With the 2016 NFL Draft completed and teams about to begin rookie mini camps, the most exciting part of the offseason is behind us. Now that all the speculation is over as far as who will go where, we can get set for the next wave of fantasy football drafts. While we’re all excited about every rookie, let’s look at which ones are worthy of attention come draft time. For this analysis I’ll be focusing on rookie performances over the past five seasons and which rookies can potentially be relevant in 12-team leagues this year.
In the past five years, four rookie quarterbacks have finished the season as one of the 12-highest scoring quarterbacks in the league. The four to do so were Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin, and Russell Wilson. The main caveat with those players is that, with the exception of Wilson, each one was far more lauded coming out of college than any of the QBs in this year’s draft class. This year’s crop is probably more comparable to that of the past three seasons, and none of those players cracked the top 12 in their rookie campaigns. Of the 15 selected this season, three garner special attention.
Jared Goff – Los Angeles Rams
As the first overall pick, it’s not all too surprising that Goff starts this list off. It would be shocking if he wasn’t the Week 1 starter for Los Angeles after accruing a touchdown to interception ratio of 3.2 in three years of college at Cal. The team has nothing to lose and they’ll want to get the new face of their franchise immediate experience. Throwing a staggering 1,569 passes at a 62.3 percent completion rate, he was hailed as the most pro-ready quarterback in this year’s class due to playing in a pro-style system. Coupled with Todd Gurley to fall back on and Lance Kendricks as a safety valve, Goff will have legitimate opportunity to put together a successful rookie year. We’ll see if he can prove that his experience translates.
Paxton Lynch – Denver Broncos
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Being selected by the reigning champs in the first round definitely puts a player in a position to succeed, and that is the position that Lynch finds himself in. With Denver, Lynch has arguably the best defense in the NFL, a strong receiving corps headed by Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, and a dual-threat running game of C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman. The biggest detractor for Lynch is the same thing it was prior to the draft: he’s in need of development. That being said, he showed clear signs of progress while in school. Lynch averaged 5.9 yards per attempt in 2013, but he upped it all the way to 8.5 in 2015. He saw his yards per game go from 171.3 to 290.5, and his touchdown to interception ratio go from 0.9 to 7.0 in that same span. If his development continues at the same rate he’ll obviously be a force to be reckoned with. Currently, signs point to the Broncos opening the season with Mark Sanchez under center, and though Lynch may take the reigns at some point, it’s hard to justify taking a rookie in a 12-team league until he’s confirmed as the starter. Lynch could be a great in-season pickup, but buyer beware if you draft him for early season action.
Carson Wentz – Philadelphia Eagles
Wentz finds himself in a situation comparable to that of Paxton Lynch in that it’s unclear when he’ll see time as a starter during his rookie season. The Eagles have weapons at every skill position on offense: Darren Sproles and Ryan Matthews at running back, Brent Celek and Zach Ertz at tight end, and Jordan Matthews and Nelson Agholor at wide receiver. Philadelphia clearly views Wentz as the quarterback of their future, but the team seems committed to starting Sam Bradford for now. Though Wentz has every measureable of a successful NFL quarterback (6-5, 237 pounds, 10-inch hands, 4.77 second 40-yard dash), he played against Division II talent for his entire collegiate career and threw only 612 passes in his four years at North Dakota (by comparison, Jared Goff threw 529 passes in 2015 alone). Barring any development in which Wentz becomes the Week 1 starter, he should probably be avoided in 12-team drafts, though he could be an enticing mid-season addition if he takes over as starter midway through the 2016 campaign.
Unlike the situation with this year’s quarterbacks, it would be a major surprise if not a single rookie running back was worthy of being a season-long starter. Rather than looking at rookies to finish in the top 12, let’s focus on the guys who finished as one of the top 30 backs in their rookie campaign. Since 2011, 15 rookies (Todd Gurley, David Johnson, T.J. Yeldon, Jeremy Hill, Tre Mason, Eddie Lacy, Le’Veon Bell, Giovani Bernard, Zac Stacy, Doug Martin, Alfred Morris, Trent Richardson, Vick Ballard, DeMarco Murray, and Roy Helu) have finished as one of the top 30 backs. Last year, both Gurley and Johnson finished in the top eight as far as fantasy production. So, in looking at the current class, it seems inevitable that at least a few of the 23 who were drafted will contribute significantly throughout the year.
Ezekiel Elliott – Dallas Cowboys
Elliott is the most obvious selection of this entire analysis. Not only is he the best running back in the class, rushing and receiving for a combined total of 4,125 yards and 41 touchdowns over the past two seasons for the Buckeyes, but he ended up in the best position of any back and should be the first rookie drafted in every standard league this year. Dallas’ offensive line is easily one of the best in the NFL, and their passing attack is dangerous when Tony Romo and Dez Bryant are healthy. The Cowboys admittedly have Alfred Morris and Darren McFadden clogging up the backfield, but no team, especially the Cowboys, should take a running back with the fourth overall pick and make him split a bulk of the carries. With everybody healthy to start the year, Elliott should see light boxes and huge holes to run through. Couple that with his bruising size and speed (6-0, 225 pounds, 4.47 second 40-yard dash) and he could be one of the NFL’s best backs this year.
C.J. Prosise – Seattle Seahawks
Prosise is a country mile behind Elliott when it comes to expectations for the coming season, but he too could carve out a recurring spot in 12-team lineups. With Marshawn Lynch gone from Seattle, Thomas Rawls and Prosise are the top backs and could end up splitting time. The advantage Prosise has is his ability to catch out of the backfield. He averaged over 400 yards receiving in his last two seasons at Notre Dame, whereas Rawls had 99 total receiving yards over the span of his four years spent in college and only 76 yards in 13 games played last season with the Seahawks. If Prosise can legitimize himself as a receiving threat out of the backfield, he’ll likely be a fantasy-relevant option for the duration of 2016. Admittedly, however, Seattle tailbacks combined for just 434 receiving yards in 2015, so Prosise could either revolutionize their offense or fall victim to Darrell Bevell’s style of play calling.
Much like running backs, in most seasons there are multiple rookie receivers who end up as key players, finishing in the top 30 in production at their position. In fact, 11 wideouts (Amari Cooper, Odell Beckham, Mike Evans, Kelvin Benjamin, Jordan Matthews, Sammy Watkins, Keenan Allen, T.Y. Hilton, Justin Blackmon, A.J. Green, and Julio Jones) have finished in the top 30 over the past five years, and at least one did so each season. Given how pass-happy the NFL has become, it’s not shocking that 31 wide receivers were taken in the 2016 draft, seven of which were selected in the first two rounds. That being said, odds are only a few have breakout rookie seasons.
Laquon Treadwell – Minnesota Vikings
Treadwell ended up in the best position of any receiver, going to a young, talented Vikings team that was in need of help on the outside. He will be able to step in as one of the team’s top options immediately, alongside Stefon Diggs. In fact, Treadwell will likely be the team’s go-to red zone threat as well due to his 6-2 frame, 33⅜-inch arms, and 33-inch vertical leap. Couple that with Adrian Peterson forcing teams to stack the box and a capable passer in Teddy Bridgewater, and we could be looking at the highest-scoring rookie receiver in Treadwell, who put up 1,153 yards and 11 touchdowns in his final college season at Ole Miss.
Will Fuller – Houston Texans
Fuller is likely in the second-best position, being selected by the Texans. He’ll be the team’s No. 3 option, and will compete with Cecil Shorts for the No. 2 job behind DeAndre Hopkins. Given his speed (4.32 dash time at the NFL Combine), Fuller provides new quarterback Brock Osweiler with another deep threat, in addition to Hopkins, who can take the top off of any defense.
Sterling Shepard – New York Giants
Third on the list is Shepard, who is in a similar position to both Treadwell and Fuller in that he’s not immediately the top-billed receiver heading into training camp. Shepard will compete with Victor Cruz for the second receiver slot behind Odell Beckham for the Giants. With a proven quarterback in Eli Manning and teams forced to put extra coverage on Beckham, Shepard could carve out a role right away with New York. Shepard (5-10, 194 pounds, 9¾-inch hands, 4.48 second 40-yard dash) is comparable in size and measurables to Beckham (5-11, 198 pounds, 10-inch hands, 4.43 40-yard dash) and could be a tough cover for most teams’ second or third corner.
Unlike any of the positions mentioned previously, it is extremely rare for a tight end to put up respectable numbers in his rookie campaign. The last player to finish in the top 12 for tight ends in their rookie season was Rob Gronkowski, who’s proven to be a generational talent at the position. In this year’s draft, 11 tight ends were taken, but none will likely end up being relevant.
Austin Hooper – Atlanta Falcons
Hooper was selected by the Falcons and appears to be the second option behind Jacob Tamme, who had a career year in 2015 by recording 657 yards and one touchdown. He could possibly unseat Tamme as the starter, though even that doesn’t make it likely he becomes a top performer. Hooper has all the measurables of a top performer, however, towering over most cornerbacks and linebackers with his 6-4, 254 pound frame and more than adequate speed for his size (4.72 40-yard dash). However, he had just 74 total receptions for 937 yards during his two seasons as Stanford’s starting tight end. He’ll have to drastically improve on those numbers in his first NFL season to be considered relevant, and of course, his competition will be much stiffer.
Hunter Henry – San Diego Chargers
Henry is in a similar position with the Chargers as Austin Hooper is with the Falcons. He’s stuck behind future hall of famer Antonio Gates, and it seems unlikely that Henry gets a chance to put up a solid season. However, Gates is coming off one of the worst seasons of his career, recording 630 yards and five touchdowns in 11 games. Given that Gates is 35-years-old and is seemingly in the twilight of his career, there could be an opportunity for Henry to play a significant amount. Though past rookie production doesn’t bode well for Henry, on paper he looks the part of a dominant player. Standing at 6-5, 250 pounds, Henry is a tough cover for most any corner, plus his 4.66 second 40 time and 31.5-inch vertical leap makes him a difficult cover for linebackers. If he somehow jumps Gates, and plays as well as he looks on paper, he could be the best rookie tight end we’ve seen since Gronk.
Kicker, Not Kickers
Lastly, we come to the kickers. In most any other year this category could be skipped, as kickers are taken near the end of all 12-team drafts and can be easily replaced. However, when Tampa Bay decided to trade up to the second round and select Roberto Aguayo, this category became relevant. It is hit and miss for rookie kickers in the NFL. Some years no rookies even start and some years there are several.
Roberto Aguayo – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Aguayo is the only rookie who should be on anybody’s radar, and as the highest-selected kicker since Sebastian Janikowski, he’ll be expected to produce immediately. In his three-year college career (that’s right, he left early, AS A KICKER!), Aguayo made 267 of 276 kicks, counting extra points, and he never missed from less than 40 yards. He’s one of the best kickers in college history and figures to have a long career in the NFL. Aguayo is definitely worth a spot on your team, even if you wait to pick up a kicker after the draft is done.
All this being said, I’d be foolish to tell you that no other rookies will have highly productive seasons, or that others won’t have weeks in which they are worthy of being started, but the guys mentioned are in the best position to succeed based on talent and their respective teams’ situations. Some other guys to keep an eye on are Kenyan Drake of the Dolphins, Corey Coleman of the Browns, Josh Doctson of the Redskins, and Derrick Henry of the Titans. As the multitude of mock drafts and NFL magazines (including RotoWire’s very own) get released over the summer and the season nears, don’t forget about the new guys. Consistency and past production does add value to players, but often it’s the new faces that take a team over the top. Are these the guys? Only time will tell.