Fantasy football season is just around the corner, and fans everywhere are excited to start drafting. The fanatics have already started participating in mock drafts, reading reports and buying fantasy football magazines. Some of the more casual fans haven’t started yet, and typically don’t until the week of their draft. Whether you’re a fantasy freak, a newbie or somewhere in between, we’ve got you covered.
This year has several rookies at skill positions who can make a big impact for fantasy teams this year. Players like Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey have already found themselves becoming hot commodities in many leagues. However, there are a few rookies in later rounds that can also make a big splash.
Last year brought about the fantasy dominance of Ezekiel Elliott. It also saw late-round picks and waiver wire claims like Jordan Howard and Tyreek Hill become stars. Anyone can draft a star in the first round, but it takes a real pro to find a late-round gem.
Let’s take a look at five under-the-radar rookies that can have a big impact in fantasy circles this season.
Kareem Hunt, RB, Kansas City Chiefs
(Ranking: No. 104)
Kareem Hunt has been so under-the-radar that he’s almost on the radar. Everyone and their mother has him as a sleeper option, so it kind of felt like cheating putting him on this list. However, he’s in that position for a reason.
Kansas City’s running back situation has been so unpredictable over the past few years thanks in part to Jamaal Charles’ injuries. In 2014, Knile Davis was the primary backup behind Charles. Once 2015 rolled around, it was Charcandrick West who took over in Charles’ absence. The next year, though, Spencer Ware was the one who emerged when Charles went down.
Now that Charles is gone, Ware appears to be the Chiefs’ new starter. That may change on a dime, though. Hunt was one of my favorite backs in this year’s draft class, and for good reason. He has value on the ground and as a receiver in the backfield, as he proved at Toledo. He ran for 1,475 yards and 10 touchdowns last year for the Rockets, which was good enough to place him in 15th in the FBS in rushing yards.
If Ware fails to build upon his 2016 season (like other Chiefs backs have before him), then Hunt could end up taking his spot in the lineup. Given that Kansas City’s wide receivers aren’t anything special, that starting spot could guarantee that he would have a big year.
2017 Free Agency: Should the Colts take a chance on much maligned QB, Colin Kaepernick
Around the NFL: Five reasons why the Buccaneers could win Super Bowl LI
What’s Trending: Jay Cutler to sign with Miami Dolphins after much confusion
Player Spotlight: Looking at what TE, Jared Cook, brings to the Raiders’ passing game
Marlon Mack, RB, Indianapolis Colts
(Ranking: No. 278)
I was very high on Marlon Mack throughout the draft process – he was my seventh overall running back on my board – so I was surprised when he fell to the fourth round. Nonetheless, he ended up in a spot where he can learn from a legend and eventually take over as a starter.
Frank Gore is still a reliable starter, even at 34 years old. He ran for over 1,000 yards last year, which marked the ninth time in 12 years that he has done so. However, he’s bound to run out of gas at some point.
Mack gives the Indianapolis Colts a future at the backup running back spot that they’ve been lacking for years. While last year’s main backup, Robert Turbin, is still on the roster, he didn’t impress enough to be given a big role in the team’s offense. Where he did shine, though, was in goal line situations. Turbin led the team in rushing touchdowns with seven, whereas Gore only had four.
Mack is bound to steal some of those goal line opportunities from Turbin, which alone could make him an intriguing draft pick. Plus, there’s the risk that Gore could shut down at any moment: most backs don’t stay at their peak past the age of 30. Mack is a must-own in dynasty leagues, and could be a late-round steal in regular leagues.
Cooper Kupp, WR, Los Angeles Rams
(Ranking: No. 206)
The Los Angeles Rams’ inability to surround their rookie quarterback with weapons was arguably the main reason for Jared Goff’s awful first season. They realized this, so they added several weapons to the roster. While Robert Woods, Gerald Everett and Josh Reynolds will all help Goff rebound in his second year, perhaps none of them have the upside of third-round pick Cooper Kupp.
Kupp absolutely lit up stat sheets at Eastern Washington. In four years there, he totaled 428 receptions, 6,464 receiving yards and 73 touchdowns. He proved that he wasn’t a product of small-school stat inflation with an impressive performance at the Senior Bowl. Surprisingly enough, he fell to the Rams at the 69th overall pick. That move could pay dividends for them down the road.
Kupp appears to be the third receiver on the depth chart for now, but he could easily rise over time. Tavon Austin is basically a receiver-running back hybrid, so while he may see a lot of touches, not all of them will come through the air. Robert Woods is another solid player who would be best suited as a No. 2 or No. 3 wideout. If Kupp were to get on a hot streak, then he could easily end up putting up big numbers.
David Njoku, TE, Cleveland Browns
(Ranking: No. 251)
David Njoku will be a good player made even better in fantasy football due to the lack of weapons around him.
With the departure of Terrelle Pryor, the Cleveland Browns have three main weapons in the passing game: Corey Coleman, Kenny Britt, and Njoku. Coleman is coming off of a mediocre rookie season which saw him miss six games due to injury. Britt is a year removed from the best season of his career – he had 68 catches and topped 1,000 yards.
Njoku, though, appears to be in line for a big year, too. The Browns’ offense has heavily involved tight ends over the past two years: Gary Barnidge was second on the team in targets in each of those seasons. Plus, Njoku is primarily a receiving tight end, so he will likely be going out for a pass on most passing plays.
Whether Britt repeats his performance from last season could play a factor in how well Njoku does this year. Regardless of how the veteran does, the rookie will play a big role in Cleveland’s offense. That alone makes him a very smart pick in later rounds.
Samaje Perine, RB, Washington Redskins
(Ranking: No. 129)
The Washington Redskins’ running back situation was very confusing last season. Matt Jones disappointed as the starter in the first six games, then Robert Kelley took over. While he had some flashes of potential, his spot as starter is anything but guaranteed. That’s thanks largely in part to fourth-round pick Samaje Perine.
Perine, who broke the record for the most rushing yards in a single NCAA game, split carries with fellow draft pick Joe Mixon at Oklahoma. Despite that, he managed to top 1,000 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in all three of his seasons there. He joins a Redskins team with one of the worst running back depth charts in the league. If Kelley fails to build off of his 2016 season, then Perine could take his place in the starting lineup.
This situation is very similar to that of Jordan Howard last season. He, like Perine, was a Day 3 pick with a productive college career. He was thrown into a depth chart led by a second-year player (Jeremy Langford) who shined in the latter part of the year. After Langford failed to impress, Howard took over and became a top-10 running back.
I’m not saying Perine will make the Pro Bowl or rush for over 1,000 yards, but there’s a strong chance that he will be Washington’s starting running back by at least the midpoint of the year.
– Jacob Infante is the Social Media Director for cover32. He can be followed on Twitter @jacobinfante24.