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By the Numbers

Breaking Down the 2020 Role for Every Rookie

by Ian Hartitz
Updated On: April 29, 2020, 2:36 pm ET

Seven rounds of the draft have come and gone. Now we have months to figure out what the hell just happened.

It's important to realize before we start just how rare it is for rookies to make large impacts in fantasy. 

There's next-to-no chance that your favorite prospect will be a top-producing rookie if they were drafted after the third round. Specifically, at least 80% of every position's top-rookie performers were drafted in the first three rounds since 2010:

  • QB: 83% of top-12 fantasy performers were top-three round picks
  • RB: 80% of top-24 performers
  • WR: 85% of top-24 performers
  • TE: 100% of top-12 performers

Further research shows that the most-successful rookie QBs have almost always been dual-threat talents, there have been twice as many top-performing RBs (26) than WRs (13) over the past decade, and just two TEs (Evan Engram and Rob Gronkowski) have emerged as great fantasy contributors during their debut season.

It's hard for anybody to post great fantasy production; especially rookies:

breh

I already broke down what all this means for every team's veterans. Now we'll focus on the rookies.

What follows is a breakdown on every top-three round selection of skill-position players and what we should expect from their fantasy production in 2020.


Quarterback

The QB position has produced six rookies that finished their debut season as a top-12 fantasy performer. Among those, only Dak Prescott (Round 4) and Russell Wilson (Round 3) weren't first-round selections. The larger trends from this group were both being a Week 1 starter as well as the existence of a rushing floor, as each of Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin, Prescott, Wilson and Kyler Murray displayed fantasy-friendly rushing ability as rookies.

None of the four first-round QBs are necessarily statues in the pocket, but we also shouldn't expect them to provide anything resembling a high rushing floor:

Joe Burrow (1.01, Bengals): The presumed No. 1 overall pick allegedly ran the 40-yard dash in the 4.6-4.8 second range in high school. Either way, Burrow's exceptional ability to create something out of nothing, combined with a plenty-solid 243-767-12 rushing line in 25 games at LSU, paints the picture of a QB who's not afraid to use his legs. Burrow should be in the mid-range QB2 conversation considering he's poised to start 16 games in a sneaky-talented Bengals Offense.

Tua Tagovailoa (1.05, Dolphins): The Alabama QB never rushed for even 50 yards in a game, although his ability to improvise in the pocket has drawn comparisons to Russell Wilson for a reason. This plus athleticism is what makes Tua's hip injury so worrisome for his promising NFL future. Ryan Fitzpatrick led the Dolphins in rushing last season, but we shouldn't expect Tua to come close to accomplishing that feat in 2020. Let's hope the Dolphins' troublesome offensive line is improved before Tagovailoa finds his way under center.

Justin Herbert (1.06, Chargers): The Oregon QB boasts plus size (6-foot-6 and 236-pounds) as well as underrated speed (4.68-second 40-yard dash). He didn't make a habit of taking off in college, but did show potential with three rushing scores in the Ducks' Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin. Don't expect Herbert to make too much of a habit taking off on scrambles, although the talent to do so might be there. The Chargers Offense is talented enough to enable Herbert to put up some solid fantasy production sooner rather than later.

Jordan Love (1.26, Packers): The Utah State QB rocketed up draft boards reportedly in large part due to his ability to create plays off script. He's not an overwhelmingly talented athlete, but does possess a smoothness to his game that could lead to more production in a different offense. Obviously he won't find the field in 2020 without an injury or psychological breakdown from Aaron Rodgers.

Jalen Hurts (2.21, Eagles): This was the one rookie QB that had the potential to immediately slide in as a high-end fantasy product. Unfortunately, Hurts will in all likelihood need an injury to Carson Wentz in order to get anything resembling a full-time role under center. Hurts has the size (6-foot-1 and 222-pounds) to handle a legit rushing workload, enough speed (4.59-second 40-yard dash) to create big plays, and more proven production (career 614-3,274-43 rushing line) than any other QB in this class can claim. It doesn't really matter if Hurts isn't ready to function as a high-end passer. Historically QBs that have high-end rushing roles have simply been a cheat code in fantasy football. It's unlikely we see Hurts earn a starting role anytime soon, but don't be afraid to immediately start him in fantasy leagues of all shapes and sizes once he's under center. 15-of-22 (68%) of QBs with at least 100 rush attempts have finished as a top-six fantasy scorer since 2000. This type of workload would certainly be near Hurts' 16-game projection.

There were six more QBs drafted in rounds 4-7: Jets QB James Morgan (4.19), Jaguars QB Jake Luton (6.10), Titans QB Cole McDonald (7.10), Cowboys QB Ben DiNucci (7.17), Saints QB Tommy Stevens (7.26) and Vikings QB Nate Stanley (7.30). Don't expect any of them to see the field in 2020 unless multiple injuries occur on their respective depth charts.


Running back

I broke down the state of every backfield before the draft and determined the following teams possessed the most fantasy-friendly environments to foster a rookie RB (in no particular order):

  • Atlanta Falcons
  • Buffalo Bills
  • Detroit Lions
  • Jacksonville Jaguars
  • Kansas City Chiefs
  • Los Angeles Rams
  • Miami Dolphins
  • Philadelphia Eagles
  • Pittsburgh Steelers
  • San Francisco 49ers
  • Seattle Seahawks
  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Just four of these 12 teams went on to draft a RB in the top-three rounds. Additionally, the Packers, Ravens, Titans, Raiders, Redskins and Colts selected a high-round back.

What a mess.

All in all there were 11 RBs drafted during the first two days of the draft. The majority appear to be on their way to joining a committee.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire (1.32, Chiefs): Coach Andy Reid has already comped his new rookie RB to former Eagles' great Brian Westbrook, noting, "He can block for you. He can run routes. He’s got tremendous vision and lateral abilities with cuts and route running, all those things. He’s just a real good football player." Furthermore, CEH was also apparently Patrick Mahomes' preferred pick. Perhaps we see Damien Williams continue to see his share of touches, but CEH is the favorite to see the most pass-down work considering he caught more balls in 2019 than any other SEC RB over the last two decades. This is absolutely setting up to be the Edwards-Helaire show. Reid has produced a top-12 RB in PPR per game in 15-of-21 seasons as a head coach, and a top-five RB in 9-of-21 seasons. No rookie RB has a clearer path to a potential three-down role, and obviously this offense is stupid talented. CEH is definitively the RB1 of this rookie class.

Reid RB

D'Andre Swift (2.03, Lions): The Lions eventually gave Kerryon Johnson a featured role in each of the past two seasons ... only for him to suffer an IR-worthy injury in both. The presence of Swift swiftly puts a final nail in the #FreeKerryon coffin (sorry). This isn't to say Johnson won't be involved; expect a two-back committee at a minimum in Detroit. Still, Swift was drafted too high not to see double-digit touches per game himself. It also seems more likely than not that neither receives anything resembling a featured pass-game role with options like Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, Danny Amendola and T.J. Hockenson secured atop Matthew Stafford's pecking order. I'm bullish on the Lions' chances at contending for a playoff spot in 2020 if Stafford can stay healthy, but it's unlikely we see either Swift or Johnson provide consistent fantasy production without an injury occurring – regardless of how deserving both are for a three-down role.

Jonathan Taylor (2.09, Colts): Clearly the Colts don't plan on keeping Marlon Mack on the roster after his contract runs out in 2021. Still, the rookie-year projection for Taylor is at least a little bit worrisome in a backfield that has proven plenty willing to embrace committees over the years. Mack posted a sub-50% snap rate in six consecutive games to end the season, as the Colts instead utilized a heavy dose of their backup RBs to complement their often-injured starter. Hines has earned some dark-horse appeal in this new-look offense that will feature Philip Rivers under center. He possesses an Austin Ekeler-esque skill-set thanks to his demonstrated ability to thrive as a true WR in the slot or out wide. Don't be surprised if Taylor is annoyingly deployed as an early-down committee back alongside Mack, while Hines soaks up plenty of work on pass downs. Ultimately, coach Frank Reich has never made a habit of featuring a single RB, but Taylor has the draft capital and collegiate production of a true workhorse. He's my post-draft rookie RB5.

Cam Akers (2.20, Rams): The Rams' backfield is suddenly awfully crowded with Akers joining 2019 third-round pick Darrell Henderson and long-time backup Malcolm Brown. It seems likely Henderson is out; he couldn't beat out Brown in 2020 and now isn't the top dog in the backfield in terms of draft capital. Week 6 of 2019 was the only game the Rams played in 2019 without Todd Gurley:

  • Brown: 11-40-0 rushing, 0-0-0 receiving, 67% snaps
  • Henderson: 6-39-0, 1-9-0, 33%

Nobody had more rushing touchdowns than Gurley from 2019-2020. Unfortunately, we have direct evidence that Brown is more than capable of holding off a highly-drafted rookie. It seems likely that Akers starts the season as the offense's No. 2 RB at a minimum. Note that the Rams' very-meh offensive line didn't get any better this offseason. Alas, Akers' potential to eventually get a coveted three-down role makes him my rookie RB4.

J.K. Dobbins (2.23, Ravens): The Ravens' league-best rushing offense wasn't in dire need of another RB. Overall, each of Lamar Jackson (No. 1), Gus Edwards (No. 3) and Mark Ingram (No. 7) ranked highly in yards per carry among 47 players with at least 100 rush attempts in 2019. This is life with a threat like Jackson under center; only the Cardinals averaged more yards before contact per rush. This will almost certainly be a committee situation, but the Ravens run the ball enough for both Ingram and Dobbins to maintain fantasy relevance. Assuming Dobbins can beat out Edwards (133 carries last season) and Justice Hill (66 touches), he's set up for double-digit combined carries and targets inside of last season's No. 1 scoring offense. He's my clear-cut rookie RB3.

AJ Dillon (2.30, Packers): There have been rumors about Aaron Jones holding out ahead of the 2020 season without a new deal. That would obviously change the pecking order of this backfield, but otherwise we shouldn't expect Dillon to see anything resembling a featured role until 2021. One of the prime concerns with Dillon as a prospect is the uncertainty regarding his ability to operate on pass downs, so at best we're looking at a committee role as an early-down back. Even an injury to Jones would seemingly elevate Jamaal Williams to the RB1 role. I'm bearish on the Packers as a whole entering 2020.

Antonio Gibson (3.02, Redskins): It's easy to love Gibson the player. He scored 14 touchdowns on just 77 touches in 2019, ripping off seven plays of 50-plus yards and breaking roughly a million tackles along the way. Gibson is viewed as a WR/RB hybrid, standing 6-foot-0 and weighing 228-pounds with the ability to run the 40 in 4.39 seconds. The problem is that The Athletic's Grant Paulsen reports the Redskins want to run more 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end) with rookie Gibson and Derrius Guice or Adrian Peterson on the field at the same time. Unfortunately, the likes of Bryce Love, Peyton Barber, JD McKissic and Josh Ferguson could also compete for snaps in two-RB sets. Gibson clearly has the talent to thrive in the right role, but it's unclear that Washington has any plans to make that role a significant one in their below-average offense. Gibson's best chance at fantasy value in 2020 is to receive a WR fantasy designation, but a RB-esque role consisting of double-digit touches per game.

Ke'Shawn Vaughn (3.12, Buccaneers): Tom Brady got himself a running back. The Athletics' Dane Brugler spoke highly of Vaughn's third-down skills, noting, "Soft hands to make difficult catches away from his body ... willing and ready in pass protection, going low to chop down rushers." Meanwhile, the one question coach Bruce Arians had about RBs at the combine was, "Can they be a receiver? That separates guys from having to come off the field ... Edgerrin James never came off the Field ... Marshall Faulk never came off the field ... For me, I'm looking for that type of guy." Ronald Jones isn't awful, but the man didn't pull away from Peyton Barber for two seasons, and couldn't even beat out Dare Ogunbowale for pass-down work in 2019; don't expect Ron to give this third-round pick too much of a battle. There is a chance that the Bucs deploy another annoying committee to start the season, but Vaughn possesses too much big-play ability to sit on the bench for long. He's my post-draft rookie RB2.

Lynn Bowden (3.16, Raiders): It's unclear if the Raiders view Bowden as more of a RB or WR. Either way, the offense seems a bit too crowded to enable him to a ton of rookie-year production. Josh Jacobs is clearly the man in this backfield, so Bowden's best chance at snaps would seemingly be beating out Jalen Richard for some pass-down work. The WR room is even more crowded with the likes of Tyrell Williams, Hunter Renfrow and first-round stud Henry Ruggs likely filling out three-WR sets. Throw in the potential for Darren Waller to again see triple-digit targets, and there just isn't much of a pathway for Bowden to receive a fantasy-friendly role in 2020.

Zack Moss (3.22, Bills): This offense was a quiet contender to add an early-down bruiser to complement Devin Singletary and Josh Allen. Last season Singletary emerged as a reliable three-down back and played at least 65% of the offense's snaps in every game that he wasn't either injured in, or was just returning from a layoff. He worked as the PPR RB18 during Weeks 7-16. Still, Josh Allen is one of the most-productive vultures in the league. Overall, only Todd Gurley (29), Derrick Henry (28), Aaron Jones (24), Christian McCaffrey (22), Alvin Kamara (19), Ezekiel Elliott (18) and Melvin Gordon (18) have more rushing scores than Allen (17) over the past two seasons. Allen and Gore combined for 29 rush attempts inside the 10-yard line last season; Singletary had three. What will ultimately decide Moss' fate as a rookie is whether or not the Bills plan on trying to build on his promising production as a receiver. Otherwise, it's tough to expect more than 10-to-12 carries per game with plenty of competition around the goal line.

Darrynton Evans (3.29, Titans): Unfortunately, it doesn't appear like Derrick Henry will receive a true three-down role. Still, the idea that he's a game-script dependent back is a bit exaggerated. Henry had at least 16 touches in every single contest despite at times losing snaps to Dion Lewis in negative game script situations  Evans flashed the ability to function as a true receiver in the slot during his time at Appalachia State, but there's simply a low-ceiling involved for anyone other than Henry and A.J. Brown in the Titans' run-first offense. The good news is that Evans appears to be locked in as Henry's handcuff, something that could produce a large fantasy role as early as 2021.

There were seven RBs drafted in rounds 4-7. Chargers RB Joshua Kelley (4.06) could feasibly compete with Justin Jackson for backup snaps ... Jets RB Lamical Perine (4.14) has enough receiving chops to steal snaps from Le'Veon Bell if coach Adam Gase continues to be obstinate ... Steelers RB Anthony McFarland (4.18) joins one of the most unstable-RB rooms in the league ... Seahawks RB DeeJay Dallas (4.38) doesn't have the most ridiculous path to a starting job considering Rashaad Penny (late-season torn ACL) could be banged up for a while and Chris Carson just can't hold onto the ball ... Lions RB Jason Huntley (5.27) joins a projected multi-back committee ... Cardinals RB Eno Benjamin (7.08) had some pre-draft hype, but ultimately will be fighting for nothing more than a roster spot come August ... Buccaneers RB Raymond Calais (7.31) is more likely to make an impact on special teams than offense in 2020.

Continue to the next page for breakdowns on rookie WRs and TEs.

Ian Hartitz

All things NFL. Great day to be great. You can follow Ian on Twitter @Ihartitz.