If you’ve been following Jacob Rickrode’s fantastic series on Rookie Hit Rates, you know that the hits fall off dramatically throughout the first round and the subsequent rounds are barren hellscapes. I offered a couple of methods for profiting from this in 5 Ways to Attack Your Rookie Drafts, but I’m also just like everyone else who plays fantasy football: I want to play. Which means grabbing the shiny objects instead of trading them for below replacement level veterans. It means treating these picks like a fantasy title rides on it.
Fortunately, you can gain a big advantage in this area by simply targeting the players with characteristics that translate to the NFL. While your leaguemate is selecting those NFL GM favorites who struggled even against their college peers, why not grab a hyper-productive prospect with plus athleticism?
Several of our recent recommendations have continued to rise and now make their way into premium real estate.
Marlon Mack, Aaron Jones, and Kenny Golladay all had mixed athletic profiles with explosive traits, and they all impressed as collegiate producers far beyond their draft positions. Mack posted three consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons at South Florida and caught 65 passes. Jones gained over 2,000 yards from scrimmage in his final year at UTEP, numbers compiled in no small part due to a ridiculous combination of explosion and agility. Golladay was such a market share monster after he transfered to Northern Illinois that his numbers equaled those of Corey Davis.
All of our recommendations won’t turn out this well, of course, but these are picks to take seriously. A couple of years from now, your late-round rookie pick could be a top-50 player. In the search for the next Golladay, Mack, or Jones, here are five flyers to target in 2019.
In last year’s Zero RB target list, I noted that former undrafted free agents Matt Breida and Austin Ekeler were two of the most athletic running backs in the entire league. Their 4.4 speed, 40-inch verticals, and 6.85 times in the 3-cone will play at almost any size. Combine that with their history of production, and it was easy to overlook the smaller stature. They went off the board at RB52 and 63 respectively before finishing as RB24 and 25, despite each missing two games.
This same opportunity is now presenting itself in rookie formats with Darwin Thompson. The 5-foot-8, 200-pound Utah State star isn’t quite that athletic, but he may be close. Devin McIntyre gives you all the numbers and explains why he may be the top athlete in the class in Thompson Crushes His Pro Day. And just like some of his best athletic comps, Thompson translated that athleticism into well-rounded production. In 2018 he gained more than 1,000 yards on the ground and more than 300 through the air while scoring 16 touchdowns.
The Kansas City Chiefs took notice, grabbing him in Round 6.
Patrick Mahomes justifiably grabbed all of the attention, but the Chiefs also scored the fourth-most points at the RB position last season. When throwing to the RB, they were the most efficient team in the NFL by a wide margin.1 And they did all of that despite losing Kareem Hunt at mid-season.
Damien Williams and Carlos Hyde benefited when KC ignored RBs early, and they’ve now jumped into the fourth and 11th rounds in startup ADP. These are lofty valuations for a long-term backup and a veteran with numerous ignominious roster transactions on his recent resume. Owners want a piece of this offense, and Thompson presents a unique opportunity to buy in for peanuts.
Armstead edged Miles Sanders for No. 1 in the RB Prospect Lab, and a closer look at his resume explains how he trumped the big names.
The Temple product impressed at the combine with a 4.45 forty and 7.07 three-cone at 220 pounds. Two of his closest athletic comps were former first-rounders Cadillac Williams and Knowshon Moreno.
Armstead didn’t truly emerge as a runner until his final year when he averaged over 100 yards per game, but his raw numbers don’t quite do him justice. In Blair Andrews’ look at the Backfield Dominator Ratings, Armstead ranked as the No. 4 back in the class, ahead of every back who was drafted ahead of him. His 77% Dominator edged David Montgomery (76%) and destroyed the rest of the big names.
The Jaguars want to run the ball, but the unreliable Leonard Fournette is their only other realistic option for doing so. Yesterday, Colm and I discussed the Jaguars depth chart and the fantastic opportunity for Armstead on RotoViz Overtime.
In announcing John Lapinski as one of our Lead Writers for 2019, I mentioned that he’s one of the funniest guys out there and one of the sharpest. So it’s no surprise that our TE guru had this for you in 3 Rookie TEs I’m Targeting After the Draft.
But in 2019 we get Kahale Warring, a multi-sport athlete in high school who didn’t play football until his senior year. Warring’s profile graces us with the first mention of water polo that I’ve ever seen in a prospect profile, and honestly you can inject it right into my veins. . .
Seriously though, water polo is a crazy sport where you use one arm to try to catch a hurtling projectile while using the other to try to stay afloat and fend off the massive dude who is trying to drown you. The skillset there actually seems like it would translate really well for a receiver in the NFL, so bring it on.
Selected in the third round of the reality festivities, Warring lands on a crowded yet unimposing Texans depth chart, and as John points out, is basically a carbon copy of No. 8 overall pick T.J. Hockenson as an athlete.
John has more on Warring, but he also has another TE selection who’s also going in Round 4 of rookie drafts. His other target may be an even better value and is a must-add in your first waiver period for leagues with only three rounds.
Williams ranked No. 10 in the final edition of the RotoViz Scouting Index, so scouts weren’t as high on the Texas A&M star as his production appeared to warrant. But it was still mystifying to see him drop to the sixth round as the 15th RB off the board.
I explained the negative outlook on Williams in breaking down his battle with Justice Hill in our RB tournament, but that was when I thought a team might reach for him early. Sure, his combine was a disaster, but this is a runner who crested 2,000 yards from scrimmage in the toughest conference in the land. He wasn’t a one-year wonder either. As Matt Wispe details, Williams was the first true freshman to go over 1,000 yards rushing at Texas A&M, just missing our breakout threshold. RBs who break out early have a decided edge in future NFL performance.
Even that doesn’t fully explain what Williams meant to Texas A&M. He finished No. 2 in the Backfield Dominator Rating with an adjusted 82% share. He may be a 206-pound back who profiles more as the heir apparent to Gio Bernard, but he scored 90% of the backfield rushing TDs for the Aggies. Keep that in mind the next time Joe Mixon gets hurt.
Why should you care about small backs who excel in the BDR? Last year Phillip Lindsay was completely ignored by the NFL draft, but not by the BDR. He lapped the field, finishing No. 1 by a country mile, and then went on to score 228 fantasy points as the second-best rookie back behind Saquon Barkley.
I made my argument for Snell in breaking down Round 2 of a recent expert draft. But there’s another minor note beyond his epic production and great roster fit. You can use the RotoViz Draft Age Database to peruse all of the 2019 prospects, and you’ll find that Snell is one of the youngest players in the class. Especially within the context of his on-field performance, that’s a fantastic sign.
Bonus pick: Bryce Love
Love now joins the All-ACL Tear team with Derrius Guice. The former played hurt through most of his senior season and then things got really dark when he tore his ACL. The latter missed 2018 with an ACL tear and is working his way back. When Guice and Love were on college fields together in 2017, these were the results:
If we’re giving Guice the SEC boost, it’s even more surprising to see where Williams and Snell are being drafted.
This isn’t to say you should be drafting Love over Guice by any stretch, but the yawning chasm between the two players is surprising, even in light of Love’s unclear injury status. Guice is bigger and has been given the “star bellcow” label, but Love is more explosive – or was – and earned Jamaal Charles whispers from coaches at Stanford. He’s also one of the best character guys you’ll ever come across.
Okay, I can hear you saying, “Stop trying to get us to draft little guys,” so here are prices for the sleeper RBs.
My two favorite sleeper WRs went undrafted and currently aren’t being selected in dynasty. Despite that, both landed in excellent situations, one as a priority UDFA with a big signing bonus to a WR-bereft team, the other to one of the best offenses in football, an offense that just happens to have an unexpected opening. Both are already making noise, giving them an excellent chance to make the roster. My recommendation is to ignore the roster-spot-wasters at WR in Rounds 3 and 4 of your rookie draft, and instead get this duo on your Watch List today.
At RB, I’ve already promoted one of Devin’s sleepers, but he also loves the No. 3 back in the BDR. You don’t want to miss out on the deep dive for that sleeper either.
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- 84.3 reFPOE to 53.2 for Christian McCaffrey’s Panthers. (back)