It’s not going to be the best year for rookies in re-draft fantasy leagues. Last season, we had a four-pack of teams that appeared to select their feature back in the NFL draft (Eddie Lacy, Le’Veon Bell, Gio Bernard, Montee Ball). This year, it’s just one (Bishop Sankey) and the running back class as a whole simply isn’t that talented.
Of course, players are going to seemingly come out of nowhere. Andre Ellington was only on the “honorable mention” portion of this column last year and Keenan Allen came in at No. 16. Put all these rookies on your radar and track depth-chart progress throughout the offseason.
Here’s how I would rank the 2014 rookies for re-draft if I was selecting today:
1. Bishop Sankey, RB, Titans
The Titans entered the draft as the only team in the league with a true hole atop their running back depth chart. To fill that void, they made Washington’s Bishop Sankey the first running back off the board at No. 54 overall. We can argue that Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde or LSU’s Jeremy Hill would have been better picks, but the Titans tabbed Sankey as their man while making Tiki Barber comparisons. They obviously have faith.
So Sankey enters an ideal situation for first-year running back value. Shonn Greene has averaged 3.84 YPC over the last two seasons and couldn’t even make it through last week’s three-day minicamp without needing his right knee scoped (the same knee that crippled him last season). Inconsistent and inaccurate Jake Locker will be protected by a run-heavy approach. The offensive line is a strong-suit featuring LT Michael Roos, LG Andy Levitre, RG Chance Warmack and No. 11 overall pick Taylor Lewan. Even if Greene gets his knee right, expect Sankey to lead the Titans in carries and push for 260-plus touches.
2. Mike Evans, WR, Bucs
Over the last two years, 75 percent of fantasy’s top-10 wideouts have been 6-foot-3 or taller. The only ones to buck the trend are Antonio Brown, DeSean Jackson, Dez Bryant (twice) and Roddy White. It’s yet another sign of the NFL growing into a jump ball league, one that throws at receivers even when defenders are in their hip pocket. That’s exactly where Mike Evans excels, and that’s where Josh McCown proved he can win last year while lobbing to 6-foot-4 Brandon Marshall, 6-foot-3 Alshon Jeffery and 6-foot-6 Martellus Bennett.
McCown certainly takes a major hit now that he’s out of Marc Trestman’s special scheme, but the Bucs are building their own version of that “basketball style” offense. Evans is going to be a focal point of it. He’ll play every down opposite Vincent Jackson, with Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Brandon Myers also on the field in a lot of “12" formations. Evans projects as a touchdown machine right out of the gate.
3. Sammy Watkins, WR, Bills
The Bills surrendered a 2015 first-round pick to go up and get Sammy Watkins. Then they traded away veteran receiver Stevie Johnson. So we know they’re going to feature Watkins heavily as the clear-cut No. 1 wideout. My questions here don’t lie in talent, as Watkins is a true freak that was a first-team All-American as a freshman. My question is in E.J. Manuel, whose inconsistencies as a rookie were a bit troubling. Watkins will help Manuel with plenty of screens and YAC plays, but will that be enough for reliable WR3 value? Those betting on Watkins are also taking a leap of faith on Manuel.
4. Johnny Manziel, QB, Browns
Let’s get this “Brian Hoyer is our starter” coachspeak out of the way immediately. Hoyer played well for a brief stretch last season, but he’s a former UDFA that is coming off an ACL tear. Manziel won’t be just be handed the job, but it would be a humiliation if he doesn’t simply win it outright.
So what can Johnny Football do with the gig? Well, things looked a lot brighter before we learned Josh Gordon is facing a year-long suspension. Without Gordon, the Browns will employ more of a conservative, run-based attack that relies on their defense. But Manziel’s fantasy upside didn’t come from his arm anyway. It came from his legs, which produced 2,169 rushing yards and 30 rushing touchdowns in 26 games at Texas A&M (per-game averages of 83.4 yards, 1.15 touchdowns). I liked this quote on Manziel from one personnel man to CBS’ Jason La Canfora:
“He thinks more like a running back than (Robert) Griffin, much more. Griffin is a straight-line track guy, and that’s part of the reason he’ll get hurt more. Manziel plays quarterback like a running back.”
Quarterbacks that run have long been the stuff fantasy dreams are made of. Even Tim Tebow was a rock-solid QB1 weekly when he was starting. Manziel will settle in as a mid-range QB2 with upside at a very deep position.
5. Brandin Cooks, WR, Saints
The fastest wideout in the draft lands on the Superdome turf with Drew Brees. Look out. Both the team and media tabbed receiver as the Saints' biggest need heading into the draft, and they filled it by trading up to No. 20 overall to land the lighting fast Cooks. He’s an ideal complement to declining No. 1 receiver Marques Colston, dominant Jimmy Graham and deep threat Kenny Stills. Cooks can also take over some of the targets left behind by Darren Sproles (89 last year) and Lance Moore (54). He’s going to see far more volume than Stills, who plays more of the old Devery Henderson/Robert Meachem role in Sean Payton’s scheme.
6. Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Panthers
The Panthers went into the draft with the worst receiving corps in the league and emerged with a new every-down “X” receiver in Kelvin Benjamin at No. 28 overall. The risk here is that there’s far more upside than polish in Benjamin, which is not a good thing for a player Cam Newton will be counting on so heavily. What he can do right away is dominate in the jump ball category at 6-foot-5 with ridiculous 35-inch arms. Benjamin will bring far more value in touchdown-heavy leagues.
7. Odell Beckham, WR, Giants
Wide receiver was a bigger need for the Giants than most realized. The coaching staff and front office have been dropping hints all offseason that they aren’t sold on Rueben Randle. The starting tight end is Adrien Robinson, who has zero catches in three career games. And new OC Ben McAdoo is bringing the Packers’ three-wide base to town.
So Beckham wasn’t just a best-player available pick for the G-Men, it also was a fit. He’s going to stick to the outside in the old Greg Jennings spot in McAdoo's scheme, allowing Victor Cruz to play his natural slot role. It’s a position capable of yielding 100 targets easily. Beckham has the elite route-running chops and explosive athleticism to take advantage of that in a big way.
8. Jeremy Hill, RB, Bengals
BenJarvus Green-Ellis was able to sustain a tiny shred of fantasy value last season because he scored seven touchdowns. But the Bengals knew they needed an upgrade at the “big back” position, and got it in the 6’1/233 Hill. As long as the No. 55 overall pick runs circles around BJGE at camp (and he almost certainly will), he’ll assume immediate complementary, inside duties behind Gio Bernard. In Hue Jackson’s highly effective rushing offense, that’s a sizeable role. Hill is capable of 800 yards and 6-8 touchdowns right away. The Bengals can save roughly $2.5 million by cutting Green-Ellis.
9. Terrance West, RB, Browns
With Josh Gordon expected to be suspended for 8-16 games, it’s a no-brainer move for the Browns to go conservative. They’ll ride an underrated defense that will be improved under Mike Pettine, ask mobile rookie starter Johnny Manziel to limit mistakes and run the ball at ton. Ben Tate is the starter, but durability issues have plagued him throughout his career. With that in mind, they passed on desperate needs at wideout and traded up to select Terrance West in the third round.
“I think it will be a good mix,” Pettine said of a West/Tate backfield as he talked about a running back by committee plan. “I think it’s very difficult in this league, especially in this division and especially in our mindset, to put all of that on one player.”
West drew Alfred Morris comparisons even before he landed with OC Kyle Shanahan, who made Alf a star with his one-cut zone-blocking scheme. Former NFL exec and current NFL Media analyst Charlie Casserly went as far to say he believes West will beat Tate for the starting job outright.
10. Eric Ebron, TE, Lions
I know there are a ton of mouths to feed in Detroit, Brandon Pettigrew just signed a $16M contract and the Lions will throw far less with Scott Linehan gone. But the presence of new OC Joe Lombardi, who comes from New Orleans, gives me serious hope for Eric Ebron.
Ebron is listed as a tight end, but one could make a case for him as a wideout at 6’4/250 with 4.6 wheels. If that sounds familiar, it’s because Jimmy Graham is fighting that very case right now. Pettigrew will stick inside while Ebron will be the “move” tight end, doing some Graham-like things as the Lions run “12” personnel as their base. He’ll be single-covered all day with Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate on the outside.
11. Allen Robinson, WR, Jaguars
Yes, I prefer Allen Robinson to Marqise Lee even though Robinson was selected 22 picks later. The Jags said they essentially had them tied on their wideout board. Robinson is bigger at 6’3/220 (see the Mike Evans entry for why that matters), healthier (see the Lee entry) and more explosive (best vertical of all WR prospects in this draft). He’s coming off a 97-1432-6 line playing in Bill O’Brien’s pro-style offense at Penn State. In other words, Robinson looks the part of a No. 1 NFL receiver.
12. Devonta Freeman, RB, Falcons
Don’t write Davonta Freeman off as a change-of-pace or third-down back just because he’s 5-foot-8. This is a one-cut runner that is actually better between the tackles and is a force in pass protection. That last statement is especially vital in Dirk Koetter’s pass-first scheme. In short, the Falcons see Freeman as a player that possesses long-term feature back upside.
“He has the ability to tote the rock as a lead back. He’s a strong guy. He runs with some authority and anger to his running style,” said GM Thomas Dimitroff.
“I think if you look at his size, the first thing that comes to your mind is he may be a change-of-pace back. That is not the case,” said coach Mike Smith.
Look for Freeman, who has drawn Ahmad Bradshaw comparisons, to quickly move ahead of Jacquizz Rodgers and begin to siphon off carries from Steven Jackson immediately. At age 30 with 2,552 career carries on his tires, S-Jax is no lock to stay healthy or carry a full workload.
13. Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Vikings
The Vikings aren’t going the Blake Bortles or Derek Carr route here, aka taking the pressure off Teddy Bridgewater by saying he’ll be eased in behind bridge quarterback Matt Cassel. They’re saying that there will be an open competition and the best man will be the Week 1 starter – and they’re hoping that man is Bridgewater. Considering Cassel went 3-3 as a starter last year with a respectable 60.2 completion percentage and 81.6 rating, I’d call it an even battle.
But if Bridgewater does win the job, he’d have some back-end QB2 appeal thanks to Norv Turner. This is an offensive coordinator that allowed the Browns (Brandon Weeden, Brian Hoyer, Jason Campbell) to lead the league in pass attempts last year and made Josh Gordon/Jordan Cameron into fantasy studs. Expect a balanced attack despite the presence of Adrian Peterson.
14. Marqise Lee, WR, Jaguars
Is Marqise Lee’s knee right? He blamed a Grade 2 MCL sprain for part of his 2013 nightmare and TFY Draft Insider Tony Pauline reported that Lee slipped out of the first round because of medical red flags on it. The second issue here is competition for targets on a team that will be extremely run-heavy with Chad Henne/Toby Gerhart. I like Lee, but I like Allen Robinson and Cecil Shorts more.
15. Cody Latimer, WR, Broncos
The majority of these rookies are going to be late-round flier picks in fantasy drafts. With these low-risk selections, I love to look for the highest reward possible. So even though Latimer doesn’t have a direct path to targets in Denver’s crowded pass-catching totem pole, the potential if he does land a spot is massive. This is a 6’2/215 with 4.4 speed that doesn’t drop passes (ever) and racked up a 72-1096-9 line despite battling awful quarterback play at Indiana last season. Now he gets Peyton Manning.
Well, what about that path to snaps? Latimer should not have trouble beating out Andre Caldwell for the No. 4 role. And this tweet from CBS Denver’s Vic Lombardi at least gives us a little hope Latimer will get a shot at Emmanuel Sanders, even if it is just obvious coachspeak. Also, Wes Welker is one more concussion away from an extended stint on the sideline. The mere chance of Latimer getting significant snaps this season is worth a shot.
16. Jordan Matthews, WR, Eagles
Chip Kelly seems far more concerned about replacing Jason Avant in the slot than DeSean Jackson on the outside. Enter No. 42 overall pick Jordan Matthews. Kelly has already confirmed that Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper will start on the outside, with Matthews as his new slot man and Zach Ertz seeing an expanded role as the “move” tight end.
Last year, Avant posted a useless 38-447-2 line. But there’s plenty of reason to believe Matthews can do much more with the job. Avant actually saw 76 targets, third-most on the team. DeSean Jackson and his 126 targets are now in Washington. And while Avant was among the slowest and least athletic receivers in the NFL, Matthews ran a 4.46 with an outstanding 10-foot broad jump. A far better talent, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Matthews eat into some of Riley Cooper’s outside snaps by the end of the season. Prior to that, he'll be excellent in the slot.
17. Martavis Bryant, WR, Steelers
The only thing settled in the Steelers’ receiving corps is 5-foot-10 Antonio Brown as the featured stud and Heath Miller as the check-down option. After that, it’s wide open. The Steelers added a piece they didn’t previously have in Martavis Bryant, whose 6-foot-4 frame dwarfs Markus Wheaton (5-foot-11) and Lance Moore (5-foot-9). Bryant, who combines that length with 4.42 speed, lasted until the fourth round because of shaky hands and a one-trick pony (vertical route) rap.
“I’m not going to say that he is going to start, but potentially he could. We feel like we got a guy to put opposite of Antonio Brown,” said Steelers WRs coach Richard Mann.
At worst, Bryant projects as an often-used situational deep threat. At best, he’ll beat out Wheaton to play an every-down No. 2 role, just like he did as Sammy Watkins’ caddy at Clemson.
18. Jace Amaro, TE, Jets
During the college season, I thought Amaro was a lock to go in the first round of the draft thanks in large part to the NFL’s increasingly tight-end dependent offenses. He goes 6’5/265, but was essentially an oversized wideout in Texas Tech’s spread offense (87.5 percent of snaps in slot). Amaro’s 2013 junior campaign was an eye-popping 106-1352-7.
The landing spot for Amaro is fine. Yes, there are quarterback concerns, but the Jets don’t have much of anything behind Eric Decker. Amaro should prove to be a more effective receiver than Jeremy Kerley, David Nelson,Stephen Hill and Jeff Cumberland. During Dustin Keller’s first four years with the Jets, he averaged 53.2 catches for 639.7 yards and scored 15 touchdowns. And as the Fantasy Douche pointed out today, possible starter Geno Smith was actually effective throwing to his tight end last year. Amaro has back-end TE2 appeal.
19. Tre Mason, RB, Rams
I don’t believe Zac Stacy has an ironclad strangle on feature back duties here. Stacy had a nice rookie year, but he averaged just 3.89 YPC despite running behind an average (at worst) offensive line. You can also read about the demise of second-year backs like Stacy here. It’s not that far-fetched to say that Mason, who ripped off 1,816 yards, 23 touchdowns and a 5.73 YPC in the SEC last year, is a better runner. The issue with Mason is that he’s woeful in pass protection, an obvious deal-breaker for many rookie backs. It’s a facet to watch closely through the preseason.
20. Isaiah Crowell, RB, Browns
I discussed the Browns impending offensive philosophy in the Terrance West entry. In short, they’re going to run, run it again and run it some more with a committee. We can’t rule UDFA Isaiah Crowell out of that committee because he was a former five-star Georgia recruit whose career has been sidetracked by off-field issues. There’s starting-caliber NFL talent here.
Ka’Deem Carey, RB, Bears – Locked in as Matt Forte’s backup with Michael Bush gone.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Bucs – Ideally the Martellus Bennett in the “basketball” offense.
Davante Adams, WR, Packers – GM Ted Thompson previously used second-round picks on Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. Now he’s used one on Adams.
Charles Sims, RB, Bucs – Shouldn’t have trouble winning the backup job behind Doug Martin.
Carlos Hyde, RB, 49ers – Marcus Lattimore still isn’t right and Hyde has more talent than Kendall Hunter. Is this the year 31-year-old Frank Gore finally breaks down?
James White, RB, Patriots – Not much upside, but we didn’t think LeGarrette Blount had much upside in New England either.
Jerick McKinnon, RB, Vikings – Ticketed for third-down duties already. Not convinced he’d carry the load if Adrian Peterson went down.
Tom Savage, QB, Texans – When only Ryan Fitzpatrick is ahead of you on the depth chart, you have a chance to start games.