WATCH: WAS THE LEONARD FOURNETTE PICK A REACH?
Rookies are typically overrated in all forms of fantasy, from dynasty to season-long to DFS. It’s the allure of the unknown that sucks us in, but the reality is that it’s a struggle for first-year players to succeed at the NFL level. Over the last four years, just nine rookies have finished in the top-12 at their position in PPR points per game. They are Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliot, Jordan Howard and Michael Thomas in 2016. Todd Gurley in 2015. Jeremy Hill and Odell Beckham in 2014. Gio Bernard and Jordan Reed in 2013.
Just last season, we saw season-long average draft positions of players such as Sterling Shepard, Corey Coleman, Laquon Treadwell, Derrick Henry and Will Fuller soar. None panned out. So as usual, I’ll be looking at rookies with a wary eye and projecting them conservatively. Here are the rookies I have my eye on for PPR scoring in 2017 only, starting with the most impactful.
1. Leonard Fournette, RB, Jaguars
Recency bias was clearly in play for the Jags as they went chasing after Ezekiel Elliot’s impact at No. 4 overall. Unfortunately for them, their offensive line was 23rd in PFF’s run blocking grades last year. Fournette only had 105 pass protection snaps in his LSU career and he caught just 1.28 passes per game. Fournette will not have the same real-life or fantasy impact that Zeke had as a rookie. That said, we can’t underestimate draft capital and a shift in philosophy here under new boss Tom Coughlin. The Jags, oozing talent on defense, are clearly shifting to a ball-control scheme in an effort to hide Blake Bortles. Although Fournette will start out as a mere two-down back and therefore have his PPR upside capped, he’s still a near lock to average 15-19 carries per game as the Jags try to grind out wins.
2. Joe Mixon, RB, Bengals
The landing spot for Mixon is better than it appears on the surface. Jeremy Hill has been one of the worst backs in the league for the last two years, ranking 41st among 58 qualifiers in PFF’s RB grades last year and 45th among 68 in 2015. He’s averaging a pathetic 3.67 YPC over the last two years and is entering the final year of his contract. Additionally, Gio Bernard continues to rehab the ACL he tore back in November. So Mixon’s path to playing time is open, especially if he can keep his head on straight and impress right away. That shouldn’t be a problem on the field as he profiled as arguably the class’ most talented back. His sizable off-field issues slipped him from the top-10 to 39th overall.
3. Christian McCaffery, RB, Panthers
The Panthers are not an ideal landing spot for McCaffery. Like many running quarterbacks, Cam Newton is not friendly to pass-catching running backs. As noted by Scott Barrett, the Panthers are dead last in pass attempts to RBs since Cam entered the league in 2011. And as noted by Pat Thorman, Cam was dead last in completion percentage at five yards downfield or less last season (55.3 percent). The Panthers also have incumbent starter Jonathan Stewart and Newton as goal-line options. Still, we again can lean on draft capital expended (8th overall) and a skill set ideal for PPR formats with McCaffery. Expect 10-12 carries and 2-4 catches per game against a schedule that initially appears very soft.
4. Dalvin Cook, RB, Vikings
The Vikings have Jerick McKinnon and signed Latavius Murray in free agency, but that didn’t stop them from trading up seven spots in the second round to snag Dalvin Cook at No. 41 overall. It sets up a training camp competition for the starting job and a potential committee in the early part of the season. Cook, who tested as a seventh-percentile athlete, will have to prove his exciting college tape can translate to the NFL. If it can, he’ll easily ice Latavius, an overrated back who lost a lot of snaps to Jalen Richard/DeAndre Washington last year and averaged just 4.04 YPC despite running behind one of the league’s top offensive lines.
5. Corey Davis, WR, Titans
In 2015, the Titans ranked 3rd in rushing play percentage (behind only BUF and DAL). They were 26th in overall pace, 32nd in neutral situation pace and 30th in 3-WR formations. To make a long story short, they played conservative and slow on offense. There are serious indications that will change this year though, as they used three of their first four draft picks on pass-catchers. The headliner is Corey Davis at No. 5 overall, a 6’3/209 Western Michigan product who set the NCAA record for receiving yards and caught 331 balls in 50 games. With only Delanie Walker and possibly Rishard Matthews ahead of him on the target totem pole, Davis has the most direct opportunity of any wideout drafted last weekend.
6. John Ross, WR, Bengals
From a volume standpoint, Cincy is a tough landing spot for 4.22 burner John Ross. A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, Tyler Boyd and Brandon LaFell are all varying degrees of capable, especially in the red-zone. But from an efficiency standpoint, Ross’ spot is nice as he’ll often be in 1-on-1 coverage with the double-teams heading toward Green/Eifert. Think Will Fuller except a little more talented and playing with an actually reasonable quarterback. So while the weekly floor projects to be low as a 4-6 target per game player, the spike weeks for Ross will be big. He profiles as a player more suited to large-field GPPs rather than cash games.
7. Mike Williams, WR, Chargers
It was a good weekend for Philip Rivers. The Chargers used their first three picks on offense in Mike Williams at No. 7, G/T Forrest Lamp at No. 38 and G Dan Feeney at No. 71. However, the landing spot for Williams is a bit odd as the Chargers are already deep at pass-catcher. Keenan Allen (ACL) is expected back, Tyrell Williams emerged last year, Dontrelle Inman proved capable, Antonio Gates is still alive and Hunter Henry should make a Year 2 leap. It leaves a crowded target totem pole for Williams, who had concerning athletic measurables as I outlined here.
8. Zay Jones, WR, Bills
Heading into draft weekend, the Bills had 28-year-old journeyman Andre Holmes penciled in as the starter opposite Sammy Watkins. Of course, Watkins continues to rehab from another foot surgery. So they needed to make a splash at wideout in the draft and aggressively targeted Jones, giving up pick Nos. 44 and 91 in order to move up to No. 37. The highly athletic Jones caught an outrageous NCAA record 158 balls as a senior at ECU but operated very close to the line of scrimmage at 10.7 yards per catch. Note that even with Watkins missing eight full games last year, Robert Woods averaged just 5.69 targets per game and scored one TD. Still, that ground-n-pound approach from Rex Ryan is gone and replaced by a Sean McDermott/Rick Dennison regime. They’re likely to give underrated Tyrod Taylor more leash and therefore create more opportunity for Jones.
9. Kareem Hunt, RB, Chiefs
As the Chiefs officially enter the PJC (post Jamaal Charles) era, they traded up 18 spots in the third round to select Toledo’s Kareem Hunt 86th overall. “Take out the top tier of running backs and this was the next best guy on everyone’s list,” said GM John Dorsey. So we can expect Hunt to quickly push Spencer Ware for the starting role and shouldn’t have trouble putting underwhelming Charcandrick West on ice. Hunt, an outstanding pass-catcher who caught 41 balls as a senior, will be on the PPR radar early with check down king Alex Smith.
10. Alvin Kamara, RB, Saints
With Mark Ingram still on the roster and Adrian Peterson added last month, the first instinct is to assume there’s no room for Alvin Kamara. That would ignore the fact that Peterson is 32 years old and can’t play in the pass game. It would also ignore that no team in the league throws more to their running backs than the Saints. They’re expected to use Kamara – who they traded up for in the third round – in the “joker” role previously inhabited by Darren Sproles and Reggie Bush. Kamara caught 74 balls over his final two seasons at Tennessee and has a good shot at 2-4 catches per game in New Orleans even if both Ingram and Peterson stay healthy. If one of those backs gets injured, Kamara will be a likely plug-n-play on DK.
11. Semaje Perine, RB, Redskins
Among all running backs drafted after the second round, Perine steps into the best situation. The incumbent is Rob Kelley, a 2016 UDFA who doesn’t play in the pass game and averaged just 3.33 YPC over the last six games. The backups are fragile scatback Chris Thompson and trade/release candidate Matt Jones. So Perine will have every opportunity to not only work his way into the rotation but also work his way toward taking Kelley’s starting/early-down role. If that happens, the powerful Perine will have weekly multi-TD upside in an offense which ranked 13th in TDs per game last year.
12. Marlon Mack, RB, Colts
Will 33-year-old Frank Gore ever slow down? He still hasn’t missed a game since 2010 and racked up another 301 touches last year. But if Gore does prove human at some point this year, Mack will only have to fight off borderline NFL talent Robert Turbin for work. Mack’s speedy big-play upside (six rush TDs from 43+ yards last season) fits nicely with Andrew Luck and Indy’s fast track.
13. Evan Engram, TE, Giants
The Giants understand what they’re getting in Engram, who put almost no blocking on tape at Ole Miss. He’s a wideout in a 6’3/234 body, running 4.42 at the Combine and drawing comps to Jordan Reed. If the Giants want to get Year 1 production from their first-round pick, it’ll be in the pass game.
14. David Njoku, TE, Browns
The Browns made three first-round picks, but only one on offense. They showed their faith in the 20-year-old Njoku by trading up to get him at No. 29 overall and then cutting reliable veteran Gary Barnidge. At 6’4/246 with a strong 37.5-inch vertical, Njoku boasts a big ceiling down the line. His Year 1 impact will depend on the effectiveness of Cody Kessler and his ability to shake a raw label quickly.
15. Joe Williams, RB, 49ers
The Shanahan run scheme makes stars out of running backs. Just in the last few years, Kyle Shanahan has squeezed more than most thought was possible out of Alfred Morris, Isaiah Crowell, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. If we go back to the Mike Shanahan days, journeymen like Olandis Gary and Mike Anderson became fantasy superstars. So when a Shanahan bangs the table for a running back on draft day, as outlined by Peter King here, our ears should perk up. Joe Williams is 24 years old and had a bunch of off-field issues in college, but ran 4.41 at 5’11/210. He’ll look to beat out Tim Hightower for the complementary role behind Carlos Hyde.
16. Deshaun Watson, QB, Texans
Cheap quarterbacks with plus weapons and rushing upside are always going to interest me for cash games on DraftKings. We’ll see how the pricing shakes out, but this describes Watson nicely. He has Lamar Miller, DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, C.J. Fiedorowicz and a QB guru coach in Bill O’Brien.
17. O.J. Howard, TE, Bucs
The most complete tight end in this loaded class, Howard can clearly contribute right away in both the pass and run game. Unfortunately for him, he landed in a spot with Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson and Cam Brate already in town. Howard only projects for 2-4 targets per game.
18. Curtis Samuel, WR, Panthers
Samuel was a hybrid player at Ohio State, rushing 107 times and catching 172 balls and predictably drawing Percy Harvin comps. He then ran a 4.31 at the Combine, which would have garnered far more hype if not for John Ross’ 4.22. The Panthers said they’ll use Samuel as a slot receiver, where it’ll be tough to see volume. The ceiling is a Tyreek Hill type role (3.8 catches, 1.5 rushes per game).
19. Taywan Taylor, WR, Titans
Taylor was one of Josh Norris’ sleepers at wideout, as discussed on our draft preview podcast. He landed in a reasonable spot as a third-round pick who is expected to step into the slot role right away.
20. Jeremy McNichols, RB, Bucs
A favorite of the draftnik community, McNichols is the rare rookie RB who excels in the pass game – and that includes as a protector. Unfortunately, he landed in one of the league’s most crowded backfields. Doug Martin (suspended Weeks 1-3), Charles Sims and Jacquizz Rodgers will all be competing for work.
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.