Drafting a rookie to your beloved fantasy football squad can be riskier than trying the Chef’s Surprise at your favorite local Asian food joint. Have you ordered successfully, with guaranteed instant satisfaction? (See: Alshon Jeffery). Or have you made a classic blunder and now must resort to leaving quickly, wondering exactly what sort of shellfish you have just digested? (Montee Ball went in the 3rd round, on average, in 2013 fantasy drafts.)
But there remains one golden rule of draft day which holds true for veterans and rooks alike: it’s all about value. Before you draft an NFL noob, consider the roster impact it will have on your team. Taking the above two players as an example, “missing” on Ball hurt significantly more than “missing” 9-10 rounds later on Alshon would have.
Typically, the rookie hype amongst fantasy owners surrounds running backs taken early, but the fantasy landscape is changing- has changed!- quickly, a fact reflected by the NFL draft itself. In year’s past we would be discussing players like Montee Ball, Trent Richardson, Darren McFadden, et. al. But the NFL is a passing league and has been for quite some time. Strangely, many fantasy drafters, prognosticators, and “gurus” haven’t caught up with that fact yet. I frequently saw the “Running-back-running-back” strategy still employed in 2013. Newsflash: that’s obsolete! There were precisely zero running backs taken in the first round of this year’s NFL draft and though there still should be plenty taken in your fantasy one, I think it has become increasingly evident that you NEED a WR-1 (read: a player who will be consistently ranked in the top-10 weekly “starts” throughout the 2014 season) to win your fantasy title.
Fortunately, I think many of this year’s rookie class of running backs will be under-drafted-- there’s definitely potential value here! Let’s start with the freshmen rushers and see where you may be able to steal value later in your draft.
Fantasy Rookie Targets: RB
Bishop Sankey, TEN (Round 2, Pick 54)
Starting with Sankey is rather appropriate because not only was he the first running back off the board, he also has one of the best shots to grab a starting job right out of the gate. Apart from having what is almost certainly my favorite name of the rookie class (a melodic chess-piece-esque moniker), Sankey also steps into a favorable situation in Tennessee where his only real competition for touches will be the not-so-venerable Shonn Greene. The Titans are no sort of offensive juggernaut, but he’s scoring highly on two of the key yardsticks for fantasy success: talent and (in this case, more importantly) opportunity.
Jeremy Hill, CIN (Round 2, Pick 55)
One pick later, the Bengals took Jeremy Hill. But wait, didn’t they just pick Giovani Bernard? (Head scratching ensues.) Yes, well, consider this pick a vote of non-confidence in BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The Law Firm’s days were numbered before this pick and, though it’s obviously still early, I think Hill is probably the favorite to take over BJGE’s share of the load in Cincy, which, you may recall, included the goal-line duties. And with adequate size (Hill is listed at 6’1”, 233), the plan makes sense.
Carlos Hyde, SF (Round 2, Pick 57)
And then two picks later, the 49ers took arguably the best back in the draft class in Hyde. From what I’ve seen, Hyde’s fantasy prospectus is rather polarizing. Some believe his talent (and Frank Gore’s age) will win out. Others think he’ll just be stashed too far down on the depth chart to offer anything meaningful in the 2014 campaign. I tend to be more with the former group and believe San Francisco took a back this high in the draft (and yes, a second round pick is a valuable commodity) for a reason. They intend to use him. Don’t go overboard, of course, but if he’s there in the later rounds he’s definitely worth a roster spot.
Ka’Deem Carey, CHI (Round 4, Pick 117)
Of course, I couldn’t resist putting a Bear on this list. But if I’m looking for late-round fliers, I want someone I can hit the proverbial home run with, and I think Carey fits the bill. His competition for touches will actually be rather stiff- and that’s the caveat here. Shaun Draughn is a very competent NFL player and Michael Ford is fast. Real fast. But I’m encouraged by Carey’s current placement of second on the depth chart. I’m even more encouraged by the Bears’ first season under new coach Marc Trestman where they nearly broke every team offensive record in the books. I look for them to add more dynamism to their play-calling in season 2 under Trestman and expect they drafted Carey with a purpose. High upside, if he sees the field, but still someone I’d mainly look at in deeper leagues.
Devonta Freeman, ATL (Round 4, Pick 103)
Any time the only two backs ahead of you are “Old Man Jackson” and Quizz, you have a chance to be fantasy-worthy. Freeman could see the field a significant amount or he could be stashed on the bench to develop while Jackson rumbles out his last few miles. Still, I think he has value and, similar to Carey, you could do much worse.
Really, the only two of the above I see being drafted with any degree of regularity in standard 10-team leagues are Sankey and Hill. Obviously, there’s still plenty of time left before even the preseason, so keep a watchful eye on these rookie backs and their situations as they develop. Apart from Sankey, I don’t see the hype on any of the above ball-toters increasing to the point where you have to worry about reaching. And speaking of hype, I think it will almost certainly increase in Sankey’s case, so again I caution: don’t go overboard on unknown quantities. I can’t see a scenario where I’d ever have him inside my top-50 pre-draft rankings, which makes him at absolute best a 6th-rounder. The rest of these guys are waiver adds or late fliers, to me, at which point they become a nice value-add. One name not mentioned above that I want to keep an eye on is Storm Johnson in Jacksonville. None of the guys ahead of him in the Jaguars’ depth chart are really established NFL feature backs and he has the size and skill set to potentially develop into one. Again, I’m not running out to grab him, but he’s definitely a deep sleeper to monitor.
Fantasy Rookie Targets: WR
If you needed more evidence that your personal fantasy draft strategy needs to shift sooner rather than later, there’s this statement, which I stand by: I would select all of the following rookie receivers before any rusher lifted above.
Let that marinate for a moment. There are at minimum six receivers taken in 2014 that I would also draft to my fantasy team above any rookie rusher.
Mike Evans, TB (Round 1, Pick 7)
...And Evans might be the top on that list. I know, it’s Tampa Bay. They have some issues on the line. They have a defensive-minded head coach. And it’s a bit naive and cliche to think that Josh McCown’s success with Alshon Jeffery in 2013 will translate over to another tall, young receiver in 2014. But there’s enough talent here to proceed aggressively on draft day, as the Buccaneers themselves must have seen to take an offensive player when plenty of Lovie-Smith-Favorite defensive players were on the board. Evans is huge, and a smooth, NFL-ready receiver. I like him a lot.
Odell Beckham Jr., NYG (Round 1, Pick 12)
If the Giants were sold on Reuben Randle stepping in for Hakeem Nicks as the no. 2 receiver, they wouldn’t have spent a top-15 pick on Beckham; not with tons of talent on the board and multiple positions of need. I think there’s a good chance Beckham starts right away. The Giants, when they want to be, are a fairly competent NFL offense. 2013 was terrible, but I have to think the only way to go is up for the Giants. Many fantasy owners might be down on New York as a whole after last season’s debacle, so I think there’s good value to be had here on draft day.
Jordan Matthews, PHI (Round 2, Pick 42)
The return of Jeremy Maclin, if he stays healthy, only helps Jordan Matthews, who is likely to line up in the slot. Matthews steps right into a role he was meant for in a prolific offense that wants to run play after play. This is a very nice mesh of talent and opportunity but as such, I see a lot of fantasy owners reaching for him. He definitely has WR-2 upside (read: potential top-20 weekly ranks).
Brandin Cooks, NO (Round 1, Pick 20)
Another first-round talent finding a great fit on a prolific offensive team, what’s not to love? Cooks likely starts instantly and, despite Drew Brees vast arsenal of weapons to spread the ball to, I think he has an impact. New Orleans traded up to grab him with a purpose in mind. He’s an exciting prospect who will play right away and fits in nicely with the pieces the Saints already have. Another playmaker for Brees? Yes, I’d like that on my fantasy roster, thank you.
Kelvin Benjamin, CAR (Round 1, PIck 28)
Can Benjamin finally be the number 1 receiver that Cam Newton has never had in his young career? OK, OK, I know. Steve Smith. But Smith was on the downside of his career by the time Newton started slinging passes his way and never possessed the prototypical size of an NFL receiver. Benjamin, by contrast, is huge at 6’5” with combine-measured arm-length of nearly 35 inches. Newton is a goal line weapon himself, but now he has one to throw to.
A few other receivers that interest me:
I don’t know what will happen with Blake Bortles, but Marqise Lee interests me in any case. Someone has to fill in for Justin Blackmon, right? The same goes for Allen Robinson.
I don’t particularly like owning any Jets in fantasy, but Shaq Evans is another name to keep an eye on. He’ll get playing time. I guess that may be enough.
Sammy Watkins, the fourth overall pick, is a notable omission from my list. I look for value on draft day and I suspect Watkins will be over-drafted based on his potential coming out of college. But you know what all of those gaudy NCAA stats do for your Sunday fantasy lineup? Nothing. Zilch. Nada. It comes to this: when you have E.J. Manuel throwing to you and the next best receiver on the roster is Robert Woods, that spells trouble. I’d prefer any of the above five to Watkins and all can probably be had at a less expensive price. I think this year’s rookie class of WRs all can be productive and the above five should probably be owned in every format.
NFL trends affect fantasy decisions and strategy. This year, I think there is a large crop of young receivers who are all eminently draftable. In deeper leagues, I think some of the rookie rushers are worth a flier in late rounds, or for the proverbial dollar bid in auction leagues. Keep a watchful eye on this class as the preseason approaches, it may well pay off come draft day.