By: Steve Picciano: @RandomGrenades
Updated: 5/6/2017

You’re Not Going To Like This:
I’m here to tell you that your favorite Rookie, you know the one you’ve had your eye on since the end of last season, may not live up to your expectations. In fact, he may let you down and cause you to call him a “disappointment.” Most owners will tell themselves that they have realistic expectations for their Rookies, but by the end of the season some of those same owners are openly complaining about the production they got, or even worse, trying to trade their Rookies for future draft picks or players who are currently producing.

What Goes Wrong?
Not to be too blunt, but it’s you, not them. Rookies are what they are; young, inexperienced, overwhelmed with new playbooks, unprepared for the media blitz, etc. To think that all Rookies come into the NFL prepared for the differences between their college and being on a professional team is a mistake. We exacerbate this mistake by making incorrect assumptions to help convince ourselves that they just have to be successful. It could be because they were a high draft pick, are likely to be a starter, know the coach or QB from college or hearing some analyst talk about how they’re a “perfect” fit for the team’s offensive scheme. Whatever it is, we buy into it and now we’re set up for the emotional fall.

Also contributing to inflated expectations are the few players that we see putting up monster numbers right from the start. Whether it’s Ezekiel Elliot or Odell Beckham Jr, we see the production and instantly feel like the rookies we’ve chosen should be producing at the same level or they’re busts. This can be a dangerous mindset, and could actually cost you fantasy points in the long-run.

What Do The Numbers Say?

I went back to review the year-by-year production of every player that’s been drafted in my PPR league from 2007-2016 and what I found could surprise some. I focused on non-QB positions and wanted to get a feel for what players did, not only in their Rookie season, but in subsequent years as well. In addition, I broke the data down into 1st & 2nd round players. We operate in a 16-team league, so our rounds might be a little deeper than most standard leagues, but owners always seem to have similar expectations for a 1st rounder vs. a 2nd rounder no matter how deep it is.

First things first, let’s curb our enthusiasm that a Rookie will produce 300+ points. Yes, I know that Ezekiel Elliott did so last year in many PPR formats, but having gone through the 125 WRs, 104 RBs and 51 TEs drafted in our league, he was the only player to hit that milestone in his first year. Equally sobering was the number when I stretched the range out to 200+ point Rookie producers:

14/104 RBs (13.5%)
9/125 WRs (7.2%)
*0/51 TEs (0.0%)

*League uses 2 PPR for TE for scoring parity

These numbers can get even more eye-opening when broken down into draft positions:

10/36 Top 10 RBs (27.7%)
1/17 Late 1st Round RBs (5.9%)
3/51 2nd Round RBs (5.9%)
7/39 Top 10 WRs (17.9%)
0/25 Late 1st Round WRs (0.0%)
2/61 2nd Round WRs (3.2%)

In my previous article Trading Draft Picks I talked about trying to position yourself with “Prime” picks based on draft strength and the selection tendencies of your fellow owners. As demonstrated here, our “Prime” picks generally end after the Top 10 selections, and therefore we must adjust our expectations accordingly.

What Are “Realistic” Expectations?

Let’s first take a look at what the overall average was for all drafted Rookies broken down by position from 2007-2016:

RB: 85.40
WR: 84.16
TE: 68.20 (49.3 adjusted for PPR)

Not much to write home about, right? You certainly wouldn’t be taking home any trophies with a roster full of players with average production. But you also wouldn’t have the same expected production for a 1st-round player as you would a 2nd-round player, so let’s break it down even further:

1st-Round RB: 114.5
2nd-Round RB: 55.1
1st-Round WR: 104.6
2nd-Round WR: 62.7
1st-Round TE: 93.3 (66.6 adjusted for PPR)
2nd-Round TE: 50.7 (37.2 adjusted for PPR)

Now the picture becomes slightly clearer for you to build your expectations based on the round of selection, but since we know that a higher percentage of 200+ point producers are rated within the Top 10, it would make sense to break the 1st round down even further:

Top 10 RB: 133.0
Late 1st RB: 75.4
Top 10 WR: 124.0
Late 1st WR: 62.7
Top 10 TE: 111.0 (79.3 adjusted for PPR)
Late 1st TE: 73.8 (52.5 adjusted for PPR)

Now that we have an average to reference, we can use that to develop some realistic expectations. Our average factors in not only the unlikely high-side production numbers, but also the most improbable low scores that could be caused by injury or benching. Remember that players who get injured or are forced to sit the entire year due to a coaching decision receive a score of 0 because we used draft equity to select them and therefore had expectations of production.

Please note my use of the term “rated” rather than “selected” in relation to the draft rounds. It’s entirely possible that a player you have rated in the Top 10 falls to you later in the round, or even somewhere in the 2nd round. This doesn’t mean that your expectations for the player have changed and you should hold them accountable as such. Personally, I view players rated in the 1st round as eventual weekly starters on my roster, while those rated in the 2nd round have a projected ceiling as a “contributor” based on bye-weeks or favorable match-ups. If they can break through to being a weekly starter that’s great, but it’s not my expectation.

A Two-Pronged Approach:
The question then becomes, what should we use for our expected production? Being emotionally invested in our picks, we will of course set our target above the historical average. It would be easy to say that we should just find a target number that’s a reasonable percentage above the historical average and make that the make or break point, and that certainly is part of it. However, when you’re in a dynasty league, you’ll most likely be dealing with longer-term contracts in the 3 to 5-year range.

Our league happens to mirror the NFL’s 4-year structured contract model with a 5th-Year option for players selected in the 1st round. That being said, it’s also important to develop realistic long-term expectations, because at the end of the contract we need to determine whether or not to extend or re-sign the player for more money.

The Rookie Year:
Personally, I like to set targets of 175 points as the ceiling for my expected production from Rookies rated in the Top 10, 125 points for those rated in the Late 1st round, and 75 points for those rated in the 2nd round. Those are nice premiums to the historical average. They allow me to be pleasantly surprised when a top 10 player hits or exceeds the 200 point level, but also limits my disappointment if they only get 150 in a 1st year time-share or learning situation. It’s important to note that it’s not a greenlight to jettison any player falling below these expectations.

An owner in my league gave up on Brandin Cooks after his injury-shortened Rookie season in which he finished with 139 points. His trade bounty was two newly drafted Rookies from the 2015 lot (one 1st, one 2nd), neither of which have come close to producing the back-to-back 240 point performances that Cooks turned in. There are just too many examples of owners abandoning players after their first year of production simply because it was lower than their lofty expectations. Be your own best adviser and set the bar lower rather than higher when dealing with Rookies.

Future Years:
In a salary-capped dynasty league, I view the expected growth of a player’s production more importantly than that of just their Rookie season since the Holy Grail is not only to win, but also to lock up high performing players at the lowest possible salary. Part of this process is having enough information to make a quality business decision of whether or not to extend or re-sign players.

In order to do this, I like to set up average production targets that a player should be capable of reaching by the time their initial contract is expiring. These averages are 175 points for players rated in the 1st round and 150 for players rated in the 2nd round. This allows some forgiveness for one season of lower than expected production while still providing an accurate marker of a player’s capabilities before having to decide on their next contract.

In addition, I like to set a single-season target that can be used as a marker for future success even if the multi-year average isn’t met. These marks I’ve set at 200 points for a player rated in the 1st round and 175 points for a player rated in the 2nd round, roughly 15% above their target averages. I label a player in this situation as “potential” and revisit the circumstances of that player’s season. If nothing has changed drastically (i.e. injury, coaching change, QB change, etc.) they might be strongly considered for extension, especially if the exceeding season occurred within the last year of their initial contract.

Todd Gurley is an example of a player for which you shouldn’t really base your decision to keep or cut on just the first two years. I know that many current owners are disgruntled about the drop in production from his Rookie season to last year, but not only is he exceeding the average marker of 175 (199), he also exceeded a single-season marker (210). Imagine if Matt Forte owners threw in the towel after the 80+ point drop between his first two seasons? They would’ve missed out on one of the great dynasty RBs. Therefore, if I were a Gurley owner (sadly, I’m not), I would hold for at least one more season before making the decision.

In Summary:
Don’t let yourself be fooled into thinking that your young players aren’t going to be good performers for your team just because they get off to a slow start or have a pullback in production. If you’ve done your research and there aren’t extenuating circumstances, such as injuries or coaching changes, you should feel confident in your selections.

Help yourself by looking at the benchmarks for your league and setting realistic goals to help indicate how your young players are doing in their early years. Always set the bar lower than higher and look at their performance over multiple years. It may take your Rookie two or three seasons to get to the level of production that someone else’s Rookie is able to do in their first year, but that doesn’t mean you should view them as a disappointment or sell them for anything you can get. Dynasty is a long-term play when done most efficiently.