2017 fantasy storylines: Don't count on a rookie fantasy superstar
(This week, some of the PFF Fantasy team will be offering up their forecasts for some of the biggest storylines of the 2017 season. It’s Time Machine Week.)
I was a baseball guy before a football one. And in baseball, changes in the game — both in youth baseball education and in medicine — have changed baseball’s aging curve. Once upon a time, players entered the league, got predictably better for a bit, peaked in their late 20s, and fell off from there. These days, though, players are peaking earlier, Bryce Harper and Mike Trout exist, and the aging curve looks like a ski hill.
But football isn’t baseball. Football players aren’t supposed to be that good, that fast. And we’ve been spoiled in recent years. There was the Odell Beckham Jr./Mike Evans incredible rookie receiver class of 2014, followed by Todd Gurley, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota in 2015. Of course this past season, the incredible pair of Dallas Cowboys (Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott) stole headlines. At a glance, it might seem like the football aging curve is moving the same way as baseball’s.
What I see it as, instead, is that we’ve been spoiled. It’s fun to see the nice shiny new things — and the rookies in recent years have been phenomenal — but it’s not a new normal, any more than quarterbacks will keep winning Super Bowls at age 39 because Tom Brady did it.
What has worked out for recent rookies is perfect situations. Elliott ran behind one of the best offensive lines we’ve ever seen. Beckham emerged when Victor Cruz got hurt. The same for Prescott and Tony Romo. Mike Evans rose as Vincent Jackson receded. Gurley was the only weapon the Rams had. They were all good, certainly, but they also found themselves in fortunate scenarios.
And those scenarios just aren’t presenting themselves in the 2017 NFL Draft. To check that, let’s look at where some of the top fantasy options are slated to go in our latest mock draft:
Mitchell Trubisky, UNC: third overall, Chicago Bears
Trubisky going to the Bears might give Chicago the foundations for its first franchise quarterback in some time, but how would that work for fantasy? We’ve already covered how quarterbacks with Trubisky’s level of experience don’t often become fantasy producers, especially not right away. Now put him on a Bears team with possibly Cameron Meredith and Zach Miller as his top pass-catching weapons? The Bears might take Trubisky, but they’d be wise to let him learn for a year until they can put a whole arsenal around him.
Deshaun Watson, Clemson: sixth overall, New York Jets
Brandon Marshall is a candidate for release from the Jets, which would leave them with a recovering (and aging) Eric Decker, Quincy Enunwa and Robby Anderson as their top receiving weapons. Meanwhile, our scouting report on Watson calls him “as tough a prospect to evaluate as there is coming out of college,” because for all his shining moments, he’s shown crazy inconsistency and carries risk. Are we trusting that, on the Jets of all teams?
Patrick Mahomes, Texas Tech: 25th overall, Houston Texans
Our analysts’ love for Mahomes is high and climbing, but assuming he goes here, he isn’t going to start right away. Barring a Romo-type surprise, the Texans are going to stick with Brock Osweiler at quarterback at least to start the season, and aren’t going to go to a rookie that quickly, considering the relative strength of the rest of the roster.
Dalvin Cook, Florida State: 12th overall, Cleveland Browns
The best bet to prove me wrong, Cook could be for the Browns in 2017 what Gurley was for the Rams in 2015. That said, the team has a middle-of-the-road offensive line (ranked 16th last season), two running backs already in the fold in Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson, and not exactly the greatest track record of turning draft picks into gold.
Leonard Fournette, LSU: 17th overall, Washington
Fournette had a monster 2015, but his injury-plagued 2016 has to give you pause. If he’s 100 percent, he could be a stud, but Washington isn’t likely to completely sideline Rob Kelley after he had his own productive rookie season. On top of that, we don’t have any idea who is going to be Washington’s quarterback in 2017 after all the Kirk Cousins questions, and that could have a big negative impact on the running game.
Corey Davis, Western Michigan: ninth overall, Cincinnati Bengals
Davis is a high-floor option, but he comes with a low ceiling with Cincinnati, surrounded by A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert and whatever amalgam of running backs the team brings back in 2017. Davis in Cincinnati would be a strong complement to Green and Eifert in the mold of once-upon-a-time-Bengals Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, but neither guy was ever a week-in, week-out fantasy contributor, which is what we are in pursuit of here.
Mike Williams, Clemson: 14th overall, Philadelphia Eagles
Williams would provide a lot of help to a Philadelphia team that really needs it, but I can’t help but see a lot of DeAndre Hopkins-and-Brock Osweiler in this potential marriage — Carson Wentz had the fifth-worst passer rating in the NFL last year on passes 20-plus yards down the field (and before you blame his receivers, he ranked 73rd in college in 2015 and only attempted 39 deep passes), while Williams would be coming in to be the deep threat.
O.J. Howard, Alabama: 26th overall, Seattle Seahawks
Howard as a running mate to Jimmy Graham in Seattle is interesting, but it certainly doesn’t portend immediate fantasy success, especially on a team that might want to use Howard’s run-blocking prowess (he was the best run-blocking tight end in the country in 2016) to supplement its iffy-at-best offensive line. And to top it all off, you know, he’s a rookie tight end. They don’t dominate much.
To be fair, this is all one man’s best guess at landing places, and he isn’t likely to get them all right. Things will change. But the point is largely that there aren’t a lot of obvious fits for these options that would yield big fantasy production. And guys can develop from later rounds, a la Prescott in 2016. But this is a defense-heavy draft, and there are a lot of defense-hungry teams out there. Fantasy owners trolling for big 2017 value in this year’s draft, similar to the recent crops of productive rookies we’ve had, might find themselves disappointed. In short: these rookies might be good. But there’s no clear Ezekiel Elliott or Odell Beckham Jr. this year.