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Never paint rookies with a broad brush.
Each class is different. Talented players land in unfavorable situations, and fantasy values suffer. Less talented players wind up on teams with immediate opportunities available, boosting fantasy value. Some will start slow but play important roles during the season. A good portion will never be on the fantasy radar.
Over the last two seasons, we’ve seen rookie running backs become fantasy superstars. In 2016, Ezekiel Elliott and Jordan Howard were the NFL‘s top rushers—although Elliott was the No. 4 overall pick, while Howard was taken No. 150. Last season, rookies made up four of the top 10 fantasy RBs, including Kareem Hunt, the NFL’s leading rusher.
On the flip side, the 2017 rookie wide receiver class produced no top-15 finishers at the position—though both JuJu Smith-Schuster and Cooper Kupp landed in the top 25. Keelan Cole, an undrafted player who finished No. 48 at WR, was the next-best rookie. Three WRs went in the first round of last year’s NFL draft, yet Corey Davis was the only one of the three to finish inside the top 90.
Maybe the 2017 rookie RBs’ performances will open the eyes of those closed-minded enough to think rookies can’t be trusted. Royce Freeman was just inside the top 10 RBs taken in April’s draft, but he has a chance to start for the Denver Broncos.
We’ll look at eight rookies who are generating buzz as potential 2018 fantasy contributors. Saquon Barkley isn’t covered since he’s a consensus first-round pick, and Derrius Guice is absent because of a torn ACL. Quarterbacks are also not featured, as even those with the best chance to start the most games—Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield—likely won’t make much of a fantasy impact.
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When a team uses a first-round pick to address a significant need, it’s fair to think that player is tabbed for a big rookie role. The Seattle Seahawks had to boost their backfield after finishing 23rd in rushing in 2017 and 25th in 2016. Still, Penny’s selection at No. 27 was a surprise.
Even though he finished his career at San Diego State with an absurd 7.5 yards-per-carry average, many thought he’d need polish—especially as a receiver—though the Seahawks seemed comfortable with that.
This is where we remind you that all three days of the NFL draft and the subsequent signings of undrafted players matter in fantasy football, especially at RB. Veterans Eddie Lacy and Thomas Rawls earned the most attention in Seattle running game heading into last August. However, the buzz for Chris Carson grew despite his being a seventh-round pick in 2017.
He was the team’s best back for the first four contests with 208 yards on 49 carries and seven receptions for 59 yards before a leg fracture ended his season. The buzz surrounding him resumed in training camp and hasn’t stopped.
His presence looms even larger in the wake of Penny’s broken finger. According to Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times, head coach Pete Carroll said he “expects Penny to be ready for the season.” Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported surgery on Penny’s finger would cost him three to four weeks, which may delay him for the start of the season.
Rapoport added Carson is the Seahawks’ “bell-cow” back and is “probably going to be their starter.”
Obviously, the injury puts Penny’s role in question, at least for the first few weeks. And there’ll be risk when he’s healthy. Despite the rookie’s draft status, Seattle won’t make a change if Carson is playing well.
The injury and Carson’s rise have caused Penny’s ADP to slip to 56.0/RB24 as the third rookie RB behind Barkley and Freeman. Penny has more upside than Freeman, although his opportunities might not be as abundant. If you can draft Penny as an RB3 and be patient, he has the skill set to eventually outperform his dipping draft position.
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DJ Moore became the top rookie WR taken in this year’s draft when the Carolina Panthers made him the No. 24 pick. While Calvin Ridley may have been more of a luxury for the Atlanta Falcons at No. 26, Moore was a necessary selection for the Panthers and could start immediately opposite Devin Funchess.
Carolina gave up on Kelvin Benjamin last season and traded him to the Buffalo Bills. That left Funchess as the top WR—and the team without a legitimate No. 2. A foot injury prevented the Panthers from getting their usual production out of tight end Greg Olsen last year. However, they had no problem with funneling targets to Christian McCaffrey, who led them with a 23 percent target share—just beating out Funchess at 22.6 percent.
Even though Carolina drafted Moore to fill a need, target distribution will determine his role. A healthy Olsen should see a major increase over the 7.7 percent target share he had in seven games last season. In 2016, he led the Panthers with 23.3 percent in 16 games. The team could scale McCaffrey’s targets back, especially if it plans to increase his carries, but it would be foolish to cut into what the RB does best.
Moore could start 16 games and never rise above WR4 status in the fantasy world. Providing another solid target for QB Cam Newton is important, yet a reliable target and a busy target aren’t always the same.
Last season, the Panthers were 27th with 501 pass attempts. You’d have to go back to 2014 to find the last time the team crept into the top 20 in that category. Volume is important, and if it’s not there for Moore, his standing as WR46 with an ADP of 120.8 makes sense.
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Much like the Seahawks threw a curveball by taking Penny, the New England Patriots tossed one of their own four picks later when they selected Sony Michel at No. 31. The last RB the Patriots picked in the first round was Laurence Maroney in 2006. The highest selection they spent on the position after Maroney was No. 56 overall on Shane Vereen in 2011. So Michel was a departure from the Patriots’ philosophy.
In fact, they signed their leading back from 2017, Dion Lewis, to a future/reserves contract in December 2014. He went on to earn a contract extension 10 months later, but injuries limited him in 2015 and 2016. Lewis was buried on the depth chart to open last season until he took the starting job from Mike Gillislee in October and never looked back. The Patriots were 10th in rushing, and Lewis turned a strong season into a nice contract with the Tennessee Titans.
Lewis’ departure left a void. And while Michel was the splashy move, the team still has Rex Burkhead, James White and Gillislee. It also signed Jeremy Hill. It’s never easy to predict how the Patriots backfield will shake out, even with a first-round pick in the equation.
Unfortunately, it’s even tougher to figure where Michel stands on the roster and in fantasy because of a knee injury that required a procedure, according to Jeff Howe of The Athletic. While Howe reported the injury could cost Michel time at the start of the regular season, Mike Reiss of ESPN.com noted the procedure isn’t expected to sideline Michel when Week 1 hits.
It would be troublesome for any rookie RB to miss the majority of the preseason, but it’ll be especially so in this backfield. The injury caused Michel’s ADP to fall to 70.6/RB27, which is manageable even if he might not be ready upon his return. Still, he has a lot of talent and gets a boost from playing for a great team, which goes a long way.
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A lack of targets could push Ridley, the 26th pick, into fantasy irrelevance as a rookie. That’s not to say the Atlanta Falcons can’t use him, but in terms of their overall offense, he may not be a key cog.
Julio Jones posted his fourth straight 1,400-yard season last year with 88 receptions for 1,444 yards and three TDs on 148 targets. That accounted for 28.6 percent of the team’s target share. Mohamed Sanu was behind him with a healthy 18.6 percent of the target share and 67 receptions for 703 yards and five TDs on 96 targets. Taylor Gabriel, who is now with the Chicago Bears, checked in with 33 receptions for 378 yards and a TD on 51 targets (11.8 percent share).
Ideally, Ridley would absorb Gabriel’s numbers and cut into Sanu’s targets, but that might be a little optimistic. We can’t forget that both Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman made up 16.6 percent of the target share coming out of the backfield, and TE Austin Hooper had 12.6 percent.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, the Falcons already had a lot of good options in the passing game, so it won’t be easy for Ridley to carve out a big enough role to contribute for fantasy.
From a talent standpoint, he should be drafted, as the hope is his skill shines through and/or he has to take on a bigger role due to someone else’s struggles or (less hopefully) injury. Ridley’s ADP puts him at 131.4/WR50. That’s a fair price for a bench player who could be worth more if he gets the chance.
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The Broncos selected Freeman No. 71 in the 2018 NFL draft as the eighth back off the board. In 2017, the Kansas City Chiefs’ Kareem Hunt was the sixth RB selected at No. 86 overall. And much like Hunt last season, Freeman doesn’t have the stiffest competition to get to the top of the depth chart.
Hunt became much more important to the Chiefs when Spencer Ware tore knee ligaments and was lost for the campaign August 25. The rookie turned in one of the better first-year performances in recent memory. While expectations shouldn’t be at that level for Freeman, his opportunities could be similar—at least in that he could also be the lead back when the season begins.
Last year, the Broncos ranked 12th in rushing offense but were 25th with eight rushing TDs. C.J. Anderson led the way with 1,007 yards and three TDs on 245 attempts. That accounted for 53.6 percent of the carry share, and Devontae Booker trailed at 17.3 percent. The Broncos may not give Freeman such a large workload in his first season, but as Booker holds a 3.6 yards-per-carry average on 253 attempts in his first two years, Freeman should be the preferred option.
Because of injuries to other RBs we’ll discuss later, Freeman’s draft stock is rising. His ADP of 52.2/RB21 makes him the second-highest rookie coming off the board behind Barkley. That might be a bit lofty, but he’s riding a wave of good health and projected opportunity that other RBs don’t have.
If he stays on this path, a top-25 RB finish is a possibility.
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Ronald Jones falls into the same category as Royce Freeman in that he wasn’t a top-tier RB prospect coming out of college, yet his landing spot could be the reason he has a higher fantasy value than other, more talented RBs.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had to address their backfield this offseason after ranking 27th in rushing in 2017 with Doug Martin at the head of the attack for most of the year. The Buccaneers averaged just 3.7 yards per carry and 90.6 rushing yards per game.
Even though his numbers were nothing special, Peyton Barber showed enough at the end of last season to keep himself in the conversation at RB heading into August. That conversation now begins with him since Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times reported head coach Dirk Koetter called Barber “our starter.” Koetter added Jones was “average” in the first preseason game and that he’d let the situation “sort out a little more” with plenty of time left in the preseason.
Jones didn’t show any notable improvement in the team’s second preseason game. He has 11 yards and a TD on 12 carries through the first two preseason games.
Jones doesn’t face strong competition. Barber might be on top of the depth chart, but that doesn’t mean he has a stranglehold on the starting gig. Jones was a second-round pick at No. 38 overall, so the Buccaneers have a strong investment in him.
Tampa Bay’s offense doesn’t provide the best situation for Jones to succeed. Their offensive line is average at best and the early-season absence of Jameis Winston isn’t ideal. The value of Jones would come from being the clear lead back for the Buccaneers, which might take time. He’s a bit of a reach with an ADP at 57.4/RB25, though that’s more about the ADP and less about his standing among the other RBs.
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The Chicago Bears made Anthony Miller the sixth WR taken in this year’s draft at pick No. 51. He gets the fantasy nod over Courtland Sutton, Dante Pettis and Christian Kirk because Miller arguably has the best situation of that group.
The last two offseasons saw the Bears renovate their offense, starting with QB Mitchell Trubisky in the 2017 NFL draft. Trubisky didn’t have much to work with, as evidenced by Kendall Wright’s leading the team with a 19.4 percent target share.
This past offseason, Wright departed for the Minnesota Vikings, but the Bears made big splashes by signing WRs Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel in addition to TE Trey Burton. Add in Howard and Tarik Cohen, and this becomes a formidable offense. So where does Miller fit into this group?
According to Rich Campbell of the Chicago Tribune, Miller is “forging his place as the first-string slot receiver.” Even though the Bears gave Trubisky lots of new toys, the reliability of a skilled route-runner with good hands could turn Miller into a preferred target. That’s probably the best you can hope for regarding his fantasy value. He’s buried at WR59 with an ADP of 157.2.
You can grab him with one of your last picks and hope for him to turn into one of Trubisky’s favorites.
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The Detroit Lions haven’t had a 100-yard rusher since Reggie Bush hit the century mark on Thanksgiving in 2013. That is a baffling yet telling stat about the state of the Lions backfield. Before this year’s draft, the only RBs the team selected from 2014 to 2017 were Ameer Abdullah in 2015 at No. 54 overall and Dwayne Washington in 2016 at No. 236 overall.
Johnson became the latest potential solution to the team’s backfield woes when it took him 43rd overall this year. However, the Lions made another significant RB move with the signing of LeGarrette Blount, who was fresh off his Super Bowl victory as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles. They’ll join Abdullah, Washington and Theo Riddick in a crowded, uninspiring backfield.
The Lions were 32nd in rushing last season at 76.3 yards per game and 3.4 yards per carry. They’ve been no better than 28th in rushing since 2014 and have been the worst ground offense in two of the last three years. Blount’s bruising style can lead to big runs, but for the most part, he’s a between-the-tackles grinder. Johnson brings more juice with his rushing style, and the two could work well together.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to get too excited about Johnson, since Blount could take short-yardage carries and Riddick could cut into potential targets. Abdullah handled a team-high 45.5 percent of the carries last season, so the Lions will have to figure out if Johnson or Blount will dominate the attempts or if it’ll be more of an even split.
Fantasy players seem to recognize the rocky path to relevance for Johnson—at least early in the season. He doesn’t cost as much as the other rookies as an RB31 with an ADP of 75.2. He can be drafted as an RB3 and kept out of your starting lineup until you feel comfortable about his role.