Many leagues have already completed their rookie drafts, or are doing so in the coming weeks. We have seen many trends developing, including the five top running backs being selected in the first 5-6 overall picks, wide receivers more or less dominating the late-first/early-second round, and of course everyone getting their favorite ‘sleeper’ in round three or later. However, how many of our selections after round two can we expect to actually deliver fantasy relevance?
For this thought experiment, I leveraged average draft position (ADP) data from Mizelle, which is powered by mock draft data from Dynasty League Football. Typically, there are six startup mock drafts used to create the ADP which helps mitigate the outliers that are selected much earlier or later from most other drafts. I looked at rookie-only ADP from mock drafts conducted in May each year since 2014 and zeroed in on the 25th - 36th rookies taken in startup drafts (which equates to third round rookie ADP). The third round of rookie drafts seems to be the round where there is less consensus and the probability of future production greatly drops.
From 2014 - 2019, there have been 72 players taken with third round ADP. For this sampling, I removed quarterbacks (seven total) as their ability to achieve fantasy relevance as a QB2 is not very difficult if they ever get a starting job. Also, in leagues that start only one quarterback, the position is less important. I also removed tight ends (six total) as that position has become somewhat of a wasteland outside of the elite at the position, so again, achieving a top-24 season is not extremely impressive. That leaves a sample size of 59 players who were either running backs or wide receivers and had a rookie ADP between 25-36 in the month following the NFL Draft.
Of those 59 players, there were exactly 12 that ever achieved even one top-36 PPR fantasy finish in their careers (20%), and there were nine that achieved top-24 status (15%). Those 21 unique players totaled 25 top-36 seasons and 16 top-24 seasons in their careers thus far. As such, since 2014, there have been an average of 1.8 players taken in the third round of rookie drafts who go on to be an RB3 or WR3. So, which 1-2 players will possibly be fantasy relevant for you and can be had in the third round of your drafts?
Looking at the twelve players in our data set that ever posted a top-36 fantasy finish, the average snap count percentage in the season in which they first achieved top-36 status was 55%. Drilling down deeper, the seven running backs averaged 44% snap count and the five wide receivers averaged 71%. Now, only five of those 12 that accounted for a top-36 fantasy finish did so in their rookie season (Andre Williams, Javorius Allen, Jeremy Langford, Cooper Kupp, and Terry McLaurin), so we do not necessarily need the 2020 rookies to immediately see significant playing time. However, we should try to predict which running backs in this group may ever get to see approximately 44% of the team’s snaps in a season, and which wide receivers will be near the 71% snap count average.
According to Mizelle, the players in the third round ADP in May mock drafts thus far are as follows:
Removing the quarterbacks and tight ends leaves us nine players to consider for future fantasy success. Here are my thoughts on each:
Joshua Kelley - he enters the season third on the depth chart for the Los Angeles Chargers, but very well could surpass Justin Jackson for backup duties to Austin Ekeler. Kelley has fourth round NFL draft capital and better measurables across the board compared to Jackson. Coupled with the fact that Ekeler himself has excelled in a ‘split’ role and never surpassed 36% of the team’s carries in the NFL bodes well for Kelley’s outlook.
Darrynton Evans - currently listed as the backup to Derrick Henry, Evans seems to have less obstacles to seeing significant playing time, however, that may not happen in 2020. Henry accounted for 68% of the team carries in 2019, and his backup at the time Dion Lewis totaled 79 touches in the regular season, with 20% of those coming in Week 16 where Henry was out. Assuming Henry is healthy in 2020, the offense figures to run through him and he will continue dominating touches. If the Titans do not resign Henry, Evans may see a more prominent role beyond 2020.
K.J. Hamler - the Broncos revamped their offense in the 2020 NFL Draft, taking both Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler to team with Courtland Sutton as receiving options for second-year quarterback Drew Lock. Denver had the ninth-lowest pass rate in the NFL in 2019, and it is hard to imagine that number increasing with the addition of talented runner Melvin Gordon. In Drew Lock’s starts last year, the third receiver was targeted 13% of the time which means Hamler may struggle to see enough work to put up top-36 fantasy numbers. If Lock is able to improve on his awful 4.6 average completed air yards, Hamler could be an asset down the road.
Lynn Bowden - similar to the Broncos, Las Vegas followed up their early selection of a wide receiver with another passing game option, this time selecting Lynn Bowden in the third round. Whether Bowden plays running back or wide receiver, it is difficult to imagine him garnering a high enough snap count to make an impact fantasy-wise. He may be a hybrid running back / wide receiver, but at both positions will have significant competition. Bowden may fall into the category of players who are more impactful in real football sense as opposed to fantasy.
Van Jefferson - a surprise of a selection in the second round by the Rams, Jefferson enters the league as an older prospect with fairly unimpressive college metrics. The Rams are coming off a pass-happy 2019 campaign, but that very well may have been due to the lack of success running the ball as they had enjoyed the previous couple of seasons with Todd Gurley. Even if LA continues to sling the rock in 2020 and beyond, there are a plethora of receiving options Jefferson must compete with. Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, and Josh Reynolds are the three receivers above him on the depth chart, not to mention Tyler Higbee who was heavily involved in the passing game as the season wore on. Now, situations can change quickly in the NFL and the Rams are no exception. Kupp and Reynolds can hit free agency after this season, Woods can be cut after 2020 with little dead cap and is due to be a free agent in 2022 regardless. If any one of those players moves on, opportunity awaits Jefferson.
La’Mical Perine - like most of the rookies on this list, Perine finds himself in a somewhat unfavorable position when it comes to immediate playing time. For now, Le’Veon Bell is entrenched as the workhorse, and the recent signing of Frank Gore muddies the water a bit for 2020. After this season however, the depth chart could open up in New York. The rumors of coach Adam Gase’s disgruntlement towards Bell is well-known, and Gore’s one year deal is unlikely to be extended beyond this season. The Jets could always sink early draft capital into a back in the 2021 NFL Draft, but even then Perine could be looking at a backup role at worst if Bell moves on.
DeeJay Dallas - stop me if you have heard this before…Dallas enters a crowded backfield in 2020, joining both Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny. Both incumbents are coming off injuries, and while Carson should be able to return to full strength for this season, there is a real possibility that Penny misses a significant chunk while recovering. Travis Homer poses little threat to Dallas for backup duties to Carson, but if Marshawn Lynch does indeed return to Seattle in 2020, DeeJay will be hard pressed to find playing time. Again, situations change quickly with Lynch unlikely to play multiple seasons and Carson an unrestricted free agent in 2021, so Dallas may see a path to more touches serving as Penny’s backup as early as next season.
Antonio Gandy-Golden - Gandy-Golden is an interesting prospect, as many small-school players tend to be. On one hand, he dominated metrics like target share, dominator, and breakout age. On the other hand, his level of competition and lack of explosiveness in his combine testing leaves plenty of question marks. Washington could provide an early opportunity for Gandy-Golden, as the receiver corps is wide open behind Terry McLaurin. Kelvin Harmon is entering his second season but has worse metrics and athletic testing numbers than Gandy-Golden and was a late-sixth round pick. Trey Quinn and Steven Sims will battle for the slot role, and neither have commanded tons of targets in the past. If Gandy-Golden can prove early on that he has the ability to beat NFL defensive backs with his size, he could become a favorite target of quarterback Dwayne Haskins.
Devin Duvernay - one of my favorite wide receiver prospects to watch, Duvernay excels in the slot and creating yards after. This style of receiver seems to be perfect for what the Ravens are building, but with the current run-heavy approach and preferred targets in Mark Andrews and Marquise Brown, Duvernay likely will not see consistent volume or snap share. The Ravens frequently run personnel groupings that include two tight ends which limits the amount of three-wide receiver sets which Duvernay would rely on for snaps.
Since 2014, the 36th ranked PPR running back has averaged 132 points, while the 36th ranked PPR wide receiver has averaged 170 points. As such, it seems that achieving a fantasy relevant season is easier for running backs than it is for wide receivers. However, looking at our 12 previous rookies taken in the third round of rookie drafts that achieved fantasy ‘success,’ we see the volume needed is much different. For the seven running backs in our data set, they averaged 197 touches in their first top-36 fantasy season. For the five wide receivers, they averaged 72 catches on 106 targets in their first top-36 fantasy season.
Using all of this data and considering talent and situation, my prediction is that either or both of Joshua Kelley and Antonio-Gandy Golden are more likely than their ADP peers to achieve fantasy relevance as early as 2020. The Chargers have given their running backs an average of 450+ touches the past three seasons, and Ekeler has never handled the lion's share of carries. If Ekeler remains in the 225-250 touch range for 2020, this means Kelley could flirt with 185+ touches as a rookie if he can beat out Justin Jackson. As for Gandy-Golden, much depends on the development of Haskins. In games in which Haskins played at least 90% of the snaps, he threw the ball approximately 27 times per game, for a full-season pace of 442. This would be a far lower amount than Ron Rivera asked of his quarterbacks the last three seasons in Carolina, as they averaged 622 pass attempts. Something has to give here, and I am betting with a season under his belt and presumably the starting gig his to own from the start, Haskins will be closer to the league average of 550 passing attempts. After McLaurin, the target distribution is anyone’s guess, leaving the door open for Gandy-Golden to sniff 100 targets and 70 catches.
While the hype train builds around everyone’s favorite sleepers, you can leverage the data here to make a more informed decision before you throw the dart that is a late round rookie pick. My advice is to throw that at Joshua Kelley and Antonio Gandy-Golden for the highest likelihood of returning value on that selection.
Taylor Cornell (@_TaylorCornell)