NFL Draft News & Analysis

4 best role players in the 2024 NFL Draft

2T1NYTK October 14, 2023: Washington Huskies running back Dillon Johnson (7) celebrates after a 2nd quarter touchdown during the NCAA football game between the Oregon Ducks and Washington Huskies at Husky Stadium in Seattle, WA. Steve Faber/CSM (Credit Image: © Steve Faber/Cal Sport Media) (Cal Sport Media via AP Images)

• RB Dillon Johnson, Washington: Johnson’s 70.5 PFF pass-blocking grade ranks fifth among 42 Power Five running backs with at least 400 offensive snaps and is his ticket to a Week 1 role.

WR Luke McCaffrey, Rice: McCaffrey's surehandedness and toughness make him a viable No. 2 NFL wide receiver, and his 80.4 PFF offense grade ranks 13th among 48 FBS wide receivers with at least 700 offensive snaps

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Star college talents will dominate the 2024 NFL draft’s first round but plenty of rookie-season contributors can be found throughout, thanks to specialized skillsets and unique traits. This article breaks down some of the class’ best incoming fantasy-relevant role players. 

RB Dillon Johnson, Washington

Johnson possesses a big-bodied three-down profile coveted by NFL coaches. Among 42 Power Five running backs with at least 400 offensive snaps, Johnson’s 88.3 PFF offense grade ranks fifth. 

As shown via PFF’s 2024 NFL combine results tracker, Johnson’s moderately lumbering athletic profile is subpar, but his above-average size, pass-protection skills, soft hands and adequate ball-carrying ability make him an ideal sidekick for a veteran pocket-passing quarterback. Johnson’s early-season role may be limited to fantasy-unfriendly pass-protection duties, but succeeding in this role is critical for full-time deployment and his imposing stature gives him a leg up on diminutive pass-catching specialists. He possesses league-winning potential for fantasy teams to compete down the stretch. 

Johnson compares favorably to long-time NFL running back and former Ohio State player, Ezekiel Elliott, among others mentioned below.

Johnson’s final college season to Elliott’s:

Three-Down RB Prospect Comp. Dillon Johnson (2023) Ezekiel Elliott (2015)
Ht. – Wt. – BMI 6’ – 217lbs – 29.4 6’ – 228 – 30.9
PFF Pass-Blocking Grade 70.5 86.6
PFF Receiving Grade 69.7 73.8
Targets – Catch Rate 25 – 96.0% 28 – 92.9%
Yards/Route Run 0.88 0.88
Yards After Catch/Rec. 7.0 8.3
PFF Rushing Grade 88.7 83.2
Missed Tackles Forced/Rush Att. 0.18 0.18
Yards After Contact/Rush Att. 3.0 3.5

Buffalo Bills running back Latavius Murray (6-foot-3, 230 pounds and a 28.7 body mass index (BMI)) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Rachaad White (6-foot, 214 pounds and a 29.0 BMI) profile similarly.

Murray began his career as a pass-protection specialist for the Las Vegas Raiders, who selected him in the 2013 NFL draft’s sixth round. As a 10th-year 33-year-old, Murray out-snapped second-year running back James Cook (23.5 PFF pass-blocking grade, 5-foot-11, 190 pounds and a 26.5 BMI) 135-to-84 on passing downs last year, thanks largely to Murray’s superior 64.3 PFF pass-blocking grade.

White (53.5 PFF pass-blocking grade), a 2022 third-round pick, similarly fended off journeyman passing-down specialist Chase Edmonds (40.4 PFF pass-blocking grade, 5-foot-9, 205 pounds, 30.3 BMI), out-snapping Edmonds on passing downs, 287-to-36. 

Johnson never dipped below 0.88 yards per route run (YPRR) in his four-year college career and twice surpassed 1.20. His 89.0% catch rate in 2021 is how only sub-90.0% season. 

He demonstrated injury-related grittiness, playing through foot and knee injuries, the latter of which may have been an MCL/high-ankle sprain combination injury, based on the right knee’s inward buckle.

Should Johnson successfully attain his team’s passing-down role, fantasy managers should patiently stash him on benches while closely monitoring his development.

WR Jalen McMillan, Washington

McMillan’s final college season was derailed by a nagging Grade 2 MCL sprain, but his prior season’s excellent production profile bears the NFL’s modern-day slot receiver hallmarks. McMillan can function as a matchup-based Week 1 fantasy football contributor. His 73.6 PFF receiving grade when lined up in the slot ranks 11th among 19 Power Five slot receivers to earn at least 65 targets when lined up in the slot.

McMillan (105 targets) is the only 2022 Power Five slot receiver to earn more than 100 targets, yet he compares favorably to a majority of his peers on a per-play basis. Among qualifying Power Five slot receivers, McMillan ranks 10th in yards after the catcher per reception (YAC/Rec., 5.6), ninth in target rate (24.0%), eighth in YPRR (2.19) and missed tackles forced per reception (0.23), sixth in yards per reception (13.9), fifth in explosive pass play rate (34.8%), third in deep target rate (22.9%) and second in average depth of target (aDot, 13.1). 

The 6-foot-1, 197-pound McMillan college career arc shares similarities with 2022 first-round draft pick, wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba (6-foot-1, 196 pounds) whose injury-ruined final season could also be excused by his prior-season successes. McMillan’s seasonal peak performance is overshadowed by Smith-Njigba’s Ohio State dominance but McMillan’s sterling efficiency and above-average athletic testing make him a prototypical NFL slot receiver.

RB Jaylen Wright, Tennessee

Wright is an inexperienced, enticing 21-year-old prospect who is best suited to a complimentary rookie-season role. His 91.0 PFF offense grade ranks fifth among 80 Power Five running backs with at least 300 offensive snaps in 2023. Season-long fantasy managers should view Wright as a mid-season acquisition target while dynasty managers must employ patience as he develops.

Wright is a natural gap-scheme rusher, averaging 0.29 missed tackles forced per gap-scheme rushing attempt in 2022 (85 rushing attempts) and 0.35 in 2023 (86 rushing attempts) while averaging more than 7.0 yards per rushing attempt both years. All four figures rank top eight among Power Five running backs with at least 85 gap-scheme rushing attempts

Wright has just 141 zone-scheme rushing attempts to his name and delivered mixed results in both 2021 and 2022, averaging 5.5 and 4.5 yards per rushing attempt, respectively. The scheme clicked in his age-20 2023 though — Wright’s 8.0 yards per zone-scheme rushing attempt led all Power Five running backs with at least 50 such attempts by a 0.9-yard margin. 

A similar dynamic unfolded with Wright’s passing-game utilization. He handled just nine targets and performed poorly in pass protection through his first two seasons, before finding his footing in the screen game and producing a 72.6 PFF pass-blocking grade in 2023. Wright’s 88.0 PFF receiving grade on screen-pass targets, five missed tackles forced and 94.1% catch rate all rank or tie for ninth among 31 Power Five running backs with at least 10 such targets

Wright’s recent zone production, screen-pass and pass-protection hints at something beneath the surface but the sample size is small. He should still be viewed as an unproven player.

Standing 5-foot-10.5, 210 pounds with a 29.7 BMI and 4.38-second 40-yard-dash speed, Wright profiles as an efficient change-of-pace rookie season running back.

WR Luke McCaffrey, Rice

McCaffrey is a gritty No. 2-type player, willing to win in traffic and fight through contact. His 80.4 PFF offense grade ranks 13th among 48 FBS wide receivers with at least 700 offensive snaps

McCaffrey transitioned to wide receiver ahead of his sophomore 2022 season, immediately producing promising results. The open-field shiftiness showcased in his mobile-quarterback days translated to a 0.26 missed tackles forced per reception rate, ranking 13th mong 95 FBS wide receivers with at least 85 targets. Both his 92.1% catchable-pass catch rate (21st) and 62.5% contested-pass catch rate (tied for seventh) accurately reflect his surehandedness, but his 64th-ranked 7.9% drop rate needs improvement. 

McCaffrey quickly erased the issue in 2023, producing the 10th-ranked drop rate (4.0%), ranked among 43 FBS wide receivers with at least 100 targets. His 93.4% catchable-pass catch rate up finished ninth and his 60.7% contested catch rate ranked fifth. 

McCaffrey’s 2022 receiving data among 95 FBS wide receivers with at least 85 targets and his 2023 receiving data among 43 FBS wide receivers with at least 100 targets:
Luke McCaffrey 2022 – WR Year 1 2023 – WR Year 2
PFF Receiving Grade 77.4 (T-No. 40) 82.7 (No. 19)
YAC/Rec. 4.7 (No. 59) 6.0 (No. 23)
Yards/Rec. 12.5 (No. 62) 14.0 (No. 17)
Deep Target Rate 15.9% (No. 73) 19.2% (T-No. 20)
Explosive Pass Plays 16 (T-No. 80) 27 (No. 14)
Explosive Pass Play Rate 27.6% (No. 73) 38.0% (No. 11)

McCaffrey’s defining trait is his willingness to win in the middle of the field. While downfield, centralized targets are efficient big-play generators, winning in the box against big-bodied defenders can be an issue for some wide receivers. Among FBS wide receivers to earn at least 30 targets thrown between the hashes over the last two years, McCaffrey produced seven top-six finishes in seven per-play statistical categories, including perfect averages in catchable-pass catch rate (100.0%) and dropped pass rate (0.0%) in 2022. His 20.6 yards per reception in 2023 finished second. 

The 6-foot-2, 195-pound McCaffrey is a ready-made NFL contributor capable of winning a veteran quarterback’s trust prior to Week 1 kickoff. He can be drafted a flex-worthy fantasy asset if he hands on a team with open competition for the No. 2 wide receiver role. 

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