 spots), followed by Justin Jackson (-17.1), and John Kelly (-15.6). Meanwhile, the biggest winners were Kareem Hunt (+110.8), Royce Freeman (+100.0), Kerryon Johnson (+87.4), Jordan Wilkins (+77.7), and Jamaal Williams (+68.2).

Rookie wide receivers

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Over the past two years, rookie wide receivers climbed an average of 18.8 spots in BestBall10 ADP when contrasting March ADP with ADP from August.

Over the past two seasons, only eight of 35 wide receivers failed to gain value by ADP. Meanwhile, 23 (66%) wide receivers jumped a full round or more. Mike Williams was our biggest loser (due to injury), falling 92.4 spots by August. Behind him was JuJu Smith-Schuster (-34.2), Courtland Sutton (-32.5), Corey Davis (-22.8), and Calvin Ridley (-20.8). The biggest winners were Anthony Miller (+94.2), Kendrick Bourne (+91.0), Kenny Golladay (+86.3), Zay Jones (+77.2), Cooper Kupp (+46.5), and D.J. Moore (+43.5).

Rookie quarterbacks and tight ends

Unlike running backs and wide receivers, it’s best to stay away from rookie quarterbacks and tight ends. Quarterbacks barely gained any value (+0.6) from March to August, and though tight ends returned decent value by ADP (+13.6), tight ends tend not to be very productive in their rookie seasons.

Conclusion

Whereas Travis Kelce and Julio Jones can be compared to blue-chip stocks, drafting rookie running backs and wide receivers before the NFL draft might feel like buying penny stocks, where you’re drafting/investing purely on speculation. Instead, there’s value in being aggressive and exploiting your opponents’ fears over the uncertainty. Again, without taking into account actual fantasy performance (rookies due tend to be risky investments in more general terms), loading up on rookies before the actual NFL draft appears to be a highly profitable move.

Right now, based on BestBall10 ADP, only two rookie running backs are typically being selected before Round 9 — Josh Jacobs (6.05) and David Montgomery (7.01). Even more absurdly than that, there are only two rookie wide receivers typically being drafted before the tail-end of Round 14 — D.K. Metcalf (10.08) and N'Keal Harry (11.01).

Want to know which rookie running backs and wide receivers are currently your best bets to make a massive leap in value following the draft? Stay tuned for the PFF Draft Guide and some additional content coming in the next few weeks.

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