Rookie vs. Veteran Value Analysis

Updated: April 17th 2018

The NFL draft season always creates a buzz around rookies which inflates the value of 1st and 2nd round picks in the current year. Until last year the RSO strategy for rookie picks was that you wanted to get a player who would produce immediately. This was because a player who needed a couple of years to develop would likely be on someone else’s team after his rookie contract ran out. With the latest features to have a 5th-year rookie option and the ability to resign a player, there may now be a shift in draft strategy where players that need a year or two to produce are still valuable. This creates two camps in the RSO fantasy community. The first are owners who want to accumulate rookies on 3 to 4-year contracts for between $1-7MM per year and have below market value players locked in long-term. The second are those that move their picks to acquire veteran talent because they know what they are getting, or at least can more accurately expect their production levels when compared to a college player arriving in the NFL.

So the question becomes which strategy is better for building a championship caliber team? To compare these strategies we need to look at the average production of a player on their rookie contract and place it against the top 24 players that are being priced according to their league’s market value in Free Agent Auctions at each position. The metric I will use shows a single value to compare all players against one another. This value will be a combination of two data points. The first is a player or draft pick’s points per game average over the last three (3) seasons compared to the average points from the top 24 players at each position. The second is a player or draft pick’s average annual contract value divided by their average fantasy points per game ($/FP) compared to the average $/FP of the top from the top 24 players at each position. This number will show how much a player is being paid per fantasy point whereby a lower number is the desirable outcome. Finally, a weighted ratio of 75:25 in favor of points per game is applied giving the final singular value, from here known as the Total Value.

Rookie Values

Now that we have gotten the background information out of the way let’s see what the data shows. First, the rookie selections. Plotting the data for the last three rookie drafts produces a graph that looks like this. For those in Superflex and 2QB, I have also done a separate analysis for comparisons.

Before continuing further one thing needs to be established regarding John Ross and where he fits within this data set. Because Ross didn’t score any fantasy points in his rookie season and doesn’t have any other years to compare against he was removed from the data. Including him would make the scale of the chart unreadable for all other players. If I revisit this data in the future when Ross has accumulated points I will add him back to the data.

As expected the 1.01 holds a lot of value. With players like Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliot, and Leonard Fournette the 1.01 has become an instant impact player that has been well below market value in their rookie season and beyond. Owners that have had these players under rookie contracts have had a strong advantage over their fellow league-mates when it comes to their buying power in Free Agency. The remainder of the first round, save for two spots, holds below average (1) value due to several expensive misses including Laquon Treadwell, Kevin White, Nelson Agholor, and Josh Doctson along with some yet to be sided picks in Corey Coleman and Corey Davis. It is likely no coincidence that the players listed are all WRs. More will be discussed about draft strategy regarding this later.

In the second round is where a separation in values between single and Superflex QB leagues. Because most leagues feature only one starting QB this makes drafting rookie QBs less of a priority and thus pushing them down the average draft board. Only two QBs had a first-round ADP in the last three seasons, Marcus Mariota (12.3) and Jameis Winston (12.6) compared to the seven total that were drafted in the first two rounds. The other five were drafted between 17 and 24 which is why the 2.07 – 2.12 features the lowest dollar per fantasy point value of any range of picks. For those who have started reading Matt Waldman’s RSP, he is noticing a similar trend over the last 5 years of rookie QBs producing earlier in their career. This is big news for RSO drafters because QBs score the most points in fantasy on average and if they can be acquired below market value early in their careers and now resigned to moderate contracts later drafting rookie QBs becomes even more of a second-round staple for value.

Comparing to the Veterans

Now that we have established the values of rookie picks we can bring in the veteran players to see what their values are. Remember that veteran players are likely to be earning higher contracts but they also have higher minimum production values when compared to rookies and rookie contracts. Below is a comparison between 2017’s top 3 scorers at each position and each pick within the first two rounds. Again, a second chart for 2QB and Superflex is also listed.

Before looking for me on twitter to tell me that Antonio Brown for the 2.01 immediately makes this study invalid here me out first. While the goal of this work was to try and give an exact yes or no answer to trades it turns out that cannot be done and much like most trades there is room for interpretation on both sides of a deal. The formula aims to value production over contracts but in some cases, it makes it difficult for the highest earning players to have greater value when players like Jordan Howard and Alvin Kamara are being drafted around the 2.01 at rock-bottom contracts. That is not to say that every 13th ranked player will be a top 24 player at his position but with their recent success, combined with their low contract value it makes them more valuable than other top players in the calculations.

The other reason for quirky results is because of players either being less roster-able in most leagues, their production was limited to a handful of games, or they were easily acquirable for minimum contracts in 2017. This is the case with players such as Josh McCown, Alex Collins, Benjamin Watson, Alex Smith, and Chris Thompson being considered “more valuable” than the 1.01.

Ultimately, this data is meant to be used to showcase where some of the more valuable spots within a draft are for selection value. The important numbers to focus on are at the bottom of the chart that shows veteran players hold more value compared to the average top 24 draft pick. Even in 2QB and Superflex, there is only slightly more value for draft picks due to QB’s higher scoring being more valuable under a rookie deal. For the full list of players and values, you can find the value charts shared here.

Final Thoughts

While the figures above would suggest moving down in (and often out of) the draft as the right decision we know also from the chart that scoring is not exactly even when comparing the top selection to the rest of the draft. If you are moving the 1.01 you want to ensure that you are receiving a great return in terms of veteran player production to counter the amount of cost savings the selection has when compared to the market value. Of course, the selection itself has to be the correct one otherwise the cost will doom its owner, both financially in the sunk cost of the first pick and production wise in the assets they forfeited to have it.

When it comes to making rookie selections the running back position is the position that offers the greatest likelihood of immediate and impactful returns. This is a key strategy for RSO leagues as you want to have championship windows built around having top performing starters being on below-market/rookie contracts before they become expensive to either resign or reacquire in Free Agency. While not always the case, most receivers take a few seasons to adapt to the NFL which reduces their value of being on low-cost contracts. If you have a top pick it is often more valuable to select an RB. Depending on if you play Superflex this may also be a spot to consider a QB, again because of the reduced cost and expected point total when compared to their veteran counterpart.

From the 1.05 to the 2.12 there is almost no correlation or change in expected career PPG. This is when the lottery begins on whether a player will be as successful as a top 24 player at his position. From any of these spots, you can start to weigh offers for veterans and decide whether their production value is equal to or greater than a realistic expectation of a rookie selected in that position. This is where I would reference my chart to see establish ranges where certain players become more valuable than a draft pick.

Other major takeaways to consider:

  • Do not draft a TE even if the value seems to be greater than that of any other player on the board. Their value should only be established once they become consistent producers. Paying a first round pick for a player like Travis Kelce is more justifiable than drafting a TE like O.J. Howard in the first round. You will be paying top TE salaries while hoping they produce as a top TE maybe by the final year of their contract.
  • In 1QB leagues, if you find yourself in the second round or later and are uninterested in drafting any of the available WRs or RBs take the highest available QB. Their value will often remain constant for the next year or two and can be flipped for similar pick values in future drafts.

Hopefully, these tips give you a leg up in the draft this season and if you have any questions about draft pick trade values send me a message on Twitter @RSO_NickAndrews.

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