Undervalued Rookies

By Eric Braun

This year, more than ever before, I hear managers and analysts reflecting on the absurdity of where a player is being drafted according to their current ADP. In fact, I’ve made the case myself a few times across various league chats, as well as on the @RideorDynasty podcast. However, as soon as you run through the list of available rookie picks, it becomes hard to justify any of these players going earlier. 

This rookie class is absurdly deep. There were 6 RBs selected in the first two rounds of the NFL draft and 11 in the first three rounds. There were 6 WRs selected in the first round and another 7 selected in the 2nd round. By comparison, the previous 5 years saw an average of 3.8 RBs and 7.8 receivers in the first 2 rounds. The 2020 draft was deeper at both the RB and WR positions than recent years have been, which has pushed some exciting players down dynasty draft boards and made it difficult to make the case that it’s an outrage that Player X isn’t going in the top Y picks – but damn it I’m gonna try!

To determine exactly who is currently undervalued, I’ve used the rookie ADP data that Kevin O’Brien (@the_FF_engineer on Twitter) pulled from actual 1QB rookie drafts on Safe Leagues and compared that to my own personal ranks – what the hell else would I use!?

Henry Ruggs III, WR, Las Vegas Raiders
SafeLeagues ADP: 10.82 (11th)
My Rank: 6th

Henry Ruggs III seems to be one of the more contentious players of the 2020 draft class. While the Raiders selected Ruggs as the first wide receiver at #12 overall, many dynasty owners are scared off by Ruggs’ puzzling lack of production at Alabama and the fear that Ruggs will simply be an expensive decoy for Las Vegas – ‘a better real-life player than a fantasy player’. Owners expecting Tyreek Hill 2.0 will likely be disappointed, but Ruggs shouldn’t be written off as a simple, deep threat.

Austin Gayle (@PFF_AustinGayle) from PFF shared a breakdown of the 2020 rookie class by percent of targets by route.

Ruggs notably has a very even spread across all route types, and even received a lower percentage of his targets on go routes than any other receiver listed.

His production at Alabama is a red flag. He never hit 750 yards in a season at Alabama, and his last season, he was closer to being Alabama’s WR4 in yardage, than he was to being their WR2. Despite that, there is little evidence that Nick Saban felt Ruggs’ only skill is running go routes.

The Raiders clearly weren’t concerned by the lack of production. Selecting Ruggs over Jerry Jeudy and Ceedee Lamb was a bold call, but it wasn’t a complete surprise. Ruggs had been picking up steam as the first receiver off the board since the combine, and it appears the NFL is simply higher on Ruggs than the fantasy and draft twitter community are.

What does this mean for Ruggs? It means immediate opportunity. Teams expect production from top 12 picks and Ruggs has an excellent opportunity in Vegas. The WR depth chart is bare and Ruggs should walk into the top spot on the depth chart. Because of that lack of talent, WR production for the Raiders has been rough in Gruden’s last two seasons. In 2019 Tyrell Williams was the team’s leading wide receiver in 2019 with just 651 yards (tight end Darren Waller had 1145).

However, Jon Gruden has always prioritized having a number 1 receiver. Across 11 seasons as a head coach prior to his temporary retirement, Gruden always had a receiver who reached 1000 yards and had at least a 28.3% share of the team’s yards. 2005 saw Joey Galloway record over 40% of the Buccaneers’ receiving yards. For comparison, Michael Thomas had a 38.9% yardage share in the Saints (much more explosive) offense. A 28.3% yardage share would have ranked 12th in the league last season, while Gruden’s average WR1 yardage share of 31% would have ranked 4th.

While several of Gruden’s WR1 seasons have come from a Hall of Famer in Tim Brown, it’s interesting that 1 of them came from a rookie (Michael Clayton), and 3 came from a player known for speed and being a deep threat (Joey Galloway).

Last off-season’s plan of Antonio Brown was a disaster, but between Brown and Ruggs Gruden appears to still be focused on filling the WR1 role he has always had. In what’s considered to be a historically deep WR class, the fact that the first WR off the board is falling to the late first and early second in rookie drafts is insane. Don’t let Ruggs slip by you.

Brandon Aiyuk, WR, San Francisco 49ers
SafeLeagues ADP: 16.52 (16th)
My Rank: 10th

Aiyuk was my pre draft WR5 and effectively in a toss up with Justin Jefferson and Tee Higgins for the #3 spot, so I was very excited to see the 49ers grab him late in the first round of the draft. Aiyuk ended up coming off the board before Higgins, Denzel Mims, and Michael Pittman, but ADP shows he is being drafted later than all 3 in dynasty rookie drafts and I’m struggling to understand why. Aiyuk landed in a better situation with a clearer path to targets than Higgins. While the most common knock to hear about Aiyuk is that he wasn’t an early declare for the draft, neither were Mims nor Pittman. And Aiyuk should slot into a solid Kyle Shanahan run offense rather than an Adam Gase offense with a quarterback question mark or a Colts’ offense with a 1-year rental at quarterback.

Aiyuk’s profile is also fairly impressive outside of the draft capital the 49ers invested in him. At the combine, Aiyuk measured in at 6’, 205 pounds, had a 40” vertical, and ran a solid 4.50 forty-yard dash. That’s not  Henry Ruggs speed but it’s more than enough to be a great NFL receiver and Aiyuk’s explosiveness and acceleration is obvious on tape. He can win on vertical routes with his speed and above average ball tracking as well as on intermediate routes with his casual explosiveness and ability to separate after the catch. One of my pre-draft comps for Aiyuk was actually his new teammate Deebo Samuel – both are dangerous weapons with the ball in their hands and Kyle Shanahan has proven that he can put players like them in a position to succeed.

Critics have pointed out that Aiyuk was a 4-year college player with only 1 year of Division 1 production. However, while he did stay in college through his Senior season, he was a standout producer both at receiver and on special teams as a freshman and sophomore at the JuCo level for Sierra College. After that, he transferred to Arizona State, where he finished 2nd on the team in receiving yards (474), behind 2019 first rounder N’Keal Harry. In his senior season, Aiyuk exploded for a 65/1192/8 line. Being a senior isn’t ideal, but it isn’t a death knell either, and Aiyuk has the sort of profile you want to see from somebody who stayed 4 at the college level for 4 years – great production throughout his career, with the lone down year coming as a first year player being overshadowed by another NFL 1st round talent.

A.J. Dillon, RB, Packers
SafeLeagues ADP: 18.91 (20th)
My Rank: 17

I admit, the gap between my ranking and the ADP is slim here. But, Dillon is the only RB in the ADP top 20 who I have ranked higher than their ADP. I’ve been called a running back hater by some of my league mates over the years. Of course, I don’t hate running backs – I just don’t submit to the RB craze that seems to take hold of most dynasty owners. I consider myself position agnostic, but in most cases that leaves me lower on the non-elite RBs than consensus. A.J. Dillon, however, is a rare exception.

The table above shows two running backs from this year’s class would appear to be similar. Both were highly productive over multiple years in college, have excellent speed scores (speed adjusted for weight), and were drafted in the 2nd round to teams with productive young RBs already in place. However, the RB1, is currently being drafted with an ADP of 1.72 while Dillon, the RB2, is going on average over 17 picks later with an ADP of 18.91.

I admit my table was intentionally a bit misleading. Taylor had historic levels of college production (6174/50 on the ground) compared to Dillon’s mere ‘very good’ production (4382/38) and while they were drafted in the same round, Taylor was still selected nearly 30 picks earlier. But, the point of the table is solid – these players are not wildly dissimilar despite a massive disparity in pre and post draft hype.

Marlon Mack is assumed to be a non-factor for Jonathan Taylor, while Aaron Jones is assumed to block Dillon for at least a year. But is Jones really that much better than Mack? Mack has outrushed Jones over each of the last 2 seasons, despite playing in fewer games. Admittedly, Jones is clearly the better receiver, but he was also only a 6th round pick and Green Bay can let him hit Free Agency after the 2020 season. Every offseason we see teams move on from solid running backs in favor of younger, cheaper options and Aaron Jones appears to be no different. On top of that, Dillon’s coach Matt LeFleur was the Titans offensive coordinator in 2018, and it seems obvious he wants to make Dillon his new Derrick Henry.

Dillon has more upside than Zack Moss at this point, and is a safer bet to return some value than Antonio Gibson. 400 yards and a large share of Aaron Jones goal line work is a reasonable expectation for year 1. After that, Dillon could easily take the lead role and push for 300 carries. At this point, Dillon appears to be the only 2020 rookie RB who hasn’t been overpriced by the RB craze.