Peanut butter and jelly, Odell and Jarvis Landry, Jon and Dany—some matches are made in heaven. The same is true in fantasy football. The best players are often the ones who land in the perfect situations to succeed, and that’s doubly true for rookies, who can be the hardest to project but also the most rewarding to own.
In 2016, rookie running backs Robert Kelley and Jordan Howard were two of the eight most common players on fantasy playoff teams on ESPN. In 2017, more than three out of four fantasy teams with Alvin Kamara made the playoffs on ESPN, and almost half of teams with Kamara made the championship. Last year, Phillip Lindsay and Nick Chubb were two running backs who were ignored in fantasy drafts but emerged from the bottom of their real-life depth charts to become top-15 running backs. They were on more than 25 percent of ESPN fantasy championship teams. Saquon Barkley, the running back New York drafted no. 2 overall, was on 30 percent of fantasy champion rosters last year. As Barkley exemplifies, skill is ideal, but skill married with the perfect landing spot is glorious.
We won’t know where this year’s rookie group will end up for a few more weeks, but we already know what the best possible landing spots would be to turn them into immediate contributors, and maybe even league winners. Let’s look at five fits for rookies in this month’s NFL draft that would be, well, fantasies.
Josh Jacobs, Running Back: Kansas City Chiefs
Jacobs is considered the best running back prospect in this draft class, and he could step onto the team with the biggest opportunity for fantasy stardom. Jacobs is an excellent runner, but he can also line up all over the field as a receiver who can haul in screens and wheel routes, and he also has the skill set to run deep routes over the middle. The Chiefs love to use their running backs in the passing game, especially downfield. Damien Williams and Spencer Ware filled in well for Kansas City after the team released Kareem Hunt in November, but Jacobs could perform better in the role than either of them.
Rodney Anderson, Running Back: Oakland Raiders
Jacobs is the best back in the class, but Anderson might be the most talented, and the Raiders need some talent in the backfield. Marshawn Lynch and Doug Martin had nearly 70 percent of the Raiders’ carries in 2018, but both are unlikely to return in 2019. That’s the highest percentage of unaccounted carries in the league entering the draft. Jalen Richard is a pass-catching running back (Richard had just 55 carries but 81 targets in 2018), and his presence on the field can be a tell that the Raiders are throwing. Anderson could be the perfect fit for that backfield black hole. He has the elusiveness to break ankles, the power to plow through tackles, and the balance to stay on his feet—all in the same play. Here’s Anderson running for a big gain against Georgia in the 2018 Rose Bowl.
The main knock against Anderson is injuries. He broke his left fibula in his second career game as a freshman, which knocked him out for the rest of 2015; missed all of 2016 with a neck injury; and then tore his ACL in his second game of 2018. Anderson likely wouldn’t make sense as an every-down player because of that injury history, but the Raiders have so many available carries that Jon Gruden can bring in another running back off of the free-agent market to spell Anderson and still leave plenty of opportunity for him to be a top fantasy running back. He could be far more efficient than the combined 4.2 yards per carry Lynch and Martin averaged last year, and he could break way more big plays too.
D.K. Metcalf, Wide Receiver: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Receivers don’t always contribute as rookies, but when they do it’s usually because they are in the right situation. The Falcons drafted Calvin Ridley last year and he promptly caught six touchdowns in his first four games, and a similar effect could happen with Metcalf in Tampa Bay. Metcalf is not a perfect receiver prospect, but his skill set would dovetail well opposite Mike Evans in Tampa Bay. With head coach Bruce Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich likely employing a downfield passing attack like they had in Arizona, the offense could be near the top of the league in average depth of target. Metcalf is an excellent downfield receiver, and there’s plenty of opportunity for him to step in immediately with both DeSean Jackson and Adam Humphries leaving in the offseason (along with nearly a third of Tampa Bay’s targets in 2018). Evans, tight end O.J. Howard, and receiver Chris Godwin create an excellent pass-catching corps, so opposing defensive coordinators may have little choice but to offer Metcalf one-on-one coverage while focusing on Evans and hope Metcalf doesn’t win his matchups. Spoiler alert: He will. The Bucs will be able to move the ball, and with their putrid defense looking even worse in 2019, they’ll need to do so often.
T.J. Hockenson, Tight End: Pittsburgh Steelers
How do you replace Antonio Brown? You don’t. Brown is a unique talent, and you can’t find someone who can bring what he brought to Pittsburgh’s offense. Instead, the Steelers can improve at tight end, where they’ve had disappointing production since Heath Miller retired. Hockenson can run and block well, win contested balls downfield, and is wonderful to watch with the ball in his hands. That versatility creates mismatches, and those mismatches could make life much easier for the Steelers offense. JuJu Smith-Schuster would be first in line for the portion of Pittsburgh’s offense Brown left behind, but Hockenson would be second, and there is plenty to share: 168 targets (third most in 2018), 1,297 receiving yards (11th), and 15 receiving touchdowns (first). Best of all, Iowa’s jerseys kind of look like Pittsburgh’s, so just squint and pretend this video was sent to us from the future.
Hockenson's a playmaker with the ball in his hands. Defenders just bounce off him thanks to his ridiculous contact balance—when Hock hasn't just hurdled over them. Fights tooth and claw for additional yards. Wins footraces to the end zone: pic.twitter.com/pDmNSKVIUD— Nick Olson (@NickOlsonNFL) March 29, 2019
Noah Fant, Tight End: New England Patriots
New England’s current receivers are Julian Edelman, Phillip Dorsett, Maurice Harris, Bruce Ellington, Braxton Berrios, and Damoun Patterson. Their current tight ends are Matt LaCosse, Jacob Hollister, Stephen Anderson, and Ryan Izzo. (I’m not even going to tell you whether I made one of those up. You’ll have to Google it for yourself.) Fant would immediately be the third-best pass catcher on the team after Edelman and running back James White. He is the other half of the über-athletic tight end duo at Iowa that also included Hockenson. Both have been compared to fellow Hawkeye and now San Francisco 49er George Kittle, who was a top-three fantasy tight end last year behind Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz. The comparison isn’t just because they all went to Iowa, but because they all are ridiculously athletic and talented players with shockingly mediocre college statistics. (Iowa somehow recruits the best tight ends in America and then does not use them properly.)
The Patriots could use Fant as the bootleg copy of retired Rob Gronkowski—not the same quality, but he can get the job done. He’d create mismatches and provide a versatility that would keep New England’s weekly game plans flexible. Gronk had five seasons of double-digit touchdowns in his first six years in the league, and Fant doesn’t need to match those numbers to become an elite option.
(Also fine, I’ll tell you. All of those tight end names are real.)
Kyler Murray, Quarterback: San Francisco 49ers
This is the least realistic option but also the most fun scenario: Arizona passes on Kyler Murray and the 49ers draft the Heisman winner and trade Jimmy Garoppolo. San Francisco is easily the best landing spot for Murray. Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan designing an offense for Kyler Murray isn’t just about fantasy football—it’s a football fantasy. Shanahan was the architect of Robert Griffin III’s extraordinary rookie season when RGIII threw for 3,200 yards and 20 touchdowns, had the highest yards per attempt in the league (8.1), and tied for the lowest percentage of passes intercepted in the league (1.3 percent). He also casually ran for 815 rushing yards and seven touchdowns with a league-leading yards per carry (6.8). Murray would be the second Heisman-winning quarterback drafted second overall coached by Shanahan. Only now, Murray will have the benefit of playing in a league that has evolved over the past seven years to become more friendly to the type of offense that he thrives in—and that Shanahan was years ahead of the curve on when he implemented college concepts for Griffin. It could be the best rookie season for a fantasy quarterback ever.