Nobody was surprised when Ezekiel Elliott soared in his rookie season. He came into the NFL with supreme talent and joined a prolific offense with one of the most dominant offensive lines in the game. That’s the kind of “perfect storm” of opportunity you dream about in a first-year fantasy player.
Michael Thomas joined a prolific passing attack in New Orleans and had a strong training camp. He acclimated quickly and finished his rookie season among the Top 10 receiving ranks.
Little was expected from Jordan Howard in his freshman season, until Jeremy Langford went down. Howard rewarded those who snatched him out of free agency with a Top 10 finish.
Though Dak Prescott started the entire season and posted better overall stats than Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton and Tom Brady, he was never considered a fantasy stud.
It seemed like Tyreek Hill scored every time he touched the ball, but those touches were so rare.
And that’s about it for the 2016 rookie class. Each of the others had minimal impact, as is typically – though not always – the case.
So what can we expect this season?
In my view, 2017 should produce very similar results, thanks to a couple of stellar prospects and a handful of others with the potential to shine should circumstances break their way.
Remember that when evaluating the fantasy potential of any rookie, talent is rarely the most decisive factor. More relevant is the opportunity presented to the player, which is also a multifaceted equation.
Does the rookie have a clear path to a starting gig? Will he join a high-powered offense, or one whose punter is its most lethal weapon? Is he healthy heading into the season, or has he missed invaluable preseason reps due to injury?
With these variables in mind, let’s examine the Class of 2017 and assess its members’ likelihood of soaring during their inaugural seasons.
CREAM OF THE CROP
Leonard Fournette, RB, Jaguars: It’s simple, really. Jacksonville wants the 2017 fourth-overall draft pick to perform like the guy who went fourth overall in 2016, minus the off-field issues. Fournette is a walk-in starter on a team squarely focused on running the ball, though he doesn’t have an all pro-stacked offensive line to open holes like Elliott. Nevertheless, this rookie is special, though his upside is limited by the paucity of talent surrounding him.
O.J. Howard, TE, Buccaneers: The 6-foot-6 251-pound rookie should be a red-zone beast, and he can regularly exploit mismatches in the middle of the field thanks to the outside speed of both Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson. It shouldn’t take Howard long to relegate Cameron Brate to the sidelines, giving Howard a shot at Top 10 production at his position.
Christian McCaffrey, RB, Panthers: Unlike Fournette, McCaffrey doesn’t have a clear path to the starting, much less workhorse, role. When healthy, Jonathan Stewart will get his share of the carries, including around the goal line. McCaffrey is a multifaceted weapon, though, whose value is higher in PPR leagues thanks to his receiving prowess.
Dalvin Cook, RB, Vikings: Cook has already seized the lead role in his backfield, thanks in part to Latavius Murray’s lingering ankle injury. Cook’s receiving skills should help him overcome the run-challenged limitations of Minnesota’s offensive line, which should be noted by PPR leaguers in particular.
Corey Davis, WR, Titans: A bum hammy could cost Davis his entire preseason and the invaluable reps with Marcus Mariota that both players need. With Eric Decker joining the receiving corps, the rookie may be worked into the rotation slowly upon his return. Davis’ physical skills are off the charts, but Tennessee’s run-based offense isn’t the best fit for him.
Joe Mixon, RB, Bengals: Few doubt the rookie is more talented than the two guys currently above him on the depth chart: Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard. Assuming he stays out of trouble (and having seen the horrific video, I personally wish failure upon him), Mixon should earn a starting gig sooner than later. But rather than bringing clarity to Cincinnati’s backfield, Mixon’s addition more likely cements its status as a RB-by-committee model.
LATE-ROUND FLIERS AT BEST
Alvin Kamara, RB, Saints: It’s hard to imagine Kamara getting meaningful touches playing behind both Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson. He’s expected to be the third-down receiving back, which has historically offered some value in New Orleans.
John Ross, WR, Bengals: Ross is a burner, but that attribute may be squandered by Andy Dalton’s limited arm strength. A shoulder injury has kept him sidelined thus far, which is never a good thing for a rookie receiver. Expecting him to produce with A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert and last year’s promising rookie, Tyler Boyd, on the roster seems like a stretch.
Samaje Perine, RB, Redskins: He’s going to have to out-perform Rob Kelley to earn a starting gig, and he didn’t do himself any favors in his preseason debut. Most observers believe he will eventually overtake Kelley, but it could take several weeks or more.
Kareem Hunt, RB, Chiefs: At best, Hunt will split carries with a healthy Spencer Ware. More likely, he will play a secondary role to the starter for most of his rookie season. He does appear to have vaulted above Charcandrick West and newcomer C.J. Spiller, so he’ll be the RB to target should Ware suffer another injury.
Deshaun Watson, QB, Texans: With only Tom Savage standing between him and a starting job, Watson’s path seems fairly clear. That said, even with his obvious running skills, he’ll be hard-pressed to achieve fantasy relevance in his first year.
Zay Jones, WR, Bills: The upheaval in Buffalo’s receiving corps – Anquan Boldin and Jordan Matthews in, Sammy Watkins out – could give Jones some extra looks in the preseason. But it won’t be enough to promise anything more than weekly boom or bust production.
Evan Engram, TE, Giants: Keep an eye on this rookie, who is more physically similar to Brandon Marshall than New York’s other tight ends. He’s not a great blocker, which will limit his snaps; but he has the potential to be a midseason free-agent pickup.
David Njoku, TE, Browns: On the positive side, Cleveland released Gary Barnidge after drafting Njoku. On the other hand, the rookie has failed to impress in training camp, possibly due to a nagging back injury. Oh yeah, he also plays for the pass-challenged Browns.
Curtis Samuel, WR, Panthers: Samuel is expected to play in the slot, but he may have trouble seeing the field in his rookie year. He is the definition of “late-round flier.”
Jamaal Williams, RB, Packers: He’s highly unlikely to vault above Ty Montgomery on the depth chart, so consider this bruising back to be injury insurance at best.
Mitchell Trubisky, QB, Bears: Who would be surprised if he surpasses Mike Glennon for the starting role? But that won’t make him a fantasy factor. Maybe next year.
Mike Williams, WR, Chargers: If San Diego’s crowded receiving corps wasn’t enough to scare you away, the possibility of season-ending back surgery should. Unless his medical prognosis improves significantly very soon, scratch this rookie off your draft list.
Ladd Biro is a two-time winner and five-time finalist of the Football Writer of the Year Award by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. Follow all his advice daily at the Fantasy Fools blog (fantasy-fools.blogspot.com), on Facebook and via Twitter (@ladd_biro).