Another wave of rookies has been welcomed into the NFL, some of which will likely become fantasy stars for years. However, unless you’re in a dynasty league, you want to know who can help you now, not later. Evaluating the impact a rookie can make is notoriously difficult and is dependent on many factors, like the veterans in front of him on the depth chart, the coaches, the schedule, the fans expectations, and more. Rookies become even more important when you are in a league with expanded rosters. Let’s take a look:
For decades, getting good fantasy production out of a rookie quarterback was extremely rare. Most rookie quarterbacks were brought along slowly, and played little (if any) in their inaugural years. A player like Dan Marino in 1983 played exceptionally well, but didn’t get to start until Week 6. Peyton Manning threw for 3,739 yards and 26 TD’s in 1998, but also tossed 28 interceptions. It wasn’t until 2011 that rookie quarterbacks really started to have significant fantasy impacts, when players like Cam Newton (21 passing TD’s, 14 rushing TD’s) and Andy Dalton (3,398 yards, 20 TD’s) came onto the scene. Since then, we had a terrific 2012 trio (Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III), a 2015 star (Jameis Winston), two great contributors in 2016 (Dak Prescott and Cason Wentz), and 2017’s DeShaun Watson, who was on his way to a monster fantasy season before it was derailed with a knee injury. NFL teams are under more pressure than ever to get their new, highly-paid signal callers on the field quickly, whether they are ready or not. Will any of the 2018 rookies make an impact on your fantasy team? Here are five that could make a splash this season:
- Baker Mayfield, Browns: Instead of trading the pick, the Browns finally took the plunge and selected yet another QB of the future. Mayfield was ranked behind several other QB prospects but slowly worked his way up the list as the draft grew closer. A ridiculous passer and underrated runner at Oklahoma, Mayfield also showed elite arm strength and (perhaps even more importantly) displayed the fiery attitude that the Browns desperately need. While the mediocre Tyrod Taylor is set to open the season as starter, he isn’t going to be able to keep Mayfield on the bench for long. With a suddenly-respectable receiving group including new possession receiver Jarvis Landry and ultra-talented Josh Gordon, this is a Cleveland QB’s best fantasy situation in years. Mayfield is a sneaky pick at the end of drafts and is a must-add in dynasty leagues.
- Josh Allen, Bills: Buffalo brought in A.J. McCarron but is only paying him backup money; there’s an excellent chance that Allen starts from day 1. Allen is a massive QB with a cannon arm that struggled under pressure in college, so he’ll probably rely heavily on LeSean McCoy for much of the season. However, he played in a pro-style offense at Wyoming, and big wideouts like Kelvin Benjamin and Zay Jones have the size to take advantage of his elite arm strength, especially in the red zone. While I wouldn’t expect big passing numbers on a primarily running team, Allen is the one QB on this list most likely to start all 16 games.
- Sam Darnold, Jets: Darnold should open the season sitting behind someone who is literally old enough to be his father, 38 year old Josh McCown. McCown had some respectable play last season, but he’ll almost certainly turn over the reins to the 20 year old Darnold at some point in 2018; possibly quickly if he gets hurt. Darnold is still considered a raw prospect that will benefit from holding a clipboard for a while. The ancient McCown threw for 18 touchdowns and ran for 5 more in only 13 starts last season, so there’s absolutely some great fantasy potential in that offense.
- Josh Rosen, Cardinals: Arizona traded up to nab Rosen, who they feel is the most NFL-ready quarterback on the board. Rosen had a strong career in a pro-style offense at UCLA, and is as mechanically sound as any rookie QB you could expect to find these days. Rosen also openly expressed his disgust at the QB’s taken ahead of him, so he’s heading into camp with a big chip on his shoulder. While Sam Bradford is expected to be under center in week 1, the coaching staff is going to give Rosen every opportunity to win the job immediately. With players like David Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald on tap in Arizona, Rosen could be a hidden fantasy gem buried at the end of drafts.
- Lamar Jackson, Ravens: Jackson is a very intriguing prospect because his highlight-reel running abilities far outshine anyone else on this list. Cameron Newton struggled a bit as a passer his rookie year, yet set fantasy lineups on fire with 14 rushing touchdowns; Jackson has that kind of potential. Realistically, it’s unlikely he plays much in 2018. Joe Flacco is a mediocrity, but he never gets injured and the Ravens are going to want to take it slow with their new toy, a QB a lot of teams in the draft thought would never develop as an effective NFL passer. However, the Ravens are extremely desperate for a shot in the arm on offense, which has been anemic for years now. Jackson is their most exciting new prospect in a long time, and they may not be able to resist putting him in sooner than anyone thinks.
Unlike quarterbacks, rookie running backs have a long and glorious history of having immediate impacts that can lead their lucky owners to fantasy championships. Since I started playing football in 1992, there has been a stud rookie runner that put up huge numbers in practically every year, gems that were often taken late in drafts. In 1995, I took Curtis Martin in the fifth round of my fantasy draft, whose 1,748 total yards and 15 TD’s carried me to my first fantasy title. Much more recently, players like Todd Gurley (1,294 total yards, 10 TD’s), Ezekiel Elliott (1,994 total yards, 16 TD’s), and Leonard Fournette (1,342 total yards, 10 TD’s) lived up to their considerable hype. Is there an impact runner like that available in 2018?
- Saquon Barkley, Giants: I personally think the Giants made a great decision passing on the remaining QB’s for Barkley – he’s that good. Eli Manning has had no help in the running game since Ahmad Bradshaw left 5 years ago, and even Bradshaw wasn’t considered among the elite. Barkley is an ideal every-down back, showing great short yardage power and leading all NCAA backs in receiving yards. He should open up the entire field for the Giants, providing Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. additional space while settling in as a bell-cow runner who can take it the distance every time he touches the ball. Fifteen touchdowns are not out of the question; he deserves consideration as a first-round fantasy choice, especially in PPR leagues.
- Royce Freeman, Broncos: I feel the same kind of intrigue for Freeman as I did for Kareem Hunt after the draft last season. Like Hunt, Freeman was a 5,000+ yard workhorse in college that has proven he can carry the load. The Broncos running back situation is dreadful, and John Elway already referred to Freeman as “bell-cow” and a “thumper”, something that has been missing in Denver. While he’ll likely be pulled in passing situations, the Broncos are primarily a running team that could get Freeman a whole gaggle of goal-line looks. He’s a tremendous sleeper prospect.
- Rashaad Penny, Seahawks: The Seahawks had the most embarrassing rushing attack in the NFL last season, and wasted no time spending their first round pick on Penny. Seattle traded down and nabbed him at pick 27, but have stated they loved him so much they considered taking him at 18. Penny impressively led the NCAA in missed tackles forced and runs over 15 yards among draft-eligible backs, and ran a 4.46 40 yard dash at the Combine. Both coach Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider have already referred to Penny as a "three-down back", words that are music to the ears of fantasy owners. The Seahawks still have considerable problems on the offensive line, so Penny may struggle finding room to run at times in the NFC West.
- Derrius Guice, Redskins: Guice slid to the 2nd round due to character concerns, and the Redskins may have ended up getting a steal as a result. A 218-pound bruiser with 4.4 speed, he’s the kind of workhorse that the Redskins have been lacking in recent years. A powerful offense now led by Alex Smith will only help Guice, who only has to beat out an awful Samaje Perine and dreadful Rob Kelley. A solid receiver, it’s possible Guice could even take some catches from Chris Thompson. Target him in the middle rounds.
- Kerryon Johnson, Lions: The Lions are another team that has suffered with subpar backs for years. New head coach Matt Patricia must have wanted to change that, as they traded up to get Johnson, who scored 20 touchdowns for Auburn last season. An upright runner with deceptive speed, Johnson has a great chance at finally giving Matt Stafford someone back there that scares defenses. While LeGarrette Blount is likely a short-term rental that will be vulturing touchdowns, he’s 31 years old and could break down at any time. Johnson is clearly the future in Detroit, probably sooner than later.
Rookie wide receivers, like quarterbacks, have until recently been brought along slowly. A rookie wideout putting up huge numbers was practically unheard of until Randy Moss took over the NFL in 1998, shocking everyone with an absurd 17 touchdown catches. However, to this day Moss remains more the exception than the rule, particularly when it comes to TD catches. Odell Beckham, Jr. came closest, putting up 12 touchdowns in 12 games in 2014. The 2017 season only saw one rookie wideout, JuJu Smith-Schuster, have anything approaching a significant impact (917 yards, 8 TD’s). Who will lead the 2018 class?
- Michael Gallup, Cowboys: Let’s be honest – after dumping Dez Bryant, the Cowboys are left with a crappy group of receivers. The free agent signings of Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson aren’t exactly making defensive coordinators shake in their shoes. The physical Gallup has an excellent shot at starting Week 1 and could easily fill the Dez Bryant role, which involves a lot of red zone looks.
- D.J. Moore, Panthers: Moore was the first receiver off the board for a reason. He’s coming off an 80 catch season and had a blistering 4.42 40 yard dash at the Combine. He’s a tackle-breaking beast with the ball in his hands that put up great numbers even with lousy QB’s at Maryland. The Panthers continue to add playmakers and are hoping Moore is the #1 wideout they’ve been missing since Kelvin Benjamin left town.
- Dante Pettis, 49ers: The 49ers traded up to grab Pettis, who also excelled as a dangerous return man at Washington. Expect the San Francisco passing game to take a big step in Kyle Shanahan’s second season, and Pettis is going to play a part in it. He scored an unbelievable 9 touchdowns on punt returns in college.
- Anthony Miller, Bears: The Bears offense should be much improved in 2018. They thought highly enough of Miller to trade up for him after dominating at Memphis the last two seasons. If Mitch Trubisky avoids a sophomore slump, Miller could be a pretty decent sleeper opposite Allen Robinson.
- Calvin Ridley, Falcons: Ridley would have seemed a better fantasy prospect if the Falcons offense hadn’t fallen off a cliff last season. Since Atlanta doesn’t throw to Julio Jones in the red zone, perhaps it’s Ridley that will pick up the touchdown slack.
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by Aaron Bland