Fantasy Football: Rookie Rankings Heading Into April
I'm admittedly not a rankings person.
I just get irritated by the fantasy football world's fascination with them, when we know flexibility is key during a draft. We know we're going to be wrong, so being tied down to a rankings sheet won't account for variance. And rankings aren't explaining anything. My five-year-old niece could slap together a rankings list -- what good does that do?
OK, OK. I understand the positives, too, especially when rankings are utilized properly. They can be a strong guide during your fantasy drafts, and they can help with tiebreakers when choosing between a group of players.
And they're fun. Ranking things is fun.
They can also help you get a better understanding of how a person -- in this case, yours truly -- feels about a player. That's definitely true when there's commentary.
We're still weeks away from the NFL Draft, and once that event happens, things will change. Potentially in a big way. I'm a believer that landing spot is a huge deal for a player's overall development and statistical production in the NFL, which, in turn, will impact his fantasy football outlook. For now, though, here's where I'm ranking this incoming rookie class' running backs and wide receivers for fantasy football purposes. (Note: each horizontal line is the start of a new tier.)
1. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State (RB1)
The easy, obvious top pick in rookie drafts this year is Saquon Barkley. Not only does he play a position that's important to our game about a game, but his skill set is the right one for a running back in today's NFL. Barkley averaged nearly 49 receiving yards per game during his final collegiate season, which was one of the best rates we've seen over the last decade and a half from a relevant running back prospect. But he still ranked well above average in rushing yard share (percentage of team's rushing yards), yards per rush attempt, and total touchdown share.
And -- and! -- Barkley beasted through the NFL Combine with a 4.40 40-yard dash time, giving him a weight-adjusted time that ranks in the 97th percentile. He's...pretty good.
2. Derrius Guice, RB, Louisiana State (RB2)
Guice wasn't 100% throughout his Junior season at LSU -- his final one -- which could explain his 2.3 yards per carry dip from 2016. To be fair, his decline in efficiency could've also just been situation-based. In 2016, LSU averaged 6.1 yards per carry (Guice was at 7.6), and in 2017, that team average dropped to 4.8 (Guice's average was 5.3). Perhaps that was partially due to Leonard Fournette's departure, but if you want to throw Fournette into the argument, Guice did show better efficiency in 2016 versus the banged-up Fournette.
Regardless, Guice finished off his college career with a 30.95% touchdown share (one of the better marks in this year's class), and his Combine results placed him as an 85th to 90th percentile back athletically. He's still just 20 years old, too, having broken out in college as a teenager. The only real red flag for Guice is his lack of receiving production (just 10.33 yards per game through the air last year), but he handled over 10% of LSU's receptions, which is a positive sign.
3. Rashaad Penny, RB, San Diego State (RB3)
We know college production matters for backs transitioning to the pros, and Rashaad Penny's production profile is otherworldly. Penny averaged almost 173 rushing yards per game in 2017, nearly 37 yards more than any other running back in this year's class. He also scored more than 54% of San Diego State's touchdowns last year, a top-10 number in college football since 2005.
A knock on Penny would be that his receiving profile wasn't nearly as complete as his rushing one. He averaged just a little over 10 receiving yards per contest last season but, similar to Guice, he was able to sustain an above-average reception share in his offense since San Diego State ranked 11th from the bottom in pass attempts. Penny's strength of college competition is also in question, but we should be less concerned with that given his production.
4. Sony Michel, RB, Georgia (RB4)
It's tough to judge Sony Michel strictly on college production because we know he shared a backfield with another top prospect in Nick Chubb. What we do know is that he had elite efficiency with a 7.9 yards per carry rate this past year, and while he didn't catch many balls in 2017 (9 receptions, good for just a 4.83% reception share in Georgia's offense), he had a 13.07% reception share in 2015 and a 10.38% one in 2016. Those are both above-average marks despite his backfield split.
Essentially, if you were to piece together Michel's relevant seasons at Georgia, you'd be able to compile a pretty strong production profile. Add in the probability of a high pick being spent on him, and it's easy to see why he's a top-five rookie option this year.
5. DJ Moore, WR, Maryland (WR1)
Among NFL Combine invites this year, DJ Moore ranks first in final collegiate season receiving yard share, reception share, and touchdown share. Meaning, he did more for his team -- Maryland -- than any other wide receiver prospect did for theirs this past year. Moore's market share numbers were so good, in fact, that they rank in an elite tier among current productive NFL receivers. Moore's height-adjusted speed score is a top-10 one in this class, too, making him an even more attractive prospect. The biggest question as Moore transitions into the NFL will be whether or not he can be more than just a physical slot guy. Given his college production, I'm banking on "yes."
6. Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia (RB5)
What separates Michel from Chubb (in my eyes -- spreadsheets -- of course) is receiving ability. While we've seen Michel with two seasons of above-average shares in the reception department, Chubb had three years with a sub-3.00% reception share in Georgia's offense. And for what it's worth, among successful fantasy running backs over the last seven years, none had as poor of a receiving profile as what we have from Chubb.
This isn't to say he can't overcome that in the NFL, or that he's even a bad pass-catcher. When talking trends, though, it's an important thing to note, as good running backs were generally utilized as pass-catchers in college. Chubb should be, at the very least, an early-down grinder in the NFL, but the fear is that his fantasy upside will be capped, especially in PPR formats.
7. Courtland Sutton, WR, Southern Methodist (WR2)
Sutton's Sophomore and Junior seasons were nuts from a production standpoint -- he tallied 144 catches, 2,331 yards, and 22 touchdowns across the two years. His numbers did dip from 2016 to 2017 with wideout Trey Quinn joining the team, and given SMU's high passing volume (they ranked 17th in the country in pass attempts), Sutton's raw statistics look a little better than his market share numbers do. Even still, when compared to the rest of the class, Sutton's last college season resulted in above-average marks in receiving yard share, reception share, yards per game, and touchdown share.
This is also a draft filled with wideouts who don't fit the prototypical number-one wide receiver mold, but Sutton fits that: he's 6'3'', weighs 218 pounds, and came through with a 4.54 40 at the NFL Combine, giving him a height-adjusted speed score that ranks in the top 10 within the class. Sutton may have the highest ceiling of any wideout in the class.
8. James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State (WR3)
Speaking of production, James Washington had a lot of that in college at Oklahoma State. Like Sutton, his team also threw the ball a lot -- more than all but 10 teams last year, in fact. In a crowded Oklahoma State offense, though, Washington still surpassed a 30% receiving yard share in each of his last two seasons, and he was on the receiving end of at least 28.57% of the team's passing touchdowns across all four years in college. For context, about 43% of the wide receivers invited to the Combine this year didn't hit that mark during their final college season.
Washington also came out looking strong in analyst Matt Harmon's Reception Perception series, where he found success on almost every route in the wide receiver route tree. Washington's ability on deep balls was especially noteworthy, but it's not surprising considering he averaged nearly 20 yards per reception throughout his college career. And, actually, he finished the 2017 season with the most receiving yards on deep passes.
9. John Kelly, RB, Tennessee (RB6)
If there's a player on this list that I'm clearly higher on than most, it's probably John Kelly out of Tennessee. Kelly handled 45.76% of his team's attempts last season, ranking in the top-10 among running backs invited to this year's NFL Combine. He wasn't all that efficient in 2017 with a 4.1 yards per carry average, but that number was still 0.7 yards per tote better than the team's rate. And not only that, but in a shared backfield in 2016, Kelly rushed for 6.4 yards per attempt. That was the best from a running back on the team -- a team that included this pretty good football player named Alvin Kamara.
What has me most intrigued with Kelly is his do-it-all ability. Everyone will talk about Saquon Barkley's receiving numbers, and they'll do it for good reason: his raw statistics as a pass-catcher are nuts. Barkley, though, had a lower reception share than John Kelly did last season -- Kelly had about 27 receiving yards per game versus Barkley's near 49, but Kelly caught 37 passes, which was good for a 20.55% reception share in Tennessee's offense. Barkley's reception share last year was 17.94%. This isn't to say -- at all -- that Kelly is the superior pass-catcher, but his usage as a receiver is a great sign for what's to come at the next level. He's just one of two running backs (this is among backs who were invited to the NFL Combine) to enter the pros over the last 11 seasons with at least a 45% rushing attempt and 20% reception share during a final collegiate season. The other player to do that? Christian McCaffrey.
10. Ronald Jones, RB, Southern California (RB7)
Jones is a popular prospect in fantasy football circles, but he's also somewhat of a divisive one. He's got big-play ability, though we weren't really able to see his speed on display at the NFL Combine thanks to a hamstring injury on his 40-yard dash attempt. Per Pro Football Focus' data, Jones averaged a 15-plus yard run on 9.91% of his attempts last season, the sixth-most of all 200-plus attempt backs. He's electric.
But he's also got two big concerns. The first is his size, as he weighed in at the Combine at 205 pounds. That's not ideal. There's also his unknown receiving ability. He certainly fits the mold of a typical receiving back size- and speed-wise, but he also caught only 32 passes over his three years at USC. Last year, he accounted for just 4.21% of USC's total receptions. That can be the result of offensive scheme, but it also is forcing us to ask more questions rather than feeling certain about his abilities.
11. Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M (WR4)
Kirk was productive right away in college, breaking out at age 18 with an 80-catch, 1,009-yard Freshman campaign that featured a 30.03% receiving yard share. That's a big deal: there's a relationship between breakout age and success in the NFL, and Kirk broke out early.
And while Kirk's reception and receiving yardage shares didn't improve year over year since that breakout, his touchdown share did. He went from 7 to 9 to 10 scores across his three years at Texas A&M, moving his touchdown share in the offense from 28% all the way to 45% before peacing out.
Kirk's a quick slot guy, which is fine for today's NFL, but he still showed off some straight-line speed at the NFL Combine, running a 4.47 40. When adjusting for height and weight, he's at about the 50th percentile from a speed perspective. And he showed off his athleticism plenty as a kick and punt returner, something you always want to see from a wide receiver or running back prospect. (Returning kicks or punts means the coaching staff sees the player as a playmaker.) See for yourself.
12. Equanimeous St. Brown, WR, Notre Dame (WR5)
As noted with Courtland Sutton above, this year's draft isn't littered with high-upside wide receivers. But Equanimeous St. Brown -- owner of the best name in the draft -- could be one of them.
The size-speed combo is there: at 6'5'', 214 pounds, St. Brown ran a 4.48 40 at the Combine. Adjusted for height and weight, that placed him above the 90th percentile for a wide receiver.
Production-wise, St. Brown's a little hard to project. Similar to JuJu Smith-Schuster last year, St. Brown saw his production fall from his Sophomore to his Junior season. Many will point to DeShone Kizer's departure as the main reason for this, and they're not wrong when looking at raw numbers, but St. Brown saw his market share numbers drop, too. Meaning, within the context of his own offense, he was worse.
This makes him somewhat of a scary, volatile prospect. But in 2016, he accounted for over 31% of Notre Dame's receiving yards, which places him close to the average we've seen from recent successful NFL wide receivers. Add in his size and speed, and there's a lot of potential.
13. Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama (WR6)
Many have Calvin Ridley as the top wide receiving prospect in this class, but I think you can make a case where he doesn't crack the top five. Pretty easily, actually.
Let's start with his Combine. Ridley ran a 4.43 40-yard dash while being tested, but when you adjust for his 6'1'', 189-pound frame, that number becomes less appealing. Among this year's Combine participants at wide receiver, he actually ranked in the bottom half in height-adjusted speed score.
His weight -- or lack thereof -- could be considered a problem. Plenty have projected Ridley as a first-round selection, and when viewing the list of wide receivers selected in the first round since the turn of the century who also weighed at or under 190 pounds, you're looking at maybe a 36% hit rate. And two of the biggest "hits" -- Brandin Cooks and Will Fuller -- had far better productivity in college than Ridley.
It's not that Ridley wasn't productive at Alabama. He just wasn't as impressive statistically as we'd like to see from a possible first-rounder, which is another reason he's lower than expected on this list. Over his three seasons with the Crimson Tide, his highest receiving yard share was 35.71%, his best reception share was 31.23%, and his best touchdown share was 35.00%. Those are fine numbers, but they're not elite. All the while, his best season arguably came during his freshman year, so we didn't see typical year over year improvement from him. He also was 21 years old at that time: he's entering the NFL at 23, and he'll turn 24 before his rookie season is over.
It's not all bad for Ridley. Like I said, his market share numbers are pretty good, they're just not locked-in-as-the-best-receiver-in-the-draft good. And he's a great route runner. But what kind of ceiling does he really have?
14. Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon (RB8)
Freeman was Oregon's bell-cow back for four years, and despite an injury-ridden Junior season, he still finished his college career with a 5.9 yards per carry average on 947 attempts. He never saw fewer than 34% of Oregon's rushes or rushing yards in a single season, even when he was hurt. His rushing rundown is impressive.
Freeman's 230-pound frame will allow him to play early downs in the NFL right away, but there's some worry as to whether or not he can take on a receiving role. His market share numbers as a receiver during his final season were slightly below average compared to the rest of the class, and even though he was on the field a lot across his four years at Oregon, he failed to reach a 7% reception share in two of those campaigns.
In all, he can do a lot. Freeman is a pretty well-rounded prospect. It's just that he doesn't do anything sensationally well, and that could limit his usage in the NFL.
15. Kerryon Johnson, RB, Auburn (RB9)
Johnson did a lot on the ground last year, finishing the season with a higher attempts per game average than any other relevant prospect looking to enter the league. Auburn ran the seventh-most rushing plays in college football, though, so Johnson's attempt share -- even though he carried the ball more than 23 times per game -- was lower than what we saw from players like John Kelly and Ronald Jones.
Johnson also didn't have the best efficiency when he touched the ball, as he averaged 4.9 yards per attempt last year. That didn't even lead the team, though it was a stronger rate than draft-hopeful teammate Kamryn Pettway.
On the plus side, Johnson's reception share was above the norm last season, and he also had one of the best touchdown shares in the country at the position.
Like Royce Freeman, Johnson's a do-it-all player who doesn't necessarily stand out with a particular, unique skillset, maybe aside from his patience behind the line of scrimmage. But if he lands on a team without a lot of competition for touches, he can be a three-down back.
16. Anthony Miller, WR, Memphis (WR7)
Miller produced at Memphis, there's no denying that. Over the last two years, he averaged 95.5 receptions, 1,448 yards, and 16 touchdowns per season. Looking solely at this class' final collegiate season numbers, Miller ranks seventh in receiving yard share, fourth in yards per game, fourth in reception share, and fourth in touchdown share. And he essentially did that two seasons in a row.
Unfortunately, Miller will be entering the league at 23 years of age, meaning his true breakout came later than you'd like to see. And, naturally, he didn't see the stiffest competition throughout college. That's a little worrisome, but his versatility and overall production make him a worthwhile receiver to target.
17. Nyheim Hines, RB, North Carolina State (RB10)
Hines doesn't come across as a running back who's going to see 15-plus carries per game in the NFL. That's not who he is. With that being said, he's the perfect complementary piece to a bruiser, as he has great pass-catching skills and is a home-run threat anytime he touches the ball.
And that's what's so fun about Hines. He ran a 4.38 40 at the Combine, giving him the seventh-best speed score in this year's running back class. He didn't produce eye-opening numbers in college, but for a player who projects to be more of a scatback at the NFL level, that's less of a deal. What's key for Hines is that he's explosive, he's shown an ability to catch passes well (both out of the backfield and in the slot), and he'll have a very specific role right away in the NFL (a third-down back). In today's league, that versatility as a receiver goes a long way.
18. Michael Gallup, WR, Colorado State (WR8)
Gallup's raw numbers jump off the page, as he caught 100 passes last season for over 1,400 yards and 7 scores. That makes him one of the best receivers in the class within final-season yards and receptions per game.
The difference between his reception share and receiving yard share -- roughly 2% -- is where there may be some concerns production-wise. In an ideal world, you'd like to see that number be higher: a player seeing a high number of receptions within his offense is a good thing, but if he's not compiling significantly more yards on those catches, there's an inefficiency problem. It's not dramatic for Gallup, but it's noteworthy for a smaller school guy. And that's on top of his touchdown production, which dipped significantly from 2016 to 2017, moving from a 48.28% touchdown share two seasons ago to a 24.14% one last year.
Nonetheless, Gallup is a pretty well-rounded wideout with decent size and a well above average production profile. If he falls to the right spot in the draft, he can rise up this list.
19. DJ Chark, WR, Louisiana State (WR9)
Teams like speed. And teams will often pay for speed. Since we know draft slot can help a player see the field -- that is, we know an investment in a player means that player will have a more immediate shot to get playing time -- then we have to pay attention to speed on some level.
DJ Chark gives you speed. He ran a 4.34 40-yard dash at this year's NFL Combine, giving him a height-adjusted speed score that ranks second in this year's class.
His lack of production at LSU is troublesome, though. In three years, he caught just 66 passes for 1,351 yards and just 6 scores. His 17.65% touchdown share last season was one of the worst in this year's class, and unlike someone like Calvin Ridley, Chark doesn't have another college season where that number was significantly higher.
So there are definite red flags with Chark. But the upside is there given his speed and deep ball ability, especially if a team ends up spending an early-round pick on him, which is entirely possible.
20. Jordan Lasley, WR, UCLA (WR10)
Lasley's that player you can pass on in a rookie draft because you know he'll be there for you a round later. He's that dude. Or, at least, he's that dude to me.
There's no doubt that I'm higher on Lasley than most. In fact, on FantasyFootballCalculator.com, Lasley doesn't even have a rookie average draft position, while wideouts like Simmie Cobbs, Deontay Burnett, and Antonio Callaway do.
Maybe folks are down on Lasley because he benefitted from playing with Josh Rosen. Or maybe fantasy owners are worried about his off-the-field issues. Those are very valid concerns, especially the latter one -- his draft slot could fall dramatically because of it. But it's so hard to ignore what he did in 2017.
Lasley was sidelined for three games due to a suspension this past year, but even with those three contests missed, he ended the season with a 28.47% receiving yard share, an above average mark in this year's class. He actually averaged the highest yards per game rate -- 140.44! -- among relevant wide receivers in college football last year.
Sure, we can thank a pass-friendly team approach with a pro-ready quarterback for helping compile that production. But Lasley was still strong within the context of his offense (market share), which is why -- in my opinion, of course -- we shouldn't push him aside and say he produced solely because of situation.
Aside from the aforementioned off-the-field stuff, which is a huge concern, if there's an on-the-field issue with Lasley, it'd be his build. He barely weighed in over 200 pounds at the Combine, and he stands at 6'1''. But as an efficient vertical threat in college, he could play an interesting role in the league if a team buys into him as a player.