Fantasy football drafts are likely a few months away for most leagues, but it’s never too soon to get prepared. Every year there are a handful of rookies that emerge on the NFL scene as stars; not only as stars for their respective teams, but stars for their fantasy owners as well. The 2016 Fantasy Football rookie stars included the likes of Ezekiel Elliot, Dak Prescott, Jordan Howard, Michael Thomas, Hunter Henry, Tyreek Hill, Rob Kelley, and Carson Wentz. All of these players proved themselves to be quality fantasy options as week-to-week starters or DFS value picks during the 2016 season. Surprisingly enough, only two of the rookies listed (Elliot and Wentz) were drafted in the first round of the 2016 draft. Most of the rookie stars from 2016 were deep sleepers coming into the season. This realization raises a most important question, “How can you know which rookies will perform?” The short answer–you can’t. There is no tried and true way to know which rookies will meet or surpass expectations any given year, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make some well-reasoned predictions. Below is a list of the 2017 rookies that I believe will have an immediate fantasy football impact.

Top Tier

Leonard Fournette, RB, Jaguars:

This one is a no-brainer. Fournette is a stud, period. The Jaguars didn’t spend the fourth overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft on a player they envision sitting on the bench or being used in a rotation. Chris Ivory was brought in as a free agent last year to work in tandem with T.J. Yeldon. The two of them combined for a measly four rushing touchdowns and 904 yards on 247 carries. Those numbers didn’t impress the coaches, the owner, or the fans. More importantly, those numbers didn’t scare opposing defenses. The Jaguars desperately need a formidable ground game in order to take pressure off of Blake Bortles this year. Fournette is going to be the Jaguar’s bell cow running back for years to come assuming his nagging ankle injuries from college don’t follow him to the NFL.

Corey Davis, WR, Titans:

Another star in the making, Davis has all the physical traits (6′, 3″ 209 lbs.) to become a WR1 in the NFL. He also has opportunity, something that many other talented rookie receivers do not. The Titans are  in desperate need of a playmaker on the outside and Davis should be an instant starter for them. Given the competition at the position (Rishard Mathews and Tahje Sharpe), it’s a good bet that Davis will see a lot of balls thrown his way this season. The only concern regarding Davis is how he returns from the ankle injury he sustained last year; early reports suggest that the ankle isn’t going to be an issue going forward.

David Njoku, TE, Browns:

Some people may be surprised by this pick; let me break it down for you. Njoku was drafted in the first round of the 2017 draft over the likes of Reuben Foster, Cam Robinson, and Kevin King. Those are some high-quality players the Browns passed on to take Njoku. Shortly after the draft, the Browns released the previous starting TE Gary Barnidge, further suggesting that they have high hopes for the rookie tight end. The only other notable pass catchers on the Browns roster are Kenny Britt and 2016 first-round pick Corey Coleman. Given the lack of quarterback experience, the Browns will likely lean heavily on the tight end position to make plays. Lastly, Njoku is simply a beast of a human, athletically speaking. He played receiver in high school and it shows. Njoku will be a late-round steal in most fantasy drafts, as owners usually try to stick clear of Browns players and rookie tight ends. Draft him in that last round and you may just end up with a top-10 tight end.

Christian McCaffrey, RB, Panthers:

This guy has all the moves. McCaffrey will give the Panther’s offense the explosiveness it missed last year with aging Jonathan Stewart at the helm. At best, McCaffrey will be a three-down back that brings back an elusiveness to the running back position not seen since LaDainian Tomlinson graced the turf. At worst, the Panthers install McCaffrey as a change of pace back, similar to the way the chargers used Danny Woodhead. I’m usually hesitant about relying on a running back that doesn’t play on all three downs, but we’ve seen players like Woodhead, Darren Sproles, and Dion Lewis all  put up solid fantasy numbers over the past few years. McCaffrey will be a solid flex-play to start off the season and might evolve into RB1 status as the season progresses.

Zay Jones, WR, Bills:

It’s surprising that Jones hasn’t been in the media spotlight more often given the production he had in college last year (158 rec./1746 yds./8 TD). Despite playing ball at a smaller college,  Jones has the size and athleticism of a prototypical NFL receiver. The Bill’s status as a run-first team isn’t good for his production, but Jones slots into the perfect roster situation in Buffalo. His closest competition for the WR2 role is Andre Holmes, a career journeyman receiver with little upside. With Sammy Watkins likely attracting  opposing team’s shutdown corners and double coverages, Jones will have every chance to make a name for himself in Buffalo. Draft him late…watch him rise.

High Risk, High Reward

Joe Mixon, RB, Bengals:

I’ve heard some pretty bold claims that Mixon might be the best running back in this year’s class. Frankly, I don’t care one way or the other which rookie running back is the best. What I care about is talent and Mixon has it in spades. Additionally, Cincinnati spent a high draft pick on him despite already boasting two young, somewhat-successful running backs (Jeremy Hill and Giovanni Bernard). This suggests that Mixon will have every chance to carve out a significant role for himself in the Bengals’ offense. Mixon’s high-risk status is due of the potential for a backfield timeshare with the previously mentioned backs. If Mixon were to supplant Jeremy Hill as the starter, he could easily become a top-20 running back in 2017.

John Ross, WR, Bengals:

“John Ross is going to be the next DeSean Jackson!” I’ve hear that one a lot lately, but let’s not put the cart ahead of the horse just yet. I’m not a fan of player comparisons, as every player is their own man with their own skill set. That said, Ross has the speed necessary to leave most corners in the dust as evidenced by his record-setting 4.22 second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. At Washington last year, Ross put together a campaign that saw him collect 81 receptions for 1150 yards and 17 touchdowns. Given Cincinnati’s current plethora of offensive weapons, it will be interesting to see if Ross gets enough balls thrown his way to make a consistent fantasy impact. There are also concerns that Ross’ wiry frame and history of injuries could impact his value.

Mike Williams, WR, Chargers:

Some people might be tempted to consider Williams a top-tier fantasy rookie for this year…I do not. He projects as a potential WR1 in the NFL due to his size and college production, but lacks the opportunity to reach that high this year. The Chargers already boast a fairly potent offensive unit, assuming that Keenan Allen doesn’t suffer another season ending injury. On top of that, new reports are saying that Williams is missing valuable practice time in OTAs due to a back injury. For those who think that mild injuries won’t stop 1st-round draft picks from having solid seasons, you’re wrong. Last year their were four rookie receivers drafted in the first round: Corey Coleman, Will Fuller, Josh Doctson, and Laquon Treadwell. All four had talent and opportunity. Fuller was the only one to eclipse 500 yards. Doctson and Treadwell combined for 81 yards on three receptions over the entire 2016 season due to injury. Williams has potential, but don’t reach for him this year unless its in the later rounds of the draft.

O.J. Howard, TE, Buccaneers:

Howard is the most talented rookie TE in a very deep draft class for the position. He could have easily been a top-10 pick in the NFL draft this year if the tight end position was more highly valued. Howard is going to be an NFL star…eventually. Unfortunately, he ended up on a team with many mouths to feed. The Buccaneers have quietly built one of the most potent offenses in the NFL. Competing for targets with the likes of Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Cameron Brate, Adam Humphries, and Charles Sims isn’t going to be easy. On top of that, Tampa also features a fairly potent run game with Doug Martin, Jacquizz Rodgers, and accomplished rookie Jeremy McNichols all looking for carries. When most fantasy leagues call for a single tight end, spending a middle-round draft pick on a rookie in a timeshare scenario isn’t recommended. If Howard does completely beat out Brate for snaps and becomes a featured piece in the offense, expect him to post top-10 numbers for his position.

Dalvin Cook, RB, Vikings:

Cook was projected to be a first-round draft pick this past April. Unfortunately, things didn’t fall his way and the Vikings were more than happy to snap him up in the second round. Cook has loads of potential and figures to be a three-down back in the NFL. If he had been selected by a team with less talent at running back, you would have been reading about him in the “top-tier” section of this article. Before drafting Cook, the Vikings brought in Latavius Murray in free agency and gave him starting running back money. There’s a good chance that Cook and Murray compete for the starting role throughout the preseason. The winner will undoubtedly become the draft-worthy running back for Vikings. If your draft occurs before the team declares a  starter, tread lightly. Nobody wants to waste a middle-round draft pick on a backup running back.

Sleepers

Kareem Hunt, RB, Chiefs:

Due to Jamal Charles’ injury last year, the Chiefs running game was handed to Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West with the former garnering the lion’s share of the carries. Ware wasn’t a stud, but he did perform admirably as the starting running back. Despite Ware’s efforts, there has already been talk of Kareem Hunt taking over the starting gig this season. This chatter is likely just early OTA talk and some post-draft hype, but Hunt has the skill set to make it a reality. At Toledo last year Hunt had 262 carries for 1475 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also averaged 6.3 yards per tote throughout his college career. More will be known about starting roles as September approaches, but whichever back claims the title will find themselves the leader of one of the most potent rushing attacks in the NFL.

Marlon Mack, RB, Colts:

Frank Gore is the current starter in Indianapolis. Frank Gore is one of the best running backs to ever play the game of football. Frank Gore is also 34 years old. In running back years, Frank Gore is almost primed to file for social security. It may not happen immediately, but when Gore does bow out of the starting role, Marlon Mack will be the next in line to take over. Mack has serious athleticism, the right size (5’11”, 213lb.), and a great opportunity to get carries early and often. His only competition will be from journeyman Robert Turbin and 2016 undrafted free agent Josh Ferguson. Spend a last-round pick on Mack if you’re feeling lucky; you might just end up with a starting running back.

Taywan Taylor, WR, Titans:

Had the Titans not drafted Corey Davis with the fifth overall pick, I would be much higher on Taylor.  His production at Western Kentucky in 2016 was off the charts (90 rec./ 1730 yds./6 TD).  Western Kentucky doesn’t play the toughest teams in college football, but neither does Marshall University–the alma mater of Randy Moss. The Titans don’t boast the most prolific pass offense in the NFL, but given the incumbent talent at wide receiver, there’s a fair chance that Taylor and Davis both get on the field early and often.

ArDarius Stewart, WR, Jets:

A Jets receiver…need I say more? I jest of course. With the departure of Brandon Marshall and the inconsistent play of Quincy Enunwa, Stewart has a good chance of securing the WR2 role behind Eric Decker in his rookie season. He lands in the ‘sleeper’ section due to the questions surrounding the Jets’ quarterback situation. If the quality of the Jets’ quarterback play is comparable to that of Fitzpatrick in 2016, no Jets receiver will have consistent fantasy value.

Cooper Kupp, WR, Rams:

Similar to Stewart, Kupp lands on a team stuck in quarterback wasteland. The Rams selected Jared Goff over Carson Wentz in the 2016 NFL draft and have yet to see any evidence that they made the correct decision. Quarterback play aside, Kupp lands in a perfect situation with limited competition for snaps. He also has the highest career production of any college player in FCS history (428 rec./6,464 yds./73 TD). Hopefully, Kupp can continue to put up solid numbers against some much stiffer competition.

 

Casey Birch covers the NFL for MyFantasySportsTalk.com, you can follow him on twitter @Calan24

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