Why scouting NFL draft prospects is a smart fantasy football strategy

Liz Loza
·5-min read

Savvy fantasy fans understand that football has no offseason.

The cadence of the NFL schedule rolls through each month in a calendar year. Bill Belichick echoed this same sentiment 24 hours after winning Super Bowl 51, explaining that his squad was now “five weeks behind.” The stakes may be different for BB, but the process for fantasy managers can be strikingly similar.

After the championship match is played and free agency has finished frenzying, it becomes time to focus on the incoming class of rookies. Among them could be the next Justin Jefferson, Justin Herbert, or James Robinson. Of course, not every rookie makes an immediate impact. After all, Henry Ruggs was the first receiver selected in the 2020 draft and he finished the year outside of the top-80 fantasy producers at the position, averaging fewer than six FF points per game. So, that leads to the question of ...

Does scouting rookies really matter for fantasy managers?

Absolutely. If you studied up on Ruggs then you probably avoided him in his first campaign with the Raiders. Because you already knew that given his skill set, surrounding talent, and anticipated usage he wasn’t going to produce consistently. But maybe because of his draft standing and the hype, you drafted him in fantasy, expecting the best.

You probably weren't the only one, and you probably won't be the last.

Professional scouts whiff regularly. It’s fair then, to assume, fantasy fans will too. But the information gleaned from each player is invaluable. Knowing what a player does well provides managers with clues about how these athletes might be deployed and how they’ll fit into their squad’s ecosystem. Each puzzle piece — which materializes over the scouting process — provides fantasy managers with a more detailed view of a prospect, allowing them to set their expectations accordingly.

Those expectations drive value. Due to the obvious learning curve, the bar for rookies isn’t as high as it might be for players in their prime. For example, heading into last fall, Antonio Gibson was a hotly-debated player who — even after Derrius Guice was waived — remained a 12th-round selection in redraft leagues.

Scoring in three of his first four games, the Memphis product closed out the season RB13 overall in half-point PPR formats.

Looking ahead to 2021, Gibson is likely to be ranked just outside of the top-12 players at the position (RB15-ish). This time around though, he’s definitely coming off draft boards before the double-digit rounds hit. Virtual gamers who educated themselves about Gibson’s athleticism (he was a three-sport athlete in high school), versatility (experience as a WR and KR in college), and big-play ability (seven total scores over 40-yards) understood his upside and were willing to lean in, particularly given his relatively low ADP.

Gibson is just one example of how grasping a player’s pros and cons can illuminate his potential at the next level. That’s a large part of the reason why, when I posed this question on social media, a considerable number of the responses had to do with finding value. One Instagram user said it simply by replying, “Bargains on bargains!”

Other followers engaged by admitting that, for them, it’s all about discovering how a guy “fits into a system.” A gorgeous example of this is how seamlessly Tee Higgins slid into the Bengals offense last year. Comped to A.J. Green throughout the draft process, Higgins — a player with a basketball background and jaw-dropping hops — was selected to work as the franchise’s perimeter and end zone receiver.

Noting Green’s contract situation at the time, Higgins landed on the radars of well-informed dynasty and keeper enthusiasts. But he also produced for redrafters who were willing to wager that the torch passing between the two receivers would happen sooner rather than later. From Weeks 2-10, while Joe Burrow was healthy, Higgins recorded six fantasy-relevant weeks and finished inside the top-15 FF WRs in four of those outings.

Not bad for a newcomer who was drafted outside of the top-70 fantasy wideouts.

A prospect's athleticism + testing + context = potential fantasy success

Higgins is also an example of a player whose testing numbers did little to illuminate his overall athleticism. This was a point referenced by a Twitter follower who wrote about the proliferation of high-end college athletes and how scouting can shed light on regularly referenced metrics. Higgins’ Pro Day stats were less than inspiring. But the Bengals weren’t drafting him for his explosive speed or YAC ability. They wanted him because of his physicality and prowess in contested situations.

Metrics are frequently referenced in fantasy, and they’re certainly important. But without context, they can be misleading. We’re heading into a season that didn’t have a Combine. The scouting process this year is different from how it’s been in decades. Determining the tools most easily accessed by each individual player is crucial heading into 2021. Without that intel, we won’t be able to — as one #FantasyTwitter member wrote — get an idea of a player’s “strengths and weaknesses.” It is that amalgamation of good and bad that gives us a blueprint for a prospect’s capability, especially as it relates to (quoting the same Twitter user) the “team [he] lands with and the scheme they run.”

Let us do the work for you

Studying an incoming class can be a daunting task. Watching tape, analyzing stats, and researching each prospect’s journey takes a lot of time. That’s why Yahoo Sports NFL Draft Expert Eric Edholm and I will be teaming up for a four-week pod series called the Rookie Snapshot. Launching next week, each episode will lay out a (wait for it) “snapshot” of the top prospects at each position.

A written summary will additionally accompany the players discussed on the pod. We’ll outline the backgrounds, pros and cons of each player’s game, interesting stats, NFL comps, and potential landing spots for the incoming class.

With these digestible, fantasy-forward synopses you’ll be able to stay on top of the rookie scouting process, which, as one smart Instagram follower noted, “is a league winning exercise.”

Engage with Liz on social @LizLoza_FF

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