Top Fantasy Rookies at Each Position to Target in Your Draft This Year
Fantasy football managers learned a valuable lesson in the previous season. NFL teams won't hesitate to toss their rookies into the fray early. As a result, don't overlook players coming fresh out of college as you assemble your draft queue.
Last year, Deshaun Watson, Mitchell Trubisky, DeShone Kizer and C.J. Beathard all started at least five games with varying degrees of fantasy production. First-year running backs Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt and Leonard Fournette carried owners to the championship round. JuJu Smith-Schuster and Cooper Kupp emerged as the cream of the crop among rookie wide receivers.
So, yes, a rookie could push your squad over the top, but it requires some research and a calculated risk to hit on the right player. It's most important to look out for those expected to start or eventually take the field in a prominent role late in the season.
Let's take a look at 10 rookies at the top of their respective positions and why they should land on your fantasy football radar on draft day.
QB Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills
Prepare for blunt honesty here—the Buffalo Bills won't make the postseason in 2018. In fact, this squad will likely finish below .500, starting with a rough four-game opening against playoff-caliber clubs in the Baltimore Ravens, Los Angeles Chargers, Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers.
A slow start coupled with late-November games outside the playoff picture would open the door for quarterback Josh Allen even if he isn't under center in Week 1. As a result, the strong-armed passer out of Wyoming has the best chance to start the most games among rookie signal-callers.
Despite criticism of Allen's accuracy, he'd take the field with two big-body targets in the passing game. Wideout Kelvin Benjamin (6'5", 245 lbs) and tight end Charles Clay (6'3", 255 lbs) give the quarterback room for error in ball placement. According to NFL Network's Mike Garafolo, there's an active investigation on running back LeSean McCoy's domestic violence case. He's a reliable receiving option out of the backfield if available.
Toward the end of the season, injuries can force fantasy owners to the waiver wire for starters, so owners who take fliers on Allen late in drafts might be happy they did.
Allen could generate some points in November and December through the air and tuck the ball for a few scores on the ground. He logged 12 rushing touchdowns over the past two years with the Cowboys.
Stat-line projection: 1,712 passing yards, 346 rushing yards, 12 total TDs, 9 INTs
QB Sam Darnold, New York Jets
In 15 years as a pro, quarterback Josh McCown hasn't started more than 13 games in a season. If the journeyman signal-caller opens the 2018 campaign under center, he is probably going to finish on the sideline.
The coaching staff doesn't have a reason to start Teddy Bridgewater through a 16-game slate unless the team remains in contention for a playoff spot. The front office may opt to trade the 25-year-old, who signed a one-year deal in March, if he plays well through the first eight weeks, which would lead to Sam Darnold's takeover.
Head coach Todd Bowles led the Jets to a 10-win season in 2015. The early success and his contract extension signed in December should give him enough cushion to play Darnold knowing there's probably one more year to turn the franchise into a contender.
It's clear McCown isn't the future. General manager Mike Maccagnan didn't trade up and select the USC product at No. 3 overall to leave him on the bench behind a quarterback with an expiring contract.
Once Darnold steps on the field, he'll work with a solid trio at wide receiver—Robby Anderson (941 receiving yards in 2017), Jermaine Kearse (810 receiving yards) and Quincy Enunwa. The latter racked up 857 receiving yards during the 2016 campaign before a surgery on a bulging disc in his neck sidelined him last year. Gang Green also claimed pass-catching tight end Clive Walford off waivers in April.
Darnold should see the field for a middling AFC team with quality options in the passing game at his disposal.
Stat-line projection: 1,967 passing yards, 11 TDs, 8 INTs
RB Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
Like Ezekiel Elliott and Fournette before him, Saquon Barkley will continue the trend of running backs taken early in the draft with highly productive rookie seasons.
Matt Lombardo of NJ Advance Media described running back Jonathan Stewart as a "plodding veteran" during spring practices. Thus far, he doesn't look fit to handle enough carries to dramatically affect Barkley's workload. The Penn State product will likely split totes with 2017 fourth-rounder Wayne Gallman.
As the highest draft pick at running back since Reggie Bush went No. 2 to the New Orleans Saints in 2006, Barkley should average about 20 carries per contest. The Bronx native's receiving ability boosts his stock in points-per-reception leagues.
Last year, Kamara's fantasy explosion was a surprise to owners. Barkley wouldn't shock anyone if he reaches 1,500 yards from scrimmage as a ball-carrier and receiver in the upcoming season.
Stat-line projection: 1,179 rushing yards, 525 receiving yards, 11 total TDs
RB Rashaad Penny, Seattle Seahawks
ESPN's John Clayton expects the Seattle Seahawks to use running back Rashaad Penny in a similar role to Kamara. He shared those thoughts with the Scott and BR Show earlier this month.
According to Clayton, running back Chris Carson would serve as the Mark Ingram to Penny's Kamara, which indicates the rookie will see a fair amount of carries and targets in the passing game.
Workload shares in the backfield could scare away fantasy owners, but the Seahawks lost two pass-catchers in Paul Richardson and Jimmy Graham during free agency. Seattle may look to establish the ground attack with a strong tandem to compensate for a potential step backward in the vertical game.
During rookie minicamp in May, head coach Pete Carroll talked specifically about Penny's receiving capability, which gives credence to the rookie's prospective role as a dual threat in the backfield. "He caught the ball beautifully. He can do whatever we need to do in the throwing game."
Don't go into draft day expecting to grab Kamara 2.0, though. An RB2 spot on the roster sounds like a reasonable projection.
Stat-line projection: 791 rushing yards, 433 receiving yards, 9 total TDs
RB Derrius Guice, Washington Redskins
The Washington Redskins selected running back Samaje Perine in the fourth round of last year's draft, but his presence won't stop Derrius Guice from emerging as an immediate contributor, per ESPN.com's John Keim.
"Guice will make a big impact from the get-go," Keim wrote. "The Redskins made it clear they wanted to upgrade the running back position—aside from third-down back Chris Thompson."
With Thompson as the primary receiver out of the backfield, Guice will dominate touches on early downs. Head Jay Gruden confirmed the rookie's role during the spring, when he called the LSU product a "first-, second-down banger."
Guice may not hold the same value as Penny in PPR leagues because of Thompson's role as a receiver, even though he flashed his skills as a pass-catcher during organized team activities, per JP Finlay of NBC Sports Washington. All signs indicate the second-rounder will lead the Redskins in carries and pluck some passes out of the air on short throws.
Stat-line projection: 1,063 rushing yards, 218 receiving yards, 8 total TDs
WR D.J. Moore, Carolina Panthers
Despite talk about quarterback Cam Newton's accuracy issues last season, wideout D.J. Moore landed in an offense that should yield late-round fantasy production. Perhaps you're skeptical, but take a look at the competition for targets at the position.
Curtis Samuel suffered a broken bone and ligament damage in his ankle, and he's still on the mend after surgery. The 21-year-old didn't establish himself as a playmaker last season, logging just 15 catches for 115 yards.
Torrey Smith won his second Super Bowl with the Philadelphia Eagles, but he played a lesser role, recording 36 catches for 430 yards and two touchdowns during the regular season. The 29-year-old has served as a WR3 over the past two campaigns with the Eagles and San Francisco 49ers.
The MMQB's Albert Breer discussed Moore as a standout during the spring. It's a good start for a wideout looking at a sizable role without strong competition opposite Devin Funchess. A high target count warrants strong fantasy consideration.
Stat-line projection: 53 recs, 781 yards, 6 TDs
WR James Washington, Pittsburgh Steelers
In 2017, Smith-Schuster led the rookie wideouts in yards with 917, and James Washington could accomplish the same feat this year. The Pittsburgh Steelers know how to develop players at this position. Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace came into the league as Day 2 and Day 3 prospects.
Washington, a second-rounder, is behind two receivers expected to demand coverage downfield. In Brown's case, he'll likely draw two defensive backs attempting to clamp down on his big-play ability, leaving the rookie with beatable one-on-one matchups against the opposing defense's third-best cover man.
Last season, four receivers caught at least 50 passes and saw 79 targets for the Steelers, including running back Le'Veon Bell. In a Sirius XM NFL Radio segment with Ross Tucker, ESPN's Adam Schefter suggested the 26-year-old may opt to sit out games after the team failed to extend his contract before the deadline for franchise-tagged players.
Even with running back Le'Veon Bell catching out of the backfield for most of the year, there's enough room for Washington to make a significant impact in the aerial attack. As long as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger stays upright, Pittsburgh should finish with a top-five passing attack in yards and points.
Most fantasy owners will scramble to draft Brown and Smith-Schuster in the early rounds. If Washington remains available late, pick him up.
Stat-line projection: 49 recs, 668 yards, 5 TDs
WR Christian Kirk, Arizona Cardinals
The gap between Larry Fitzgerald and the No. 2 wide receiver could tighten with the arrival of Christian Kirk.
The Texas A&M product can immediately help in the slot, where he lined up at the collegiate level. Nonetheless, Fitzgerald's versatility as a playmaker on the inside will allow Kirk to move around the formation and potentially free him in different looks.
Wideouts Chad Williams, Brice Butler and JJ Nelson will push for the No. 2 spot as well. Nonetheless, the Cardinals felt comfortable taking Kirk despite knowledge of his arrest in February on a disorderly conduct and property damage charge, which indicates their strong belief in the former Aggie.
Kirk was as a quick study at Texas A&M. He logged a 1,000-yard season as a true freshman and landed in a good spot to contribute early in the pros.
Quarterback Sam Bradford moved the ball efficiently in 17 starts with the Minnesota Vikings over the past two years. If he remains healthy, the rookie pass-catcher carries upside in fantasy leagues. Josh Rosen's presence under center would drop his stock slightly, but the potential target volume salvages his value.
Stat-line projection: 46 recs, 647 yards, 5 TDs
TE Mike Gesicki, Miami Dolphins
Mike Gesicki looked like a rookie in the spring, according to Adam H. Beasley of the Miami Herald, which is expected. But the tight end found his groove during mandatory minicamp. Practice makes perfect—or in this case better, right?
John Congemi of the team's official website relayed an encouraging takeaway before the players went on a six-week intermission. "Rookies Mike Gesicki and Durham Smythe have been solid in their route running and look to be comfortable in learning the playbook. They both have caught the ball cleanly, and Gesicki has used his long frame to extend and make plays in the air."
His training camp performances will shed more light on his development. Regardless, the Dolphins seem confident in the Penn State product and Smythe as first-year contributors. Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains plans to use 13 personnel, which features a three-tight end package, per Beasley.
Assuming the Dolphins' offensive plans hold steady, Gesicki should see plenty of opportunities in the passing attack. He racked up 1,242 yards and 14 scores over the past two years as a standout pass-catching option with the Nittany Lions. Wideout Jarvis Landry led the Dolphins in receiving touchdowns last year with nine. His departure to the Cleveland Browns opens up scoring opportunities through the air.
As a bold prediction, Gesicki could lead the team in receiving touchdowns.
Stat-line projection: 47 recs, 515, 7 TDs
TE Hayden Hurst, Baltimore Ravens
The Dolphins will contemplate heavy tight end usage, but the Baltimore Ravens have made it their norm for over the past several years. In 2017, the club led the league using 12 personnel groupings at 34 percent, per Sharp Football Stats.
The Ravens selected two tight ends in April's draft, first-rounder Hayden Hurst and third-rounder Mark Andrews. The latter plays more like an oversized wideout. The former offers more capability in blocking. As a result, the South Carolina product should see more snaps in the upcoming season.
Nonetheless, the Ravens' passing attack could be similar to 2011, when two tight ends flourished in that capacity (Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson combined for 933 yards and eight touchdowns). We can count on one player emerging as a viable receiving target at the position this season.
Nick Boyle and Maxx Williams haven't shown much as pass-catchers since they entered the league together in 2015. As a top-25 pick, Hurst will likely have every opportunity to fill that void. He finished his tenure with the Gamecocks on a strong note, tallying 1,175 yards and three touchdowns over the past two campaigns.
Ideally, fantasy owners would like to see Hurst's red-zone numbers increase, but you can expect quarterback Joe Flacco to target him in an offense set to highlight playmakers at the position.
Stat-line projection: 42 recs, 478 yards, 5 TDs