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After completing many dynasty rookie drafts, an exact number that will remain between my accountant and me, the landscape has gained clarity. Mock drafts are great, but they need more nuance. In an actual draft, you have conflicting league interests between competition windows, league mates flush with draft capital who waited months to cash it in, or other players who want out of the draft altogether. No simulation can match this experience.
This piece is a tiered discussion of the rookie class as a whole. It will bring you well past most rookie draft scenarios, preparing you to attack in the draft and the essential subsequent waiver run. The post-draft waiver run is among the most important in the dynasty calendar when late rookie picks can be added for “free.” It also kicks off a resulting secondary waiver when league-mates are forced to make cuts, and ambiguous depth charts can create values.
For more in-depth coverage of the 2023 rookie class, check out the Footballguys Rookie Guide.
Please note this is a cluster, not necessarily a ranking. Rankings should be more individualized to roster construction and personal risk tolerance on prospects.
RB Bijan Robinson, Atlanta
Between Superflex and 1QB formats, Robinson will go number one in almost every rookie draft. A combination of years of hype and the late rise of the primary challenger has locked in consensus.
In Superflex, there is an argument for positional value. Anthony Richardson’s top outcome makes him a more valuable asset than Robinson. Maybe.
It is easy to be a prisoner of the moment. The recent influx of young, dual-threat quarterbacks and the aging of a golden crop of running backs has accelerated the divide between the quarterback and running back values. Not long ago (2020), the first round of startup drafts was a mix between heavy-volume running backs and the quarterbacks currently dominating the top of the boards. For newer dynasty players, a time when a quarterback was not the consensus top selection in startups can be crazy to comprehend.
But outside of that recent history, two factors could push Robinson long-term.
First, the shift in running back usage has been quick and drastic. In 2012, 17 running backs saw over 20 scrimmage touches per game. In 2022, that number dropped to just 7. Five of those backs will enter 2023 at age 26 or older. Efficiency meeting volume is the holy grail for fantasy production. The leaguewide landscape is changing, with quarterbacks who contribute meaningful team rushing production and three-headed committee backfields on the horizon. If Robinson reaches a top-level scrimmage opportunity share as his skillset and draft capital suggest, the chance for the running back landscape to mirror what has happened with the tight end position exists. Any player can find some level of replacement production from multiple sources. But one elite back at the top of the curve can create positional value similar to Travis Kelce—a cheat code who swings leagues.
The second question is about long-term production from rushing quarterbacks. The difference in running back and quarterback timelines is an often-cited argument in Richardson’s direction. But the long-term outcome of rushing quarterbacks is an open question, given they are a limited and newer phenomenon. Historic quarterbacks who top the rushing leaderboards are a mixed bag: Michael Vick, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Randall Cunningham, Steven Young, Steven McNair, and Donovan McNabb are the most representative sample.
Vick is a well-known story himself. Newton’s career was effectively over at age 29. Wilson has topped 400 rushing yards once in his last five seasons after hitting the number five of his first six. Cunningham rushed for 942 yards in his age 27 season; he topped 300 yards just once again in a career that saw him play to age 38. Young’s numbers were more the result of career-long accumulation than early career spikes. McNair never topped 200 yards after age 29 while averaging over 400 before that point. McNabb averaged 447 rushing yards through age 27, then never topped 200 his final eight years.
All that is to say, dual-threat quarterbacks have developed a track record of fantasy-breaking production early in their careers before injuries accumulate, forcing them into more traditional production profiles. Not entirely unlike running backs. If a 29-year-old Anthony Richardson follows this historical trend, you have back-end production, but it’s closer to an 18-points-per-game quarterback, leaving you trailing at the position.
The last point speaks to teams who “earned” the 1.01. When rebuilding, it can be easy to stress small production windows or feel the need to hit home runs with your picks. But you need to start stacking wins to turn the cycle. Robinson’s value should climb and solidify through the year as running backs have historically seen increases during the summer “redraft” season. It may seem crazy now, but his value can still climb. That climb will be met with an inverse relationship of rookie pick value. If selling Robinson is the goal, outside of an injury that derails him, now is not the time.
QB Anthony Richardson, Indianapolis
Richardson has solidified as the 1.02 in Superflex drafts. We now know there is no “Malik Willis” level “gotcha” moment lurking. Richardson has the best dual-threat skillset of any rookie. He landed with the best coaching staff in the most talented offense and one of the easier divisions in football. A publicly ridiculed stance over a month ago has now become consensus. Funny how that works.
These four have become interchangeable groups, heavily dependent on team needs and roster build preferences. Our Jay Stein wrote an excellent article on quarterback value in Superflex formats. His assessment is Young, and Stroud should go off the board at the second and third pick, ahead of Richardson. The conversation comes down to risk/reward.
A funny thing happened when Richardson passed Young and Stroud in consensus. The conversation hung on the ceiling of the latter two. Those questions that pushed Richardson past also pushed Gibbs and Smith-Njigba into the conversation. It ignites a blunt conversation.
Will Stroud and Young have the upside of the top quarterbacks in fantasy? It is unlikely.
But to ignore their potential as long-time starters, especially in superflex formats, ignores the landscape of quarterbacks as a whole. In Footballguys dynasty rankings, two of the top 18 quarterbacks are in their mid-30s. Overall, the back half of the top 24 quarterbacks have major going concern questions.
Gibbs and Smith-Njigba are excellent players. But both have concerns of their own—Gibbs’ size profiles as a high-end committee back. The best-case scenario leans into his skillset and gives him heavy PPR value. Smith-Njigba profiles long-term into a fantastic role with Seattle, but his rookie production will likely tail. While his game should be tailor-made for fantasy, it is worth noting there are questions on his scheme utility relative to the receivers who topped the 2022 rookie class.
Ultimately, sharper leagues are considering the upside of the quarterbacks. Meanwhile, most home leagues view Stroud and Young as the easy choice. It is easy to get too cute with months to weigh a decision.
Lastly, I'd like to provide a final note on how I have played Stroud and Young in my leagues. When faced with the decision between the two, I have actively tried to diversify my selection to spread exposure. Neither landed in fantastic spots, with both needing more elite receiving weapons.
This tier is a cluster. Pushing Kincaid to the front of these four is understandable, especially in tight end premium formats. The NFL viewed this group very closely in the draft, taking them all off the board in a run. Drafts have separated Johnston and Addison from Flowers and Kincaid. Time will tell if that is necessary.
These players all received first-round capital and landed in solid offensive situations. To move out of this tier, the conversation should likely start at a future first and a later pick in the large cluster coming up next.
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