Much like Hannibal Smith, fantasy owners love it when a plan comes together. So when the most complete running back to come out of college in recent memory landed behind the top offensive line in the league, it was easy to slot Ezekiel Elliott atop the rookie draft board.
Even with Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris still on the Cowboys’ roster, Elliott is a no questions asked fantasy RB1. And why not? He’s more talented than DeMarco Murray, who was the league’s top fantasy back his last season in Dallas, and will be given every opportunity to make Jerry Jones look like a genius for taking him fourth overall.
Elliott is clearly the headline act in this rookie class, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the cast is devoid of fantasy value. Here’s a rundown of some of the non-Zeke rookies fantasy owners need to be aware of.
Two teams traded up for franchise quarterbacks this year, with the Rams moving into the top spot and selecting Jared Goff. He should easily best what little competition the Rams’ roster offers, but as a first-year quarterback on a run-heavy team his fantasy upside is limited… In need of a franchise QB of their own, the Eagles slid into the second spot and “settled” for Carson Wentz. With Sam Bradford still under contract the plan in Philly is for Wentz to redshirt for a season and acclimate to the NFL before taking the reins in 2017. It’s the same plan the Eagles employed when new coach Doug Pederson was a placeholder for Donovan McNabb back in 1999… The Super Bowl champions needed to replace both Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler, but rather than turn immediately to Paxton Lynch the Broncos hope to get by with great defense and Mark Sanchez this season.
On the heels of trading for DeMarco Murray, the Titans spent their second-round pick on Derrick Henry, pairing the last two Heisman winners in Tennessee. Long-term Henry can grow alongside Marcus Mariota and an improving offensive line, but last season the Titans ranked 27th in running back carries so initially there doesn’t project to be enough fantasy value to go around… Miami lost Lamar Miller to free agency, but they signed Arian Foster as insurance for unproven Jay Ajayi. That’s going to limit the immediate upside for Kenyan Drake, though since he’s never had more than 107 touches from scrimmage in a season it’s tough to see him as anything more than a complementary piece for the Dolphins—at least until Foster’s next injury… Marshawn Lynch is gone and Thomas Rawls is coming off an injury, so the Seahawks spent third- and fifth-round picks on CJ Prosise and Alex Collins, respectively. Prosise is a converted wide receiver with limited feature-back experience, but his skill set might fit just what the Seattle offense is transitioning into in the post-Beast Mode era. Collins more closely resembles Lynch and Rawls and could wind up being the between-the-tackles half of a thunder-and-lightning backfield combo in Seattle… Kenneth Dixon has the pass-catching chops to be a productive back in a Marc Trestman offense. However, Justin Forsett appears to have that job in Baltimore for at least another season, so Dixon will grapple with Javorius Allen and Lorenzo Taliaferro for a spot in the Ravens’ backfield rotation… Assuming he bounces back from a knee injury that pushed him into the fourth round on draft day, Devontae Booker is almost ideally suited for a Gary Kubiak offense. He could push CJ Anderson for carries in Denver sooner rather than later, and at minimum expect him to climb ahead of Ronnie Hillman on the Broncos’ depth chart… DeAndre Washington may not push Latavius Murray for feature-back carries in Oakland—though that’s not entirely out of the question—but he has the receiving skills to carve out a role in the Raiders’ backfield… The Giants are likely to roll with Rashad Jennings as the lead back in their committee, and Shane Vereen still has dibs on pass-catching duties. But Paul Perkins has the receiving acumen to push and eventually usurp Vereen, and though he’s a tad undersized for feature back work so was Tiki Barber… John Fox has traditionally gravitated towards bigger backs as his bell cow, and Jordan Howard fits that bill. Expect him to challenge for a between-the-tackles role in Chicago as the Bears sort out life after Matt Forte… Wendell Smallwood has the pass-catching—and perhaps more importantly, pass blocking—skills to step into the Darren Sproles role in Philadelphia. And with a new administration in Philly, that role may be opening up in the not-too-distant future… Few seem sold on Matt Jones as the Redskins’ go-to back; if Jay Gruden winds up among that number it could open the door for Keith Marshall, who at one time was the more prized Georgia back in the recruiting class that also included Todd Gurley… The Colts did nothing on draft day to back up Frank Gore, but they did sign undrafted free agent Josh Ferguson, whose explosiveness and skills in the passing game could vault him to the role of Gore insurance on Indy’s wafer-thin running back depth chart… Despite being a classic Rex Ryan back, Jonathan Williams seemed superfluous in the loaded Buffalo backfield. But with Karlos Williams facing a four-game suspension, he may just work his way up to a relevant workload… With Lamar Miller locked and loaded as Houston’s heir apparent to Arian Foster’s touches—and subsequent gaudy fantasy numbers—Tyler Ervin’s upside is limited to some pass catching work and a likely gig as the Texans’ primary return man.
Devoid of playmakers with Josh Gordon’s status up in the air, the Browns tabbed Corey Coleman in the first round to be Robert Griffin III’s go-to receiver. He moves immediately into the WR1 role and should see enough balls to carve out fantasy value, but he certainly won’t be alone as the Browns also added rookies Ricardo Louis, Rashard Higgins and Jordan Payton to flesh out their wafer-thin receiving corps… The Texans selected a pair of running mates for DeAndre Hopkins, with Will Fuller stretching the field and Braxton Miller serving as an offensive Swiss Army knife of sorts. However, Houston also invested big money in free agent running back Lamar Miller and no team ran the ball more last season so there may not be much fantasy love for Brock Osweiler to spread to the secondary tiers of the passing game… Josh Doctson is a good fit in Jay Gruden’s office in Washington, but with DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon in the final year of their respective contracts major fantasy impact is likely a year away… Laquon Treadwell gives the Vikings the big red-zone target Teddy Bridgewater has been lacking, but so long as Adrian Peterson is in purple Treadwell’s opportunities will be limited by Minnesota’s run-heavy offense. He’ll need to score touchdowns to deliver fantasy value… Sterling Shepard won’t be his team’s WR1, but running as wingman to Odell Beckham Jr. has advantages of its own. Plus, Eli Manning has proven capable of feeding multiple fantasy-relevant receivers in the past… Marques Colston is gone, so there’s an opening for a big receiver in New Orleans.—and the Saints expect second-round pick Michael Thomas to fill that role. Underused in college, Thomas has all the physical tools to be an NFL success; having Drew Brees throwing the ball his way doesn’t hurt, either… No team lost a larger share of their wide receiver targets this offseason than the Bengals. While AJ Green remains Andy Dalton’s go-to guy, the departures of Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones—as well as Tyler Eifert’s latest injury—open the door for technician Tyler Boyd to carve out a productive wingman role in Cincinnati… Leonte Carroo was lauded as an undervalued gem in this draft class, but in Miami he’ll have to battle Jarvis Landry and last year’s first-round pick DeVante Parker for targets… If Mike Wallace can’t fill the speed receiver vacancy Torrey Smith left in Baltimore, fourth-round pick Chris Moore has the wheels to run under Joe Flacco’s deep tosses…The Patriots have been hunting for a legitimate downfield threat since Randy Moss hung up his cleats; this year’s entry is Malcolm Mitchell, whose injury-marred college career pushed the speedy pass-catcher into the third day of the draft… The Rams gave new quarterback Jared Goff a couple of outside targets to develop with. Pharoh Cooper has all the tools to be a successful NFL slot receiver, but he’ll need to nudge Tavon Austin outside to claim that role. Mike Thomas—no, the otherone—isn’t as big as the Saints’ version, but he was wildly productive in college and his best football could be ahead of him in Los Angeles.
Hunter Henry will study along side the master, Antonio Gates, in San Diego. That’s bad news for his short-term fantasy value, but rookie tight ends rarely deliver big numbers in Year One anyway… If there’s an exception to that rule this year it’ll be Austin Hooper, who gives the Falcons the pass-catching tight end they’ve dearly missed since Tony Gonzalez retired… Tyler Higbee was expected to be a Day Two draft pick before an April incident led to him facing charges of assault, evading police and public intoxication. Assuming the case is resolved and Higbee takes the field, he could provide Jared Goff with a security blanket. Just in case, however, the Rams selected another tight end, Temarrick Hemingway, in the fifth round… Cleveland went off the board—literally—in reaching for Seth DeValve in the fourth round, but they view him as a mismatch waiting to happen; he could replace last year’s breakout tight end Gary Barnidge sooner rather than later.
If your league still uses the position, don’t forget about Roberto Aguayo. The Bucs traded up into the second round to add the three-time All-American and most accurate kicker in NCAA history, and he’ll be tacking on points for a potent offense led by Jameis Winston, Doug Martin and Mike Evans.