Fitz on Fantasy: How the 2017 Rookie Class Stacks Up

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In 2014, University of Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon punched a woman named Amelia Molitor in a Norman deli, breaking bones in her face. The punch was recorded by surveillance cameras and has been seen by millions of people. Mixon and Molitor later reached a settlement.

Mixon had just turned 18, and the video showed Molitor confronting Mixon and making physical contact with him just before the punch. But to use either youthful indiscretion or self-defense to excuse what Mixon did would be absurd. Nor should it be written off as “one bad moment.” If Mark David Chapman hadn’t had one bad moment, John Lennon might still be making music.

With regard to Mixon’s misdeed, I’m running a quart low on the milk of human forgiveness; I used it on my Crunch Berries this morning. I’ll continue to question Mixon’s character until he makes amends in a big way – say, for instance, by donating half of his salary to a women’s shelter, or multiplying loaves and fishes to feed the poor of Cincinnati, the city where he’ll be playing pro football for a living.

It’s a safe bet that the proprietor of this site, The Football Girl herself, Melissa Jacobs, won’t have Mixon on any of her fantasy teams this year. I completely understand the rationale. I, however, have a certain moral lassitude when it comes to my fantasy teams. As judgmental as I am, I’m the Father Flanagan of fantasy football, willing to welcome miscreants and ne’er-do-wells to my roster as long as they score touchdowns. As truly odious as Mixon’s assault on Molitor was, I’d still be willing to draft him this year.

But I won’t.

I’ll avoid Mixon because the Cincinnati offensive line is almost certain to be terrible. The Bengals let two quality starters, tackle Andrew Whitworth and guard Kevin Zeitler, get away in free agency. They only took one lineman in last month’s draft, and not until the fifth round. Two or three of the Bengals’ projected O-line starters couldn’t knock a bundle of balloons off the line of scrimmage. With that group blocking for Mixon, there’s not a chance in hell I’m drafting him at what’s sure to be a steep asking price.

That’s my insta-take on Mixon. Let’s take a quick look at some of the other rookies’ fantasy prospects for 2017:

RUNNING BACKS

Leonard Fournette, Jaguars – In my current redraft rankings, Fournette is slotted in at RB9, just behind Jay Ajayi and just ahead of Todd Gurley. It’s fair to question the wisdom of taking a running back with the No. 4 pick when the modern NFL skews so heavily toward the forward pass. But that house-in-the-Hamptons level of investment is a clear indication that the Jaguars are going to ride Fournette into the ground, which makes him a valuable fantasy property. If Fournette plays 14 or more games, he’s getting 1,000-plus rushing yards. But with scatter-armed Blake Bortles at quarterback, and with a talent-laden defense, Jacksonville is going to play a lot of low-scoring games, which will probably limit Fournette to eight or nine touchdowns.

Christian McCaffrey, Panthers – Give the Panthers credit for trying to inject mercury into a molasses-based offense. McCaffrey adds needed speed, and he’s also pretty good at running between the tackles for a smaller fella. There are a couple of concerns, though. Cam Newton might not be the guy to maximize McCaffrey’s receiving ability, as Newton had the league’s worst completion percentage (55.3%) on throws of five or fewer yards downfield, according to Pat Thorman of Pro Football Focus. Carolina may have undermined McCaffrey’s fantasy value by also drafting RB/WR hybrid Curtis Samuel, a good pass catcher with 4.3 speed. Still, McCaffrey should average something like 80 yards from scrimmage per game and score a half-dozen TDs, which would make him a top-20 running back.

Joe Mixon, Bengals – Despite my aforementioned reservations, I think he’s a top-25 RB.

Dalvin Cook, Vikings – He tested poorly at the Scouting Combine. He’ll have to compete with Latavius Murray for carries. The Vikings’ offensive line is softer than cotton candy. Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher, says that anyone who doubts Cook should simply “turn the tape on.” Yes, Jimbo, but your blockers actually opened holes. Cook could be terrific this year if Minnesota can duct-tape its offensive line together and if Mr. Checkdown, Sam Bradford, can keep opposing defenses from crowding the line of scrimmage. I’m skeptical. Still, Cook is worth drafting as an RB3 on talent alone.

Samaje Perine, Redskins – Google the college stats of “Fat Rob” Kelley, Matt Jones and Perine, then place your bets on who’ll be sitting atop the depth chart by the time the leaves start to turn color. My money’s on the rookie.

A few others …

I’m avoiding D’Onta Foreman, who’s being grossly overrated after putting up one season of carnival numbers out of a spread offense at Texas, then running a fast 40 time at his pro day. He’s a nonfactor in the passing game, he’s fumble-prone, and he’s a 6-0, 230-pound back who runs likes he’s 5-9, 205.

It would have been fun to see Alvin Kamara do his LeSean McCoy impersonation this season, but alas he’ll be buried on the Saints’ depth chart behind Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson. (Sigh.)

By the time the Colts are done with their first full-squad OTA session, Marlon Mack will know exactly how Frank Gore takes his coffee. If Gore finally hits the wall this year, Mack could be useful in other ways, too.

Spencer Ware was an analytics darling until he wasn’t; now he’ll have to fend off a training-camp challenge from Kareem Hunt, a versatile run-catch threat with only “meh” athleticism.

Little Donnel Pumphrey of San Diego State is a fun player to watch, and it’s hard to imagine he won’t earn touches in Philadelphia, which has one of the NFL’s thinnest RB stables.

The Packers picked three RBs on the third day of the draft. I suspect that one of Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones and Devante Mays will become a valuable fantasy commodity at some point this fall, but I have no idea which one.

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 WIDE RECEIVERS

This isn’t a terrible WR class, but the top guys didn’t land in great spots, and it’s hard to tell which of the second- and third-rung guys will hit. A handful of the rookie receivers will be valuable fantasy properties for all or part of the 2017 season, but I’m not eager to put down bets at this roulette table.

Corey Davis, Titans – It’s nice that Davis, most likely the best receiver in this class, will be paired with young, talented, uber-efficient QB Marcus Mariota. Trouble is, the Titans really, really like to run the ball. Tennessee also has two pretty fair pass catchers in WR Rishard Matthews and TE Delanie Walker, and while Davis is good enough to carve out a decent target share for himself, he’s not apt to be a 70-catch guy as a rookie. As a top-five draft pick, Davis will probably have a WR3 price tag, yet a WR3 season might be at the upper end of his range of outcomes.

Mike Williams, Chargers – The Bolts’ selection of Williams at No. 7 left me feeling melancholy. Not only does this landing spot incinerate whatever rookie-year value Williams might have had, it also nicks the value of talented young WR Tyrell Williams, who might not be able to spread his wings and take flight amidst such a crowded pass-catching corps. Mike Williams is a big, physical dude who excels at making contested catches, but there are doubts about his ability to get separation. It’s hard to imagine Philip Rivers forcing passes into a tightly covered Mike Williams if he can make easier throws to Keenan Allen, Tyrell Williams, Antonio Gates, et al.

John Ross, Bengals – The shoes that Ross wore when he ran a record-breaking 4.22 at the Scouting Combine are still smoldering. And unlike, say, Phillip Dorsett of the Colts, Ross actually has route-running skills and a good pair of hands to go along with the speed. Cincinnati isn’t necessarily a bad fit for Ross, though WR A.J. Green and TE Tyler Eifert will dominate targets. Ross wasn’t going to be a high-volume receiver wherever he went. The best-case scenario for him is that he’s DeSean Jackson 2.0, and D-Jax has long been a player who leaves fantasy owners pulling their hair out. Even the best deep-ball artists tend to run hot and cold, and the hot has an annoying habit of showing up when those speed demons are on the bench following a cold spell.

A few others …

Zay Jones had 158 catches for 1,746 yards and eight TDs in his final college season at East Carolina and goes to the Bills, who had a vacancy for a possession receiver following the departure of Robert Woods.

I’m a fan of Juju Smith-Schuster, who as a teenager established himself as a dangerous playmaker for a top program at USC. Unfortunately, he wound up in Pittsburgh, where at best he’ll be a third wheel behind Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant.

The transition to pro ball should be an interesting one for Cooper Kupp of Eastern Washington, who goes from dominating small-school defenders to playing in one of the NFL’s most impotent passing attacks. Kupp might have some end-of-the-bench PPR value as a guy who could amass 50 to 60 low-impact receptions.

TIGHT ENDS

Conventional fantasy wisdom holds that rookie tight ends are to be avoided. However, this TE class is a potentially great one, and it doesn’t take much to qualify as a low-end TE1 these days.

O.J. Howard, Buccaneers – A phenomenal athlete who blocks every bit as well as he catches, Howard might need a year or two to makes his bones in the fantasy realm, since WRs Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson will do most of the heavy lifting among the Tampa pass catchers. Howard’s post-draft ADP is TE13. That’s not cheap, nor is it exorbitant for an athletic marvel playing in an ascendant passing offense.

David Njoku, Browns – A 20-year-old with raw talent to dream on, Njoku has a huge wingspan and a 37.5-inch vertical leap, and while it will take some time for him to mature as a pass catcher, he could be a red-zone terror right away. Njoku went to the Browns with the 29th overall pick. Shaky QB play will probably keep him below 500 receiving yards, but Njoku might be able to squeeze out 5-6 TDs.

Evan Engram, Giants – OK, who else started Will Tye in a redraft league last year? Hey, in my defense, it was a tough league with multiple flex spots and an extra half-point for TE receptions. But yes, starting Tye was shameful. I’d be far less embarrassed to trot out Engram in a lineup this year. The rookie from Ole Miss finally gives the Giants a legitimate pass-catching threat at tight end, and while he’s more of a WR/TE tweener than a pure TE, fantasy owners can just enjoy the receptions and let the Giants worry about whether Engram can run-block. He probably has as much 2017 fantasy upside as Howard, if not more, yet Engram figures to be cheaper.

A few others …

Gerald Everett, a second-round pick of the Rams, is yet another athletic marvel who packs a full toolbox. With Lance Kendricks gone, Everett should get snaps right away.

Not only did the Bears overpay free-agent QB Mike Glennon before sinking major draft capital into rookie QB Mitchell Trubisky, they also overpaid free-agent TE Dion Sims before spending a second-round pick on Adam Shaheen of Ashland University, a 6-6, 278-pound man-mountain who won’t have Saginaw Valley State defenders to kick around anymore.

QUARTERBACKS

Uh, there’s nothing to see here, folks, at least not from a redraft perspective. Texans first-rounder Deshaun Watson will probably be the first one to start, but a rookie QB with questionable arm strength and a penchant for interceptions isn’t a wise fantasy investment. Chicago’s Mitchell Trubisky was a one-year starter at North Carolina and isn’t ready to play. Even less ready is the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, the son of former Twins pitcher Pat Mahomes, drafted only because the son of Brad Radke wasn’t available. (Sorry … couldn’t resist a little Twins pitching humor.) But seriously, the rocket-armed Mahomes probably has the highest ceiling among the rookie QBs but isn’t close to being ready for the spotlight.

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Pat Fitzmaurice

Pat Fitzmaurice welcomes questions and comments from readers. He can be contacted in the comment section below, at fitzallsizes@gmail.com or via Twitter at @FitzPFW.

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