Fantasy football rookie preview: Wide receivers

Fantasy football rookie preview: Wide receivers

Fantasy Football Rookie Analysis

Fantasy football rookie preview: Wide receivers

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Now that we have had some time to digest the NFL draft and its aftermath, us fantasy footballers are excitedly waiting to add some of the rookies to our fake teams. Deciding which players have fantasy worth in 2020 comes down to assessing the likelihood of meaningful playing time. The following players are ranked in order of anticipated opportunity and corresponding value.

(Kim Klement, USA TODAY Sports)

Most immediate impact

Jerry Jeudy | Denver Broncos | 6-1, 192 | Alabama

Year
Team
Rec
Yds
Avg
TD
Long
2017
Alabama
14
264
18.9
2
36
2018
Alabama
68
1,315
19.3
14
81
2019
Alabama
77
1,163
15.1
10
85

Jeudy’s all-around game translates so well to the pros. He’s not only the most NFL-ready, in my opinion, the Alabama star is also in the best of circumstances. Denver has been dedicated to getting better on offense and adding speed on the outside. Drew Lock is poised to take a significant step forward in his second year after going 4-1 as a starter, throwing seven touchdowns vs. three picks. The Broncos have a blossoming tight end in Noah Fant, and Melvin Gordon joins the backfield with an above-average receiving ability in tow.

The total unknown here is how quickly Jeudy will pick up the system and whether he’ll get a chance to build chemistry with his new quarterback. Going from the left-handed Tua Tagovailoa to a righty with all of the zip in the world can take a moment to get used to reeling in. Drafting in this climate of uncertainty requires a leap of faith, and Jeudy deserves a WR3 or flex placement in most PPR league formats. Drop him a hair in standard setups.

Henry Ruggs III | Las Vegas Raiders | 6-0, 190 | Alabama

Year
Team
Rec
Yds
Avg
TD
Long
2017
Alabama
12
229
19.1
6
60
2018
Alabama
46
741
16.1
11
57
2019
Alabama
40
746
18.6
7
81

Several receivers caught more passes last year in FBS than Ruggs did during his entire career, but it goes to show traits and not stats matter the most in player evaluation. Ruggs brings a speed game to the Raiders that rivals Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill. The offense has a glaring need for speed, and Ruggs’ addition gives Derek Carr a bona fide can opener from anywhere on the field.

The Raiders still have several weapons to catch the ball. Look for a substantial jump for slot receiver Hunter Renfrow in the receptions column. Darren Waller is still — believe it or not — learning the ropes of being an NFL tight end. Scary. WR Tyrell Williams is not a true No. 1, yet he’s no slouch, either. It is conceivable Ruggs could be force-fed passes on all three levels. Don’t bank on it, though, at least not initially. Playing at Alabama and in the SEC will put Ruggs on the right side of the curve — be patient and realize his current profile is more of a low-volume, occasional high-output guy, which should change in time. Think WR3 or flex, and give him a bump in non-PPR.

CeeDee Lamb | Dallas Cowboys | 6-2, 189 | Oklahoma

Year
Team
Rec
Yds
Avg
TD
Long
2017
Oklahoma
46
807
17.5
7
82
2018
Oklahoma
65
1,158
17.8
11
86
2019
Oklahoma
62
1,327
21.4
14
71

Lamb is about as explosive a wideout as the draft has to offer, and he enters an offensive system that was vertically dangerous in 2019. Mike McCarthy may have replaced Jason Garrett, but the offensive coordinator gig still belongs to Kellen Moore. Lamb joins Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup each averaged more than 15 yards per grab last year. Lamb will get to work out of the slot and provide Dak Prescott yet another lethal threat.

There will be monster efforts put forth by Lamb, and some of them will come in 2020, but knowing when to start him may drive gamers bonkers. There are two studly receivers and arguably the best running back in the game that all will want theirs. Matchup exploitation is almost assuredly how Lamb will get his. Much like his collegiate stat lines illustrate, low-volume, big-production is his thing. Unfortunately, partly because of the team recognition and being a first-round draft choice, fantasy footballers will overvalue Lamb. His year-end stats will look the part of a No. 3, and getting there may be pocked from week to week.

Justin Jefferson | Minnesota Vikings | 6-2, 192 | LSU

Year
Team
Rec
Yds
Avg
TD
Long
2018
LSU
54
875
16.2
6
65
2019
LSU
111
1,540
13.9
18
71

Adam Thielen returns from an injury-marred season as the No. 1 target for Kirk Cousins. No longer beside him is Stefon Diggs, whose disgruntled position toward team use earned him a trip to Buffalo. The previous ground-and-pound offensive directive from head coach Mike Zimmer won’t require a mandate for new OC Gary Kubiak. It comes naturally to him — sometimes at the overall expense of fantasy production by his wideouts.

Jefferson, the 22nd overall pick, could improve his route-running nuances, as with almost any new player. Nevertheless, his physical traits alone position him well against NFL competition. He ran from an spread system in 2019 and was more productive from the slot, where Thielen and then-rookie Bisi Johnson spent about a third of their respective routes last year in Kevin Stefanski’s offense. Diggs barely operated out of the slot (14 percent). The Vikings will look to get Jefferson involved on crossing routes to create mismatches. Tight end Irv Smith Jr. is bound to see an uptick in plays, and former Tennessee Titans WR Tajae Sharpe enters the fray. Will there be enough balls to go around from an offense that ranked dead last in the use of three-wide sets? Kubiak will go three-wide a little more often, and we’re still talking about a high draft pick. Jefferson is a No. 3 or flex target in fantasy.

Van Jefferson | Los Angeles Rams | 6-2, 197 | Florida

Year
Team
Rec
Yds
Avg
TD
Long
2016
Ole Miss
49
543
11.1
3
44
2017
Ole Miss
42
456
10.9
1
40
2018
Florida
35
503
14.4
6
41
2019
Florida
49
657
13.4
6
69

The son of an NFL receivers coach and former wideout, Jefferson’s stats were depressed playing in offenses that didn’t offer much support. He’s an elite route-runner and has above-average hands. Jefferson is unlikely to challenge deep, and he’s often too aggressive for his own good. He fits a role in the Rams’ system, however, and the trade of Brandin Cooks paves the way for an impactful rookie campaign. Depending on how the offseason continues to shape up, Jefferson could go from having an immediate role if there’s a training camp to speak of, or the lack of one punts his timeline as a Year 1 contributor to much later in the season.

This offense has Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods as the top options, and Jefferson is an ideal blend of both. He plays with an insane competitive streak, and Jared Goff won’t have to worry much about the rookie’s understanding of the game once the playbook is digested. Timing and chemistry matter to a crazy degree in this offense, though. Put tremendous emphasis on an offseason program molding Jefferson as a professional rookie. Veteran Josh Reynolds is poised to enjoy a much stronger first half of the year until Jefferson is fully immersed. The range is probably a weekly flex candidate with a training camp to hardly useful without one.

Michael Pittman Jr. | Indianapolis Colts | 6-4, 220 | USC

Year
Team
Rec
Yds
Avg
TD
Long
2016
USC
6
82
13.7
0
21
2017
USC
23
404
17.6
2
54
2018
USC
41
758
18.5
6
65
2019
USC
101
1,275
12.6
11
77

Progression. That sums up his collegiate career. From 2016 through ’19, Pittman improved every year and showed off his true potential. Quarterback Philip Rivers is going to find similarities in Pittman’s game to that of former teammate Mike Williams. Being that Pittman’s father, Michael, was a quality running back in the NFL, perhaps the lack of a traditional offseason makes Year 1 contributions well within the realm of plausible.

Targets are the primary way Pittman the Younger will get into fantasy lineups with regularity. T.Y. Hilton is a full-blown injury liability at this point, and Parris Campbell did next to nothing as a rookie last year to earn the benefit of the doubt he’s ready to ascend. Marcus Johnson and Zach Pascal have flashed a little here and there … no reason to get concerned. Pittman has a clear shot at No. 2 playing time and warrants a PPR selection in the latter stages of fantasy drafts. All upside, low risk. Enjoy!

Tee Higgins | Cincinnati Bengals | 6-4, 215 | Clemson

Year
Team
Rec
Yds
Avg
TD
Long
2017
Clemson
17
345
20.3
2
78
2018
Clemson
59
936
15.9
12
64
2019
Clemson
59
1,167
19.8
13
65

The Bengals have supplied rookie quarterback Joe Burrow with ample weaponry, including Clemson stud Tee Higgins as the first pick in Round 2. In most situations, Higgins’ skills and traits should vault him up the fantasy draft board in relation to his peers, but the lack of a defined offseason program for not only him but his rookie QB is asking a great deal to break in our favor as gamers. The positives: excellent size-speed combo, leaping ability in the red zone, and high-level productivity at an elite program. It will likely be a roller coaster of flashes of brilliance and frustration in 2020 for both the wideout and his new quarterback.

A.J. Green, in theory, is healthy and the No. 1 guy. Tyler Boyd has established himself as an awesome No. 2 target, and John Ross’ speed can be utilized. Zac Taylor’s offensive design is going open up the passing game and spread the wideouts. Having an improving offensive line is a big help, as is the proven backfield of Joe Mixon and Gio Bernard. All of that summed up translates to a season of better year-end numbers than week-to-week consistency for Higgins, but there is crazy upside, especially if Green gets injured yet again. Draft the rookie wideout as a No. 4 if you start two receivers and as a flex in leagues that allows four or more in a lineup.

Laviska Shenault Jr. | Jacksonville Jaguars | 6-2, 220 | Colorado

Year
Team
Rec
Yds
Avg
TD
Long
Att
Yds
Avg
TD
Long
2017
Colorado
7
168
24.0
0
58
2
4
2
0
3
2018
Colorado
86
1,011
11.8
6
89
17
115
6.8
5
49
2019
Colorado
56
764
13.6
4
71
23
161
7
2
23

Plenty of people will disagree with concerns of Shenault being another Cordarrelle Patterson  — two players with superb athletic traits, positional versatility, and a wealth of unrefined skills — but the Colorado product is undoubtedly a better true receiver. Injuries are a significant concern (toe, torn shoulder labrum in 2018, core surgery in Feb. 2020), and Shenault’s punishing style of play suggests more of them in time.

Fantasy footballers have to realize he’s a work-in-progress whose electric ability is exciting. He also is limited in the nuances of being a receiver, and savvy NFL cornerbacks will eat him alive some weeks. Training camp is more important for this player profile than most others. Jay Gruden’s lack of creativity is another concern. Where does Shenault consistently find touches in an offense with three reasonably talented receivers ahead of him, a veteran tight end, and a pair of running backs capable of catching the rock? It will be a whole lot of guesswork as for when to play Shenault in 2020.

Brandon Aiyuk | San Francisco 49ers | 6-0, 201 | Arizona State

Year
Team
Rec
Yds
Avg
TD
Long
2018
Arizona State
33
474
14.4
3
58
2019
Arizona State
65
1,192
18.3
8
86

The trajectory is vertical for Aiyuk, both figuratively and literally. He’s a downfield weapon capable of fluid movements and natural hands. While he absolutely will need to rely on a strong coaching staff to help improve the nuanced areas of being a pro wideout, he came to the right place. We saw rookie Deebo Samuel take advantage of his situation last year. WRs coach Wes Welker should make a difference in the maturation process for Aiyuk, a small-school transfer to ASU.

He’s still figuring it all out, which is scary for NFC West defenses once it clicks. Expecting that light to go on immediately is unwise, particularly so given this COVID-19 climate. Nonetheless, an opportunity to play a real-life WR2 role matters, even if it is closer to a WR3 thanks to tight end George Kittle. As for his fantasy football worth, he’s better in standard scoring by a smidge and rates as roster depth for now.

Denzel Mims | New York Jets | 6-3, 206 | Baylor

Year
Team
Rec
Yds
Avg
TD
Long
2016
Baylor
4
24
6.0
0
10
2017
Baylor
61
1,087
17.8
8
71
2018
Baylor
55
794
14.4
8
55
2019
Baylor
66
1,020
15.5
12
46

Baylor’s system catered to Mims’ natural abilities, and he was mostly consistent over the past three years. There will be an increased learning curve coming from Matt Rhule’s offense; Jets offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains operates a more traditional design and fears getting funky. Mims made a name for himself being overly reliant on the combo of size and athleticism — both important but hardly the be-all, end-all solution in the NFL. The long-striding Mims has drawn criticism for a lack of intensity, and there’s no question his footwork needs a helping hand from pro coaches.

New York desperately needs someone with a little extra go in his game, which is more of Mims’ style. He’s going to be asked to take over the vertical role from Robby Anderson’s departure. Big upside towering over a suspect foundation … Mims probably never develops into a true No. 1 receiver but is in position to be given every chance to one-up Anderson’s checkered stint. Buffalo and New England were the third- and best defenses vs. receivers in fantasy last year, and Miami dramatically upgraded its secondary. This could be an ugly year for Mims more often than not.

(Jesse Johnson, USA TODAY Sports)

So you’re telling me there’s a chance?

KJ Hamler | Denver Broncos | 5-9, 176 | Penn State

Denver’s clear offensive goal in the last two offseasons has been to get faster and add more weapons in the passing game — even the addition of running back Melvin Gordon upgrades the aerial attack. The first-round pick of Jeudy gives Courtland Sutton a No. 2 receiver sidekick for 2020 before probably giving way to Jeudy as the top dog. Hamler is a strictly a slot receiver and a special teams weapon. New offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur will find creative ways to get the rock into Hamler’s hands. The downside is this offense now has so many weapons, a rookie slot receiver could get lost in the fold.

Jalen Reagor | Philadelphia Eagles | 5-11, 195 | TCU

In the best-case scenario for the Eagles, Alshon Jeffery stays healthy, and DeSean Jackson joins him on the field for close to a full season. JJ Arcega-Whiteside steps up as a possession option, and Marquise Goodwin offers another vertical threat. Where does a rookie burner with an issue of (likely) no training camp fit in? All reasonable alternatives: D-Jax gets cut, Jeffery falls to injury yet again, JJAW doesn’t take a leap forward, and Goodwin continues his inconsistent ways. Reagor is an explosive athlete whose ability in the open field can be eye-popping. His dad was an eight-year NFL veteran defensive lineman, so not having an offseason may not be as harsh as for other rookies. Barring a major personnel change, he’s going to be a fringe fantasy asset in 2020 leagues. Draft with caution.

Chase Claypool | Pittsburgh Steelers | 6-4, 229 | Notre Dame

The size-speed combination is off the charts, and the Steelers definitely could utilize both. Provided Ben Roethlisberger returns from his elbow surgery free of major regression and reinjury, he’ll have a promising rookie in Claypool to target in the red zone. Working his way into the mix, the weekly inconsistency could be maddening from former Golden Domer. The Steelers have pass-catching outlets in JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, Eric Ebron and Diontae Johnson all likely ahead of Claypool. An injury is his best route to finding meaningful PT. Late-round fliers only in conventional leagues.

Devin Duvernay | Baltimore Ravens | 5-11, 202 | Texas

Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin will open as the top receivers, with veteran Willie Snead having Lamar Jackson’s trust in contested-catch situations. The Ravens also have one of the best tight ends in football, and the overall offensive theme revolves around pounding the ball. Duvernay brings even more speed to the offense (4.39-second 40 time), also adding another set of reliable hands. Duvernay’s long-term projection is that of a quality WR2, yet it may take a year or two before he is given a legitimate shot.

Antonio Gandy-Golden | Washington Redskins | 6-4, 223 | Liberty

Gandy-Golden is the real deal coming out of the tiny, religious-based Liberty University. The Redskins need to find a reliable option to pair with Terry McLaurin. That guy might already have been on the roster (Kelvin Harmon, Steve Sims Jr.), yet the brass smartly felt the need to bolster the position even further. AGG is expected to challenge for a starting job and is pure upside as a rookie. In time, he should develop into a regular name in fantasy football. Be cautiously optimistic right now, and few receivers entering the league will be as needy of an on-field training camp as this small-school standout.

Tyler Johnson | Tampa Bay Buccaneers | 6-2, 205 | Minnesota

Johnson will take his talented route-running skills into battle for the slot role against Justin Watson. Tom Brady will love to know he can count on Johnson being where he needs to end up, although one has to downgrade this factor a few notches due to the current quarantine climate. It’s hard to not see this as a case of too many mouths to feed.

John Hightower | Philadelphia Eagles | 6-1, 189 | Boise State

The speedy fifth-rounder enters a logjam at wide receiver when everyone is healthy. Given Hightower’s wheels, he will get some attention from fantasy footballers, but the opportunity simply may not materialize in 2020. DeSean Jackson still can run, and Jalen Reagor, if for no reason other than being a first-round pick, is far ahead of Hightower on the depth chart at this point. Hightower could emerge as being fantasy-relevant with another injury from Jackson.

Bryan Edwards | Las Vegas Raiders | 6-3, 215 | South Carolina

Injuries have marred the whole picture of Edwards’ collegiate career. He missed time with a meniscus tear, concussion and sports hernia — all before breaking his foot in February while preparing for the draft. Jon Gruden will love the physicality and willingness to get dirty trying to grab a football. Las Vegas likely will bury Edwards on the depth chart to begin whatever happens for an offseason program/training camp.

Gabriel Davis | Buffalo Bills | 6-3, 212 | Central Florida

The top three wideouts are pretty etched into stone, and the one has to presume Buffalo would call on Duke Williams or Isaiah McKenzie in a pinch before turning the keys over to Davis. In time, Davis should crack a starting lineup. It won’t be in 2020 without injury assistance.

(Thomas J. Russo, USA TODAY Sports)

Roster fodder?

Isaiah Coulter | Houston Texans | 6-3, 190 | Rhode Island

The new-look Houston receiving corps doesn’t come without injury concerns. Brandin Cooks is one concussion away from possibly having to retire, and Randall Cobb has injury history of note. Will Fuller is quite possibly the most fragile of wideouts in the game. Keke Coutee was banged up as a rookie and fell out of favor. Coulter is worth monitoring but not drafting.

Collin Johnson | Jacksonville Jaguars | 6-6, 220 | Texas

Size and hands work in his favor for an early role with the Jaguars, albeit likely one of virtually no fantasy worth. Predicting when a fifth-round receiver may be thrown to in the red zone is a fool’s errand most of the time.

Jauan Jennings | San Francisco 49ers | 6-3, 208 | Tennessee

Jennings has a bunch of dudes in front of him, but that’s the silver lining — outside of Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk, they’re just guys. Jennings’ 6-foot-3 frame could come in handy, but he is a seventh-rounder and will be forced to earn everything.

Dezmon Patmon | Indianapolis Colts | 6-4, 228 | Washington State

Injury history for T.Y. Hilton and Parris Campbell could help put Patmon on the field for serious playing time, but the rookie’s size is his most likely opportunity to play limited snaps in the red zone. There’s no fantasy value on draft day here, but the door isn’t locked shut, either.

K.J. Osborn | Minnesota Vikings | 6-0, 206 | Miami (Fla.)

Minnesota will remain heavily invested in the running game. Trading away Stefon Diggs created the need for a wideout selection early on, which was Jefferson, but that leaves Osborn in the conversation for the No. 3 role if he can beat out Olabisi Johnson and Tajae Sharpe. Adam Thielen’s struggle with injuries last year also is a factor. Osborn is best used out of the slot.

Quintez Cephus | Detroit Lions | 6-1, 207 | Wisconsin

One has to imagine the rookie enters the summer behind Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, Danny Amendola and Geronimo Allison. Nevertheless, injury history for those guy is rather noteworthy. Cephus is a poor man’s Jones in many ways but lacks the straight-line speed of the veteran.

K.J. Hill | Los Angeles Chargers | 6-0, 195 | Ohio State

Hill gets to battle Joe Reed for the No. 3 role in an offense that probably opens with Tyrod Taylor before he eventually cedes the job to No. 6 overall pick Justin Herbert. Reed offers more athleticism, whereas Hill is a reliable target in the intermediate area of the field.

Joe Reed | Los Angeles Chargers | 6-1, 215 | Virginia

A fifth-round pick, Reed went two rounds ahead of Hill. His athleticism probably gives him an edge for the No. 3 gig. Los Angeles has plenty of weapons in the passing game ahead of that role, which stymies the rookie’s upside a great deal. Watch this situation play out … there likely won’t be enough footballs to go around without an injury, however.

Quez Watkins | Philadelphia Eagles | 6-2, 190 | Southern Mississippi

Philadelphia spent two picks in the first five rounds on wideouts before taking Watkins in Round 6. Any chance of seeing the field will require some help. After last year, however, durability in Philly’s receiving corps wasn’t a thing.

James Proche | Baltimore Ravens | 5-11, 193 | SMU

The 2019 FBS co-leader in receptions (111), Proche is best suited for the slot. He can line up outside, though, and the creativity of the offensive designs could take advantage of his route-running-hands combo. However, volume isn’t going to be there, and a small-school rook with no offseason program screams “stay away” in fantasy.

No clear path to fantasy utility

Requires multiple injuries and/or personnel moves to have any realistic shot at seeing the field enough to matter in 2020 fantasy football.

Darnell Mooney | Chicago Bears | 5-11, 174 | Tulane

Donovan Peoples-Jones | Cleveland Browns | 6-2, 208 | Michigan

Tyrie Cleveland | Denver Broncos | 6-2, 205 | Florida

Freddie Swain | Seattle Seahawks | 6-0, 199 | Florida

Isaiah Hodgins | Buffalo Bills | 6-4, 209 | Oregon State

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