This is the 136th 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.
This is the first part of a two-part miniseries-within-the-series, not unlike the dream within Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Anyway . . .
The NFL season is months away, but I believe in being prepared and all that other Boy Scouts stuff, so we’re going to review the 2017 NFL Draft, which just ended this weekend.
While I could write thousands of words about Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Corey Davis, John Ross, and the other prospects selected with top-100 picks, I think we’ll get the most benefit out of this NFL rookie miniseries if I look at less-heralded players.
In this piece, I’m going to break down five NFL rookies who were selected in the fourth round and who could have some big DFS production in the fall. (Also, I want to talk about an NFL tipping point.) In Part 2, I’ll take a look at five late-round and/or undrafted rookies with underappreciated DFS potential in 2017.
The Tipping Point
Relatively recently I wrote an article about DFS tipping points. I say “relatively recently,” but it was almost a month ago, so I remember almost nothing about the piece other than that it makes use of the epidemiological framework Malcolm Gladwell presents in The Tipping Point.
In the NFL draft, there’s definitely a tipping point: It’s the fourth round. At that point, the odds increase in epidemic-like fashion that a player will not have NFL success. In general, the odds are always that any given player will not have a noteworthy career, even if he’s a top-100 pick, but the odds amplify significantly if a player is still available by Day 3 of the draft.
In Superforecasting, Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner note that macro trends are usually more predictive than micro trends. For instance, if we wanted to get a sense of how a second-round rookie linebacker might do in the NFL, we could probably look at just the history of previous second-round linebackers and have a solid idea. Yes, we could also take into account other factors, such as college production and physical profile — those are important too — but we’d want to be sure not to make the historical scope and parameters too narrow. We’d want to be sure not to transform the macro trend into a player-specific micro trend.
From a macro perspective, fourth-round players usually aren’t worth the picks used to acquire them.
A Pivotal Point?
At the same time, the fourth round isn’t just a tipping point — or, more precisely, it’s not exactly a tipping point. It’s a pivotal point. While almost all fourth round picks disappoint, some fourth-round picks provide outstanding value. Whereas most fourth-round players tip down into the abyss of historical NFL nothingness, some of them pivot in the other direction and become Black Swans.
Who are these guys who outperform their fourth-round expectations? They’re the players who never should’ve been fourth-round picks in the first place — the guys who fell in the draft. Often these guys fall for ‘narratival reasons’: Even though they often have many of the attributes of top-100 picks, they are surrounded by particular stories or themes that cause their market valuations to drop. For instance . . .
- 2016: Dak Prescott – Good SEC quarterback but raw and basically a right-handed Tim Tebow
- 2010: Aaron Hernandez – Good college tight end but short and small for the position with failed drug tests
- 2006: Brandon Marshall – Big and athletic but from a non-major school and raw with character concerns and only one year of production
- 2005: Darren Sproles – Productive and athletic but too small to be a lead back
Note that in many cases the concerns that people had about these players were valid. The problem is not that the evaluations were necessarily wrong but that the negative aspects in the evaluations were given too much weight.
The art of investing is knowing when the macro and micro diverge. Each of these players had significant factors in his favor indicating that he had the potential to buck the historical trend of his draft pedigree.
Five Fourth-Round NFL Rookies Who Could Crush in 2017
This year, there are some fourth-round rookies with the potential to crush. All of them have narratives that are quirky in some way, but judiciously investing in them could be a positive expected value strategy because their talent is likely greater than their market value.
I’m not saying that any of these guys will have the overall Plus/Minus impact that Dak had last year, but all of them have underappreciated potential to contribute as rookies.
4.03 (110) – Dede Westbrook (JAX), Wide Receiver
Hailing from Oklahoma University, Westbrook played college football in a Power Five conference — and he was a Heisman Finalist last season — so he’s a skilled player. At the same time, he has issues. Although he was never convicted, Westbrook was accused of domestic violence in 2012 and 2013, and that’s perhaps why he (like fifth-rounder Tyreek Hill last year) was drafted on Day 3 instead of Day 2. It also doesn’t help that he’ll turn 24 years old in November.
Still, Westbrook can ball. He’s small (six feet and 174 pounds) but fast (4.34-second 40-yard dash), and he produced as a redshirt senior with 80 receptions for 1,524 yards and 17 touchdowns in 13 games. On top of that, he was versatile, chipping in 10 rushes for 101 yards and returning a punt for a TD last year. Some people think of Westbrook as a one-year wonder — he had only a 46-743-4 receiving line in 2015 — but those people ignore his junior college production. Before transferring to OU, Westbrook tore up the JC ranks as ESPN’s No. 3 JUCO receiver in 2014, when at Blinn College in eight games he had a ridiculous 76-1,487-13 receiving campaign as a 21-year-old redshirt sophomore. He’s not just a one-year guy.
Basically, he’s John Brown with much more college pedigree and a little less draft position. He has the talent to become the No. 2 receiver in Jacksonville.
4.07 (114) – Samaje Perine (WSH), Running Back
The second OU back selected in the draft, Perine was knocked throughout the draft process because he wasn’t good enough to be the workhorse in his backfield. At the same, it’s not his fault that he had to share snaps with Joe Mixon, who is arguably the most complete back in this class. On top of that, there’s a non-zero chance Perine could be the better producer in the NFL. At five feet 11 inches and 233 pounds, Perine ran a 4.65-second 40-yard dash at the combine. That might not sound great, but as an athlete he’s comparable to big-bodied grinders Jordan Howard, Jeremy Hill, and Carlos Hyde, all of whom have had some NFL success.
Turning 22 in September, Perine broke OU’s all-time record for most career rushing yards in only three seasons (despite splitting time with Mixon for two of those years), and he had one of the best true freshman seasons of all time in 2014, when he rushed for 1,713 yards and 21 TDs on 263 carries in 13 games. Perine’s never topped 15 receptions in a season (other players handled most of the backfield’s receiving work), but Perine’s at least been steady as a receiver, each year managing 10-15 receptions for over 100 yards.
Drafted by a Washington team whose current starting running back (Rob Kelley) is a second-year undrafted free agent who got the job by default, Perine has an underappreciated opportunity to produce almost immediately.
4.15 (121) – Joe Williams (SF), Running Back
Williams is definitely a guy with a weird narrative. After graduating from high school, Williams played the 2011 season at Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia, doing well enough there to enroll at Connecticut the following year, when he was a reserve player who rushed only three time for six yards. After being arrested for credit card theft in August 2013, Williams was suspended from UConn’s team, and eventually he transferred to ASA College in Brooklyn, missing the entire 2013 season. In 2014, as a 21-year-old super-redshirt sophomore Williams finally had a breakout campaign with 163 carries for 1,093 yards and seven TDs in only seven games. He was also second on the team with 16 receptions for 237 yards and three TDs.
As one of the best JC players in the nation, Williams in 2015 transferred to Utah, where he spent most of the year backing up Devontae Booker. Near the end of the campaign, however, when Booker suffered a season-ending injury, Williams emerged as the lead back, proving himself to be an utter workhorse. In the three final games of the season, Williams had 85 rushes and six receptions for 452 total yards and three TDs. He looked primed to dominate in 2016, but after earning only 22 carries in the first two weeks of the season he literally retired from football. He quit the team.
Utah won three of its next four games without him, but the Utes suffered a rash of injuries at the position and they begged him to return. He did. Across the final seven games of the season he rushed 188 times for 1,332 yards and 10 TDs, chipping in five receptions for 105.
Again, he has a weird narrative and will be 24 in September — but the 49ers traded up to get him, and the team hasn’t expressed much support for Hyde. Running a position-best 4.41-second 40-yard dash at the combine at five feet 11 inches and 210 pounds, Williams is a Tevin Coleman-esque player who could find a role in head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense right away.
4.28 (134) – Jamaal Williams (GB), Running Back
Known as “The Other Williams” in the Freedman family, Jamaal (like Joe) has a weird narrative. One of the few college players to be 17 years old for the entirety of his first campaign, Williams impressively led BYU in rushing as a true freshman in 2012 with a 166-775-12 line, to which he added a 27-315-1 receiving line. In 2013, he progressed with 1,358 yards and seven TDs on 217 carries and 18 receptions.
In 2014, however, he had problems, playing in only eight games. Even though he (somehow) still led the team in rushing with 518 yards, he missed games due to a knee injury and a suspension for breaking team rules. He even received a citation for drinking underage, which is a major violation at BYU. In 2015 Williams withdrew from the university entirely (“for personal reasons”) and then returned in 2016, resuming his workhorse role as an ‘aged’ 21-year-old redshirt senior. Missing three games with an ankle injury, Williams still led the team with a 234-1,375-12 rushing line in only 10 games.
At the combine Williams proved himself to be an incredibly subpar athlete in his drills — Player Profiler gives him an eight percent SPARQ-x score — but he at least has good size (six feet, 212 pounds) and is (reportedly) a solid inside runner. The only running back clearly ahead of him on the Packers roster is Ty Montgomery, who’s still learning the position after transitioning from receiver last year. Williams has an opportunity to get some touches as an early-down and maybe even goal-line grinder.
4.35 (141) – Chad Hansen (NYJ), Wide Receiver
As a high school player Hansen did little to distinguish himself, so he played at Idaho State in the Football Championship Subdivision as a true freshman, turning 45 receptions and two rushes into 511 yards and three touchdowns. Wanting to play at a higher level, Hansen transferred to California-Berkeley, where he sat out the 2014 season per NCAA rules.
In 2015 he contributed as a role player with a 19-249-1 receiving line in seven games, and then out of nowhere he exploded in 2016 as a 21-year-old redshirt junior, serving as the No. 1 target for quarterback Davis Webb en route to a brilliant 92-1,249-11 campaign in 10 games, missing two contests with an ankle injury. With average size (six feet two inches, 202 pounds) and speed (4.53-second 40-yard dash), Hansen displayed tremendous agility at the combine with a 6.74-second three-cone drill.
Ideally suited to play in the slot, Hansen is basically Austin Collie, except younger, more athletic, and without a Hall of Fame quarterback throwing him the ball. He’s not in a great situation, but he could carve out a volume-fueled middle-of-the-field role, especially if he develops chemistry with a backup quarterback who is promoted once ‘starter’ Josh McCown suffers his inevitable injury.
When you’re looking to arbitrage top-100 picks with fourth-round players, you’re probably going to find yourself considering guys who aren’t the cleanest of prospects. That makes sense: They’re supposed to be a little dirty. That’s why (despite their talent and production) they’re not top-100 picks.
Two of these guys are incredibly old. Three of them had character issues in college. Four of them missed at least one full season of action at some point, and three of those four played at multiple institutions. One of those guys — “Joe” — played at literally four different places after high school.
I’m not saying that if you see a fourth-round rookie with red flags or baggage that you should automatically use our Lineup Builder to put him in hundreds of DFS rosters. What I’m saying is this: If you want to find some fourth-round gold, you should expect to get your hands a little dirty.
Be sure to read Part 2 in this NFL rookie mini-series.
The Labyrinthian: 2017.41, 136