Fantasy Football: The Art of Rookie Scouting

How Do You Scout Rookies?

If you are in a dynasty league the annual calendar is split into segments. We manage waivers and lineups during the season, draft rookies in the late spring, solidify our rosters during NFL training camps, and scout rookies after the season concludes. Most of us are novices at rookie scouting, especially compared to people that do it as a career. And that is the foundation of rookie scouting – Listen to the NFL! It is rare that a dynasty player will consistently predict NFL success for rookies at a higher rate than the NFL, so we should know our limitations and listen to the experts. At least most of the time.

There is a debate in the dynasty community between those that value analytics versus judging players based on watching video of them in college. Far too much is made of this on #FantasyTwitter, where players and content creators are often more concerned with planting flags than helping each other win our leagues. The best advice is that both approaches should be used together, with certain rules to help us find the best NFL rookies for our dynasty teams. A player that only uses analytics is going to fail just as often as one who only watches tape. 

When utilizing analytics the most important concept to understand is that the approach is about improving probabilities. If a model or statistic has a 50% success rate of identifying a successful player, that is an excellent result. It also means that using that approach will fail 50% of the time. And when we can find a statistic that can increase that probability to 60%+, now we’re cooking with gas! Far too often players who dismiss analytical approaches don’t understand this, they utilize an outlier to downplay the use of analytics all the while proving that they don’t understand the concept of probabilities.

Below I will outline in chronological order an approach that has proven successful in identifying NFL rookies that can help you win your dynasty leagues. There are no absolute rules or can’t miss approaches to this process, but using these concepts can help you organize your prospects and gain an edge over your opponents.

Build a Database

Start each offseason by building a spreadsheet that lists the incoming NFL rookie class. In this spreadsheet you should include physical attributes, combine results, key analytical measures, rankings, and average draft position (ADP). When you review video of the players have a space to make notes about what you see and how you think the player will translate to the league. Below is an example of what a sheet can look like:

Once all of the rookies are listed find expert rankings from a web site or someone on Twitter that you trust. These rankings should not be the end all be all, but they are a good starting point to use to maximize your time when scouting players. We want to focus our time on the top 40-60 rookies, which is the average size of a rookie dynasty draft. We don’t want to spend a lot of time watching video of a player that never makes an NFL roster. My standard approach is to find two or three sources to get a consensus of how the industry experts view the rookie class.

It is also important to understand how dynasty players are valuing rookies, this is where ADP comes into play. One of the most comprehensive sources for ADP data is www.dynastyleaguefootball.com. The group at DLF conduct multiple mock rookie drafts each month and collect draft results from actual rookie drafts as they happen. With this data you can get an idea of where rookies will be taken in your drafts. It is always important to get value for your rookie selections, for example if you really like a player that will likely be available in the second round you to take a different player in the first round.

Analytical Indicators

As mentioned in the opening of this piece analytics are a useful way to prioritize rookie prospects, especially when differentiating them inside of their tiers. I would not recommend using analytics to make every decision, but at each position there are key indicators that can help predict NFL success. I highly recommend following Peter Howard (@pahowdy) on Twitter for advice on how to apply analytics to your scouting. This pinned tweet on his feed is a link to his database which is free for all:

Using tools such as the database above you can fill in your own database and start to see the players that are likely to find success in the NFL. Based on the indicators below, combined with the rankings we started with, you can start to get a nice picture of how to rank the incoming rookie class. For the sake of this discussion a successful player is one that achieves a season with a positional ranking of top 12 quarterback, top 24 running back, top 36 wide receiver, or top 12 tight end.

Quarterback:

  • Draft Capital – Over 50% of QBs selected in the first round hit
  • Completion Percentage – Being near 70% in college is ideal

Quarterback is the position least tied to analytics with the exception of where they are drafted in the NFL. Where all prospects are drafted in the NFL draft has a correlation to their success, however none is more important than at the quarterback position. While many would advise dynasty players to value talent over landing spot, I feel it is important to take landing spot into context. If a player is selected by a team or coach that has a track record of wasting talent, I will be hesitant to draft them and use this as a tie breaker if selecting between similar prospects.

Running Back:

  • Draft Capital – Drafted in first three rounds of NFL draft, the earlier the better
  • 40 Yard Dash – Under 4.60 seconds
  • Body Mass Index (BMI) – Over 30
  • Early College Production – 1000 scrimmage yards by their sophomore year
  • Yards Per Carry – Over 6.0 YPC in college

Running back relies on a good mix of draft capital, combine results, and college production. It seems intuitive but the earlier a prospect is drafted, the more likely they are to succeed. But if a player is drafted early but lacks size, speed, or college production I would proceed with caution. Of course it is rare to find players that “check all of the boxes”, so when differentiating players to select in your rookie draft picks try to find ones that meet these criteria and look good on video (more on that later).

Wide Receiver:

  • Draft Capital – Drafted in the first three rounds of the draft, the earlier the better
  • Dominator Rating – High percentage of their teams receiving yards and receiving touchdowns
  • Break Out Age – Dominator Rating above 20% at age 18 or above 30% at age 19+
  • 40 Yard Dash – Under 4.60 seconds
  • Body Mass Index (BMI) – Over 25, included in this is being above 6’0”
  • Early NFL Entry – Enters the NFL draft after their junior year of college (at age 20 or 21)

Wide receiver is the position where analytics can really be used to unlock potential, and win your dynasty leagues. Below Dominator Rating will be explained, but it is a measure of how dominant a receiver was compared to the rest of the pass catchers on their teams. If a player amasses a high percentage of the receiving production on their college team at a young age, and that leads to entering the NFL after three years of college, they should garner your attention. If they are then drafted early with good size and speed, the probabilities increase even further.

Dominator Rating is a calculation of the receivers contributions to their team’s receiving yards and touchdowns. The calculation is:

https://i1.wp.com/rv-media.s3.us-east-2.amazonaws.com/2021/03/DR.png?fit=548%2C65&ssl=1

You can find Dominator Ratings in many places, including the database linked above, for each year of a prospect’s college career. If the rating is above 20% as a freshman or 30% at any point in their college years that is considered their Break Out Age. The younger the Break Out Age, the better.

Tight End:

  • Draft Capital – First round tight ends have a huge advantage over those drafted later
  • Dominator Rating – High percentage of their teams receiving yards and receiving touchdowns
  • Break Out Age – Dominator Rating above 15% at age 18 or above 20% at age 19+

Analytical approaches, with the exception of draft capital, don’t help a lot when scouting such a nuanced position as tight end. Learning the position in the NFL can be very difficult, having to understand not only the passing routes but also the blocking schemes should they be called upon to do so. Some at the position are not asked to block much, yet this limits their snap count rates. Those players, such as Travis Kelce and George Kittle, that excel in the passing and blocking games and thus staying on the field for most of their team’s plays are the diamonds in the rough.

One last point on analytics and how they help us find successful players. Above I mentioned “checking all the boxes”, meaning of the traits listed for each position a player meets all of them. It is rare to find a player that meets all of the critical data points we are searching for, so we look for those that check as many boxes as possible and weigh them accordingly when deciding which player to ultimately draft. However, even players that check every box fail to succeed in the NFL (recall the previous article where the success rates of rookie picks was discussed).

Video Review

Once dynasty players have built their database, sorted them by trusted ranking services, and applied analytical approaches it is now time to watch some video of prospects. It is important to note that just because you watch the NFL or you played left guard in high school you likely do not know in enough detail what to look for on video. This comes as a disappointment to many that view themselves as experts, however a much better approach is to find trusted actual experts on Twitter and follow them. Two people that I have grown to trust are @RayGQue and @MattWaldman, however there are many more in the industry that is growing each day.

While many dynasty players can’t pinpoint the intricacies of a running back setting up the proper blocks or a wide receiving lowering their hips to enable the best possible route, we can tell when a player has the “it factor”. Once we know that a player is rated highly by the industry and the analytical indicators are present if we watch video and they “explode off the screen” then we’re on to something. The challenge is when we see contradictory evidence – a player looks great to us but didn’t meet the analytics or a player meets the data thresholds but just doesn’t look that great. There are two approaches that can help in this situation.

First, consider the player’s competition. If a player dominates weak competition but struggles against stronger teams, that could be something to consider.  However, often weaker teams are behind in games against far better teams so don’t over value this. Also, if a player is behind a truly dominant talent we need to take that into consideration. For example, I believe Najee Harris is going to be a great NFL running back but his high production didn’t happen until later in his college career because he played behind other NFL talents. Context does matter, but it is also important to note that often younger talent overcomes older college players that aren’t as talented.

One final note on video review that is important – don’t over emphasize highlight reels. When we watch 3-4 minute highlight videos of players it shows us the best of the best plays from that player. Those plays are amazing, no one will dispute that, but they do not represent a player’s overall ability. Does a wide receiver take routes seriously when they know the play isn’t designed to target them? Does a wide receiver engage in blocking for the running game? Is a running back willing and capable to pass block? The answer to these questions will lead to how many snaps a player is on the field early in their NFL career, especially if they are middle to late round draft selection. The more snaps a young player is on the field the more likely they are to make an impact and help your dynasty team. I recommend watching around 20 minutes of video from every offensive play in a game for a player, so you can not only see the plays where they handled the rock but also how engaged they are when they do not.

Application of the Approach

An excellent example of a player that can be found using the above approach is Gabriel Davis. Davis checked many of the boxes – He broke out at age 20 with a Dominator Rating of 33%, he entered the NFL after his junior year, his BMI is 28, his 40 yard dash time was 4.54 seconds. He was drafted in the fourth round of the NFL draft, barely missing the threshold of being taken in the top three round. And then you turned on the video and saw plays like this consistently:

Despite this Davis was taken in the third rounds of dynasty drafts. He is an excellent example of using these tools to differentiate players and find the hidden gems.

In Summary

If you have made it this far you are serious about making your fantasy team better through rookie scouting and drafting. Using the methods above many of my dynasty teams include players such as Terry McLaurin, David Johnson, Gabriel Davis, and James Robinson (fingers crossed). I’ve also missed plenty – thanks N’Keal Harry and James Washington, but also lack of age based production lead me to not value DK Metcalf highly enough. This shows that no matter your approach or experience, you can still miss just like NFL teams do. However, if applied in the right way you can improve your probability of success and dominate your leagues. As always, feel free to reach out on Twitter @benc1357 if you would like to discuss a particular prospect as you prepare for your drafts in the coming weeks.

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