Top 20 Third-Year Players: Rankings, Notes & Outlook (2022 Fantasy Football)
While NFL seems to stand for ‘Not For Long’ more and more every year, players entering the league with decent draft capital tend to get at least three years to show their ability. Of course, some break out earlier, while others don’t get even a third year to prove themselves. Let’s take a look at the top third-year players, including rankings and player notes.
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Player rankings based on our redraft Expert Consensus Rankings for half-PPR leagues.
Justin Herbert (LAC): QB2
Justin Herbert finished third in touchdowns and fifth in PFF passing grade (91.8) from a clean pocket in 2021. The Bolts quarterback also wrapped up the season as PFF’s third-highest-graded quarterback overall, third in fantasy points per game (22.7), and fifth in expected fantasy points per game (21.7)The Los Angeles Chargers signal-caller is a certified stud – a top-five, elite-tier fantasy quarterback in 2022. Only Tom Brady and Josh Allen posted as many top-5 weeks as Herbert did last season. He and Brady led the NFL with nine 300-yard passing games. Since entering the NFL in 2020, Herbert has thrown for 300-plus yards in 53% of his games played. Even if his rushing doesn’t stack up with the league’s elite, Herbert’s cannon provides almost everything he needs to close the gap.
Jalen Hurts (PHI): QB6
In his first full season, Jalen Hurts was the QB6 in fantasy points per game as the Eagles’ starting quarterback. An ankle sprain dropped his rushing numbers from 57.9 to 29.7 yards per game over his final three contests. Without that ding, his full-season numbers could have been even better. With another season in this offensive system incoming and A.J. Brown now on the roster, Hurts has top-three fantasy quarterback upside in 2022.
Joe Burrow (CIN): QB7
Joe Burrow finished the regular season as PFF’s highest-graded passer (91.2) while also ranking first in super sticky stats like passing grade from a clean pocket (94.6) and passing grade throwing at the intermediate level (95.6). He finished the season as the QB8 averaging just north of 20.5 fantasy points per game. The Bengals quarterback has undoubtedly entered the conversation as one of the league’s best real-life NFL passers, but might be slightly overvalued based on early best ball ADP with impending regression. He’s the QB6 despite finishing as a top-6 fantasy quarterback just thrice in 2021.No quarterback scored more fantasy points over expectation, which hints that regression will hit Burrow in 2022. The LSU product also rushed for just 118 yards and two TDs. He rushed for fewer yards than Mac Jones, who is notorious for being ranked low across consensus due to his lack of upside as a rusher. However, there is a legitimate path for Burrow’s upside to be further unlocked if the Bengals increase their pass rate as they did during his rookie season and down the playoff stretch. Burrow led the NFL in passing attempts per game (40.4) during his rookie season and averaged 38 passing attempts/23.0 fantasy points per game in his final six weeks An uptick in passing volume won’t help Burrow’s efficiency per se, but his fantasy numbers will be much more stable from week to week. Also can’t forget to mention the Bengals revamped their offensive line as they look to not let their franchise quarterback get sacked 70 times – 22 more than the next closest quarterback.
Tua Tagovailoa (MIA): QB16
Somebody on the Miami Dolphins is in for a rude awakening come September. Mike Gesicki, Jaylen Waddle and Tyreek Hill are all being pushed up the rankings/draft boards with hopes that Tua Tagovailoa takes a massive step forward in Year 3 under first-year head coach Mike McDaniel.I am not as optimistic that Tagovailoa can be the vehicle to deliver fantasy goodness to all these pieces in South Beach because this offense is going to be run-heavy. McDaniel made his way up the coaching ranks under Kyle Shanahan as a standout run-game coordinator. And should he follow in the footsteps of Shanahan as the offensive mastermind in Miami, fantasy managers should expect a lot of rushing and YAC schemes.49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo ranked 29th in aDOT in 2021 (7.6) after ranking 39th and 35th in the category the two years prior. Tagovailoa’s aDOT was 34th in the league (7.6) in 2021. Jimmy G’s most productive seasons have seen him average just north of 16 fantasy points per game – good for QB17 in 2021. Tagovailoa has yet to eclipse 14 fantasy points per game two years into his career. He also ranked 31st in throwing at the intermediate level (62.5 PFF grade) among 37 qualifying passers last season.So although Tua is viewed as a popular late-round quarterback among fantasy circles, I have to admit I won’t be pulling the trigger on him in 1QB redraft formats. Especially with his brutal early schedule. New England, Baltimore and Buffalo are hardly the stream-worthy spots you will be confident in starting the southpaw QB. In the Dolphins quarterback’s four combined starts versus those teams in 2021, his fantasy finishes were QB23, QB24, QB18, and QB16.
Third-Year Running Backs
Jonathan Taylor (IND): RB1
After playing just a 70% snap share once in 2020, Jonathan Taylor surpassed that number in nine contests in 2021, including eight weeks during the team’s last eight games. Taylor also led the NFL in red-zone touches (92), which was not that surprising considering he ranked fifth in that category as a rookie. That elite goal-line usage helped separate Taylor from the pack as the bonafide No. 1 running back in fantasy football. No player came close to sniffing his amount of volume near paydirt. Taylor’s 42 carries inside the 10-yard line were 12 more than the next-closest back (Damien Harris, 30).Pairing Taylor’s elite red-zone usage with his ascending role as a receiver – 11th in routes run and sixth in route participation in 2021 – makes him worthy of the 1.01 pick across all fantasy formats. No quarterback targeted running backs more than new Colts quarterback Matt Ryan did in 2021 – 8.6 targets per game.
D’Andre Swift (DET): RB8
In Weeks 1-11, before suffering an AC joint sprain that kiboshed his season, D’Andre Swift was a fantasy monster. He was the RB7, averaging 19 touches and 97.5 total yards per game. While the Lions have added more passing game weapons in the offseason with D.J. Chark and Jameson Williams, Swift’s efficiency through the air allows for hope that his target share (18.4%, second among running backs) won’t see a drastic dip. In Weeks 1-11, he was ninth in yards per route run (minimum 15 targets, per PFF) among running backs.
Cam Akers (LAR): RB17
Cam Akers wasn’t expected to return last year in time for the playoffs, but he pulled it off. He saw snap shares from 39% to as high as 81%. While he racked up volume in the process with 18.7 touches per game, his efficiency numbers were middling at best. His 2.31 yards after contact per attempt was a far cry from the 2.96 he rattled off in his rookie season (per PFF). With a full offseason to hopefully recoup any lost juice and return to his first-year form, Akers has the upside to be a workhorse in one of the best offenses in the NFL.
Antonio Gibson (WAS): RB21
Antonio Gibson has been a solid option over the last two seasons as the RB16 and RB17 in fantasy points per game. He also ranked tenth in yards per route run, fifth in evaded tackles, and 14th in juke rate. He was tied for seventh in carries inside the five-yard line and eighth in weighted opportunities. We already know the pass game usage is capped with J.D. McKissic resigned, but now the goalline could be in jeopardy with Brian Robinson on the depth chart. The team has talked about lightening Gibson’s load, so the threat of Robinson is real, especially if Gibson keeps putting the ball on the turf. Since 2020 he’s tied with Ezekiel Elliott for the most fumbles (six) in the NFL among running backs.
J.K. Dobbins (BAL): RB24
Running backs tied to a mobile quarterback are often short-changed when it comes to the passing game. For as well as J.K. Dobbins performed in fantasy football from Weeks 11-17 in full PPR (RB11) during the 2020 season, guess who outscored him… J.D. McKissic. That’s because McKissic caught 37 passes versus Dobbins’ three. Guys like Derrick Henry can overcome the lack of receiving work because they are entrenched bell cows, but that’s not the case with Dobbins in Baltimore with Gus Edwards also in the mix. Dobbins only slightly out-touched Edwards 86-74 down the stretch in 2020. It would be pure ignorance to assume that Dobbins will take over the backfield considering Edwards has been excellent with every opportunity he has received. Dobbins also ran extremely hot when it came to scoring touchdowns, scoring at least one TD in every game from Week 11 on. His nine total rushing TDs ranked 12th in the league and nearly doubled his expected output (5.5, 30th) – the sixth-highest difference at the position. Drafters have to understand that to invest in Dobbins as a late third-rounder or fourth-rounder (RB20, 50th overall ADP) he needs to run hot in the TD category coming off the season-ending ACL injury. They also should expect zero-to-little pass-game work with Jackson’s tendency to not check down along with the additions of receiving backs, veteran Mike Davis and rookie Tyler Badie.
AJ Dillon (GB): RB25
A.J. Dillon started to emerge from his protege’s shadow with 187 rushing attempts, 803 rushing yards, and an RB29 fantasy points per game finish last year. Dillon isn’t the home run threat that Jones is (43rd in breakaway run rate), but he can still punish an opposing defense. He was 17th in yards created per touch in 14th in yards after contact per attempt (minimum 100 carries, per PFF), immediately behind Jones. Unless Jones succumbs to injury, Dillon is likely stuck in a 1B role with a healthy red-zone role.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire (KC): RB28
Although Clyde Edwards-Helaire‘s rookie season showed signs of hope – RB11 through his first six professional games – the step backward in Year 2 is cause for concern. CEH finished 59th out of 64 qualifying running backs in yards after contact per attempt (2.4) and third-to-last in target rate per route run at the running back position (13%). The poor rushing efficiency is bearable, but the poor receiving usage is hard to ignore. Especially considering his calling card out of LSU was catching balls out of the backfield. His 0.73 yards per route run ranked 64th out of 68 qualifying running backs – also significantly worse than his teammates Darrel Williams (1.28) and Jerick McKinnon (1.15). Some may also feel that the Ronald Jones addition is the final nail in the coffin for CEH, but it’s not that black and white. Don’t get me wrong though – Jones is a significant threat to earn more carries than Edwards-Helaire after the former first-rounder posted worse rushing efficiency numbers than his rookie season. But full transparency – Jones was not much better ranking 51st in the same category (2.5). It’s actually a positive sign for Edwards-Helaire that the team brought in Jones instead of re-signing McKinnon or Williams. Those ex-Chiefs backs were proven pass-catchers and limited CEH’s role as a receiver. I’d presume that Edwards-Helaire will fully take over the primary pass-catching role – which was the reason why the Chiefs drafted him in the 1st round in any way – while also working in tandem with Jones as a rusher on early downs. Jones splitting work might also help keep CEH healthy after his 10 missed games the past two seasons. The other RBs on the Chiefs’ current roster include Derrick Gore (4th-year UDFA), Isiah Pacheco (2022 7th-rounder), Jerrion Ealy (2022 UDFA), and Tayon Fleet-Davis (2022 UDFA).
Third-Year Wide Receivers
Justin Jefferson (MIN): WR2
Justin Jefferson has been a revelation since entering the league. He has the most receiving yards in NFL history (3,016) in a player’s first two seasons and is PFF’s second-highest-graded receiver over that span (91.7). The Minnesota Vikings wide receiver finished 2021 as the WR4 in fantasy points per game (19.5 PPR) and expected fantasy points per game (18.8). Jefferson was the model of consistency at just 22 years old, finishing as a weekly top-20 wide receiver in 76% of his games (13 of 17) while commanding the league’s third-highest target share (27%) and No. 1 air yards share (44%).
CeeDee Lamb (DAL): WR6
The engines are ready for ignition. CeeDee Lamb‘s rocket ship to the moon is prepped for launch. Last season Lamb was 13th in yards per route run in the regular season (minimum 50 targets per PFF) while excelling as a bully after the catch. He was fifth in missed tackles forced among wide receivers. With Amari Cooper gone and Michael Gallup likely to start the season limited, Lamb can take another step forward as an ascending alpha wide receiver.
Tee Higgins (CIN): WR11
Tee Higgins‘ 23% target rate per route run was higher than Ja’Marr Chase‘s 21% during the 2021 regular season as was his 25% target share in the games they played together when healthy. There’s no denying that WR1 overall upside exists with Chase in 2022, but Higgins’ constant command of targets in a loaded Cincinnati offense will make him a screaming value in 2022 fantasy drafts.
Michael Pittman Jr. (IND): WR13
Pittman got the true WR1 treatment from the Colts coaching staff in 2021, running a route on 96% of offensive dropbacks – third to only Cooper Kupp (WR1) and Ja’Marr Chase (WR4) through 17 weeks. He also finished the season tied for the league’s eighth-highest target share (24%), which was 11 percentage points higher than the next closest Colt, Zach Pascal, at 13%. He also made 18 highlight-reel contested catches – fourth-most in the NFL. And his 31% target share from Weeks 13-18 cemented his place in Indy’s WR1 chair heading into 2022. With Matt Ryan under center Pittman has the volume potential to be a top-12 fantasy option. Ryan has a history of fueling top-end fantasy WRs like Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, making a top-five finish not all that crazy for Big Mike in 2022. Don’t forget that last season, Ridley as the Falcons’ No. 1 receiver owned the sixth-highest target rate per route run and ranked second among all wide receivers in expected fantasy points per game (16.5).
Jerry Jeudy (DEN): WR25
Entering Year 3, Jerry Jeudy finally has a quarterback who can take full advantage of his ability to separate from defenders – 96th percentile separation percentage in 2021 – with Russell Wilson taking the reins. With Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick operating from the outside, Jeudy figures to become Wilson’s go-to target in the slot unless K.J. Hamler pushes him out. Jeudy’s efficiency metrics should also see a massive boost now that he’s catching passes from a future Hall-of-Fame quarterback, but it remains to be seen if Jeudy will play an ancillary role as a red-zone threat. Upgrading from Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater to Wilson is great for Jeudy, but we have to remember that he is still an unproven fantasy commodity. Great route-running and separation skills aside, he hasn’t scored many fantasy points the last two seasons. And that’s not the case with every Denver receiver, because Patrick’s production last two seasons earned him a three-year, $34.5 million contract extension. Even so, Jeudy should easily experience his best NFL season to date in 2022, but it may not be as great as some die-hard Jeudy stans would care to admit. There are a lot of weapons in Denver, and predicting Wilson’s best option on a week-to-week basis was often a challenge when it was only between DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. As with those Seahawks receivers, there are going to be inconsistent weeks from Jeudy. And his lack of red-zone usage makes him more susceptible to bust games without having a touchdown opportunity to fall back on.
Darnell Mooney (CHI): WR26
Darnell Mooney is poised to take another step forward this season. Last year his 1.72 yards per route run (40th, minimum 50 targets per PFF) won’t blow you away, but the inherent volume he’s walking into and Justin Fields taking another step forward will be the tide to help fantasy gamers raise “ships.” Last season in the five games without Allen Robinson on the field, Mooney averaged 9.6 targets and 78.2 receiving yards per game. The yardage mark would have been the seventh-highest mark. Mooney’s median is a low-end WR2 or high-end WR3, but if he garners more than 11 red-zone targets (38th) he received last year, he could vault even higher.
Gabriel Davis (BUF): WR30
Gabriel Davis averaged 19.8 fantasy points per game (PPR) and 16.0 expected fantasy points per game in his last six games while running a route on 88% of dropbacks as the Bills finally emphasized his playing time in the offense. As a strong bet to earn the No. 2 wide receiver job come opening day, Davis has a legitimate shot to be a reliable fantasy option in a Josh Allen-led offense in 2022.
Third-Year Tight Ends
Cole Kmet (CHI): TE12
Cole Kmet ranked inside the top 12 amongst tight ends in targets (93, eighth), target share (17.7%, 11th), receiving yards (612, 12th), and air yard share (17.6%, 11th). With the depth chart devoid of receiving talent outside of Darnell Mooney, Kmet should see a similar share of the passing offense (if not more) in 2022. With touchdown regression poised to strike his box scores, Kmet is a high floor and ceiling option in fantasy.
Albert Okwuegbunam (DEN): TE18
Albert Okwuegbunam tied for the third-highest target rate per route run in the NFL last season (23%). Now entrenched as the presumed full-time starter with Noah Fant traded to the Seattle Seahawks this offseason, the uber-athletic tight end can break out in Year 3.It bodes well in Albert O’s favor that Noah Fant finished last season as the TE12 while the duo played in 14 games together.
FantasyPros Staff Consensus 2022 Redraft Fantasy Football Rankings
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