How the NFL draft affects the fantasy football impact of 2017's top rookies

2:29 | NFL
Fantasy Football: Corey Davis, Christian McCaffrey will have immediate impact
Monday May 1st, 2017

Despite an abundance of defensive talent in this year’s NFL draft, offense was the story of the first round. Eight of the first 12 picks were offensive players, and three teams—the Bears, Chiefs and Texans—swung big trades to move up and grab quarterbacks. Two running backs were selected in the top 10 for the first time since 2005 (Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson and Cadillac Williams), and three receivers heard their names called between pick Nos. 5 and 9. It was a good year to be a highly-graded offensive prospect.

First-round picks are not guaranteed instant fantasy success. Ezekiel Elliott was a star last season, but look at the rest of 2016’s offensive skill players selected in the first round: Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Corey Coleman, Will Fuller, Josh Doctson, Laquon Treadwell and Paxton Lynch had a handful of useful fantasy games among the seven of them. For every few seasons like that, however, there’s one like ’14, which gave the fantasy community Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans, Sammy Watkins, Kelvin Benjamin and Brandin Cooks. This year’s crop will fall somewhere between those two extremes, though there’s good reason to believe it will be closer to ’14 than ’16. Not only does this year’s group of first-rounders have plenty of ability, many of them landed with teams where they should be immediate contributors.

It wasn’t just the first-rounders, however. This year’s draft featured a number of interesting fantasy prospects coming off the board in the middle rounds. Below are the eight rookies most likely to shake up fantasy leagues this season.

O.J. Howard, TE, Buccaneers

Howard had to wait a bit longer to shake Roger Goodell’s hand than most draft gurus expected, but the bet here is that it will be well worth the wait. Howard and the Buccaneers are a perfect match for one another, making the tight end the early favorite to be this year’s most impactful fantasy rookie. Howard is a special athlete who measured 6' 6" and 242 pounds and still ran a 4.51-second 40-yard dash at the combine. He’s a true field-stretcher at the tight end position, yet big and physical enough to dominate over the middle.

With Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson out wide, Howard should have plenty of room to operate against linebackers who are too slow, and safeties who are too small, to stop him consistently. Defenses are going to have a horrible time trying to slow down the Buccaneers’ passing game. It’s rare for a tight end to register in the fantasy world in his rookie year, and Howard has to beat out Cameron Brate, but the stars appeared to align on draft day for the Alabama product.

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Corey Davis, WR, Titans

Talent, environment and opportunity. It’s the holy trinity of fantasy production, and something we talk about a lot in these pages. After going to the Titans with the No. 5 pick, Davis has it all. Davis proved during his four years at Western Michigan he has the talent. Never mind that he spent his college career in the Mid-American Conference. No one leaves college as the leading receiver in FBS history, as Davis did with 5,285 yards, merely by beating up on weak opponents.

Marcus Mariota is an ascending star, DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry form a lethal backfield duo, and the Titans’ offense is on the rise. Finally, the leading receivers on the roster from a year ago are Rishard Matthews, Tajae Sharpe and Harry Douglas. In spending a top-five pick on Davis the Titans clearly think highly of him, giving him the best chance of any rookie to be his team’s leading receiver this season. He became the third player from the Mid-American Conference to be selected in the top five since 2013, joining Eric Fisher (first overall to the Chiefs in ’13) and Khalil Mack (fifth to the Raiders in ’14). He was also the first MAC receiver taken in the first round since a guy named Randy Moss went 21st to the Vikings in ’98.

Mike Williams, WR, Chargers

The Chargers snagged Williams with the seventh pick, which made him the second receiver off the board. Williams was on the other end of so many of Deshaun Watson’s highlight plays at Clemson, helping lift the Tigers to the national championship last year. Wide receiver didn’t appear an immediate need for the Chargers with Keenan Allen, Travis Benjamin, Tyrell Williams and Dontrelle Inman on the roster, but Williams’s fantasy stock is in good shape thanks to the surprising pick.

Tyrell Williams and Inman turned in solid seasons after Allen’s second straight season-ending injury, but Mike Williams is certainly more talented than both of them. Standing just shy of 6' 4", he will be a weapon in the red zone, and he’s likely already the most dangerous deep-ball receiver on the roster. It will be interesting to see how roles in the crowded Chargers receiver corps shake out during training camp, but Williams figures to be relevant in all fantasy formats.

Christian McCaffrey, RB, Panthers

McCaffrey was not the first running back selected in this year’s draft—that honor went to Leonard Fournette, who we’ll discuss later. McCaffrey, however, is likely in a better fantasy environment in Carolina than Fournette is in Jacksonville.

There’s no reason to question what McCaffrey can do with the ball in his hands. We all saw the show he put on at Stanford, and it’s silly to think that won’t transfer over in a meaningful way, despite his stature. McCaffrey will split running back duties with Jonathan Stewart, a breakdown that should benefit both of them. While Stewart will almost certainly handle goal-line work, McCaffrey will get the bulk, if not the entirety, of the receiving production out of Carolina’s backfield. In today’s NFL, that’s nearly as valuable from a fantasy perspective as goal-line carries. McCaffrey should make an instant impact in the fantasy game.

Leonard Fournette, RB, Jaguars

There was plenty of debate as to who the second-best running back was in this year’s loaded class, but there was a consensus that Fournette was the best of the group. His draft-night experience, however, will likely produce another lesson in the differences between the real-life and fantasy games. It’s hard to get too excited about Fournette, from a fantasy perspective, now that he’s with the Jaguars.

For one thing, the Jaguars still have both T.J. Yeldon and Chris Ivory on their roster. It’s highly unlikely Fournette will receive a majority of the touches out of Jacksonville’s backfield as a rookie, and it’s possible he won’t even get a plurality. On top of that, Jacksonville’s offensive line was one of the worst run-blocking groups in the league last year, and while they traded for tackle Branden Albert in the off-season, he may not be the entire cure for what ailed them. Remember the holy trinity of talent, environment and opportunity we discussed with respect to Corey Davis earlier? Fournette may have just one of those. Be wary of him on fantasy draft day.

PETER KING’S WEEKLY HOT READ: Want more insider information from Peter King? Check out the MMQB Hot Read.

John Ross, WR, Bengals

During A.J. Green’s six years in the league, he has never had a great counterpart opposite him in Cincinnati’s offense. They invested relatively high picks on Mohamed Sanu in 2012 and Tyler Boyd last year, and while Sanu had some decent years with the Bengals, neither of them proved a worthy No. 2 to Green’s star act on the other side of the field. Enter Ross, whom the Bengals snagged at No. 9, the highest pick the team has used on a receiver since taking Green fourth in ’11.

Ross is an absolute burner who set a new record when he ran a 4.22-second 40-yard dash at this year’s combine. That’s the brand of speed cornerbacks will have to respect on every snap Ross plays. Ross had a great final season with the Huskies, catching 81 passes for 1,150 yards and 17 touchdowns. He could be a day-one starter for the Bengals, even with Brandon LaFell and Boyd on the roster, and could bring some more fantasy value to the table if the Bengals grant him return duties.

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Samaje Perine, RB, Redskins

Perine had to wait until the third day of the draft to hear his name called, but his landing spot is arguably the best of any running back selected this season. Perine will have the chance to not only contribute immediately, but earn lead back status in Washington. Rob Kelley was solid last season, rushing for 704 yards and six touchdowns on 168 carries, and there’s no mistaking Jay Gruden’s love for him. Still, Perine is a destructive runner, and there’s a reason why Washington added a running back despite the presence of Kelley, Chris Thompson and Matt Jones on the roster.

At 5' 10" and 235 pounds, Perine is a load for any defender who takes him on in the open field. He turned in an excellent three-year career at Oklahoma, during which he ran for more than 4,000 yards and 49 touchdowns. Remember, too, that he had to share the backfield with Joe Mixon last season, and he was still able to pile up 1,060 yards and 12 scores on 196 carries. Add Washington’s explosive offense to the mix, and Perine should be in a healthy environment with plenty of opportunity to prove his mettle.

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Deshaun Watson, QB, Texans

Watson was the third quarterback off the board in the first round, but he’s the one with the best chance of starting a significant number of games this season. That alone makes him the most fantasy-relevant of the three, with Mitchell Trubisky and Patrick Mahomes likely to spend most, if not all, of their rookie seasons as backups in Chicago and Kansas City, respectively.

Whether Watson should have been the third quarterback selected is a moot point now. He had a superlative final season at Clemson, throwing for 4,593 yards, running for 629 more, accounting for 50 touchdowns, and leading the Tigers to the national championship. He may have to sit early in the year behind Tom Savage, but the Texans are a team with legitimate playoff aspirations, and they ikely would have been considered a Super Bowl contender had they landed Tony Romo. In other words, Bill O’Brien will have a short leash for Savage.

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