The 2018 NFL season is fast approaching, with training camp in full swing, and the preseason schedule kicking into gear. August is when fantasy football drafts take priority, whether you are drafting for a single year, or you’re in the deepest of dynasty leagues.
Everybody has some kind of strategy when they head into their annual fantasy draft. And most everyone sees their strategy derailed at some point. Regardless, you will have tough decisions to make when it comes to younger players in the NFL. Rookies in particular are extra difficult. Until an NFL rookie takes his first steps on the field, we’re working off of collegiate accomplishments, situation, and opportunity. Let’s take a look at how those elements can help or hurt the top-20 rookies ranked below:
1. Saquon Barkley, RB - New York Giants
The Giants could have drafted their quarterback of the future second overall, but instead they made it clear they are going to ride out the Eli Manning era as best they can. The team drafted Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, and expectations for fantasy owners are sky high. His ADP heading into the preseason is sixth overall, going ahead of the likes of Kareem Hunt, Leonard Fournette, and Melvin Gordon.
Barkley is going to be a workhorse running back, and considering Manning’s inconsistencies, he’s going to be plenty busy. He averaged 5.7 yards per carry in college, and while he won’t reach that mark in the NFL, he is one of the better volume plays out there.
2. Derrius Guice, RB - Washington
Editor’s update: Derrius Guice suffered a knee injury in his preseason debut. Initially reported as an MCL sprain, Washington has since announced that the injury is a torn ACL. This injury ends Guice’s rookie season before it begins. Samaje Perine is likely to get more of Washington’s rushing work, while Chris Thompson will be the primary pass catcher.
The LSU running back slipped to the bottom of the second round draft in spite of the consensus that he was a first round talent. There was talk of off-field issues, but it was not entirely clear what of it was enough to drop him. Regardless, Washington could have a steal in Guice, adding to their stable of running backs.
Guice will be the team’s starting running back, but Chris Thompson is likely to be the primary third down back. Guice will get some looks in the passing game, but Thompson’s presence is the only drawback for Guice at this point. He is a solid RB2 as a rookie, with RB1 upside sooner rather than later.
3. Rashaad Penny, RB - Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks are shaking up their offense around Russell Wilson, and that means adding depth to the running back depth chart. Penny led FBS runners with 2,248 yards in 2017. He did not see extensive work in the passing game at San Diego State, but put up huge numbers on the ground and earned a first round nod.
Penny’s primary competition in Seattle is Chris Carson. The Seahawks thought they had a diamond in the rough as the seventh round pick had 208 yards on 49 carries (4.2 yards per carry). However, he broke his leg in Week 4, and his opportunity might have passed. The Seahawks coaching staff has had high praise for Carson, but a first round pick is going to get the opportunity. Penny is a solid RB2 right out of the gate, but you might want to handcuff him with Carson.
4. Sony Michel, RB - New England Patriots
It’s fitting that Michel played in a committee at Georgia. He joins a Patriots that has regularly used a committee approach, frustrating fantasy owners. Michel has the talent to emerge from this group, bringing game-breaking acceleration and burst. James White will get the bulk of the pass-catching opportunities, and Michel will compete with Rex Burkhead for more traditional work. The Patriots prolific offense provides end zone opportunities, but Bill Belichick is a tough one for fantasy owners to figure out.
5. Ronald Jones, RB - Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs released long-time running Doug Martin after a drug suspension wiped away his contract guarantees. They then spent a high second round pick on Jones, and he is expected to slot into the starting role right away. The consensus is that he is looking at 15-20 touches per game, with Peyton Barber and Charles Sims splitting the remaining work.
Jones had 1,550 rushing yards and 19 rushing touchdowns his final year at USC. More importantly, he had 12 runs of 40+ yards during his career. He is the kind of home-run hitter the Bucs can pair with Jameis Winston to start taking this offense to the next level. Even though he’s going to lose work to Barber and Sims, Jones remains a solid RB2 his rookie season.
6. D.J. Moore, WR - Carolina Panthers
Moore was the first wide receiver to come off the board in the 2018 draft for good reason. In his college career at Maryland, he amassed over 2,000 yards and 17 touchdowns. Moore is a quick wideout that has a knack for getting yards after the catch. The Panthers hope their first-round pick will help stretch out the field and take tension off of No. 1 WR Devin Funchess, TE Greg Olsen, and RB Christian McCaffrey. He stands to see a lot of fantasy targets early if defenses decide to put their focus on the Panthers veteran skilled players.
The only downside for Moore is the Panthers receiving corps is crowded. He has to get in line behind three of Cam Newton’s proven passing options. However, there should be some targets left over for the rookie if he and Newton have good chemistry in August. Owners that have an eye on Moore should not draft him too early. He will be an upside pick in the later rounds of fantasy drafts.
7. Nick Chubb, RB - Cleveland Browns
The Browns added considerable depth to their running back depth chart this offseason, signing Carlos Hyde in free agency, and then drafting Chubb in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft. They join Duke Johnson who had 348 rushing yards last season, and led the Browns with 74 receptions and 693 receiving yards.
Chubb is coming off a senior season in which he rushed for 1,345 yards and averaged 6.0 yards per carry. He is not a speedy rusher nor overly physically imposing, but he is solid in breaking tackles and is a quality one-cut runner. Johnson will likely be the primary third down back, and it will come down to Chubb vs. Hyde for a lot of the rushing work. Chubb is a great dynasty pick, and could develop into a decent flex option in year one.
8. Royce Freeman, RB - Denver Broncos
The Broncos are making big changes in their ground game. C.J. Anderson rushed for 1,007 yards last season, but the team decided to release him two weeks before the draft. They then spent a third round pick on Freeman, who will compete with Devontae Booker and De’Angelo Henderson. Booker has had some opportunities the past two seasons, but struggled to make much of them. Henderson is coming off a quiet rookie season and is likely third on this depth chart.
Freeman rushed for 1,475 yards, and had 14 receptions for 164 yards in his final season at Oregon. He brings good size and vision to the backfield, and while he was not a superstar standout in college, he is as talented as anybody in the Broncos backfield. For the time being it’s a backfield to stay away from for an every week option, but by season’s end, look for him to be the primary ball-carrier.
9. Kerryon Johnson, RB - Detroit Lions
The Lions have been searching for a true lead back for years, and they’re hoping they’ve finally found the answer in last season’s SEC leader in rushing. The Lions traded up eight spots in the second round to grab Johnson. Last season, Johnson rushed for 1,391 yards on 285 carries, and while he was a workhorse his final season at Auburn, there are some concerns about his long-term durability due to his frame and thin hips.
Detroit’s coaching staff sees Johnson as a three-down player, but in year one, he should get the largest share of a committee approach. The Lions signed LeGarrette Blount, and welcome back Theo Riddick. Ameer Abdullah remains on the roster, but is likely on the wrong side of the bubble with the addition of Johnson. As a rookie, Johnson could emerge as a decent flex option, but his short term value will be tied to how the Lions use Blount and Riddick.
10. Calvin Ridley, WR - Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons avoided a headache this past month when they moved some money around to get Julio Jones into camp. That locks in the No. 1 spot, with Mohamed Sanu situated as the team’s No. 2 receiver. That opens the door for Ridley, a first round pick, to secure the third receiver job.
Ridley brings a solid college resume to the Falcons receiving corps. He had 19 touchdown receptions and 2,781 receiving yards in his three-year tenure at Alabama. The 26th overall pick is an excellent route runner and has excellent quickness. The Falcons will be able to line him up on the inside or outside. Ridley does need to work on his hands and physicality. Owners should be excited about Ridley as a complement to Jones and Mohammed Sanu. He is shaping up to be a high-end flex option this season in an explosive Falcons offense.
11. Michael Gallup, WR - Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys rebuilt their passing game this offseason. Their biggest receiving threats last season, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten, are gone. One of the new faces set to make an impact in the passing game is rookie wideout, Michael Gallup. The third-rounder is well-rounded, with good lateral agility, ability to work in a crowd, and commanding space off the line of scrimmage. He does need to sharpen his route running.
Gallup has the best chance on the roster to be a fantasy threat early. He has a chance to leapfrog Terrance Williams for the No. 2 role, and will have to compete with Allen Hurns for targets at that point. Gallup has great fantasy upside his first season with a potential No. 2 role, as long as Dak Prescott can bounce back from a shaky second half of the season. Owners can snatch Gallup late and still have a prize.
12. Anthony Miller, WR - Chicago Bears
The Bears overhauled their wide receiver corps this offseason, much to the relief of second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. Chicago signed Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel, and then spent a late second round pick on Miller in the 2018 NFL Draft. Miller is coming off a prolific career at Memphis, averaging 95 receptions, 1,448 yards, and 16 touchdowns his past two seasons. He’s not deep speed fast and has had some issues with drops, but he has quickness to get past defensive backs, and is a sound route runner.
Robinson is the clear No. 1 in Chicago, while Gabriel will be the team’s deep threat. Miller will line up in the slot and could very well end up with the second most targets in this offense. New head coach Matt Nagy brings a pass-heavy offense to Chicago, which could mean a lot of opportunities for the rookie. It’s risky betting on an entirely new look offense in Chicago, but Miller could be a sleeper flex play in this group of young receivers.
13. Christian Kirk, WR - Arizona Cardinals
Larry Fitzgerald is back for another season, and the Cardinals invested a second round pick on Kirk in hopes of finding a) a short term complement and b) a long-term replacement. Kirk joins the Cardinals after a solid career at Texas A&M that saw his touchdown totals rise even as his yardage numbers decreased. Kirk is a speedy receiver who is strongest after the catch as opposed to deeper down the field.
Kirk played more than 93 percent of his college snaps in the slot, according to Pro Football Focus. Fitzgerald has handled that role for the Cardinals, and likely will continue to do so as long as he sticks around. Kirk will need to find work outside if he is going to become a regular contributor early in his career. After Fitzgerald, the Cardinals depth chart does not wow people. J.J. Nelson, Brice Butler, and Chad Williams are the three receivers most likely to make an impact this season. The Cardinals quarterback situation is a question mark with oft-injured Sam Bradford starting, and rookie Josh Rosen behind him. When Bradford is healthy, Kirk could find some plug-and-play value as a rookie if he can secure the No. 2 role.
14. Courtland Sutton, WR - Denver Broncos
The Broncos return Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders atop their depth chart, but they spent a high second round pick on Sutton. He is a prototypical possession receiver with the size to win contested catches. He surpassed 1,000 yards receiving each of his final two seasons at Southern Methodist, and had a combined 22 touchdowns.
Thomas and Sanders are locked in for another year in Denver, which limits Sutton’s rookie year value. He will compete for the third receiver role along with Carlos Henderson (2017 3rd round pick) and DaeSean Hamilton (2018 4th round pick). He should be the favorite, but with Case Keenum at quarterback, his upside is limited for the time being. In short term leagues, he’s a speculative play for if Thomas or Sanders get hurt. Anything beyond that for fantasy purposes would be a bonus.
15. D.J. Chark, WR - Jacksonville Jaguars
Jacksonville had one of their best seasons in franchise history in 2017, but lost significant receiver talent this offseason. They drafted LSU wideout D.J. Chark to help fill the gaps left by the Allens (Robinson and Hurns). Chark is a unique prospect. He is a tall, deep threat, that can catch the ball in traffic. He is also incredibly fast, but his college numbers left a lot to be desired.
Chark has to get in line behind Marqise Lee and Donte Moncrief for targets at the moment. However, he stands to see a fair amount of work as the No. 3 receiver. Chark is worth the fantasy risk late in the draft since a good amount of his looks will come in the red zone.
16. James Washington, WR - Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers hit pay dirt in the second round last year as JuJu Smith-Schuster emerged as a valuable complement to Antonio Brown. A year later, they’re hoping to repeat that success with Washington, also a second round pick. Washington posted three straight 1,000-yard seasons at Oklahoma State, finishing off his career with 74 receptions for 1,549 yards and 13 touchdowns. He brings considerable burst off the line and could develop into a deep threat at the next level.
Washington joins a Steelers team with a big opening at the No. 3 wide receiver role. In reality, Le’Veon Bell is the No. 2 pass catcher behind Brown, with Smith-Schuster serving as the third pass catcher. Pittsburgh traded away Martavis Bryant, however, and Washington will move right into the lineup on three-receiver formations. Pittsburgh has a prolific offense, but he’s a deep flier for now in re-draft leagues. His fantasy value for 2019 and beyond could depend in part on if the Steelers can resolve Bell’s contract situation.
17. Dante Pettis, WR - San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers finished 2017 on a hot streak with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, and fantasy owners have to decide just what to make of it heading into 2018. The team returns most of their wide receiver corps, but traded up 15 spots in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft to select Pettis out of Washington. He was not super productive as a pass catcher in college, but he has the route-running skills and hands to be a solid NFL receiver. Additionally, he set the FBS record for punt return touchdowns, and averaged 20.4 yards per punt return as a senior.
Pettis joins a a 49ers receiver corps that includes Pierre Garçon and Marquise Goodwin outside, and Trent Taylor in the slot. Pettis has been getting practice opportunities inside and outside, and has impressed in practice with his ability to get open quickly off the line. He will eventually replace Pierre Garçon in the lineup, and given Garçon’s age, injuries could move up that timetable. He will likely be available in free agency in most re-draft leagues.
18. Lamar Jackson, QB - Baltimore Ravens
Five quarterbacks were drafted in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, and all five face uncertain rookie seasons. Josh Rosen likely has the best chance at starting given Sam Bradford’s injury history, but Lamar Jackson could be the most intriguing of the five as a rookie. There are questions about his accuracy, but he has a live arm coupled with elite speed for the position. If he can get into game action, he would likely impress early on.
Of course, that’s the rub. His odds of starting based on injury are not great, with Joe Flacco having played every game of his career aside from a season-ending injury in 2015. But Flacco’s inconsistencies could result in a change at the position sooner rather than later. If Jackson gets a crack at the starting position at any point, be it due to injury or ineffectiveness, look for him to shine.
19. Josh Rosen, QB - Arizona Cardinals
Lamar Jackson could be the better long-term bet, but Josh Rosen is the one 2018 first round QB all but guaranteed to get at least one start this season. He is competing with Mike Glennon for the Cardinals’ backup job, but whomever lands it will get a start this season. Sam Bradford is a capable starting quarterback, but the big issue is health. He has not played a full 16-game season since 2012, and that all but guarantees the backup QB will get an opportunity.
From a long-term perspective, he gets the nod over Baker Mayfield here in part because the Cleveland Browns organization has long been a disaster. The Cardinals hired a defensive-minded head coach this year, but they brought in experienced offensive coach Mike McCoy to handle play-calling duties. If Rosen gets an opportunity, he’s got Larry Fitzgerald and David Johnson as premium skill position players. His upside is limited in the short-term, but an opportunity could present itself quickly.
20. Mike Gesicki, TE - Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins released Julius Thomas after an ineffective 2017 season. Miami then spent a high second round pick on Gesicki, a massive tight end prospect out of Penn State. Gesicki stands 6’6, 247 pounds, and while he was not overly productive in college, he has solid speed to create mismatches against linebackers and safeties in the NFL.
Gesicki has plenty of long-term potential in dynasty and keeper leagues, but for 2018, his upside is limited. Miami has a bevy of potential pass catchers to sort through. Kenny Stills, DeVante Parker, Albert Wilson, and Danny Amendola all could find themselves more regular targets for Ryan Tannehill this season. Gesicki has sleeper appeal, but he’s a guy you can grab in free agency in re-draft leagues, and late in smaller keeper leagues.