Fantasy fallout of the first round of the NFL draft
The NFL finally showed its hand Thursday night, and that hand was pretty darn entertaining. Skill position players flew off the ball early, with seven of the first 12 picks coming from this year’s crop of quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers. Things slowed from there, but a late run on tight ends pushed the total haul to 10 of the first 32 picks. A small ratio, for sure, but this group has the potential to significant alter the fantasy landscape both in the short and long term.
Chicago kicked off the fireworks, trading up to select QB Mitchell Trubisky at pick 1.02. Mike Glennon appeared to be in the driver’s seat for the starting job, but Trubisky will almost certainly compete for the spot. While he isn’t a home-run prospect, Trubisky is arguably the best talent at the position in this year’s class. His presence is a positive for the long-term fantasy outlook of Kevin White and Cameron Meredith.
Surprisingly, the next signal-caller off the board was Patrick Mahomes II to Kansas City at pick 1.10. The former Texas Tech signal-caller had a meteoric rise during the pre-draft process from potential Day 2 pick into the top 10. Like Chicago, the Chiefs traded up to make the pick, giving up a first, a third, and a 2018 first-rounder. Mahomes is raw, but his ceiling is enormous. More importantly, he won’t be forced to start on Day 1 with Alex Smith entrenched as the starter, and he’ll get to learn under Andy Reid. Barring an injury to Smith, Mahomes has little fantasy appeal in 2017, but his long-term outlook is arguably the best in this year’s class.
The third quarterback came off the board just two picks later with the Texans trading up to pick 1.12 to select Deshaun Watson. While he lacks the ceiling of Trubisky or Mahomes, Watson is arguably better suited to start on Day 1 given his extensive resume that includes a national championship, two appearances as a Heisman finalist, and 4,000-plus passing yards in each of the last two years. However, he can make poor decisions – he’s thrown 30 interceptions over the last two years – and isn’t an elite talent. That being said, Watson is an upgrade on Tom Savage. His presence will help DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller.
Only two running backs were selected in Round 1: Leonard Fournette to the Jags at 1.04 and Christian McCaffrey to the Panthers at 1.08. Fantasy players might remember a running back by the name of Ezekiel Elliott going at the fourth pick in last year’s draft. While Fournette was picked in the same spot, he landed in a very different situation. Elliott had the quintessential perfect fit behind one of the league’s best offensive lines. The same can’t be said for Fournette, who will play behind a lackluster Jacksonville line that produced 1.47 yards before contact per attempt last year. Of course, the Jags did acquire veteran LT Branden Albert in the offseason, but his play was inconsistent last year. Fournette figures to see a healthy workload, but the fear is he has little room to run in 2017. That could result in stat lines similar to what we saw out of Todd Gurley last year.
McCaffrey lands in a much better situation with the Panthers. Carolina’s offensive line averaged the same yards before contact as Jacksonville, but it doesn’t matter as much because McCaffrey isn’t a power runner like Fournette. With Jonathan Stewart still in-house, McCaffrey isn’t likely to be an early-down workhorse, but his abilities as a receiver bode well for heavy use in the slot. For fantasy purposes, it’s a good, but not great landing spot. McCaffrey will likely slot in as a top-three fantasy pick for rookie drafts, but his short-term value is higher in PPR formats than it is in standard scoring.
As was expected, three wide receivers were picked on Thursday night. The Titans got the ball rolling at pick 1.05 with Corey Davis. The former MAC standout is the all-time FBS leader in receiving yards. He’s big (6-foot-3, 209 pounds) and has strong ability after the catch. Davis gives Marcus Mariota the weapon he’s lacked in his first two years in the NFL. He’ll step right in as the top receiving option on the Titans’ depth chart and is a good bet to lead this year’s rookies in targets. He slots in as a likely top-36 re-draft fantasy option with the potential to see enough volume to surface on the WR2 radar this year.
The other two receivers selected did not land is situations of the same quality. Mike Williams went to the Chargers at pick 1.07, and John Ross came off the board two picks later to the Bengals. Williams’ presence is certainly a plus for Philip Rivers, but the former Clemson standout doesn’t figure to see a heavy workload with so many mouths to feed in the Chargers’ offense. His short-term fantasy ceiling is somewhat capped. Likewise, Ross helps Andy Dalton as a speedy presence opposite A.J. Green. But his volume doesn’t project to be particularly heavy with Green and Tyler Eifert likely to dominate the Cincinnati target share. Ross will be a boom-or-bust fantasy option in the short-term.
This year’s tight end class has the potential to be one for the ages, so it was somewhat surprising to see O.J. Howard slide to the 19th pick. However, for fantasy purposes, this was an excellent landing spot. Howard gets paired up with ascending talent Jameis Winston in an exciting offense. Winston now has a viable weapon up the seam to go along with target-monster Mike Evans and field stretcher DeSean Jackson. The only really loser with this pick is Cameron Brate. Howard isn’t likely to usurp all of Brate’s work initially, but the idea of Brate as a fringe TE1 is a distant memory. Howard slots in as a back-end TE2 in Year 1, but his long-term outlook is very appealing in Tampa Bay. He’s the clear top dynasty tight end in this year’s class.
The next tight end off the board was not David Njoku, but rather Evan Engram to the Giants at pick 1.23. Engram gives the Giants a Jordan Reed-esque option at tight end who can create mismatches with his 4.4 speed and polished route-running. Eli Manning now has four strong receiving options, which certainly boosts his fantasy stock. There are a lot of mouths to feed in New York, but Engram’s upside and the Giants’ pass-friendly system bode well for early fantasy success. Engram profiles as a TE2 with TE1 upside in 2017.
Njoku slid to 29th, where the Browns traded up to select him. A more complete tight end than Engram, Njoku gives Cleveland a high-upside pass-catcher who is capable of playing move and in-line. Given the Browns quarterback situation, this isn’t the best short-term landing spot for fantasy purposes. However, Njoku’s high ceiling still places him ahead of Engram in dynasty rookie drafts.
For those in IDP circles, it wasn’t the sexiest of first rounds, but there are some players who can make an impact on the fantasy landscape. Haason Reddick went to the Cardinals at pick 1.13. He’s a good bet to step right in as a three-down option at linebacker. Jarrad Davis also has three-down potential with the Lions where he projects to man the weak side in the base defense. Perhaps the most intriguing player of the group is Reuben Foster, who slid all the way to the 49ers at pick 1.31. Foster has a lot of similarities to former 49ers LB Patrick Willis, who was a long-time IDP standout. Foster is the clear top IDP rookie pick in this year’s class.
Additionally, a number of the edge players selected in the first round landed in 4-3 defenses, which means they’ll get the prized “DE” designation on commissioner sites. These players include Solomon Thomas to San Francisco, Derek Barnett to Philadelphia, Charles Harris to Miami, Takkarist McKinley to Atlanta, and Taco Charlton to Dallas. This is a nice influx of talent to a somewhat sparse pool of fantasy defensive ends. Thomas has the most long-term fantasy appeal, but Barnett and Charlton also figure to see a lot work in Year 1.
Safeties Jamal Adams, Malik Hooker, and Jabrill Peppers also came off the board on Thursday night. Adams was the first at sixth overall to the Jets. It’s a good landing spot, though Hooker has more IDP appeal playing cleanup behind the suspect Indy linebacker corps. There should be plenty of opportunities for Hooker to rack up tackle numbers. The same isn’t true for Peppers in Cleveland, but his versatility will make him a high-upside fantasy option for the long-term.