Drafting rookies in fantasy football can be a very dicey proposition. Rarely do the year-end stats measure up to the preseason hype. In this piece I will be looking at some of the more intriguing rookie prospects for 2014 in terms of redraft value versus long-term value. These are players who, we feel, have a chance to earn substantive playing time in 2014. Obviously, circumstance comes into play, so there is a random nature to rookie breakouts, especially for the running backs, who all are in competition for snaps and carries. Having said that, this is one of the strongest rookie classes I have ever seen in terms of players who can make an immediate impact. You absolutely must be well versed in the top 15 options if you want to dominate your leagues in 2014.
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To keep up on any and all changes to our rankings and to access our cheat sheets and rookie scouting reports, check out The Rotobahn, where all of my 2014 content is indexed. I’ll be back later this week with an updated look at our high-value targets. And don’t miss the third episode of the Fantasy Football Hour this Sunday morning on WEEI 93.7. My co-host Jim Hackett and I will get into strategies for different leagues sizes and scoring formats. We’ll also talk with Eagles beat reporter Martin Frank, who spent last week watching the Patriots-Eagles joint practices.
1. Bishop Sankey, RB, Titans
Sankey is the one guy with a fix on a starting job and fantasy value starts with opportunity. Having said that, Sankey is a potential starter for a reason. If you are not familiar with the former University of Washington rusher, read his full scouting report. Sankey will cede some work to veteran Shonn Greene, and that will include a lot of goal-line action. You also have the new offense, which is a mild concern, though we have confidence that new OC Ken Whisenhunt will settle things down. Sankey should have low-end RB2 value in most 12-team formats, though he may be more of a RB3 early on as he gets his feet wet. Draft him accordingly.
2. Terrance West, RB, Browns
Yes, he’s not even starting, but when you do all the math on West, it’s hard not to conclude that he’ll be packing some serious weekly value at some point in 2014. We expect Cleveland to run the ball enough for two backs to work up a good lather. West could end up with some flex appeal in deep leagues even if starter Ben Tate stays healthy. However, if Tate misses time as he’s done most every season, West’s value could explode. There’s also the chance that West could simply steal the gig over time. He’s got enough upside to draft at his current ADP of 94 if you play in a 12-team league with a flex spot. If you’ve never seen the former Towson star play, do yourself a favor and digest his Rotobahn scouting report, and watch the film.
3. Brandin Cooks, WR, Saints
The New Orleans offense is a well-oiled machine, and the Saints should be able to integrate Cooks in seamless fashion as they did with Kenny Stills in 2013. Cooks is an inside-outside option who can even line up in the backfield if you want him to. This is a kid who prides himself on yards after contact. Here’s what he said when we caught him at the combine: “For me, I like taking a short pass and breaking it for a run. Catch a shallow, catch a hitch, catch a slant and make one miss and go.” I think HC Sean Payton agrees. Look for Cooks to play a diverse role in 2014. He’ll be part Darren Sproles, part Lance Moore, and he’ll be more explosive than either one of them. We project WR3 value with WR2 upside. Read Cooks’ full scouting report. This a player who you simply must know for fantasy purposes.
4. Carlos Hyde, RB, 49ers
Frank Gore cannot be discounted, even at age 31, but we think some folks are discounting Hyde, who, I think, is the best back in this year’s class. He is going to be the lead man in Frisco at some point, and perhaps some point this year. I want him on my team if I can get him late in smaller drafts and in the middle of larger ones. He looks good so far in preseason action, and those who draft Gore would be wise to add Hyde later on as an insurance policy or handcuff. Do yourself a favor and read his scouting report if you aren’t already in the know on Hyde.
5. Mike Evans, WR, Buccaneers
He’s got a lot of the qualities we look for in a stud NFL receiver. Read his full scouting report for all the details, but the key takeaway is that Evans can be an every-down option for Tampa and he has serious red zone chops. If the Bucs have a functional offense, and we think they will, Evans has a very good chance at WR3 value in 12-team leagues. He’s got some upside, too. Evans probably caps out at the WR2-level in 12-team leagues. His long-term ceiling is even higher.
6. Sammy Watkins, WR, Bills
Watkins was our top-rated receiver heading into the draft. Sadly, of all the elite options, he was dealt the worst hand in terms of NFL locale. Buffalo is a cold, windy place, and the team lacks a QB with proven NFL chops. I’m not in love with the coaching staff, either. While we fully expect Watkins to impress, he will have to really earn it. Still, when a team trades up to the fourth spot to draft, you can expect that player to receive a lot of playing time. That reality, combined with Watkins’ top-shelf skill set, should give him WR3 appeal as a rookie. He has the upside for better if EJ Manuel settles in and plays well in his sophomore campaign. Read Watkins’ complete scouting report if you haven’t already.
7. Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Panthers
In his Rotobahn scouting report I dubbed him Mr. Upside, and he still is. Benjamin will be given every chance imaginable to make an impact as a rookie, and he has the talent to do it. The risk lies in his somewhat raw skill set and the fact that defenses can key on him. Still, his potential for high volume including solid red zone potential are reason enough for excitement. He’ll be rostered in any league I play in. He has WR2 upside with some bust potential if you overdraft him. If there’s one game that sort of frames Benjamin perfectly, it would Florida State’s tilt last year against Florida. You see it all there. The concerning elements and the eye-popping talent.
8. Devonta Freeman, RB, Falcons
We remain unconvinced that Steven Jackson will own the touches in Atlanta this season now that there’s legit competition on the roster in the form of Freeman. We expect a job share that could go either way based on how the players perform, but with Jackson’s age and injury history, we are a lot more excited about Freeman at his current ADP of 102 than Jackson and his ADP of 81. We see the former Florida State star as a game-ready player. Read his scouting report for all the details and some good film.
9. Jordan Matthews, WR, Eagles
He impressed us with his game film and then again at the combine, where he was confident and highly intelligent. Read Matthews’ entire scouting report for full illumination, but we see high-end potential in Chip Kelly‘s offense. The issue is the rookie curve and a very deep Eagles offense — even with DeSean Jackson now playing in Washington. Then again, while the Eagles are deep and diverse, they do have some injury concerns at receiver, with Jeremy Maclin and rookie Josh Huff banged up. And Riley Cooper is coming off a foot injury. Matthews is in good position and has looked very good in preseason action.
10. Jeremy Hill, RB, Bengals
Hill is a player to follow very closely over the next two weeks. A strong finish to camp could change both the value of Hill and Giovani Bernard. LSU’s 2013 starter is a back who can play all three downs and is a potential goal-line monster. Check out his scouting report if you have not already.
11. Andre Williams, RB, Giants
He’s slowly but surely gaining prominence as other Giants running backs fall by the wayside. David Wilson has retired and Peyton Hillis is banged up and a bit lead-footed anyway. The starter is scheduled to be Rashad Jennings, who has no proven track record in terms of availability. Williams is not a good option in PPR formats, but he could have some legit value in standard scoring leagues and you’d be nuts to pass him up as a handcuff option to Jennings if you take Jennings as a starter. I know all you Bostonians know this kid, but I have a full scouting report for you just in case. This guy landed on the right team. He’ll be a very productive Giant if he can keep those shoulders healthy.
12. Marqise Lee, WR, Jaguars
As I said in his scouting report, Lee is an NFL-ready player. He’s also on a team that needs receiver help. It’s quite possible that Lee becomes the Jaguars’ No. 1 option at some point this season. He’s got WR3 potential in 12-team formats and he could be draftable in smaller leagues if he has a good camp. Right now, Lee is a nice mid- to late-round option in most drafts.
13. Odell Beckham Jr., WR, Giants
We are big on Beckham. Read his scouting report to find out all the specifics and to watch his film. Beckham is game-ready, and his team invested the 12th overall pick on his talents. There is a concern that the Giants have enough depth at receiver to bring him along slowly, but that’s not why you take a WR at 12 overall in a deep draft. The G-Men plan on giving Beckham every opportunity, once he’s fully recovered from his hamstring injury, and they should play a ton of three-receiver sets in 2014. We think he will be a WR3 in 12-team leagues at some point this season. Long term, we think he has yearly Pro Bowl potential. Don’t reach for him, as his hamstring could linger into the regular season. Draft him as a reserve option in deeper formats.
14. Cody Latimer, WR, Broncos
As I said last preseason with regard to Julius Thomas, who was going undrafted at the time, “All of Peyton Manning‘s targets must be owned.” Latimer now is a Peyton Manning receiver, and while he may not be part of the regular rotation early on, he has the potential to outplay Emmanuel Sanders or to fill in in case Sanders, Wes Welker or Demaryius Thomas goes down. The former Indiana star has an outstanding skill set with size and speed in abundance. His long-term outlook is bright and all he needs is an opportunity to break out as a rookie. I break down Latimer’s game in his Rotobahn scouting report. Watch the film.
15. Tre Mason, RB, Rams
Having a good camp will be huge for Mason because the Rams have an established starter in Zac Stacy who they can lean on heavily if need be. Having said that, Mason has the skill set to earn a large share of the job once he is settled in. This is a situation to monitor both for Mason’s value and, more importantly, for Stacy’s. If you are unfamiliar with Mason’s game, spend a few minutes with his Rotobahn scouting report.
16. Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Vikings
People are totally napping on this guy as a fantasy sleeper. There is potential for legit value here if he wins the starting job. That’s far from a given at this point, but we are big fans of the Vikings’ skill talent from top to bottom, as I said in my recent column “Respect the Norsemen.” All they need is an accurate QB who can get the ball to the playmakers. If the rookie can fill that void, he can be relevant for fantasy purposes. Remember, this is a QB with plus mobility and outstanding awareness. We expect some foot points in addition to what he can do with his arm. Can he beat out Matt Cassel from Day 1? It’s a story worth following for fantasy GMs. Check out Bridgewater’s scouting report if you have not already. He is going undrafted in most seasonal leagues.
17. Blake Bortles, QB, Jaguars
Bortles has played well enough this preseason to put pressure on incumbent starter Chad Henne, who has played solid ball himself. Bortles most certainly is a rookie to watch because he’s a very good athlete for a big man and has major foot-point potential in fantasy. While Bortles likely would benefit from some clipboard time, he’s already a capable fantasy force if he is starting. He also adds a dynamic to the Jaguars offense that the statuesque Henne does not. Check out Bortles’ scouting report if you aren’t familiar with his game. He’s a player to watch through the rest of camp. If the Jacksonville receivers get and stay healthy, Bortles could be a real sleeper if and when he gets in there.
18. Dri Archer, RB, Steelers
This may surprise some people, but we think Archer is a running back to watch in camp. The Steelers don’t have any players who have the kind of explosiveness we see from Archer on film. He doesn’t need a ton of snaps to make an impact, and he can play all over the formation. If you think a player like Andrew Hawkins is exciting, just wait until you get a load of Dri Archer. Check out his scouting report if you haven’t already. I’m targeting Archer as a late-round selection in large redraft formats, especially in leagues with PPR scoring.
19. De’Anthony Thomas, RB, Chiefs
Thomas is a complex talent. I recommend digesting his scouting report. The reason he’s got redraft potential is because of the team that took him. Thomas is a potentially excellent fit for Andy Reid‘s scheme and he’s a pure playmaker. His RB eligibility makes him a serious sleeper in PPR formats. He’s definitely a talent to monitor in camp, and remember, Dexter McCluster now is a Tennessee Titan. There’s significant opportunity in K.C. for anybody who can add any kind of dimension to the Chiefs’ passing attack. If he picks up the system quickly, Thomas could be a factor from the get-go.
20. Jerick McKinnon, RB, Vikings
He was our fourth-ranked running back heading into the draft, and when you consider that he comes from Georgia Southern and that he wasn’t a running back for most of his college career, that is saying something. McKinnon is an athletic freak and a versatile talent. I see him as the back to own behind Adrian Peterson. If I draft Peterson early, I am looking to land McKinnon a tad before his ADP for handcuff or insurance purposes. He’s still battling Matt Asiata for the job, but we’re laying our chips down on the rookie. Check out McKinnon’s full scouting report.
21. Eric Ebron, TE, Lions
While we like Ebron and expect him to get a chance to play significant snaps as a rookie, we also see a growth curve for the former Tar Heel star. In our view, the realistic hope is that Ebron becomes a startable talent as the season wears on. Anything more than that should be considered a bonus. He still has some route work and his hands are inconsistent on film, as we mentioned in his scouting report.
22. Johnny Manziel, QB, Browns
His name recognition could cause him to be overdrafted, so be careful with where you select him, because quarterback depth is at an all-time high. The Rotobahn QB Plan will be out soon and we’ll have several strategies for how to build your quarterback position based on league size, draft position and so on. Right now, we envision Manziel posting QB1-caliber fantasy numbers because he can score points in so many ways, but that won’t matter until he is starting, and we expect that to happen some time around Week 5, when Cleveland is coming off of its bye. Former Patriot Brian Hoyer has been named as the Week 1 starter. Hoyer has scant fantasy appeal and is not worthy of a redraft selection. If you haven’t done so already, check out Manziel’s pre-draft scouting report.
23. James White, RB, Patriots
I doubt I need to go on at length with regard to White, who has impressed so far in Patriots camp. Stevan Ridley‘s well-known ball-security issues give White a potential role as a rookie and we love the way he fits into the Patriots system. He can run the ball and he can function in all aspects of the passing game. When you factor in Shane Vereen‘s penchant for injury, there are a few ways White could get heavily involved. He may not be exciting, but fantasy production often is about opportunity, and White’s solid fundamentals could give him plenty of opportunity.
24. Allen Robinson, WR, Jaguars
Mr. Robinson has tons of upside, but he is a rookie and he’s been down for most of training camp with a hamstring injury. When he gets back, possibly by Week 1, he’ll be a bit behind. Having said that, he’s not a bad stash option in big leagues. He is a big-bodied playmaker who Bill O’Brien featured last year as his lead weapon in Penn State’s passing attack. It’s all here in Robinson’s scouting report. Watch the film and check out his natural ability in the open field. He’s also a guy who can go up and get the football. He has excellent long-term upside playing with Bortles.
25. John Brown, WR, Cardinals
What can Brown do for you? Quite a bit. The Cardinals shocked a lot of people by taking the rookie out of Pittsburg State in the third round of this year’s draft. We were high on Brown, but I can’t say that we expected him to go that soon. It’s a good sign for his short-term value, and if there’s even one injury in Arizona, Brown could become a weekly starter in all leagues. He’s that talented. Right now, Brown is battling Ted Ginn for the third receiver job, and we think he wins it. Check out the little-known receiver’s scouting report.
26. Lache Seastrunk, RB, Washington
Washington’s backfield could go a lot of ways this year with a new coaching staff. Seastrunk was drafted by the new regime, and that’s no small detail. The main thing to know about the former Baylor back is that he’s a big play waiting for a place to happen if you give him some room to run. For Seastrunk to have a big rookie year, he will have to have a good camp and earn a role. His primary competition will come from incumbent starter Alfred Morris and Roy Helu. Check out his scouting report if you haven’t seen Seastrunk run. HC Jay Gruden is looking for playmakers, and Seastrunk’s a guy who hits the home run. He could be a nice producer at some point in 2014.
27. Davante Adams, WR, Packers
The positives are Adams’ obvious talent and the fact that he’s landed with a HOF QB in his prime. Still, as we said in Adams’ scouting report, he does have some things to work on and it’s quite possible that he will be a fourth receiver for a period of time. If he can outperform Jarett Boykin in camp, he could be the third receiver out of the gate and that would make him an interesting fantasy option. That is far from a given. Boykin is talented in his own right and played 59 percent of the Packers‘ offensive snaps in 2013, putting up 49 receptions for 681 yards and three scores.
28. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Buccaneers
The Bucs have a lot of red zone weapons, so Seferian-Jenkins should not be forced into action as he might have been with a different team. Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans form a huge athletic pair of bookend receivers that most NFL teams would die for. That said, the rookie tight end has serious chops as a receiver, especially near the goal line. He’s worthy of an investment later on in big redraft formats, and he could become a priority waiver pickup at some point in medium-sized leagues. Read his full scouting report if you don’t know his game.
29. Paul Richardson, WR, Seahawks
He’s being sold as a special teamer in 2014, and Seattle certainly is a team that makes rookies earn their keep. Having said that, Richardson is a receiver who could make impact playing in the Seahawks offense. He could absolutely force his way onto the field at some point. If he flashes in camp, we’ll be looking to nab him late in large drafts. Read our glowing scouting report on the Colorado product if you have not already.
30. Donte Moncrief, WR, Colts
He’s raw and he’s a body-catcher, but he’s also a big play waiting to happen. I cover it all in his pre-draft scouting report. If there are injuries in Indianapolis, this kid has the potential to go off as one of Andrew Luck‘s big weapons. For now he’s a player to monitor with Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton and Hakeem Nicks all looking healthy.
31. Martavis Bryant, WR, Steelers
I am a big fan of the ex-Clemson star’s game, but he is a little bit raw and he’s on a team with solid overall receiving talent. A cursory glance at the Steelers would lead one to think that Bryant won’t do much as a rookie, but there are a few things in his favor. The Steelers lack size on the outside. Both starters, Antonio Brown and Markus Wheaton, are susceptible to injury as smallish run-after-catch options. One injury is all it might take for Bryant to get a starting gig. The other factor is Bryant’s size. He’s a natural red zone weapon and he’s probably the best on the team outside of Heath Miller. I sat down with him at this year’s combine and he’s a kid who knows what he’s doing and what areas he needs to work on. I’m betting on him for the long term. It’s all in his scouting report.
32. Jarvis Landry, WR, Dolphins
He’s stuck behind a few veterans, so he may not have a big role as a rookie, but this is a player to keep an eye on both for fantasy GMs and for those who root for teams in the AFC East. I think Landry has the potential to become a Hines Ward-type, but it will take a little time. He has some of the best hands we’ve scouted in recent years. It’s all there in his scouting report.
33. Derek Carr, QB, Raiders
Carr is not a draft-day target outside of very large formats and obvious long-term formats like keeper and dynasty. That being said, if he overtakes Matt Schaub for the starting job, he will have some value — certainly more than Schaub. Carr’s full scouting report is up on Rotobahn.
34. Zach Mettenberger, QB, Titans
When all is said and done, Mattenberger could be one of the best values in the 2014 NFL draft. This guy has a top-shelf NFL arm. The former LSU starter can throw lasers all over the gridiron. The questions about Mettenberger revolve around his health and also his character as he had some off-field incidents early on in his college career. It’s all in his scouting report. Watch the film and you’ll be able to scout Mattenberger, Landry and Beckham all at the same time.
35. Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, Patriots
I’m giving him an honorary mention. No, he won’t have any value unless something unspeakable happens. Having said that, Garroppolo’s presence could be a season-saver for New England if Tom Brady goes down for, say, six weeks. We think the rookie can hold down the fort against average competition and keep the team alive if it needs him. Check out my original pre-draft take on the young passer who, we think, is Brady’s heir apparent.