USA Today Sports. Pictured: David Montgomery, N’Keal Harry
- Ian Hartitz looks at which rookies could be primed for fantasy football breakouts in 2019 (and which to avoid).
Which rookies will have fantasy-friendly roles in Year 1?
Well, the 2019 NFL Draft class features exactly one quarterback who will be an immediate fantasy contributor: Kyler Murray.
And my deep dive on how rookies’ draft positions correlates to fantasy success revealed that rookie tight ends are more or less not worth targeting. Evan Engram (TE5) is the only tight end to have a top-10 PPR finish as a rookie since 2009, and that was heavily aided by Odell Beckham Jr. missing 12 games that season.
So that leaves running backs and wide receivers, both of which we have a bit more digging to do, but let’s get started.
Below we’ll run through every receiver and back drafted within the first three rounds and assess whether they’ll inherit fantasy-friendly roles in Year 1.
It’s not impossible for a late-round rookie back to immediately establish himself as a marquee fantasy performer, but it’s been very rare in recent years.
This leaves us with seven running backs drafted over the first three rounds to analyze. Let’s start with the lone Day 1 back.
Josh Jacobs, Oakland Raiders (No. 24 overall)
General manager Mike Mayock called Jacobs a three-down back.
Jacobs is fully expected to work as the Raiders’ No. 1 running back in 2019, although this hasn’t always been the most fantasy-friendly role on a Jon Gruden-coached team.
Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles (No. 53)
There’s certainly a chance that the Eagles decide to feature Sanders, who could be capable of handling a three-down workload. Still, Doug Pederson’s three seasons as head coach have featured committee backfields despite having a number of different talents to choose from in a given year.
Darrell Henderson, Los Angeles Rams (No. 70)
This backfield is a mystery: C.J. Anderson worked ahead of Todd Gurley in the playoffs, the front office matched an offer sheet for backup running back Malcolm Brown, then they traded up to select Henderson at the top of the third round.
Gurley is no longer a lock for 300-plus touches, but it would still be surprising to see him relegated to a secondary role anytime soon. Still, Henderson should arguably be fantasy’s marquee handcuff option and offers exceptional long-term value in the Rams’ outside-zone friendly offense.
David Montgomery, Chicago Bears (No. 73)
Montgomery boasts an athletic skill set that could help him achieve an early-down role sooner than later.
Tarik Cohen remains the favorite to lead the backfield in touches, and Montgomery will also have to compete with Mike Davis and Cordarrelle Patterson for snaps. But don’t underestimate the rookie’s chances of securing a featured role before long.
As noted by Pro Football Focus’ Scott Barrett, the Bears invested a 2019 third-round pick, 2020 fourth-round pick and dropped 43 spots on Day 3 in order to select Montgomery. This comes after former starting running back Jordan Howard — who received at least 250 carries in 2016, 2017 and 2018 — was shipped to the Eagles for a 2020 sixth-round pick that can escalate to a fifth-round pick.
Devin Singletary, Buffalo Bills (No. 74)
Singletary’s rookie outlook would be much improved should the Bills decide to release LeSean McCoy. Either way, Frank Gore will be involved, and the entire backfield will have to deal with plenty of rush attempts from the scramble-happy Josh Allen.
Singletary’s lack of receiving experience (six catches in 12 games as a junior at Florida Atlantic) won’t help him establish a consistent fantasy floor as a rookie.
Damien Harris, New England Patriots (No. 87)
Your guess at who will lead the Patriots’ backfield in snaps is as good as mine. With that said, I’d go with James White, Sony Michel, Harris and Rex Burkhead at this point.
The Patriots could move on from Burkhead before the season starts, which would open up a potential five- to 10-touch role for Harris early in the season.
Alexander Mattison, Minnesota Vikings (No. 102)
The 5-foot-11, 221-pound Mattison offers similar size as former Vikings back Latavius Murray, and could feasibly form a two-back committee with incumbent starter Dalvin Cook.
Still, Minnesota has consistently treated Cook like a featured back whenever he’s been healthy enough to suit up over his two-year career.
Like running backs, it’s rare to find impact rookie receivers past the third round of the draft. Only Buccaneers receiver Mike Williams (Round 4) and Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill (Round 5) have had a top-20 PPR finish as rookies since 2009 among all receivers drafted outside of the top-three rounds.
This leaves us with 13 rookie wide receivers who were selected within the first three rounds to analyze.
Marquise Brown, Baltimore Ravens (No. 25)
Hollywood is locked and loaded as the draft’s only receiver who could realistically work as their offense’s No. 1 pass-game option as soon as Week 1.
The problem is that the Ravens’ passing “attack” didn’t exactly enable any fantasy-viable receivers once Lamar Jackson took over last season.
N’Keal Harry, New England Patriots (No. 32 overall):
Between the retirement of Rob Gronkowski (72 targets in 2018), expected suspension of Josh Gordon (68) then losing Chris Hogan (55) and Cordarrelle Patterson (28) in free agency, the Patriots head into this season down 223 targets from 2018.
Harry possesses the type of contested-catch ability that should make him an instant red-zone weapon. His ability to work both in the slot and outside should earn him a role in 3-WR sets almost immediately.
There’s breakout potential here.
Deebo Samuel, San Francisco 49ers (No. 36)
Perhaps Samuel does have enough talent and ability to break out in the 49ers’ crowded offense. Still, it’s a battle for No. 2 duties behind George Kittle at this point, and there are plenty of willing contestants.
A.J. Brown, Tennessee Titans (No. 51)
Corey Davis was targeted 112 times as the Titans’ undisputed No. 1 pass-game weapon in 2018. Now the league’s second-most run-heavy offense has added Brown and high-priced slot receiver Adam Humphries.
The return of Delanie Walker makes this passing game a low-ceiling situation for everyone involved and is best avoided in fantasy football.
Mecole Hardman, Kansas City Chiefs (No. 56)
The potential release of Tyreek Hill would open up a massive role for Hardman as the offense’s de facto deep threat. Still, there’s a chance that he emerges as the team’s No. 3 or No. 4 pass-game weapon behind incumbent options Sammy Watkins, Travis Kelce and Demarcus Robinson.
Watkins can’t be ignored as a potential WR1 option in the Chiefs’ high-scoring offense.
JJ Arcega-Whiteside, Philadelphia Eagles (No. 57)
The Eagles have an established 3-WR set with Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson on the outside and Nelson Agholor in the slot. Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert also figure to be plenty involved, which leaves the 6-foot-2 and 225-pound Arcega-Whiteside.
While he offers depth and future potential to the Eagles’ always-potent offense, it would be surprising to see him carve out much of a role as a rookie.
Parris Campbell, Indianapolis Colts (No. 59)
Frank Reich and the Colts are one of the best fits for Campbell, as they already have other receivers who are capable of making up for his weaknesses.
T.Y. Hilton is the offense’s go-to deep threat, while Devin Funchess and Eric Ebron are as the top red-zone options. This should allow Campbell to stick to what he does best: Tear apart defenses with his breathtaking speed via underneath crossing routes and screens.
The former Ohio State speedster is more than capable of going the distance at a moment’s notice, but there might not be enough targets in Year 1 to make him more than a boom-or-bust option.
Andy Isabella, Arizona Cardinals (No. 62)
Isabella was a darling of many draft analysts and enters a prime situation in an Arizona offense that could feasibly lead the league in pass attempts under new head coach Kliff Kingsbury.
It remains to be seen if Isabella will earn a No. 3 pass-game role, but there might just be enough volume in this offense to enable multiple fantasy-relevant receivers.
D.K. Metcalf, Seattle Seahawks (No. 64)
Metcalf is positioned to potentially start on the outside in 3-WR sets as early as Week 1, but there might not be many targets to go around in the league’s most run-heavy offense.
Only Doug Baldwin (2015, 2016 and 2017) has received triple-digit targets from Russell Wilson since the Seahawks’ franchise quarterback was drafted in 2012.
Diontae Johnson, Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 66)
The Steelers are tentatively expected to feature JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, Donte Moncrief and Ryan Switzer ahead of Johnson, who could end up contributing more as a returner than receiver as a rookie while he continues to learn the position.
Jalen Hurd, San Francisco 49ers (No. 67)
Same story as Samuel, except Hurd’s predicament could be even more crowded considering early reports indicate he could be used as a tight end.
Terry McLaurin, Washington Redskins (No. 76)
The Redskins are expected to utilize a run-heavy offense in 2019 with either Dwayne Haskins or Case Keenum under center. McLaurin’s role will likely be more as a field-stretcher and gunner on punt coverage than as a No. 1 or No. 2 target.
Miles Boykin, Baltimore Ravens (No. 93)
Both Hollywood and Boykin add some much-needed explosion to the Ravens’ skill-position pool, but both will have to deal with the pass-game inconsistencies that are apart of the Lamar Jackson experience.
Perhaps fourth-round picks Hakeem Butler, Gary Jennings Jr. and/or Riley Ridley will still manage to ball out as rookies, but it’d be surprising to see their respective teams decide to overly feature them from Day 1.