Leonard Fournette, Samaje Perine & the Other Rookies That Will Make a Fantasy Impact in 2017
Now that the NFL Draft has finally come and gone, most of the pieces are in place to begin to finalize preseason rankings. We’ll continue to update our projections throughout the offseason, but for now I wanted to present a few thoughts about this year’s crop of rookies and how they might fare in the upcoming season.
First things first: rookies are typically disappointing. For every Ezekiel Elliot, there seem to be five Bishop Sankeys. In fact, over the past eight seasons, a grand total of 34 rookies have offered up starter-caliber PPR numbers, i.e., top-12 quarterbacks and tight ends, top-24 running backs and wide receivers. That’s about four and a half per year. Let’s take a look at them:
- QB: Cam Newton (QB4, 2011), Robert Griffin III (QB5, 2012), Dak Prescott (QB6, 2016), Andrew Luck (QB8, 2012) and Russell Wilson (QB9, 2012). Note: Jameis Winston finished as QB13 in 2015.
- RB: Doug Martin (RB2, 2012), Ezekiel Elliott (RB2, 2016), Alfred Morris (RB7, 2012), Eddie Lacy (RB7, 2013), Trent Richardson (RB8, 2012), David Johnson (RB8, 2015), Todd Gurley (RB9, 2015), Jordan Howard (RB10, 2016), Jeremy Hill (RB10, 2014), LeVeon Bell (RB15, 2013), Giovani Bernard (RB16, 2013), Knowshon Moreno (RB18, 2009), Zac Stacy (RB18, 2013), Jahvid Best (RB20, 2010), Duke Johnson (RB24, 2015) and Roy Helu (RB24, 2011)
- WR: Odell Beckham (WR7, 2014), Michael Thomas (WR7, 2016), Mike A Williams (WR11, 2010), Mike Evans (WR13, 2014), A.J. Green (WR14, 2011), Kelvin Benjamin (WR15, 2014), Julio Jones (WR17, 2011), Keenan Allen (WR17, 2013), Amari Cooper (WR21, 2015) and Torrey Smith (WR23, 2011), Tyreek Hill (WR24, 2016)
- TE: Rob Gronkowski (TE5, 2010), Aaron Hernandez (TE11, 2010)
Of those 34 players, 15 were drafted by their teams in the first round, seven in the second, four in the third, four in the fourth, three in the fifth and one in the sixth. Twenty-six of the 34 (76%) were drafted in the first three rounds, so while there are always a few exceptions, redraft fantasy owners should focus their attention on the highly-drafted rookies when looking for the occasional value in the rookie class.
Let’s go position-by-position and discuss some of the players who figure (or at least have a chance) to produce as rookies.
Don’t be that guy who’s drafting rookie QBs looking for the next Dak Prescott.
Prescott, drafted in the fifth round, is the exception that proves the rule: Rookie quarterbacks rarely make much of a fantasy impact. In the last eight years, five rookies have cracked the top 12, and three of those (Newton, Griffin III and Luck) were drafted very early in the first round. Wilson (third round) and Prescott (fifth) both landed in excellent situations where they were able to thrive without having to carry the team.
Based on situation and draft capital, Deshaun Watson looks like the best bet to work his way into QB2/streaming numbers. He only has to beat out Tom Savage, and the Houston defense is good enough that he won’t have to light up the scoreboard to win games. Bill O’Brien has coaxed good numbers out of the position before, so it wouldn’t be surprising if Watson has a solid rookie season, assuming he can win the job.
Second overall pick Mitchell Trubisky will have to beat out the capable Mike Glennon. If he does, he’ll have a suspect receiving corps to throw to. Pass.
Cody Kessler figures to start for the Browns, but if he falters, DeShone Kizer (second) could get a shot. The same goes for Nathan Peterman (fifth) who will have to usurp Tyrod Taylor. C.J Beathard (third) has Brian Hoyer ahead of him, so if the 49ers get off to a bad start, it’s not inconceivable that he gets to play down the stretch.
Fournette (current projection: 313 touches, 1454 yards, 8.1 TD) is the odds-on favorite to lead all rookie running backs in fantasy points. The last eight running backs drafted in the top 10 that saw at least 200 carries as rookies averaged 308 touches for 1484 yards and 9.8 touchdowns, for a PPR average of 239.6 fantasy points. Our current projection for Fournette has him at 226.1. If he plays at least 15 games, I think he’s a virtual shoo-in to lead rookie backs in touches.
While Fournette is currently going near the 2/3 turn of 12-team PPR MFL10 drafts, Christian McCaffery and Joe Mixon are both going in the third round, while Dalvin Cook is going in the early fifth. All three are very adept in the passing game, though the consensus says that McCaffrey is the best of the bunch.
With Jonathan Stewart still likely to see 200-plus carries, the third round feels pretty early for Christian McCaffrey (projection: 229 touches, 1144 yards, 5.7 TD), though he has Danny Woodhead-type (70-plus catch) upside in the passing game. The issue is Cam Newton has never been one to check down or target his running backs heavily, so it's fair to question how easily McCaffrey will fit into the Panthers offense. Given the fact that they used the eighth overall pick on the Stanford back, changing the offense to suit his skill set would seemingly be a major priority, but how flexible is Newton? Stewart has missed three games in each of the last three seasons, and has missed a total of 26 games in the last five seasons, so McCaffrey has RB1 upside if (when?) Stewart is sidelined.
Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, Joe Mixon (projection: 238 touches, 1144 yards, 7.2 TD) has a good chance to lead Bengals running backs in touches. However, Giovani Bernard is an adept pass catcher and Jeremy Hill has been an effective goal line back, so Mixon’s workload is a bit up in the air. We should know more once we see the pecking order in training camp, though it feels like Mixon will be expected to contribute heavily as a rookie.
The Vikings signed Latavius Murray, but it appears that Dalvin Cook (projection: 238 touches, 1088 yards, 7.2 TD) has the inside track to a starting job in Minnesota. The Vikings had major problems running the ball last season, but they have revamped the offensive line and are poised for improvement. The early-fifth-round price tag for Cook seems more reasonable than the other two backs in this tier.
The next three backs have legitimate (but varying) chances to win the RB1 job for their respective teams.
Samaje Perine (projection: 159 touches, 604 yards, 3.0 TD) has the clearest path to major touches in Washington since he only has Rob Kelley to beat out. Reports about Kelley have been mixed, so Perine is no shoo-in to win the starting job. Chris Thompson is the best receiver in this backfield, so neither Perine or Kelley are likely to see many receptions regardless. Keep in mind that once Kelley won the job in Week 8, he was the #13 RB in standard (#15 in PPR) down the stretch.
Kareem Hunt (projection: 82 touches, 358 yards, 1.5 TD) has been generating some buzz, but I don’t think that Spencer Ware is going to go gently into that good night. Since becoming a Chief, Ware has averaged 4.63 YPC on 286 carries, and his 13.5 yards per catch was the second most of any running back with 30-plus receptions in 2016. Ware is going in the middle of the fifth round and I think that’s a great spot to nab him. It’s more likely that Hunt finds a role on passing downs, potentially replacing Charcandrick West.
There have been questions about Carlos Hyde’s fit in new HC Kyle Shanahan’s offense and Shanahan reportedly coveted Joe Williams above all others as the fourth round of the draft began. He wasn’t on GM John Lynch’s draft board due to character concerns, so Lynch called Williams before the round began and was taken aback by Williams’ explanation for his issues in college. The GM eventually agreed to trade up to nab Williams, so Shanahan got his man. Does it sound like Hyde is safe?
(I recently moved Williams up, and currently project him for 203 touches, 751 yards and 5.0 touchdowns).
There aren’t any other clear contributors in this running back class, as far as I can tell. Here are a few thoughts about the rest of the class:
- Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones will compete for touches behind Ty Montgomery, though this is shaping up to be a committee since Montgomery isn’t built for a featured role.
- There has been some buzz surrounding Jeremy McNichols, but Doug Martin has reportedly had a great offseason, and Jacquizz Rodgers proved more than capable of carrying the load when Martin went down last season. Charles Sims is still the team’s passing-down back, so McNichols has a lot of work to do to carve out a significant role.
- Alvin Kamara figures to have a chance for passing-down work in New Orleans, though his upside is capped by the presence of Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson.
- D’Onta Foreman should back up Lamar Miller, and owners need to have Foreman on speed dial if anything were to happen to Miller. Foreman scored well in fantasy analyst Kevin Cole’s RB Success Model.
- The Colts took Marlon Mack (who is more finesse than power) as a potential successor to the venerable Frank Gore, though Robert Turbin is still in the mix.
Three receivers went in the first round of the 2017 Draft, and they all went within the first nine picks. They’re all bound to produce, right?
Not so fast.
Putting things into perspective, the 25 receivers drafted inside the top 10 since 2000 averaged 42.9 receptions for 597 yards and 4.0 touchdowns, or 126.3 PPR fantasy points for the season. That’s about what Eli Rogers did as the #61 fantasy receiver of 2016.
The good news is that the NFL has seemingly gotten better at utilizing (or at picking?) rookies, since those numbers are up to 55.9-824-6.0 since the 2011 season. Those numbers equate to 174.2 PPR fantasy points, or about what Anquan Boldin posted as the #41 fantasy receiver of last season. Our sample size is down from 25 to eight – for which I’ll issue a mandatory small sample size alert! – including Julio Jones, A.J. Green, Justin Blackmon, Tavon Austin, Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Amari Cooper and Kevin White.
If we remove White’s injury-riddled rookie season, we’re up to 61-915-6.9, or 193.7 PPR fantasy points, about what Stefon Diggs scored as the #30 receiver of 2016. Now we’re talking.
What does this mean for the 2017 draft class?
Corey Davis was the first receiver off the board and is probably landing in the best situation. He has a good quarterback (Marcus Mariota) and the team has a glaring need at receiver. I’ve long been a Rishard Matthews fan, so I’m not convinced that Davis (projection: 60 catches, 880 yards, 6.2 TD) will outproduce Matthews (projection: 64 catches, 860 yards, 6.6 TD) as a rookie, though the potential is there.
Davis should be fantasy-relevant, though not quite to level that justifies his fifth-round ADP, especially since Matthews is available four rounds later. The Titans also drafted Taywan Taylor in the third round. He figures to have the opportunity to play in the slot right away, and if he wins the slot job, his playing time will likely be similar to Kendall Wright's last year. Wright averaged 42% of the snaps in 2016, though he was conceding some playing time to Harry Douglas, so Taylor could approach the 60% mark.
Mike Williams (projection: 30 catches, 429 yards, 2.5 touchdowns) was the second receiver off the board, and he’s already missing time in OTAs with a back injury. He also has a tough road to climb the depth chart given the presence of Keenan Allen, Tyrell Williams, Travis Benjamin and Dontrelle Inman. Heavy playing time is not a given for the rookie in 2017.
John Ross (projection: 42 catches, 676 yards, 2.1 touchdowns) is a burner (4.22 40-yard dash) and an underrated route-runner, so he could contribute quickly if he’s able to beat out Brandon LaFell and Tyler Boyd, which seems likely. I’ll be watching the Bengals’ OTAs and training camp reports closely for news about Ross, but the draftniks seem to be particularly excited about Ross’s skill set.
Second/Third Rounders With Opportunity
Zay Jones (projection: 53 catches, 715 yards, 4.5 touchdowns) was the first receiver taken in the second round and the fourth wideout off the board overall. The Bills have been -- and should continue to be -- a run-oriented team, but there is plenty of opportunity for targets in Buffalo. The Rams signed Robert Woods away, and he averaged 86 targets in his four seasons with the Bills.
Jones is 6-foot-2, ran a 4.45 40-yard dash, and generally tested well across the board at the Combine. He was a standout at the Senior Bowl, and showed the ability to run a full route tree in practice. Throw in the second-best drop percentage of his class and you can see why he’s a good bet to contribute immediately in Buffalo. If Sammy Watkins is active and healthy, fantasy owners will likely be using Jones only on a matchup basis, but if Watkins misses time, the rookie could quickly see WR1-type targets.
Cooper Kupp (projection: 32 catches, 406 yards, 2.0 touchdowns) is a divisive prospect, but he’s landing with the Rams, who lost 275 targets via free agency (Kenny Britt, Brian Quick and Lance Kendricks). He holds the FCS record for receiving touchdowns (73) and receptions (428), and gained 6,464 yards in his four-year career. He can play inside or outside and it’s not inconceivable that he leads the team in receptions and becomes a fantasy factor in PPR formats. This is the case where there’s plenty of opportunity available for a player, but until Jared Goff proves that he’s an NFL starting quarterback, I wouldn’t describe it as “great” opportunity. (The Rams also drafted boundary receiver Josh Reynolds in the fourth round.)
- The Panthers took Curtis Samuel with the 40th pick in the second round. He’s a burner (4.31 40-yard dash), which indicates that the Panthers are expecting him to replace Ted Ginn, although he could also become the team's slot receiver. Samuel could have a decent fantasy year, but there are several other mouths to feed in the Carolina passing game, including Kelvin Benjamin, Greg Olsen, Devin Funchess and, of course, McCaffrey.
- Juju Smith-Schuster went in the second round to the Steelers. I’m currently working under the assumption that the really-good Martavis Bryant will return to play heavy snaps in 2017, so Smith-Schuster’s ceiling is probably capped as the WR3 in Pittsburgh. If Bryant’s return doesn’t go smoothly, it will change Juju’s outlook dramatically.
- ArDarius Stewart was taken in the third round by the Jets, and although there is opportunity available, like Kupp, it’s not “great” opportunity.
- Chris Godwin (third round to Tampa Bay) and Carlos Henderson (third round to Denver) should have the opportunity to win the WR3 jobs for their respective teams, but they’re unlikely to rise any further on the depth chart.
The aforementioned list of tight ends that finished in the top 12 is short. It consists of only Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, who both accomplished the feat with the same team (New England) in the same season (2010).
Looking only at the 18 tight ends drafted in the first round since 2000, just one (Jeremy Shockey) had more than 550 yards as a rookie, and only one (Heath Miller) caught more than four touchdowns. The nine first-round tight ends who played 14-plus games averaged 39 catches for 425 yards and 2.6 touchdowns. On a per-game basis, first-round tight ends have averaged 2.4 catches for 26 yards and 0.16 touchdowns since 2000.
In other words, rookie tight ends generally don’t make much of a fantasy impact, but there is the occasional rookie who pops up his head and becomes a streaming option for a few weeks. Last year, Hunter Henry caught eight touchdowns...but also had two or fewer catches in eight of his 15 games played.
Travis Kelce technically wasn’t a rookie in 2014, but he caught 67 passes for 862 yards and five touchdowns after only playing one game the year before.
At this point, the only rookie tight ends I’d even consider in fantasy drafts are the three guys that went in the first round: O.J. Howard, Evan Engram and David Njoku. Howard is going in the 11th round of early fantasy drafts, while Njoku is going in the 13th and Engram is going in the 14th.
The problem with O.J. Howard (projection: 44 catches, 486 yards, 6.0 touchdowns) is that he has to usurp Cameron Brate, who burst onto the scene in 2016 to finish as the number-seven fantasy tight end. Howard projects to have a much better career, but given the aforementioned struggles of rookie tight ends, history is working against him. Barring an injury to Brate, Howard will have to find his way onto the field by either beating out Brate or playing heavily in two-TE sets.
The Giants drafted Evan Engram (projection: 46 catches, 479 yards, 4.5 touchdowns) to solve their problem at the tight end position, which has been manned by the likes of Larry Donnell and Will Tye the last two seasons. He has been compared to Jordan Reed and called a “glorified receiver”. Eli Manning does like to target his tight end in the red zone, so there is some upside here.
Engram's athletic profile (4.42 40-yard dash, great combine scores) is pretty eye-popping for the position, but he’s not particularly tall (6-foot-3) or big for a tight end (234 pounds). I’m worried about OC Mike Sullivan’s insistence that he’s going to be coached as a traditional, in-line tight end, but am encouraged that he’s reportedly lining up “everywhere” at OTAs.
David Njoku (53 catches, 534 yards, 3.7 touchdowns) isn’t as fast as Engram, but he’s a bit bigger (6-foot-4, 246 pounds) and still has very good speed and athleticism for the position. Njoku's best comparable at Player Profiler is Travis Kelce, which is not bad at all. The Browns cut Gary Barnidge, so Njoku is virtually assured to see heavy snaps. The problem here is Cleveland’s substandard passing game. Hue Jackson has had good tight ends in the past (Zach Miller in 2010, Tyler Eifert in 2015), so there is some hope for Njoku to produce as a rookie.
Given the history of rookies at the position, it’s best to look elsewhere on draft day. The aforementioned three first-year tight ends have the receiving ability to produce, but will they see the requisite snaps and consistent targets?
The Bottom Line
When it comes to rookies, I usually shy away. There are exceptions, however.
Joe Williams is very cheap at this point (12th-round ADP) given his chances of winning the starting job in San Francisco.
I think Samaje Perine (eighth-round ADP) will win the job in Washington.
As for the quarterbacks and tight ends, I doubt I’ll have many rookie shares in 2017.