Rookie WRs to Target in Best Ball

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Earlier this week I examined how rookie wide receivers have produced the most top 20 finishes in best ball win rate over the last four seasons, making them a critical component of any best ball portfolio. Because we can’t simply draft every rookie receiver however, I created a best ball target profile using NFL draft position and college production.

Target Profile

We're working with a small sample of 11 rookies who have finished top 20 in win rate and who had top 90 ADPs. So we can't simply write off players that don't check these boxes. It's very likely that a wide receiver comes along soon and breaks this mold. But the profile sets a fairly low bar for rookies to clear, and every rookie league winner has met at least three of the four criteria. This target profile should be useful in helping to determine which rookies to target at ADP.

  • Selected in the first 3 rounds of the NFL draft.

    • 100% of rookie league winners with top 90 ADPs since 2017.

  • Preferably declared early.

    • 55%

  • Had a breakout season with a dominator rating (combined yardage share and TD share) of 30% or more.

    • 100%

  • Career yardage share of at least 22%.

    • 100%

Below I’ve applied the target profile to this year’s rookies who are being selected inside the top 90 wide receivers. Anything beyond that, I consider a true dart throw, but I've included three of my favorite targets in that range.

(ADP is from Underdog)

Ja'Marr Chase, ADP: WR21

Ja'Marr Chase is the most expensive rookie wide receiver in years. CeeDee Lamb was previously the most expensive rookie wide receiver since 2017 with an ADP of WR40. Chase’s ADP currently sits at WR21.

It’s not hard to see why Chase is being treated differently by drafters. He put up 1,780 yards and 20 TDs as a sophomore, accounting for 33% of LSU’s historic passing offense. He did this while out-performing rookie sensation Justin Jefferson, and while being significantly more efficient than Jefferson on a per route basis. Chase then tested as a genuinely elite NFL athlete, was drafted fifth overall, and was reunited with the quarterback that facilitated his earth shattering 2019 season. It would be genuinely odd if drafters weren’t treating him differently than rookie wide receivers of years past.

Recommendation: Target Chase aggressively when he falls below ADP. Chase’s ADP is a bit higher than ideal. But in scenarios where Chase is as good as it looks like he could be, the Bengals Offense is going to be extremely potent and Chase will be able to deliver elite efficiency right away. Some of Chase's upside is priced in, but you’re going to want exposure.

Devonta Smith, ADP: WR33

After completing the research for these articles, Devonta Smith immediately jumped to mind as someone I wanted to get exposure to in best ball drafts. Because, while I’m below market on Smith in dynasty, I can’t deny that he has the draft position, career production and breakout season indicative of a highly efficient rookie year.

However, high volume expectations are unfortunately baked into Smith’s best ball ADP, and he’s currently going in a range where I’m not comfortable drafting him. At WR33 he is significantly more expensive than CeeDee Lamb and Jerry Jeudy were last year.

Drafters are salivating at Smith's immediate target opportunity. But rookie wide receivers--even elite ones--are poor bets for above average route volume. In Smith's case, it's not even clear that we should be confident in his immediate opportunity. Smith will definitely have a significant role in the offense, I'm not disputing that. But wide receivers coach Aaron Moorhead, and head coach Nick Sirianni favored heavy wide receiver rotations last season. A "full time" role in this offense is still one that could yield opportunity well below expectations for a wide receiver with Smith's ADP. Of course, if Smith delivers on the upside he flashed in his Heisman-winning season, he can win leagues anyway. But unless he sees volume well above what we've seen from recent rookie league winners, his ADP sets a very high bar for his rookie season efficiency.

Recommendation: Only viable at a steep discount.

Jaylen Waddle, ADP: WR47

In 2020 DeVante Parker saw 79% of his snaps out-wide and Will Fuller saw 81% of his snaps out-wide. Over his Alabama career, Jaylen Waddle saw 77% of his snaps from the slot. Waddle obviously won’t take all of his snaps from the slot in Miami, but it seems likely that it will be his primary role in 2021.

Heavy slot usage isn’t ideal, given that Miami ran 3 WR sets on 67% of their pass plays last season, 22nd in the NFL. Waddle’s volume may be capped by the size of the slot role in Miami, requiring elite efficiency to pay off his ADP. Of course, the Dolphins could increase their use of 3WR sets to get the sixth overall pick on the field more often. This would likely be in response to strong play from Waddle. Alternatively, Waddle could earn work on the outside over Parker or Fuller. But again, this would require Waddle to play at a very high level.

Waddle has paths to strong volume this season, but almost all of them require him to be delivering elite efficiency. Luckily, Waddle has a history of absurdly efficient play. As a freshman he led Alabama in yards per route run, leading a group of three other future first round picks who were all a year ahead of him in the college program. Waddle then closed his career with 4.38 YPRR, averaging just 0.01 less than Heisman winner Devonta Smith.

However, Waddle’s production profile has some red flags. He never authored a breakout season (although his 2020 season would have cleared the threshold had he not battled through injury in the National Championship game). Waddle also managed just an 18% career yardage share at Alabama.

Despite being a highly efficient three-year college player, Waddle is the type of rookie I’d prefer to target a bit cheaper.

Recommendation: Target at a discount. Currently targeting in the WR55 range.

Elijah Moore, ADP: WR54

When looking for efficient wide receivers who will steadily earn more playing time, it’s really nice to hear that a rookie was the best player in OTAs. It’s also nice to hear that last year’s second round pick, Denzel Mims, is currently on the second unit, leaving only Keelan Cole and his one-year contract standing in the way of snaps out-wide. And it can’t hurt that the Jets asked current starting slot receiver Jamison Crowder to take a pay-cut when they were already way below the cap.

Elijah Moore also checks every box in the target profile. He is a three-year college player who broke out as a sophomore in 2019 and then again in 2020. He accounted for a career 29% yardage share. He was drafted in round two. And on top of all that, he was absurdly efficient in 2020, putting up a YPRR of 3.85 while his teammates combined for a pedestrian 1.49. Moore was dominating his college offense because he was the best guy on the field by a mile.

Recommendation: Target at ADP. If Crowder’s presence at training camp causes Moore's ADP to dip back into the WR60+ range, he’s a priority target at that price.

Rashod Bateman, ADP: WR56

Rashod Bateman nearly broke out as a freshman with a 28% dominator rating in 2018. He followed that up with a 36% dominator rating in 2019 and then an absurd 48% in a covid shortened 2020. Over the course of his career, he accounted for 34% of Minnesota’s receiving yards and was highly efficient while doing so, leading the nation in YPRR from out-wide in 2019.

The Baltimore offense definitely presents problems. Passing attempts have been historically low over the last two seasons and we have no real reason to expect things to change this year. But if Bateman plays as efficiently as his prospect profile suggests he can, a low volume role won’t prevent him from being a league winner at his current price. Calvin Ridley and D.J. Moore were more expensive in best ball drafts as rookies, and both finished top 15 in win rate on 29 and 27 routes per game. Marquise Brown ran 26 routes per game as a rookie in the same offense, and finished with a top 30 win rate.

With Marquise Brown still in the mix, Bateman’s path to value depends on immediately emerging as a star. His prospect profile suggest that he can hit the ground running immediately, but if it takes him a year to adjust to the NFL game--as has been the case for numerous elite NFL wide receivers--he’ll go down as a wasted best ball pick. As a big believer in his talent, I’ll still have plenty of exposure this year.

Recommendation: Target at a slight discount, in the WR60 range.

Self Recommendation: Target, but please, show some restraint.

Rondale Moore, ADP: WR 63

I joke about drafting too much Rashod Bateman, but if there's any rookie wide receiver that I end up going overboard on in best ball drafts this year, it'll be Rondale Moore.

First of all, the Cardinals Offense just fed Larry Fitzgerald 34 routes per game. WR4 amalgam Andy-KeeSean Isabella-Johnson averaged another 33 routes per game. Even if this offense uses A.J. Green in a full time role on the outside and Christian Kirk plays significant slot snaps, there should still be plenty of routes for Rondale Moore. It might not be a huge role right away. But Moore is likely to see 25+ routes per game to start the season, which is more than enough for him to showcase elite efficiency and earn more volume over time.

There’s good reason to expect elite efficiency. Moore broke out as a true freshman, declared early and produced 30% of Purdue’s receiving yards over his career. Now tied to strong quarterback play and with an alpha wide receiver to draw defensive attention, Moore looks like an outstanding bet for a highly efficient rookie season.

As Green’s declining play inevitably forces Kirk back to the outside, Moore can consolidate slot targets and deliver a slew of league winning spike weeks down the stretch.

Recommendation: Priority Target.

Terrace Marshall, ADP: WR65

Terrace Marshall’s prospect profile is boom/bust. He produced a career yardage share of just 17% and he fell in the NFL draft due to medical red flags. However, Marshall also delivered a spectacular 2020 season where he put up a 47% dominator rating and 2.91 yards per route run. He then declared early for the draft and went in the second round. Marshall's career production is also less worrisome once you remember than he was playing behind Justin Jefferson and Ja'Marr Chase in 2018-2019.

Marshall now enters an offense with a clear opening at WR3. This won’t be a huge role. Curtis Samuel only saw 29 routes per game last year, and offered more flexibility than Marshall will in the slot and out of the backfield. Marshall is also likely to cede snaps to David Moore to begin the year. That said, if Marshall eventually takes on Samuel's wide receiver snaps and the Panthers play faster, there’s a pretty clear path for Marshall to work into a 30+ routes per game role to close the year. Marshall's prospect profile indicates he may be raw entering the league. He strikes me as a better candidate for a second year breakout, but Marshall definitely has the upside to hit the ground running.

Recommendation: Target, but keep exposure in check.

Amon-Ra St. Brown, ADP: WR72

Amon-Ra St. Brown is a popular target, but for the wrong reasons. St. Brown faces a clear lack of target competition in Detroit. However, he’s also in an offense that isn’t expected to produce efficient pass catching options. And as a rookie slot receiver, St. Brown faces a strong headwind in becoming a league winner on pure volume.

St. Brown could thrive in spite of poor circumstances, however. He broke out in 2020 with a 33% dominator rating, produced a 24% career yardage share and declared early for the draft.

St. Brown fell to the fourth round of the NFL draft however, which is not a good sign. Before you hand-wave that as irrelevant because of the available targets in Detroit, consider the fact that not a single team considered St. Brown a Day 2 talent in a very shallow draft. That's not exactly a resounding endorsement from the scouting community.

However, St. Brown's has a strong prospect profile outside of draft position. As a result, he's probably not a bad selection at cost. It's just that, simply by virtue of him being a rookie slot receiver, St. Brown is very unlikely to have a strong routes run workload. By drafting him, you're betting on him to be a stud out of the gate, not on him to fall into a ton of gross volume.

Recommendation: Target, but keep exposure in check.

Dyami Brown, ADP: WR78

If you’re betting on a clear path to targets, which is the way to go for veteran wide receivers, Dyami Brown isn’t going to be that appealing. Curtis Samuel is very likely to play ahead of him in 2WR sets. In 3WR sets, he faces competition on the outside from Cam Sims. It’s also possible that Adam Humphries plays in the slot and Samuel remains on the outside, boxing Brown out of 3WR sets.

So it’s not easy to project a big role for Dyami Brown. But again, the bet here is that Brown is excellent right away and forces Scott Turner’s hand.

There’s strong evidence that this is a real possibility. Brown broke out as a sophomore in 2019 and again in 2020, and has a career yardage share of 25%. He declared early for the draft and was selected in the third round. The main knock on Brown is that he plays a clear depth threat role but doesn’t have elite speed. It was a fair pre-draft criticism. I'm not concerned about that now. Just like Ryan Fitzpatrick has never been concerned about downfield separation.

Cam Sims is entering his forth season and has a career 1.26 YPRR. Adam Humphries has averaged 1.45 YPRR over the last three years, was just cut by the Titans and is on a one-year deal. And Curtis Samuel has averaged 1.42 YPRR over the last three years and his only season with strong efficiency came on a different team and with a different coaching staff than the one he's rejoining in Washington. The target competition here isn't terrible but it's not likely to stifle a future star. If Brown is a high quality wide receiver, his role could grow substantially throughout the year.

Recommendation: Priority target.

Kadarius Toney, ADP: WR79

In the long run, Kadarius Toney could end up being a productive pro. But I don't think I could draw up a situation I'd be more willing to bet against in year one. Toney never broke out in his four year college career and produced just a 15% career yardage share. He was a first round pick, but to a team that just added Kenny Golladay as a go-to option, and that still has a capable shallow-intermediate option in Sterling Shepard. With Darius Slayton on the outside in 3WR sets, Shepard is likely to block Toney from the slot snaps he'll need to deliver immediate fantasy value. Toney will see the field right away, but likely as a rotational gadget option. His efficiency might not be bad, but his profile indicates he's very unlikely to be elite as a rookie.

Recommendation: Stacks only.

Amari Rodgers ADP: WR83

Drafting Rodgers is a similar play to Amon-Ra St. Brown. With Rodgers you get to sub in third round draft capital instead of fourth round capital, which is nice. But then you also have to sub out the breakout season and early declare status and exchange the 24% career yardage share for a 15% career yardage share. So while I like that the Packers liked Rodgers enough to select him in the third round, I'm not at all sold that he's a better prospect than St. Brown. Moreover, it’s unclear who his quarterback will be. All in all, I expect Rodgers to be on the field about as much as St. Brown, but he seems like a poor bet for high end efficiency unless Aaron Rodgers decides to play for the Packers this year.

Recommendation: Rodgers/Rodgers stacks only (not for the faint of heart).

Priority Dart Throws

The rest of the 2021 rookie wide receiver class is being drafted outside of the top 90 wide receivers. Predicting hits in this range is extremely difficult. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Two of the four rookies to finish top five in win rate were drafted outside of the top 90 WRs (JuJu Smith-Schuster and Terry McLaurin). So it’s important to keep taking swings on rookies in this range.

This deep in the draft, if there’s a guy you really like - take him. I would mix up your rookie exposures to some extent, but there’s really no wrong answers here. That’s especially true in best ball tournaments where having a differentiated lineup can help secure the grand prize. Below are my three favorite fliers.

D'Wayne Eskridge, ADP: WR91

D'Wayne Eskridge has red flags as a five-year college player, entering the NFL at 24 years old. But Eskridge actually does fit the most important criteria in the best ball target profile, and has some interesting efficiency stats as well. Eskridge broke out in 2020 with 45% of Western Michigan’s passing offense and produced a career yardage share of 24%. Eskridge was also highly efficient, with a career YPRR of 3.03 and an otherworldly 4.94 in his final season. He was also a strong special teams contributor with an absurd 27.5 yards per kick return on 17 career returns. Eskridge’s special teams ability helped him get selected in the second round. It will also make him very likely to be active on game days. Eskridge profiles as a good bet for strong per route efficiency, and if he can win the Seahawks WR3 job, he should have a sufficient role to put up a high win rate.

Nico Collins, ADP: WR92

Nico Collins could realistically lead the Texans in targets. It’ll take a Brandin Cooks injury, but we’ve unfortunately seen quite a few of those over the years. And outside of Cooks, there is very little target competition on the roster that wouldn't be passed by a breakout rookie. Unfortunately, there’s also very little talent at the quarterback position now that Watson is nearly certain not to play for the Texans this year.

Collins is a four-year player who never broke out, but he did produce a 23% career yardage share. He also put up a 4.43 40, a 6.78 3-cone and a 37.5 vertical at 6’4” 215 and was a third round pick. He doesn’t have great odds to be an instant playmaker--but if he is--he could be one of 2021’s must-draft players.

Tutu Atwell, ADP: WR108

Atwell is not a player that I’m excited about - but - he was the Rams' second round pick, produced two breakout seasons, a 24% career yardage share and declared early for the draft. He’s also 149 pounds, which makes it extremely hard to get on board. However, Van Jefferson failed to make an impact last year after receiving multiple chances, and 35 year-old (in December) DeSean Jackson is unlikely to stay healthy all year. At this price, a handful of useable weeks down the stretch would be an absolute smash. Atwell’s draft capital and college production make that a distinct possibility.