Everyone is always looking for an edge in fantasy football. With the proliferation of fantasy sites and multiple different magazine options out there for the old school player, there is no longer any shortage of information. Gone are the days when you could be confident that you were the only one who knew about a sleeper because I guarantee there is at least one site out there publicizing your hidden gem. If your league mates even give a half-ass effort at research there is infinite material on the interwebs for them to catch up on your hard-earned football knowledge in an hour or two. I’m one of those guys that spends all day Sunday (and Saturday) watching as many games as I can (usually in a bar), and it hurts when the guy who barely even watches his hometown team nabs one of your sleeper targets because of a Matthew Berry article he read 30 min before the draft. It sucks, but that’s the world we live in right now.
One of the best advantages still out there are rookies. 5 rookies finished in the top 60 overall last season and only two of them were projected to be in the top 100 by both Yahoo and ESPN. Of the 22 rookies who finished in the overall top 200 last year, Yahoo’s composite rankings were off by an average of 66 spots per rookie and Berry by 89 on their rookie ranking projections. It’s a crap-shoot. No one knows how the transition from college to the NFL is going to go, but if you can correctly predict which rookies are going to have success, you can find yourself a cheap fantasy asset without having to outbid the casual fans in your league with their ESPN printouts. I will be breaking down rookies undervalued by national pundits in my next column but for now here is an overview of the top rookie targets.
Last season 22 rookies finished in the top 200 overall fantasy rankings and that was considered a weak draft. The 2014 draft was considered one of the best ever and I think it will be a banner fantasy year for rookies. I’m only covering the top 27 rookies in this column, basically every rookie I think is worth at least $1 auction bid. If your league goes deeper than that, I’ve broken down every rookie drafted and the key UDFAs by position which you can review using the links below.
Rookie Fantasy Rankings
Fantasy Football – Overall Rookie Rankings
1.) Bishop Sankey, Titans
Playing time - With the release of Chris Johnson, Sankey only has Shonn Greene and Jackie Battle to beat out on the depth chart, which shouldn’t be a problem. Greene will get his share of carries but he is a mediocre between the tackles back (3.8 ypc) who would be better used as a short-yardage guy with Sankey as the workhorse. I think Sankey will lead rookie RBs in carries.
Fantasy Outlook - Sankey is my early pick for offensive rookie of the year. He should be getting 15-20 carries and a few catches per game with the Titans and is a solid well-rounded back who doesn’t need to come off the field. He’s not a burner, but can run inside or out, is a smooth receiver out of the backfield, and was one of the best pass blockers in the draft. I think Sankey has a shot at 1,400 all-purpose yards, 40+ receptions, and 8-10 TDs.
Auction value - Re-draft $17, Keeper $23
2013 Player comparison – Reggie Bush
Draft him ahead of¹ - T-Rich, Rice, S-Jax
2.) Jeremy Hill, Bengals:
Playing time - Hill is the perfect complement to Gio Bernard and is the ideal fit for BJGE’s role last season. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hill gets close to BJGE’s usage from last year (220 carries) and should do much better than his pathetic 3.4 ypc. The Bengals are talking about using Bernard as a slot receiver more often which just leaves more carries for Hill.
Fantasy outlook – Hill is a powerful runner who excelled between the tackles in college and that is what he’ll be asked to do with the Bengals. I think Hill has a good shot at 1000 yards and 8-10 TDs.
Auction value - Re-draft $14, Keeper $20
2013 Statistical comparison – Zac Stacy
Draft him ahead of - T-Rich, S-Jax, Ridley
3.) Sammy Watkins, Bills:
Playing time - Watkins should start the season as the Bills #1 WR and could lead the team in targets.
Fantasy outlook - Watkins will get plenty of targets, but will they be catchable? As a rookie E.J. Manuel struggled to complete passes (58%, 11 TDs / 9 INTs) when he was healthy enough to play. If Manuel, the former 1st round pick, shows considerable improvement Watkins could be in for a big year. Most likely, Manuel will be a little better and Watkins will have a solid, but unspectacular season (70, 1000, 7) making him a solid #2 WR or flex play. Assuming a healthy year from Manuel I think Kennan Allen’s 2013 season is a reasonable projection. If Manuel gets hurt, either Thad Lewis or Jeff Tuel take over and Watkins numbers take a serious hit. Whoever is under center I expect Watkins to be the primary focus in the passing game after the high price the Bills paid to move up and draft him. It’s pretty rare for rookie wide outs to come in and dominate, but by year two he has the talent to be an all-pro. I expect Watkins to be a solid fantasy starter in 2014 with the potential to be a legit #1 in 2015 / 2016 for those in keeper leagues.
Auction value - Re-draft $12, Keeper $17
2013 Statistical comparison - Keenan Allen
Draft him ahead of - Hakeem Nicks, Dewayne Bowe
4.) Brandon Cooks, Saints:
Playing time - All Cooks has to do is beat out Robert Meachum and Chris Givens in order to get on the field as the Saints 3rd wide receiver. I wouldn’t rule out Cooks beating out Kenny Stills for the #2, but I think he is better suited for the slot position and Stills is better off on the outside where he can use his blazing speed to get deep. The Saints use the 3 WR set (11 personnel) over 50% of the time so Cooks will be on the field often. Marcus Colston showed signs of wearing down last year and Stills was a one-dimensional receiver last year, so Cooks could become Drew Brees’ #2 option after Jimmy Graham by the end of his rookie season. The Saints have averaged over 40 pass attempts per game the last four seasons, so despite a claim that they are going to run the ball more, I will believe it when I see it.
Fantasy outlook - The Saints have always had a prolific passing attack despite not having much talent at the receiver position. Outside of TE/WR Jimmy Graham, Cooks is already the most talented receiver on the roster. He’s short, but can fly (4.37), has great hands and perhaps just as importantly is dedicated to his craft. I expect Cooks to be ready to play week 1 and he should become a valuable fantasy contributor right away. I think an 85 catch, 1100 yard, 6 TD season is possible.
Auction value – Re-draft $10, Keeper $16
2013 Statistical comparison – T.Y. Hilton
Draft him ahead of – Greg Jennings, Aaron Dobson, Steve Smith
5.) Mike Evans, Buccaneers:
Playing time - The Bucs have very little talent at WR after Vincent Jackson, so it would be a disappointment if Evans isn’t starting week 1. Both Josh McCown and Mike Glennon have big time arms and throw a nice deep ball so either guy has the ability to take advantage of Evans’ skill-set and he should see plenty of targets despite HC Lovie Smith’s conservative nature.
Fantasy outlook - Evans excels at the deep routes and if you watched any Bears games last year Josh McCown likes to air out deep and let his receiver go get the ball. The McCown / Evans combo should be very similar to McCown / Jeffery last year and could result in a monster rookie season for Evans. Besides a handful of deep touchdowns, Evans should also be a red zone weapon and I could see him coming close 10 TDs this season. Evans will struggle with press coverage from stronger NFL CBs and I don’t think he’ll have as many catches as Watkins or Cooks, but his yards per catch should be higher as will his TD total. I think (50, 900, 9) is a reasonable projection with major upside the next few years as he gets stronger and improves his intermediate route running.
Auction value - Re-draft $8, Keeper: $15
2013 Statistical comparison - Riley Cooper
Draft him ahead of - Greg Jennings, Aaron Dobson, Steve Smith