Yes. Wide receiver draft position matters.
If you’re the type who doesn’t care about details, you can stop reading now. If you like details, proceed.
The 2016 Rookie Wide Receivers
Some of this year’s rookie wide receivers are really intriguing.
Corey Coleman and Josh Doctson waged a season-long war last year to see who was the best receiver in not just the Big 12 but maybe all of college football. Ultimately, Coleman won the 2015 Biletnikoff Award as the best receiver in the nation and was the first receiver selected in the draft, going to the Browns at pick 15. A fellow Biletnikoff finalist, Doctson wasn’t far behind in the draft, being selected with pick 22 by the Redskins.
Not to be forgotten are compeer first-round selections Will Fuller and Laquon Treadwell, selected with picks 21 and 23 by the Texans and Vikings. Both of them had dominant final college seasons before declaring for the draft as juniors and entering the NFL early. While both have their weaknesses, Fuller and Treadwell each possess an elite physical attribute. Fuller is small but has blazing 4.32-second 40-yard speed. Contrarily, Treadwell is slow but has a robust 6’2″ and 221-lb. frame.
Although neither Doctson nor Treadwell is expected to see much playing time to open the season, both could receive more snaps later in the year, in part because they are first-round picks. Coleman and Fuller meanwhile are already slated to see regular action in Week 1.
Also slated for immediate playing time are second-rounders Sterling Shepard and Tyler Boyd, both of whom had productive college careers. They are both smaller (under 200 lbs.), but they both could see consistent targets with the Giants and Bengals and seem to fit specific roles in their offenses.
And, if I’m being honest, small wide receivers, return men, and all-around playmakers Tyreek Hill and Jakeem Grant really excite me. I can almost taste the double-dipped treats now. They are pint-sized. There’s no getting around that. But they can fly, and both of them had some seasons of strong productivity in college. For fifth- and sixth-round selections, they are about as good as it gets.
But, of course, Hill and Grant aren’t actually as good as it gets for a late-round wide receiver. That designation seems to be reserved for Tajae Sharpe, a fifth-round selection out of the University of Massachusetts in the Mid-American Conference. A preternatural talent who played every game of his freshman season before he even turned 18, Sharpe matured into one of the best receivers in the game during his four years in college.
It’s true that he was never much of a touchdown scorer. Let’s give Sharpe the benefit of the doubt and say that a guy is never likely to score many touchdowns when he’s on a team that jumps up a level in competition when he’s a freshman and then proceeds never to win more than three games in any season for the next four years. Needless to say, the Minutemen are not Randy Moss’ 1997 Thundering Herd.
And Sharpe isn’t Moss — but he is expected to see a lot of action as a rookie, and he did lead the nation in receptions last year despite playing in only 12 games. In his two final seasons, he averaged 108.3 receiving yards per game — which is remarkable given his circumstances.
But here’s the thing: Based on how some people are talking about him, you’d think that they think he’s Moss. Now, part of what they like about him is that he’s cheap: $3,000 on DraftKings, good for an 80 percent Bargain Rating. Per our Plus/Minus metric, he needs to score only 5.98 DK points to meet his salary-based expectations. As a starting receiver, he has a good chance hitting that total.
For Week 1, Sharpe is definitely available at a discount. He represents really nice value. In fact, he has the third-highest wide receiver rank in the Bales Player Model — and, just to clarify, “Bales Player Model” is meant to designate the Player Model that has been created by FantasyLabs co-founder Jonathan Bales. In no way is it meant to indicate that Bales is a ‘playa’ who models in male swimsuit calendars.
Anyway, Sharpe’s high ranking in the Bales Model shouldn’t be ignored.
But . . .
He’s Probably Not Even First-Year Jarvis Landry
Some people talking about Sharpe aren’t really even talking about value. They’re talking about raw production. One person — who’s a smart guy whom I respect — is projecting Sharpe to get 130 targets this year. He’s projecting him to be a mid-WR2.
When I hear talk like that, I want to do my best Melvin Udall impersonation. Seriously, we’re all stocked up here.
Sharpe one day might be a great NFL receiver. But as a rookie? We’re talking about a skinny-and-slow fifth-round selection from a mid-major conference on a slow-paced fun-first team with an established target-hog tight end and a veteran starting wide receiver signed by the team this offseason to a three-year, $15-million contract.
By the way, no rookie wide receiver not selected with a top-100 pick since at least 2000 has had 130 targets (per the RotoViz Screener). Only two have even broken the 100-target barrier: Marques Colston (115 in 2006) and Mike Williams (128 in 2010), both of whom had elite size and good athleticism. Based on his draft position, Sharpe will need to be an outlier to see 130 targets . . . or even to be a WR3.
Of course, he’s already an outlier in that he’s a Week 1 starter as a fifth-round rookie, and the fact that he’s starting might mitigate the negative implications of his draft position. In other words, if the largest hurdle that one must clear as a late-round receiver is just getting on the field, then perhaps we should think of Sharpe less as a fifth-rounder and more as simply another version of Boyd, to whom he is very comparable as a collegiate producer and athlete.
And so the question arises: What does rookie wide receiver draft position mean? Is it a proxy for opportunity only? Or for talent? In short, does draft position matter for rookie wideouts?
Yes, It Does
RotoViz’s Nick Giffen has shown in his wide receiver model that draft position in fact does matter. In the larger context of historical production for wide receivers within their first four years in the league, it matters — especially for rookies.
And, based on the preliminary research that I’ve done, I think that draft position is a proxy for both opportunity and talent. Here are the top-100/’other’ rookie wide receivers splits since 2000:
Basically, the ‘other’ cohort is ‘superior’ to the top-100 cohort in that it has a larger sample — which we would expect . . . which really makes it superior only statistically, not in actuality. And in all other categories the top-100 cohort is clearly superior. These receivers tend to get more opportunities, and they do more with those opportunities, catching a higher percentage of passes for more yards and touchdowns with a higher success rate and more fantasy points over expectation per attempt.
Draft position matters. It correlates with the opportunity that a wide receiver will get, and historically the guys getting opportunities have been the ones who have deserved them.
What Am I Saying?
I want to be clear. This is not a Sharpe hit piece. He’s a good play in Week 1 and will likely remain undervalued for a part of the season. He’s a pretty good bet to get at least 80 targets. I liked him as a college player, and I hope that he has some NFL success. If you play around with our Trends tool, you can find reasons to like him, especially at his salary.
This is a piece about process and knowledge. It’s not enough to know that Sharpe currently seems like the No. 1 wide receiver on the Titans. That role might not even be worth much on the Titans, and Sharpe might not be able to hold off Matthews for all that long.
In all situations, you need to have a greater historical perspective. This perspective will help you fight all sorts of biases. The long view is important. It will keep you grounded. In DFS, it’s easy to get tilted. The historical perspective — a de facto Bayesian prior — can keep you from investing in DFS assets that precursive data suggests are likely at any given point to fail to produce.
If you’re riding the Sharpe train early in the season — or really at any point any train that belongs to a young guy who is outproducing his draft-adjusted baselines — just know that you are probably riding a hot streak and at some point should jump off the hype train, because history strongly suggests that the tracks on such a runaway locomotive end with a cliff.
Good DFS players tend not to ignore the guidance of history . . . at least not in cash games.
The Labyrinthian: 2016, 88
This is the 88th installment of The Labyrinthian, a series dedicated to exploring random fields of knowledge in order to give you unordinary theoretical, philosophical, strategic, and/or often rambling guidance on daily fantasy sports. Consult the introductory piece to the series for further explanation. Previous installments of The Labyrinthian can be accessed via my author page.