2015 Midseason Rookie Review, Part 1: Studs and Players With Upside
With almost half of the NFL season now in the books, it's time to take a look at the 2015 rookie class and evaluate their progress at the midway point. While it's unfair to make definitive career judgments this early, the numbers and film can demonstrate who is trending in the right direction, who needs a lot of work, and who may not have the skills to cut it. This is especially valuable for dynasty or keeper managers looking to buy low or sell high on some of their rookie assets as the playoffs approach.
While injuries have taken their toll on many of the top players in this class, there have still been plenty of highlights across the board.
I will break up the rookies into several different tiers that define both their present status and my thoughts moving forward based on what we have seen and what the Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics indicate. For those unfamiliar with NEP, it is our signature metric that quantifies how a player performs, indicating how many points above or below expectation-level he adds to his team's expected scoring output. The higher the score, the more positive impact a player has.
While these are not rankings moving forward, they are ordered based on the significance of their contribution or perceived future contribution in both the 2015 season and the years to come. In part one of this review we will look at the first three tiers, with part two covering the final two.
Tiers 1: The Future Stars
Todd Gurley, RB, St. Louis Rams
What more can be said about the historic start for Todd Gurley? Since becoming the starter in Week 4, his worst output has been 146 yards, and he has yet to touch the ball fewer than 21 times in a game. He is a true workhorse back with one of the best skill sets we have seen at the position in the last decade.
He is currently second in the NFL in Rushing NEP at 13.86 despite starting only four games this season, and ranks sixth in the NFL in Rushing NEP per play (0.64) for backs with more than 25 carries. Despite being behind a mediocre offensive line and on a team with weak quarterback play, Gurley has been special. He is well worth the 1.01 pick in dynasty drafts it often took to acquire him and the top overall running back to own in dynasty leagues.
Amari Cooper, WR, Oakland Raiders
Not to be outdone, Amari Cooper has been as advertised, with a veteran savvy as a route runner and deceptive speed and athletic ability. He is currently on pace for a 1,300-yard season, and has helped sophomore quarterback Derek Carr Derek Carr become one of the best young passers in the game. If there is a flaw right now, it's in the red zone, where he has just one target inside the 20-yard line. It remains to be seen if Cooper can become an upper echelon touchdown scorer in the NFL, but everything else about his game looks outstanding right now.
In terms of NEP, he ranks a solid 19th in Reception NEP per target at 0.81. While his metrics aren't through the roof yet, his play on the field has inspired enough confidence for people to believe we are dealing with a future star. And with Carr making major strides as well as a passer, Cooper is now one of the best dynasty assets in football. Consider yourself lucky if you managed to snag him this offseason.
Stefon Diggs, WR, Minnesota Vikings
The unexpected star of this draft class has no doubt been Stefon Diggs, a fifth-round draft pick of the Minnesota Vikings. While the fantasy community was busy whiffing on guys like Cordarrelle Patterson, Mike Wallace, Charles Johnson and Jarius Wright, Diggs was preparing to emerge as the most dominant rookie receiver on a per-game basis. Laugh all you want about calling him a superstar, but he been absolutely lights out in the four games he has played thus far. His current 16-game pace is an amazing (although likely unsustainable) 100 receptions for 1,676 yards and 8 touchdowns.
Based on the metrics, Diggs is fourth in the NFL in Reception NEP per target (0.93) and a remarkable 27th in Reception NEP with only four games worth of statistics! That 0.93 is on pace with 2014 monsters like Dez Bryant (0.94), Jordy Nelson (0.93) and Odell Beckham (0.91). While teams will certainly adjust to his breakout performances, nothing we have seen from Diggs would indicate that this is a mirage. He was a top recruit out of high school stuck on a dysfunctional Maryland team with weak quarterback play, so his numbers and national profile weren't as strong as the draft approached. But his speed and skill with the ball are impressive, and the arrow is pointing way up for Diggs.
Tier 2: The Producers With Upside
T.J. Yeldon, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Outside of Todd Gurley, no rookie running back has had more statistical success than T.J. Yeldon. It hasn't always been flashy with just two 100-yard performances in six games and 2 touchdowns, but the workload has been there more often than not for the young back. He is a good back with an all around skill set, including the ability to be a contributor in the passing game.
That workload has allowed Yeldon to generate a decent amount of fantasy value, but his NEP scores indicate that he is a below average back right now. He grades at -0.04 in terms of Rushing NEP per play, which is on par with Frank Gore and ranks 43rd for backs with more than 24 carries. Not terrible, but certainly not what you want to see when assessing future value.
Jameis Winston, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Things have gotten progressively better for Jameis Winston, even as his weapons have gotten progressively worse due to injuries. He has a Passing NEP per play of 0.06 that has him in Blake Bortles territory (that's not nearly as terrible as it sounds), and he has clearly become the best rookie quarterback in this class right now. His Passing NEP of 14.74 is more than double Marcus Mariota's 7.27, although he's had two extra games to add to his total.
If Vincent Jackson and Austin Seferian-Jenkins can return to the field soon, Winston could be primed for a strong season to an already promising rookie year. He likely has one or two more three-plus turnover games in him, but he has certainly flashed the talent of a fantasy difference maker at the position. His ceiling is certainly a question with no 300-yard passing performances on his resume to date, but that seems like nit picking for a player who has the overall skills of a top NFL quarterback.
Marcus Mariota, QB, Tennessee Titans
After a historically strong start, Marcus Mariota faded as defenses adjusted to the simplified schemes and reads the Titans were implementing. After throwing six touchdowns and no interceptions in his first two games, he has just three touchdowns and five interceptions in his last three games. Yet, his accuracy and arm strength from the pocket have been on full display at times, and perhaps the coaching change will take advantage of the mismatch he is as a runner.
Still, Mariota needs to return from injury and begin trending in a better direction for fantasy owners to be confident in his ability moving forward. He certainly has the tools to be a dominant fantasy quarterback, but with young quarterbacks it often takes time. In a year or two, that investment could really pay off.
Melvin Gordon, RB, San Diego Chargers
Melvin Gordon has been a disaster relative to the hype and expectations, failing to top 100 total yards in any game this season and still waiting on his first touchdown. He is also averaging just 3.7 yards per carry and has fumbled 4 times, losing 3 .
Gordon is 61st in the league in Rushing NEP per rush at -0.17 for backs with 25 or more carries, a group of just 66 running backs. He is dead last in Rushing NEP at -17.95.
While he flashes the athleticism that made him an intriguing talent, the vision and decisiveness just hasn't been there behind sub par blocking. While it is too soon to throw around a word like "bust" in terms of his dynasty value, there isn't much to be excited about for a back many viewed as a potential star.
Tier 3: The Role Players With Upside
Duke Johnson, RB, Cleveland Browns
Duke Johnson has seen modest success as a receiver out of the backfield but hasn't demonstrated the consistency as a runner that would allow him to secure more than a part time job on this team. Even though Isaiah Crowell has struggled in his role as the lead back, the Browns have not demonstrated any interest in giving Johnson that job.
A large part of that is likely the injuries that have plagued the former Hurricane throughout his college career and kept him on the shelf for much of the preseason.
As a runner he's been one of the least efficient players in the NFL on a per carry passes, ranking ninth worst in the NFL with a Rushing NEP per play of -0.13. As a receiver, however, he's in the top 10 of Reception NEP and Reception NEP per target, demonstrating where his value might lie moving forward. Johnson may never be the lead back, but he could certainly be an effective playmaker as a receiver for this Browns team.
Ameer Abdullah, RB, Detroit Lions
After an impressive preseason and a stellar Week 1, Ameer Abdullah looked like a young LeSean McCoy just operating at a different speed than everyone else. But since then he has regressed significantly as a runner and been almost non-existent as a receiver as the offense and team around him has crumbled. Oh, he's also fumbled four times (losing one), something he struggled with significantly in college.
His Rushing NEP per rush of -0.11 has him similarly ranked to Alfred Blue (-0.10), which probably isn't a good thing. He has definitely demonstrated a talented skill set, but it remains to be seen if he can operate as a lead back in the NFL.
Although lightning quick with ankle breaking moves in the open field, he doesn't have the long speed to stress a defense, nor the power to break tackles consistently. At this point his perceived value may be stronger than his long-term value, and he is currently being outplayed as a runner by Joique Bell and a receiver by Theo Riddick.
Karlos Williams, RB, Buffalo Bills
Karlos Williams is perhaps the greatest revelation at running back so far in the 2015 draft class, far exceeding expectations and producing the highest Rushing NEP per play (0.24) in the NFL for backs with more than 25 carries. While the sample is small, Williams has demonstrated a rare combination of burst and power, although injuries have derailed him the past few weeks.
A former safety turned running back at Florida State, Williams didn't flash the instincts for the position you would like to see in a prospect, and it led to him being demoted in favor of college star Dalvin Cook. And it is worth noting that in his only start this season against the Giants, he averaged just 2.2 yards per carry on 18 totes.
But if the light turns on for this physical specimen, he could prove to be a draft day steal for the Buffalo Bills and dynasty owners who took a chance on him late in rookie drafts.
David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals
On most other teams, David Johnson would already have done enough to carve out a major role for himself in the offense. But for Bruce Arians and the Arizona Cardinals, he is waiting his turn behind a resurgent Chris Johnson. Yet even with a limited workload, Johnson has scored five total touchdowns and been outstanding as both a receiver and a runner for this high powered offense.
The rookie leads the league in Reception NEP per target for backs with more than 15 targets (0.80) and is behind only Dion Lewis and Karlos Williams in Rushing NEP per rush (0.17). He is averaging nearly 15 yards per reception on his 14 catches, which is just phenomenal for a running back. In addition, he has shown a prowess for short-yardage and goal line running, which was considered to be a weakness coming out of college.
The arrow is pointing way up for Johnson, although his limited role could keep his fantasy production low in the immediate future.
Matt Jones, RB, Washington Redskins
After a dominant preseason, rookie Matt Jones had many assuming he would overtake Alfred Morris sooner rather than later. And while he has had bigger workloads at times this season, a difficult timeshare has emerged in Washington that has made projecting value difficult. Aside from two bad fumbles, Jones has had moments where he looked like a young Marshawn Lynch, steamrolling his way to 123 yards and 2 touchdowns against a great Rams defense.
But he's also had mediocre games along the way, including a 7-carry, 11-yard effort against the Eagles and an 11-carry, 20-yard game against the Falcons. In terms of Rushing NEP per play, he is right there with Alfred Blue at -0.10, andh is inconsistency has led to a reduced workload throughout the season.
That being said, it's hard to ignore the flashes we have seen, especially given the struggles of Alfred Morris, whose contract expires at the end of this year. Jones is very much a hold or a buy in dynasty and keeper formats.
Thomas Rawls, RB, Seattle Seahawks
Thomas Rawls has been one of the most impressive runners in the early part of 2015, ranking 11th in the NFL in Rushing NEP per play and totaling 376 rushing yards and a touchdown with a 5.4 yards per carry average. All this for an undrafted free agent who started the preseason fourth on the depth chart in Seattle! While his opportunity to be a contributor wasn't unexpected, his rise and immediate success were certainly a pleasant surprise.
Still, he sits behind a newly resigned Marshawn Lynch, and it's hard to see how he carves out a significant role in this offense without an injury or the outright release of the 29-year-old Lynch. He is a dynasty hold for sure, especially for the Lynch owner.
Tyler Lockett, WR, Seattle Seahawks
Pardon my editorial, but I find it hard to believe any receiver will thrive in this offense following the sub par seasons of talented players like Golden Tate, Percy Harvin and now Jimmy Graham in Seattle. At least not to the extent that they will possess any reliable fantasy value. Perhaps Tyler Lockett is talented enough to prove me wrong, but until Russell Wilson and this passing offense take a major step forward, Lockett will likely have more NFL value than fantasy value.
Lockett is so much fun to watch in the open field, and has the speed, hands and ability to be a productive player, but that's difficult to demonstrate when you haven't had more than five targets in a game this season. That being said, he is an impressive 14th in the NFL in Reception NEP per target (0.85) and has a Reception NEP of 24.07 despite having only 20 receptions. Of course, he is having almost the exact same season as his counterparts in Seattle in Jermaine Kearse and Doug Baldwin.
Seattle just isn't the place to look for passing game fantasy value to this point in Wilson's young NFL career.
Tevin Coleman, RB, Atlanta Falcons
Perhaps no preseason debate destroyed friendships more than the Tevin Coleman versus Devonta Freeman debate. There were scheme fit arguments, talent arguments, draft pedigree arguments, injury arguments and the like that turned Twitter and podcasts into battlegrounds. And then Freeman went out and had one of the most dominant stretches for a running back in NFL history.
For the Coleman supporters, there is very little hope left outside of an injury. While Freeman's pace has slowed a bit, he has still looked like a dominant player. Coleman's negative scores in Rushing NEP (-2.68) and Rushing NEP per rush (-0.06) also demonstrate that a disparity in play still exists, even if there were flashes of his track speed at times early in the season.
Still, with almost no role in the passing game or the running game behind the exceptional Freeman, it is difficult to see how Coleman emerges anytime soon without an injury. His value has plummeted perhaps more than any other non-injured rookie this preseason.
Chris Conley, WR, Kansas City Chiefs
Stuck with Alex Smith as his quarterback, Chris Conley's value as a big target with deep speed may not be realized anytime soon. With Jeremy Maclin absent in Week 7, he flashed his ability, catching 6 passes for 63 yards and a touchdown. But this is still a raw receiver receiving limited targets in a conservative passing game. He is a deep stash at best right now, even if he does make plays here or there for the the Chiefs.