Fantasy football gamers tend to latch on to the first bit of information that is offered or suggested to us and overlook contradictory arguments. Fading the 2020 rookie class is an early take that has caught on over the past several months, in part because of a lack of preseason games and limited practice time.
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Typically, it’s smart to expect a rookie learning curve and to invest appropriately. But the 2020 market consensus is overlooking the fact that there are rookies with ample opportunity to see plenty of action in Week 1 at quarterback, wide receiver and running back. Plus, the low cost in draft capital required to invest in many rookies — especially the wide receivers — is allowing them to emerge as high-upside value selections in the later rounds.
If there were ever a season to zig while others zag, it would be 2020 — this entire season is going to be a rollercoaster of volatility. Foregoing the popular narrative and actually targeting the best rookies is a contrarian approach that could ultimately set you apart from the competition.
After all, it’s not like we’ve never seen rookies put up solid fantasy numbers even with limited action leading up to the season. Last year, A.J. Brown was injured on the first day of training camp and missed valuable time. He still had 100 receiving yards in Week 1 and went on to be a league-winning fantasy asset down the stretch.
The following are the top rookies I’m targeting for 2020, some of whom are incredible values at ADP.
Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals | ADP: QB20
The last time we saw a quarterback go No. 1 overall and see limited preseason action was Cam Newton during the 2011 lockout season. Newton went on to become the first quarterback to throw for over 400-plus yards in his first career game. He also finished as the QB4 overall in fantasy football.
Joe Burrow is the perfect late-round quarterback — he is going to be the Day 1 starter and has a great supporting cast of weapons in Joe Mixon, A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd, John Ross and Tee Higgins. In his last year at LSU, Burrow recorded the highest percentage of on-target passes in PFF’s advanced ball location charting of any quarterback since the process started in 2016. He should have a better chance to stay upright with the return of first-round tackle Jonah Williams, who missed his entire rookie season due to injury.
Burrow should also see plenty of passing volume from the start. Last season, the Bengals ranked seventh in pass play percentage (64.8%), partly because they were trailing so often. No team ran more plays while trailing by at least seven points or more than the Bengals.
The team added to its defense in free agency and the draft, but we should still expect plenty of negative game scripts for Burrow and company, which could be an advantage for the quarterback’s underrated rushing ability. He accumulated over 500 rushing yards in his last two collegiate seasons. With defenses playing softer coverages trying to protect leads, look for Burrow to turn to his legs often to continue to move the chains for the offense. Nine of the top 10 fantasy quarterbacks last season rushed for at least 200 yards.
Burrow’s mobility should also help him avoid sacks, which was a huge problem for the team last season. The Bengals allowed the eighth-most sacks despite allowing the sixth-fewest quarterback hits and ranking just below average (17th) in total pressures allowed on passing plays.
There's no way to know how much Burrow has absorbed from Zoom calls with his NFL coaches. But so far all indications are positive — head coach Zac Taylor said he's going to put a lot on Burrow right out of the gate, and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan has been impressed with Burrow in his limited time working with the quarterback.
It’s time to buy in on the rookie quarterback before reports of him lighting up the Bengals’ defense in training camp (he inevitably will) cause his ADP to rise.
In a previous piece, I wrote about targeting players with tackle-breaking ability because defenses in 2020 are likely to struggle with tackling efficiency. During that research, I made an astounding discovery — the best receivers in terms of breaking tackles in 2019 were all rookies.
These were skills — breaking tackles and creating yards after the catch — the young players had demonstrated in college. Mecole Hardman (8.3) and Diontae Johnson (8.4) both ranked top-20 in YAC per reception in their last college seasons. A.J. Brown and Deebo Samuel both ranked top-15 in forced missed tackles on receptions.
Targeting wide receivers who are good after the catch who have a chance to be immediate starters is a sound strategy in the late rounds. The top rookie receivers who fit this criteria include CeeDee Lamb, Brandon Aiyuk and Laviska Shenault Jr.
CeeDee Lamb, Dallas Cowboys | ADP: WR45
CeeDee Lamb will start for the Dallas Cowboys in three-receiver sets alongside Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup, and it's foolish to think he won't be able to contribute from Day 1. Lamb was a dominant force at Oklahoma in 2019 — his forced missed tackles per reception (.42) ranked second and his yards after the catch per reception (11.0) ranked third among receivers with at least 80 targets.
Brandon Aiyuk, San Francisco 49ers | ADP: WR62
People are buying too much into the “fade the rookies” narrative here, with Aiyuk entering a wide receiver room in which he could easily emerge as the No. 1 option. He fits perfectly in a 49ers scheme that values after-the-catch ability — his YAC per reception (10.9) ranked fourth in the nation in 2019.
Laviska Shenault Jr., Jacksonville Jaguars | ADP: WR75
Laviska Shenault Jr. is not generating the same buzz as other rookie wide receivers, but he should not be overlooked — he is an absolute monster when it comes to breaking tackles. Shenault forced the most missed tackles on receptions (44) and had the eighth-most total yards after the catch (1,060) among wide receivers since 2018.
He dealt with injuries in 2019, which may have caused his draft stock to dip, but the dude flat out just makes plays. Look for him to make some noise in the Jacksonville Jaguars’ wide receiving corps that is shaky at best behind established alpha D.J. Chark.
Henry Ruggs III, Las Vegas Raiders | ADP: WR50
Jalen Reagor, Philadelphia Eagles | ADP: WR51
Antonio Gandy-Golden, Washington Football Team | ADP: WR88
Neither Jalen Reagor nor Antonio Gandy-Golden put up gaudy numbers when it comes to yards after the catch or breaking tackles, but they are both in situations where players ahead of them in their depth charts (Alshon Jeffery, Kelvin Harmon) are dealing with injuries, giving them early-season opportunities.
Amid a relatively weak WR corps, Henry Ruggs III should emerge as the Raiders’ No. 1. He also can rely on his speed to make defenders look silly — his YAC per reception mark (10.5) ranking eighth in 2019.
Like the wide receiver position, it's ideal to identify and target running backs with the possibility of an early workload and the ability to create extra yards with the ball in their hands.
Obviously, the bigger-name rookie running backs have a higher chance of contributing early, like Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Jonathan Taylor, D'Andre Swift and Cam Akers. But they aren't nearly as cheap as two of my favorites: Zack Moss and Antonio Gibson.
Zack Moss, Buffalo Bills | ADP: RB44
As a receiver, Zack Moss ranked fifth in forced tackles missed on receptions (15) and was No. 1 in YAC per reception (14.5) among running backs with at least 30 targets. As a rusher, Moss ranked second in yards after contact per attempt (4.45) and forced missed tackles (89). On a per-attempt basis, Moss ranked third in the nation in broken tackles (0.38).
With the coaching staff set to offer Moss the Frank Gore role from 2019, don’t be surprised to see his workload increase every week. Point blank: Leave every single draft with Moss while his price remains cheap.
Antonio Gibson, Washington | ADP: RB57
Offensive coordinator Scott Turner is going to manufacture touches for players during the 2020 season, and that will include running back/wide receiver hybrid Antonio Gibson. The third-round rookie has already drawn skillset comparisons to Christian McCaffrey, and he showed at the college level that he can deliver on limited touches (33 carries, 38 receptions).
In his final year at Memphis, Gibson averaged 11.7 YAC per reception and 7.73 yards after contact per attempt. His forced missed tackle rate as a rusher (0.48) ranked first and as a receiver (0.45) ranked third among qualifying running backs and wide receivers. You can’t go broke drafting a player who forced a missed tackle on half of his touches.