Top 12 fantasy football rookies

Top 12 fantasy football rookies

NFL Draft

Top 12 fantasy football rookies

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Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020 NFL draft was held virtually and went off as well as could be hoped. The viewing experience lacked the excitement of an entire room erupting in cheers and boos, but it was the most-viewed draft in history and a welcomed respite from watching reruns of dart tournaments.

That all said – 2020 could be a year to avoid rookies or at least assign them less value. These new players may not get the same minicamps and OTA’s of past years. If the COVID-19 virus quarantine extends into May and beyond, it shortens the time that rookies can learn plays and mesh with their new teams. If they shorten the NFL season, the effect would be even worse.  

It would impact quarterbacks significantly, and any receivers would have a tougher path to earning playing time. Running backs do need practice and drills but would have a better shot at stepping up without significant time in camp or the preseason. Then again, no team wants to watch their rookie back miss that blitz pickup that obliterates their quarterback.

The only quarterbacks that seem a lock to play this year are Tua Tagovailoa and Joe Burrows. Both went to teams at the bottom of the standings and are unlikely to offer much fantasy value.

Notable is that only 16 running backs were drafted as opposed to 26 last year. Since 2011, there were never fewer than 21 running backs taken so the position just wasn’t as important this year. Clyde Edwards-Helaire (1.32) barely sneaked into the first round. Odder still, only three backs were selected after the fourth round. There were 15 taken after the fourth round of 2019.

This was a wideout-heavy draft as expected with six first-rounders and seven more in the second round. A total of 37 were selected. Rookies rarely produce fantasy value outside of running backs and wide receivers, and this year that seems even more certain.

1. RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire, LSU (KC – 1.32) 

The Chiefs first pick was a minor surprise since most boards saw D’Andre Swift and Jonathan Taylor as the first two. The LSU junior is fresh from a National Championship in a season where he ran for 1,414 yards and caught 55 passes for 453 yards and scored 17 times.  That’s a total of 1,867 yards over 15 games. Against the best of college football.

Edwards-Helaire is 5-7 and 207 pounds and will look to become the next Kareem Hunt. Any starting back is a must-own in this offense, much a battle-tested player that can run, catch and even return, and was valued higher than any other back. Last year’s rookie Darwin Thompson was a flop, and no Chief’s back gained more than 500 rushing yards in 2019. Hunt’s 2017 rookie season produced 1,782 yards and 11 touchdowns though he was drafted two rounds later than Edwards-Helaire. No question which rookie has the highest ceiling this year.

2. RB Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin (IND – 2.09)

None of the other backs are slam-dunks to become immediate starters but Taylor brings a resume to the Colts that should at least have him pair with Marlon Mack. After three-seasons in Indy, Mack finally broke the 1,000-yard mark as a rusher (247-1,091-8) but had nearly no role as a receiver. And he is a free agent in 2021. Taylor may timeshare for this season before taking over next year. He may outright win the starting job by this September.

Taylor’s only knock is his heavy usage in college but that’s more likely to be an issue in a few years. In all three seasons at Wisconsin, he ran for around 2,000 yards. He totaled 55 touchdowns and won the Doak Walker Award as the best back in the nation – twice. He’s a durable, downhill rusher that can catch the ball. The Colts have a good line, and Philip Rivers should make defenses respect the pass. If the Colts go with a committee, Taylor will still offer fantasy value. If he ends up taking a primary role, he could end up as one of the more productive backs in the NFL.

3. RB Cam Akers, Florida St. (LAR – 2.20) 

The Rams parted ways with Todd Gurley but did nothing in free agency to address those missing 14 touchdowns from last year. Malcolm Brown sits atop the depth chart after only gaining 255 rushing yards last year for a personal best after five seasons with the Rams. And he only managed a 3.7 yard-per-carry average. Enter Cam Akers who lasted until the 2.20 pick but was just the fourth back selected this year.

His high point at Florida State was running for 1,144 yards and 14 touchdowns on 231 rushes last year. He brings all the prototypical size and 4.47 40-time speed to bear each time he carries the ball. Akers is a violent runner and a potential workhorse.  He totaled 69 receptions over his three seasons at FSU and is a mature, high-character guy that was limited in college by a below-average offensive line. He could very well be even better in the NFL than he was in college.

4. WR Jerry Jeudy, Alabama (DEN – 1.15)

The star wideout brings the complete package to the Broncos, with a 4.45 40-time and a 6-1, 193-pound frame. He left Alabama after two straight seasons of 1,100+ yards and at least ten scores per year as the primary receiver. Jeudy can play any position and offers precise route running for second-year quarterback Drew Lock. He brings all the qualities of a No. 1 wideout and is a true threat to score whenever he has the ball in his hands.

The Broncos already have Courtland Sutton, who broke out with 1,112 yards last year as the only notable receiver. No other wideout managed more than 367 yards, so Jeudy should slide right in as the starting No. 2 from Week 1. On a team with no true No. 1 receiver, Jeudy may have filled that role even as a rookie but with a still green quarterback in Lock and Sutton there as the primary target, Jeudy will get to develop without double coverage and yet stay on the field for all plays.

5. RB D’Andre Swift, Georgia (DET – 2.03)

This is one of those unfortunate matches where a talented back – maybe the best in this class – ends up on a team where historically running backs go to die. Since 1998 when Barry Sanders left, the Lions have only produced one running back that ended in the Top-10 for fantasy – Reggie Bush in 2013 (No. 7). In the 22 years since Sanders, only two backs recorded 1,000 yards in a season. Kevin Jones’s lone good campaign was back in 2004. Kerryon Johnson was the most recent flop after two injury-marred seasons.

Swift could change that lengthy trend. He was considered as the most complete, ready-to-start back in the draft as the freshest product from the running back factory at Georgia. He has three-down ability and can catch and block. Johnson flashed talent when he was healthy in the last two seasons and will still be a factor.  Swift could take over as the primary at some point – possibly Week 1 – but he’ll still share the load and faces that long-time curse trend that has held so many other rushers back in Detroit. The Lions spent a 1.30 pick on Kevin Jones back in 2004. Swift is the highest pick since and spawns optimism that the Lions may have actually found a true feature back.

6. WR Henry Ruggs III, Alabama (LVR – 1.12)

Ruggs is a jaw-dropping speedster who recorded a 4.27 40-time at the NFL Combine just short of the all-time fastest. He paired with Jerry Jeudy at Alabama though he never caught more than 46 passes in a season. Ruggs was a deep threat while Jeudy provided the possession role. At 5-11, 188-pounds, Ruggs is bigger than most fast wideouts and can be more than just the occasional toss down the sideline.

He has great hands and elite acceleration. Ruggs is also a good blocker and can return kicks and punts. He is truly a threat to score on any play with speed to make defenders give up trying to catch him. He was the first wideout taken in the draft – a small surprise but every much in keeping with the old Al Davis infatuation with speed. He’ll slot in as a starting split end across from Tyrell Williams. The Raiders will look to involve Ruggs as a receiver and runner and get the ball in his hands as often as possible.

7. WR Justin Jefferson, LSU (MIN – 1.22)

The LSU junior started the last two seasons and blew up as a junior with 111 catches for 1,540 yards and 18 touchdowns. Jefferson was a big part of Joe Burrows’ success and their national championship. That he lasted until the 1.22 pick was a mild surprise since the 6-3, 192-pounder has all the marks of a future star in the NFL. The former slot receiver was a pass sponge over the middle with a huge catch radius and the ability to shield coverage. A capable blocker, Jefferson has been a possession receiver with success at the highest levels of college play.

The Vikings lost Stephon Diggs after back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. Jefferson projects as the Week 1 starter across from Adam Thielen in an offense that has settled down to running the ball and focusing on just two receivers when they throw. Coming from the wide-open spread offense at LSU, Jefferson will have some adjustments that will take time. But he falls into an advantageous situation with minimal competition for a starting role.

8. WR Jalen Reagor, TCU (PHI – 1.21)

The Eagles needed a starter-quality wideout from this draft, and they spent their 1.21 pick on Jalen Reagor as the fourth drafted for 2020. He spiked in college as a sophomore with 72 catches for 1,106 yards and 13 touchdowns before TCU went with a rookie quarterback last year, and all production dropped. Reagor is a versatile weapon that can also run the ball. He can run the entire route tree and is a physical receiver. He can wrestle away contested passes and then runs like a running back when he has the ball.

Reagor starts out as the slot receiver for the Eagles with Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson on either side. That will depress his volume of catches and even more so if the preseason or season is shortened. There was criticism when he went ahead of Justin Jefferson and Brandon Aiyuk, but Reagor gets to learn the game at a slower pace as the No. 3 receiver.

9. WR CeeDee Lamb, Oklahoma (DAL – 1.17)

This pick had Jerry Jones dancing on his $250M yacht. And well he should – Lamb was debated to be the best wideout and was not expected to be there 17 picks into the draft. The three-year starter at Oklahoma is yet another well-rounded wideout that maximizes his size (6-2) and speed (4.5 40-time) with his elite receiving skills. Lamb is dangerous when he has the ball in his hands. He is great in the open field and aggressively attacks the ball when contested.

Lamb enters the NFL with the skills and background to suggest an eventual No. 1 wideout but that won’t happen for a couple of seasons at the least. Amari Cooper signed a new contract and will be around for at least two years. Michael Gallup broke out with 1,107 yards in 2019 and remains the flanker. Lamb starts out in the slot where Randall Cobb ended with 55 catches for 828 yards and five scores from that position last year.

10. RB J.K. Dobbins, Ohio St. (BAL – 2.23)

The Ohio State star was a three-year starter and ended with 301 carries for 2,003 yards and 23 touchdowns as a junior in 2019 – all in just 14 games. He was the fifth back off the board this year though he was often considered Top-3. Dobbins is equally as dangerous in pro-style and shotgun formations and has a competent set of hands with over 20 catches every season. He’s durable despite his aggressive, if not violent rushing style and always produced no matter the quality of defense he faced.

While the Ravens already rely on Mark Ingram as the primary back, there’s plenty of room for Dobbins in this offense since they run the ball more than any other team. And Ingram often misses a game or two with a minor injury. Gus Edwards ran for 711 yards last year and all that – and more – will now be given to Dobbins as the Ravens become an even better rushing team. Ingram is under contract through 2021, but Dobbins is expected to take over as the primary rusher at some point.

11. RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Vanderbilt (TB – 3.12)

The senior played two years at Iowa before finishing up at Vanderbilt and enters the NFL as a mature 22-year-old. He’s a one-cut runner that was good in everything and yet not great in anything. He possesses prototypical size (5-10, 214 pounds) and speed (4.51) that translates into an effective power back. He ran for over 1,000 yards in his two seasons at Vanderbilt and scored 24 touchdowns over that time. He added 28 receptions for 270 yards as well last year.

Vaughn’s fantasy appeal largely stems from his situation. The Buccaneers parted ways with Peyton Barber who ran 154 times last year and 234 carries in 2018. Ronald Jones is the primary back, but this is a committee backfield under head coach Bruce Arians. Vaughn may not offer the elite skills of the first few backs drafted this year, but he’s certain to improve upon what Barber accomplished in Tampa Bay. If the passing offense remains dangerous under Tom Brady, Jones and Vaughn will enjoy softer defenses.

12. RB AJ Dillon, Boston College (GB – 2.30)

Pardon me, what? The Packers did what with their second-round pick?

AJ Dillon became the sixth running back drafted, surprisingly, when Green Bay opted to grab this bruising power rusher. Dillon started all three seasons at Boston College and always topped 1,100 rushing yards. His junior season resulted in 318 carries for 1,685 yards and 15 touchdowns. The 6-0, 250-pounder is bigger than Derrick Henry (6-3, 238 pounds) and like him had almost no role as a receiver. This is a power back that runs a 4.53/40. He is a natural addition to a team looking for a between-the-tackles rusher with a nose for the end zone.

We just didn’t expect that would be the Packers. Dillon projects as the immediate No. 2 back with Jamaal Williams slipping back to No. 3. Jones had a breakout 2019 when he ran for 1,084 yards and scored 19 touchdowns. Jones also caught 49 passes which should remain safe but those 236 carries may see a decline, along with the trips to the end zone. From the one-yard line, Dillon (250 pounds) should see at least some of the work that went to Jones (208 pounds). Jones hasn’t always been durable and is in the final year of his rookie deal. A committee approach appears back in vogue for the Packers.

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