2020 NFL rookie class has a strong case for making an immediate impact

I’m usually aggressive drafting rookies in fantasy football and appear to be even more bullish than usual in 2020, as the abbreviated prep time adds further uncertainty and has affected the market on first-year players. I’m shying away from rookie wide receivers (not named CeeDee Lamb) given the circumstances despite it looking like a special class, but give me all the rookie running backs.

While the abnormal offseason is one reason fantasy managers may not be targeting rookies in 2020 like myself, another could be a shift in perception thanks to NFL teams becoming smarter. Mike Clay (who’s great) has pointed out the lack of recent fantasy success for second-round backs, but today’s second-rounder looks like yesterday’s first, as a player with Jonathan Taylor’s profile was typically a top-five draft pick in the past. Moreover, J.K. Dobbins’ final season at Ohio State compares favorably to Ezekiel Elliott, who went No. 4 overall in 2016 and more than 50 picks higher than Dobbins.

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Put differently, there have been 28 running backs selected in the top-five of the NFL draft since 1980, but over the last two drafts, there hasn’t been a running back taken in the top-20 (and just two first-rounders). In other words, second-round RBs shouldn’t be treated all that differently than first-rounders at fantasy draft tables with the value of NFL draft capital shifting, but it appears to be affecting ADP. Also, the need/ability for running backs to pass protect is overrated.

A common theme among this rookie class that I find particularly intriguing is their favorable situations, helping make immediate fantasy success possible despite the absurd 2020 circumstances. I have Dobbins, Taylor and Cam Akers all much higher than their Fantasy Pros’ ECR (“Expert Consensus Ranking”). I also rank Clyde Edwards-Helaire as a top-10 overall pick and have CeeDee Lamb and Joe Burrow well above consensus, as I’m all in on these rookies since they were drafted.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs (ECR = 32 vs. DDD = 10)

Lead back in an Andy Reid system with Patrick Mahomes at QB is as good as it gets, and that’s now CEH’s role after the Chiefs spent a first-round pick on him. Damien Williams could’ve put up big numbers himself, but he now becomes nothing more than the backup with the most fantasy upside, as Reid referred to Edwards-Helaire as a better version of Brian Westbrook who’s about to be “unleashed in our offense.” CEH is the only RB in SEC history with 1,000 rushing yards and 50-plus catches in a season and has been called the best route-running back to enter the league since Christian McCaffrey.

As a member of the Chiefs, Williams has been a top-three fantasy back during the 16 games in which he’s reached the modest threshold of playing half the snaps (h/t Mike Clay) despite PFF grading him negatively as a receiver and blocker last season. Kansas City is now replacing him with a much younger version in which his team is heavily invested. Edwards-Helaire hit the jackpot with his landing spot, and he has the talent to immediately be worth a first-round fantasy pick even if he’s not a true workhorse. He’s a top-10 overall player on my board.

Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts (ECR = RB19 vs. DDD = RB11)

He averaged the most yards from scrimmage in college football history by a wide margin, is incredibly athletic as the 10th-fastest RB in combine history when weight-adjusted, and joins an Indy team with arguably the NFL’s best offensive line that’s also getting a major upgrade at QB. Taylor will lose passing-down work to Nyheim Hines, but he also possesses underrated potential as a receiver and hopefully maintains an affordable ADP thanks to Frank Reich saying there’s “inherent respect for the starter returning.” Mack is one of the league’s worst blockers/receivers, got just 3.5 YPC against base fronts last season despite running behind PFF’s third-highest graded run-blocking unit, is ranked as the No. 2 injury risk among RBs by Sports Injury Predictor and is almost certainly entering his final year in Indy, so concern about him is overrated.

The Colts get to face the Jags and Texans 25% of their highly favorable-looking 2020 schedule, and given his situation and talent level, Taylor offers the upside to be the No. 1 overall pick in 2021 fantasy drafts, and all backs going at his current price have similar questions (without the same ceiling).

Jonathan Taylor is one of several rookie running backs ready to make an immediate impact. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

Cam Akers, Los Angeles Rams (ECR = RB29 vs. DDD = RB19)

Without question, the Rams’ offensive line and Jared Goff were also problems, but a clearly compromised Todd Gurley (he finished last in yards per route run by a mile and No. 50 in Production Premium, while his new offensive coordinator has questions about his health status) still produced top-15 fantasy RB numbers last season.

Put differently, Gurley finished top-five in touchdowns scored and as a borderline fantasy RB1 despite missing a game, ranking No. 67 in yards created per touch and No. 71 in fantasy points per opportunity against a tough schedule and with a run-blocking line PFF graded as sixth-worst in the NFL, thanks to Sean McVay. Gurley benefitted from a top-10 Game Script during a massively disappointing season that saw LA miss the playoffs after making the Super Bowl.

Gurley and his 254 touches from last season are now gone, and the Rams spent a second-round draft pick on Akers despite having plenty of needs elsewhere. I’ll fully acknowledge Malcolm Brown could become a problem, and it’s possible Darrell Henderson was just extra slow to adjust to the pros, but he’s coming off a season that screams bust (the Rams’ drafting actions say the same). Henderson got a staggering 2.0 YPC facing base fronts as a rookie and was never asked to pass protect in college unlike Akers (who led college football in pass protection snaps last year), and the Rams assign their backs to block more than most teams.

To analogize with baseball, Akers finds himself the favorite to be the cleanup hitter in Coors Field (Gurley racked up 54 touchdowns over the last three seasons), with his main competition a hitter coming off a season in which he posted a near league-worst wOBA. Akers just ran behind a historically bad offensive line at FSU, is immediately atop his team’s depth chart, and gets to play for one of the NFL’s best offensive schemers and in a division that’s set for a bunch of shootouts in 2020. Yes, please.

J.K. Dobbins, Baltimore Ravens (ECR = RB39 vs. DDD = RB20)

Dobbins just put up a bigger final season at Ohio State than Ezekiel Elliott, totaling 2,250 yards with 23 touchdowns and leading all top college backs in Yards Created.

He appears to be a perfect RPO fit on a team that easily utilized the formation most last season. The Ravens’ GM called Dobbins a “three-down back” and was John Harbaugh’s top-rated RB whom they graded as a first-rounder. While Baltimore’s backfield appears crowded, Mark Ingram will be 31 years old, has never eclipsed 230 carries and has a past injury history, and the Ravens finished with a ridiculous 991 more rushing yards than the No. 2 running team last year, so there are plenty of yards to go around even with a mobile QB.

Maybe you project a bigger workload for Gus Edwards, but that’s more of a floor argument and doesn’t factor in the rookie’s top-five overall upside if Ingram were to go down. When it comes to “projections vs. ranks,” I do the latter based on where I’d draft the player. It can’t be understated just how much Lamar Jackson helps efficiency for even an average back, so Dobbins is a real threat to lead the NFL in YPC as a rookie (his ECR is comically right next to Mack’s).

CeeDee Lamb, Dallas Cowboys (ECR = WR51 vs. DDD = WR30)

While I’d prefer he didn’t have to share targets with two other legit wideouts, a player this special who lands in an offense that led the NFL in yards per play last season shouldn’t be ranked outside the top-50 wide receivers. That’s a joke that would be shocking not to see majorly corrected throughout summer.

Lamb dominated as an 18-year-old freshman and enters the NFL having led the nation in receiving yards, touchdowns, and yards per target over the last two seasons. He’s PFF’s all-time leader in depth-adjusted yards per target.

Like Lamb, Randy Moss also unexpectedly fell during his draft and entered the league as part of a loaded offense and his team’s No. 3 wide receiver, and he proceeded to score 17 touchdowns as a rookie. While I want to joke about that type of production being Lamb’s floor, Dallas really is going to be living in the red zone in 2020, and Amari Cooper has an underrated injury history that last season alone separately included foot, ankle, quadriceps and knee sprains (and he just got paid).

Randall Cobb and Jason Witten each had 83 targets last season; they’re both gone now. Lamb is going to eat as a rookie, and there aren’t many receivers I’d rather have in dynasty formats.

Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals (ECR = QB20 vs. DDD = QB14)

The No. 1 pick looks like a future monster, as Burrow enters coming off a crazy-good final college season that saw him get a whopping 13.9 YPA on first downs. Over the last decade, only Russell Wilson had a better college CPOE than Burrow’s 2019 season, which he finished with a silly 60:6 TD:INT ratio and revealing further fantasy upside by adding 368 rushing yards and five scores on the ground.

While it’s funny to point out how Lamar Jackson is younger, Burrow’s somewhat advanced age should be considered a plus for his 2020 fantasy value. While he relied heavily on identifying mismatches pre-snap, the Bengals appear especially suited for that, with the talented Auden Tate as the team’s #5 wideout (if John Ross and A.J. Green stay healthy with newcomer Tee Higgins and LT Jonah Williams returning, this offense has serious potential. Joe Mixon simply can’t be drafted too early this year). I’m treating Burrow as a borderline fantasy QB1 right away.

De’Andre Swift, Detroit Lions (ECR = RB26 vs. DDD = RB21)

I have a long and storied tradition of getting burned by Lions running backs, from Kevin Jones through Kevin Smith, Jahvid Best, and Kerryon Johnson, but that shouldn’t be held against Swift. The Lions aren’t exactly a trustworthy coaching staff, and Detroit plans to use some version of a backfield committee (like the majority of the NFL), but the team just spent legit draft capital on him with the No. 35 pick. Moreover, Swift was college football’s best blocking back last season and enters the league as a far superior prospect to Kerryon Johnson, who’s also one of the likeliest players to get injured in 2020.  

[2020 Draft Rankings: Overall | QBs | RBs | WRs | TEs | DST | Kickers]

Swift becomes extra interesting thanks to how Matthew Stafford and the Lions were playing before he suffered a season-ending injury last year. In a system utilizing his strong arm, Stafford relentlessly attacked deep (ranking first in Aggressive%) and got 8.6 YPA with 19 TD strikes over eight games, finishing top-five in fantasy points per dropback despite not running. Stafford was on pace to throw for 5,000 yards and played like a superstar, and with Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, and T.J. Hockenson as teammates, the Lions could sneakily put up a bunch of points this season, making Swift yet another rookie with big upside.

Final Rookie Thoughts

I’m as high on Derrick Henry as anyone, but if the beast were to somehow suffer an injury, Darrynton Evans (ECR = RB60 vs. DDD = RB49) would immediately become a must-start in fantasy leagues (and be worth 100% of FAAB on waiver wires) in Tennessee’s system without Dion Lewis. Similarly, there are a handful of other rookie backs who are ostensibly just an injury away from making a serious fantasy impact, including Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Antonio Gibson, Zack Moss, and A.J. Dillon (and possibly Lamical Perine and Anthony McFarland among others).

Jalen Hurts is my favorite backup quarterback to draft, with Carson Wentz’s injury history, the Philly system, and his eye-popping rushing ability. And we haven’t even discussed Tua Tagovailoa, who’s one of PFF’s 10 best prospects ever despite hip surgery. He just finished a season with the best EPA per pass attempt over the last decade and enters an underrated situation in Miami.

It’s not all good, however, as I’m lower on Austin Ekeler, Keenan Allen, and other Chargers thanks to Justin Herbert, who ranked just 34th out of 39 qualifying QBs at avoiding negatively graded throws over the past two seasons and had a college CPOE of 0.

But in general, this rookie class looks absolutely loaded with fantasy upside and isn’t being treated as such at draft tables.

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