Nobody was surprised when Ezekiel Elliott soared in his rookie season. He came into the NFL with supreme talent and joined a prolific Cowboys offense with one of the most dominant lines in the game. That’s the kind of “perfect storm” of opportunity you dream about in a first-year fantasy player.
Michael Thomas joined a prolific passing attack in New Orleans and acclimated quickly, finishing his rookie season in the top 10 of the receiving ranks.
Little was expected from the Bears’ Jordan Howard . . . until Jeremy Langford went down. Howard rewarded those who snatched him out of free agency with a top-10 finish.
Though the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott started the entire season and posted better overall stats than Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton and Tom Brady, he was never considered a fantasy stud.
It seemed like the Chiefs’ Tyreek Hill scored every time he touched the ball, but those touches were so rare.
And that’s about it for the 2016 rookie class. Each of the others had minimal impact, as is typically — though not always — the case.
So what can we expect this season?
In my view, 2017 should produce similar results, thanks to a couple of stellar prospects and a handful of others with potential.
Remember, when evaluating any rookie’s fantasy potential, that talent is rarely the most decisive factor. More relevant is the opportunity presented to the player, which is also a multi-faceted equation: Does the rookie have a clear path to a starting gig? Will he join a high-powered offense, or one whose punter is its most lethal weapon? Is he starting out healthy, or has he missed invaluable preseason reps due to injury?
With this in mind, let’s examine the Class of 2017.
Cream of the crop
Leonard Fournette, RB, Jaguars. It’s simple, really. The Jaguars want the fourth overall draft pick of 2017 to perform like Elliott, the guy who went fourth overall in 2016, minus the off-field issues. Fournette is a walk-in starter on a team squarely focused on running the ball, though he doesn’t have an All Pro-stacked offensive line to open holes like Elliott does. Nevertheless, this rookie is special — though his upside is limited by the paucity of talent surrounding him.
O.J. Howard, TE, Buccaneers. The 6-6, 251-pounder should be a red-zone beast, and he can regularly exploit mismatches in the middle of the field thanks to the outside speed of Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson. It shouldn’t take Howard long to relegate Cameron Brate to the sidelines, giving Howard a shot at top-10 production at his position.
Christian McCaffrey, RB, Panthers. Unlike Fournette, McCaffrey doesn’t have a clear path to the starting role, much less the workhorse role. When healthy, Jonathan Stewart will get his share of the carries, including around the goal line. But McCaffrey is a multi-faceted weapon whose value is higher in PPR leagues thanks to his receiving prowess.
Dalvin Cook, RB, Vikings. Cook has already seized the lead role in his backfield, thanks in part to Latavius Murray’s lingering ankle injury. Cook’s receiving skills should help him overcome the run-challenged limitations of the Vikings’ offensive line, which should be noted by PPR leaguers in particular.
Corey Davis, WR, Titans. A bum hammy could cost Davis his entire preseason and the invaluable reps with Marcus Mariota that both players need. With Eric Decker joining the receiving corps, Davis may be worked into the rotation slowly upon his return. His physical skills are off the charts, but the Titans’ run-based offense isn’t the best fit for him.
Joe Mixon, RB, Bengals. Few doubt that Mixon is more talented than the two guys currently above him on the depth chart, Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard. Assuming he stays out of trouble (and having seen the horrific video, I personally wish failure upon him), Mixon should earn a starting gig sooner than later. But rather than bringing clarity to the Bengals’ backfield, Mixon’s addition more likely cements its status as a RB-by-committee model.
Late-round fliers at best
Mitch Trubisky, QB, Bears. Who would be surprised if he surpasses Mike Glennon for the starting role? But that won’t
make him a fantasy factor. Maybe next year.
Alvin Kamara, RB, Saints. It’s hard to imagine Kamara getting meaningful touches playing behind both Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson.
John Ross, WR, Bengals. Ross is a burner, but that attribute may be squandered by Andy Dalton’s limited arm strength.
Samaje Perine, RB, Redskins. He’s going to have to outperform Rob Kelley to earn a starting gig, and he didn’t do himself any favors in his preseason debut.
Kareem Hunt, RB, Chiefs. At best, Hunt will split carries with a healthy Spencer Ware. More likely, he will play a secondary role to the starter.
Deshaun Watson, QB, Texans. With only Tom Savage standing between him and starting, Watson’s path seems fairly clear. Even with obvious running skills, he’ll be hard-pressed to achieve fantasy relevance.
Coming next week: My sleeper picks for the 2017 season.
Follow Ladd Biro at the Fantasy Fools blog (fantasy-fools.blogspot.com) and on Twitter @ladd_biro.