Every year we get all hot and bothered for the new fantasy football toys. The rookies come in and take our fantasy football drafts by storm. Right now, Clyde Edwards-Helaire is arguably a first-round selection. CEH joins Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley as running backs with that distinction in recent memory. By and large, unfortunately, we don’t really get plug-and-play starters out of the rookie class. That isn’t to say that fantasy football rookies can’t provide some value. The key to fantasy football drafts is creating shortlists to draft from, so let’s make some fantasy football rookies shortlists and go from there.
First and foremost: fantasy football rookies that will not be discussed at all here are tight ends and wide receivers drafted outside the first three rounds. Fantasy football rookie tight ends are, by and large, entirely useless. The hit rate for wide receivers who go outside the first three rounds as fantasy football rookies is under 2%. They get better as they age, but you’re looking at a sub-1-in-50 shot at a guy who goes last turning in a top-36 fantasy football season.
On the flip side, one-in-five wide receivers drafted in the first three rounds end up as top-36 WR as fantasy football rookies. So, no WR after the third round, and no tight ends, got it? We also won’t worry about late-round depth running backs deeper than RB2 on their depth charts or QB3s on their roster if there isn’t a clear path to playing time without multiple injuries. These are guys like Eno Benjamin, Raymond Calais, and Ben DiNucci, for example. Basically, if they aren’t on this list, don’t bother learning their names for most of your drafts or in the first couple weeks of the season.
Plug and Play Starter(s)
These are guys (well, this is a guy…) that you want to get at the top of your drafts. If you walk out with him, you could be sitting pretty, raising the trophy at the end of the season.
Clyde Edwards Helaire, Running Back, Kansas City Chiefs (Round 1, Pick 32)
CEH is a Maurice Jones-Drew 2.0 with lots of pass-catching chops and a small, strong frame. He’s a borderline first-round pick with Damien Williams sitting out 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns. People want to knock on him for a lack of pass blocking chops, but the Chiefs only had their running back pass block on about 5 snaps per game last season.
Priority Draft Picks
These pieces could be a key cog in a fantasy championship and are going at a good discount for their potential upside. They may be partially obscured but have a chance to contribute right away. What separates this tier from tier three is that these guys have league-winning upside.
Jonathan Taylor, Running Back, Indianapolis Colts (Round 2, Pick 9)
Taylor is the most talented back to come out since Saquon Barkley two years ago, and had he gone to the Chiefs, he probably would have been in CEH’s spot. Taylor is currently contending with Marlon Mack, but that won’t last very long. He’s been a monster in practice and looks every bit “the guy she told you to not worry about” to your Marlon Mack. His draft price is rising alongside his camp hype, so if you select him, don’t panic if he starts off slow. He has to shed Marlon Mack before unleashing his true potential. His downside is that he does not catch passes, a role solidified by Nyheim Hines on the Colts.
D’Andre Swift, Running Back, Detroit Lions (Round 2, Pick 3)
Taylor, Swift, and J.K. Dobbins rounded out the top-tier of running backs in this class, and Swift has the second-smallest resistance to playing time this year. Don’t take my word for it, Kerryon Johnson, his presumptive roadblock to production, said this about Swift: “I can’t learn anything from Swift because the way Swift’s knees bend and hips work, I can’t do any of that. So when he comes up and does his little shaky-dake whatever thing, I can’t do that, so I just say, ‘Good job.’” Sounds like a guy who won’t be in Swift’s way for very long.
Cam Akers, Running Back, Los Angeles Rams (Round 2, Pick 20)
Akers graduated from the camp battle tier this past weekend after a hamstring injury to Darrell Henderson left Akers atop the depth chart with only Malcolm Brown to challenge him. I love Cam Akers’ opportunity this year. He has great hands and an exceptional jump cut. His big downside is that pass protection could be a problem for him, but if the Rams have him running routes, that won’t matter. Todd Gurley was an active detriment to this team last season and still scored 14 touchdowns; don’t forget that.
J.K. Dobbins, Running Back, Baltimore Ravens (Round 2, Pick 23)
Dobbins has to wait for Mark Ingram to cede the RB1 role before he has fantasy football value for 2020… or does he? The 2019 Ravens doled out over 200 touches to running backs who are far worse than Dobbins, so he could be due for 12-15 touches right out of the gate for the potent Baltimore offense. Dobbins is a plug-and-play three-down back that Ravens’ GM Eric DeCosta said it would be a dereliction of duty if they passed on him. He could be a second-half league winner in this offense.
CeeDee Lamb, Wide Receiver, Dallas Cowboys (Round 1, Pick 17)
Lamb is the only priority wide receiver I see coming out of this draft class. There are guys like Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs who are in the same talent tier as Lamb, but who don’t quite have the same opportunity. Lamb was my #1 wide receiver going into the draft, and he reminds me a lot of Odell Beckham Jr in his ability to take any slant route to the house. The more I think about Lamb, the more I want him on my roster; he could be the best WR in Dallas, a team that has 190 targets up for grabs and only added CeeDee Lamb to the mix.
Potential Breakouts with Questionable Volume
These are talented rookies who have someone (or several someones) standing between them and big fantasy football production. They’re worth a shot as draft-and-hold guys, hoping the depth chart shakes out in front of them.
Zack Moss, Running Back, Buffalo Bills (Round 3, Pick 22)
I almost created a “Zack Moss Tier” of players here. I love Zack Moss, I think that he’s a bowling ball that is nearly impossible to bring down when he gets a head of steam. But I also love Devin Singletary; it’s a hard nut to crack. Luckily, it seems as though Buffalo wants to punt on deciding as well, declaring Moss to have a Frank Gore 2019 role in the offense. Frank Gore had far too many cracks at the end zone and averaged 14 touches per game before the Bills banished him to the nether realm after he blew three goal-line carries without scoring against Washington.
Henry Ruggs, Wide Receiver, Las Vegas Raiders (Round 1, Pick 12)
If Ruggs was the only pass catcher the Raiders added in the draft, he would probably be another tier up. If he wasn’t getting outshined in camp by Bryan Edwards, he probably would have been another tier up. It’s entirely possible that Ruggs ends up leading the rookie class in fantasy points, but given his DeSean Jackson-esque boom/bust profile, he could also lead the first-round rookie WRs in goose eggs. The Raiders have a ton of mouths to feed in the passing game, and it seems like Jon Gruden wants to get the running backs involved there, as well. There just might not be enough footballs to go around.
Jerry Jeudy, Wide Receiver, Denver Broncos (Round 1, Pick 15)
If Lamb is OBJ, and Ruggs is DeSean Jackson, then Jeudy is Amari Cooper. He’s a route technician who routinely makes DBs fall down, leaving him wide open. Jeudy has great hands (but some focus issues) and could end the year as Denver’s WR1. Then there’s the downside: Courtland Sutton, Noah Fant, K.J. Hamler, Albert Okwuegbunam, and Melvin Gordon will all chunk off their targets in Denver for a sophomore quarterback who had just five starts last year. The downside is that Jeudy ends up limited to like 80 targets and never gets the opportunity to shine. The upside is he gets around 120 targets and ends up as a backend WR2.
Jalen Reagor, Wide Receiver, Philadelphia Eagles (Round 1, Pick 21)
The Eagles used a priority pick on Reagor for a reason: he’s very, very good. Some pegged him as high as the CeeDee Lamb and Jerry Jeudy tier. I did not, though I have an affinity for him. He is, however, in a very sticky situation in Philadelphia: there are a ton of wide receivers there, they all deserve targets, and the Eagles threw to wide receivers less than half the time over the last two seasons. The talent is definitely there, but like a baby Jerry Jeudy, the volume is the concern.
Justin Jefferson, Wide Receiver, Minnesota Vikings (Round 1, Pick 22)
The Vikings used the pick they received for Stefon Diggs on Jefferson, so the easy one-to-one target load and volume is there, but there are some hitches in that giddy-up. Olabisi Johnson, Irv Smith, and Alexander Mattison have all earned increased roles this season. That means fewer targets overall (Mattison getting more carries) and more mouths to feed targets into (Bisi and Irv Smith). Jefferson has had an inconsistent camp, but should still get a good amount of opportunities to produce.
Depth Picks & Late-Round Middling Fantasy Football Rookies
These are players who have a quick path to potential volume who probably won’t blow the league out of the water, but have a great shot at providing depth at an extraordinarily cheap price. These dudes aren’t going to turn into slam dunk starters but could get enough volume to matter. This isn’t to say they should go before or after the next tier of players, just outlining their role. Of course, these players could end up feasting in the second half of the year after roster depth cleans up around them.
Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Running Back, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Round 3, Pick 12)
The Tampa Bay backfield situation has to be the most dissected of all backfields in the NFL. Ronald Jones made the mistake of dropping a pass on tape, which lead to fantasy football twitter taking a scene out of Oliver Stone’s JFK (“that pass was back, and to the left… back… and to the left”). There’s also Bruce Arians conceding that Vaughn might end up relegated to kick return duties in his rookie campaign. There’s also Dare Ogunbowale and LeSean McCoy to contend with back there. Vaughn remains a depth pick and someone who could return value. If you’re drafting him, understand that you’re sitting on him for a bit, just in case.
Joshua Kelley, Running Back, Los Angeles Chargers (Round 6, Pick 4)
We’ll see if Kelley ends up the beneficiary of the Hard Knocks Bump anytime soon, but he’s currently contending with Justin Jackson for Austin Ekeler’s 1b role. Should he win the role, he has top-24 upside. Of course, he could lose the role, and you’re dumping him from your roster. He has middling upside, and comes at a relatively low price point in fantasy drafts where you can cut bait on him without worrying.
This is the tier of fantasy football rookies that can get people all hot under the collar when the season is over… or you could forget they exist. These guys are the biggest boom-bust potential in the 2020 draft class as fantasy football rookies.
Antonio Gibson, Running Back, Washington Football Team (Round 3, Pick 2)
A crowded backfield. 4.3 touches per game across his four years in JuCo and at Memphis. A running backs coach that says he needs to learn how to be a running back in the NFL. Learning two positions at once. Don’t let any of these things bother you! After all, Ron Rivera said Christian McCaffrey once! I’ve done a 180 on Antonio Gibson as the hype train has gone out of control. What was a great best ball or late-round flier is drifting up into the single-digit rounds. You can have him. If he gets 100 touches this year, he will have more touches than he has in any other year. He’s fun and shiny, so we gravitate towards him. Just don’t overpay.
Joe Burrow, Quarterback, Cincinnati (Round 1, Pick 1)
Burrow was the #1 overall selection in the 2020 NFL class and has a chance to end up as a top-ten QB this season when all is said and done. He has a shot at breaking both the rookie passing yardage and touchdown records (though that’s about 4,400 yards and 28 touchdowns so don’t get too excited), but the reason I like him is his rushing. Last season at LSU, Burrow rushed for at least 20 yards in two-thirds of his games, making him what I call a “Tannehill Runner.” These are quarterbacks that chip in 20 or 30 yards here and there to boost their fantasy baseline without being prolific runners at the position. Burrow has a chance to turn in a quality fantasy football season as a set-and-forget starter.
Laviska Shenault, Wide Receiver, Jacksonville Jaguars (Round 2, Pick 10)
Everyone was set and ready for Shenault to go to one of the WR-needy teams picking at the backend of the first round. But, the Niners, Vikings, Packers, and Eagles went elsewhere with their picks. He only ended up going about 15 picks later than you would have expected, but since he went in the second round, people have seemingly forgotten about him. Don’t. Camp reports are that Shenault is the #2 wide receiver there in Jacksonville, and with an injury to Josh Oliver (and a pending injury to Chris Thompson), there should be a lot of targets up for grabs in Jacksonville. Shenault is basically free and has peak 2019 Deebo Samuel versatility and upside in the later rounds of your drafts; he’s one of my favorite fantasy football rookies to take at the end of my bench.
A.J. Dillon, Running Back, Green Bay Packers (Round 2, Pick 30)
A.J. Dillon has the easiest possible profile in the entire draft class: he’s baby Derrick Henry. The Packers have Aaron Jones in front of him in the pecking order, but took Dillon and fullback Josiah Deguara in rounds two and three of the 2020 NFL Draft. Dillon is destined for some sort of role in the Packers’ offense this season, but we don’t know yet if it is enough to give him any fantasy football value. It seems as though Dillon is coming for Jones’ job there in Green Bay, but there’s one looming question that drastically suppresses Dillon’s fantasy football value: when?
Waiver Wire Guys
These rookies are unlikely to end up on any rosters after your draft, but they could end up popping up during the season as players to snag off your waiver wire. They’re worth a look if they start to flash. These are mostly wide receivers in murky situations who could end up their team’s WR1 or WR4, depending on how things shake out.
Tee Higgins, Wide Receiver, Cincinnati (Round 2, Pick 1)
If Joe Burrow gets googly eyes for Higgins, then he could be off to the races. There are problems, however, in the forms of A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd, Auden Tate, John Ross and Joe Mixon. It’s a deep receiving corps that Higgins could end up climbing to the top of, or could end up being a rotational player in. I wouldn’t draft him, but he should be on your shortlist of pickups to start the season. He arguably belongs in the tier above, but I’m capping his upside due to the passing upside limitations in most quarterbacks.
Michael Pittman, Wide Receiver, Indianapolis (Round 2, Pick 2)
Michael Pittman might be the best wide receiver on this team, given T.Y. Hilton’s balky hamstring. Or maybe it’s Parris Campbell. Or maybe it’s Zach Pascal. At this point, we have no idea who Philip Rivers will prefer this season; it’s a wide-open competition and we have no preseason to see who rises to the cream of the crop. Should Pittman get a ton of looks, it could be him that comes down with the title of “highest ranked Colts’ WR” but there is so much certainty that at this point, we don’t know. He’s a big and strong deep ball receiver, so he could be Rivers’ new Mike Williams… whatever that means to you.
Van Jefferson, Wide Receiver, Los Angeles Rams (Round 2, Pick 25)
We don’t even know if Jefferson will be on the field enough to matter this season for the Rams. They found great success eschewing 3WR sets at the end of last season in favor of lining up two tight ends on the field; this would leave Jefferson out in the cold. He’s basically a finished product at this point at 24, and he was arguably a top-100 player in the draft. The Rams reached on him and may have plans for him, but there is so much up in the air in Los Angeles that he’s a waiver wire guy, not someone you draft.
Bryan Edwards, Wide Receiver, Las Vegas Raiders (Round 3, Pick 17)
A foot injury that caused Edwards to slip at the draft seems to be a thing of the past, as, by some beat writers’ reckoning, he’s the best wideout at Raiders camp. He has the same problem as Ruggs above: too many mouths to feed in an offense that won’t throw the ball enough to make sure everyone is fed. Edwards could easily be the guy that is taking food off other players’ plates but unless you’re in a deep league, he isn’t worth burning a draft pick on to see the upside. Keep him on your shortlist of WR adds early in the year or if there’s a key injury in Las Vegas.
Tua Tagovailoa, Quarterback, Alabama (Round 1, Pick 5)
He’s fully recovered from the hip injury and is embroiled in a camp battle with Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fitzmagic seems to have the upper hand, but when he inevitably falters, have a quick trigger finger on Tua; he’s a mix between Russell Wilson and Drew Brees, which is a pretty good guy to have on your fantasy football squad.
Justin Herbert, Quarterback, Los Angeles Chargers (Round 1, Pick 6)
I’m not Herbert’s biggest fan. I think he has a tendency to panic when the pressure gets to him and the pocket collapses, leading to a lot of mental mistakes. I also recognize that he has a massive arm that he could use to make a fool of me if I protest too loudly. Couple that with his rushing ability, and learning enough from Josh Allen’s rookie year, and I will keep my mouth shut about what I feel about Herbert’s role in the NFL. For now, keep an eye on Herbert, but Tyrod Taylor is the QB1 for the Chargers for the time being.
Good Players, Bad Situations
These are guys that I like who are buried on the depth chart or otherwise dealing with injuries that will hamper their development (K.J. Hamler, Brandon Aiyuk and Denzel Mims, I’m looking squarely at you).
K.J. Hamler, Wide Receiver, Denver Broncos (Round 2, Pick 14)
Chase Claypool, Wide Receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers (Round 2, Pick 17)
Denzel Mims, Wide Receiver, New York Jets (Round 2, Pick 27)
Devin Duvernay, Wide Receiver, Baltimore Ravens (Round 3, Pick 28)
Brandon Aiyuk, Wide Receiver, San Francisco 49ers (Round 1, Pick 25)
Darrynton Evans, Running Back, Tennessee Titans (Round 3, Pick 29)
Anthony McFarland Jr, Running Back, Pittsburgh Steelers (Round 4, Pick 18)
La’Mical Perine, Running Back, New York Jets (Round 4, Pick 14)
DeeJay Dallas, Running Back, Seattle (Round 4, Pick 38)
Since everyone needs to know about backup quarterbacks, here are the guys who have a chance to pop if the quarterback ahead of them gets hurt or needs to ride the pine for a spell. These guys likely remain irrelevant outside of streaming situations even if they take over the starters’ role in 1QB leagues.
Jordan Love, Quarterback, Green Bay Packers (Round 1, Pick 26)
Jalen Hurts, Quarterback, Philadelphia Eagles (Round 2, Pick 21)
Jacob Eason, Quarterback, Indianapolis Colts (Round 4, Pick 16)
James Morgan, Quarterback, New York Jets (Round 4, Pick 19)
It’s likely we see the last three guys this season, given Carson Wentz & Sam Darnold’s predilections toward injuries throughout their young careers. I would want Hurts on my team far more than Morgan in that situation. The Packers and Colts hope we don’t see Love or Eason.