Will Sterling Shepard End Up Being the Best Fantasy Football Rookie Wide Receiver This Year?
Let’s get the coronation over with already: the 2016 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year will almost certainly be Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott. Since he was selected in the top five of this year’s NFL Draft to run behind the All-Pro offensive line of the Cowboys, Elliott has been the clear-cut 1.01 rookie draft selection in dynasty fantasy football leagues.
When it comes to the rookie wide receivers of the 2016 draft class, however, it’s what I like to call a fantasy Rorschach test. With so many varied skill sets landing in a variety of situations, there’s no clear answer to the question of which one is the best among them and whichever you pick tells a lot about who you are as a fantasy football owner and what you prefer.
Do you like high-octane speed above all else? Corey Coleman of the Cleveland Browns or Will Fuller of the Houston Texans are your guys. Value physicality and possession skills at a premium? The Minnesota Vikings’ Laquon Treadwell or Washington's Josh Doctson might be your cup of tea.
All of that may sound nice, but one of these rookies is in the perfect offense to fit his skill set, with the exact right situation afforded to him, and the talent to capitalize on it. That player is New York Giants wideout Sterling Shepard.
Could he be the best rookie receiver in 2016?
What’s My Age Again?
Based on the news blurbs coming out of Giants’ OTA’s, it sounds like Shepard is coming in as an established professional with years under his belt.
Eli Manning on rookie WR Sterling Shepard: 'He's caught everything.' #Giants
— Jordan Raanan (@JordanRaanan) May 23, 2016
It’s no surprise that Shepard has been running exclusively with the first-team at Giants’ offseason activities. What is surprising is how quickly he’s taken to the pace of play in head coach Ben McAdoo’s up-tempo offense. I know highlight videos without pads on don’t tell anything near the full story, but it's impressive to see what 87 is doing on an NFL (practice) field.
Although we can see Shepard making some tough sideline catches in the videos from OTA’s, the common belief is that he can't play outside. As we proved yesterday, the slot receiver role isn't really damaging to a wide receiver’s fantasy value, and can in fact help them in PPR formats. And our own Blair Ames also believes that Sterling Shepard, though “primarily a slot receiver”, is one of the five rookies most likely to make an impact for fantasy football leagues this year.
NFL.com’s Matt Harmon confirms this in his Reception Perception work, where he charted some of the best receiver prospects in the 2016 NFL Draft class. According to Harmon, Shepard lined up 67.7 percent of the time in the slot at Oklahoma in college and dominated in every measure that Harmon presents. In fact, Shepard had an above-average Success Rate Versus Coverage (SRVC) on every route type except flat routes, and against every kind of coverage.
That all indicates that, despite fitting the physical archetype for the slot, Shepard could be a movable chess piece for the Giants, dominating in the slot or playing outside successfully if needed. Giants' star receiver Odell Beckham played in the slot successfully last season: he saw a target on 27.27 percent of his routes there (per Pro Football Focus), had a 76.19 percent slot catch rate, and 3.03 yards per route run from this spot on the field. In addition, Victor Cruz's primary position was as a slot receiver early in his career, so the G-Men could have a carousel of receivers lined up wherever they want to exploit a mismatch.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that the Giants averaged 3.03 wide receivers snaps per offensive play last year, as well, meaning that they -- on average -- have a base offensive formation of three wide receivers. Shepard’s versatility makes him only that more likely to see extra snaps on the field, and he's in the right offense to play a ton of downs.
Don’t You Forget About Me
We’ve established that Shepard is versatile, and while this makes him valuable from an NFL standpoint, snaps on the field don't result in fantasy points -- yards, touchdowns, and receptions do.
History tells us that Shepard is at a significant disadvantage being a second-round pick. The table below shows the average rookie production between first- and second-round wide receivers over the last three years.
That means that, on average, first-round rookie wide receivers since 2013 have earned 110.5 standard fantasy points in their first season, while second-rounders pick up just 68.0 points. That’s a pretty hefty difference.
But draft round doesn’t tell the whole story -- this is why landing spot is very important for early-career fantasy production.
I averaged the target loads of the top-four wide receivers on each NFL team over the last three years, and weighted them to favor more recent years. I then matched up each rookie wideout’s projected spot on their team -- per Rotoworld -- to see which player will land in the best situation for his rookie year.
The table below shows each player by their projected role on their team (projected as the fourth wide receiver or better), and the average targets that role has seen the past three years.
Especially with injured veteran Cruz still working his way back into practice participation, it would be a polite phrasing to say that the Giants’ wide receiver depth chart is in shambles behind Beckham. Comprised of Dwayne Harris, Geremy Davis, and Myles White, the returning options for the Giants have totaled 149 targets in their combined eight years in the NFL. There is opportunity to be had in the Giants’ offense, and no other rookie -- save Corey Coleman and Will Fuller -- can boast that kind of situational upside.
Slotting in as the second wide receiver in New York, Shepard looks likely to earn 100-plus targets in his rookie year. If we use the second-round rookie averages, his 2016 receiving line looks like 59 receptions for 746 yards and 5 touchdowns, or 104.6 standard fantasy points. This would be well behind Coleman’s 135.3 points and just back of Fuller’s 114.0, using the first-round rookie averages.
It's worth noting that the Giants have been top-10 in the league in passing attempts and passing touchdowns the past two years, while Houston and Cleveland have been inconsistent in attempts and in the bottom half of the league in passing touchdowns. In addition, the presence of Beckham should draw extra coverage off of Shepard -- though the same could be said of DeAndre Hopkins and Fuller.
In all, Shepard appears likely to make a strong rookie impact in the NFL, and should provide an exciting tandem to watch alongside Beckham. The diminutive receiver out of Oklahoma has an outside shot to top the his rookie peers in fantasy scoring, but it’s not likely he does so.