Until most teams began their OTAs last week, the only bit of NFL news we’d had to collectively chew on since the draft came from the rookie minicamps earlier this month. The unpadded practices provided the first chance to see this year’s class in its new digs, and more importantly it gave the football world its first taste of how each player will fit into his team’s plans this fall.
As much as that matters from an actual football perspective, we’ve also reached the point where it’s possible to start speculating about how the incoming rookies will shake up the fantasy football landscape. With the draft over and most free agents already signed, not much will change about most teams’ personnel between now and Week 1. So, I decided to rank the fantasy value of this year’s top rookie skill-position players.
These guys will be of particular interest for those (like me) in dynasty and keeper leagues, but since not all of us are full-on fantasy nerds, this list also serves as a projection for where each rookie will rank by position-relative fantasy scoring in 2017. With that in mind, let’s get to it.
1. Leonard Fournette, RB, Jacksonville
There’s no one else to put at the top of this list. Jacksonville made Fournette the highest-drafted running back in … well, a year. The difference between the Cowboys taking Ezekiel Elliott fourth overall in 2016 and the Jags using the same pick on Fournette last month, though, is that Zeke was the end point in the Cowboys’ plan to build a doomsday machine of a run offense. Fournette represents the start of that pursuit in Jacksonville.
Last season the Jags finished fourth in passing attempts with 626, one spot ahead of the team quarterbacked by Aaron Rodgers. A logical first response to that stat might be, “Of course Jacksonville throws that much; it’s always getting blown out.” While that may have been accurate in prior seasons, it certainly wasn’t the case in 2016. Behind a defense that ranked 13th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, the Jaguars played in games that were mostly competitive throughout. According to Chase Stuart’s game scripts, which are designed to measure the point margin over the course of an entire contest, Jacksonville trailed by more than a touchdown for the majority of only three games. Situation didn’t necessitate the Jags throwing as often as they did; nevertheless, there was Blake Bortles, slinging away.
Taking Fournette with the fourth overall pick is the first indication that new head coach Doug Marrone plans to alter that approach this fall. Fournette warrants the top ranking because the offense’s overcorrection should lead to a ton of volume, although how much production he’ll squeeze out of his carries is a different story. The Jags finished 29th in rushing DVOA with the combination of T.J. Yeldon and Chris Ivory at running back last season, and neither was higher than 41st in fantasy points among running backs. (That was Yeldon, with 87.7, which is brutal.)
The plan is for Fournette to lift the Jags’ ground game out of the basement, and it would be fair to assume he’ll get every chance to make that happen. By drafting former Alabama left tackle — and prospective left guard — Cam Robinson in the second round and trading for left tackle Branden Albert (who’s yet to report to the team, thanks to a contract dispute), Jacksonville should have a better offensive line than it did last season. But Fournette’s fantasy value will be determined by his workload and whether he is the generational talent some consider him to be. Here’s hoping that he is; after watching Allen Robinson last year, I can’t take another season of an impossibly gifted player being broken by the Jaguars.
2. Corey Davis, WR, Tennessee
If these were dynasty rankings, Davis would be the no-brainer no. 1. As the presumptive go-to receiver on a team with long-term quarterback stability, he represents the type of prospect that degenerate fantasy players love.
In a discussion about Davis’s 2017 outlook, though, a couple of factors knock him below Fournette. The first is the concern that there aren’t many targets to go around in Tennessee. The Titans threw 504 passes in 2016, the fifth-lowest mark in the league. Among their receivers, Rishard Matthews led the team with 108 passes thrown in his direction. Even if Davis supplants Matthews as Tennessee’s primary target from day one, that’s a fairly low number for a top-tier fantasy receiver.
Part of the problem — for fantasy owners, not for the Titans — is how much attention Delanie Walker warrants. Only six tight ends in the NFL racked up at least 100 targets last year; Walker was one of them, with 102. On a team with only 500 or so passes to divvy up, Walker’s volume threatens Davis’s short-term ceiling.
Still, that’s a pessimistic look at what should be a high-floor situation. Other than Fournette, Davis is the only rookie who will open the season as the no. 1 option at his position for his team. That makes him a safer play than just about everyone else in this class.
3. Dalvin Cook, RB, Minnesota
Some people will see the three-year, $15 million contract that Minnesota handed Latavius Murray this March as a barrier to Cook taking over as the Vikings’ starting running back. I am not among them. The Vikings are on the hook for just $1.2 million after this season, making the Murray signing essentially amount to a one-year deal. The Vikings traded a fourth-round pick to the Bengals for the right to move up and select Cook 41st overall. They’ve already committed more resources to the rookie, and in my mind this could be Cook’s job sooner rather than later.
Even if Cook does ascend to the top of the depth chart this fall, it’d be hard to blame anyone for being skeptical of his fantasy potential. Minnesota’s running game was a disaster in 2016, and that had little to do with Adrian Peterson missing most of the season with an injury. The Vikings finished 31st in rushing DVOA and averaged 3.2 yards per carry. It’s hard to be that bad on the ground.
The good news for those bullish on Cook is that no team in the league underwent more of an offensive line overhaul this spring. After signing free-agent tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers, Minnesota is set to feature two new bookends who’ve had struggles in the NFL but represent massive upgrades from the crew that the Vikings trotted out a year ago. Add third-round pick Pat Elflein to the mix at center (with last season’s center, Joe Berger, sliding over to guard), and there’s a chance this team will have four new starters up front. That should mean vastly improved circumstances for whoever totes the rock, and my bet is that Cook will.
4. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina
Of all the players in this class, McCaffrey has the toughest fantasy outlook to project. The Panthers showed a clear commitment to establishing a new, dynamic element to their offense by taking McCaffrey and the similarly malleable Curtis Samuel, but we still haven’t seen what that revamped offense will look like. It’s possible that McCaffrey will fill a variety of roles, see 15 touches per game as a rookie, and rival Fournette for which first-year playmaker gets the biggest 2017 workload. At this point, though, getting to that incarnation of the Carolina offense requires a lot of imagination.
Since Cam Newton was drafted in 2011, no team in the league has thrown fewer passes to its running backs than the Panthers. Adding McCaffrey (and Samuel) to the roster should make it easy to discern whether that’s driven by scheme or personnel. As a pass catcher, McCaffrey would be able to complement Jonathan Stewart as part of a backfield platoon, and for fantasy purposes it’s also worth considering how the Panthers would use him in Stewart’s absence. With Stewart, injuries are a constant concern (he’s missed at least three games in every season since 2011). Any missed time would open the door to McCaffrey getting reps as Carolina’s primary ball carrier, on top of whatever gadget duties he may have as a slot receiver.
While Stewart’s injury history inflates McCaffrey’s fantasy stock, though, the looming specter of Cam Newton: Touchdown Vulture causes it to drop. Newton got a smaller portion of Carolina’s goal-line carries in 2016 than he has in seasons past (he had 11 touches inside the 10-yard line, compared with 22 for Stewart), which led to Stewart’s highest touchdown total (nine) since 2009. Still, Newton stole five touchdowns. Even as Cam’s workload as a runner shrinks, that will remain a factor to consider in Carolina.
5. O.J. Howard, TE, Tampa Bay
Howard has the best chance of any rookie to finish among the top five fantasy players at his position. He immediately becomes the third-best receiving threat on an offense piloted by Jameis Winston. The question is how much work he’ll get, as Cameron Brate is already in the mix at tight end in Tampa Bay.
Brate got 81 targets last year, 16th among tight ends and third on the Bucs, behind Mike Evans and slot man Adam Humphries. He made good use of those, hauling in 57 catches with eight touchdowns while finishing eighth in DVOA among tight ends. Howard is unlikely to steal all of that work in his rookie season, but he doesn’t need to in order to generate major fantasy appeal. Howard is a prototypical inline tight end who’s capable of holding his own as a blocker. But the Bucs’ lack of a dynamic middle-of-the-field receiving threat could push the team to utilize him as a move tight end, with Brate reprising his typical role.
Howard’s potential target pool shouldn’t be seen as the 81 looks Brate got last season; it should be seen as the 164 targets that Brate and Humphries saw combined. Some of those looks will go to free-agent signing DeSean Jackson, but there should still be plenty of balls for a 6-foot-6 being from the future who can run the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds and whom the Bucs never imagined would be available with the 19th overall pick.
6. Samaje Perine, RB, Washington
Seeing a fourth-round pick sprinkled in among all these players taken in the top 20 may come as a surprise, but beyond the top three backs in this class, Perine has the best path to take over as his team’s lead runner by Week 1. The only player standing in his way is Rob Kelley, the undrafted free agent who became Washington’s starter last season after head coach Jay Gruden made clear that he was through with former third-round pick Matt Jones.
Kelley was solid on his 168 carries (704 yards with six touchdowns), but nothing about his rookie campaign should lead anyone to believe he has a stranglehold on the gig. Perine is a 233-pound battering ram; the Oklahoma product may be limited as a pass catcher, but with Chris Thompson set to handle receiving back duties for this offense, a bone-crushing runner is exactly what Gruden needs.
Losing Jackson and Pierre Garcon in free agency limits Washington’s overall offensive ceiling, but with Jordan Reed, 2016 first-round pick Josh Doctson, and slot monster Jamison Crowder still on the roster, this could remain be a top-tier passing unit. Factor in what should be a good offensive line, and the combination of circumstance and opportunity starts to make Perine look very appealing in fantasy.
7. Mike Williams, WR, Los Angeles Chargers
Putting Williams this high on the list is scary enough to prompt me to type with one hand while peeking through the fingers of my other hand. The 6-foot-4 contested catch master was my favorite receiver entering the 2017 draft, and the Chargers legitimized that love by taking him seventh overall. I delight in picturing a world where he works cornerbacks along the sideline while snagging perfectly timed heaves from Philip Rivers. I’m just not sure that world is going to exist this year.
The Chargers already have a glut of talent at receiver, and this season they’ll welcome back Keenan Allen, who has recovered from his ACL tear in Week 1. Although Allen’s health will (depressingly) remain a concern until he proves otherwise, he’s likely to soak up a ridiculous amount of Rivers’s targets for as long as he stays on the field. In 2015, Allen was on his way to 180 targets for the season, a workload reserved for only top-tier receivers. With Allen, the underrated Tyrell Williams, and 2016 free agent Travis Benjamin in the mix, it’s possible that the Chargers will bring Williams (who’s already missing time with a back injury) along slowly as a rookie.
And yet … it’s hard to look at a guy with Williams’s immense skill set and enviable quarterback situation and not be entranced. If I’m in a dynasty or keeper league, I’m snatching him up as fast as I can.
8. Joe Mixon, RB, Cincinnati
Beyond reigniting a discussion about how the NFL should handle players who have histories of violence, the Bengals’ decision to draft Mixon in the second round is a sign that Jeremy Hill’s days in Cincinnati are likely numbered. Mixon should get his chance for early work alongside Gio Bernard (who’s coming off a torn ACL), but his fantasy value may be limited by the state of the Bengals offense.
After losing left tackle Andrew Whitworth and right guard Kevin Zeitler in free agency, Cincy’s offensive line is a major question mark. Fellow rookie John Ross III should help open up the Bengals’ passing game, but how the running game will fare with this new group up front is anyone’s guess.
9. David Njoku, TE, Cleveland
Njoku cracks the top 10 based primarily on his projected opportunities. With Gary Barnidge gone, there isn’t much stopping the Miami product from sliding in as the Browns’ starting tight end, and he has a chance to emerge as Cleveland’s no. 3 receiving option behind free-agent signing Kenny Britt and 2016 first-rounder Corey Coleman.
Barnidge’s fantasy value cratered last season following a huge 2015 campaign, but he still ranked 15th among tight ends in targets (82). With that volume, Njoku has a chance to rate among the top 12 fantasy players at his position.
10. Kareem Hunt, RB, Kansas City
Spencer Ware is the Chiefs’ starting running back, but his hold on the job may be weaker than it appears. Ware was signed off the scrap heap in 2016 after being released by Seattle, and Kansas City’s long-term commitment to him is minimal, with about $333,000 remaining on his deal after this season. If Hunt proves to be the superior back, head coach Andy Reid could hand him the starting gig. On an offense that finished first in rushing DVOA two years ago (and that boasts one of the league’s better offensive lines), that makes him a fantasy player worth targeting.
11. Evan Engram, TE, New York Giants
Any concerns about Engram’s fantasy value as a rookie likely have nothing to do with his talent. The Ole Miss product, who ran a 4.42-second 40-yard dash at the combine and subsequently vaulted into the first round, is an intriguing addition to this Giants offense. Engram’s problem is volume. With Odell Beckham Jr., Brandon Marshall, and Sterling Shepard all demanding targets in New York, Engram seems poised to contribute more for his real team than any fantasy one in 2017.
12. John Ross III, WR, Cincinnati
With the Bengals’ potential pass-protection issues (they finished 26th in adjusted sack rate last season with the now-departed Whitworth and Zeitler), Andy Dalton may not have the time to utilize Ross in the way he would like. Ross’s ability to take the top off a defense should help other playmakers in this offense exploit the underneath areas of the field, but his own fantasy value could be limited as a result of landing on a team with a shoddy line and a quarterback not known for his deep-ball prowess.
13. Zay Jones, WR, Buffalo
Jones should get every opportunity to start in Buffalo opposite Sammy Watkins, but even a no. 2 receiver role isn’t enough to guarantee solid fantasy production in the Bills offense. No team in the league threw fewer passes last year than Buffalo (474). Even if the offensive approach changes under new coordinator Rick Dennison, the strength of this unit will revolve around LeSean McCoy shredding ankles.
14. Alvin Kamara, RB, New Orleans
Head coach Sean Payton’s tendency to bring in shiny new offensive toys at the expense of shoring up other areas of the Saints roster is so brazen that it’s almost impressive. Kamara is terrifying with the ball in his hands and gives New Orleans another potent receiving threat, but with Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson in the Saints backfield, it’s tough to envision him getting enough work as a rookie to move the fantasy needle.
15. JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, Pittsburgh
The name that come ups in nearly every conversation about Smith-Schuster is Martavis Bryant, who was recently conditionally reinstated by the NFL after missing all of 2016 with a suspension. Smith-Schuster’s fantasy stock would stand to increase if Bryant misses any more time than he already has, but the USC product should attract targets in this offense regardless of Bryant’s return. Even with Bryant playing 11 games for the Steelers in 2015, wideout Markus Wheaton (now in Chicago) caught 44 passes for 749 yards with five scores. Smith-Schuster should see snaps in one of the NFL’s most dynamic passing attacks, and that makes him notable from a fantasy standpoint.
16. Jamaal Williams, RB, Green Bay
Ty Montgomery went from emergency option to pretty damn good running back over the course of last season, and anyone who thinks that he has a tenuous hold on the Packers’ starting job is overlooking just how effective he was down the stretch in 2016. Still, Williams steps in as a high-upside backup on a good offense. You could do worse late in fantasy drafts.
17. Joe Williams, RB, San Francisco
The rumblings out of San Francisco are that Williams, a fourth-round pick in last month’s draft, may have a real shot to supplant Carlos Hyde as the team’s starting running back. Head coach Kyle Shanahan and position coach Bobby Turner both reportedly love the Utah product, and if you’re looking for a late-round flier, the 5-foot-11, 210-pounder is your guy.
18. Gerald Everett, TE, Los Angeles Rams
Any dealings with the Rams offense in a fantasy context should require a hazmat suit, but hear me out. Last season Lance Kendricks (now with the Packers) got 87 targets, good for 13th among tight ends. L.A.’s offense will look different this fall under new head coach Sean McVay, but it’s not as if he lacks experience finding creative ways to deploy an undersized tight end and exploit mismatches all over the field (see: Reed, Jordan). Everett is ultra-athletic, has a path to early playing time, and has a coach who knows how to use him. That’s enough to put his name on the fantasy radar.
19. James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh
It’s possible that Le’Veon Bell will never leave the field this fall (would you take him out?), but his backup is always going to have fantasy appeal in the Steelers offense. Bell has been injured several times throughout his career; if he were to miss extended time this season, Conner — a local favorite and third-round pick out of Pitt — would instantly become a fantasy starter.
20. Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston
With only Tom Savage ahead of him on the depth chart, Watson has the clearest path to a starting job of any quarterback in the 2017 class. But his fantasy ceiling is lower than just about every rookie skill-position player who might get an opportunity.
The Texans have their share of receiving options — most notably DeAndre Hopkins, who has to be enjoying his newfound release from quarterback purgatory — but it’s not as if they present an ideal scenario for a young passer. Will Fuller was limited to running fast and catching screens as a rookie, while the offensive line has question marks, with Xavier Su’a-Filo at left guard and a competition between Chris Clark and Breno Giacomini to replace Derek Newton at right tackle. Expect Watson to get the starting nod this fall, but don’t expect him to make a game-changing fantasy impression. Dak Prescott’s 2016 season was the exception rather than the rule; it’s rare to see a rookie quarterbacks produce enough to enter fantasy consideration.