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Mon Feb 1st 2021

How To Evaluate Rookies

Top Ten Factors In My Evaluation Process

Last weekend I released my first 2021rookie rankings.  The rankings are not final because I'll adjust the rankings throughout the off-season as I continue to learn more about the rookie class, and I will finalize my rookie rankings the week after the NFL draft.  Many factors are part of my evaluation process.  I want to list the factors in order, counting down from ten to one in this post.  Every analyst has their own process and values each of these factors differently in their evaluation process.  Here is how I value these factors in my process.

10. Recruiting Services

  • I like to know how college recruiting services evaluated players before they committed to their college teams and which college teams were recruiting them. It helps me see if they have lived up to how college scouts ranked them. If a five-star prospect has lived up to their hype, it's a slight boost to their rookie evaluation. If a five-star prospect has not lived up to their hype, I'm more willing to believe they have the athleticism to surprise their NFL teams. If a player was only a two or three-star athlete when college teams recruited him but performed well in college, I'm a little more likely to move them behind four and five-star players in the same tier. I also give a slight bump to players who were recruited by more schools and by top tier programs, even if they signed with a lower-tier program. Recruiting services is the 10th factor in my process, so I don't weigh it too heavily, but I like knowing what scouts thought of them when they were in high school. It's a good starting point for my evaluation and can factor in breaking ties within tiers.

9. Character

  • Character is an important factor in evaluating rookies, even though it is sometimes difficult to assess. If a player has been in trouble with the law of suspended at any point in their college career, I dock them in my rankings. If a player was a team captain or a demonstrated leader on their team, they get a slight bump in my rankings. One of the things I try to do throughout the off-season leading up to the draft is listen to as many interviews as I can from the rookie class. I listen to get a feel for how they understand the game, if they love football, if they have a hard work ethic, if they are arrogant or confident, if they are a good teammate, etc. The interview process at the NFL Combine is a significant part of NFL teams' evaluation. While we don't have that kind of access to players, I do what I can to learn about the players as a person and weigh what I learn into my rookie rankings, even if just a little bit.

8. Breakout Age

  • I favor players who played as freshmen and prefer them even more if they were highly productive in their freshman or sophomore years. Breakout age has proven to be one of the more reliable correlations for NFL success. If a player at 18 or 19 years old is already out-playing teammates in their twenties who have been part of their school's strength and conditioning program for several years, it's a tangible sign that they're a great prospect. I always look to see what incoming rookies did during their freshmen and sophomore years on campus

7. College Competition

  • While there are always exceptions, players that played in power-five conferences fare better than players in the less competitive conferences. Additionally, players who become starters on powerhouse teams have out-played highly recruited prospects, proving that they are better than some of their teams' best players. This fact has to play a factor in how I evaluate the incoming rookie class. I don't totally discriminate based on college competition, but it's more than a tiebreaker for me than the three factors listed above.

6. Size and Athletic Testing

  • How a prospect fares in the measurables in the NFL Combine and Pro-days is a significant factor in my evaluation process, but it's not among my top five evaluation factors. Size is more important to me than athletic testing because there is plenty of data to suggest that height is essential for quarterbacks and that a combination of height and weight factor significantly into the success rate of running backs and tight ends. There is more size variance at the wide receiver positions, so size is less critical when evaluating them. Strength, speed, and explosion measurables are significant in the evaluation process, but I am careful not to overweigh them since some players are good or bad at testing in shorts and t-shirts. I see athletic testing as more a confirmation piece when it matches what can be seen on film. If a player is great on film but tests poorly, I don't let the testing drop him very far in my rankings. At the same time, if a player has not played as well on film but ranks exceptionally high in athletic testing, I am willing to consider moving that play up ahead of players in the same tier with similar college tape and production.

5. College Game Film

  • Watching game film is one of the most effective ways to evaluate prospects, including watching college football on Saturdays, watching highlights videos on Youtube, or re-watching entire games to scout players. Most dynasty managers don't have time to watch every play of every game, so they form opinions based on watching football on Saturdays or watching player highlights. Watching highlights is a great way to answer the question, "What can this player do well?" It's less helpful in answering the question, "What does this player not do well." That said, scouts often start by answering the question, "Where does the player win, or what can he do?" That's what I do when watching highlights. I form my own opinion about what the player does best. It's the most fun part of my process, but It's not the most important because I am not a professional scout and don't have time to watch every play of every prospect.

4. Professional Scouting

  • I like to use the six processes above to form my own opinion about the rookie class before reading and listening to those whose full-time job is scouting players. After I have created my thoughts, I listen to the professional on podcasts and purchase their various draft guides. If I read or hear something about a player that confirms where I have them ranked, I'm pleased to have the confirmation. If I read or hear something that contradicts where I have a player ranked, I will go back to all the six processes and reevaluate them. Even the professionals disagree with one another, so I listen to all sides of their arguments and settle on my own evaluation and ranking. This process will continue for months leading up to the NFL draft.

3. College Production

  • Apart from the final two factors listed below, college production is most important to me. The last two on the list below come after the NFL draft, so before the NFL draft, college production is what's most important in my evaluation. In my eyes, seeing is believing. If a player has already done it, he can do it again at the next level. There are always surprise players who just need different opportunities to produce in the NFL, but it is far more likely that those who have produced in college will do so again. In my opinion, production is the safest factor in evaluating prospects and will prove right more times than not. Total yards, total touchdowns, total receptions, and percentage of team targets and snaps are the most predictive stats for how a rookie will perform once drafted.

2. Team Fit and Opportunity

  • Once drafted, players' rankings change significantly based on the teams they were drafted by and the opportunity they have to play immediately. Depth charts matter most because if there is a need and a chance to play right away, rookies are far more likely to make an immediate impact. Whereas, if a rookie is drafted to a team with solid veterans ahead of him, it may take some time to get on the field. The teams also make a difference because teams have different offensive philosophies and different players. A wide receiver drafted to a team with a meddling quarterback is not as good situationally as a receiver drafted to a team with a great quarterback. A running back drafted to a team with a run-first system is likely to fare better than the running back drafted to a pass-first system. Coaches on teams often have proven success in making certain positional players successful, so teams' coaches matter. General managers factor in rookies' success also, since certain general managers have proven success drafting great players for their systems while others have proven less successful. All of this to say that the team rookies get drafted by is a significant factor in ranking rookies.

1. Draft Capital

  • Nothing, however, is more important in ranking rookies as draft capital. What round and what pick a player is drafted by their team is the single more important factor in ranking rookies. Players drafted early will get more opportunities to play early and more opportunities to play even if they do not play well to start their career. It's all about the money. They have bigger and longer contracts, so they are given more opportunities throughout the length of their rookie contract. Jordan Macnamara's book, The Analytics of Dynasty, proves that draft capital is the most critical and final factor in evaluating the rookie class.  I annually adjust my rankings slightly after the NFL Combine and significantly after the NFL draft. After the NFL draft, I change my rookie rankings to include their NFL team and where their teams drafted them. Those drafted in the first and second round see the most significant jump in value. In most cases, my process leads me to rank rookies close to how they are ranked and drafted by NFL teams, but when my process has not, I adjust my rankings to match those of NFL teams that drafted players and will pay them accordingly.

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