2017 NFL Draft: Top rookies for fantasy

With the completion of the NFL draft fresh in the rear-view mirror, several intriguing options have emerged from the NFL’s flagship event in Philadelphia. Lightly scraping the surface, I am going to recommend a few players here to key in on, add them to your favorites to follow their progression through training camp. While some are blatantly obvious, others you may have never heard of until now, so here they are….

All Formats

1. Corey Davis WR, Tennessee Titans

• Davis is potentially lightning in a bottle with the Titans who essentially landed on a team that sports a rising star at quarterback and one of the league’s best offensive lines. He is in a rare position of being one of the only receivers in this draft to potentially snag the top spot on the depth chart to start the season. A player who boasts an NFL level skill set, he has the best odds of achieving what Michael Thomas did last year with the Saints. Buyer be aware, Davis has an extensive injury history and recently missed both his final game in college as well as the NFL combine due to injury.

2. Christian McCaffrey RB, Carolina Panthers

• Panthers brass surprised me with this pick as the defensive minded team usually will go high on defense in their draft approach. However, it was one of my favorite picks this year as current starter Jonathon Stewarts injury plagued career could net heavy playing time for the Heisman Trophy award runner up. McCaffery is like the Incredible Hulk version of Danny Woodhead and is a player that is a perfect fit behind or beside Cam Newton in this offense. With elite pro bowlers Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olson ready for a rebound year. Coach Ron Rivera has added a potentially devastating weapon to his arsenal on offense which should only strengthen further an already explosive group. Although the insanely high usage in college is of concern, leading some to wonder if he can even handle a three down role at the elite NFL level.

3. Kareem Hunt RB, Kansas City Chiefs

• Out of all the talented running backs in this draft class, Hunt is the one who lands in the dream destination for running-backs. Coach Andy Reid is one of the greatest minds currently in the NFL at running the football and adds a very capable option to the Chiefs run first attack on offense, as they attempt to move on from long-time fantasy elite rusher Jamaal Charles. His competition, Spencer Ware, stumbled in the starting role after taking over for the aforementioned Charles, who went down early in the season with yet another devastating knee injury. If Hunt can pick up Reid’s complicated run blocking schemes and fast pace of the NFL he could very well be the Jordan Howard of this year’s rookie rushers.

4. DeShaun Watson QB, Houston Texans

• Watson is arguably the most pro ready QB in this draft, which is not saying much considering this year’s talent pool is widely viewed mediocre at best. However, pairing Watson with DeAndre Hopkins and elusive pass catching back Lamar Miller could make this offense hum with QB guru head coach Bill O’Brien molding the proven winner into a solid NFL quarter-back. A bonus, the league’s top defense backs this offense and gets a huge boost as megastar pass rusher JJ Watt projects to return fully healthy from his season ending back injury. Essentially relieving the traditional pressures felt by top rookie quarterbacks who typically are charged with suffering through major growing pains of rebuilding franchises. Yes, Tom Savage has been given the keys to the Texans offense going into training camp but with his checkered injury history on the table my money is on surely on Watson. Although Houston has legitimate concerns with their offensive line and playing time is no guarantee in year one, Watson should be drafted in all keeper based formats for his long-term upside in this offense.

PPR League Formats

1. Joe Mixon RB, Cincinnati Bengals

• With Geovani Bernard still recovering from a devastating knee injury the Bengals decided to take out an insurance policy on him, and possibly, even replacing the injury plagued rusher completely when they drafted pass catching specialist back Joe Mixon out of Oklahoma. A player who did almost all his damage in the passing game, he feels like the Andre Ellington of this draft class and will be a guy the Bengals will attempt to mold into a three down back but his immediate impact obviously will be in PPR formats.

2. Mike Williams WR, Los Angeles Chargers

• Lots of mouths to feed in this Chargers offense with Keenan Allen set to make another cameo appearance in 2017. However, Williams has elite NFL wide receiver upside and the Chargers desperately need a healthy receiver going forward. They have addressed their offensive line issues from last year which should allow Rivers to do his thing in the passing game. More than likely he will be brought along slowly with so many talented receivers ahead of him, no need to rush unless injuries occur. Although if he performs well I could see him beating out Dontrelle Inman for the teams third receiver position by mid-season.

3. Evan Engram TE, New York Giants

• Coach McAdoo must be pleased with adding a talented playmaker to his tight end position, one that routinely has been a mediocre nightmare during his tenure. With Brandon Marshall and Odell Beckham Jr. lining up outside, it will be very interesting to see how the Giants offense uses Sterling Shepherd with Evans, especially when considering the rookie tight end is only 220 pounds and is built more like a wide receiver than a tight end. If he can pick up the Giants scheme quickly, Evans could be a matchup nightmare for defenses already focused on trying to slow down Odell Beckham Jr & Company on the outside. Which makes Evans a solid Dynasty draft selection as well.

Standard & Touchdown Dependent Formats

1. Leonard Fournette RB, Jacksonville Jaguars

• There’s no denying the dominance displayed by Fournette his freshman year at LSU, which was jaw dropping to say the least. However, 2016 told an immensely different story about the Jaguars new running back. Raising a red flag as his stock literally soared and fell with his offensive line’s production in college. Behind a weaker offensive line as a sophomore, Fournette suddenly became timid in his runs out of the back field and revealed an inability to elude breakdowns in blocking at the line of scrimmage, clearly explaining why he was demoted to second string. Jacksonville took a huge gamble on him with their fourth overall pick considering their o-line is one of the more dysfunctional units in the league. However, with turnover prone QB Blake Bortles at the helm, I would imagine the Jags will try to limit his red zone turnovers by feeding Fournette near the goal line.

2. Dalvin Cook RB, Minnesota Vikings

• Cook would be a lock for my All Formats top players section if he had gone to a team with a better offensive line and less competition at the running-back position. However, he landed right in the middle of a full-blown post Adrian Peterson makeover. One that includes former Oakland Raiders bruiser Latavious Murray and Minnesota mainstay Jerick McKinnon. On paper, Murray appears to be the proverbial punching bag to start the season but he has a major uphill battle against him as he will have to transition from running behind the best offensive line in football in Oakland, to running behind one of the league’s worst units in 2016. Minnesota did sign some free agent o-linemen in the offseason which, in theory, should allow a noticeable improvement from last year. Although my guess is the Vikings will take a similar approach to how the Tennessee Titans used DeMarco Murray and Derick Henry.

3. David Njoku TE, Cleveland Browns

• Njoku appears to be the more complete tight-end in this draft class and, in my opinion, has the highest upside of the rookies at the position from a total snaps basis year one. Head coach Hue Jackson has a history of feeding capable tight-ends in his offense, evident in his time as offensive coordinator in Cincinnati as he routinely fed Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert to great success. However, the massive elephant in the room with Cleveland is, how good or bad will the quarter-back play be in 2017?

4. John Ross WR, Cincinnati Bengals

• Another solid pick for the Bengals, a team still desperate to fill the limited targets behind pro bowler A.J. Green. Sophomore receiver Tyler Boyd flashed at times in his rookie season but failed to run away with the job as he left the door open for veteran receiver Brandon LaFell, who seized the other outside receiver spot opposite of Green and pushed Boyd inside to man the slot position. Cincinnati clearly took the best player available of need as Ross broke Chris Johnsons 40-time record at the combine with his blazing speed. One could argue that in this run heavy to set up passing plays to Eifert and Green offense, he is too much of a risk for most formats. However, in touchdown based league settings those 3-5 passes per game out of the slot against nickel corners should be more than enough opportunity for Ross’s explosive skill set and should be a threat to break a big touchdown on any given Sunday.

Dynasty Leagues

1. Solomon Thomas DE, San Francisco 49ers

• First year 49ers GM and former player, John Lynch, absolutely took Chicago Bears GM Ryan Pace to the woodshed in their draft day deal that saw San Francisco essentially get paid a king’s ransom to draft the player they wanted all along. Thomas is an absolute game wrecker who can pay immediate dividends playing next to sophomore team mate DeForrest Buckner, who was very solid down the stretch in his rookie campaign. Just the thought of these two bull dozers terrorizing the weak NFC West offensive lines for the near future should have Dynasty owners licking their chops on draft day.

2. Damonte Kazee CB/S, Atlanta Falcons

• Very interesting pick here with the team selecting another hybrid safety considering Keanu Neal was selected by the Falcons in last years draft. However, Atlanta has some serious holes in this defense and It appears the initial plan here is to upgrade the Falcons horrible nickel back position. As incumbent starter, Brian Poole, was one of the top ten cornerbacks in the category for yards per coverage snap surrendered last year per profootballfocus.com. Amazingly enough, Poole was still the second highest rated corner on the Falcons roster. Like Neal, Kazee will get every opportunity to play as a rookie for a defense expected to have a solid pass rush.

3. Krishawn Hogan WR, Arizona Cardinals

• Undrafted free agent wide receiver out of Mariana, Hogan is your typical troubled player who falls to the bottom of college football but has a skill set that could have played with the big dogs. Given the circumstances, he is a long shot to replace Larry Fitzgerald’s pending retirement but at the very least he is a big athletic body who can occupy the role Michael Floyd once held in this offense as the Cardinals have a serious issue with size at receiver outside of Fitzgerald. He should get a solid look from the coaching staff entering training camp for that reason. If he gains the trust of these old school coaches, we could see a meteoric rise from a guy with loads of confidence who has A LOT to prove.

4. Juju Smith-Schuster WR, Pittsburgh Steelers

• I have never been the type of person to completely rely on knuckleheads returning from being knuckleheads. With Martavis Bryant on a similar path as the once elite Josh Gordon, a briefly elite receiver whose career derailed as he can’t keep his head out of the clouds, pun intended. In comes JSS, who will have every opportunity to separate himself from the tainted shadows of Bryant if he continues to struggle with his issues and could end up being a very nice sleeper stash in PPR formats with big Ben’s elite ability at spreading the ball around in mind. However, he is an aging QB who could be one injury away from retirement but taking JSS could pay off for the dynasty owner that has Roethlisberger and not Antonio Brown in the upcoming season, at the very least.

5. Joe Williams RB, San Francisco

• Williams is a player who was handpicked by rookie head coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch. Before leaving Atlanta, we saw Shanahan draft Tevin Coleman his first year as offensive coordinator there and the plan was for Coleman to assume majority control of running back duties. However, Coleman’s injury history and Devonta Freeman’s sheer will to retain a role in the offense altered the original trajectory slightly, forcing a committee. In San Francisco, Carlos Hyde is absolutely no Freeman and who is one of the most injury prone rushers of the last four years in the NFL. With Williams’ talent, a guy who runs so patiently behind his blockers waiting to hit the hole with explosive ability and has that breakaway speed to boot. As a Houston Texans fan, I got the privilege of watching Arian Foster for a long time and Williams literally reminds me exactly of him, a smaller version of course. Foster’s greatness was in his ability to stay calm and patient in letting the play develop, then exploding through the hole at first light with deceptive speed. Keep a watchful eye on what goes down in San Francisco before week one kicks off as this guy could easily go from relative unknown to house hold name in a few short weeks, just like Foster did.