Free: Dynasty Rookies Are Free Money

Originally published March 23, Dynasty Rookies Are Free Money is part of our Memorial Day weekend free look at the best of RotoViz.

Sharp dynasty owners will probably tell you that rookies are overrated and proven producers are the ones who’ll win you a title. Don’t listen to them.

It’s true that rookies have a surprisingly low hit rate, especially in the first three seasons. But not compared to their cost. Because the cost of a rookie pick, if you’re playing dynasty correctly, is free.

That’s right, I said free

That’s not to say the initial cost is zero. The going price for Rookie 1.01 is  higher than the per-capita GDP of 37 countries.1 But drafting a rookie is like agreeing to a first date. You’re not making a lifetime commitment. If things aren’t going well, you can — and should — abandon the relationship quickly.

Specifically, I follow this plan:

  1. Draft rookies
  2. Enjoy the Year 1 production, if any
  3. Trade players after their rookie seasons

It works because the exit price is, if anything, a little higher than the initial price. To illustrate, I gathered the average draft position of the top 36 rookies drafted from 2012 to 2017.2 Here’s what you would get, on net, if you drafted each of the top 12 rookie RBs or WRs in a startup draft and then traded them away the following offseason:

Rookie PickStartup Picks Gained (by Round)Startup Picks Lost (by Round)Net Result
1.013, 52, 4Loss
1.021, 1, 1, 32, 2, 4, 4Gain
1.031, 2, 2, 2, 73, 3, 3, 4, 5Gain
1.041, 2, 2, 63, 4, 4, 5, 7Gain
1.051, 2, 3, 3, 94, 5, 5, 5, 7Gain
1.061, 1, 56, 6, 6, 7Gain
1.071, 1, 5, 11, 116, 6, 7, 8, 8Gain
1.082, 3, 4, 4, 11, 125, 7, 7, 7, 9, 9Gain
1.093, 4, 47, 7, 8, 9, 10Gain
1.10125, 8Loss
1.113, 5, 7, 7, 128, 8, 9, 10, 11Gain
1.122, 3, 37, 8, 9, 11, 11Gain

The trend holds up with later rookie picks, too. On average, you’re getting a slight profit by holding for a season:3

Dynasty Rookies

And maybe you’ll score a few points

Adding a little value is well and good, but production wins titles. And if you’re selling players immediately after their rookie seasons, how much production can you really expect?

Not none. Here’s the hit rate from every rookie RB and WR drafted from 2012 to 2017:4

Rookie PickTop 24 RB / Top 36 WRTop 12 RB / Top 18 WR

Guys like Amari Cooper (2015), Sammy Watkins (2014), Giovani Bernard (2013), and Trent Richardson (2012) have all disappointed relative to their status as Rookie 1.01. But they all provided decent Year 1 production, too.

Even though production drops off after the first few picks, you’re getting a one-in-five shot at meaningful points even through the early second round of rookie drafts. And don’t forget that rookies tend to produce more in the fantasy playoffs, when fantasy points are way more valuable.

For a “free” one-season rental, you can’t expect much more.

Did I say Free? I meant “almost free.”

On the surface, rookie picks are better than free because they tend to turn a profit. But you don’t have to dig too deep before that profit shrinks, disappears, and maybe flips to a loss. Here’s why:

  • Discount rate. Wins today are better than wins tomorrow. You may leave the league before next season. You may quit fantasy football. Your league may dissolve. The NFL may dissolve. Who knows. So even though you can trade a player for a better return after his rookie season, you have to discount that return based on the risk that next year never comes.
  • Trade price ≠ ADP priceWe don’t yet have good data for players’ trade prices, which stinks, because startup ADP tends to undervalue rookies. That’s great if you’re in a startup draft,5 but it means you’re going to pay a premium for rookies in trades, and that means a thinner profit margin for flipping them.
  • Roster spot value. This doesn’t amount to much in a decent-sized league (anything with over 250 offensive players rostered). But in a 12-team league with 18 players per team, holding two or three unproductive rookies really stings.

Taking these factors together, we see that even when you trade rookies away after Year 1, you’re probably paying a small rental fee, on average. But given the non-trivial production they provide — especially from the first 12-16 picks — I’m gladly stocking up on rookies in decent-sized leagues.

  1. Update: 39 countries.  (back)
  2. I actually gathered the data from 2007 to 2017. The 2007-2011 data make my approach look even better, but those years are the Dark Ages of dynasty fantasy football.  (back)
  3. I’m hardly the first to notice this trend. Check out Jeff Miller’s work from 2015 and Pat Kerrane’s from 2017.  (back)
  4. Positional ranks based on PPR points per game, minimum 10 games played.  (back)
  5. I’ve never regretted taking too many rookies in a startup.  (back)
By Brian Malone | @BrianMaloneFF | Archive