Fantasy Football: Top rookies with difficult paths to playing time in Year 1

2X5N5WB Carolina Panthers' Jonathon Brooks watches drills during a NFL football rookie camp on Friday, May 10, 2024, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

• The obvious choice at quarterback: Michael Penix Jr. is about as much of a guarantee to not see the field as any rookie on this list.

• Temper expectations for several first-round wide receivers: Questionable college production profiles and crowded depth charts are a common theme for most of these receivers.

• Get a head start on fantasy football: Use PFF's fantasy football mock draft simulator to create real live mock draft simulations to get ready for your live draft!

Estimated Reading Time: 9 minutes

There is a lot of excitement around the 2024 NFL Draft‘s crop of rookies for fantasy football purposes, especially those drafted within the first two rounds. However, not every player will have an equal path to playing time, which is, ultimately, the greatest contributing factor in scoring fantasy points.

After going over the rookies with the best path to fantasy football success in Year 1 here, this list focuses on the highly drafted rookies (within the first two rounds) who are least likely to make a Year 1 impact for fantasy football.

QB Michael Penix Jr., Atlanta Falcons

This is maybe the most obvious pick to discuss. Penix was drafted eighth overall by the Falcons, and top-10 draft capital often precedes immediate playing time. This is highly unlikely for Penix, as the team also signed the top free-agent quarterback this offseason, Kirk Cousins, to a four-year, $180 million deal. This essentially guarantees Cousins’ place as QB1 in Atlanta, even as he returns from an Achilles injury, which he is on track to recover from by Week 1.

Penix makes for an interesting quarterback prospect. He is among the older rookies, coming into the league at 24 years old. His likely path in Atlanta is sitting for at least two full seasons behind Cousins to learn and develop before he’s ready to take the reigns as a starter himself. Penix does have 49 college games across six seasons to his name already, but he has missed time throughout his career due to injuries.

With all that being said, there are still elements to Penix's game that make him an intriguing dynasty asset, including his ability to avoid negative plays. His 2.1% career turnover-worthy play rate is a 96th-percentile mark among quarterback prospects since 2017, and his 1.8% sack rate is the best mark among that same cohort. He also has a strong arm and isn’t afraid to use it, with 57.1% of his passing yards coming through the air (76th percentile).

For dynasty managers drafting Penix, just make sure there is room on your taxi squad for a little while.

WR Rome Odunze, Chicago Bears

Odunze is a high-end wide receiver prospect who is going to be taken as a top-three pick in one-quarterback rookie drafts almost every time. Dynasty managers who are spending that type of capital on a rookie usually expect consistent starting potential in Year 1, but it’s going to be more difficult for Odunze to earn targets alongside Keenan Allen and DJ Moore, similar to Jaxon Smith-Njigba last season.

While Odunze should be considered the wide receiver of the future in Chicago, paired with Caleb Williams, 2024 isn’t likely to allow for immediate reliable production for fantasy purposes. Allen, specifically, is one of the top target-earners in the league when he’s on the field, seeing a 27.5% target per route run rate in 2023, which ranked fourth in the NFL — behind only Tyreek Hill (35.5%), Davante Adams (29.4%) and CeeDee Lamb (28.5%). Moore ranks 27th on that list (minimum of 300 routes) with a 22.3% target rate while also posting a top-10 receiving grade (89.5).

Odunze should have his opportunities in Chicago, but it could be difficult for a rookie quarterback to spread the ball out efficiently enough for all three receivers to be consistent fantasy starters, leaving Odunze as the likely odd man out this year.

Click here to see Rome Odunze's 2024 NFL Draft profile.

WR Brian Thomas Jr., Jacksonville Jaguars

Thomas could eventually be the Jaguars’ best wide receiver, though it’s unlikely that will happen right away. Despite being a first-round pick this year, Thomas is not quite the polished wide receiver prospect as the other first-rounders, and that is likely going to factor into his playing time in Year 1.

Evan Engram (22.7%) and Christian Kirk (22.1%) led the Jaguars in target rate last year, and both are still on the roster in likely leading roles for 2024. The team also signed Gabe Davis in free agency — a perennial deep-ball specialist — which is a role that Thomas played almost exclusively at LSU this past season.

Add in Thomas' currently limited route tree and college production (1.95 career yards per route run), and expectations should be tempered for him as a rookie. He’ll have time to emerge based on the tools and traits that got him drafted in the first round, but it’s unlikely to be an immediate transition to a star NFL receiver.

WR Ricky Pearsall, San Francisco 49ers

Pearsall is likely to be drafted near the end of the first round or the early second round of most rookie fantasy drafts but is another likely taxi squad stash for 2024. Pearsall, similar to Brian Thomas Jr. mentioned above, doesn’t have the most encouraging college production profile as a 24-year-old fifth-year breakout who finished with just 1.99 career yards per route run (30th percentile since 2019). However, he boasts a promising athletic profile and strong route-running ability to get open at the NFL level, and the 49ers' depth chart may not remain crowded for long.

Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk have been at the center of trade murmurs this offseason, and while general manager John Lynch has shut down those rumors for now, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them pop up again soon. Adding a first-round wide receiver this offseason is only going to allow for more comfort in moving on from at least one of Samuel or Aiyuk at some point, though it’s starting to feel very unlikely that it will happen before the 2024 NFL season.

With that in mind, Pearsall isn’t going to earn targets over either Samuel or Aiyuk, nor is he likely to do so over George Kittle, or potentially even Christian McCaffrey.

WR Xavier Legette, Carolina Panthers

Legette, Ricky Pearsall and Brian Thomas Jr. all share concerns coming out of college about their overall production profiles but offer higher upside from a tools and athleticism standpoint.

While there’s some long-term upside for all three wide receivers, 2024 is unlikely to be the year that we see it consistently. Legette could find his way onto the field as a rookie, but there’s enough target competition in Carolina that he’s unlikely to be a reliable fantasy starter. Legette is another late-breakout wide receiver that the Panthers have spent top-60 draft capital on since 2021, and while it currently hasn’t worked out with Terrace Marshall or Jonathan Mingo, it isn't a reason to fade Legette this season — though it doesn’t help, either.

The late breakout and lack of college production at least tell us that Legette isn’t primed for immediate NFL success based on past hit rates of these players, but that’s OK, considering the team has a few established veteran wide receivers to get the ball to first while Legette develops.

Adam Thielen is certainly on the older side, but he finished as the overall WR17 fantasy in 2023, earning a team-leading 136 targets. Carolina also traded for Diontae Johnson this offseason, adding another strong target-earner. Johnson led the Steelers in target rate in each of the past five seasons.

With 2023 first overall pick Bryce Young experiencing his fair share of struggles as a rookie, the path to fantasy production in Carolina is more than likely going to run through Johnson and Thielen in 2024, with little room for Legette to consistently produce.

RB Jonathon Brooks, Carolina Panthers

Brooks was the first running back drafted this year, and the lone back taken in the second round, which could create lofty fantasy expectations for him as a rookie.

Since 2014, 55% of second-round running backs handled more than 150 touches in their rookie seasons, which isn’t an overly high bar (41 running backs exceeded that mark in 2023) and is about the threshold to set for relevant fantasy production in most league formats. With it already being about a coin flip for Brooks in Year 1, according to those numbers, it doesn’t get any easier when considering that he’s coming off a late-season ACL tear and gained limited starting experience in college.

An added barrier for Brooks is that the team also brought in Rashaad Penny to join Chuba Hubbard and Miles Sanders in the backfield. While that competition isn't too scary for Brooks in Year 1, he is much more likely to be a Year 2 breakout candidate.


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