It’s been well-established by this point that a player who breaks out early in their college career has an increased chance of fantasy success once they reach the NFL. The general preference is that this “break out” – defined initially as a 20% dominator rating – happens in the first or second year the player is in college. Intuitively, this makes sense. If an 18-year-old freshman can dominate players three or four years older than them, it probably signals some sort of elevated talent.

The determination is simple if players break out during their first year on campus. That box is checked. But what happens to those players that don’t break out in year one? How do we determine which players are more likely to break out in year two? Or, at the very least, are there thresholds that non-breakouts can hit as freshmen that indicate future fantasy success?

These questions drove our dive into a new analytic metric we affectionately refer to as the “Year 1 Zero Theory.” The team at Campus2Canton fully believes that using this metric can help identify players more likely to break out in their second year and, by extension, increase their likelihood of future NFL success. 

THE DATASET

Because the “SUM” function is the extent of my usefulness with Excel, Chris Moxley tagged in to assist me with this project. Chris ultimately decided that the dataset should be limited to players who were ranked in the top 300 of their respective classes by the 247 Sports Composite, as this ranking has generally been the most accurate at predicting future NFL success for high school recruits and because it serves as an average of the rankings of all major recruiting services. Below the top 300, the hit rate for future NFL draft capital drop precipitously, as shown in this visualization: 

THE PRODUCTION THRESHOLDS

Initially, I chose three thresholds for the metric: at least five receptions, 100 receiving yards, or 1 receiving touchdown. While these effectively narrowed the player pool, they ignored contributions in non-traditional situations. Chris ultimately picked eight categories that could be used to determine whether a player was a “Year 1 Zero:”

  • Ten receptions
  • 100 receiving yards
  • Five rush attempts
  • 15 rush yards
  • One rush TD
  • Ten scrimmage touches
  • 115 scrimmage yards
  • Five punt or kick returns

These thresholds cover virtually every way a receiver can contribute to a team. The major change to these updated thresholds, beyond the additions of six new categories, is the elimination of receiving TDs. Receiving touchdowns tend to be random and has not proven useful for predicting future NFL success.

The main purpose for choosing relatively modest thresholds is that we need to account for the fact that many top recruits go to schools with other top recruits in front of them. Even the best recruits at schools like Ohio State, Alabama, and USC are not going to start or even play significant snaps as freshmen. If the thresholds are too high, only those few players who either choose a lesser program or snag a rare starting spot would hit them. With the chosen thresholds, players in crowded receiver rooms can still break them in blowouts as the season goes on. 

The example we always use is Jameson Williams, the former Ohio State and Alabama receiver who is now with the Detroit Lions. Williams famously left the Buckeyes because he was not receiving enough playing time alongside Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, and others. Williams was actually NOT a Year One Zero, finishing his true freshman season with 112 receiving yards. Williams picked up 74 of those yards in a 76 to 5 victory over Miami (OH). He was able to take advantage of minimal playing time because he is a good player, and good players are what we are trying to identify.

THE RESULTS

Well, what do you know…it looks like we have something here! Looking at top-36, top-24, and top-12 seasons reveals that the hit rate for players who fail to hit one of these marks is less than 3%, while players who DO hit one at least one of these marks have a hit rate of 17.4%, 12.8%, and 8.1%, respectively. That is a big difference, especially when most of these players have not hit the traditional breakout metrics used by many analysts. 

We took the analysis a step further by looking at instances where a player hit more than one threshold and made another discovery. Players who hit four or more thresholds see an increased hit rate of future NFL success across the board. This also makes sense, as these players had the ability to contribute in multiple ways, and it signals that the coaching staff trusted them to fill multiple roles. 

CONCLUSION

So what should you do with this information? First, it’s important to note that a player can hit a Year One Zero threshold and still not make it in the NFL. However, if a player does not hit any, we can fade that player in Devy and shallow C2C formats, as the likelihood of a WR3 season or better is less than 3%. It’s also important to remember that hitting four or more of these thresholds increases the likelihood of future NFL success. The players who hit this mark are typically the biggest “buys” following their freshman seasons, and many of these players are undervalued. Malik Nabers is a prime example of a player in the 2021 class who we signaled as a “buy” before his breakout sophomore season.

If you’re looking for a year-by-year breakdown of all of this data, Campus2Canton.com has you covered. All NIL members have access to a tool, updated weekly, which provides the status of all top 300 freshmen as the season goes on. It also has all historical data dating back to 2014. You can buy and sell players at critical value points through the season if used correctly.

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