Everyone wants to talk about rookies in the wake of the draft. I did it here, ranking the top-19 rookies for 2016 impact.
But the draft often tells us more about players already in the NFL. Teams’ actions speak louder than words, giving us clues into how guys will be used. Here are the fantasy winners coming out of the draft:
1. Jay Ajayi, RB, Dolphins
It’s been a dream offseason for Jay Ajayi. First the Dolphins moved on from the run-averse Joe Philbin/Dan Campbell regime and brought in offensive-minded talent-maximizer Adam Gase as the new head coach. Then they whiffed on running backs in free agency such as C.J. Anderson and Chris Johnson.
Finally, the Cowboys reached for Ezekiel Elliot on draft night, and the class’ best lineman (Laremy Tunsil) fell into Miami’s lap at No. 13 overall. The only pick the Dolphins used at running back was in the third round with Kenyan Drake, who profiles as a strict passing back. Ajayi is now locked as the early-down workhorse.
2. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Texans
Through the first eight games of the season, DeAndre Hopkins averaged 8.2 catches, 108.7 yards and 0.75 TDs. Then the league unleashed extra attention and Hopkins only got 5.6 catches, 81.3 yards and 0.62 TDs over the final eight games. So the team wisely made an effort this offseason to get Hopkins some help, bringing in speedy RB Lamar Miller and upgrading at quarterback with strong-armed Brock Osweiler. That continued in the draft, as the Texans used the No. 21 overall pick on Notre Dame WR Will Fuller.
It’s not surprising they went receiver, but it is surprising they passed on more complete prospects like Josh Doctson and Laquon Treadwell. The logical explanation is that Fuller’s blazing 4.32 speed will open up the offense best for Hopkins to dominate the intermediate part of the field. With quarterback guru Bill O’Brien, tons of fast weaponry and a soft schedule, Osweiler is also a winner here.
3. Matt Jones, RB, Redskins
Matt Jones had a rocky rookie year, averaging a paltry 3.40 YPC and fumbling five times. He was PFF’s No. 65 RB among 68 qualifiers – only DeMarco Murray, Tevin Coleman and Chris Johnson were worse. That said, the Redskins appear to have plenty of confidence in Jones as their feature back.
They let Alfred Morris walk in free agency and didn’t take a running back in the draft until the 7th round (Keith Marshall). So Jones’ backups are Marshall, oft-injured passing back Chris Thompson and a couple of fringe NFL players in Silas Redd/Mack Brown. A three-down role in a potentially explosive offense is now likely.
4. Eli Manning, QB, Giants
Last year, Eli Manning was quietly fantasy’s No. 10 quarterback on a per-game basis even though he really only had one guy to throw to. Rueben Randle was among the worst wideouts in the league, and Victor Cruz was a shell of himself for six games before packing it in.
Enter Sterling Shepard, an NFL-ready route-runner who can play both the slot and outside a la Randall Cobb. The Giants remain a mess defensively, and the failure to upgrade the woeful right side of the offensive line will stunt the run game. That means another season of top-5 volume for Eli.
5. Frank Gore, RB, Colts
I thought the Colts were the most RB-needy team in the league heading into the draft. They disagreed, failing to select a single back with any of their eight picks. Still, I certainly won’t argue when a team desperate for toughness takes four offensive lineman, two linebackers, a defensive tackle and a safety.
It’s all good news for Frank Gore, who is entering his age-33 season but wasn’t as bad as he looked last year. The Colts’ woeful offensive line and Andrew Luck’s injury crippled him. In 2016, the Colts should be playing with a lead more often thanks to Luck’s presence, and the offensive line is improved. Gore, who only has Robert Turbin and Jordan Todman behind him, will be cheap on DK.