News & Analysis

The rookies with the most theoretical fantasy predictability

By Mike Castiglione
May 8, 2018

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Oct 28, 2017; Fort Collins, CO, USA; Colorado State Rams wide receiver Michael Gallup (4) celebrates after a touchdown in the first quarter against the Air Force Falcons at Sonny Lubick Field at Colorado State Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

In evaluating the incoming crop of rookies for fantasy, we have little choice but to marry together all the bits of available information to develop an informed projection. After all, this is a data-driven site with no available data at the NFL level. Well, almost.

While some rookies in this year’s class can be more easily pegged for expected fantasy production, others are more dependent upon certain variables breaking their way – or not — to finish at one end of the fantasy spectrum or the other. Injuries won’t be factored in here, but in assessing the rookies below we will take a look at historically predictive data, landing spot, available opportunities (i.e. touches and targets), and variances in our staff rankings, to name a few.

Up first are the most predictable rookies for whom there is some level of consensus for expected fantasy output. What you see is what you get, as the adage goes. Wednesday, we’ll tackle the rookies with the widest range of potential outcomes.

Quarterback

Sam Darnold, New York Jets

With four years of PFF college data now at our disposal, we have a better roadmap to predict success at the NFL level. A midseason rough patch and a penchant for turnover-worthy throws are of concern, but ultimately, the metrics suggest that Darnold has a good shot at a productive pro career. He led the draft class with 34 “big-time” throws last season and also led all Power-5 QBs in passing yards against pressure. For fantasy purposes, his path to a Week 1 starting job is blocked primarily by the ageless Josh McCown, although the Jets’ receiving corps remains a work in progress. While a viable second-round pick in dynasty rookie drafts, Darnold is still merely a two-QB option or bye-week replacement in redraft.

Josh Rosen, Arizona Cardinals

Sam Bradford has a leg up on the starting gig in Arizona – for now. Considering the Cardinals traded up to select Rosen 10th overall, it’s not hard to envision him earning a promotion if he manages to turn in a decent camp. The Aaron Rodgers comparisons are a bit silly, save for Rosen’s presumed draft snub and gunslinger mentality. He did rank 12th among draft-eligible QBs in deep-ball accuracy (50.0) and was the top-graded passer on intermediate (10-19-yard) throws, which makes for an interesting fit with new coordinator Mike McCoy. The Cardinals will also boast a solid WR corps along with a healthy David Johnson, although playing in the NFC West presents a challenge. Once Rosen takes the starting job (that is the less predictable part of the equation here), he profiles as a bye-week fill-in without much higher upside.

Running back

Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

The most complete back in the draft class, Barkley will get all the work he can handle right off the bat. Just how predictive is a running back skilled in the passing game? PFF grade per route run correlates at a rate of 0.48 from college to pro. Barkley is not just insanely elusive, he also led all qualified RBs this past season in yards per route run (1.90), turning 65 targets into 611 yards. As our Pat Thorman recently noted, the Giants have 219 handoffs and 70 RB targets unaccounted for from last season, and they upgraded the offensive line by signing tackle Nate Solder and drafting guard Will Hernandez. Barkley is at worst an RB2 in fantasy, and his first-round ADP in PPR is justifiable.

Royce Freeman, Denver Broncos

Admittedly, I only caught a few Oregon games this past year, but Freeman initially struck me as a back who merely got what was blocked. Upon further review of Freeman’s PFF stats, it quickly became apparent that my assessment was wrong.

What’s more, the Broncos have a league-high 314 handoffs up for grabs after parting ways with C.J. Anderson and Jamaal Charles. New quarterback Case Keenum and tackle Jared Veldheer upgrade the offense, while Freeman’s main competition for carries is Devontae Booker and his career 3.6 yards per carry. The main concern is that Freeman ranked only 59th in pass-blocking efficiency, an area he’ll have to clean up if he wants to truly be The Man in Denver.

Rashaad Penny, Seattle Seahawks

Mountain West, East, North or South, a back who runs for 2,248 yards (7.8 YPC) and 23 TDs in 13 games is not to be taken lightly. Penny can create on his own, and that’s just what he’ll have to do behind Seattle’s offensive line (Penny held his own against Power-5 schools, by the way). He ranked in the top-two in this year’s draft class in elusive rating, missed tackles forced (80 as a rusher alone!), breakaway percentage, and percentage of carries not tackled on first contact. Like Freeman, Penny has room for improvement in pass pro after allowing two sacks and seven additional hurries on 66 pass-blocking snaps in 2017. Still, he’s expected to be a weekly starting fantasy option in Year 1.

Wide receiver

Michael Gallup, Dallas Cowboys

Dez Bryant’s release opens up the door for Gallup, a solid all-around wideout who posted a 92.0 PFF grade this past season at Colorado State. Gallup’s deep catch rate (23.5 percent) ranked outside the top-100 WRs, although he was better in that department the previous season. However, Gallup also racked up the third-most yards among FBS wideouts on screen passes, and the yards after catch has proven to have a high correlation with NFL success (0.49). Another metric that translates well to the NFL level is catch rate (0.50), and Gallup dropped only 12 of 191 catchable targets over his last two seasons. What’s more, no collegiate wideout faced press coverage on more targets (64) than Gallup in 2017. He’ll be a bankable weekly flex play with WR2 upside.

Calvin Ridley, Atlanta Falcons

Expected to line up opposite Julio Jones in Year 1, Ridley’s dynasty outlook is brighter than his immediate prospects for fantasy success (even though he is 23 years old). Still, considering that Mohamed Sanu has averaged six targets per game over the past two seasons as the Falcons’ No. 2 option, Ridley figures to be a fine flex option more often than not. He clocked a 4.43 40-yard dash and is a superb route runner. Don’t look too deeply at Ridley’s college production (only one 1,000-yard season in 2015), which was affected by Alabama’s run-heavy offense. Of greater concern is that he dropped 23 catchable passes in three years caught only 10 screen passes for 40 yards this past season.

Anthony Miller, Chicago Bears

Another wideout who needs to clean up drops, Miller’s production at Memphis is nothing to sneeze at, as he racked up 1,400-plus receiving yards in each of the last two seasons while totaling 32 touchdown grabs. Miller ranked sixth in this year’s draft class with 12 “deep” catches (20 yards or more downfield), and he averaged a healthy 3.47 yards per route. His 546 yards out of the slot were the sixth-most, and you can expect the Bears’ coaching staff to find ways to get Miller free releases off the line. He averaged 6.9 yards after the catch per reception over the past three seasons – a figure that would have tied Golden Tate for fourth-best in the NFL in 2017. In fact, Miller led the nation with 288 yards on screen passes. Mostly, there’s just not a whole lot standing in the way as far as competition in Chicago, giving Miller a nice chance to develop an early rapport with Mitchell Trubisky and become a rather steady PPR flex option.

Tight end

Save for Evan Engram, history has shown what we can expect from rookie tight ends in fantasy: not much. If you want predictability, it’s “predictable” that they don’t do a lot.

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