The players that we draft in the early rounds of fantasy football drafts each year earn their high draft spots through elite production. It’s tough for a rookie, or even a second-year player, to crack the early rounds in drafts precisely because they lack past NFL production. Even if they are drafted into perfect situations (a la Ezekiel Elliott last year), they still experience a relatively slow climb onto draft boards come September.
Unlike many other years, 2017 was dominated by rookies. We may not have drafted them accordingly (I mean, who could have predicted the impact rookies would have had this year?) but rookies were still very present on championship rosters.
There were rookies at each position that blew the competition out of the water. If you qualified for your fantasy playoffs in 2017, a rookie likely helped you get there.
With the fantasy playoffs largely over, this week we are going to take a look at some of your fantasy rookie MVPs. These players could go high in drafts next year, so it’s time to look back and say thanks.
Deshaun Watson (QB – HOU)
Remember him? It was only a brief moment many moons ago, but Deshaun Watson was the number one quarterback in fantasy back in October. His average of over 25 fantasy points per game still leads all quarterbacks, despite him starting only halfway through his first NFL game.
In fact, despite him starting halfway into Week 2 and tearing his ACL in early November, Watson still ranks in the top 25 quarterbacks in fantasy football. That alone should indicate what kind of pace he was on while he was on the field.
If you had Watson on your fantasy rosters when he was healthy, odds are his league-leading 25.27 points per game pace won you multiple matchups. One of the more underrated aspects of Watson’s all-too-brief moment in 2017 was how he vaulted his surrounding pieces into fantasy relevance.
When Watson was healthy, both DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller went from 2016 dead weight to 2017 all-stars. From Week 3 (when Watson assumed the starting role) until Watson’s injury, the lowest points scored by the Texans in any game was a whopping 33 points.
That kind of offensive dominance produces fantasy points for everyone involved, something that has been sorely missed in the months since Watson’s injury. There’s no denying that Watson was the rookie quarterback MVP in 2017, especially in fantasy football.
The Rookie Running Back Class
There isn’t just one rookie running back MVP; the 2017 rookie running back class was a fantasy MVP as a whole. Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara, Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Kareem Hunt, Jamaal Williams… it almost feels like it would be easier to name rookie running backs who weren’t fantasy studs in 2017! Well, almost.
But in all seriousness, all of the above-listed rookie running backs were dominant performers in fantasy in 2017. Four of the top 12 running backs in total points (0.5 PPR) were rookies this year, and even more were essential contributors to successful teams at various points during the year.
The 2017 rookie running back class is going to go down in history as one of the strongest classes of all time, and the early rounds of 2018 fantasy drafts are most certainly going to be peppered with stars from this class.
JuJu Smith-Schuster (WR – PIT)
Who would have guessed that the youngest player in the NFL would end up as the fifth-most popular player on playoff rosters? Yet here we are, with JuJu Smith-Schuster celebrating touchdowns with almost as much excitement as those who rostered him this year.
Smith-Schuster managed to fight his way into meaningful snaps and targets despite playing alongside one of the all-time greats (Antonio Brown) and an athletic freak (Martavis Bryant). Even crazier is that despite playing almost a full 40 percent of his offensive snaps from the slot, he’s still posting the third-most yards per target in the league.
When efficiency is all we can ask for from a rookie wide receiver, actual NFL production just feels finding a 20 dollar bill in the pocket of a winter coat you hadn’t put on since the last fantasy playoffs. Smith-Schuster has found a way to produce with and without substantial target shares and has already become one of the most enjoyable players to watch in the NFL.
Keelan Cole (WR – JAC)
Speaking of enjoyable players to watch, Keelan Cole has had one heck of a breakout rookie season. Smith-Schuster got a ton of people into their fantasy playoffs, but Cole won a whole lot of them himself.
From Weeks 14 through 16, Keelan Cole was the WR2 in PPR leagues, finishing only behind DeAndre Hopkins. His 393 receiving yards in that stretch were almost a full 100 more than his nearest competition (the pretty-elite-himself Julio Jones).
I’ll admit, it’s not easy starting a wide receiver receiving targets from Blake Bortles. However, Cole’s late-season breakout and growing chemistry with Bortles are hard to deny. The duo has looked quite competent to close out the season; since Cole’s Week 13 breakout, the team has yet to score fewer than 30 points, a mark they only hit twice in the 11 previous weeks.
There were hiccups in the Jaguars’ Week 16 loss to the 49ers, but Cole’s fantasy production didn’t suffer at all as a result. Cole’s weekly finishes in 0.5 PPR fantasy playoffs have been WR12, WR1, and WR11. Not bad for an undrafted free agent.
Evan Engram (TE – NYG)
Rounding out this list is the tight end that made things happen where no one but Odell Beckham Jr. could make things happen (though Sterling Shepard did his best, too). While everything around him fell apart, from depth charts to coaching staffs, Engram persisted in putting up terrific numbers at one of the most volatile positions in fantasy football.
Evan Engram finished 2017 as the TE4 in 0.5 PPR leagues. That’s an incredible feat for a rookie.
The tight ends ahead of him in the rankings? A pretty cool crowd of Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz.
Engram’s vault into the upper echelons of fantasy tight ends is almost unparalleled. I sure can’t think of another such rookie sensation at this position.
That’s it for this week’s Rookie Report. I hope all of you out there won your fantasy championships this past week and that you all can truly appreciate how special the 2017 NFL rookie class was.
Week 17 is a great week for watching rookies. Teams with little to gain or lose are more willing to field their young talent at this point, so we’ll have a chance to see players who, for whatever reason, had trouble finding the field in their rookie seasons. We’ll be back next week to take a look at some of those performances.
Aidan Mcgrath is a correspondent at FantasyPros. For more from Aidan, check out his archive and follow him @ffaidanmcgrath.