Fantasy football is full of unknowns and new roles heading into each season. One of the major questions is rookie performance — always a hot topic when crafting draft boards and projection systems. It’s difficult to predict how rookies will handle the jump to the NFL, a new offense, and the grind of a 16-game schedule (plus preseason). In order to help project the top fantasy rookies in 20017, we’ll take a look at several factors: opportunity, system fit/supporting cast, college performance, average draft position (ADP), and Football Outsider’s (FO) rookie grading systems.
DeShone Kizer – Cleveland Browns
The Notre Dame product is in line to be the most fantasy relevant rookie QB at the start of the season, as the Browns have announced Kizer as the Week 1 starter. He’s looked solid in the preseason, showing off his arm strength and mobility, but question marks remain with Kizer’s accuracy and experience. The second-round pick completed just 58.7% of his passes for the Irish last season and played only 25 college games.
He’ll inherit a Browns offense with about average skill position starters, with Kenny Britt and Corey Coleman as the top receivers and Isaiah Crowell in the backfield. But the Browns’ solid offensive line should provide some protection and keep defenses honest with a running game. Kizer rates as the worst quarterback in FO’s QBASE system (which aims to predict a QB’s NFL success based on college performance and intangible makeup), and is the most likely QB to become a bust at 65.5%. He’s being drafted in just 7% of leagues on ESPN, so look at him only as a late-round flier in deep leagues, because his fantasy value will likely lie solely in his legs.
Mitchell Trubisky – Chicago Bears
As the second QB on the Bears’ depth chart, Trubisky is expected to hold a clipboard for at least the first few weeks. The former Tar Heel has impressed in the preseason, completing 34 of 48 passes 354 yards and 3 TDs, plus four rushes for 47 yards. While he wasn’t the most proficient runner at UNC, Trubisky ran 93 times in 2016 and found the end zone five times. The athleticism is there, and even though QBs run far less in the NFL, he might be able to scramble for some TDs and boost his fantasy production. Unfortunately, the Bears saw their #1 WR Cameron Meredith go down with a knee injury, so the Bears’ have to look down the depth chart before the regular season even begins.
But if, and probably when, the rookie gets a shot to start over Mike Glennon, check your expectations. He ranks 2nd in QBASE behind Mahomes, but has the largest chance to be an adequate NFL QB at 30.8%. Drafted in just 4% of leagues, Trubisky can be avoided in drafts and likely won’t see much fantasy success with the Bears roster when he does play down the stretch.
Leonard Fournette – Jacksonville Jaguars
It’s possible the fourth overall pick in 2017 sees the most usage of all rookie running backs. It’s also possible the Jags turn to some kind of committee with veterans Chris Ivory and TJ Yeldon to preserve Fournette’s body. He’s built like a truck at 6-feet and 228 pounds, but I’m worried about Fournette’s ability to stay healthy. As the lead back in an offense with the error-prone Blake Bortles at QB (for now), behind a shaky offensive line, defenses will load the box. He definitely has the talent, as he grades out as FO’s best rookie RB, but don’t draft him expecting RB1 production. It’d be nice but don’t expect that and draft accordingly.
Christian McCaffrey – Carolina Panthers
The Stanford product will start out as Carolina’s starter, but is expected to share the load with veteran Jonathan Stewart. The Panthers are shaping up to have a bounce back year after finishing last in the NFC South in ‘16. The 8th overall pick in the draft, McCaffrey figures to be a key piece in that turnaround. The former Heisman finalist enters with the second most receiving yards per game of any rookie running back (in college), and will likely be a big factor in Carolina’s passing attack. As the 14th running back off the board in ESPN drafts, he has high expectations, but I like his floor due to his receiving ability and offense he’s in. It will be interesting to see his rushing role late in games with the lead and in the red zone, as Stewart might get the edge in those opportunities, but if McCaffrey can see close to 20 touches per game, I love his upside as a high-end RB2.
Dalvin Cook – Minnesota Vikings
Cook enters the NFL as the most well-rounded RB of the bunch. His 6.5 yards per attempt in college leads the field, and he’s shown explosiveness on passes out of the backfield by averaging 14.8 yards yards per reception last season. The former Seminole also saw a more consistent workload than Fournette and McCaffrey in college, but his production is on par, if not better, than both. He ranks just behind Fournette for the top FO rookie ranking and should fare much better than last year’s Vikings rushers thanks to an improved (and less injured) offensive line. As a late 4th round pick, Cook is my favorite value of the rookie backs.
Kareem Hunt – Kansas City Chiefs
Kareem Hunt has shot up draft boards with the injury to Spencer Ware, and will be thrust into the RB1 role. While the other rookie RBs come from the SEC and Pac 12, Hunt reps the MAC as a product from Toledo. He’s 6-foot, 225 lbs with a strong lower half and great quickness. The 86th overall pick saw at least 190 touches in his last three seasons, but was a workhorse his senior season, carrying the ball 262 times and catching 41. This gives me confidence he’ll be able to handle an NFL workload, and as a dual-threat lead back in Andy Reid’s offense, I love his situation. At this stage you won’t get him cheap or late in the draft, but I think he can be just as productive as Cook, who’s going a few spots ahead of him.
Corey Davis – Tennessee Titans
Another MAC product finds his way to this list. The fifth overall pick in the draft likely will begin as the WR3 in Tennessee. He’s a gifted and an aggressive athlete who enters the NFL after averaging 88 catches, 1450 yards, and 15 touchdowns in his last three seasons at Western Michigan. After missing some of camp and the entire preseason due to a hamstring injury, we should expect Davis to take a few weeks to get in sync with Marcus Mariota. In ‘16, no Titan saw over 21.3% of targets, and I expect Mariota to spread the wealth again in a run-first Titans offense. But the Titans have been searching for a legit WR1 for a while. I expect him to become more of a factor as the season progresses. He’s a decent value at roughly his 115 ADP and could become a league-winner down the stretch.
Zay Jones – Buffalo Bills
It’s been a crazy offseason for the Bills. Who would have expected Zay Jones to be the WR1 heading into Week 1 just one month ago? The East Carolina product had a monster senior season, amassing a positively absurd 158 receptions for 1746 yards and 8 TDs. He’s one of the lower-rated WRs in FO’s rankings, but you just can’t ignore his opportunity in Buffalo: he’s a WR1 with a 150 ADP. I love his value as a late round WR who may find some space against defenses more focused on shutting down Buffalo’s solid running attack.
John Ross – Cincinnati Bengals
Unlike Jones, world-class speedster Ross will be far down the target totem pole behind AJ Green, Tyler Eifert, and probably fellow rookie Joe Mixon, among others. Ross’ only successful college season came in his junior year, but Football Outsiders graded him as the top WR prospect. As an NFL receiver and fantasy option, I expect Ross to take on a boom or bust DeSean Jackson-esque role, where he’s a big play threat but hard to count on week-to-week.
His pedigree as a top-10 pick (9th overall) should afford him some opportunity. He’s only being drafted in 18% of leagues, but will be a hot commodity on the waiver wire once he shows his big play upside. I plan to monitor his snap count and involvement in the offense before giving him serious fantasy consideration, but will want to be on the front end of the movement when people start to notice.
Evan Engram – New York Giants and O.J. Howard – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
I’ve lumped these two together because my argument against them is the same. Since 2010 (Gronk’s rookie season), Tim Wright was the highest scoring rookie tight end with 141.3 PPR points. That would’ve place Wright at TE14 last season. Howard and Engram are going as TE 15 and 17, respectively, which is essentially their ceiling. I much prefer guys like Austin Hooper (TE20) and Cameron Brate (TE22) as fantasy options. There’s no reason to waste a late round pick on Engram or Howard hoping they explode, because history is telling us they won’t. Look elsewhere for late round value, and continue to avoid rookie tight ends until the tide of the NFL changes.
Mark Dankenbring (affectionately known as Dank) graduated from Miami University (OH) with degrees in Sports Management and Business Analytics. He’s been playing fantasy sports for nearly 10 years and has started to invest much of his time playing DFS since his graduation in May of 2017. He’s a lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fan and currently lives in Cincinnati, OH. Follow him on Twitter @MarkDank.