2017 Rookie Wide Receiver Outlook (Fantasy Football)
While the 2017 NFL Draft was not a deep one for the wide receiver pool, there were a handful of talented players available, and quite a few middle-of-the-road athletes landed in spots that will allow them to be fantasy relevant early on. Digging into this class, there are eight pass catchers whose predicted value I felt was important to address.
Mike Williams (LAC)
The younger of the Chargers’ Williams wideouts was promoted as the best WR in the class when the 2016-17 college football season ended, but his pre-draft work was less than spectacular. Corey Davis vaulted himself above Mike Williams by oddly doing nothing. Davis did not run a 40-yard dash at the combine and did not compete in a single drill either, but his value still surpassed that of Mike Williams. That is quite a red flag for Williams’ athleticism that was on display during the combine.
Needless to say, Mike Williams is a football magnet and uses his strength to outwork defenders when the ball is in the air. His skills and technique on the field are what earned him such high praise in his time at Clemson. He will be a valuable asset for the Chargers for years to come. The danger in selecting Williams is not that he lacks talent, but instead that he landed on the Los Angeles Chargers. Philip Rivers is a gunslinging quarterback who creates many valuable targets for his pass catchers. He can also, however, turn the ball over quite often and limit the number of routes run. In 2016, Rivers threw 21 interceptions and fumbled the ball nine times. Shortened possessions are never good for fantasy value.
It is not just Rivers affecting Williams’ value, though. It is also the redundancy that Williams brings to the table. He is stepping into a Chargers depth chart that features 6’3”, 205 pound Tyrell Williams, a wide receiver with a very similar build and skillset, only faster and quicker. I fear that Mike Williams will receive far fewer targets than Tyrell over the course of the season.
Red-zone and goal-line targets are Williams’ best opportunities to display his strengths. He is a prototypical, muscle-up wideout who will bully defenders to win a jump ball. However, he may see limited targets in the red zone because the Chargers already have two tremendous red-zone weapons in the young tight end, Hunter Henry, and the future Hall of Fame tight end, Antonio Gates, who has built his name on goal-to-go touchdown catches.
Mike Williams is a talented wide receiver who will have a good NFL career, but I do not believe he will be of major value in the 2017 season. Avoid using high draft capital on the rookie in redrafts, but go ahead and stash him in dynasty leagues.
Redraft ADP: 131 (WR51)
Draftability: Mid/late round redraft, dynasty, late-round MFL10
Projected value: Spot play depending on matchups with high upside to become a regular fantasy starter
Corey Davis (TEN)
Davis is very simply the best wide receiver in this class. He is the most well rounded and has a history of production on the field. He built his reputation on his consistency and intensity. In his last three years at Western Michigan, Davis caught 78+ passes for 1,400+ yards and 12+ touchdowns each season. He was truly Mr. Reliable. Davis landed in the perfect spot for him. The Titans are a progressing franchise with a future star at quarterback in Marcus Mariota. In 2016, Mariota had a hot streak that only Aaron Rodgers could compete with. In the seven-game span from Week 6 to Week 12, Mariota averaged 273 yards per game while throwing 18 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He continues to improve as he heads into his third season. The addition of Davis will give him a weapon he needed badly. The Tennessee receiving corps was rather disappointing in 2016, particularly after so many analysts and media members hyped up Tajae Sharpe, only for him to plummet down the depth chart. Corey Davis will immediately start and produce fantasy value just as quickly as he sees the field. When Tennessee added Eric Decker in free agency that likely decreased Davis’ targets and red zone opportunities, but even so, Davis is so balanced that he will still find a way to manufacture fantasy points.
Corey Davis has tremendous upside and a high floor. He will be a starting wide receiver who runs a ton of routes. Opportunity + talent = fantasy production. Davis is an early-round selection in redraft and should be the No. 1 pick in every dynasty rookie draft.
Redraft ADP: 100 (WR39)
Draftability: Early round redraft, first pick of dynasty, early/mid round MFL10
Projected value: Regular starter with the potential to become a week-to-week lock
JuJu Smith-Schuster (PIT)
Let’s go ahead and address the elephant in the room. JuJu Smith-Schuster is a wide receiver from USC. Wide receivers from USC have a track record of underperforming in the NFL. That is a lame correlation to make. Smith-Schuster is his own person and his success is not tied to Dwayne Jarrett, Steve Smith, or Robert Woods. I’m glad we got that myth out of the way.
The 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers had two generational talents in Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. After those two, the offensive skill positions were made up of scarecrows, straw men, and special teams contributors. They badly needed more weapons for the aging Ben Roethlisberger if they wanted to compete with the Patriots in the AFC. Martavis Bryant will return for who knows how long, but they added another good one in JuJu Smith-Schuster. He is only 20 years old at the time of this article, but had a highly productive career at Southern Cal, despite being so young for his class. According to Player Profiler, Smith-Schuster has a breakout age of 18.8. This means that at the age of 18.8, he was receiving a heavy portion of his team’s targets, yards, and touchdowns, which the folks at Player Profiler believe makes Smith-Schuster a phenom. Combine Smith-Schuster’s above average NFL athleticism with his prolific production in college and you have the right mix for a successful NFL player. The aforementioned Roethlisberger will provide quality targets for Smith-Schuster in an offense that produces year in and year out.
The biggest red flag for Smith-Schuster is his final season at USC. There were chunks of the season where he disappeared, including back-to-back showings against Oregon and Washington where he combined for just five catches and 51 yards. It is rare that you see an elite wide receiver have a sophomore season that’s drastically better than his junior season. To what can we attribute this drop-off in production? I honestly do not know. I cannot seem to pinpoint the change. Was it a new QB? Was it a change in the wide receiver rotation that affected his targets? Was it the coverages being thrown at him? There are so many factors that go into it that we cannot really be certain. It does worry me, but not enough to shy away from Smith-Schuster.
JuJu Smith-Schuster will be a great play in specific matchups, so he is valuable to have on your roster. Long-term production will depend on what the Steelers’ replacement plan is for Roethlisberger, but you can expect Smith-Schuster to contribute in the passing game early and often in 2017.
Redraft ADP: Undrafted
Draftability: Mid round redraft, 2nd/3rd round of dynasty, mid round MFL10
Projected value: Matchup dependent play with potential to be a regular fantasy starter
John Ross (CIN)
When you are the most electric player in college football and then you run the fastest 40-yd dash time in NFL history, you’re going to turn some heads. In fact, even my five-month old daughter was impressed with Ross’ blazing speed at the combine.
Many poor football players who have run outrageous forty times have come and gone in the NFL (ever so many of them Oakland Raiders), never to leave their mark. Ross is not one of those players. He runs crisp, clean routes and gets open often. He is not merely a deep-ball threat but is also very quick in space. At the combine, Ross broad jumped 11’1”, good enough to place third among draftable wideouts. This shows that Ross has burst to go along with his straight-line speed.
The Cincinnati Bengals have been missing quite often with the wide receivers they have been adding in the draft and free agency. Brandon LaFell was somewhat productive but wildly inconsistent. Cody Core has yet to come on. Tyler Boyd will catch a handful of balls a game, but cannot seem to bust through the ceiling. The Bengals needed someone to pair with A.J. Green, and Ross is the perfect style of player to do that. Defenses will really struggle to defend the deep threat from Ross if they intend to bracket Green. On the other side of the coin, defenses will give up 10 catches a game to Green if they are too concerned about Ross catching a long bomb over the top. It really is the perfect pairing. The biggest concern with Ross is his hands. At Washington, he showed a tendency to drop passes at a higher rate than average. If he can get this shored up, he will be a force in the passing game for years to come. If he does not, Ted Ginn can hand him the torch as the guy who should have been a regular Pro Bowler but dropped so many touchdowns that it hurt your spirit.
Ross should be on your draft radar in every league type. As a redraft player, he’s worth a mid-round risk. In dynasty, he should be one of the first players selected in the rookie draft. You simply cannot coach speed and Ross has that. Go ahead and take a risk on him in best ball/MFL10 leagues because his ceiling is so high. Ross could very well have a season like Tyreek Hill’s 2016 campaign.
Redraft ADP: 144 (WR54)
Draftability: Mid round redraft, first round of dynasty, early/mid round MFL10
Projected value: Regular fantasy starter
Curtis Samuel (CAR)
While Samuel was at Ohio State, he was listed as a running back, but he transitioned more and more into a receiver role as his college career went on. In his freshman season, he had 58 rushing attempts, and 11 receptions. In his final season in Columbus, he caught 74 passes to go along with his 97 rushes. Urban Meyer and the Buckeye staff wanted to do everything possible to get the ball into Samuel’s hands, and with good reason. Samuel boasts one of the more impressive athletic profiles among the rookie wide receivers, particularly his 4.31 40-yd dash time. It’s this athleticism that will make him such a versatile weapon in Mike Shula’s Carolina offense. Coach Shula’s spread run game and short passing game are an ideal fit for the speedy Samuel. The scheme and the talent are certainly there for Samuel to succeed in 2017.
Samuel’s biggest roadblock is his fellow rookie and teammate Christian McCaffery, whose athleticism closely mirrors Samuel’s. McCaffery is much quicker in the short range and produced collegiately at a higher rate, which leads me to believe that Carolina will amplify his role in the offense, giving Samuel fewer opportunities.
The biggest indicator of Samuel’s fantasy production will be his snap count in early-season games. When he’s on the field, it will be tough for Carolina to avoid giving him the football. I fear that he will be a stylistic backup to McCaffery, and will, therefore, see limited snaps, but he is certainly worth a late-round flyer.
Redraft ADP: 199 (WR69)
Draftability: Late round redraft, mid round of dynasty, mid round MFL10
Projected value: Spot starter with potential to be a fantasy starter regularly as his role is revealed
Cooper Kupp (LAR)
No wide receiver has ever produced at the level Kupp did while at Eastern Washington. In his *worst* collegiate season, he caught 104 passes for 1,431 yards and 16 touchdowns. Kupp was an absolute monster on Saturdays. His draft capital suffered when the athletic measurables came up empty. Kupp ran a stone-footed 4.62 40-yd dash at the Combine. Without speed, it’s very difficult to be a weapon in the NFL, but Kupp can make up for some of that deficiency with his ball skills and route running.
It’s hard to imagine that Kupp was excited when the Rams selected him. It’s not a great team for Kupp to experience immediate success, something he needs to have in order to prove the naysayers wrong about his asterisked Division 1 FCS collegiate career. They have a new head coach, a new offensive coordinator, and an inexperienced signal caller in Jared Goff. While new isn’t always bad, it rarely translates to short-term accomplishment. It takes time for offenses to mold and grow together.
With limited speed, Kupp’s strengths will show, and his weaknesses will be hidden if he can work out of the slot, run routes out of motion, and find openings in zone coverages. Defenses aren’t exactly threatened by the Los Angeles receiving corps, so Goff might see a lot of man coverage, and Kupp will struggle to get open against the world’s fastest athletes: NFL defensive backs.
Over the course of the next decade, Kupp will serve a valuable role on a handful of football teams. He will be a productive NFL player. In 2017, however, the stars simply do not align for Kupp to be of much value.
Redraft ADP: Undrafted
Draftability: Late-round redraft, mid round of dynasty, late round MFL10
Projected value: Bench player with spot-start potential
Zay Jones (BUF)
Of all the wide receivers in this article, I believe that Jones’ 2017 fantasy value is the hardest to pinpoint. Jones is a phenomenal athlete with decent size, and he put up good statistics in his career at East Carolina. This raises the question of why he needed four years in college before coming into the draft, even then just to get drafted in the second round. There’s something there that worries NFL scouts and talent evaluators. The biggest red flag for Jones and the thing he’s most famous for is his yards per catch. In four years at ECU, Jones averaged just 10.7 yards per catch, a shockingly low number for a player who is talented enough to make it to the NFL. His senior season at ECU was one of the crazier seasons you’ll see from a college wide receiver. Jones’ hauled in a record 158 passes for 1,746 yards.
The Bills have been stuck in no man’s land for a few years now, seemingly on the edge of breaking out for the last two seasons. If this year is the year, the offense will need to be much improved from the 2016 season. Buffalo had one of the least balanced offenses, relying very heavily on LeSean McCoy and Mike Gillislee to get the job done on the ground. With a healthy Sammy Watkins and Jones added to the fold, Tyrod Taylor and the passing game could see a production boost behind new offensive coordinator Rick Dennison’s play calling. Dennison has had very balanced offenses in seasons past with the Denver Broncos and Houston Texans. It is most certainly a good landing spot for Jones to begin contributing immediately, although I’m not quite as sold on the efficiency of the Bills’ offense in order to maximize Jones’ production in his rookie year.
Jones could easily catch 90+ passes this year and be a highly productive PPR fantasy player, but he could just as easily have a limited number of routes run and see very few footballs thrown his way, depending on the play calling tendencies of the new staff. The staff changes and inconsistency of Tyrod Taylor make it difficult to predict. If you’re a risky drafter, Jones is a player with a very high ceiling but a low floor. If you fear you may waste a pick on a “bust” player, steer clear from the former East Carolina Pirate.
Redraft ADP: 155 (WR58)
Draftability: Mid/late round redraft, mid round of dynasty, late round MFL10
Projected value: Matchup dependent start
Chris Godwin (TB)
It’s hard to argue that any team improved their offense as much as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did this offseason. They added DeSean Jackson in free agency and selected Godwin, O.J. Howard, and Jeremy McNichols in the draft. You will certainly want to have some exposure to this team in some way, and Godwin will be the cheapest option according to current ADP numbers.
The ex-Penn State wide receiver broke out on the national stage in the Rose Bowl vs. Southern Cal. He hauled in nine passes for 187 yards and two huge touchdowns. It was easily the best bowl game, so his performance did not go unnoticed. Tampa Bay was thrilled that he fell to them in the third round. Godwin is arguably the most athletic and well-balanced wide receiver in this rookie class. According to Player Profiler, his Sparq-X score (a score that takes into account speed, agility, and power) is in the 95th percentile among NFL wide receivers.
Long-term, Godwin is a great fantasy asset for your team, but his 2017 outlook is muddy with all the weapons that Tampa Bay can unleash. A high school coach I once worked with used to joke with our wide receivers early on in the season. Inevitably, we would have 30-40 wide receivers and he would somewhat sarcastically ask them, “You guys know there’s only one football on each play, right?” Godwin will be battling for targets all season. Despite that, he will be very efficient with them. If you can get him late in the draft, he’s worth taking a flyer on. If you want to play the waiting game, keep an eye on his target totals in the first few weeks and snatch him off the waiver wire.
Redraft ADP: Undrafted
Draftability: Late round redraft or waiver wire, late round pick of dynasty, late round MFL10 or undrafted
Projected value: Bench player with potential to become a spot starter