If you ever needed proof that no two fantasy seasons are alike, simply look back at the last two rookie WR crops.
In 2014, a.k.a. “The Year of the Rookie Wideout,” six first-year receivers proved to be viable fantasy players, with Odell Beckham, Jr., setting the pace. Last season, only Amari Cooper cracked (barely) the Top 25, and no others made any meaningful impact.
Meanwhile, David Johnson and Todd Gurley finished in the Top 10 RB ranks, while a handful of other backs – Duke Johnson, T.J. Yeldon, Buck Allen, Jeremy Langford and Thomas Rawls – had their moments in the sun.
Jameis Winston showed some flashes, but finished outside the top dozen passers, and Marcus Mariota cooled considerably after getting off to a blazing start. No rookie tight end made a ripple in 2015.
So what can we expect this season?
In my view, with precious few notable exceptions, this rookie class could be a fantasy wasteland.
Remember that when evaluating the fantasy potential of any rookie, talent is rarely the most decisive factor. More relevant is the opportunity presented to the player, which is also a multi-faceted equation.
Does the rookie have a clear path to a starting gig? Will he join a high-powered offense, or one whose punter is its most lethal weapon? Is he healthy heading into the season, or has he missed invaluable preseason reps due to injury?
With these variables in mind, let’s examine the Class of 2016 and assess its members’ likelihood of soaring during their inaugural seasons.
CREAM OF THE CROP
Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Cowboys. We thought Gurley landed in a nice situation last season, but he’s got nothing on Zeke. One of the most promising tailbacks to enter the league in years will have the luxury of running behind arguably the best offensive line on the planet. A three-down talent, Elliott won’t be threatened in any meaningful way by Alfred Morris, and Darren McFadden could have trouble making the team. Zeke is such a lethal weapon, he may even convince Tony Romo to check down to him at the goal-line instead of going airborne.
Sterling Shepard, WR, Giants. The former Oklahoma star is expected to start opposite Odell Beckham, Jr., which means he’ll face single coverage on virtually every play. Shepard is so explosive and elusive, most Giants insiders think Victor Cruz’s eventual return won’t keep him off the field. There’s serious upside with this one.
Corey Coleman, WR, Browns. Ready or not, Coleman is expected to be Cleveland’s top wideout when the regular season begins. He brings blazing speed to an offense that needs it desperately, and he’ll have four games without Josh Gordon on the field to sink or swim. If Coleman and Robert Griffin III get in sync, this trio of former Baylor Bears could be something special.
Michael Thomas, WR, Saints. The big-bodied, sure-handed receiver out of Ohio State expected to earn a starting assignment opposite Brandin Cooks. Thomas has been impressive throughout camp and is quickly earning Drew Brees’ trust. The rookie should be a reliable red zone threat and needs only to overcome the typical first-year hurdles that most players encounter when the games start counting.
Derrick Henry, RB, Titans. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner landed in a tough situation, where DeMarco Murray appears to be set as the starter heading into the season opener. While there’s still time to change that, Henry has not been terribly impressive in training camp. Barring an injury to, or a Philly-like performance from, Murray, this rookie likely won’t see enough touches to reward those who take the leap.
LATE-ROUND FLIERS AT BEST
Laquan Treadwell, WR, Vikings. What’s not to like about this ultra-talented receiver that has so many other fantasy gurus drooling? Other than unimpressive speed, it’s Minnesota’s offense. Teddy Bridgewater simply hasn’t given any indication that he can make any wideout a fantasy star, and the odds rise exponentially for a rookie. Treadwell should leapfrog Charles Johnson into the starting lineup opposite Stefon Diggs, but that’s not enough to interest me.
Devontae Booker, RB, Broncos. There’s a very good chance the fourth-round draft pick will supplant Ronnie Hillman as the backup to C.J. Anderson. That said, he likely won’t see much action as long as the starter is healthy. He’s a handcuff with plenty of upside.
Kenneth Dixon, RB, Ravens. He may be Baltimore’s running back of the future, but he’s an afterthought of the present. Though armed with an abundance of talent, Dixon is still looking up at Justin Forsett, Terrance West and Buck Allen on the depth chart. Maybe next year…
Tyler Boyd, WR, Bengals. The former Pitt star is expected to play in the slot in Cincinnati, but he could have trouble getting Andy Dalton’s attention. A.J. Green is The Man, and Brandon LaFell should man the other outside spot. Tyler Eifert is going to get his fair share too, so Boyd’s upside seems fairly limited.
Jordan Howard, RB, Bears. The fifth-rounder is unlikely to get much traction behind starter Jeremy Langford and veteran Ka’Deem Carey.
C.J. Prosise, RB, Seahawks. The former Notre Dame receiver-turned-rusher came to Seattle with great fanfare, but seems destined to be the third-down change-of-pace back behind both Thomas Rawls and Christine Michael.
Josh Doctson, WR, Redskins. He’s still rehabbing from an Achilles injury suffered in May, meaning he has lost invaluable reps throughout training camp. But he should be ready to run early in the season, and could find his way onto the field shortly thereafter. He may be worth a mid-season flier, as he certainly has the speed and talent to challenge Pierre Garcon for a starting job.
Will Fuller, WR, Texans. Blessed with tremendous speed, Fuller should earn a starting role sooner than later. He’s a home run threat, which will likely relegate him to boom-or-bust status in his first season. Houston’s uncertain quarterbacking raises the level of risk.
Jared Goff, QB, Rams. So far, the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft still hasn’t supplanted Case Keenum as the starter. While that is a foregone conclusion at some point, Goff should be nowhere near your draft board until he actually proves he is ready to produce consistently. I don’t expect that to happen this year, especially given the dearth of talent in the Rams’ receiving corps.
Carson Wentz, QB, Eagles. A preseason rib injury has knocked him out of the QB competition in Philly. While Sam Bradford’s hold on the starting job is anything but firm, the lost training camp time could cost Wentz dearly.
Coming Monday: My Sleeper picks for the 2016 season.