The 2019 rookie class was headlined by unique athleticism at the wideout position. However, the NFL didn’t value it, as just two receivers went in the first round — and one of them landed with the arm limitations of Lamar Jackson. So we have draft capital concerns around a lot of formerly exciting players.
Of course, the biggest surprises of the draft surrounded the Chiefs. First we learned Tyreek Hill could be suspended for as long as the season, and then K.C. chose Mecole Hardman seemingly to replace Hill. Hardman’s outlook will be one of fantasy’s biggest storylines heading into the season.
Here are the rookies I have my eye on for PPR scoring in 2019 only, starting with the most impactful.
1. Josh Jacobs, RB, Raiders
I wasn’t worried about Jacobs’ playing time even before Isaiah Crowell reportedly blew out his Achilles tendon. Over the past six years, eight running backs have gone in the first round of the NFL Draft. Two of them won Rookie of the Year (Todd Gurley, Saquon Barkley), two of them racked up more than 300 touches (Leonard Fournette, Ezekiel Elliott), one of them caught 80 balls (Christian McCaffrey), one of them averaged 17.5 carries in his healthy games (Sony Michel) and the other two (Melvin Gordon, Rashaad Penny) battled injury. The Raiders did not take Jacobs 24th overall to sit him.
With the early-down opportunity extremely secure, we can turn our attention to Jacobs’ projected efficiency, pass-game role and ceiling. He only caught 20 passes in 15 games last season while playing in a timeshare with Damien Harris at Alabama, but does have a game-flow independent skill set. A big question to follow in camp is if Jacobs clearly plays ahead of Jalen Richard on pass downs, and how large of a market share he can earn in true passing situations. Either way, this Raiders offense almost certainly will take a leap forward after ranking 21th in yards per play and 28th in touchdowns per game last season. Antonio Brown, Tyrell Williams, $66 million tackle Trent Brown and Jacobs can elevate the play of Derek Carr to competent levels.
2. Kyler Murray, QB, Cardinals
We can safely throw out all stats from last year’s Cardinals team. They’ll go from the ancient, uncreative Steve Wilks scheme to Kliff Kingsbury’s modern, Air Raid spread offense. They also will replace traditional pocket passer Josh Rosen with electric playmaker Kyler Murray and inject serious playmaking ability at wideout with Andy Isabella/Hakeem Butler to go with Christian Kirk/David Johnson/Larry Fitzgerald.
Even if Murray’s college stats were propped up by the scheme, talent and lack of defense on Oklahoma last season, his floor as an NFL rookie is incredibly high. Not only will Kingsbury’s philosophy and scheme breed big plays, but Murray’s rushing ability is truly unique. Just last year we saw Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson finish as top-12 fantasy quarterbacks in points per game despite downright poor passing metrics. It was the same story in 2016 with Tyrod Taylor. Murray isn’t as elite as Jackson with his legs, but we still could argue he projects as one of the best rushing quarterbacks we’ve seen. He ran 140 times for 1,001 yards with 12 touchdowns in 14 games last season. Murray also completed 69.0 percent of his passes for 11.6 yards per attempt. Jackson ran 232 times for 1,601 yards with 18 scores in his final year at Louisville, but only completed 59.1 percent of his passes at 8.5 yards per attempt.
3. Miles Sanders, RB, Eagles
The analytically minded Eagles understand the relative lack of value in running backs. They won the Super Bowl with a committee of LeGarrette Blount, Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement. They hadn’t drafted a running back in the first three rounds since LeSean McCoy in 2009. So Howie Roseman’s decision to use the No. 53 overall pick on Sanders shows how highly they think of the Penn State product. “Miles was a staff favorite. A personnel staff favorite. A front-office favorite,” said Roseman.
From an athletic measureable perspective, Sanders was arguably the best prospect in this class. He met all six of the minimum thresholds for an elite fantasy running back, doesn’t have a lot of tread on his tires after playing behind Saquon Barkley in 2016-17 and ranked eighth in the country in yards after contact per attempt. While the Eagles only gave up a conditional sixth-round pick to acquire Jordan Howard, their draft capital investment in Sanders suggests he’ll be the lead dog in this committee. Expect Sanders’ market share to grow as he runs circles around Howard, Wendell Smallwood and Corey Clement.
4. N’Keal Harry, WR, Patriots
The Patriots went into the draft with Phillip Dorsett, the corpse of Demaryius Thomas, Bruce Ellington and Austin Seferian-Jenkins as WR/TE options behind 33-year-old Julian Edelman. They came out of the draft with only one addition, but it was a big one in No. 32 overall pick N’Keal Harry. You’ll hear the narrative that it “takes a long time to learn the system and get used to playing with Tom Brady,” but that’s just not true. Talent wins out. Josh Gordon came in cold in October last season and averaged 7.1 targets in his nine full games. Sony Michel dealt with early-season injuries and then became the focal point of the offense as a rookie. Harry met the minimum thresholds for an elite fantasy wideout, broke out as a 20-year-old true sophomore at Arizona State and wins over the middle, where Brady prefers to throw.
As noted by Graham Barfield, Harry led all draft-eligible WRs in contested catches and was second in yards per route run in middle of the field. Harry’s outlook as an every-down wideout will be confirmed if Gordon does not get reinstated before the season, but either way we can project a significant role immediately.
5. Mecole Hardman, WR, Chiefs
With Tyreek Hill potentially headed for a year-long suspension, the vertical/speed wide receiver role in the game’s premier offense is open. The Chiefs somewhat surprisingly passed on fellow speedsters Parris Campbell, Andy Isabella, DK Metcalf and Miles Boykin to go with Georgia 4.33 burner Mecole Hardman. It appears they eschewed a big-picture perspective and instead again tried to find the outlier like Hill. Hardman is only 5’10/187, caught just 60 balls in his final 29 games at Georgia and excelled in the return game. Regardless of what the we think of Hardman, the Chiefs clearly are high on him, he’ll be playing with Patrick Mahomes in an outrageously fantasy-friendly environment and he has very little competition. Demarcus Robinson consistently has disappointed even when given injury-induced playing time.
6. David Montgomery, RB, Bears
Matt Nagy is a unique schemer because each week’s game plan is different and opponent-based. We saw it last year as Tarik Cohen had six games with 12+ touches and six with seven or fewer. Jordan Howard had five games with 19+ carries and five with 12 or fewer. Of course, that should be how every offense deploys its assets, but they don’t. Anyway, we can expect Nagy to continue to scheme his running backs on a weekly basis with Montgomery and Mike Davis in the Howard role. Montgomery’s Year 1 outlook will depend on how far he can separate from Davis. Initial speculation from beat writers has Davis around 120 carries, Cohen taking a slight hit on his 99 from last year and Montgomery soaking up the rest. If that’s how it plays out, we only have about 150 carries available for the third-round rookie. It’s a battle to watch in camp.
7. Deebo Samuel, WR, 49ers
This classes’ best nickname belongs to Deebo, who is named after the bully in the classic movie “Friday.” Deebo also happened to land in one of this year’s best landing spots. The 49ers were desperate for wideout help opposite Dante Pettis after realizing Marquise Goodwin’s injury history and limited skill set weren’t enough. Kyle Shanahan clearly identified Samuel as the man for the job, taking Samuel at No. 36 overall before A.J. Brown, JJ Arcega-Whiteside, Parris Campbell, Andy Isabella or DK Metcalf. Samuel already has been penciled in as a starter in a potentially explosive offense assuming Jimmy Garoppolo (ACL) returns to full health. Remember UDFA Nick Mullens quietly averaged 284.6 pass yards and 1.6 touchdowns in his eight starts last year.
8. Parris Campbell, WR, Colts
Broke is thinking about all wide receivers in the same bucket. Woke is thinking about applying their skillsets to complementary roles. The Colts are doing just that, pairing T.Y. Hilton’s elite vertical skills with Devin Funchess’ physicality and now Campbell’s elite underneath speed. Campbell’s route tree was absurdly limited at Ohio State, leading to a truly pathetic 4.5-yard average depth of target. But he has a freakish athletic skill set (99.8th percentile SPARQ score), which can be molded into far more than an underneath extended handoff. The bigger issue is the loaded pass-catching corps in Indy, which now features the aforementioned wideout trio plus Jack Doyle, Eric Ebron and Nyheim Hines.
9. Marquise Brown, WR, Ravens
I was low on Brown going into the draft because he represents laying a big price on an outlier. At just 5’9/166, he failed to meet the minimum size thresholds of an elite fantasy wideout. He also didn’t participate in the NFL Combine due to a Lisfranc injury, one of the scariest ailments a receiver can suffer. Brown also didn’t stand out above his teammates at Oklahoma. As noted by Jon Moore, Kyler Murray was actually less efficient throwing to Brown than his other wideouts. Now Brown goes to Baltimore, where Lamar Jackson completed just 58.2 percent of his passes last season and averaged a painfully low 22.5 pass attempts per game. Jackson certainly can take a step forward this year and the speed the Ravens added will help, but even a big leap will leave him among the league’s worst passers. Expect a ton of duds and a couple home runs this season for Hollywood.
10. Andy Isabella, WR, Cardinals
Many people mistake Isabella for a strict slot receiver because he’s only 5’9/188 and, quite frankly, is white. But Isabella has the profile of a Brandin Cooks-esque outside receiver as he boasts world-class 4.31 straight-line speed to go with lightning quick lateral movement. That’s important as he enters a Cardinals depth chart that has Larry Fitzgerald locked into the slot and Christian Kirk profiling well there, too. Isabella initially projects to line up opposite Kirk in an offense that almost certainly will be among the league’s most improved units (see Kyler Murray notes above). The Cardinals’ 4.3 yards per play last season was a whopping .4 worse than any other team in the league.
11. AJ Brown, WR, Titans — Brown, who quietly outproduced DK Metcalf every step of the way at Ole Miss, projects as an immediate starter opposite Corey Davis. It’s just difficult to get excited about a WR2 in an offense that ranked 31st in pass attempts last season and again appears determined to build through Derrick Henry.
12. DK Metcalf, WR, Seahawks — Doug Baldwin might be done, and the Seahawks have nothing to speak of at tight end. Metcalf’s strength and straight-line speed will yield opportunities as he competes for targets with the likes of Tyler Lockett and David Moore.
13. Darrell Henderson, RB, Rams — There’s a lot of smoke around Todd Gurley. He took a backseat to street free agent C.J. Anderson throughout the playoffs, the Rams matched an offer sheet to Malcolm Brown, there are stem cell rumors around Gurley’s troublesome knee and the Rams traded up to get Henderson in the third round. Henderson, arguably college football’s most explosive back last year (albeit at Memphis), is likely to get decent work in a complementary role. If Gurley’s knee worsens, there’s a lot more upside here.
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I am a promoter at DraftKings and am also an avid fan and user (my username is adamlevitan) and may sometimes play on my personal account in the games that I offer advice on. Although I have expressed my personal view on the games and strategies above, they do not necessarily reflect the view(s) of DraftKings and I may also deploy different players and strategies than what I recommend above. I am not an employee of DraftKings and do not have access to any non-public information.