2018 Fantasy Football Preview: Impact Rookies
With the draft in the books, Dom Murtha takes you through the positions to break down the most impactful rookies from a fantasy perspective.
With the draft now behind us, so too – for the most part – are the rest of the offseason transactions that distract us from full focus on fantasy football. With our attention being refocused on box score projections and deep sleeper pickups, it’s time to reveal who of these newly drafted rookies will make the biggest and most immediate fantasy impact.
This position list consisted of one name last season – Deshaun Watson – and by and large I was right in my assumption that he would be the lone rookie quarterback to make a legitimate fantasy impact. This season, things are much different, as a loaded first round of rookie QB’s have entered the league. And while most of them will struggle to find playing time early on, I believe that all five could have an impact in most fantasy leagues, in some capacity, in 2018.
Baker Mayfield – CLE
While the suspense of the first overall pick lasted all the way up until draft night, looking back now, the selection of Mayfield doesn’t seem as crazy as it once did. Sure he’s undersized and may not offer the sky-high ceiling of say Sam Darnold, but what he is, is one of the most efficient and accurate young quarterbacks of all time, statistically speaking. He set completion percentage records at the college football level, while his touchdown to interception ratios are legendary.
Yes, as a rookie in the NFL he will be joining a hapless Browns team that has just one win in the last two seasons, but he also will be joining a revamped roster that features one of the most promising offenses in the league. In guys like Duke Johnson, Josh Gordon, David Njoku, Carlos Hyde, Nick Chubb, and Corey Coleman, you’ve got yourself a nice collection of young weapons. Couple that with a vastly improved offensive line and Baker Mayfield actually has found himself in one of the ideal situations for a rookie quarterback.
Now the elephant in the room for fantasy owners is the presence of Tyrod Taylor, whom the Browns traded for during the offseason. While he’s a rock solid bridge QB, I have a strong feeling that Baker is going to win this job out of camp. All reports are that he’s advanced in accuracy and general football IQ, while his leadership skills are reportedly legendary. If all accounts are true, then it will be hard to keep him from starting right off the bat, especially with only a bridge QB like Taylor standing in his way.
It should go without saying that if gifted a full 16 game slate, Mayfield will be one of the better rookie fantasy options this season, especially due to and improved Browns supporting cast overall.
Sam Darnold – NYJ
Darnold is the youngest quarterback on this list, but is also probably the most talented. There isn’t a throw he can’t make and his plus athleticism gives him Andrew Luck like potential. I personally have compared the 20-year-old Darnold to Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, which would be a huge get for a Jets organization that has been looking for a franchise quarterback for quite some time now.
In any event, for fantasy purposes, Darnold has a much tougher path to starting than the aforementioned Baker Mayfield. Currently ahead of him on the depth chart are… last year’s starter Josh McCown, former first round pick Teddy Bridgewater, and former second round pick Christian Hackenberg. While that is quite a lofty list to jump ahead of, keep in mind that Darnold is A) far more talented than all of them, and B) the only one who the Jets and this regime personally picked in the first round. Beyond that, at least one, if not two of these guys are going to be cut before the regular season kicks off, simply because of the reality of roster space. Jets GM Mike Maccagnan has also gone on record saying that Darnold will be given every opportunity to start out of camp.
While the odds are stacked against him winning the job immediately, things aren’t as bad as they currently seem for the third overall pick. When all is said and done however, my bet is that Darnold will get his chance to shine somewhere near the midpoint of the season, provided the Jets are as bad as I expect them to be this season. While that won’t translate to much fantasy success, when it comes to rookie quarterbacks, availability is the only way to accrue production. Potentially starting eight games is better than none.
Josh Rosen – ARZ
Like the other two already-mentioned quarterbacks on this list, Rosen has an “on-the-surface” uphill climb ahead of him in terms of starting early in 2018. I say on-the-surface because while there are two other well-known quarterbacks on the Cardinals roster, the two names are hardly insurmountable hurdles.
For starters, Sam Bradford is the current name slated in as the starting quarterback on the Cardinals depth chart, and while he’s a decent veteran talent, he hasn’t started 16 games in a season since 2012. General managers and coaches continue giving him chance after chance, but the fact of the matter is that he has a losing career record, is on his fourth team in five years, and is coming off of a season in which he missed 14 out of 16 games. I’ll wager that he isn’t healthy for much of this season either.
With Bradford out of the picture, that leaves only Mike Glennon in Rosen’s way. I had to pause while writing this, as I started laughing at the thought of Glennon beating out Rosen for even the number two spot on the depth chart. While the Cardinals can’t cut Glennon before the season starts (are on the hook for at least $4 million) they can easily carry four quarterbacks.
Essentially, ahead of Rosen entering camp is an oft-injured hack and an overpaid and glorified backup.
Of the rookie quarterbacks already discussed, I actually like Rosen’s chances the best in terms of starting right out of camp. He was the most pro ready quarterback coming out of college and he has the easiest path to early exposure after the draft. With a talented supporting cast (David Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Christian Kirk, improved offensive line, etc.) Rosen may actually possess some serious fantasy potential in 2018.
Lamar Jackson – BAL
Of the rookie quarterback bunch, Jackson is the one who most view as least threatening to make an early impact, as he is the only first round quarterback to join a roster with an entrenched franchise quarterback already on staff. However, as I discussed with Brett Talley on draft night, there is an argument to be made that Jackson actually has a legitimate shot to win the starting job.
While Joe Flacco is still owed $28 million over the next two years (potential out after 2020), his contract isn’t something that will get in the way of coach John Harbaugh’s decision making. The fact of the matter is that Flacco is now six years removed from his Super Bowl victory and four years removed from playing at an even adequate level. That type of combination from the quarterback position has put coach Harbaugh squarely on the hot seat, especially when considering that his contract too runs out after 2019.
Understanding this, prior to the draft the Ravens signed Robert Griffin III to push Flacco in camp. And while that didn’t exactly make too many headlines, Flacco should now be hearing the message loud and clear after the subsequent doubling-down at the position with the final pick in the first round of April’s draft.
Lamar Jackson is a former Heisman Trophy winner and brings the most athletic skill-set seen at the position since Mike Vick. In a league that is moving more and more towards moving quarterbacks and RPO’s (run-pass options), Jackson seems to be the prototype for what the modern quarterback is turning into – mobility, coupled with simplified reads and dynamic playmaking ability. With the almost immediate success that players like Deshaun Watson and Nick Foles had in these types of offenses last year, it would make sense that Harbaugh would turn to Lamar Jackson quickly in hopes of saving his job.
Along the rest of the offensive roster, the Ravens have transformed their supporting cast, adding names like Willie Snead, Michael Crabtree, John Brown, Jordan Lasley, Jaleel Scott, Hayden Hurst, and Mark Andrews, amongst others. With a clear change in offensive identity coming this season, wouldn’t it make sense that any serious change has to start at the top; the quarterback position?
Calling it from afar, Joe Flacco’s days are numbered. If he expectedly struggles this season like he has in each of the last four, coach Harbaugh won’t hesitate to pull Flacco in favor of the dynamic rookie. At the very least that will spell fantasy production (both passing and rushing) from Jackson for the second half of the season, but I wouldn’t just yet count out the possibility of the rookie winning the job right out of camp. Remember, coach Harbaugh’s job depends on this decision.
Josh Allen – BUF
Truth be told, I don’t really view Allen as an impact rookie, however with the other four first round quarterbacks already having been discussed, I would be remiss not to mention the Bills hopeful franchise signal caller.
Look, he’s a well-built kid with a howitzer for an arm, but in terms of actual quarterbacking, he’s raw as sushi. A lot of what I saw from him on tape indicates that he will struggle to make an impact in any capacity as a rookie, as he will need at least a full year under the coaching of NFL level professionals.
With all of that being said, anything is possible I suppose, as the guy in front of him – A.J. McCarron – is hardly an entrenched veteran. While I much like the skillset of McCarron and his limited NFL tape, he certainly isn’t a guy who has this job locked up.
If McCarron really struggles in camp and Allen somehow becomes a fast learner and miraculously develops NFL level decision-making, then yes, you all can flood my twitter mentions (@Nostra_Dom_Us) with ironic insults about my prophetic record… Until then though, take my word for it – Allen is not ready to contribute in 2018.
Another loaded position group this season, I predict that in 2018 running back will continue its trend of becoming younger and younger in terms of big time fantasy impact.
Saquon Barkley – NYG
While I was against this selection – considering all of the franchise quarterbacks still on the board – there is no denying that the Giants got themselves one hell of a player in Barkley. Like has become a trend over the last few years, Barkley is the do-it-all back of this class; one of the few that was worthy of being taken in the top-10. Chances are that he will have an immediate impact for the G-Men due to his multi-faceted skill-set and game breaking explosiveness – think of how Kareem Hunt was used last season and you’ll have a good idea of what to expect from Barkley.
Derrius Guice – WAS
One of the reasons that I thought the Giants could have waited on their running back in this draft is because of the overall depth of potentially elite backs that existed in this class. Guice is one of those potentially elite backs, as I have compared his game to that of Marshawn Lynch and Marion Barber. Considering those comparisons and the amount of looks he’s sure to get with his new team in the Redskins, Guice is a back that I expect to have an immediate fantasy impact.
Sony Michel – NE
While the Patriots still have Rex Burkhead, Mike Gillislee, and James White, the loss of Dion Lewis undoubtedly left a gaping hole in their running back rotation. Michel – a back no stranger to a committee approach – will enter the Patriots running back room as the most talented and explosive of the bunch. While his volume of touches may not be as high as some of the others on this list, as we saw with Alvin Kamara last season, it is possible for rookies to make a huge impact, even with limited touches. While it is always best to take a wait and see with coach Belichick’s backfield rotation, it isn’t every day that the Patriots take a running back in the first round. Michel is ultra talented and the Pats clearly believe in the game that he offers. I have a sneaky feeling that he will be heavily featured in 2018, despite the other talented backs on the Patriots roster and their history of splitting touches.
Rashaad Penny – SEA
I do not say this lightly… The selection of Penny towards the end of the first round was the most surprising first round draft selection since the Broncos took Tim Tebow in 2010. Sure Penny is a solid back – one whom I compared favorably to Mark Ingram – but the fact of the matter is that he was my eighth ranked running back in a class of very talented backs. Truth be told, I had a fourth round grade on him. To see him come off the board as the second running back and in the first round was a tremendous reach to say the least. With all of that being said though, he joins a team with a gaping void at the position. By default, Penny is sure to see a load of touches in Seattle, and the fact that they burned a first rounder on him makes their ride-or-die devotion to him even more of a guarantee. Love the player or not, that is what fantasy football production is made of.
Nick Chubb – CLE
Cards on the table, my instincts are telling me that Chubb won’t have a massive impact in 2018, however I felt the same way about Alvin Kamara last season, despite acknowledging his talent. I refuse to make that same mistake this year.
Chubb is a tough runner with incredible instincts for the position, and while he’s certainly one of the top-five backs in this class in terms of talent, I worry about his 2017 tape. Coming off of a knee injury, he looked to have ample rust and just didn’t seem to be the same player that he was earlier on in his career. At the NFL level, he either needs to shake off the rust, or learn how to become a different type of back. Beyond his health, I also worry about the guys ahead of him on the Browns depth chart. Duke Johnson and Carlos Hyde, on paper, look to be a tremendous tandem – one that wouldn’t necessarily have room for another back to produce at a high level. However, as I already mentioned, I said the same thing about Alvin Kamara’s backfield situation, and we saw how that turned out… When it comes to talented backs, things seem to always work themselves out.
To put a bow on my hedged bet here, provided Chubb can prove that he’s back to his former self, he should provide decent fantasy production in 2018.
Ronald Jones – TB
Jones was my number two ranked running back in this draft, and he actually ended up in one of the more ideal situations for a rookie runner. Tampa has just recently shed the contract of longtime starter Doug Martin and had no legitimate successor on the roster – prior to drafting Jones. While not known as a “dual-threat” in college, I believe that he shows the traits to contribute as a three-down back in the NFL. Paired with Jameis Winston, a talented receiving corps, and an improved offensive line, I believe that Jones should have OROTY aspirations in 2018.
Royce Freeman – DEN
While you may think this list is becoming exhaustive, keep in mind that this is a good thing for your upcoming fantasy season, as there should be plenty of capable backs available towards the end of your drafts this summer – something that can’t usually be said.
Freeman is another talented guy on a long list of talented rookie backs, and while he’s not built in the mold of the modern back (long, light, finesse, receiver), he offers the Broncos something that they don’t have in Devontae Booker... While Booker proved to be an excellent receiving option out of the backfield last season, Freeman will give them a more hulking and traditional power option. He boasts a similar build to former Oregon backs LeGarrette Blount and Jonathan Stewart, and he’s every bit as powerful at the point of attack as they are as well. Admittedly, Freeman’s tape was really fun to watch, as it often took a gang of defenders to bring him down. At the NFL level, I expect that he will offer plenty of fantasy potential in the touchdown department, while he has early down upside as well.
Kerryon Johnson – DET
For some reason throughout the draft process, despite all of the talk about this talented group of running backs, Johnson’s name was one that was typically kept on the down low. While many of you may never even heard of him, I have Johnson ranked as the third best back in the class, ahead of names that you have heard far more about such as Chubb, Guice, Michel, etc.
What separates him you ask? 1) he’s the hardest runner in the class, almost never taking a negative play as an option, and 2) he looks every bit the part of a modern NFL back. His tape brings back memories of DeMarco Murray in Dallas, as he blends through-the-hole patience with one cut decisiveness. He’s also a competent and confident receiver out of the backfield. Basically, he’s everything that the Lions have been looking for. Fantasy owners should worry little about the intervention of Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick, or LeGarrette Blount; the Lions brass will quickly realize that Johnson is the most talented and complete back on the roster.
Kalen Ballage – MIA
Ballage is not a name that has been mentioned in the same breath as the ones above, but I believe that in the NFL he has a chance to really carve out an impactful role for himself. While he’s unlikely to start for the Dolphins in 2018, his excellent build and unique abilities on third down will give him plenty of work early on.
As for his college resume, Ballage has quite the unique story. He was never the starter, always finding himself in some sort of committee approach, however his stats at Arizona State indicate that he was proficient at making a big impact with limited touches. And as we saw with Alvin Kamara, Duke Johnson, Tevin Coleman, and Jerick McKinnon last season, that is definitely a trait that the NFL values heavily nowadays. Despite never seeing a lion’s share of the touches in college, one of the games that I watched from Ballage featured an eight touchdown performance, including traditional carries, receiving touchdowns, and several wildcat scores. It was this game that led me to a Darren McFadden comparison, as the wildcat thing really stuck with me, but beyond that, he’s the same size as McFadden, is surprisingly lightning fast, and excels as both a receiver and blocker on third downs.
Ultimately, I believe that Ballage will be the perfect complimentary back for the next decade or so, offering an excellent blend of size, power, speed, and versatility. That is the way of the modern NFL back.
While the first two position groups have more star power, wideout is still hardly lacking depth in this class. As you will see below, there are more than a handful of names that can make a serious fantasy impact this season from the wide receiver position.
D.J. Moore – CAR
A player built in the mold of Steve Smith; it makes sense that Moore would end up in Carolina. Narrative aside, the Panthers had a glaring need at their number one receiver spot and there is no doubt in my mind that they filled it in the selection of Moore. While he’s not exactly the traditional number one target (tall, physical, 50-50 getter) Moore will fit in with the new style of offense that the Panthers are trying implement. Letting Greg Olsen and Devin Funchess handle to red zone fade routes, Moore, along with Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel will see the higher concentration of targets underneath and across the middle of the field. As you saw McCaffrey catch nearly 100 balls as a short area receiver out of the backfield, I suspect that Moore will also do most of his damage on bubble screens and crossing routes, ultimately utilizing his best trait – open field running. Give Moore serious consideration in PPR formats and those that place value on YAC.
Calvin Ridley – ATL
Love the player, love the fit.
While I view Ridley as the top receiver in this draft, he actually best fits into the NFL game as either a slot receiver or flanker – in other words, not a true number one. Considering that, he found a perfect home in Atlanta, as it would take someone really special to supplant Julio Jones as the X-receiver. While Julio draws all of the double-teams and bracketed coverage, Ridley and his precise route running will be wide open all day long for Matt Ryan to take advantage of. While still a long ways away, I will be drafting Calvin Ridley ahead of Mohamed Sanu this summer. While things may have just gotten a lot more interesting out in Atlanta, look for their offense this season to return to 2016 heights.
I grouped these two together for obvious reasons, and despite being drafted to the same team, I believe that both can make an impact in their rookie seasons. Sutton is your more traditional X-receiver who will handle the outside responsibilities, fade routes, and deeper throws, while Hamilton is the ideal slot receiver, who offers elite route running, separation skills, and competitiveness at the catch point. Essentially, the Broncos drafted their Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders replacements here.
Dante Pettis – SF
Pettis is a guy who I was higher on than most, and I honestly couldn’t love his NFL fit any better. It was no secret that the Niners and Jimmy G were open for business in terms of getting a legitimate receiver working in their offense, and while Pettis isn’t your prototypical number one guy, he offers a skillset that will produce consistent fantasy numbers.
Here’s the skinny on Pettis… He’s is a wideout prospect without many holes, truth be told. Sure he’s less than ideally built, but in the worst-case scenario, he’ll carve out a career as an excellent slot option and return man. I for one believe that he has potential on the outside as well, as he has shown a comfortable grasp for NFL route concepts and footwork. He can win, if nothing else, with savvy and determination as an outside receiver, while his strong hands and perceived threat to defenses in the open field should lend him some respect from coverage concepts. He’ll likely never be a number one guy, but in the ilk of Nate Burleson – my comparison for Pettis – he can end up with a long career as a legit number two option, featuring formation versatility (either as a Z or slot) and a reputation as one of the most dangerous return weapons in the game.
Simply put, the Niners are getting themselves a good one here, and as we saw last year, Jimmy Garoppolo knows how to get the most out of his receivers.
Christian Kirk – ARZ
Kirk was my fourth ranked receiver out of this talented position group, which should bode well for fellow rookie Josh Rosen who I believe will be throwing the majority of passes to him going forward.
While the path to early playing time isn’t exactly there for Kirk, with Larry Fitzgerald blocking his way in the slot, there is a void for the Cardinals left behind by the departure of John Brown. Early on I see Kirk and his explosiveness being utilized in the same way that John Brown was used; more as a deep threat and targeted less than eight times per game. However, as the season progresses and the Cardinals see what type of talent they have on their hands, he will start develop into the number two and eventually the number one option in their offense. Not a guy I would draft per se, but certainly someone I will keep an eye on all season long on the waiver wire.
Anthony Miller – CHI
Boy did I love me some Anthony Miller this offseason. He easily had the most exciting wide receiver tape I watched throughout the process. Joining an emerging offense with a young quarterback will be great for him, as he likely starts out as a slot guy and eventually develops into the Bears number one target. My bold prediction is that Miller will lead the team in receptions this season, even with the addition of Allen Robinson.
Michael Gallup – DAL
After the loss of Dez Bryant and Jason Witten this offseason, the Cowboys are officially without a number one option in the passing game. While Gallup was a long shot entering the draft process, he couldn’t have landed in a better situation to make an immediate impact. Right now, the Cowboys have Allen Hurns, Terrance Williams, Deonte Thompson, and Cole Beasley – or put in other terms, no one of note. I contend that Gallup is the most talented receiver on the roster and has a good shot to, by the end of the year, be Dak Prescott’s number one option.
What he offers as a player is strong hands, competitiveness at the catch point, deft route running ability, and consistency, all things that will be highly valued in this new look Cowboys offense.
While St. Brown wasn’t taken until the sixth round, many scouts had him in the top-five of their wide receiver rankings. The big reason is potential because as he sits now he’s yet to realize the sum of his parts.
With all of that being said, E.Q. as many call him, has landed in a place where he actually can make an immediate impact. With the loss of Jordy Nelson, the Packers will be looking to fill the void of a legitimate outside deep threat. E.Q. not only fits the height and build profile of Jordy Nelson, but he also offers deep speed that is rare for a guy his size. With Aaron Rodgers throwing him the ball, a guy with St. Brown’s natural gifts is sure to find success. With opportunities for playing time existing, his fantasy success may come early on.
To conclude this incredibly deep class of skill position players, the tight ends finish up strong. Included in this list are a handful of players who not only should see the field often this season, but will also see their fair share of targets both in the middle of the field and in the red zone.
Mike Gesicki – MIA
Don’t get it twisted, Gesicki is not going to serve as a traditional in-line tight end often, especially early on in the season, however this may actually be a good thing for fantasy owners, as that means he is more likely to see work out of the slot. With the departure of Jarvis Landry, the Dolphins slot is certainly up for grabs, even with the arrival of Danny Amendola, as are 160 or so targets. A guy with Gesicki’s size and speed combination is undoubtedly going to be featured early on, even as a rookie. For a comparison of potential impact, think of what Evan Engram was able to accomplish as a rookie last season.
I like both of these guys and admittedly wish they didn’t end up on the same team. Having said that, I think this can work. Hurst is the bigger of the two and more of a sure handed option deep and over the middle of the field. He’s also more likely to handle the in-line blocking duties on the conventional running downs. Andrews is actually the guy who I like better as a pure receiver, as he has shown positional versatility in the slot, as a wing, split out wide, and as a fullback. I compared Andrews to Chris Cooley, who in his day was known as one of the most versatile and reliable receiving tight ends in the league. Despite both being labeled as “tight end” on the depth chart, there is a great chance for them to be on the field together for the majority of the season.
With a gun to my head as a fantasy owner, I like Andrews better than Hurst.
Ian Thomas – CAR
As I mentioned to Brett Talley in a previous podcast, a few years down the line, I wouldn’t be surprised if Thomas ended up being the best tight end to come out of this draft class. As it stands right now unfortunately, he is buried on the depth chart behind a future Hall of Famer in Greg Olsen. With that being said though, teams do utilize multiple tight ends at a time nowadays, and let’s be honest, at age 33 and coming off of a season in which he missed nine games, Olsen is no longer the model of health. As the backup tight end in 2017, Ed Dickson managed to make a significant fantasy impact, and considering he’s even more talented than Dickson, I expect that Thomas will have every opportunity to do the same in 2018. While I’m far less bullish on his fantasy prospects than the other tight ends on this list, Thomas is someone who I will still keep an eye on throughout the season.
Dalton Schultz – DAL
Since 2003, there has been one constant in the NFL and that is Jason Witten. Never missing a game and consistently playing at the highest level, Witten has given the Cowboys an advantage over every team in the league each Sunday. This offseason, Witten suddenly decided to hang it up, leaving a gaping void at the tight end spot for Dallas for the first time in 15 years.
I’m not saying that Schultz is anywhere close to the second coming of Jason Witten, or that he will even win the starting job, but right now there is a vacuum at the position with no clear person to benefit. On draft day you may be wise to take a few shares of Geoff Swaim, Blake Jarwin, Rico Gathers, and yes, even the rookie Dalton Schultz. Someone has to benefit from the lost targets of Jason Witten.