With the NFL draft in the books, the rosters of all 32 teams more closely resemble what they will when the actual season begins four months from now. All the players selected last week in Chicago will likely have some sort of real-life impact on their respective teams, but only a select few will matter in the fantasy game. Below, we present you with the 10 rookies who are most likely to show up in meaningful fashion across the fantasy landscape this season.
Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Cowboys
We didn’t have to wait long for a potential fantasy star to emerge in the draft—the Cowboys selected Elliott with the No. 4 pick. Putting aside Elliott’s talent for a second, Dallas’s offensive line has turned into one of the best units in the league over the last few seasons. One season after helping DeMarco Murray to an 1,845-rushing-yard campaign, the line paved the way for Darren McFadden to pick up 4.6 yards per carry and finish fourth in the league in rushing yards last year.
With all due respect to McFadden, Elliott is simply a better, more explosive runner. He put together consecutive 1,800-yard seasons in his final two years at Ohio State, scoring 41 touchdowns while proving himself one of the best blocking backs in the country. That last part cannot be overstated. If Elliott’s blocking skills translate immediately to the NFL, he could feasibly be on the field for 75 to 80% of the team’s snaps, helping to protect the 36-year-old QB Tony Romo—and we all know what happened when he wasn’t on the field for the Cowboys last season. By time fantasy draft season rolls around, don’t be surprised if you have to use a top-15 pick on Elliott.
Josh Doctson, WR, Redskins
Like Elliott, Doctson found what should be a great home in the NFC East. Washington grabbed the TCU product with the No. 22 pick, adding him to a stable of weapons that already includes Jordan Reed, DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon and Matt Jones—quite the collection of firepower around Kirk Cousins. Remember, too, that Jay Gruden might just be one of the league’s premier offensive coaches.
At 6' 4", Doctson gives Cousins a shiny new toy in the red zone. Jackson is just 5' 10", while Garcon checks in at an even six feet. Doctson could immediately become Cousins’ go-to guy in the red zone, or, at worst, a strong second option behind Reed. With Cousins and the passing game taking center stage for Washington, Doctson is my favorite rookie wide receiver.
Kenneth Dixon, RB, Ravens
We talk about opportunity all the time in the fantasy world. In fact, we just did, albeit tangentially, above with Elliott. No offense to McFadden, but how many running backs could have racked up 4.6 yards per carry and 1,089 yards behind the Dallas line last year? Opportunity is hugely important, and Dixon is likely to have it this year.
The 22-year-old starred for four seasons at Louisiana Tech, finishing second in NCAA history by scoring 87 touchdowns during his time with the Bulldogs. Justin Forsett, Buck Allen and Lorenzo Taliaferro are all on the roster—not to mention Terrance West and Trent Richardson—but the Ravens wouldn’t have used a fourth-round pick on a running back if they didn’t plan on giving him a real chance to make an impact this season. Dixon proved his receiving mettle over his final two seasons at Louisiana Tech, and that’s crucial in an offense designed by Marc Trestman. The Ravens may not have one back who dominates the touches, but Dixon could certainly earn a plurality.
Derrick Henry, RB, Titans
The Titans didn’t figure to be in the market for a running back after acquiring DeMarco Murray in the offseason, but that didn’t stop them from drafting Derrick Henry, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, out of Alabama. NFL teams don’t use second-round picks on running backs in this era so they can sit on the bench and watch a veteran dominate the snap count. Henry could play second fiddle to Murray and still be valuable in fantasy leagues, but he’s going to have a meaningful role in the offense. Tennessee took its first step back toward relevance with Marcus Mariota at the helm last season. Murray is hardly a trustworthy running back, with a checkered injury history preceding the ups and downs of the last two seasons. More likely than not, the Titans will find a way to use both backs in tandem. That will create some frustrations in the fantasy community, but it will also likely put both Murray and Henry squarely in the flex discussion at the start of the season.
Sterling Shepard, WR, Giants
With Victor Cruz still trying to work his way back from multiple injuries, and Rueben Randle finally out of New York, Sterling Shepard has a realistic chance to start opposite Odell Beckham in an offense that doesn’t have much of a run game. In other words, don’t be surprised if he leads all rookies in targets this season.
The Oklahoma product was the No. 40 pick in the draft after starring for the Sooners in his senior season. He caught 86 passes for 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns last year, putting an exclamation point on a college career in which he improved every season. That’s the sort of linear growth pro teams love to see when projecting how a player will develop at the next level. Shepard checks in at 5’10” and 193 pounds, relying on his speed and skill with the ball in his hands to make big plays. With the opportunity provided him in New York, sharing a field with Beckham and Eli Manning, Shepard will be immediately relevant in all fantasy formats.
Will Fuller, WR, Texans
Fuller is one of the more interesting rookies to debate, based almost entirely on his landing spot. On the one hand, the Notre Dame product is in a good position with the Texans. We know their quarterback, Brock Osweiler, is competent, and they have a respected, offensively driven coach in Bill O’Brien. He’ll get to play with, and learn from, one of the best receivers in the league in DeAndre Hopkins, and the team also bolstered its running game by signing Lamar Miller. All of those factors help create a strong offensive environment from which every player involved can benefit.
On the other hand, how many targets will the rookie command? Hopkins racked up 192 targets last season, good for third in the league behind Julio Jones and Antonio Brown. Miller is going to command a high volume of touches, as well, especially considering he’s an adept receiver. There may not be a teammate pairing that eats up more combined targets and carries than Hopkins and Miller. If nothing else, they’re on the short list with Jones and Devonta Freeman, and Brown and Le’Veon Bell. If Fuller traded spots with Doctson or Shepard, he’d be more intriguing from a fantasy perspective. There’s no question he has the skills to make an immediate impact. There is question, however, about his opportunity.
Laquon Treadwell, WR, Vikings
Treadwell, a Chicago native, returns to the Midwest after spending his college career at Mississippi, heading to Minnesota as the No. 23 pick in the draft. The 6' 2", 221-pounder slipped on draft boards when he ran a 4.65 40-yard dash at his pro day, but that greatly ignores what he actually did on the field during his time in Oxford. He exploded last season, hauling in 82 passes for 1,153 yards and 11 touchdowns, vaulting himself up all the pre-draft receiver lists before that pro day workout.
The bet here is that Treadwell makes a lot of the teams who passed on him regret putting so strong an emphasis on his speed. And hey, now he and Teddy Bridgewater, who had a famously poor pro day of his own a few years ago, have something over which they can bond immediately. Treadwell will undoubtedly start alongside Stefon Diggs. Bridgewater limits his upside heading into the season, but he’ll be ready to contribute on day one.
Jordan Howard, RB, Bears
When the Bears opted not to offer Matt Forte a contract this offseason, it appeared the Jeremy Langford takeover would officially begin in 2016. That may not be the case after the team used a fifth-round selection on Howard. The 6' 1", 230-pound back finished his college career at Indiana after he and his former teammates were cast adrift when UAB temporarily shuttered its football program.
Howard missed four games due to injury last season, but when he was healthy he was routinely one of the best players on the field. All told, Howard ran for 1,213 yards and nine touchdowns on just 196 carries. Add in what he did in his final season as a Blazer, and Howard totaled 2,800 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns in his last two years at the collegiate level. Langford will undoubtedly open the summer atop Chicago’s depth chart, but Howard is going to have every opportunity to carve out a significant role in the offense, if not win the starting gig altogether. The Langford-Howard training camp battle should be one of the most intriguing across the league, especially from a fantasy standpoint.
Michael Thomas, WR, Saints
Elliott wasn’t the only Buckeye to find what should be a great home in the NFL. The Saints nabbed Thomas in the second round with the No. 47 pick, getting a big, physical receiver to go with the smaller Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead. The Saints have been running three-wide sets since before it was cool, and that’s not going to change this season. So long as Drew Brees and Sean Payton are in town, this will be a good team on which to be a receiver.
Thomas didn’t post gaudy numbers during his time with the Buckeyes, but a lot of that owes to the style of offense employed in Columbus. Over his final two seasons at Ohio State, he caught a total of 110 passes for 1,580 yards and 18 touchdowns. Thomas will likely start outside the numbers for the Saints, and he really shouldn’t have any problem being one of the three primary receivers at Brees’s disposal. Lesser talents have turned that status into fantasy relevance. Thomas should do exactly the same.
C.J. Prosise, RB, Seahawks
Thomas Rawls gave the Seahawks plenty of hope in a post-Marshawn Lynch world when he ran for 830 yards and four touchdowns on 147 totes a season ago. Having said that, he does not have a lengthy track record as a foundation for success, a fact the Seahawks acknowledged by selecting Prosise in the third round.
Prosise turned into a real weapon in his third season at Notre Dame, running the ball 156 times for 1,032 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also caught 26 passes for 308 yards and one more score, making him one of the more dynamic dual threats in the country. Prosise is almost certainly a better receiver than Rawls already, and that should almost guarantee him a role in the offense. Should Rawls falter, or suffer an injury like he did at the end of 2015, Prosise could be in for significant work alongside Russell Wilson in the Seattle backfield.
Kicker Bonus Round: Roberto Aguayo, K, Buccaneers
Since 2000, three kickers have been selected in the first two rounds of the draft, and two of them, Aguayo and Sebastian Janikowski, were from Florida State (the other, for the record, was Ohio State’s Mike Nugent). Whether or not it makes sense for a team trade up and use a second-round pick on a kicker is beside the point for our purposes. Aguayo is an excellent kicker who figures to stick around for a long time. He was the most accurate kicker in NCAA history, converting on 267 of his 276 career field goal attempts—a 96.7% success rate. To give you an idea of how good that is, Adam Vinatieri, one of the most decorated kickers in NFL history who’s still going strong into his 40s, has made 84.1% of his career attempts. Only three times in league history has a kicker connected on 96.7% of his attempts in a single season, let alone across a four-year career.
Despite all the success Aguayo had in Tallahassee and the fact that the Buccaneers believe he can be a real offensive weapon, kickers, from a fantasy perspective, are typically only as good as their offense. Aguayo’s fantasy value depends less on him and more on the continued growth of Jameis Winston.