News & Analysis

Rookies with the widest range of potential fantasy outcomes

Jan 1, 2018; Pasadena, CA, USA; Georgia Bulldogs running back Nick Chubb (27) celebrates scoring a touchdown against the Oklahoma Sooners in the third quarter in the 2018 Rose Bowl college football playoff semifinal game at Rose Bowl Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Following up Tuesday’s piece about the most theoretically predictable rookie situations for fantasy, now let’s look at the wild cards. These are the rookies with the widest range of potential fantasy outcomes, i.e. the ones who could get buried on waivers by Week 4 or help win your league title. Life is like a box of chocolates…

Quarterback

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns

Of the five first-round quarterbacks in this year’s draft, Mayfield has perhaps the cloudiest path to Year 1 playing time despite being the consensus top QB in our rookie rankings. Then again, it’s also perhaps the most intriguing path. New offensive coordinator Todd Haley takes over another stacked unit after guiding a top-seven offense in yardage each of his past four seasons with Pittsburgh.

Our analysts define an “NFL throw” as an over-the-shoulder throw made in-rhythm into tight coverage more than three yards past the line to gain. Mayfield led the draft class in such throws, followed by Sam Darnold. Of course, Tyrod Taylor was signed to be the starter this season while Mayfield develops in a low-pressure setting. Things can change at a moment’s notice, and if Mayfield finds himself under center at any point this season, you can expect to see him featured in one of my weekly QB streaming columns.

Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens

Joe Flacco has never been to a Pro Bowl or finished as a QB1 in fantasy. Save for that Super Bowl MVP run in 2012, his 10-year career has been not elite — more like mostly okay. All of which is to say, with Jackson waiting in the wings, Flacco’s leash is likely not as long as it’s historically been. If Eli Manning can get benched for the first time in 211 games in favor of Geno Smith, then Flacco certainly can’t take anything for granted.

As for Jackson – the No. 2 QB in our staff’s rookie rankings – a redshirt season would probably be ideal for his development. But boy, does he have the traits we covet in a fantasy QB with his big-time arm with supreme athleticism. Jackson ranked eighth in the draft class in average depth of target last season (11.4) and racked up 4,790 rushing yards in three years. Like Mayfield, he’d be a viable streaming option but for different reasons.

Running back

Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns

Chubb caught just 13 passes over his final three years at Georgia. Along with Duke Johnson, free-agent acquisition Carlos Hyde (59 receptions in 2017) did a lot of work catching passes last year. What’s the upside to a committee back with limited passing-game involvement, you ask? Prior to his gruesome knee injury in 2015, Chubb was well on his way to shattering Herschel Walker’s records at Georgia, averaging a ridiculous 7.4 YPC with 24 TDs through 18 games.

If 2016 was Chubb’s stepping-stone season, then 2017 was his welcome all the way back campaign. He posted a top-five elusive rating in this year’s draft class and averaged 3.8 yards after contact, besting his sensational freshman season. He may not have Kareem Hunt’s or Alvin Kamara’s receiving skillset, but putting up elite numbers against elite competition while splitting the workload is nothing new to Chubb (cue segue in 3, 2…)

Sony Michel, New England Patriots

Like former backfield mate Chubb, Michel doesn’t have quite the same mileage on his tires as we tend to see in other draft prospects of his caliber. If Michel likes that sort of thing, then he’ll especially like playing for his new head coach. In all seriousness, the carrot being dangled here is a fantasy back with RB1 upside (see Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount in recent seasons). Not since 2006 has New England gone RB in the first round, and Michel does step into a situation with 180 carries up for grabs from last season.

Of course, Michel is no stranger to backfield committees, as he managed 1,259 rushing yards this past season (8.0 YPC) despite Chubb holding a 223-156 edge in carries. He finished top-six in the draft class in both elusive rating and breakaway percentage. Fumble rate is a concern, and Belichick has made it quite clear what the fantasy downside is for a back who doesn’t keep the ball from hitting the ground.

Jordan Wilkins, Indianapolis Colts

Wilkins is a quality prospect with NFL size and measurables, grading out inside the top-12 in elusive rating, breakaway percentage, and yards per route run. But while Wilkins could either see a dozen carries all year or carve out a flex-worthy fantasy role, the real focus here is on Marlon Mack. The fantasy community is basically split into one camp that sees Mack’s subpar positive run rate and 3.8 YPC average, and another camp that sees a player who gained 15-plus yards on seven of his 93 carries and finished 12th out of 53 qualifiers in elusive rating.

Where this backfield gets particularly interesting in the predictive analysis is that ground-game success is more strongly correlated to run-blocking performance than individual RB performance. The Colts, after grading out 29th in run-blocking a year ago, beefed up their interior O-line by drafting guards in each of the first two rounds. What’s more, Indy has a feature back’s worth of unclaimed handoffs (262) up for grabs along with the anticipated return of Andrew Luck.

Wide receiver

Tre’Quan Smith, New Orleans Saints

Sure, there’s already an alpha male in the Saints’ WR corps, but it’s not like a Drew Brees offense has never supported two startable fantasy receivers (and now will be minus Mark Ingram for four games). Smith has the potential to be that second option, or he could struggle to get on the field as a rookie. Smith did fare well against press coverage at UCF, posted the nation’s second-best catch rate on deep targets (70.8 percent) in 2017, and had the highest grade per target among this year’s draft class. There is a worthy predictive analysis piece by the PFF crew summing up Smith’s upside that you can check out here.

Dante Pettis, San Francisco 49ers

I’ll admit, despite being a consensus All-American, Pettis was hardly on my radar prior to him being drafted by the 49ers in the second round. I mean, he played in the Pacific Northwest and never topped 822 yards in a season despite playing all 52 games. The NCAA record-holder with nine punt-return TDs, Pettis could be the next Dante Hall, which wouldn’t necessarily be the best-case scenario for fantasy. But he could also develop an instant rapport with Jimmy Garoppolo, given his insanely good catch rate (162-of-169 catchable targets) and become a reliable No. 2 option with bonus points for big plays on special teams.

J’Mon Moore, Green Bay Packers

Not that he was involved all that much last season, but Jordy Nelson’s official departure does create an opening in Green Bay, and the pecking order is far from settled behind Davante Adams. A healthy Aaron Rodgers further adds to the appeal in an offense that has regularly supported multiple fantasy receivers. Randall Cobb has seen his production and target share dip in recent seasons and, entering the final year of his contract, could find himself a cap casualty with about $9.5 million in savings available to the Packers’ front office. Geronimo Allison has yet to establish himself. Of course, neither has Moore, although he has the size and body control (evidenced by a 44-percent catch rate on deep targets) that would seem of use to a quarterback like Rodgers.

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