From Odell Beckham Jr. and Mike Evans in 2014 to Todd Gurley and Amari Cooper last season, rookies have found immediate stardom as fantasy assets with regularity in recent years. This season’s crop, however, is short on sure things. Ezekiel Elliott is a probable RB1 and possible top-10 player, but there’s a chance another rookie won’t go in the next 100 picks in your draft once he’s taken.
Still, there are plenty of rookies to know with fantasy draft season right around the corner. We present to you the ones most likely to make a significant impact in fantasy leagues this year.
Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Cowboys (ADP: 9.7)
Elliott is the obvious prize of this rookie class, thanks both to his immense talents and ideal environment. The Cowboys made him the fourth overall pick in this year’s draft for a reason, seeing in him a workhorse back capable of being the focal point of an offense in his first season on a team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. During his time at Ohio State, Elliott was one of the best backs in the country, doing everything asked of him for a team that won a national championship two seasons ago and came up just shy of the College Football Playoff last year. Elliott’s running chops are unimpeachable, and he has the blocking and receiving skills to be a three-down back right from the start of his NFL career.
On top of that, there’s no better home for a running back than Dallas. One of the best offensive lines in the league paved the way for DeMarco Murray to top 1,800 yards in 2014, and then revived Darren McFadden to the tune of 1,089 yards last season. With that group doing its thing in front of Elliott, the Cowboys have found themselves a match made in heaven.
There are two knocks against Elliott. The first is that, despite his pedigree, he’s still adjusting to the pro game and the team has a pair of capable backs behind him in McFadden and Alfred Morris. Sure, he might be ready for an Adrian Peterson-sized workload, but the Cowboys might not give it to him. The second is that the Cowboys frequently throw in goal-to-go situations thanks to the presence of Dez Bryant and Jason Witten, two accomplished red-zone targets. That could lessen Elliott’s opportunities in prime scoring situations.
The good significantly outweighs the bad, but Elliott’s ADP still feels too rich for my blood. He’s just behind A.J. Green and Lamar Miller, and ahead of Bryant, Rob Gronkowski and Allen Robinson. That’s a bet on the best-case scenario, which is a lot easier to reach in theory than in practice for a rookie running back.
Sterling Shepard, WR, Giants (ADP: 90.0)
Shepard’s ascent started with a bevy of glowing reports early in training camp and has continued unabated over the last week. That he’s the second rookie off the board in a typical draft reflects both that fact, as well as the shallowness of the overall rookie pool compared with the last two seasons. His ADP places him just inside the top-40 receivers, ahead of Michael Crabtree and Stefon Diggs.
To be sure, there’s plenty to like about the rookie out of Oklahoma, starting with his days in Norman. Bob Stoops has long favored a pro-style offense, and that has allowed Shepard to hit the ground running with the Giants, rather than having to reprogram his entire game. He’s expected to start alongside Beckham, which will make him nearly an afterthought for defenses. The Giants should be one of the pass-heaviest teams in the league, meaning Shepard could push toward 110 targets this season.
At the same time, his rise up draft boards makes it hard to find any profit potential. Last year’s No. 39 receiver in standard-scoring leagues, Marvin Jones, caught 65 passes for 816 yards and four touchdowns. The most bullish projections for Shepard would place him in that range. He’s unquestionably intriguing, but there’s a better chance for payoff with a number of cheaper receivers, such as Diggs, Sammie Coates and Kamar Aiken.
Derrick Henry, RB, Titans (ADP: 93.0)
The Titans surprised almost everyone when they grabbed Henry in the second round of this year’s draft, about two months after trading for Murray. It was assumed that Murray would be a workhorse back for the Titans, but Henry is the sort of rookie back who should play immediately, if not as a feature back then at least with a sizeable role. Murray and Henry also don’t seem to have obviously complementary skill sets, which makes it even harder to figure how the two will fit together.
We got our first look at the new duo in Tennessee’s backfield last week, and both impressed in the team’s first preseason game. Murray ran for 93 yards on six carries, including a 71-yard touchdown scamper, while Henry had 74 yards and a score on 10 totes. I prefer Henry to Murray, but that has everything to do with draft-day cost. In all likelihood, I’m not going to own either Titan running back. This has all the makings of a weekly headache, with either back likely to take the reins in a given matchup. Henry would be a lot more interesting if he could trade spots with Elliott in Dallas or Jordan Howard in Chicago, but a top-100 ADP for a back with an uncertain role is simply too pricey.
Corey Coleman, WR, Browns (ADP: 102.1)
Coleman was the first receiver selected in this year’s draft, coming off the board to the Browns with the 15th overall pick. Coleman starred in a three-year career at Baylor, exploding last year with 74 receptions for 1,363 yards and 20 touchdowns. Of course, Baylor’s offense doesn’t exactly provide a smooth transition to the NFL game. Unlike Shepard, Coleman will have to relearn a lot of the facets of his position before the regular season arrives.
Physically, Coleman certainly has the tools to turn into a reliable fantasy receiver. He’s one of the fastest receivers in the league already, and turned in a 40.5-inch vertical leap at the combine. He instantly puts pressure on corners with his speed and, despite being just 5' 11", can leap over them for jump balls. Coleman also has the luxury of starting the year as Cleveland’s No. 1 receiver, a status he could retain even after Josh Gordon returns from suspension. Remember, Gordon hasn’t played a full season since 2013, Coleman’s freshman year at Baylor. One of the pair is definitely in better NFL shape since that season, and it’s not the former top-scoring fantasy receiver.
Coleman’s ADP reflects a fair market price for a talented receiver who could lead his team in every meaningful receiving statistic. For sake of comparison, I’d take him over Shepard without hesitation, and I can get Coleman a full round later, on average.
C.J. Prosise, RB, Seahawks (ADP: 116.2)
Prosise is one of the most popular rookies on the board this year, and with good reason. Let’s start with the price tag. At 116.2, every draft has reached the stage where no price is too exorbitant on its face. That slots Prosise toward the end of the 10th round of a 12-team league, an affordable spot for nearly any player, but especially one with Prosise’s charms.
Prosise, who came off the board in the third round of this year’s draft and checks in at 6' 1" and 220 pounds, began his career at Notre Dame as a wide receiver. He converted to running back last year and immediately looked the part, carrying the ball 156 times for 1,032 yards and 11 touchdowns. Still, he has the natural receiving skills that first took him to South Bend, and is already a far superior receiver to Thomas Rawls, the incumbent starter in Seattle. That guarantees the rookie a defined role in the offense.
Rawls is coming off a broken ankle that cost him the final month of last season. He’s off the PUP list and participating in practice again, but still needs to prove the ankle is in game shape. If nothing else, it will open the door for Prosise to get even more invaluable practice reps, something that could prove beneficial once the season starts. If any rookie running back is going to steal a starting gig, however, Prosise is the best bet. Rawls was an undrafted free agent with nothing in his past to suggest he could be a successful starting back in the NFL. Prosise does have that pedigree, and has the foundation of being the team’s pass-catching back, from which a larger role could grow. Make sure you’ve got his name circled on your cheat sheet.
Michael Thomas, WR, Saints (ADP: 123.1)
Thomas has surged up draft boards as the summer has progressed, and there’s a good chance he has yet to reach his peak. The Ohio State product is expected to start for the Saints, giving him the inside track on a significant role in a Drew Brees offense. That’s enough to make him attractive, but there’s a whole lot more to his candidacy.
At 6' 3" and 212 pounds, Thomas can be the big body for Brees that both Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham were in the past. He showed time and time again during his time in Columbus a set of hands that makes him dangerous in all situations. Thomas is the sort of receiver who can dominate in the red zone thanks to his size while also making acrobatic catches deep down the field, similar to an Alshon Jeffery. Put a player like that in an offense with Brees, and he’s going to get plenty of opportunities. Thomas should be on the field for all of New Orleans’s man three-receiver sets.
Thomas’s ADP makes him the 50th receiver off the board in a typical draft. He has a better chance than most of the receivers in his draft-day neighborhood to turn into a regular fantasy starter this year.
DeAndre Washington, RB, Raiders (ADP: 125.1)
Washington got better with each of his four seasons at Texas Tech, turning into a star as a senior. He ran for 1,492 yards and 14 touchdowns on 233 carries last season, vaulting himself into the fifth round of this year’s draft. While he’s expected to open the season second on the depth chart in Oakland, it might be harder for him to climb any higher.
Any bet on Washington is inherently a bet against Latavius Murray. Even if you’re in the anti-Murray camp—a club with which I sympathize—it’s hard to imagine him being anything but the workhorse he was last season. Murray volumed his way to a top-10 season among running backs last year, but no one can simply luck into 1,300 total yards and six touchdowns. Washington is just 5' 8" and his size was a primary concern of scouts heading into the draft. It’s hard for any back of his stature to be more than a role player in an NFL offense. The Raiders will likely get him involved as a receiver just as much as a runner, but he projects as no more than depth from a fantasy perspective.
Laquon Treadwell, WR, Vikings (ADP: 129.5)
Treadwell may have been the best pure receiver in this year’s draft, landing in Minnesota as the 23rd overall pick. He doesn’t have Corey Coleman’s speed or Sterling Shepard’s versatility, but is a natural when it comes to getting open and winning balls over defensive backs. Before the combine, Treadwell was thought of in some circles as the best receiver in the draft, but his lack of speed knocked him down some boards.
There’s no doubt, however, that Treadwell has the size of a true No. 1 receiver. At 6' 2" and 215 pounds, he’s going to be a physical presence that’s tough for any cornerback to handle. He shined at Ole Miss last season, hauling in 82 catches for 1,153 yards and 11 touchdowns. He looked the part of a future NFL star, and is a true hands catcher, something that cannot be said about every member of this rookie receiver class. Treadwell is going to have an opportunity for a big role with the Vikings this season, but he won’t be asked to carry the passing game with Stefon Diggs on the other side of the field. At an ADP of 129.5, Treadwell is more than worth a shot.
Devontae Booker, RB, Broncos (ADP: 138.4)
Booker spent just two years at Utah, but they constituted a pair of the most impressive seasons we saw in the Pac-12 since the Utes joined the conference. He totaled nearly 2,800 rushing yards and 23 total touchdowns during his time in Salt Lake City, landing with the Broncos in the fourth round of this year’s draft.
Like Washington, Booker is expected to be second on the depth chart in his rookie season. He appears to have an advantage over Ronnie Hillman in the battle to be C.J. Anderson’s primary backup. Booker has even taken some reps with the first team during training camp. But also like Washington, however, it remains to be seen how that backup status will translate in the fantasy world this year. Anderson should dominate the touches for the Broncos, with Booker and Hillman serving as change-of-pace backs, or simply getting time when Anderson needs a breather. Booker should be owned in all leagues and is worth a dart throw at his 12th-round ADP, but he’s unlikely to be much of a fantasy factor this season.
Kenneth Dixon, RB, Ravens (ADP: 145.6)
Dixon’s ADP may be slightly lower than Booker’s, but he’s a far more intriguing fantasy talent. It has everything to do with opportunity.
There’s little room for any running back in Denver to carve out a fantasy-relevant role with Anderson in command of the backfield. Conversely, there’s nothing but room in the Baltimore backfield. Justin Forsett is atop the depth chart for now, but he doesn’t have any job security. Dixon, Terrence West and Javorius Allen are all in the mix, and that makes each one of them a potential draft-day target.
Dixon was one of the most prolific touchdown scorers college football has ever seen, finishing his four-year career at Louisiana Tech with 87 trips to paydirt, bested only by Navy’s Keenan Reynolds, who stole the record from Dixon in his final college game. He proved his receiving bona fides during college, catching 64 passes in his final two years, and topped 1,000 rushing yards in three of his four seasons. He did deal with knee and ankle injuries in college, something that helped push him to the fourth round of this year’s draft.
Fantasy owners should watch Dixon through training camp and the preseason, but the uncertainty-driven opportunity in the Ravens backfield makes him a nice pull in the beginning of the 13th round.
Tyler Boyd, WR, Bengals (ADP: 156.5)
Boyd left Pittsburgh with the school’s record for career receptions and receiving yards, a significant note considering Larry Fitzgerald was also part of the program. Boyd spent one more year in college than Fitzgerald did, but that doesn’t dismiss his NCAA accomplishments. More importantly, he found himself in what should be a great home to begin his NFL career.
The Bengals selected Boyd with the 55th overall pick in this year’s draft. With Marvin Jones in Detroit and Mohamed Sanu in Atlanta, Boyd should start opposite A.J. Green this season. Boyd is a possession-style receiver, with a Jarvis Landry ceiling in the pros. That makes him a great complement to Green, who’s set for another monster season. There’s little competition behind Boyd on the depth chart, and while he still might be the fourth option in the passing game—behind Green, Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard—he should play a healthy portion of Cincinnati’s snaps. Boyd’s yet another rookie whose environment and affordable price makes him someone to know on draft day.
Jordan Howard, RB, Bears (ADP: 157.8)
Running back was a clear need in the draft for the Bears after waving goodbye to Matt Forte this off-season. They waited until the fifth round to jump in at the position, and that might tell you all you need to know about Howard’s fantasy prospects this season.
Howard is with his third team in three years, after the shuttering of UAB’s football program forced his transfer to Indiana last season. He was great in his lone year with the Hoosiers, running for 1,213 yards and nine touchdowns on 196 carries. The depth chart in Chicago is far from daunting, with Jeremy Langford and Ka’Deem Carey the only players in front of Howard. There’s still plenty of reason to believe, though, that he’s nothing more than a bit fantasy player this season.
John Fox is not exactly known for granting large roles to his rookies, especially at a position like running back. The fact that the Bears took Howard in the fifth round displays how they value the position as a whole and the Indiana product specifically, and neither is good for his fantasy prospects. Langford played well enough last season to give the team the confidence to let Forte walk in free agency, and chances are he’s in command of the touches in the backfield. Carey, meanwhile, is a third-year player who knows the system and has the trust of the coaching staff. It certainly doesn’t help Howard’s case that he never showed anything as a receiver in college.
At 157.8, Howard doesn’t cost you too much. He’s worth a late-round flier, but the chances of him starting more than a game or two for a competitive fantasy team are slim.
Josh Doctson, WR, Redskins (ADP: N/A)
Doctson has slipped off draft boards because of an Achilles injury that has cost him all of training camp, but he still deserves mention in this column. The first-round pick out of TCU would have pushed Pierre Garcon for a starting gig alongside DeSean Jackson, but that opportunity no longer exists, even if he’s able to return to the field soon. Once he’s back with the team, he’ll have to work himself into game shape while getting his first true reps in the offense. That’s a lot of work for any rookie.
This could, however, make Doctson quite the bargain in fantasy drafts. If he were healthy, he’d likely be running elbows with Treadwell in terms of ADP. Now that he’s essentially free, he could be even more attractive. Doctson has the size that Jackson, Garcon and Jamison Crowder, Washington’s top three receivers, all lack. Once he’s up to speed, both in terms of his conditioning and understanding of the offense, it’s hard to imagine Jay Gruden keeping him on the sidelines. Doctson could turn into a steal, depending on his recovery time.
More rookies to watch
Paul Perkins, RB, Giants
Wendell Smallwood, RB, Eagles
Josh Ferguson, RB, Colts
Keith Marshall, RB, Redskins
Leonte Carroo, WR, Dolphins
Will Fuller, WR, Texans
Tajae Sharpe, WR, Titans
The above seven players are worthy late-round targets in all fantasy formats. They aren’t valuable enough to warrant their own capsules, but make sure you have all on your mind when your drafts and auctions reach their final stages.
Photos: Gus Ruelas/AP (Elliott), Ron Schwane/AP (Coleman), Norm Hall/Getty Images (Washington), Joe Robbins/Getty Images/Dixon